New Location

I’ve moved my blog to its own domain:

Thanks to all of you who’ve been following me here – and come take a look at my new site.


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off the road

Like many, I traveled the country this summer.

I visited national parks, like Arches, where the massive sandstone formations which often stand like sentinels have names such as The Three Gossips and Courthouse Towers. Names that reminded me of the very human impulse to examine natural phenomena and make them familiar. To anthropomorphise. To create myths about those rocks. Or stars. Or land formations. To tell a make-believe story.

At the little-traveled Capitol Reef, I saw petroglyphs etched into a canyon wall from a thousand years ago.

I marveled at the self-portraits of the Fremont people. Round-faced figures, some life size. Next to them, big-horn sheep in profile, their horns curving backward. Were these petroglyphs the story of a hunt? A diary entry?

A fictional account? A horror movie? A poem?

Poet Jack Gilbert, in The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart, points out that when ancient Sumerian tablets were first translated they were thought to be business records. But what if they were in fact poems or psalms, he wonders? What if what we think of as ledger entries were really the stanzas of the most tender love sonnet?

At a wedding, in a barn on a nature preserve in Montana, I enjoyed the display of a quilt with squares sewn by family and friends – the guests at the wedding. Sitting near the quilt was a photo collage of everyone present. We were each asked to send a picture of our ourselves with our own partner. There was no need for text – we could make our own meaning from the set of photos, from the individual couples kissing or smiling or looking into the camera from years past.

I drove through a Goblin Valley, a Devil’s Spine, Walla Walla, and the Bitterroot Valley. I saw Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert, experienced vertigo at Escalante National Monument, saw the black pumice of Craters of the Moon.

The National Council of Teachers of English says “Good writing may be the quintessential 21st century skill.” Who am I to argue? I saw grounds to support NCTE’s claim on my trip. The ability to tell stories can have a lasting impact as evidenced by the awe still inspired by the Fremont petroglyphs. The visual compositions of a wedding quilt. The myth-making of sandstone rocks, whose names and stories were probably echoed thousands of times during summer-trip slideshows all over the world.

Yet, I think NCTE is slightly off. I would say that the quintessential 21st century skill is a precursor to good writing and is actually the same skill that has been the most critical since the moment we achieved self-awareness. And that is the ability to imagine. To look at a canyon wall and see a canvas. To take in a trio of rock spires and hear gossips. To hold disparate cloth pieces and know that what will be constructed is a collaborative work of art.

To see things as they are and wonder what might be.

Of course imagination is not quantifiable. I’m pretty certain, for instance, that the Fremont people did not work from a rubric. A student’s imagination is not part of the value-added data being pushed to measure teacher performance in Los Angeles. In fact, it takes little imagination on the part of a student to be considered a proficient learner in any subject by the standards set by state departments of education today.

All this despite the wise words of one of the most famously imaginative and brilliant thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein, who wrote on his Princeton blackboard: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


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family literacy

Laura Bentley tweeted this question to me, Kevin Hodgson and the rest of the world earlier today:

@poh @dogtrax Who Inspired You To Write? I would love to hear reflections from more of my WP friends & all =) #nwp

Kevin and I, unbeknownst to each other (since we responded almost simultaneously on Laura’s blog), both wrote about the influence our mothers had on us as writers. This from Kevin’s comment:

 I guess my inspiration was my mom, who was not a writer but a reader, and she shared her books and encouraged me to read what I wanted. It was that love of reading that sparked the love of writing in me, and in the back of my teenage mind, I had this idea that I could become a writer.

My friend and colleague Casey Daugherty also mentions her mother in responding to this prompt:

Writing gave me a new insight to its value when I started reading my mother’s daily journal entries a few years ago, (she passed away 25 years earlier) and I noticed my own writing began to change with it. So did my motivation to write.

And Brian Fay, another NWP friend, followed up on Twitter by writing:

@poh My mother inspired me to write by showing me writers to read and then fostering the idea that I could be one of them.

This is what came to me, and what I posted to Laura’s blog:

I don’t believe any one person inspired me to write. But I do have a distinct memory of showing my mom a piece of paper while she was in the bathroom getting ready for work. I must have been 5 or 6. The paper was full of my scribbles – child-like attempts at cursive. Despite her busy-ness, my mom took time to pick out the accidental humps of w’s and m’s and probably a few other unintended letters. I was amazed. I had scribbled something and it actually had meaning for another person. I understood then the power of writing.

The thing I didn’t say, for the sake of brevity, is that my mom is not a native English speaker. She immigrated to this country after the Korean War and still has difficulty mastering the diabolical nuances of English. Both spoken and written. My mom to this day will send me letters she has written so that I can copy-edit, make revisions, help her convey intended meaning.

She would never call herself a writer.

And yet, here I am, profiting intellectually and professionally from this act of scribbling – more digitally these days – and sharing those scribbles with others.

Here’s to you, Mom. And to all the parents and siblings and grandparents and guardians who’ve ushered us down this path towards literacy.


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the summer (institute) of twitter

As Chance the Gardner from Being There was often fond of saying, “I like to watch.”

And watch I have as NWP colleagues from around the country have taken to tweeting their experiences. Most are currently in some stage of beginning or ending their summer institutes, an event that gathers local teachers together to share practice, engage in a look at current research, write and enjoy the bonding that occurs when you put 20 or so teachers together in a room for 4 weeks.

When I went through my Summer Institute back in the late 90’s, I had very little sense of the national infrastructure of the writing project. I knew only my own Western Massachusetts Writing Project and had a vague notion that we were part of something bigger. It wasn’t until I attended the first NWP Annual Meeting a few years later that I realized the true scope of this teacher professional development organization.

So it’s with astonishment and admiration that I see April Estep in West Virginia sharing her morning writing prompts with Thomas Maerke, who himself is recording video of conversations in Missouri. Steve Moore in Kansas City posts one of the most moving readings I’ve ever heard, right from his phone, and that reading by one of the facilitators of his institute gets retweeted in moments. Cynthia Younger, also in Kansas City, is encouraged to develop her first blog by Steve Moore and then goes on Twitter to seek blogging advice. All the while, Paul Hankins and Donalyn Miller and Bud Hunt and Andrea Zellner and Kevin Hodgson, among a myriad of others, shout out encouragement from their corners of the country.

I could go on and on – from Philadelphia to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Monterrey Bay in California, summer institute teachers are providing a window into their daily work and play.

As I said, I’m astonished. Not because I thought these teachers were incapable of connecting with each other and sharing in this way. I realize that this is what has been happening on Twitter for many educators over the past few years.

It’s more that I didn’t fully understand the power of what would be unleashed when summer institutes connected. As Carl Whithaus so aptly put it in his tweet which I pasted above, it is the “dual sense of community” that has emerged and that has now been – and I’d bet money that this is true – cemented. The way in which, dialectically, a face-to-face experience has supported the use of social media, and social media has in turn amplified the face-to-face moment.

It is the summer (institute) of Twitter.

I like to watch.

And listen.

And, as it turns out, even participate.


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oakland state of mind

This is one of the most inspiring youth digital compositions I’ve ever encountered. By Oakland Leaf Youth Roots, shown tonight at the 10th Anniversary All Oakland Youth Talent Showcase. The youth call themselves artivists – using art for social change.

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the commons

Continuing the New England theme from my last post

Many communities in Massachusetts have a town common, a central green area that’s open and accessible to the public. Verdant, idyllic, what you might think of when you think of New England. Probably the most famous is the Boston Common, which even had a TV show named after it.

You might then think that a common is a kind of park. The City of Boston refers to it that way.

But the town common as a concept signifies much more than a place to throw a frisbee or walk your dog. In Western Massachusetts, for instance, the common – which was a carryover from England – originated as a publicly held green where all farmers could bring their livestock to graze. In other words, regardless of how much or how little pasture you owned, you had the right to bring your animals to the town-held common (also known as the town green).

I also associate the common with a town’s meeting house, which was usually close by, if not right on that central open space. The meeting house, if you recall from your fourth grade American history, was a structure used as a place for social and political discourse as well as for religious services.

Old South Meeting House in Boston says about itself:

Old South Meeting House has been an active gathering place for discussion and celebration and a haven for free speech in the heart of downtown Boston.

The common, then, and its associated meeting house was a place held open for the public good of all, as well as a venue for the free exchange of ideas – a civic space, a forum.

The town commons I’m familiar with in Western Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, are what I think of – physically and conceptually – when I hear the term “commons” used today, as in Creative Commons, the open license organization, or  the website On The Commons.

According to On the Commons:

The commons is a new way to express a very old idea—that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all.

The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works.

I would have said that this notion of a “commons” is actually an old way to express an old idea … in a new arena: the online domain. Despite the efforts of organizations such as Creative Commons and On the Commons, we see our digital commons under constant threat. Net neutrality is attacked by the telecoms. Facebook banks on the fact that you will view its space as a digital commons even as it erodes your control over your own words. The list is endless.

But this struggle is not new. Commons have since their origin in England faced the threat of enclosure, or the process of ending traditional rights. Here’s a protest poem from the 17th century in opposition to the enclosure of a village commons:

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The idea of a commons is as fundamental to our nation’s history, culture and ethos as, well, Boston’s Freedom Trail. Which by the way has as its starting point – you guessed it – the Boston Common.

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Spring and its abundance reminds me that I have not yet encountered a particular phenomenon in California.

There are farmstands here, of course. Particularly in the Central Valley, that wide swath of green that provides food to the nation. These farmstands are decorated with signs that trumpet “Pecans” or “Strawberries.” But you’ll always find a person there, ready to exchange produce for cash.

Back in Western Massachusetts, where I lived for more than a decade, I came to love the farmstand honor system. During corn season, especially, it was common to see a flat bed truck by the side of the road piled high with green husks. On a nearby table, you’d find a metal box with a slit on top and a padlock. Alongside it, a sign that might say “6 for $2, 12 for $3.75.”

You were expected to put your money in the box and take what you paid for. That was that.

I’ve always wondered what allowed for such a level of trust. Growing up in NYC, I sensed merchants feared all strangers, watching us kids with wary baleful eyes.

My friend, Elizabeth Graver, wrote a novel called The Honey Thief that if my


memory serves me right is about a young girl from New York City, a girl who steals things, whose mom moves her to a small rural community to help her deal with these and other issues. The girl encounters a person-less farmstand with honey for sale and only a lockbox for money. And she finds this inconceivably naive.

These honor-system farmstands – sometimes a rough-hewn wooden stand in a clearing, sometimes a cart on the farm itself, but always hand-lettered signs pointing out the zucchini or the tomatos or the corn – were and continue to be a revelation to me.

They work, it seems, because they are part of that community’s social compact. Like Radiohead making its music available for download via a pay-what-you-want system. (Ok, that’s actually a bad example.) Or like the MET commuter rail in Portland in which you’re expected to buy a ticket but you’re not asked to put it through a turnstile to gain entry to the train, or give it to anyone for that matter.

Which makes me wonder: what allows for this kind of trust to become an accepted part of a community? Clearly, the monetary loss must not be too great. But is it simply a financial calculus?

Living in Western Massachusetts, I knew I didn’t want to jeopardize this belief that we had the ability to do the right thing without need of a stick or a carrot or a mediator. That somehow we were all elevated by my simple act of slipping the appropriate number of bills through the slit in the top of the metal box.


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