Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Rhinoceros Up the Tree

When I asked my brilliant granddaughter how to frame my water string stories for Ebb and Flow, she said, "Humor!" immediately.

I am not known for my humor. I have quite a bizarre sense of humor, I'll admit, and tend towards the obtuse, which is about two turns of a Möbius strip past obscure. Yet I still persist in believing that there are more of us freaks with odd senses of humor than is generally supposed, and so I venture this joke I just read in "The Electric Radish:"
"Sumatran Rhinoceros Way Kambas 2008" by Willem v Strien - flickr: IMG_2227. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

How does a rhinoceros get up a tree?

She climbs on an acorn and waits.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Amazing virtuoso ensemble

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Grandpa's String Theory

Lately I've had two powerful ah-ha moments about my Original Digital project, aiming to introduce string games to every 1st and 2nd grader, world wide. Of course, this grandiose sounding scheme is meant to be laughable in its goal-setting, but in my heart of hearts, I am not really/merely exaggerating. I will describe those two insights in another post, but right now I just want to get my new title for the TED Talk I've been rehearsing in my mind for many months:

Grandpa's String Theory

My nephew in Eugene, my most devoted acolyte at this point, has long called our work "string theory" rather than string games or string figures, and I sort of got it, but didn't know quite how to embrace it. I knew that "original digital," clever in its way, is not quite evocative enough to carry the weight of the import I mean to give the project. We are talking, after all, about restoring John Dewey's and Miles Horton's and Paolo Friere's visions of learner centered, real-world-relevant education. So I think at this point the Original Digital Project becomes the sub-head to the above, which is a more intriguing title, better suited to creating the anticipatory set I'm searching for...

Please stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How do we learn to speak kindly?

There's a Chinese proverb I only heard recently, which has a deep resonance to some of the formative experiences of my childhood:

"Words are like eggs, once dropped, they cannot be picked up again."

I have a hard time hearing profanity, even of the milder kinds that have become ubiquitous in popular culture. I love slang, and jargon, and coded language, but the constant flavoring of ordinary speech with gratuitous profanity – much the way many Spanish speakers use


a wonderful word, without real meaning, usually translated as "well," but holding a charm and energy – the word is a delight to say, like a blown kiss sliding into a seductive smile – that is of another order of richness from almost any word in common English, much less the horrid little well, which feels like an ugly blend of a smirk and a phony, forced smile to say and means nothing in an annoying way, without any of the sensual pleasure of saying or hearing



All of which is just to get round to the question I started with, 

How do we learn to speak kindly?

and the answer I was struggling to find has something to do with listening to silence. There is an abhorrence of hearing silence in modern Western culture, exemplified in a scary way by the radio name for it,

dead air.

If silence is like a death, then the activity of speaking is worthwhile, regardless of the content of the speech, so as to express one's aliveness, to fill the space with, at least, the blather of ordinary activity. This perhaps explains the horror of the ubiquitous playing TV's, one in each room, that one finds in so many American homes and workplaces, public spaces and even mundane activities--on our recent visit to LA, I saw for the first time a TV embedded in the metering and payment face of a gas pump. 

School classrooms should be spaces where children learn about and practice listening to silence. In the space of less than an hour, I was able to lead a group of second graders who mostly had never played with string at all, to be able to slowly execute together the Karok Fish Spear, 

a simple string figure, in silence. I told them they were rehearsing to be able to perform the trick together in silence for their regular teacher (I was there for only one day, as a substitute) the next day. Whether they will actually get to try that today, I'm not sure. But at least yesterday they had a practice run and working together on a common task in silence for a few moments. It's not much, but I truly believe it helps.

I sat with my father in silence for many hours as a child. That helps, too. There was that beneficial aspect of his otherwise maddening psychoanalytic reserve. Still, I do wish we had talked a lot more. Makes me resolve to create opportunities to talk with my own children, a lot more than I do. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nellie Belly's Care

Towards the end of September, it's my turn to post the weekly prompt in the Writing Into The Week group at the NWP iAnthology Ning. At first, I felt I should withdraw my name, not even think about doing one other thing that's not absolutely vital to our health as a family. We are in the midst of the most horrific and nightmarish aftermaths of violence I've experienced in my life. Losing my eye in a near-fatal chainsaw accident was similar, in so many ways, but Nellie's mauling by a very large dog last Sunday was worse, for me, than that. When the chainsaw hit my face, I suffered, yes, it was bloody, I remember the instantaneous realization that my eye was lost, no "repair" of any kind possible, just gone, like a light switched off. Above all I remember the clear, clear voice in my head which said to me,

"If you don't calm down, you're not going to make it,"

as I lay there near the piles of tree limbs I had been cutting, thrashing and screaming and crying in a voice I had no idea lived inside me, either. But the clear voice of calm was much louder than any scream, and I began to obey. By the time the helicopters got me to the hospital, the receiving team could not believe that no one had given me a sedative.

That voice of calm, I'm sure, is what saved my life. A Tibetan monk I visited in Ashland, Oregon, shortly after the accident said to me,

"You were meant to die."

When I leapt upon the dog that would not let go of Nellie, I was screaming a different scream, again from one of those places inside that appear for the occasion, called into being by the rent in the order of the universe which this particular act of violence has loosed upon our world, I did not think or plan or reason how I could separate those jaws and pull our Nell from hell. My body did what it had to do, and that screaming voice continued, over and over, as I finally clutched her pained and terrified body from the dog's mouth, and ran, crouched, not worried about pursuit by the attacker but crouching to encircle Nellie in some fragile safety, to try to reconstruct a little tiny zone of protection for her, since the large and easy freedom from fear which had enveloped her throughout her prior life was destroyed, never to return, like monocular vision continues unrelenting for the rest of my life, one instant in a three dimensional world and the next – and every next thereafter, forever, all the nexts like none of the entire group of nexts which preceded it – Flatland.

Nellie is now fragile, damaged, healing, in struggle, in fear, in malady and malfunction and in need of minute-by-minute care for every one of these succeeding minutes, who knows for how long.

The doctors say that for six weeks, at least, her movements must be restricted, no running, no climbing stairs, no picking at her sutures, no exertion. She's on six different medications, each with a unique schedule, this one every twenty-four hours, this one twelve, this one eight, this one six, some liquid, some powder that must be mixed for each administration into a slurry. The only thing she eaten with any real gusto since the attack is some cat food she got when we first arrived home, fed her in error because the can was shelved in the wrong section at the grocery store, and we did not see the difference in our hurry and distress.

She is incontinent, and pees dozens of times in a row, little drips and drops, very soon after every time she drinks water, and she drinks much more water and more frequently than she did before. There is so much healing that still must be done. But she is home, and happy to be here. We moved the mattress onto the floor, and stood the box spring up against wall behind it, so that she won't have to jump to get into bed with us. She's always slept in bed with us, since the second or third day we brought her home. We had her in a crate beside our bed, at first, because we'd read that it was good for a dog to have a crate, a space, they can make into a nest or cave, but she wanted to be in bed with us, instead, and after that first night when I lay in bed reflecting on having a very close relative of a violent and predatory animal sleeping in the same room with me, crate door open, as it always was, it was clear to me that she belonged in bed with us. So now we have pee pads in our bed.

Impossible to know in advance what the twists and turns of Nellie's healing journey will be. Clearly it is going to be long and complex, with much asked of us in order to understand and guide her to what she needs to recover. Finally it seems clear to me that she will recover. For the past week – tomorrow marks a week since the attack, that moment – noonish, on Sunday, will retain a ghoulish echo for the rest of my life, I'm afraid – it was not at all clear to me that we would see another week. Now I know that she will have many weeks, at least six more under the required constant supervision, restriction, discipline, and care, that a trauma victim requires.

We will give her that care, as best we are able, but there are so many aspects of that care which we cannot provide. So I return finally to my opening, the writing prompt for the group at the end of the month, and what that could have to do with Nellie Belly's Care. We are fundraising. Nellie's hospital bill was $12,350, and her vet care, rehab, and pharmacy bills for the next six weeks will certainly put what we must spend well beyond the $15,000 goal we set for the GiveForward campaign. The idea that a legitimate pet medical bill could run into five figures would have seemed absurd to me ten years ago. I was a lifelong dog phobic, never close or comfortable with any animals, really, before Nellie, and a self-righteous human species-ist. The idea that any animals, perhaps with the exceptions of dolphins and whales, had lives that were truly of value at the same level as the lives of humans was nonsense. Sentience, consciousness, brain capacity and the power of thought were somehow all present in humans in some ineffably different manner from the capacity for similar qualities in animals, I thought.

Nellie changed that mode of thinking for me. I embraced her, immediately, as my mother reincarnate (my mother's name was Nell, she died when I was six), and as a karmic and cosmic partner on a journey away from my species-ism. She's a good teacher. She is capable of long, long meditative retreat, when she curls up in her cave (she has a real one now, under our couch, where she spends many happy hours), or rests in her pouch by my side or on my lap, again for hours, sometimes, in complete equanimity. And she has many moments of wild abandon, running, circling, jumping, ears flapping, chasing a stick, a treat, or one of us. Mainly she has that look, that piercing and yet wistful look, when she shares a feeling or a moment of delight, sadness, or warmth. She is our equal, our partner, on our journey, together, to make what peace we can in this violent world. So I will ask my colleagues in the writing group to reflect on what species-ism means to them, if they've considered it before, if questions about the ways we value and treat animals have entered their lives before, if they are willing to ask some questions and explore what we can learn by embracing animals as partners and teachers.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Attitude, emotion, and the stories in science

I feel a bit obsessed with the "What Is Story?" #whatisstory thread, one of many of the myriad fascinating tentacles of "A Burr In Your Sock" #burrinsock which I describe as the UrPost of the #CLMOOC. Just happened a couple of weeks ago on "The Undressed Art: Why We Draw" by Peter Steinhart (Knopf, 2004). On pp. 68-69 he describes John James Audubon's efforts to draw birds accurately. The key for Audubon was to draw the birds "alive and moving." His journal projects emotions and attitudes onto the animals: flycatchers had a pensive attitude, herons "waded with elegance and stateliness."

 Steinhart calls this "finding intimate points of contact." He calls on artists and ornithologists to be seductive, in a way more like a movie maker than our stereotype of the dispassionate naturalist: drawings should "excite in each individual thus happily employed [in examining the drawing] the desire of knowing all respecting all he sees."
It is this call from an historical giant in the field of science popularization to inject emotion and the art of the storyteller into what had theretofore been seen as a task for dispassionate and objective "recorders of fact" that I want to remark here, in the context again of reminding us of our historical roots, and the centuries-old struggle around "the two cultures."
Again, this feels like another tentative push towards the surface of the subterranean rhizomatic connection-making process I feel going on to articulate something about how this "emotion-injecting" into science somehow relates to the qualms I have about monetization of our teaching and the denigration of learning which seems to result from so much of commercialization. It's not that the injecting of feelings with which to connect into science and reporting are inherently degrading, rather there is a difficult to disentangle connection between two distinct branches of that root insight, the one represented by Audubon and his lively birds, which I relish, and the other by Leni Riefenstahl and her inheritors in the advertising industry, against which I struggle. How do we engage our students in the emotional thrill of discovery, the childhood eagerness to explore, neither losing the objectivity of the scientist nor adopting the manipulative techniques of the hustler?

Finally, I want to point to something about the pairing of attitude and emotion. This is how the incorporation – literally, the "bringing into the body" – of our learning is so supported by physical making tasks. The body must perform the movements, observe the safety requirements, coordinate the actions, and then appreciate the result. Our task is re-articulate those corporeal processes into communication events.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Formulaic writing as the "Gateway Drug" to Genre Theory

I am now thoroughly convinced that Genre Theory in the context of the Anthropology of Communication provides a framework by means of which to liberate student voices and transform our teaching – not just our teaching of core literacy, but of the sciences, the arts, and of all the skills needed for civic and working life.
Periodic Table of Story Elements by Barbara Kloss
Periodic Table of Story Elements by Barbara Kloss

This line of thinking was first sparked for me by what I now think of as the Seminal Post to #CLMOOC14 : "A Burr in Your Sock" by Kim Douillard. I experienced a level of collaboration, interchange (Ah Ha! Another opportunity for coining a MULTI Family word [and to play with nested brackets, of course] multichange now joins multinamics, multilogue, and one other multi which I've forgotten {another opportunity for a bracket |properly called squiggly brackets, according to one English Usage resource I consulted|} since I can return to this chain and add it when I remember!) multi-change (doesn't read right without the dash [I think]), growth, and expansion of a level I've never had in my life (except perhaps my initial talks with friends in college who introduced me to jazz, and surrounding the college course which introduced me to art) in terms of transforming my outlook profoundly.

That thread lead to the creation of my "Step In It!®" Writing satirical poster, my most stretchy Make in both series of the CLMOOC's, and even the whole year in between where I continued to participate often. There was something immensely satisfying in utilizing a genre new to me in what seemed to me like an effective and amusing manner. That was just the first step. Some weeks ago I realized that I was actually conducting a self-experiment with formulaic writing, since I purchased and bgan using Scrivener, a writing helper which, among other things, provides templates of structured steps and pieces for many genre of both fiction and non-fiction writing. I chose a template for "Thesis or Research Proposal" to begin drafting my thoughts on the six or seven figure research project around using string games to cultivate executive function which I promised myself should be well underway by 2024. That does give me ten years, but it is an ambitious goal, so I felt like I needed a well-formed brief. Then when a Writing Project colleague emailed me to ask if I would help her get started with Scrivener to write her novel during NaNoWriMo, I started another project with Scrivener around a dance and writing performance piece I'm planning to organize in collaboration with a movement teacher whose Web site I used to host, which gave me the opportunity to take her classes in trade for web work. So I came up with a collaboration as a way to get to work with her without having to pay for classes. Of course, it will probably be a lot more work and trouble to write a grant and organize a troupe to perform, instead of just paying for classes, but, as my initial sentence attests, I have grandiose dreams. And I got to use another Scrivener Template, the Persuasive Speech!

So here's my initial take on formulaic writing based on a commercial product so far: I really enjoyed using the templates, responding to the prompts and questions. It helped me a lot to organize my thoughts, prompted new thoughts,  and generated some language. The software didn't work at all as I had hoped--having labored through several steps of a template, I thought I could just take all those pieces and do a simple export which would combine them all into a single file I could edit elsewhere. None of the things I tried which sounded like they would do that worked. Of course, I never consulted the manual, looked in the Help Menu, or searched Google for a support forum. I don't  have close deadlines, so I'm not ready to go further...yet, but I probably will.

Will there be much trace of a Scrivener template when I finally do do something with either of the projects I started using their software? Probably not. Did using the software help me? Certainly. What this experiment has to do with my initial thought in beginning this essay is something I'm groping to say about the many ways folks monetize writing and education. The value I got from using Scrivener probably doesn't even approach what I would get by taking my drafts of the proposals I intend to write and posting them to the iAnthology Ning, or sharing them with a few friends and asking them for feedback. I will do those things as well, and of course share what I'm doing with the CLMOOC, but I think the original burr in the sock has something to do with the money part of this.

What I mean by formulaic writing as a "Gateway Drug" to Genre Theory is that discussing the way commercial formulae shape students' writing, treating these offerings as another Genre to teach, alongside and within a media literate panoptic (is multioptic even better?) understanding of the Anthropology of Communication, should give them some tools with which to deconstruct and reassemble a Five Paragraph Essay on the same critical terms as a sonnet or a hip-hop video.

The Four Questions of Genre Theory:

  • What's the genre (Form, Structure, Framework, Constraints, etc)?
  • How do we decode the contents? 
  • Who is the intended audience? and 
  • What's the stated or implied purpose of the Communicator in creating this artifact?

map quite nicely onto Talcott Parsons' Four Box diagram of social systems. But that's another post, and this one is already way too long...

The "Back Again Gang"

The “Back Again” Gang: Using the Revision Process to Develop “A Voice of One’s Own”

“...from here to there  and  back again.”

The idea of a return, a reuse, remix, repurposing of older work or others’ work, is of the essence of writing. 

British poster from World War II, reproduced in the Wikipedia article on Recycling:
British poster from World War II
If it is true in the most basic sense that “I write to find out what I think,” it is only in at least revisiting and rereading, that one understands what that thinking really is. The repetition, re-doing, is the hardest thing for children to learn. They are so eager for the new thing that they always want to be told by the authorities that they are DONE, that they can get whatever was the proffered reward for their compliance with the instructions that got them to put the words down on paper, or up in the cloud, and can MOVE ON. 

But no...they may not.

It is in that duplicative, over-again phase of the self-examination that the first glimmers of a productive interior multilogue begin to emerge, and it is in teaching the “joy of revision” (how’s that for a contradiction in terms!) that students can begin to appreciate the power of their own clarity, forged by a self-discovery process that depends on accepting their own recursive thought processes, and gradually learning how to incorporate the suggestions of others into that process, without surrendering their sense of ownership about the ultimate version, and truly begin to sense what it feels like to have “a voice of one’s own.”

I think it is crucial as we embrace, propagate, and demonstrate the multifarious and wonderful ways we can now create and then repurpose communicative content, amongst ourselves as a community of teachers, and with our students as a community of learners, that we remember how much of what we are doing is not all that different from what my third and fourth graders did in Writer's Workshop over twenty years ago or what I did with the moveable platen press the Westland School teachers went out and got for Group 4 at Westland School over sixty years ago, so that we could learn about printing.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Markings on her face

A friend recently shared to the group on Facebook of alumni from the commune where I lived for nine years a current Google Maps image of our land. It is extraordinary to me how recognizable from the air are the terraces of our vineyard, curving off from the main house in a gentle arc. Seen from the air, they look like faint scratches, the peeling remains of small streaky scabs from a brush with a prickly bush.

That’s our work, visible from afar. The house was never our work—built more than half a century before any of us communards was born. Most of the rest of what one notices as clear evidence of human activity are structures of one kind and another, a few our original handiwork, most much older and in perpetual dialogue between restoration and decay.  There are vehicles, roads, many other garden beds, but the vineyard terraces stand in relief for me, since I feel still in my body all the work that went into clambering around on those steep hillsides and shaping them into level shelves, supported by rock walls built where the dirt to level out those shelves was removed. We moved those rocks up the hillside, from the creek bed below the main house, up the hill to as far as the Power Wagon would go. At one point, we shut down that Power Wagon right there at the crest of her capacity, and she stayed there for many months. 

The last thirty feet or so of the uphill transport happened with human chains, lines of folks, standing a few feet apart, passing the rocks up, reversing the work of gravity and depositing them where they would soon be able to gaze down on the whole valley their ancestors had formed so long ago, into that creek bed from which they had come, where they would have remained for many hundreds of years, without our human hands and hearts. We picked them up, then put them down where they would then remain for longer than any of the structures any humans had built on the land with flimsier material than they.

There they will likely remain, long after the children of the children of the children of us foolish children who decided to move them have died, our little scratches on the face of “mi amante la madre tierra.” And every time I am able to work in a garden or move a rock from one place to another, I thank her again for giving me permission—even seeming to encourage me!—to make little scratches on her face. Love bites, like the male otter gives his mate during copulation, turning her nose bright red.

She heals, the earth heals from our scratching eventually, one hopes…or does she? Is my lover the earth crying out in pain from the kinds of scratches my fellow humans are giving her? YES, she says, YES, I do not want to be ripped open, blown up, covered over! If you humans must scratch at my face, make beautiful lines, interesting shapes, fill them with plants and creatures, with Life, more of this Life, Yes, I say YES! It is not sadism to want to make these kind of scratches on my lover’s face! It is part of how we make our living together, she and all of us, her lovers. We must relearn how to love her, not as a distant and superior mother (Earth Mother~Mother Superior?), as one unapproachable except through obscure and indirect means, but as a lover, an equal participant in our mutual exploration of how to Make Life together. We scratch gently, in different directions, alone and in groups, learning to respond to her, to read her signs, as one does with a familiar lover, eventually…

We have little time for learning. Those who do not know how to treat her as a Lover—perhaps do not know any lovers in their lives, never had the love shown them that they needed to learn to love anyone else—are fast destroying chunks of her flesh here and there, almost everywhere, in their ignorance of who she really is. We must do what we can to stop them, and continue to learn how to leave only the markings of love on her face.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In praise of non sequitur

In praise of non sequitur: you can call everything or anything a story, just don’t require that it makes sense

This is a reflection inspired by the #CLMOOC #CLMOOC14 Make Week #6 and tomorrow's Twitter Chat on the meaning of Story


When folks try to define story, they usually get to “beginning|middle|end” pretty quickly. Even if it takes them a while, that’s usually where they’re going. The most generous (liberal in one of its many pejorative senses [hate that word “liberal,” never did mean much {sort of like tolerant, implying that I know I'm right and I know you’re wrong but I won’t correct you out loud this time because I'm such a nice guy} and ever since liberal got that “neo” in front of it, it means even less]) definers of story allow as how there are these weird folks who sometimes like to put the end at the beginning or even in the middle, and shuffle around the other bits, and we need to acknowledge that there are these sort of “exceptions that prove the rule,” but all us sensible folks know that there’s really no call for weirdness, and we’ll just go on with how things are supposed to be and let the freaks hang out in the corner where we mostly ignore them.

There are the occasional reconstructions here and there which break down around attempts to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, or one genre or medium from another, but the sense/nonsense divide is the key one at which these systematizers balk. There’s a deep rebellion against these constraints that comes from the struggles of the unprivileged to make sense of their world on its own terms, rather than in terms of the framework of meaning which the dominant culture assigns and recognizes. The most common “end” to a classically defined “story” is some kind of moral or ethical or at least practical takeaway. It may not be a scriptural lesson or a self-righteous precept for conduct, explicitly, but at least the reader is left with a nugget of wisdom or judgement they can store and re-use. A bleak life of struggle for material existence or a constricted life, oppressed by exclusion and limitation through the prejudices of others, may have precious little to teach others, but its chronicler had better try to find that pearl, or no one will care.

Sometimes, though, that’s all there is, the description, the immersion in another’s world, a catalog of experience without construct or artifice. And why exactly is that not story?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Genre Theory Is the Salvation of Us All! How to re-frame [and transcend] formulaic writing in one swell foop

There's been a raft of ripples from an amazing seed, literally a "burr in your sock" by Kim Douillard, reflecting on a discussion that day in in Writing Project's ISI about formulaic writing. Many folks chimed in, and a delightful chorus of voices cascaded around the topic and its many branches and byways. I've just loved the interchange, as such a powerful exemplar of exactly why I've been so thrilled since its very beginning by the #CLMOOC and impressed at the up-leveling that's occurring as we get well into #CLMOOC14.
My reflection in process goes back to the other half of the contrast Kim was drawing, between the free-wheeling spirit of CLMOOC and the rigid cages kids get shoved into by formulaic writing. I've begun an attempt at crude satire by trying to illustrate to any non-k12-teachers in our audience what we mean by formulaic writing. It's to set myself the task of writing some ad copy for

Step In It! Writing®

Guaranteed to hoist each student on their own petard, whatever that may be!

Our patented BOX method of writing lays out well-formed loops of word-strings, in a scientifically designed sequence so that each loop snaps shut around their dainty feet, binding them to obvious and repetitive structures of meaning which remain forever clear and obedient. You don't really need to do any writing as a teacher, either! Just Step In It! ® yourself!

and, inspired by #CLMOOC  I used postermywall to create this

Friday, April 25, 2014

It's String Time!

Today I had another of the many, many wonderful days I've had over the past school year, working as a substitute teacher at many different schools throughout our bird-filled valley. In almost every one of those classrooms, I've been able to incorporate at least a little string game teaching, and in several I've been able to have a few days to develop a real culture within the classroom around learning string tricks. One of the best features of that culture is the smiles, yelps, and generally exuberant responses I get from the kids when I can say, "It's String Time!"

two students show a figure they invented

I usually start the day with a demonstration of Jacob's Ladder, and perhaps another figure or two, depending on the age of the group and the demands of the lesson plan. Ideally I've seen a place or two in the teacher's plan where I can confidently say to the class, "If we get [Assignment X] done quickly, we'll have enough time so I can teach you the Fish Spear." Or – even better – I've had a chance to speak with the teacher and get permission to insert my string work somewhere, drop a worksheet from the list, or even run the whole day as I choose. Today's lesson plan looked packed, but as the day moved on it was clear we'd have two or three good string sessions. The students – second graders – for the most part had little experience with really using their fingers, and several openly whined "I can't" while being taught their finger calisthenics: stretching the fingers out stiff and wide, then bunching them straight up next to each other, then opening the middle (separate ring and little fingers on one side and middle and index fingers on the other {with both hands at the same time!}), and opening and closing those two groups of two fingers like a pair of scissors, then opening the outside (separate little and index fingers and leave the ring and middle fingers side by side in the middle), to make a kind of W shape; and then we go back and forth, back and forth, from one to the other.

It's challenging, but learnable, and a great example of the way the fingers can create the pathway for the mental command structure that later supports choosing to do something that one still can't quite actually do now. The next step in the finger calisthenics is to make a fist, then point at it sideways with the other hand, then switch, so that the pointing hand makes a fist and the fisted hand begins to point. Then do it again, and again, faster and faster, back and forth... Few people can do it right away with any dexterity. Part of the point is to create that dexterity, and also to fail at a task and experience frustration, and then make progress. Barring a neurological impediment, most people can improve with practice.

Both of these finger/hand games were taught to me as a child by my father, as fun and challenging games, of course, but also with the explanation that they are basic neurological tests which he learned in medical school. I've added a few simple flexes and stretches of my own, but they have none of the grace and charm of these more than a century old dexterity probes. They also make great one to three or four minute filler activities when the class is ready but the bell hasn't rung...

This post is a kind of meta-cognitive reflection for myself, about a full year spent teaching, at least two, often three or four days a week, doing the job of substitute as well as I can, an often boring and thankless job, and adding to most of those days a few minutes or a few hours of time pursuing my own agenda: to become a teaching artist who brings the joy of string games to as many people as I can, waiting for those moments when I can call out to the group of kids I'm sharing my day with, "It's String Time!"

I'm starting to collect some resources for the "Common Thread Doctrine," my boast that I can rewrite the entire K-12 Curriculum with ties to string games, at

Thursday, January 30, 2014

String games for lifelong learning

Ambidexterity, mathetics, and chiral differences: how string games can open a path to self-directed lifelong learning

As my first formal post to the #DLMOOC, I’d like to offer an attempt to integrate a variety of arguments I’ve offered over several decades about why to use string figures in the classroom into a theory of learning development which I’ve not heard articulated in this manner before.
When I first thought to bring string games into the classroom, I was teaching third graders in a bilingual program, and found that I could not effectively teach the computer keyboarding skills which were supposed to be part of the curriculum without first teaching the names of the individual fingers. Most native Spanish speakers, even those who are highly educated, do not know the individual finger names. Close study of the finger names helped students connect with the dexterity development that needed to be done concomitantly, and I always felt that the original objective – to improve keyboarding skills – is almost always achieved with string figure practice.

I've developed a few simple finger games, based on neurological tests my psychiatrist father taught me, which you can see me demonstrating in this clip from a Teachers Teaching Teachers episode I did with Paul Allison and several others last year. I call them “Finger Calisthenics.”

Here’s an enumeration of the learning benefits of string games:

  • 1) ambidexterity [that one is obvious and uncontroversial, except most folks don't realize what a powerful brain booster ambidexterity is...]
  • 2) executive function -- the crucial ability to delay gratification in the interest of some later payoff
  • 3) developing connections across the two hemispheres of the brain, thus enhancing both logical and creative thinking
  • 4) resilience -- being able to experience failure and keep trying
  • 5) sequencing -- being able to manage and remember complex multi-step processes
  • 6) storytelling and writing -- creating new understandings through articulating and expressing one's thoughts in spoken and written words
  • 7) learning and teaching -- in a group setting, some kids always learn a particular figure more quickly than others, so they get immediately thrust into the role of teacher to other students, and gain better understanding of what's involved in teaching and more awareness of their own and others' learning styles

I'm developing a couple of projects that hopefully will become “mini-residencies” at two different school sites, where I plan to work with any interested teachers on identifying string games that fit with their existing curriculum plans, or adding an art/storytelling/writing unit which utilizes them.

Here's a link to my String Games Playlist on YouTube, and there are DIY videos for learning many figures. The fun is one of the main points, but the learning benefits are astounding – James Murphy tells an inspiring story about teaching a blind student trigonometry with string figures, and how in the course of the learning process, the student also acquired a marked increase in his ability to navigate independently, to the point of being able to ride the New York City subway!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Blessed Be the Peacemakers

My colleague Dan wished me a good Martin Luther King Holiday,

 and I replied,

Blessed Be the Peacemakers.

We don't often take the time collectively to celebrate the rebels, the agitators, who supported the troops by trying to bring them home and send then back to real work with the rest of us. I've been a Conscientious Objector to War since I was 10 or 11, I'd guess. I knew that the draft was looming, and that I was not eligible for a religious exemption, and that being ethically opposed to war was not considered legitimate, and I began preparing my CO Packet in junior high school.

I've never struck another person. I hope I never will. My friend Damaru taught me, as Native American Earth Wisdom, never to sweep a child off its feet without permission from the child, out of respect for each person's foot connection to the earth, and the gravity of severing it without warning.

Peacemaker is a much better word than Pacifist. All those -ist words seem to have a stridency, a belligerence, that especially for this topic connotes its opposite. Peace is not passive, it is a greater struggle than war, since it requires that we continue with the other in dialog, rather than battle.

Thanks to all of us who struggle together towards a more peaceful and just planet. The justice part is an even bigger struggle, and I do think it's true that "No justice, no peace." So we're in this for a long haul, a real Maker's Collaboration.

A couple of months ago I finished a piece of sculpture that I had been working on over a period of more than two years. A long and fraught process, and worth all the effort. Many thanks to my teacher Tom Wolver for guidance and inspiration and a whole lot of expertise about so much of the process I knew so little about.

Her name came to me as she cooled from the pit fire, in Spanish, all at once:

El Grito de mi Amante la Madre Tierra

I had just read in our local weekly about the work of Annie Sprinkle and her partner's ecosexual movement, wanting to transform the Mother/supplicant relationship into an egalitarian lover exchange.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


This is a first blog post for the Deeper Learning MOOC (#DLMOOC)
Making the loop for the Karok Three-Pronged Fish Spear
Making the loop for the Karok Three-Pronged Fish Spear

There was a short-lived progressive magazine during my youth called Root and Branch, and the idea that a plant has roughly as much root mass below the ground as it has above ground structure, combine to make these horticultural analogies to learning and brain function fascinate me. The idea that manual activities can stimulate the creation of brain connections, and that increased neural pathways in the brain afford possibilities for unrelated new learnings, amplify my enthusiasm for string figures as a hook for interesting curriculum.

The carnival barker part of my radical hippie youth activism experience wants to have me dress up like an EduBux Pitchman and promise a "comprehensive curriculum, K-12, tying every aspect of the CCSS to a corresponding string game or related learning." And if I got a 6-figure contract to focus on that, I probably could pull it off. But that's not the point.

Technology is being misused whenever there's not a lot of thought and discussion among staff, community, and with students, around the question,

"Who's telling the computer what to do?"

We must all be examining these tools, interrogating them, and using them to express our points of view and share our experiences in the world. Those processes then become secondary to the activities students do, with their hands dug into the stuff of the world, using our multi-communicative ambient tools to share as they learn.