Life is a Mystery

15 June 2012 . Comments Off on It’s a mystery

It’s a mystery

Tonight will be opening night for Nate in his school production of Hairspray. He is playing Edna, mom of the heroine Tracy. Last night we say their first run-through as the cast and crew put the show on for families. It was wonderful.

I thought it was pretty gutsy of Nate to take on this role. He’s never been in a play before, he does not even like to sing in church, and he has to appear on stage night after night in a dress and curlers. And yet, on top of all the other things he does at his school, he took on this challenge. I couldn’t be more proud and impressed! That smudge in the spotlight of the picture below is Nate as Edna in the opening scene last night.

Over the past few days I’ve been arriving early and remembering why I love theater. The chaos reminded me of nothing more than this exchange in Shakespeare In Love:

Philip Henslowe
Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman
So what do we do?

Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.


I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

It is, indeed, a mystery. But the kids of Crosswinds are sure pulling off the miracle of theater tonight. If you are in town, join us for opening night or for one of the other performances over the next two weeks.

Crosswinds Arts & Science School
600 Weir Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125

Friday, 6/15, 7:30pm
Saturday, 6/16, 7:30pm
Sunday, 6/17, 2pm
Thursday, 6/21, 7:30pm
Friday, 6/22, 7:30pm
Saturday, 6/23, 7:30pm
Sunday, 6/24, 2pm

Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for students.

Hairspray at Crosswinds

27 July 2011 . Comments Off on Interact with Web Standards

Interact with Web Standards

Many months ago I had the privilege to be part of an OCLC Webinar on the use of HTML5 and CSS3 standards for web design. It was a great session by Christopher Schmitt and the slides are available online (HTML5 slides, CSS3 slides). But for me, the best part was that I also got a couple books by Schmitt out of the deal: the O’Reilly CSS3 Cookbook and a wonderful collaborative work called InterACT With Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design. It is this latter book I wanted to bring to your attention.

From time to time over the past few years I’ve had to teach courses in web standards and web design. I’ve found all the books on the topic wanting. Many are so basic as to be essentially wrong in the advice they give, others are too technical, and most are very narrowly scoped, so that it is hard to get a grasp on the incredibly broad set of skills one needs to effectively design for the web. InterACT With Web Standards is the first book I’ve found that combines a solid introduction to the way the web works with fantastic advice on how to leverage web standards toward your design goals.

This book helps the reader through all stages of web design. From internet fundamentals to writing for the web to site planning and considering content, the book builds a foundation of good, practical approaches to the task of conceiving a web site. The book offers a great grounding in HTML and CSS that is both legible to a newcomer and serves as a solid reference even for the seasoned pro. All those basic hints I look to the web for again and again (just what is the best way to build a two-column design, how do I style a list again, what accessibility issues should I watch out for) are covered with concise clarity.

The volume is well illustrated and printed in a format that easily stays open on a desk (thank you!). It is in every way (except, perhaps, its cover) a handsome edition.

Best of all, the whole text is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA agreement, so you can use it as you like in most educational settings. In fact, the authors and publisher have set up very nice website which includes sample chapters, all the code exercises, and a sample web project.

If you are teaching a course on web design or standards, consider InterACT With Web Standards as a potential backbone text. If you are someone who already builds websites, I bet you will still learn something from this text and certainly appreciate the wealth of information it puts at your fingertips even more effectively than Google.


21 March 2011 . Comments Off on Testimony to MN House Education Finance Committee on HF934

Testimony to MN House Education Finance Committee on HF934

I believe school is an intensely social experience. Raising my kids in a respectful multicultural environment is what East Metro Integration District has been about. Kids can be friends with anyone, they talk with each other, they share and know one another. Their comfort with each other will make the world a better place as they take their place in it. EMID is also an environment where smaller scale makes it possible to develop practices that could transform education, if only we had the fortitude to listen to the lessons. Unfortunately, some of the most transformative practices, such as multiage looping classrooms, have already been sacrificed on the alter of state standards and testing. Even our year-round calendar, which teachers and parents know prevents the summer “backslide” and keeps kids engaged all year long in learning, is under stress because it actually puts our kids at a disadvantage when they participate in statewide standardized tests (administered during a calendar window rather than a student-contact-days window).

Focussing solely on the achievement gap misses much of what happens in a school. EMID serves not only the kids in our schools, but educates the educators in 10 districts. Integration funds carve out an important space for innovation, for testing new ideas while giving kids the confidence and space to know one another and each others cultures.

But while this bill renames integration to innovation, it will significantly harm EMIDs ability to do this vital work. I sit on our site council, I attend our board meeting, I know how dependent we are on the foresight and understanding of this committee. We need your support, I hope we get it.

15 November 2010 . Comments Off on Considering Academe

Considering Academe

A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I consider a position at a small liberal arts college here in Minnesota. As a consequence, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my own relationship to academe. My career as a librarian has been spent serving large research libraries at two very different institutions, MIT and the University of Minnesota. But for the past three years or so I’ve been on my own, doing consulting work, making way for something new.

The first question I asked myself was whether I was really trying to escape the academy. I have all sorts of stories I tell myself about why I left the security of my position at the U of M to strike out on my own as a consultant. Some of these may even be true! But what if it boils down to disillusion with higher education, with the mission of the university? If that were the case, the last thing I should consider is re-entering an academic institution.

The answer, after some reflection (and one particularly long walk along the Mississippi), is that I still believe in the mission, but I began to recognize the different shades this mission takes on at different institutions of higher education. My undergraduate experience at Yale was really more complex than I’d realized. Although Yale is a research university, the Yale College experience I’d had was more like that of a liberal arts college than of the research universities I’d been serving as a librarian. My undergraduate experience was much more about discovering who I was and what I believed in than preparing me for any specific work or career. Activities like letterpress printing and peace protests were just as formative and critical to this experience as classes with Jonathan Spence or Serge Lang.

In my reflection I came across this passage by Wendell Berry:

The thing being made in a university is humanity. … [W]hat universities … are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words—not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.

I am very curious to read Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul, where he writes “The students are not soulless, but their university is.” Mary returned from a conference last week in Denver with an image Parker Palmer apparently used to refer to the soul: the soul is a wild creature within us, shy and reluctant to appear, easily startled, which we coax to light with gentle attention and carful nurture. The soul is easily crowded out by the busy concerns of daily life or, in this case, departmental demands and course requirements.

I realized as I reflected, that the academic library could nurture the soul of the scholar. Libraries can be more than just an archive of books, we can be stunning shared architecture, we can be art, conversation, performance, serendipitous discovery. We are a quite woods in the bustle of academe’s demands, a place of contemplation and self-discovery, with the whispers of lives bound to page or pixel all around us.

With this I realized that I was not running from academe, I just want to engage it in an environment that cares as much for the soul of the scholar as it does for the job prospects, research results, or test scores of the scholar. I suppose this is a bit romantic, and possibly naive. Still, I decided to apply for the position and see whether a smaller liberal arts institution might be able to teach me something about nourishing the soul and raising “responsible heirs and members of human culture.”

Lower Arb Panorama by Adam Gurno

23 August 2010 . Comments Off on Textbooks come to life

Textbooks come to life

It looks like another step toward e-textbooks is under way. An app called Inkling just became available that does a great job of translating this genre to the iPad. Inkling does two things wonderfully right: (1) it cuts the spine off the textbook, freeing it from the tyranny of pages even while allowing page number references, and (2) it makes the textbook social, allowing you to not only take notes, but share those notes with friends and colleagues and let them respond.

The books Inkling presents are beautiful, if their sample of Strunk & White is any guide. If anything, they may be a bit too beautiful, since some of the functionality is so “well designed” it virtually disappears, becoming a bit hard to find. Illustrations can be very lively, multimedia can be incorporated, and by sharing notes the marginalia of these books can be shared among a whole study group.

The app is free and a lot of fun to explore, I highly recommend it. I’m not sure what the business model for book content is, or how footnotes would be handled. It would be smart if the format used were open and shared so that open source textbooks and meeting proceedings could supplement the very sparse initial catalog.

26 July 2010 . Comments Off on Some copyright sanity

Some copyright sanity

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) requires that the Librarian of Congress check in every three years with a determination of the kinds of works that should be exempt from DMCA enforcement. Today James Billington made the fourth determination of this sort, and one that has me very excited. After a rulemaking proceeding conducted by the Register of Copyright, he has designated six classes of non-infringing use of DRM (digital restrictions managment) circumvention.

By far the biggest news is that “university professors” and “college and university film and media studies students” may rip DVDs for “educational uses”. This has a direct impact on my household, where we have found we had to do this to support media work by my partner, a college professor. Even better, this kind of use is also allowed for “documentary filmmaking” and “noncommercial videos”! There are limits, but they seem reasonable. Mainly this circumvention of DRM is only allowed “solely in order to accomplish the incorporation of short portions of motion pictures into new works for the purpose of criticism or comment”.

Other interesting classes of circumvention allowed by this rulling…

  • You may circumvent ebook protections in order to enable software or screen readers to read the ebook aloud.
  • You may jailbreak and/or unlock your own cell phone.
  • You may bypass an obsolete dongle that prevents the use of software you still need.
  • You may test, investigate, and correct security flaws and vulnerabilities in computer games you own.

Thank you, Librarian of Congress!

James H Billington

12 July 2010 . Comments Off on Kids code too

Kids code too

Google seems to understand the future. I’m afraid Apple may be missing the boat.

Many months back, soon after first starting to use the iPad, Alex and I wrote a simple little program for the pad that got rejected Apple’s App Store. After some back and forth with the App Store I wrote a note to Steve Jobs because I wanted to go on record about the danger of Apple’s tight fisted approach to development and plead for a more open approach. I was particularly worried about the impact on kids.

I am worried that we are making it impossible for kids
to fall in love with the creative side of computing. I believe that computers are instruments, like a cello or a pen, they are tools with which we create, not just consume. I have tried to raise my kids to look beyond the surface of these wonderful devices, to reach in and learn to create with them. My eldest son has come through Lego, to AppleScript, to Cocoa. My younger son has learned to experiment with Scratch. Both love their Macs, iPods, and have had a blast with the iPad.

I lamented the banning of Scratch from the App Store, and the expense kids faced if they wanted to write iOS apps. I never did get a response, but I’ve reproduced the letter itself below the fold in case you are interested.

Meanwhile, last week I started using an Google’s Nexus One phone and started paying attention to Android development options. Low and behold, today I read about Google’s App Inventor for Android project. App Inventor is a visual programming environment to allow kids to write Android apps.

I think Google understands something Apple has forgotten. It is vital that we nurture our kids’ curiosity about the devices they use. The best way to do that is to let them have some agency, to give them tools to create with those devices. Even Nathaniel, the non-coder in our family, has told me he wants to write games for his iPhone. Maybe I’ll have to get him an Android device some day if Apple does not come to its senses.

My full letter to Steve is below the fold, if you care to read it.
Read the rest of this entry »

19 August 2009 . Comments Off on Be real

Be real

Yesterday I gave a talk to the wonderful staff of the CSBSJU libraries. I love the setting and the scale of this library, so I knew I’d enjoy the event. Even so, I got nervous as always about my talk. Did I have anything worthwhile to share? Would I keep people awake and thinking or put them to sleep? Was I using my toolkit in a way that enhanced the discussion or shut it down? I think the talk went well, I got some nice feedback from the staff, and maybe I’ll have to courage to do something similar again some time.

Getting up in front of a roomful of (essentially) strangers is something that many librarians confront every day. We are teachers, among other things. Today I came across a very helpful post by Carrie Donovan on In the Library with the Lead Pipe. She talks about being authentic in the classroom:

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer (1998) discusses identity as the evolution of all the forces that come together to form a person, including: background, culture, experience, and anything else that shapes the self. Recognizing that we bring all of these aspects of ourselves to everything we do, including our instructional activities, is key to finding your teaching identity. Librarians have pursued neutrality for a long time in their provision of organized and accessible information and knowledge, but this philosophy does not serve us well in the classroom.

We have to find (and share) ourselves in order to convey the richness of the experiences we want our students (or audience) to grasp. Not easy, but very rewarding when we pull it off!


29 July 2009 . Comments Off on Logo


I love logo, it is such an easy yet powerful language. I was disappointed today to see that N’s teacher was crossing out all the Logo-related assignments in his math homework. What a waste! I wondered how hard it would be to install Logo at a school these days. As I suspected, not hard at all!

There are a number of Logo interpreters written in Java, but my favorite to date is a Logo interpreter written in JavaScript. This should run in just about any modern browser. Joshua Bell, the author of this Logo, also links to Curly Logo written in JavaScript. That one may be more appropriate for kids since it takes the trouble to appear more fun to use. Plenty of Logo without any install. Now I just wish it were being used in N’s school.



15 January 2009 . Comments Off on Paint MIT TEAL


The Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) initiative was underway before I left MIT. Today it got some love from the NYT in an article about the demise of large lectures.

Here’s what it was like:

Squeezed into the rows of hard, folding wooden seats, as many as 300 freshmen anxiously took notes while the professor covered multiple blackboards with mathematical formulas and explained the principles of Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism.

John Belcher, a space physicist who arrived at M.I.T. 38 years ago and was instrumental in introducing the new teaching method nine years ago, was considered an outstanding lecturer. He won M.I.T.’s top teaching award and rave reviews from students. And yet, as each semester progressed, attendance in his introductory physics courses fell to 50 percent, as it did, he said, for nearly all of his colleagues.

And now:

The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.

Very telling are some of the comments on Slashdot:

Personally I don’t think this is the best approach, but it certainly isn’t forgiving of a student’s absence from class.

As a side note, when I was a freshman, many of my classmates did not find the TEAL lectures to be terribly effective in teaching the material. Frequently they would go back into the video archive after class and watch recordings of the “traditional” lectures from years past to actually learn what was being taught. They just went to the TEAL lectures because they didn’t want to loose their participation credit.

MIT OpenCourseWare to the rescue! Put the old lectures online, take advantage of proximate atoms off line.

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /