The 24 Days of Blogging, Day 16:  “…and the friendly beasts around him stood”

Saturday, 17. December 2016 2:17 | Author:

Those who have read this Christmas collection for years know of my fascination with Victorian Christmas cards.  These early cards are notable for their distinct lack of traditional Christmas symbols, colors, or messages.  Though we often see Victorian England as the source for many of our current traditions, clearly there was also quite a few “traditions” that didn’t make the cut.  I present as evidence a wonderful card I found today. 

Where to begin?  Frogs?  Is there a less seasonal amphibian, much less animal?  I don’t recall any reference to frogs croaking in the manger of Bethelehem.  Likewise , secular “Santa Claus” lore is filled with many animals, but no frogs.  There are no Victorian traditions of frogs and the birth of our Lord.

Even if the artist simply liked frogs, this card is not handsome frogs beneath a Christmas tree (or under the mistle-toad), not are these cute cartoon frogs wishing us all a joyous Christmas and a “hoppy” New Year.  These are violent frogs, frogs with weapons, frogs that will cut you.  This is a murder scene, and the victor flees the scene after leaving his weapon in his victim (probably after wiping the handle for prints).  The motive for the act seems clear, as the perp carries a sack of (conveniently labeled) money.  Though one could argue that this might not be a robbery, but self defense, the haste in leaving the crime scene seems to tell a different story (as does the clear guilt in his eyes).  The card (like the evidence) tells the story of a homicidal frog, apparently getting away with his crime.  It’s difficult to connect this act to any of the Christmas stories generally told to children.  

And why does the fleeing frog have clothes while his victim has none?  Why was a frog, naked of anything but a sword and a sack of money. doing in the field that Christmas morning?  While the murderer might have removed the victim’s clothes to hide his identity, there is nothing in the crime scene to indicate this.  I fear this, like virgin birth and consubstantiality, this is destined to remain a Christmas mystery. Is this all part of an electorate plot, or a heist gone wrong?  Were they partners until one just got greedy?  What exactly are we seeing?  

May your Christmas season be filled with (sometimes baffling) surprises!


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The 24 Days of Christmas, Day 15:  “All I [don’t] want for Christmas” (Part 2)

Friday, 16. December 2016 6:13 | Author:

Though it might seem not in the spirit of Christmas to be criticizing well-intentioned projects and efforts, unless we are willing to be critical of mis-direction, we will not find the best direction for student learning. Yesterday I talked about my long time dislike for SmartBoards, a high priced product that was limited in its capabilities and even more limited by underutilization by teachers.    It’s like the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry bought his father a PDA (remember PDAs), but the father only used the device as a tip calculator.  

Today’s device is one that I once thought might be a valuable adddition to a classroom, and teachers seem to use it, but it seems to reinforce old models.  So I add to the wall of shame…the document camera.

A document camera is simply what the name implies.  A camera captures documents and other objects on a platform, and the images can appear on a computer screen or projector.  The device allows a teacher to show “legacy” documents that aren’t in digital form, three-dimensional objects, or demonstrations.  Though these devices originally were expensive (ranging from $700 -$900), but they have come down to $100 or less.  Will falling prices, more and more schools have installed document cameras in classrooms.

However, when I see the device in operation, I often feel like we are taking a step back to the days of the overhead projector.  I see few innovative uses and a lot of filling in paper worksheets and actually writing notes like we used to do in the board.  Like an overhead, the device ties the teacher down to a “nest,” and the focus is on the platform and not the students.

Changing what is used but not what is done is a trap, and only through ongoing aggressive evaluation and question can we truly change education.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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The 24 Days of Blogging, Day 14, “All I [don’t] want for Christmas” (part 1)

Thursday, 15. December 2016 0:09 | Author:

While I like a great deal of the classroom technological devices available to teachers today, and I particularly support initiatives that put technology directly in the hands of students, there are clearly bumps along the road.  Some devices and programs have not shown the ability to further learning in any new way, and some just don’t make sense.  Ironically some of the most popular “must haves” in the world of education actually would be very far down on my list, if there at all.  Today and tomorrow I want to talk about two devices, both of which I initially saw as transformational, that in practice seem to be not worth the investment.  
The term SmartBoard, like Kleenix, has come to be used generically for any interactive display system.  These whiteboards coordinated with motion tracing sensors and projectors, when attached to a computer can register and record keystrokes of special pens.  This makes possible a number of interactive possibilities, as a user can simply touch the board like a mouse to interact with  the computer software to select or make text or pictures.  A number of educational software companies have created visual “edutainment” activities where students can select or input answers and see results.  SmartBoards are seen as “must have” devices for a “21st Century Classroom” (sarcastic quotation marks intended).

Though there is nothing wrong with a SmartBoard, there is very little right about it, certainly not enough to justify the $2,000+ price tag.  Since the device’s only function is to act as as “live” computer screen, there are limited functions that cannot be replicated with computer and projector alone.  While I suppose there is some value to having students work at a board while others watch, this is such a limited function, and the SmartBoard is a poor tool for collaboration, as it reads only one input at a time.  I would trade a SmartBoard for a tablet device hooked to a projector any day.

Most problematical to me is the reality test.  I have watched lessons  in dozens of classrooms with SmartBoards, and I can count on one hand (or maybe two) the times that the device has been used as a SmartBoard.  More often I have seen these boards used as (dumb) whiteboards with a projector.  While this may be a training and motivational issue on a teacher’s part, I am more inclined to see this a function issue.  There isn’t enough magic (or effectiveness) to justify the effort of lesson creation, and while one can find amazing and creative lessons using this tool on YouTube, these are the exception (probably even for these teachers).  Despite the sales pitch, this is not what is going on in classrooms.

When the history of educational technology is written, the SmartBoard will go down as one of the most expensive initiatives providing the least real learning.  The sad thing is that people are still installing these.  I toured a school last year that proudly showed off its new SmartBoards in every classroom.  I worked hard to nod appreciatively, but inside I was screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

As always, I welcome your comments.


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The 24 Days of Blogging, Day 13: “Five Golden Rings”

Wednesday, 14. December 2016 14:53 | Author:

This one is late because I had posting problems (which is code for I didn’t get it written)

Five more “little known” facts about Christmas #buzzfeed

  1. President Richard Nixon invented the “elf on a shelf” tradition.  
  2. During the 1940s there was a brief holiday craze when people drank a concoction of gin, cranberry juice, and nutmeg swirled with a candy cane called a Rowdy Reindeer.
  3. After the crew of Apollo 8 delivered their Christmas message to the people of earth, they celebrated the holiday by playing a weightless version of beer pong.
  4. The novelty song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Rendeer,” was actually acommentary on the Iran Contra scandal.
  5. “Little Christmas” was one of the first nicknames for Shirley Temple.

Post your own “facts” in the comments


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The 24 Days of Blogging, Day 12:  “Something Almost True Was in the Air”

Tuesday, 13. December 2016 8:32 | Author:

5 little known facts about Christmas

  1. If you play the movie Elf with the sound turned down, it syncs perfectly with Michael Jackson’s album Thriller.
  2. During one holiday season in the height of Beatlemania, Ringo Starr marketed Christmas tree toppers called Starr’s Stars.
  3. There is no such thing as figgy pudding.  The writer of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” needed a four syllable treat that might be given to carolers and made up the oft quoted (but never eaten) concoction.  Sugar plums exist, but would cost $5000 in today’s currency to make.
  4. The dogs heard on the holiday classic “Barking Dogs Jingle Bells” were all abandoned after the recording session.  However, this story has a happy holiday ending, as they were later adopted by the fire stations of Yonkers, NY.
  5. Before Clement Moore “named” Santa’s reindeer in the holiday classic “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the reindeer had been named after US oil reserve fields by John D Rockefeller. 

More tomorrow 


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The 24 Days of Blogging, Day 11: “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

Monday, 12. December 2016 5:53 | Author:

Someone said to me today, “I love looking at the lights on houses, it always gives me hope for some reason.” 

Among the many blessings of Christmas is a childlike sense of hope, hope for a wonderful holiday, hope for a good new year, hope for one of those cars that everyone seems to be receiving if TV commercials are to be believed.  The ancient feast upon which Christmas found its home was a celebration of hope that days would not continue to shorten and that the sun would triumph over the night.  In fact, one could see the season as the yearly triumph of hope at the end of the reality of the passing year.  

I set up a Christmas tree in my apartment today.  I thought for a while about skipping it this year.  I’m not at home much over the holidays and there will be few friends who would even come by to see it.  The communal purpose of the tree is somewhat lost this year; it seemed to be mainly another chore and expense at a time of too much of both.  

So why did I do it?  I set up a tree as a sign of continuity and a sign of hope.  Despite the tumult in the macro and micro worlds, it’s Christmas, so I set up a tree.  I will set one up next year again if I and this chaotic planet are still around to do so, God willing.  I set up a tree because my Dad and Mom finally, after hinting at it last year, have decided that a tree is just too much trouble.  My tree and their tree were ther cornerstones of Christmas, and it isn’t right to have two less trees in the same year.  Most importantly, I set up a tree for my own enjoyment and inspiration.  I intend to sit in my chair every day of the Christmas season and look at the tree and hope for good things to come for everyone I care about.  Events of the past year have demonstrated the utter precariousness of peace, of happiness, of life itself.  I’m going to look at the tree and hope for a better world. 

This is the Third Sunday of Advent, designated by the church as Gaudete Sunday, with a call to be joyful for the time of Christmas  draws near (even though it is still…blessedly…two full weeks away due to the peculiarities of the calendar).  I spoke about joy earlier in the week, but today let’s celebrate with hope.  It is one of the greatest human capacities to picture a condition better than today and then work to make it happen.  Let us have the strength and courage to hope for true goodness in our world and in our selves.  President Obama titled his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, that at times it seems truly outrageous to hope for something better.  However, it is a season of impossible things from its inception (pun intended), so let’s hope ourselves and hope our world and honestly, bravely, audaciously believe it will come to be.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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The 24 Days of Blogging, Day 10:  “He’s making his list and checking it twice”

Sunday, 11. December 2016 8:11 | Author:

People use YouTube for all sorts of purposes.  Some people watch videos to learn new skills; some listen to music; some watch cats.  My special YouTube vice is British panel shows.  These are usually focused around some sort of competition, but competition is not the point of the show, rather the banter and jokes of the comedians on the competing panels is what’s really at the heart of their appeal.  I watch episodes of “Would I Lie to You?” Where panelists tell an unusual “fact” about themselves, and the other panel asks questions to determine if it is a lie or the truth.  “Never Mind the Buzzcocks” is a music quiz show that seems more interested in the back and forth between the host and the panelists.  But my favorite is QI (short for Quite Interesting) a general knowledge quiz show until recently hosted by Stephen Fry and taken over by Sandy Toksvig, both favorites of mine.  The host asks the panel trivia questions and the panelists answer either seriously or humorously.  Correct answers are scored in a completely arbitrary fashion and wrong answers that were predicted by the writers ahead of time result in some sort of deduction, and the winner declared (for no obvious reason) at the end of the show. Despite its clear lack of consistent rules, scoring system, or even turns, it is a very satisfying show to watch.

The value of QI is not for the game, rather it is about the fascinating facts and subsequent discussion that make up the flow of the show.  It was from QI that I learned that. Columbus took 80 tons of marijuana to the new world, that the earth has many more than one moon, and that the Galapagos Turtle was not studied in England for many years because crews attempting to bring specimens back for study couldn’t resist eating them.  It’s like random browsing in an encyclopedia, but curated by elves with a wicked sense of humor.

These “elves” actually have their own show, or at least podcast, called “No Such Thing as Fish.”  This podcast is named for one of the most famous QI facts, that a biologist after studying fish for decades came to the startling conclusion that there is no unifying trait of everything we call fish…that there is no such thing as a fish.  In this podcast, the four panelist each relate an interesting fact that they have discovered, but not used for the QI show,  and others discuss and build upon this point.  This description doesn’t do the show justice, because it is fascinating and funny.  I have never listened to an episode where I haven’t learned something or been immensely entertained.  Today I learned that the first men’s club in the United States was organized around eating turtle soup, and its members included Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr.  While I can’t think of a time that this fact will serve me in my business life or my personal life (though it has helped with this blogpost), I find learning these facts immensely satisfying.  Listening to the banter of incredibly witty and intelligent panelist is a wonderful way to spend and hour…or an afternoon.  It is like a living version of Google, with the (now removed) “I’m Feeling Lucky” button pushed four times an hour.

So, as a Christmas gift, I will recommend that you check this out.  You can find information and links to the podcast at  During the holidays ahead, a good podcast can be a wonderful way to spend time, and there is no better way to spend time than learning fascinating trivia.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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The 24 Days of Blogging, Day 9:  “Oh, the weather outside is frightful!”

Saturday, 10. December 2016 1:57 | Author:

Across the country today temperatures are falling.  At the time of writing, it is 9° in Minot ND, and it is anticipated to drop to -21° tonight.  There is snow over a good portion of the Midwest.  If tomorrow weren’t Saturday, there are a number of children who would stay home anyway.  After the first of the year, snow days will be a regular thing across the country.  Occasionally there is a terrible winter, causing students to miss so much school that they have to cut Easter Vacation short or add days to the end of the year (giving the climate change deniers reasons to rejoice), but most years there are a limited number of days when the world stops in an enforced time out for young (and sometime older).

And what do we have here in Southern California?  73° and partially cloudy.

Now almost any back-Easter would gladly trade the endless snow for the constant sun, particularly as winter wears on, but in this perfection, there are things lost, namely snow days.  In a thirty-five year career in education, I have only once had school cancelled due to poor weather during a flooding winter nearly thirty-three years ago.  Yes, there used to be half-days due to heat, but after air conditioning was installed in all schools, these days went away.  Children in California never experience the anticipation, the excitement, and the forced slowdown of a snow day.  In California we never have to stop, which is a blessing and a curse because I’m certain, as much as everyone but kids probably “hate” these days, I’m sure that there is part of everyone that loves that moment when the world says no, when the world says stop, when the world says be.  It’s a gift that (short of a natural disaster) So Cal children never receive, and never truly understand.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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The 24 Days of Blogging Day 8:  “Now bring us some figgy pudding”

Thursday, 8. December 2016 23:00 | Author:

OK…I’ve written four series of these blogs.  I’ve talked about decorations, movies, songs, Christmas cards, and pooping figurines, but I’ve never talked about fruitcake.  

Is there anything else as identified with the holiday season with a similar reputation for universal dislike?  Fruitcake is the punch line to 38% of all holiday jokes (little known fact, 78% of all statistics are made up at the time they are written).  Johnny Carson captured the essence with,  “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”  It is the low-hanging fruit (cake) of holiday humor. The Grinch has a better approval rating.

Don’t tell anyone, but I love fruitcake.  The wonderful Dominican Sisters of San Jose yearly send my office a “brick of heaven” every year, and one very special Sister slips me an extra loaf every year.  I enjoy one piece a day throughout the holiday season, sometimes with a cup of Starbucks Christmas Blend, a little combination I call “perfection.” I love the strong molasses-y sweetness and the three magi of cake, fruit, and nuts.  I also enjoy “heritage” tastes of Christmas, flavors that are disappearing from our world.  I will take a fruitcake, or mince pies, over any of the bland sweetness of modern treats.  It is also a bite of my own history, as I first loved my grandmother’s fruitcake (she also sent a second loaf home with me).  My first Christmases in my Grandparent’s house with the old decorations, the twirling tree, and the beautiful scratched records on the hi-fi wake with every crunchy bite.  

There were few moments when I saw myself in my daughter as much (and was secretly so proud) as when she showed her love for fruitcake. 

That’s my story, but I find very few kindred spirits. My yearly love of fruitcake is a joke to my friends and coworkers.  Even I made a fruitcake joke in a work email this week, saying that an unpopular idea rated just below fruitcake.  So what I’m wondering is where are the other fruitcake devotees?  Apart from private individuals and the Angel Dominican Sisters, I see stacks of fruitcakes in stores.  Someone buys them, and I’m certain someone is eating them.

Fruitcake lovers unite!  Claim your heavenly treat that says Christmas like no other taste or smell! Do you taste what I taste? Fruitcake 

Sugarplums, on the other hand…

As always, I welcome your comments..

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The 24 Days of Blogging Day 7: “We’ll gather up our fears and face down all the coming years”

Wednesday, 7. December 2016 19:13 | Author:

Image result for joy christmasToday we had our Christmas party for school leaders.  It is traditional that I say a few words at the end of the event, so today’s post is a copy of my remarks (doing double duty).  Those who have read this blog for many years may detect some themes that I’ve written about before, but I think these things are worth saying every year.



One of the words we hear at this time of year more than any other (just behind “figgy pudding”) is joy.  We are wished, encouraged (threatened) to have a joyful holiday season. In fact, most of us don’t even notice these greetings, stacking them like fruitcakes under the tree with a vague thought, “Yeah, I hope that my family and I will be happy.”

But we all know in ourselves, in our families, and in our world there are many challenges, brokenness, and fear that the celebration of Christmas cannot cure.  As school communities we are exposed to abundances of happiness and sadness, often knowing the story behind the surface, sometimes knowing much more than we want to.  Family challenges, including our own, are often exacerbated by the holiday season.  Likewise, the state of the world often does not seem to be headed toward greater justice and peace or happiness (which is probably the most charitable thing that I can say).

But joy is not the equivalent of happiness.  Happiness is essentially reactive, depending on outside events.  Joy is proactive.  It is generated from within and does not draw its strength from anything but itself.  Joy is the constant belief in Emanuel, God is with us.  It was the tidings of the Angel to the shepherds.  It is a light amidst darkness.

So while I wish you and your families happiness throughout this holy season of Advent and the coming season of Christmas, and peace, and prosperity, and new cars (that according to television everyone seems to be receiving), and full schools, and amazing growth scores on the STAR tests, and technology that never goes down, I also wish you a defiant joy that faces good and not so good, strength and brokenness with profound jubilation that in all of our lives, all of them, God is with us.

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