The biggest city in the world

I confess to being one of those people who have (quietly) judged parents who are on their phones while seemingly ignoring their kids. This morning we went out for an early breakfast before work, and I had a very different experience. Here is my story:

The monkeys (my kids, aged 7, 8, and 9 years as of next Tuesday) are chatting away about the weather, as it is unseasonably cool. Kayleigh (8 years) asks, “Mama, what is the temperature?” I pull out my phone and let her know it’s apparently 63 degrees Fahrenheit. McKenna (7 years next Tuesday) pipes in wanting to know what the temperature is in Walt Disney World. Ok, 79 degrees. Now all three of them are spouting out locations.  Aunt Pat and Uncle Lee’s house? 65.  Hawaii? 72, and it’s still night time there.  Brazil? I forget which city I picked, but it was similar – somewhere in the mid-60’s.  Mexico? Ummmmm, where in Mexico will I look? Mexico City. 55. These are all from The Weather Channel app on my phone.

My husband Evan chimes in with a comment. “I think Mexico City is the largest city in the world, isn’t it?”  I look at him with my “blank screen, blinking cursor” face, which is indicative of complete ignorance on my part. Chasby (9 years) wants to look it up. Evan pulls out his phone and looks up the population of Mexico City (19,463,000, according to the website they were looking at). My girls are still spitting out places they want me to look up for weather. My step-son becomes more interested on what the biggest city is. Evan asks us to guess what the biggest city in Virginia is. Kayleigh chooses Richmond. Chasby chooses Norfolk. I was thinking somewhere in Northern Virginia but realized I had no idea the relative sizes of places like Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church….Evan tells Chasby he’s close with his guess. I mentally decide it must be Virginia Beach then. Eventually we are told that is the case.

Now we go global. “What IS the biggest city in the world, daddy?” I smirk at Chasby from across the table and ask him what he means by “biggest.” We talk about measuring a city by area and by population, and how they may not be the same. Evan looks up the biggest cities, and then they start talking about different populations of cities around the world, and I am looking up the current weather in them. Tokyo, Japan. 82.   Shanghai, China. 80.  Delhi, India. 90.

Our lively conversation and learning frenzy is rather suddenly severed by the gruff sarcastic voice of the owner of the bagel shop. “Well THAT’S a nice way to play with your kids,” he sneers. I freeze. My husband looks up and says “I’m sorry?” The man repeats himself, adding a comment about being buried in our phones. The kids are looking back and forth between me and Evan. Evan smiles and says jovially, “Yeah, we were talking about the biggest cities so we were looking some things up,” and Chasby, as if on cue, turns and proclaims “Shanghai in China is the biggest area, with 6,340 square kilometers, but Tokyo in Japan has the most people. Over 37 million!”

The shop owner says “Oh. That’s cool,” with no real inflection in his voice, and disappears into the back.

I relayed my story to my boss/coach/team leader (he doesn’t like “boss”) at work, and he pointed me to a NY Times article about social media use by teenagers on vacation. It’s a beautiful demonstration of being connected to both the here and now and bringing that to others, as Evan and I were bringing the world to the here and now, talking with our children about the here (Richmond, VA) and now (this morning’s weather right this minute) in the context of how it compares to many other places on the Earth.

My husband and I have not yet discussed the incident, so I have no idea about his perception of what transpired. Perhaps I will ask him about it when I get home from work today. I know that next time I see parents on their phones with their kids nearby, I may think “Maybe they’re looking up the biggest city in the world.”

Excerpt from “Explosions From the Middle of Nowhere”

I feel the need to preface this for those who are not a part of VCU’s OCDI. I am participating in an Online Course Development Initiative, and this post is part of an activity in which we engaged.  The assignment was to choose one set of eight or so series of pictures the instructors had posted, and collaboratively write a story. My partners in crime for this were Ann Creighton-Zollar and Peter Temple.  Our collaboration tool of choice was a Google Doc. We voted on which set of pictures to use and put down some preliminary thoughts about what the pictures said to us. Once one was chosen, we added to the skeleton that was already there. Peter really took off with it and we went on quite the journey with this story. I wonder if we’ll write the novel…anyway, here is the series of pictures we used:

And here is our excerpt from our novel:

“This is insane!”

“No,” the elderly man wheezed into his oxygen mask. “The definition of insanity…is doing the same thing…over and over…trying to get different results.” Long, drawn breaths and exhales dotted his sentences, the disease wracked his body to ruins. His arm rested along his hip, and a pistol was weakly aimed at one of the suits before him.

The trio of special agents had weapons drawn, ready “Do it, Neils! Give us what we need to unarm the weapon!”

“For example…ranting and making demands…when that isn’t what I want!” Neils shuffled in his wheelchair, pulling out a manilla envelope. “But this?” He shakily raised the gun to his left hand, tapping on the envelope, “This…is what you want.”

Each agent had been trained for this kind of scenario, but Neils was clever. Nothing was ever easy. Even as a frail, ill man, Neils was wily and just as sick.

A coughing cackle escaped his lips, as a cracked grin spread across his face. “Bang.” He pulled the trigger, causing a small flame to emerge from the barrel, slowly igniting the paper. “Bang.” Another spot started to catch. “Heh-haugh-ha…BANG!” Neils pointed his gun directly at Agent Evans, starting to squeeze when a shot rang out.

“CARATACHEA! STAND DOWN!” Evans pushed Caratachea’s gun down to the ground. Gallahan rushed in, stamping out the flames that the old man had dropped. “DAMMIT, Matt! What were you thinking?!,” Evans yelled at the youngest agent. “It was a damned lighter! What did you think he was going to do—” he caught himself, growling under his breath. “Tudy, is what we need in that envelope?!”

Agent Gallahan gently pulled out the contents. They were damaged, but recovered all the same. “Thank goodness,” she muttered, “I think we’ve got them, Robert!” The aged papers had markings, the basis of the code they needed.
“Heh…haugh…” The elderly man strained to breathe, a rusty laugh emerging from his lungs. “Cracked…code…but that’s…not all.” He laughed in defiance of his current situation, each cough adding specks of blood to his oxygen mask. Evans hurried over, keeping Neils’s head straight up, his eyes locked.

“Neils…what do you mean?! Tell us what you mean!”

“I stole much…from antiquity…do you know…how much…it’ll cost you?” Another glob of blood filled the mask. “Nine…ninety…seven. Heh…haugh!”

“Neils, what does that mean?! Nine ninety-seven? NEILS!” Evans shook the heap of the man.

“You’re all…so…cheap.” Neils’ eyes rolled back, his last breath escaping from what remained of his lungs.

“DAMMIT!” Evans turns around, and flipped the small side table over. Matt winced at the explosive act from the normally calm veteran agent. “Caratachea, I SWEAR, he was our ONLY ANSWER! And now he’s dead! I’m going to personally see to it that the director has your AS—”

“EVANS! If you’re done chewing Caratachea out, I think I know what he means…” Tudy fanned out the pages, showing 991, 993, 995, and 999. “We need to find his missing page.”

Evans bit at his bottom lip, nodding. “We’ll call cleanup, and then we need to get out feelers on all of Neils’ dealers, fences, contacts…respectable or otherwise.” As he passed by Caratachea, Evans dug his index finger into his shoulder. “And you? You’re going to have one hell of a write up once all of this is done.”

But if we don’t find that page with the disarm codes every tunnel on the Atlantic Coast will come down. The chatter of the other agents disappeared into the background and her mind was flooded with memories of other explosions and cave-ins. She ran her hand through,  well it would have been through her hair,  if it had not been burned off in … 67, 68? As she fingered the scar tissue left by a blast with a fuzzy date the only thing getting through was the infernal racket from a guitar.  That bit her mind recognized- Bach, a prelude BWV 997. WAIT – PAGE 997 BACH 997

Then it came to her, like a flashback from hell – PENNSYLVANIA HIGHWAY 997. In the middle of nowhere. A BARN. A barn filled with BOOKS.  A barn Neils had used as a hiding place, dismissed as part of a wild goose chase they had been led on before the explosion in 67, or was it 68? The explosion that took her hair and the desire from his eyes. If her ducts had survived 67, 68 they would have seen a tear roll down her cheek. She yelled on her way out of the door. “Follow me guys.  I know where it is. I know exactly where it is. I’ll drive.”

As she started the engine she smiled. “Clever son of a bitch,” she thought. Neils was always good for a puzzle. “Get out your reading glasses, boys,” she quipped. “We’re gonna have a lot of books to go through.”


Thoughts on Wikipedia

Wikipedia. The largest encyclopedia in the world. Of the world. For the world. We’re talking over 30 million articles in 287 languages, folks. Yet, in some disciplines and by some people, shunned as a source of information.

How then, is it useful for education?  An encyclopedia, by definition, is a summary of information about a plethora of subjects. There are the obvious things: 1) it’s a great starting point for finding general information 2) it can be useful in leading the reader to other possible sources. How about the not so obvious things? Let’s take healthcare as an example. Even if a healthcare professional holds the opinion that the information in Wikipedia is unreliable, you can pretty much bet that there are patients out there using it for information, and it is useful to know what they come to the table with. For students, this is a great starting point for basic information about a topic (disease state? medication? biological process?). What information is essential for the patient to have? What might they misinterpret? How could it be explained better? What references were used in the creation of the article (evaluate one or two). Is the information in the specific Wikipedia article accurate? If not…EDIT IT. Now we’re getting somewhere, aren’t we? Check out what is happening at UCSF, where they are doing exactly that.

What would you do in your own discipline? How could you not just USE Wikipedia, but PARTICIPATE in it?

Oh the thinks we can think, if only we try! ~Dr. Seuss

Community of Sparks?

Sometimes you just feel like doing something nice.

In my former position, I used to send “good luck” e-mails full of “pharmacovibes” to my students before big tests and during exam week, or congratulate them on big events and countdown to clerkships or graduation with them. I would post messages or Bitstrips on Facebook. It let them know I knew they had things going on other than just my course. It let them know I care.

In my current position, I no longer have a particular captive audience. I don’t have some number of students assigned to me in any fashion. Still, I felt the need to reach out. I had an idea. I would get my colleagues to help me. We would all write positive messages on post-it notes and put them all over the building for the students to read and find as they went through exam week. They could keep ones they liked. I had a vision of walls with hundreds of messages.

Well, that didn’t work out the way I had hoped.

I did get a few notes from several colleagues…not the volume I was hoping for, but they were supportive of my effort, for the most part. The fire code, on the other hand, was not so supportive. Policy indicated that one could not hang things without permission. It would be a fire hazard of epic proportion, to be letting anyone who wanted to hang stuff everywhere. This is not unreasonable, and makes perfect sense, but I had not considered it when I had my brilliant idea.

I would not be daunted – I would spread some positivity – somehow.

I could decorate my door, as long as I didn’t cover more than 40% of it. Here was the result:

The door

The note, entitled “SPARKS,” says “Please help yourself to a spark. Take one for a friend. Leave a new one if you’d like.” There were around 40 different quotes and sayings. Some had instructions: “Take a deep breath. Smile. Take one more. EXCELLENT!” Some had questions: “What are you thankful for today?” Some had messages from characters: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than  you think. ~A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh.”  Some were song quotes: “One little spark, of inspiration, is at the heart, of all creation… ~The Sherman Brothers.”

I don’t get much traffic on the hall where my office is, but the students who came down the hall would stop and read, sometimes take one, sometimes discuss them with each other, sometimes talk to me, which I loved. I heard that it was a great idea, “Thank you for this; I really needed it,” that it was such a sweet thing to do, and other positive comments. It felt wonderful. I have been leaving them on the door overnight. Each morning, more are missing, and I replace them. This morning, someone left a new one! This is particularly exciting to me since I had not left any mechanism to make leaving one an easy task (I have since fixed that), and these students don’t know me at all.

New spark!

Yes, the scientist in me wants to study the phenomenon. I want data. I want to know how they felt before they read it. How they felt right after it. How they felt about the exam they took after getting one. Whether or not they took one for a friend. Perhaps I will ponder this more, but for now, I will just continue to let the sparks fly.

Learning is Messy

We have all heard it. Learning is messy. If you are a teacher, you have probably said it to your students, when their frustration level was at its highest. Learning is messy. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes, a question seems simple enough, but in the search for the answer, another question arises that must be answered first. Sometimes, the initial question is just the tip of the iceberg of questions with (or without) answers that plummet deeper into knowledge on a topic than one could imagine. The seeker could go the way of the Titanic, being crushed, broken in half, and left to sink. Learning is messy! The seeker could run down the rabbit hole of unending questions and get lost. Teachers see this in their students and remind them – learning is messy. It will be ok. The teacher will help. As a teacher, I likely focused on my teaching and their learning. Often, I would try to shift the iceberg picture they were feeling so acutely. Going down a rabbit hole into Wonderland can be far more preferable. Just as frustrating at times, but a bit more fun, than say, the Titanic.

The reality is, however, I am no different from them. Learning is just as messy for me. I’ve been given a project in my new job. I have been feeling the Titanic analogy rather acutely. It was a visit form a former student today that helped my perspective shift from the Titanic to Wonderland. As I tried to explain briefly what my iceberg was about, she looked a little amused. I realized that I sounded just like my students do when they reach that level of frustration in learning. At the moment this clicked with me, she said something to the effect of “Wow, you’ve learned a lot in a very short time about this.”

Oh. Right.

I’m a Learner, too, not just a Teacher, and learning is messy. So now, armed with my Figment mug of tea, I will jump back into the rabbit hole and continue this journey…into Wonderland. Perhaps I will meet the caterpillar who fervently demands to know who I am. I am a teacher, but I am also a learner…and well, learning is messy. And I do love being on both ends of it.

A leap forward

As I begin this exciting dive into educational cyberspace, I am finding myself a bit conflicted. I love this new job. I love the journey I am taking into building an online identity. I love the ideas that are sparked as I experience the process. I have also had moments of feeling lost. Yesterday, for the first time since 1995, I did not spend the first day of the semester amongst my students. Whether I was in the classroom with them or preparing to be at some point that week, I have always been with students – sitting in the lobby of the building with them, greeting them, or having lunch or a cup of tea with those who walk by my open office door if I actually decide to be in there for any length of time. I would reach out to this experience in subconscious ways I was not aware of until this past weekend and particularly yesterday, where those tentacles reaching for that connection seemed to be flailing. Sure, I saw their posts on Facebook about being back, and I am on a campus where there are students, but something in me felt somehow disconnected. I would reach for the computer to pull up the syllabus for the upcoming topics, look for the e-mail with the classroom schedule to put it on my calendar…I don’t have a syllabus or a schedule to check, because I’m not coordinating or teaching a class. I felt a huge void, and it was painful. Reconciling that deep feeling of loss with that of the excitement of my new role in the University proved to be exhausting.

Then today I realized….

I can teach, anyone, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. I can make that as formal or informal as I’d like. I can develop a formal course for credit with measurable objectives for a specific audience and go through the process of curriculum committee approval. OR…I can start a thread on Reddit. I can create a MOOC. I can post things I am learning about in my new job on Facebook or Tweet about them, and some will learn, and some will teach me, as my students always have.

This likely seems like an obvious thing to many people, and those who know me might be thinking that I have always been one seeking innovative ideas for teaching and wanting to try them out, but the sudden realization of the mental constraints I was wrapped in and the bursting from those shackles into educational freedom was exhilarating!

Education is everywhere, in everything. Every interaction can teach something. The online world has given us endless possibilities for learning from and teaching each other. And I love that.

Am I ready for take off?

I really have no idea where this site will go, and honestly, I’m not thinking about what I’m writing right now. I’ve been told, by several different people, at several different times, that I should blog…about several different things. My two daughters (6 and 7 years old right now) and step-son (currently 8 years old) are a constant source of hilarity, frustration, new perspective, and love. My husband often writes quotes on my teacups, and it has been quite the source of conversation at times. I am a Disney fanatic and could write about Disney World all day long. I love tea. Between home and work, I likely have more varieties of tea than a Teavana store. I have started a journey into martial arts with Taekwondo and Tai Chi, long past my prime, whenever that was. I am a teacher. Some have told me I am a teacher with a capital “T.” I’m not so sure I’ve earned that yet, but I do know that I strive for it. My students often hear about my kids, Disney World, whatever tea I’m drinking that day, martial arts, and of course, it leads into whatever subject we are discussing in class that day. All that being said, I still don’t know where this is going.

“I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t just stick with Professor Figment.”

That’s what I said when I was asked what my domain name would be if I had one. I’m a professor, and Figment, a little purple dragon who lives in Epcot, is my personal mascot. He is housed in an attraction called “Journey into Imagination.” He is, clearly, a figment thereof. His theme song (by Robert and Richard Sherman) says:

“One little spark of inspiration, is at the heart of all creation; right at the start of everything that’s new, one little spark lights up for you.”

And so it begins – the flight of Professor Figment.