What my students and I learned from a live podcast experiment.

To cut to the chase – I loved it!

Now for the rest of the story. Podcasting is nothing more than a person with a mic and a story well told. But, on a production level, it could get complicated when you add stuff like a ‘DAW’ or a digital audio workstation – a fancy term for a recording and editing software. Or multiple guests.

I love the spontaneity of podcasting, letting guests be themselves, warts and all. Yet I like to edit much; tighten things up, with intros, outros, multiple tracks for voices, and occasional sound effects etc. I use Hindenburg Pro for a bulk of the work, and Anchor.fm to upload the finished product to Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the likes.

The more ‘guests’ you have, the complexity ramps up. There’s overlapping audio when someone occasionally talks over another (a good thing?), bloopers that could be left in –and sometimes should – but at the expense of duration of the podcast. And sound levels to adjust, especially if you have a mic that allows for switching between cardioid (for voices directly in front), and omnidirectional. When I have forgotten to switch modes, the results have been…meh!

Some history here: There was a time, c. 2011, I when Derrick Mains and I hosted a radio show out of Phoenix we called Your3BL (listen here!) which stood for ‘Your Triple Bottom Line.’ It was out of KFNX studios hidden away in a nondescript strip mall. The man behind the glass did all the mixing and sound balancing, so it was pretty easy for us hosts. But Derrick and I liked to shake things up a bit now and then. Sometimes, we recorded the show elsewhere. Like one at Gangplank, a co-working space. There was a time I hosted it on a laptop in a classroom at Clark University in Boston with Derrick in Phoenix. We called in, through a dedicated phone line to the studio. That was one of the ‘live’ events that stretched my capabilities, but the recording taught me a lot about podcast production.

Recently I decided to interview two guests in school, and thought of upping the ante a bit. We recorded it in the gymnasium. That’s asking for trouble, if you know something about the cathedral-acoustics in a gym. Especially, when it’s the first time.

I wanted the acoustics to feel like it was a large space. Then there was the fact that we had two audiences: the ones in front of us, and the ones who would listen to the recording. The student audience in the bleachers came through loud and clear, cheering wildly when our two guests were introduced. But would the recording pick up the exuberance? To compensate, I had a back-up recorder on the desk, my trusty ZoomH4N Pro. I could grab that feed if I needed in editing. There was also a video camera at the back of the gym, hooked to a wireless lavalier mic which I placed next to our guests. This and the desk mic were plugged it in through the Scarlett Focusrite mixer. (That video mic feed came handy in editing, since one of our guests, an awesome pianist, played the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean which overpowered the desk mic. I was able to splice the better audio in later.)

You learn something! Like wishing I had two clip-on mics for the guests. I know, overkill! Or testing sound levels in the vast space before the real thing.

As for our guests, they were freshmen Reina Ley and Landon Madsen. A few weeks before, (Sept 2022), Reina had auditioned on NBC’s The Voice.  That same month, Landon, the pianist, had given a stunning performance at our talent show, Franklin’s Got Talent. The podcast were were recording, was a way to celebrate our student’s achievements, as we often do during morning assembly. Moments like this not only memorialize these particular achievements, they reveal something about all our students. The often unspoken talent hurrying through these hallways, toting trombones, football gear, trifolds, and other paraphernalia.

Here’s where the learning gets more interesting. This experiment in podcasting doubled up as an assignment for students in my class on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Age. I got them to help me set up the hardware in the gym. They were the ones manning the video camera, and doing the sound checks. Another was the photojournalist, with a regular camera. After fall break, these students will take this video feed and turn it into a news story, worthy of television. We have practiced with a green screen, so there will be an anchor, a reporter on the scene etc. Who knows where this will go! This, to me is what makes learning more hands-on, and lets them apply the theory of storytelling to real work they could publish (On Medium, the class website, and elsewhere) and see their output. Next month, they will be recording mock political debates in a history class, and produce a newspaper with many of these stories.

They, like me, love the challenge. After all, much of this (and the podcast) takes place in the Computer Lab. I remind my students, ad nauseam, it’s after all a ‘lab’ –where we are supposed to experiment!

Mansplaining spinfluencers I know diddly-squat about.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I may sound like a panjandrum (a word that rear-ended me the other day) because I’m not a huge fan of neologisms. Some of these recent words seem to be arriving by the truckload. It’s one thing to say ‘nonversation’ and ‘hangry’ — at least they mean what they sound like. But when did staycation and mansplaining become OK? Who comes up with this stuff? The Atlantic ran a piece that sheds some light on it.

There was a time when we had to explain (geeksplain?) what webinars, and dongles, and hashtags were. [Webinar, let’s face it, is a horrible word that should have been excommunicated with words like optics and more recent ones like spreadneck. Never heard of the latter? I’m glad.]

As for that Dongle? This was the name for that device you had to stick into your computer when you needed Internet access abroad. What an obtuse word! Hotspots probably severed our connections with the dongle world. We have other things we still plunge into our ports: thumb drives, also known as flash drive, USB drives, or stick drives.

Did you know that smellifungus is not what it sounds like? It would be perfect for describing the bacterial residue in your gym socks, but unfortunately it describes a person — a super-annoying whiner who bickers about inconsequential things. It’s female equivalent is someone social media labels a Karen.

Language, you see, is a collywobble, especially across the culturescape of english language speakers. We make things up — and repeat them — as we go. A breve, served at coffee shops in Tempe, Arizona could mean nothing to a tea drinker in Haputale, Sri Lanka which serves delicious kahata — a word that could flummox any tea drinker in Kensington palace, whether or not she uses the word flummox, which showed up in Tolkien.

Neologisms like kerplunk and digerati are all over the place. I recently heard that based is supposed to mean what teenagers in the Grease era considered cool. My daughter tells me that she abhors the term spinfluencers which is a subset of influencers, that wacky Insta label for people once known as ‘thought leaders.’) WIRED just ran a cover story on micro-influencers, and nano-influencers, so there may be a whole new species out there about whom I know diddly-squat.

By the way, panjandrum is one of those delightful made-up words from 1755 with a humorous origin. Webster’s best explains it here.

This story was also posted to Medium.com

Blurry borders and authors who cross the line.

Sometimes, it’s the border that crosses us.

Photo by Imre Tömösvári on Unsplash

Salman Rushdie knows a lot about borders. His books explore the concept of borders; he’s lived them. The recent knife attack on Rushdie in New York reminded us that — to paraphrase the author — we don’t cross borders; sometimes it’s the border that crosses us.

On a side note, I featured Rushdie’s other classic, Midnight’s Children, in a podcast about writing, if you’re interested. I met Rushdie at an event in California in 2004. He had just published a book, a collection of stories and essays, titled ‘Step across this line.

Borders are funny things. Just lines on the map, arbitrary, contestable, often inconvenient. Dotted lines that someone drew, and the rest of us are asked to observe. A canal here, a fence there, a dried up river bed, a train station. What happens to us when we step across one of these lines? First, nothing. Twenty feet this way, or that, nothing seems very different. Cactus spikes glowing in the strobe light on a truck. Barbed wire. Plastic bags billowing like ulcers on neglected shrubs. I’ve seen my share.

‎Listen to “Step Across This Border” On Apple Podcasts: podcasts.apple.com

I recall a border crossing on a train between Germany to Czechoslovakia as it was then called. Border guards in trench coats with heavy guns tapped on our compartment. Routine passport check. Very intimidating. Especially late at night when you didn’t know exactly where –meaning which side of the border — you were.

The reality is, once you cross, you are now in a different jurisdiction subject to new laws whether its speed limits or what you might have in your carry-on. People across the ‘line’ always seem to notice you are different. The way you hold up your head, your dress, your accent.

I’m not sure if this is your experience but scary border guards notwithstanding, there’s something else at work. People on the other side tend to be folks welcoming of strangers. Perhaps (a) they were once in your shoes, with no carry-on bag; (b) you are a curiosity that adds color — currency even — to their humdrum existence; (c) human beings are born to be social animals. Sure, I’m being optimistic. But at least it used to be that way.

It’s not just them. Something else happens to you. Inside. You feel the need to assimilate. To not suck up too much oxygen. To appreciate otherness. To not be the obnoxious tourist.

Any immigrant knows first hand. As a foreign student in London, my buddies were from Malta, Fiji, Seychelles, and Ethiopia. They had crossed many borders to get there. When we crossed into Northern Ireland, a region that was violently fighting the British at that time in the 1980s, there were a new set of borders to consider, even while we were technically in the same country. To say it was tense, even for our English chaperones is to put it mildly. Especially the part known as ‘Free Derry’ where fierce battles had once raged. (Remember that term ‘Bloody Sunday’?) But even in that porous border, we could walk through like locals because the locals seemed to want to have us there. At night, we could hear on radio that IRA bombs went off in the area where we were, a few blocks away.

I still think about borders, but now in a different light. Despite our accents, and varying skin colors, the borders we cross don’t have to get between us. For those of you too young to remember, Rushdie ruffled feathers. Apart from the geographical borders he crisscrossed, he crossed a line — someone’s line in the sand –when he published a book, Satanic Verses in 1998. The regime in Iran considered the book blasphemy and promptly issued a global death threat or ‘fatwa’ against him.

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So my question to you is, what borders, what lines might you have crossed in the past few months? At school in our daily morning assembly we call ‘Opening Ceremony’ our hosts often bring up topics like this. Inclusiveness. A tough value to put into practice. It’s such a cliche now to even say the world is more divided now. Especially when you consider that it’s some 50 years after the Internet sold us on the promise to unite us. There are new borders people draw around themselves. To paraphrase another Opening Ceremony host, instead of defining our borders, we could be creating and expanding ‘circles of influence.’

Why are vinyl albums so cool again?

Old tech fulfils three needs we are denied of in a digital world.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

A few weeks back, I stopped by at a thrift store. An inexplicable gravitational force pulled towards the vinyl album section. Vinyl! The technology that was birthed soon after the invention of the light bulb. It’s fans seem to be on the rise. (I am fully aware that my vinyl album taste puts a date-stamp on my age: Engelbert Humperdinck for instance, and Olivia Newton John.)

This imperfect, scratchy sound of music has found its way back into our lives — like the Polaroid cameras. Or the music of Queen. When I was a teenager we sang along to the anthem-like lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody. Today my 12- and 13- year old’s know every word of it. So my question is: why are old media formats so indestructible? Why, for example, hasn’t vinyl gone the way of, say, fax machines? Why do Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish release albums on records even while everything else is drawn to streaming platforms? I’m really, really perplexed about this.

I am looking for answers because in my writing and publishing class, a discussion of platforms and formats comes up a lot — something writers must keep their eye on because their audience preferences will always change, sometimes faster than they can keep up with. How might the content be consumed? Songwriters and poets, authors and podcasters, videographers, script writers, and web designers have to be one step ahead of the game. Remember how Prince wrestled with not just copyright, but distribution of his music?

My appetite for vinyl was whetted after I picked up a old record player at Bookman’s. It’s one of those suitcase-type players with a built-in speaker that can fill a room quite well no matter how squirrelly the track is. The Humperdinck double album was a steal!

Humperdinck has an interesting backstory that I refer to in my podcast below, if you’re interested. (You can also listen to a few tracks from Grease and Queen!)

This pull toward older technologies is larger than the music industry. I wanted to dig a bit deeper into this so I asked some of my colleagues about the ‘ancient’ technologies they use in that classroom and elsewhere. Don Meyer, my colleague who teaches British lit, said that he recently found cassette tapes of Macbeth were indispensable. Cassettes, for goodness sakes! Mrs. Walters, reminded me of one of the technologies that will probably never become extinct: The textbook. Duh!

So, here are three reasons old tech doesn’t have an expiry date? It is reliable. It is often fixable. And it’s available despite it being relegated to the old school. To the last point, fortunately it’s possible to find almost anything out of circulation on eBay. Including typewriter ribbons, film rolls, and those cassette tapes of Macbeth, starring Sir Alec Guinness. But I’d first go to the thrift store, because you never know what might show up in the vinyl section.

Here’s a fun fact: I’ve got a Corona typewriter in my class — a computer lab with 39 PCs. You should see students line up to use it!

Big Brother Is… Teaching You?

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

A week ago, I asked if I could be a fly on the wall of a ‘simulation’ in Totalitarianism. It was a different way of teaching a unit of history. I really didn’t know what to expect other than what some of my students had described. They seemed all fired up by the fact that it was a simulation, and others had a few choice things to say about totalitarianism.

The teacher, Mr. Greer, began the class by asking his ‘party’ members to report on the citizens, who sat in rows, in true Orwellian fashion. They comprised a Clothing Officer, Lunch Officer, Education Officer and Propaganda Officer. Some students had been recruited to play the roles of snitches and spies. The other hapless citizens lost points for smiling, or for not standing up when addressing him. They had to defend themselves about the food they had at lunch or the color of clothing they did not wear to conform to that day. On one occasion, when a student was accused of a ‘thought crime’ there’s an audible gasp in the room. Luckily I had taken my recorder.

In the podcast of this class, you’ll hear ‘Chairman Greer’ do what, well, totalitarian leaders do: behave erratically, and throw people off balance. The students, however, loved it! As one student pointed to me, “If you don’t experience it, you don’t really learn anything!” Yeah, right, my teacher mind went. I hate PowerPoints as much as the next fellow, and students have had enough of it. No wonder simulations are dope, to use their expression.

Indeed, inside this ‘simulation,’ it didn’t feel like a classroom at all. It felt like theater. Made me think: This is the kind of education you sell tickets to attend. If only we could implement that model more!

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A longer version of this article could be found at Medium.com

Yes, there’s an ROI for podcasting! 

Hosts of my new podcast, Trinity Wright and Christina Dressel

The podcasting bug bit me 12 years ago when I worked in Marcom, in the heady days of blogging and podcasting. More recently, after I got back into it, my podcasts have been about the intersection of education and tech. Topics I teach in class. It’s a fun work/hobby if only because I learn so much on the job. And the ROI is not what I expected.

Consider how one interviews people. It’s different from how you might grill someone, or conduct a focus group. You’re not a ‘reporter’ although you are acting like a conduit for an audience whom the guest/interviewee does not see. Your questions are your software. Hardware could vary. [A Zoom H4N podcasting recorder I carried made people nervous; some said it looked like a Taser.]

In the past year I have learned so much. Like how to use a lavalier mic plugged into a laptop so it records directly to Hindenburg, or, if I’m in a rush, to Audacity or Anchor. I’ve discovered the value of an XLR cable, as opposed to USB in microphones. My ‘studio’ is always an empty classroom, even if means dodging the announcements on the PA system since there’s no soundproofed room — yet. This learning curve has also helped me add audio-recording into the curriculum for my Writing & Publishing class at Benjamin Franklin High School.

But in the past few months I began producing another podcast for the school. The podcast, ‘Fully Charged,’ has two hosts who between them have plenty of terrific topics: student achievement, counseling, history, and classical education. The first podcast (below) is about mental health, and stress.

An Assistant Principal and a Senior walk up to a mic – Episode 12 Fully Charged

Another live podcast inc the gym! Trinity Wright and Angelo Fernando co-host this podcast. At the table is the new Assistant Principal of Benjamin Franklin High School, Kristine Pullins.  Also on the show is senior at large, Vance McMillen. Mrs. Pullins talked about the shared vision among everyone at the school. This is her 6th year at the school. There's plenty of advice to go around, in keeping with the morning Opening Ceremony, during which this podcast was recorded! This podcast is also featured on Radio 201, the podcast from the computer lab.
  1. An Assistant Principal and a Senior walk up to a mic – Episode 12
  2. Trailer to Episode 12 – The VP and the Senior
  3. What's Up Doc? – Episode 11
  4. Show Stoppers at Benjamin Franklin High School – Episode 10
  5. Do The Math, Go For Launch – Episode 9

Also available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts

I SOON LEARNED THAT producing a show for someone else comes with its own challenges. Hardware and software notwithstanding (one mic or two?) getting two hosts into a room is more complicated than it might seem. Planning a show topic ahead of time is another. Teacher’s, after all have plenty on their plate with lesson plans et al. We now need an ‘editorial calendar’ so the topics are fresh, even though we record them ahead of time. Like milk, any topic does come with an expiration date which creeps up on you.

I need to help the hosts loosen up and feel like they are having a conversation. A classroom setting puts a cramp on this; after all, it’s where students come for ‘lessons’ — and a podcast should be an experience not a lesson. As Evo Terra reminds us, it is a one-to-one experience between one’s ears. A podcast may seem like a show but it is really not a performance. There can’t be cue cards or scripts, or memorized lines, or perfect monologues. On the other hand, winging it, won’t work. The hosts make mistakes; many times, the ums and aahs have to be left in.

AS FOR PRODUCTION, AND EDITING, yes there’s lots of this. But I found most of my production time involves keeping the podcast tight and focused, rather than perfect. As a podcast listener I like the pace to be quick, the content jam packed; the takeaways memorable. So as a podcast producer I’m conscious of this. Our listener — a student — has to juggle a podcast between homework, chores, a football game, dance rehearsals, siblings, and social media. He or she gives us the benefit of their time, so we need to respect that.

INTERESTINGLY, THESE LESSONS spill over into how I handle a classroom. Sure, the students are a captive audience in class, here from ‘bell to bell.’ But like a podcast I have to make sure the pace is clipped, jam-packed with useful takeaways. We don’t have music segues in a class lesson; (some use ‘anticipatory sets.’) But we could use smooth transitions that connect the dots. We don’t need to TED Talk our way through 50 minutes of a class period, but we could use cuts and transitions to keep students on the edge of their seats.

Podcasting and teaching have more in common than I once thought. I don’t need a ‘Taser’ for the latter — just give me a dry-erase marker.

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Fun fact: A podcast I had produced in 2009 (when I worked at Decision Theater, at Arizona State University) was about pandemic planning. It’s over here, if you’re curious.

History is unavoidable these days in the classroom.

How I paused my lesson plan to address the war.

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

Last week, I paused my lesson plan for a moment to address the war. My high school students (in a Writing & Publishing elective) had discussed a recent book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis. “Does this current crisis with the invasion of Ukraine seem like the next world war?” I asked them. I felt it was bizarre to go on with life, editing videos and writing stories as if this wasn’t happening. War is not always someone else’s problem, I added. In a globally connected world, especially in a world with hyper-connected media, it’s not something just happening ‘over there.’

Which led me to lean on a set of documents from Brown University’s Choices program. It’s got excellent discussion topics, and handouts like this for teaching with the news. I had them read the backgrounder, and analyze political cartoons for labels, symbolism analogy, irony, exaggeration and stereotyping. When you’re writing for the digital world today, you have to take into account the many facets of media — from Tik-Tok, and memes, to cartoons, which have served editorial purposes for as long as newspapers have been around.

Courtesy, US San Diego: https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb65537764/zoom/0

Political cartoons have a long legacy. There was Dr. Seuss, whose work included anti-fascist cartoons about Hitler and the rise of Nazism. There were those by Jerry Costello (‘Feeling the pinch’), and those like Punch cartoonist, Fougasse (Careless talk costs lives) who worked for the British ministry of information. Cartoonists, like writers are also journalists of a different caliber. The writer has a rectangle called a column. The cartoonist has a rectangle called a strip. Both must pack meaning into them.

Analyzing history through texts and events requires critical thinking. My colleague who teachers history class described how he was tremendously proud of how his students handled the discussion of the war in Ukraine. I’ll cite his description from a commentary he wrote in a school newsletter last week.

“Something marvelous happened in my classroom last week. Something that I have been waiting for my students to do the entire year. My traditional history class is going over American Imperialism right now, and the subject came up of when Americans should intervene in the affairs of another country. The class was saying what they believed I wanted to hear, namely “Mr. Klicker, this is a horrible thing that is happening, but that doesn’t mean we throw American lives away”. It was good, but their hearts weren’t in it. They were just saying words without any conviction behind them. So I decided to have a little fun. I was going to ‘poke the bear’ and see what I came up with.

“Well by THAT logic, class, I guess you would have stood by and let Hitler and the rest of the Nazis conquer Europe and complete the Holocaust!”

Normally, they just sit their in shock at the fact that I accused of being Nazis, or perhaps they’ll roll their eyes if they’re feeling especially sarcastic. But miraculously, for the first time all year, I heard the words I’ve been waiting to hear:

“Mr. Klicker!” one girl said, rolling both her head and her eyes at me, “You know that’s not true! You always do this and I’m tired of sitting here and taking it! This is way more complicated than that!”

He goes on to say that in a history class, it is far more important that he teaches them to stand up for their beliefs (even when they are attacked) instead of making sure they memorize all of the names and dates. He recognizes that critical thinking is a difficult thing to do — made even more difficult when called to disagree with a person you are supposed to admire and respect. “We have forgotten how to debate,” he says, “to stand up for ourselves and have conviction in our beliefs even when everyone else is telling us to stand down.”

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

There are plenty of resources for fostering civil discourse in the class room. In times like this, no matter what the subject matter, we have to address the moment in which the lesson is taught. I’ll leave you with two resources. These are guaranteed to start a great discussion in class:

1. People, including children, are singing inside bomb shelters to raise morale. Worth watching this. Why are these images of war so radially different to what might be on cable news, or on social media?

2. A story of an Ukrainian vlogger, Volodymyr Zolkin, who takes it upon himself to call up, randomly, people in Russia, and provide them with a different type of news. Read about it here, in the New Yorker.

Unexpected Lessons. When my class turned into a ‘newsroom.’

Today, no sooner I got to school, I saw an email to staff about a coffee truck stopping by. A fundraiser for the school’s Cheer team. Not your common or garden food truck (a converted horse trailer) Exchange Coffee is a company with an interesting origin story.

So as my students came to class — my Writing and Publishing class –I nixed the day’s assignment on my lesson plan and asked them if they like to work as an impromptu news team. Grab a camera and some mics I told them. Someone needed to prep for the story, to look up some background information of the owners of Exchange Coffee. Another began to write down possible questions on a small white board while two others tested the audio, and if the clip-on mic units were charged. Clip-on mics aren’t the best for impromptu stories, so one student, adapted our ‘dummy’ mic to the Hotec clip-on, so that it communicated back to the camera. We rushed downstairs. I asked the owners (who also make and serve the coffee) if it was OK to do a story about them.

Once that was cleared, I got the students to shoot some B-roll. A school bus rolling in. A weird half moon was rising as the sun came over the Queen Creek horizon. An engine roared –possibly a train or a noisy aircraft from the nearby Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Sound engineer? Check. Camera person? Check. Reporter? Check.

As we began to roll, Don Meyer, an English teacher unexpectedly wheeled into frame, in full biking gear. Perfect! (I’ve featured Mr. Meyer on a podcast and blog post so I was confident this ‘customer’ would agree to being in the story.) The story was suddenly growing more legs. The ‘reporter’ began describing the scene, and got a interview with the owner/barista.

The audio quality turned out better than we expected. More than that, our reporter sounded like a reporter, despte just having 5 minutes of planning the story. The camera person got her right shots. Fifteen minutes to the bell, we switched off the tech and headed back to class to review the work.

NOW COMES THE LEARNING PART. I will play back the recording, and over the next few days and have the students critique their work. Could they have done anything different? What about lighting? What about camera angles? What if this was an ‘incident’? How would they handle it? Could they have interviewed customers? Could they have got a different camera angle – say from inside the truck?

Publishing in a digital world is tricky business. It’s never static. Stories, like lesson plans are always in flux. The best lessons are learned on the job. We are often poised at the top of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid, ‘creating original work,’ investigating, revising, reconstructing knowledge in the moment. Sometimes a coffee truck hijacks the lesson plan. You adapt and run with it.

Tomorrow I have invited an author, Jessica McCann, talk to the class about the writing craft, about fiction, and picking out details for a story. Does a video story or podcast have something in common with a novel? We’ll ask!

NEXT WEEK, my students will be working on podcasts. Who knows where this –and what unplanned events – will take my class. Stay tuned. Didn’t I mention – my class starts at 6:30 am? I might need more coffee!

‘Colors of Colombo’ gives voice to the voiceless.

A Web developer and a journalist walk into a juice bar. The book that they just published paints the city I grew up in, in stunning light.

Photo by Nazly Ahmed

If you’ve lived here, you’d know when to duck a ball flying in your direction from a raucous cricket match. (The clue is often a pair of Bata slippers making do for a wicket.) Or where to find isso vadas, or chinese rolls; where that bicycle-tube repair guy on Galle Road sits under a piece of plastic; or what time the knife sharpener and choon pan tuktuk might arrive. These ‘experts’ and entrepreneurs however, are easy to miss because they just blend into the cacophony that is Colombo. Sadly many of them are hidden in plain sight like faded wall posters. But no worries – Nazly Ahmed has them in his viewfinder. He pulls up on his motorbike and takes in the details with his trusty camera. Lucky us! 

Colours of Colombo is a glimpse into that other side of Colombo, the lives lived in the shadow of the luxury apartment towers, and by unkempt beaches. It may be too small-scale a book to qualify for a coffee-table piece (which is my only beef with the collection. Visual storytelling like this ought to be seen in large format.) But the colours that pour out of it let us pay attention to those slices of life that are left out of tourist brochures. Who else would focus on a road sweeper in Mattakkuliya surrounded by grit, casting an ominous shadow? Or the tuktuk driver taking a nap like a cartoon strip framed against a giant piece of graffiti? Or the saravita seller’s serene, weatherbeaten face? These lead characters are part of the daily docudrama played out across the 15 zip codes of a city I once called home. Sadly, many of them are in transit, or worse, anonymous. Their names don’t roll in with the credits. Nazly (the photo-hobbyist and web developer) and Kris Thomas (the writer) have taken pains to put many names to faces, giving voice to the voiceless, a secondary, magnanimous accomplishment.

Reading this book made me wistfully attempt to recall those who’ve remained nameless in my childhood. (Your list is probably as big as mine.) The vedamahathaya down Havelock Road who once reset my dislocated elbow; the smiling lady outside St. Peter’s College who sold us ambarella achcharu through the iron gates. The tuktuk driver who religiously showed up on Sunday mornings to take my mother to church. The rickshaw man who transported my cousin and I to school and back. The kiri-karaya from Sagara Road. Their legacy is not found in my photo album. But they were itinerant actors who were part of a city drama never forgotten. 

Nazly and Kris don’t just take us back in time. They freeze the frame. I was glad to see that they all but ignored the parts of Colombo that privileged folk –and Instagrammers – go after. The bars, the buffet tables, the coffee shops. Yes there are some waterfronts in shimmering light, but some beaches (like one in Bambalapitiya) are murky. Shanties stand out against a backdrop of affluence. The other waterfront (a once hyped floating market), they note, is abandoned. 

By an unhappy coincidence the book comes out in a time when Sri Lanka is facing its biggest crisis. Colombo, where all the machinations of the political economy are worked out, is experiencing power cuts. A lighting effect –and irony –any photographer would not miss. We could be optimistic and see Colors of Colombo as a glimmer amid the virus of poor governance.

Writing and publishing 100 Books in 5 weeks. How did they do that?

When students sign up for a computer class, I tell them it’s a trick — they really signed up for a communications class that happen to have computers.

Inside pages of ‘Ciphers’ published in December 2021. More here.

In the last week of Fall semester my seventh grade students wrote and produced more than a hundred eBooks. A week before finals, many of them were burning the midnight oil proofing their chapters and fixing the ‘widows’ and orphans’ rather than cramming. They uploaded their final product as a PDF to Flipsnack, hit the ‘publish’ button and saw what five weeks of their creative writing project looked like.

Let me throw in some context about this assignment. Each semester my students take on a capstone project for which they have to prove that they understand document formatting. And by that I mean layout, design, fonts, margins, line spacing and all those nitty gritty features found on the ribbon of the most common applications they use — Google docs, Microsoft Word, Google Slides and PowerPoint.

I give them a few guidelines, and a 24-page template for the eBook created in Google Slides. Yes, Google Slides! An odd choice indeed for page layout. Having experimented with Microsoft Word and Google Docs several semesters ago, I discovered that PowerPoint or Slides are more flexible when it comes to formatting. Text boxes, drop-caps and margin control for instance work well.

There is considerable writing to be done, but the goal is to combine creative skills and mechanical tasks: To let students become storytellers, while making the text appeal to the eye. All this while doing the heavy lifting of research, copy editing, and design. They are shown how to design their book’s front and back cover in Canva, and import the PNG files. As for that back cover, I get them to create their own logo, insert a real barcode, and solicit two or more book reviews from their peers — reviews they place on the back cover. They must also write a blurb for the book (something a publisher or PR firm would do) and a short bio of themselves. The back-cover itself is one week’s worth of work! Authors may only use royalty-free images from sites that are in the Creative Commons. That means no Google Images.

They came up with their own book titles. And they were free to choose any genre, any subject. Many opted for fiction, but you’ll be surprised at the variety of non-fiction this year. I’ll get to the titles in a bit.

I’m sure you’re thinking — this is asking a lot of a 7th grader! And for anyone wondering why publish an eBook in a computer class, let me put it this way. Yes, my students are required to learn touch-typing and improve their speed and accuracy. We do this each week. But toward the end of the semester I tell them (half in jest) that they were tricked into believing they signed up for a computer class — when in fact they walked into a Communications class that happened to have computers. Not the other way around. The rationale, I tell them, is that the only purpose of ‘learning’ computers is to help them communicate better. Whether it is learning to code, making stunning presentations, designing a book cover, manipulating images in Photoshop, designing a website, or writing term papers or professional reports, the goal is always communication. The only reason you produce work for an audience — your teacher, a customer, an organization — is to communicate an idea. An eBook pulls together several of these core skills.

At the outset, when I tell students the book involves five chapters I hear a few groans. But very soon, I begin to see their story growing, the sentences inch-worming across a paragraph. The question I am always asked is if it’s OK to add a chapter or an extra page or two. Funny how they want that bar raised!

Apart from the usual Zombie InvasionHorror, and a few about dragons and cute animals, I noticed an explosion in creativity this year. (Something I wrote about in an article on Medium, titled, Start a Little Library, Side Effects Will Vary.”) I put it down to COVID, unleashing a fresh batch of creative juices. Consider these, handpicked to give you a sense of the diversity.

  • One book is set in an Escape Room with some creative plot twists.
  • Another trippy alien mystery, The Last Drop is scary. (it’s not about blood)
  • Like something intriguing? There’s a book titled, Ciphers with a techy, creative bent.
  • One on Beautiful Artwork is a truly aesthetic layout.
  • Interstellar is about space, but is not about that movie. It deals with the thermosphere and Braneworld Theory. (I had to look that term up!)
  • I was surprised to see a story on the ‘Witch Trials’ — with surprise angle. The author recounts the story of one of her ancestors caught up in the trials in Salem! How often do you get historical fiction with a personal angle to it?
  • A delightful book set in London is based on the urban legend of one ‘Spring-heeled Jack.

As I have found out with each class, a writing project like this has surprise endings. Many students who never considered writing tell me they have become passionate about it.

Check out the podcast about this story, below.