Born storyteller. My Dad.

He would have been 101 today.

I once knew the master of yarns. His stories entertained us, and scared us as children. For a few days we would look under our camp cots before we went to bed. They next day, however, we would plead for more and he would spin another just like that. He was my father. Born storyteller, he. A troubadour sans guitar who taught me the power of story. Today, which would have been his 101st birthday.

A public school teacher, He taught History, Latin, and English Lit and potentially impacted thousands of students in Sri Lanka. They, like me, had stories to tell about him. Some wrote to me about them on his passing 15 years ago. My cousins, today recounted a few of them. Like the time he would ask them a riddle narrating the first few lines of a strange poem about a motor bus with a Latin phrases (such as “Indicat Motorem Bum”). They had no clue what it meant. Neither did I growing up. I looked it up and Motor Bus turns out to be a poem by an Oxford scholar who made puns out of Latin declensions, probably to make a point of the Latin roots of English. Listen to it here. Was that Dadda’s sneaky way of getting us to pay more attention to the English language we took for granted?

He left me a notebook with my name on the inside page, above which was a quote, “We must row with the oars we have.” This was a time when there were no blank journals, so he used the pages of a 1962 diary. It was filled with quotes like the ones below, and others by George Elliot, Nehru, Aristotle, and from Ecclesiastes.

In a post wrote last year, I explained how so many sat in his ‘class’ — neighbors, nieces and nephews, Catholic and Buddhist priests, and even vendors who had heard of the iskola-mahathaya down the road. They came to him for help with essays, debates, and job applications. I didn’t know until today that he had tutored a cousin’s fiancé in O’Level Sinhala, another on E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, and Shakespeare’s Othello; another won a world history prize with his tutoring. There are probably hundreds more my brother and I will never know about.

Joe Fernando was more than a teacher. A larger-than-life character who played Tennis, was a member of the Cursillo movement, and much, much more. I don’t think he realized what a legacy he left behind. Or how the stories he infected us with live on. Happy Birthday, Dadda.

Storytellers with face coverings

Tony Arkani, a sprightly junior has the gift of biting repartee that cuts through a slab of high school cynicism. Tony, by the way, isn’t his real name. (I mistakenly called him that on the first day of class; he didn’t mind.) His other essential ingredient is a self-deprecating humor which comes handy when he weighs in on issues where he expects push-back: racism, face masks, privacy. Each morning Tony sits propped up against my classroom wall waiting for me to open the door. It’s barely 6:30 am. He’s on a roll. His gangly feet protrude into the hallway, but its his acerbic comments lobbed at barely woken-up teenagers that stop them in their tracks. A few set down their overstuffed backpacks to join the conversation.

Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

This linguistic flamethrower is just one of the students who signed up for my elective class on Writing and Publishing this year. Other high schools have classes in Tech Writing, or Fiction. The broad scope of W&P resonated with students like Tony, and his classmate in whose veins run bits of Chaucer and Comedy Central, and even New Girl. The work of Atul Gawande, an endocrine surgeon-writer, and Kacey Musgraves, songwriter, resonate with them.

I once told this class I wish I had had such imaginative minds to work with back in the day when I worked in advertising, hunting for creativity. Fast forward thirty years, these are born story-tellers who take to plot and story arcs as effortlessly as they deconstruct memes and imbibe TikToks. It gives me a reason to wake up each morning, knowing there’ll be a fresh batch of creativity to be put in the blender.

To put a time stamp on this, it was a class that began in the middle of COVID when school superintendents were trying to balance students’ well being and academic achievement. Would a return to in-person school trigger a longer shut down? No one has the perfect recipe. But one thing I do know is that these storytellers with face coverings soon proved to us that our kids, despite six feet of separation and rigorous sanitization, were bursting with energy — something I wrote about earlier.

Given this kind of raw material we just might we see a new batch of thought leaders, creative policymakers, poets, screenwriters, scientists, and entrepreneurs. From my perspective at least, they have already shown their hand. One student has a podcast and a YouTube channel. Another, who works part-time at Taco Bell, is working on a George Lucas-ish manuscript — a series of 15 books, with prequels. Seriously! Tony also has a one in the works, too, involving ‘islands’ populated by ‘Orixens,’ ‘Fades,’ and creatures called ‘Voidwalkers.’ They remind me of characters in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. A year ago during the height of school lockdowns he pitched the idea of starting a mythical country he calls New Arkansas. He’s now recruiting ‘citizens’, has written up an elaborate constitution, designed a court of arms, and for an assignment in this class, created a podcast about it. Here, take a listen:

As they wrapped up their final assignment, I heard Tony mumble, “I wish I could retake this elective next year!” To which I responded, “You’d be bored.” I lied. These students who spar with him in the hallways seem to have exorcized the boredom gene that drops in on teenagers.

We shouldn’t let these storytellers out without tapping into these inner dynamos. If we fail them, we risk sacrificing them as underpaid drones in some Amazon-like warehouse. We desperately need the next C.S. Lewis, Erik Larson, and George Orwell.

This story appeared on Medium.com

There’s been massive outbreak of writing.

Will someone please inform the authorities?

There’s been an outbreak of writing in school. I suspect it’s contagious. Even those language deniers are catching it. They’re huddled in the student union during lunch break breathing in the same particles of plot and narrative. The writers’ disease, also known as storytelling, is spreading.

I’m talking about student writing that I alluded to a few week back. Fiction. Non-fiction. How-To books. The titles blow my mind. From the typical teen horror, to some on technology. There’s one on Dissociative Identity Disorder (If you hadn’t heard of it, it’s mind opening!), one about Photoshop, many on romance, a few on travel and family, and one written entirely in French!

I expanded on this in my Medium post, here.

Now on Spotify, my education podcasts

Recording a podcast is the easy part. Editing it however, takes a lot of time. Especially when you record segments separately. Or when the Wifi goes down for a few minutes, as it did for a recording of this episode of The Mayflower Files. My guest was on Google Meet. We had to recap the lost moment and move on.

It also took some back-end fiddling around to get these podcasts on a few networks. So it was gratifying to see this confirmed a few weeks back. RadioLab 201 is now on Spotify, and Apple Podcasts as well.

As Jake Carlson, one of the guest speakers (who’s been podcasting since 2014) told my class, “Everything is Figureoutable.” He was candid the speed bumps he ran into when he got started, and what it took to get comfortable in front of a mic. When I record the podcasts, I have to content with several factors – people walking into the Lab, sound over the school PA system for instance.

I have mentioned this before. I used to have a podcast in 2009, while at Arizona State University. I hit a long pause, and now, partly because of the class I teach, podcasting is back.

In that briefing room where it happened.

She worked in the belly of the beast as a reporter— in Washington DC — covering the Trump White House; a short internship that made Theresa Smith, now a teacher, a fly on the wall watching the frenetic competition for stories in the James Brady briefing room.

In this interview, and podcast I asked her what she learned from such an experience — what lessons could I pass on to my students in writing and publishing?  What’s a ‘Lede’? How do you get readers to pay attention? Some amazing insights from someone who’s been there, reported that.

The full story here!

Listen to the podcast:

Start a ‘little’ Library, side effects may vary.

You never know what the unintended consequences might be when you begin a ‘Little Free Library.’ A library in school is not as frequented as, say, the gym or football field. Even a vending machine gets more traffic than a bookshelf. That’s reality.

But hold on – there is a surprise outcome to this story.

After we installed our first Little Free Library unit in 2019 I sensed a slight uptick in reading. Though my classroom is a computer lab, we discuss literature; reading is a given. Books have not been replaced by technology. My shelves are stacked with copies of WIRED, and The New Yorker. (One book on my shelf, Eats, Shoots and Leaves helps start a discussion on good grammar and punctuation. Then there’s no escaping Orwell’s ‘1984‘ when discussing privacy or surveillance. But I digress.)

Today, we launched the outdoor ‘Little Free Library’ with two of my former students who kicked off the project, invited to install the name plate of the library’s Charter number – It’s 111423. Meaning ours is now on the library network map – as you will see here.

The Writer’s Club was on hand. This new club will act as its custodians. It’s another example of the explosion of interest in reading and writing, despite an annus horribilis we went through, which made school so complicated. They kicked off the club in January and they’re already writing and sharing fiction. These kids are now reading like crazy!

I teach a Writing and Publishing elective as well so it’s really gratifying. Sorry to burst your despondent bubble, ‘Death of Reading’ Op-Ed writers. If you walk into my school where cellphones are banned, you may see young people bowing their heads –to a page, not a screen.

As I said, with books, side effects may vary!

Myanmar or Burma? What’s in a name?

The US continues to call the country Burma, even while the Associated Press uses the name Myanmar. Why the hesitance? One theory is that the name change from Burma was a change of the nameplate so-to-speak; a linguistic sleight of hand since internally it means the same thing. The other is that it’s inconvenient to acknowledge the name that was changed by a group that isn’t playing by the rules.

Take this bland statement by the US Department of State:

The United States supports a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of all its people. Burma remains a country in transition to democracy….”

From the US Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet. JANUARY 21, 2020

The UN, on the other hand calls a spade a spade:

Hundreds of civilians, including at least 44 children, have been killed in the crackdown across Myanmar since the military coup on 1 February.

On the other hand the US secretary of State said this:

“The Burmese military regime has ignored the will of the people of Burma to restore the country’s path toward democracy and has continued to commit lethal attacks against protesters in addition to random attacks on bystanders.”

OK, so extra points for using ‘lethal attacks,’ and ‘will of the people’ when referring to the country by its previous name.

What’s in a name? We don’t refer to “New Holland” when we talk of Australia, or even Bombay these days because Mumbai is the more accurate. Imagine if the United Kingdom refused use the word Mumbai, because the Shiv Sena party, in 1995 changed the name as a thumb in the eye to colonialism.

The US policy on Myanmar is so convoluted that it is no wonder the rest of the world thinks our geography sucks. And this is not new. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of State practically refused to say ‘Burma’ calling the country by other dodgy nouns. Here’s the latest doublespeak from the new White House as quoted on VOA:

“Our official policy is that we say ‘Burma’ but use ‘Myanmar’ as a courtesy in certain communications,” Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, said when asked to address the issue during a press conference this week.”

Meaning they apparently like to be courteous, and politically correct while being out of step with reality. So she goes on:

“So, for example, the embassy website refers to Burma — Myanmar because they are by definition dealing with officials and the public. The State Department website uses ‘Burma (Myanmar)’ in some places and ‘Burma’ in others.”

Oh, I get it. Using curly brackets and an m-dash really clarifies matters.

Photo: Nazly Ahmed

While you’re doing that Ms. Psaki, why not rename Sri Lanka as “Ceylon-Sri Lanka” on your official site (this will make the CEYLON Tourist Board thrilled; the CEYLON Tea exporters might do a high-five outside your embassy in Colombo.) You could even call the country “Sri Lanka (Ceylon)-(Serendib)” in other places because it makes the hoi polloi feel like you know your history.

You’re welcome!

Podcasting from the Lab at Benjamin Franklin

With ZoomH4N recorder that came in this week, we officially began the class podcast.

In reality, we started experimenting with recordings last week with a cheapo mic that I had for the past 10 years. We recorded directly to AnchorFM, and also on my laptop, to Hindenburg.

Recording a podcast at the computer lab

But the ZoomH4N simplifies matters. Slightly bulkier than a T1 calculator, its sleek black form factor has a no-nonsense appeal (some say it looks a bit like a Taser). The pickup from X/Y mics is so good, the interviews my students have conducted, have come off great. In a few days their individual podcasts, submitted as assignments to Google Classroom, will be uploaded to Medium, the publishing platform.

But before that, here’s the introduction to the Podcast series that will incorporate student voices alongside those of my colleagues at Benjamin Franklin High School.

Baseball, Caesar and Guitars RadioLab201

When he’s not teaching Latin, Greg Davis is an agile outfielder at a AZMSBL, an Arizona league. He has a way of making students forget they are learning a language no one speaks.In this podcast I pick his brains on why Latin still survives as a subject in schools, and its connection with classical academies — something that goes back nearly five hundred years.  See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.
  1. Baseball, Caesar and Guitars
  2. Money, Money, Money
  3. Introduction to Radio Lab 201

Digital Learning Day – Flashback 2017

As Digital Learning Day came around in February I wondered if the distinction between digital and non-digital even exists.

I am old enough to remember when we actually celebrated an annual event called E-Day here in Phoenix, as part of the IABC. In the early 2000s, Business Communication then was pretty much analog, with smatterings of digital. Soon E-Day became passé.

Just seven years ago –a long time in Internet years! -at Salt River Elementary School, STEM had pushed its way through the door. Ed-Tech was a buzzword, as was digital learning. In my computer lab I was introducing students to Mars exploration, Robotics, VR and 3D Printing. With tremendous support from my colleagues at Salt River Elementary, Mrs. Decker, Mrs. Yurek, and Mr. Filhart –from Music, the Library and PE respectively – we created an entire day for this across K-6.

Today, digital learning encompasses almost every facet of what we do, whether it is in libraries or the gym. Online school has made the digital device a necessity, when it once was a nice-to-have. Platforms evolve, from Quizlet to Khan Academy; Grammarly to Google Classroom; Mindstorms to Scratch and so much more.  Students now create podcasts with a simple free AnchorFM app on a phone – intros, outros and all. Screencast-O-matic has taken the pain out of video-supported lessons for teachers like me, furiously posting them to Google Classroom. 

The VR glasses of yesterday are gathering dust on my shelf at Benjamin Franklin High school as the pace accelerates. Will Digital Learning Day become an archive of education too?

Podcasts light a fire under old media.

Podcast listening is rising sharply though many people still find podcasts hard to fathom. On the one hand podcasts’ ‘long form’ story structure doesn’t fit into some people’s social media consumption habit filled with memes and GIFs. Or, they tend to be dismissed as too mundane, given how many ‘vlogs’ (video blogs) bubble over with rants and risqué material guaranteed to harvest clicks. There is, however, a wide chasm between these two. Plenty of gaps being filled by experimental podcasts. Atlantic magazine has ‘The Experiment’ to do a deep dive into the culture and politics. Slate, in 2016 began what it called a ‘rolling podcast’ style of delivering fresh content around the elections, as did the New York Times’ podcast ‘The Daily.’ While these niches await proper nomenclature many podcasts have mined the gaps that the media were once reluctant to invest in.

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

My hypothesis is that podcasts are lighting a fire under the media, giving rise to a new journalism. The climate couldn’t more right for it, with people cloistered in make-shift home offices, or tired of the formulaic story arc on the evening news. There’s also the smart-speaker set, who can listen to something different while making coffee, or doing laundry. 

The term ‘New Journalism’ isn’t a new label. It was used in the Nineteen sixties and seventies when journalism was invigorated by fiction writing techniques.

What differentiates this kind of journalism is that in a podcast, the journalist-as-host brings in a sense of immediacy not possible in print media. The journalist tiptoes in and out of the story to connect the dots.

In December 2019, the Pulitzer Board announced a new category for audio reporting – basically podcasts. It called this an experimental move in recognition of a “renaissance of audio journalism” that opened up “non-fiction storytelling.” I’ve been listening to The Daily for about a year now, alongside This American Life, On the Media and This Week in Tech. So I was delighted when This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass won the first Pulitzer. This long-running show may have been the spark for many podcasts today.

Even as the pandemic closed many, many doors, podcasting strolled in through the side entrance, let out the stale air of traditional media, and is causing a renaissance in storytelling. Here’s to audio journalism!

Note: A longer version of this post appears in Medium