I frequently confuse left and right when I give driving directions to others. When my husband is behind the wheel, I tell him to turn left when I want him to turn right, and if I ask him to turn right, he knows to turn left. I am not sure why my brain misfires, but even when I concentrate, I often get it wrong. In my mind, I can clearly envision turning in the direction I want to travel, but when I speak, the words come out the exact opposite of my thinking.

I have also been known to get turned around when figuring out directions on a map. In spite of my weaknesses, when SDAWP’s co-director Christine Kané passed out sections cut from maps for a writing prompt, I immediately knew that the piece she randomly handed me contained the location of Electric Works, a contemporary fine art press and book store co-owned by my sister’s husband.

I scanned that small square of map and circled the spot where I thought I would find his place of business. I then looked up the address and was amazed to find that I had gotten pretty close to its exact location. I was shocked by the coincidence and was surprised by my ability to read the map and find Electric Works so quickly.

electric works map
I immediately wanted to assign deeper meaning to the map. It prompted me to think about my relationship with my sister, and it served as a reminder that even though we live hundreds of miles apart, she is always present in my life. We are deeply connected in spite of the distance between us.

The map also reminded me of one of the adventures my sister and I shared while traveling in Italy. Her navigation skills aren’t much better than mine, and before long, we were hopelessly lost in Venice after dark. As we meandered along the circuitous route back to our hotel, we had fun exploring the quiet neighborhoods, and I remember those narrow passageways filled with the laughter of locals much more clearly than almost anything else from that memorable trip.


When Heather O’Leary posted a map as a mentor text for The Writing Thief MOOC, I was again reminded of the significance of maps, and I began to wonder how the digital age is changing our relationship with them. I sense that my navigation skills have gotten even worse as I have become increasingly dependent on GPS technology for directions.

In his article entitled “Do our Brains Pay a Price for GPS,” Leon Neyfakh states, ”When we use GPS, the research indicates, we remember less about the places we go, and put less work into generating our own internal picture of the world.” Wandering a new neighborhood with a traditional map in hand helps improve spacial awareness while developing visual literacy.

Daniel Edelson from National Geographic states that “a delay in learning to read maps or a lack of proficiency in reading maps can be an obstacle to academic and intellectual progress.” He goes on to share the results of the 2010 National Assessment of Geography when referencing a lack of consistent geography instruction in schools across the country. “Only 21 percent of fourth graders in the United States were performing at grade level in an assessment that included basic map skills…”

As I have discovered, map reading isn’t just for wayfinding. Maps can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. I wonder if we are doing enough to teach our students the skills necessary to navigate through life successfully. I certainly hope they won’t ever need to depend on me for directions. I might just tell them to turn right when they should be turning left.

A variety of resources for teaching mapping skills can be found at the following sites:

Teaching with Maps from the NEA

Map Skills for Elementary Students: Spacial Thinking in Grades PreK-6 from National Geographic

Learn NC: Map Skills and Higher Order Thinking

Making the Most of Maps from TeachingHistory.org

Posted in Living, Mentor Text, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Power of Place

I spent the weekend at UC Davis exploring the connected learning approach to education with colleagues and friends from the San Diego Area Writing Project and the California Writing Project. Spending time at my alma mater and in my hometown of Sacramento brought back many memories. As we drove through familiar neighborhoods, I thought about family and friends. I reflected on the fun I had as a kid and thought about the struggles I experienced while growing up. I realized that places have power in our lives and can help us understand ourselves better.

smallhorseIn his autobiography, Mark Twain describes some of the places that gave his life meaning. Chapter 16 highlights his Uncle John’s farm, and as I read the detailed description, I was reminded of the summer vacations that I spent on my grandpa’s farm in Montana, where I rode horses and played in the garden. I was inspired to use Twain’s writing as a mentor text for writing about these experiences. As the memories returned, I was also inspired to find photos of my grandfather and his farm. With my sister’s help, some long-forgotten images were unearthed. I remember those times with more clarity, and I can feel the power of that place, as if I were there right now enjoying myself in the quiet countryside.

Fort Shaw, Montana (pop. 53) was an amazing place for a city girl to spend her summer vacations. A mile from the main road and just yards away from the Sun River, Grandpa’s farm was a peaceful haven. A big red barn towered over the garden out front, while the cows and pigs rested in the shade of the barn out back. The main house was a railroad boxcar taken from a decommissioned train, with a rustic screened in porch attached at one end and an antique-filled living room at the other. A wood-burning cast iron cook-stove was at the heart of the narrow knotty pine paneled room.

BarnThree times a day, the simple maple table was set for mouthwatering meals: juicy pan-fried steak, crispy roasted duck, broiled pork chops; new potatoes dug earlier that afternoon, corn on the cob fresh from the stalk, snap peas and green beans just picked from the vine; home-baked biscuits slathered in butter from the nearby dairy; rich custard and rhubarb pie hot out of the oven for dessert.

Food was grandpa’s poetry. As we ate one meal, he was already imagining the next. While we enjoyed our pancakes and eggs for breakfast, he spoke excitedly about what he would make for lunch. As we devoured our hamburgers for lunch, he elaborated on his ideas for supper, and while grandpa on porchwe enjoyed our evening meal, grandpa described the delectable late night snack we would share before heading off to bed.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Grandpa dreamt of food as he napped on the wicker chair in the corner of the wide airy porch—and if heaven exists, grandpa is still on the farm, working in the garden and preparing home-cooked meals to share with family and friends who join him in that cozy boxcar kitchen.

As the weekend in Sacramento came to a close, I was happy to be heading home to San Diego, but in doing so I was leaving my first home once again. My present self has been shaped by my past experiences in my hometown and while visiting my grandfather on his farm in Montana.

What places have shaped your present self? What mentor text could you use to help you write about a place that has meaning and power in your life?

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I am mad. I am mad about the trash I found on the beach today. It was disturbing and disgusting.

Fair warning! If you don’t want to be disturbed and disgusted, please don’t read any further.

I have been upset by some of the litter I have found in the past, but as I have written before, I try to be philosophical. I concentrate on all the good work people are doing in the world. I haven’t posted the photos of some of the ugly things I have found because I haven’t wanted to offend anyone. Besides some of you probably already think that my habit of taking photos of trash for #Litterati is weird.

It is time for me to get over it.

When I walk at the beach, I usually see at least one plastic tampon applicator wrapped in kelp or half-buried in the sand. I didn’t know they came in such a variety of colors. I have found them in shades of cream, green, pink, purple, and blue. Every time I see one, I wonder how it happened to wash up on the beach. I imagine the North Pacific Gyre, one of the enormous patches of garbage swirling in the ocean. Did these stray tampons break free of the gyre and float ashore in Carlsbad?

Finding a tampon on the beach a few feet from where children are building a sandcastle is cause for concern. What I found today was even more alarming.

IMG_1245One of my first finds was a blue medical glove lying in the wet sand between two surfboards. I don’t know if it washed up after the surfers arrived or if they just didn’t notice it when they put their boards down. Either way, I wasn’t surprised to see the glove. I have found them many times in the past.

I mumbled, “Yuck,” and looked around to see if anyone was watching as I picked it up using my inside-out bag-into-bag method.

IMG_1262As I continued down the beach, I found a soda can and some candy wrappers before encountering my next medical find: a surgical mask. The glove followed by a mask made me pause. I look for patterns in the litter that washes up; a scary one appeared to be emerging.


On I went and before long, I stumbled upon a syringe wrapper. I was shocked and was soon sickened when I saw a sanitary pad. An Ecolab antibacterial soap container didn’t make me feel any better.


Then I noticed something that I thought was a white towel. As I approached, I could see elastic bands that helped me identify it as a mattress pad. Even more surprising, a medical glove and a small plastic cup like those used to administer medications were entangled in its fabric.

I did not pick that pile up, and I felt guilty about it. I made excuses. My bags were already filled with litter. I didn’t want to touch it with my bare hands, and I didn’t have anything to use to safely dispose of it. I took a quick picture and walked away. I passed some teenage girls who were tanning nearby, and I didn’t even warn them.

As I walked on, I found a purple tampon applicator in the kelp, and even further along, I noticed a mint green one hugging the base of the cliff as young people played Frisbee nearby.

IMG_1330An open “alcohol prep” package was also there on the beach. A mother sat on a rock and watched as her daughter splashed in the surf a few feet away.

I imagined more of the waste swirling in the waves around the swimmers. I felt like yelling “shark” so everyone would run out of the water and escape the swell unharmed—but I wouldn’t have dared.

Instead, this blog post is my warning.

When I got home, I called I Love a Clean San Diego to report what I had found, and the person I spoke to referred me to the ranger station at the South Carlsbad State Beach. The ranger told me that they would let the lifeguards know. I asked them to have the lifeguards locate and dispose of the mattress pad that I had left behind. I then went online and filed a report with the Environmental Protection Agency. I am not sure if there is anyone else I should call or anything more I can do other than inform and educate anyone who will listen.

If you are disturbed and disgusted, here are some links where you can learn more about marine debris:

Act now with the National Resources Defense Council.

Visit the EPA to Learn What You Can Do.

Find ideas for educating others, using the resources provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They offer free K-12 curriculum as well as posters and other teaching materials.

Participate in I Love a Clean San Diego or other local events.

Join the Litterati.

Be inspired by Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang, my sister and her husband. Visit their Beach Plastic blog and watch One Plastic Beach, a short documentary about their work.

Posted in #Litterati, Environment, Instagram, Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Creative Forgiveness

On a recent visit to the beach, I picked up a least a dozen pens, pencils, and markers that had washed up on shore. It’s interesting how one type of trash will be present in abundance on a given day. Sometimes I find toothbrushes and cosmetics. Other days, candy wrappers, yogurt containers, or cans of chewing tobacco are strewn up and down the coastline.

pens and pencils2

Writing implements are not something I usually find, but that day they were prevalent. Each time I spotted one in the sand, it felt like I was being sent a message, and I was prompted to reflect on why I haven’t been writing or drawing lately.

I created my Write the World blog after thinking about it for a very long time. I met my goal of posting once a week for several weeks, and then I quit. It was hard to keep up. I let negative self-talk and excuses get in my way. Since my last post on January 31st, I have thought about blogging almost every day. I have kept track of my ideas in a list of notes that I keep on my iPhone, but I haven’t allowed myself to take the risk of writing something to post.

I am also a doodler. I enjoy drawing weird abstract pictures of faces, flowers, and creatures. But I haven’t been doodling lately either. I am not sure when I last picked up my sketchbook and pen. I get nervous when I even think about it. What if I can’t think of anything interesting to draw?

my doodle

It may sound clichéd, but I guess I am experiencing a creative block. My dad regrettably lived a lifetime in this state.

He was an architect who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. He designed base housing and military structures—not a creative way for an architect to spend a career, but I think he was comfortable in his job. He was a shy man who didn’t want to stand out in any way.

When he was 16 or 17, he painted a few watercolors that were exceptional, but he quit painting in spite of his talent. 60 years later, he saw two of the works he had completed in his teens matted and displayed in our home. His only comment was “nice frames.” He couldn’t acknowledge the beauty of his paintings, and he was unable to accept our praise.

dad's painting 1
My father was incoherent the week before he died. He couldn’t say much, but he was able to utter one last sentence: “I am disappointed in…” I held my breath, thinking it was something I had done or hadn’t done “…I am disappointed in my creativity.”

I don’t want to find myself echoing my father’s final words in my old age. I don’t want to live my life regretting that I didn’t fully express myself. I don’t want to die disappointed in my own creativity.

I will follow the wise advice from Ann Patchett about forgiveness that I recently read in Explore.

“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

I too forgive myself. This is the best I could do for today. I didn’t write the blog post I wanted to write, but I wrote the one I am capable of writing.

It feels good to be forgiven.

Posted in #Litterati, Creating, Creativity, Environment, Leading, Living, Making, Photography, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

How Do Our Hands Help Us Explore and Understand the World?

I must admit that until recently I had taken my hands for granted. I began to realize their importance as I worked with students on a self-portrait project inspired by Wendy Ewald’s The Best Part of Me: Children Talk About Their Bodies in Pictures and in Words. Through the portrait making process, I have grown to understand and appreciate how deeply our hands connect us to each other and to everything around us.

Janis's open hand In his book, The Hand: How It Shapes the Brain Language and Human Culture, Frank R. Wilson questions where we would be without our hands, stating “Our lives are so full of commonplace experience in which the hands are so skillfully and silently involved that we rarely consider how dependent upon them we actually are,” and in a National Geographic article entitled The Common Hand, Carl Zimmer eloquently states, “The hand is where the mind meets the world.”

When I asked the group of ten and eleven-year-olds to create photo portraits of their hands as a way to express their individuality, I discovered a little bit about how their hands help them meet the world—and they learned a lot about themselves as they explored how they create, play, and make connections through their hands.

daniel sWe began the project with a simple activity to get us thinking about our hands and how they are helpful. The students traced outlines of their hands in which they brainstormed all the reasons why their hands are important to them. Students listed their hobbies such as sports and drawing along with ways they use their hands to care for pets and help parents with chores.

Janis's fistI then introduced the idea self-expression through self-portrait by sharing several photos I had taken of my own hand. Through each image, I attempted to show a different emotion, such as anger, calm, excitement, and openness. The students and I discussed the photographs as we analyzed what each was expressing.

After we talked about all the ways our hands could be used to express an idea or emotion, I explained the variety of options they had for photographing their hands. When they got to work, most partnered up because they quickly discovered that it is almost impossible to take a photo of one’s own hand with an iPad. The students were encouraged to explore and be creative as they considered composition, including background, perspective, and lighting.

meleThe expressive portraits they created astonished me. One student placed her hand against a poster of the clouds with the word imagine, and another choose to take a photo of her hand as she reached toward a flower. Several of the boys decided to focus on sports while one made a peace sign symbol in front of a map of the United States. He said he wanted to express his desire for world peace.

After the students had the opportunity to make several images, we turned our efforts to writing about our hands. After looking everywhere for a poem that could be used as a mentor text, I was inspired to write my own.

My Hands
Janis Selby Jones

My hands are precious and creative.
They are lined but they are strong.
They help me tell my story.

My hands labor in the garden.
They pack the earth tight around a sculptural succulent.
They pick colorful flowers and pull insidious weeds.

My hands work hard in the kitchen.
They season sauces and savory delights.
They make delicious meals for my friends and family to enjoy.

My hands make art.
They draw portraits and paint mountain landscapes.
They create fantastical pictures that only I can imagine.

My hands are precious and creative.
They are lined but they are strong.
They help me tell my story.

As we studied the poem, the students pointed out the repetition and patterns they observed. They were then able to apply what they noticed to their own writing. The students wrote drafts that they typed in Pages before adding images to their documents. Their products were well done (see sample My Hands), but we decided to go one step further by creating multi-media digital projects.

I discovered an app called Shadow Puppet, which allowed students to quickly and easily create narrated slide shows using multiple images. Some were nervous about using the app to read and record their poems, but with practice, they were able to master the app and their fears.

Our final event was a film festival of sorts. We watched the videos and responded to each other with positive feedback. Sharing was the most difficult part for many of the students. A few were embarrassed to open themselves up in such personal ways.

In their reflections, the students who expressed concerns about sharing also expressed that they were proud of themselves for overcoming their shyness and allowing others to view their creative and personal works.

The students and I got to know and understand ourselves and each other better by sharing our thoughts and feelings about our hands. In his reflection L.H. stated, “I learned that my hands are very special for many reasons. I also learned that my classmates admire their hands too.”

J.H. shared that he learned “that all of my classmates have a cool part about them because I never knew that D.S. could make home-baked goods or that M.N. liked playing volleyball. I never knew a lot about my classmates.”

You too can get to know a few of these special fifth grade students by watching their amazing multi-media presentations posted below. They might even inspire you to get to know yourself a little better by reflecting on all the reasons why your hands are important to you.

Posted in Creating, Education, Photography, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

What Will You Do?

I have known about the problem of plastic pollution for a long time. Many years ago, my sister and her husband made me aware of the issue through their art. Judith and Richard Selby Lang collect plastic refuse from Kehoe Beach in Marin County, California and turn their finds into beautiful works that have been on view in museums and galleries around the world. A documentary film called One Plastic Beach was even made to tell their story.

I couldn’t help but be influenced by their passionate dedication to their life work as artists and environmentalists. They have inspired me to become a conscientious consumer and to be more careful about what I recycle—but I never considered actually picking up beach trash until recently.

When a friend who shares my passion for iPhoneography tagged me in a Tweet about Litterati, I was intrigued to learn more about the crowd-sourced Instagram movement founded by writer and entrepreneur Jeff Kirschner. Thanks to the many members of the Litterati community close to 27,000 pieces of litter have been photographed, uploaded, and properly discarded. I immediately joined in and started picking up litter during my regular walks at the beach.

Now, on almost every trip I make to Carlsbad Cliffs, I collect and discard (or recycle) a bag or two filled with litter that was swept out with the run-off, washed up with the waves, or left behind by lazy beach goers. I only post photos of a small fraction of what I collect.

balloon on hte beachWhen I snapped a shot of a clear balloon, I noticed the contrast between the smoothness of the clear plastic against the roughness of the rocky cliffs. The sky was blue with wisps of white clouds in the background, and the sun was at a good angle to capture the light. I took several shots before I was satisfied that I had something I could share on Instagram. I enjoyed the challenge of making something so out of place look visually pleasing.

I didn’t expect that photograph of a balloon to win any awards and was surprised to receive a message from Stop Plastic Pollution that my image had been entered in a contest they were hosting through Litterati in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRCD).

bottlesA few days later, I was thrilled when I was notified that my photo had actually won, and I couldn’t believe it when my prize package arrived in the mail. I received four eco-friendly Earthlust water bottles of different sizes and colors—each decorated with unique original art. (Spoiler alert—I plan to do some Christmas shopping on their site.)

I love my beautiful new water bottles, but picking up and discarding litter is its own reward. I recently read an article about Litterati in which with Jeff Kirschner was quoted as saying, “Individually, we can make a difference. Together, we can make an impact.”

I know I am making a difference. What will you do to help have an impact?

Posted in #Litterati, Environment, Instagram, Living, Photography, SDAWP Photo Voices | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Audience of One

I used to write almost every day. I always started by putting the date at the top of a page before proceeding to scribble down whatever was on my mind, mostly mundane details of daily life and/or updates on my emotional state. I wrote in my journal to share secrets and express worries that I didn’t want to tell anyone else.

diaryI have a crate filled with these old journals. The oldest one dates back to the early 1970s when I purchased my first lock and key diary. I soon switched to notebook paper collected in a plain brown 4” binder. Over the years, I graduated to spiral notebooks, and I have purchased many beautiful journals over the years. I still go through phases when I write daily, but it’s easy to let excuses such as a lack of time get in the way.

I can’t use excuses when I am with my San Diego Area Writing Project’s (SDAWP) colleagues as I was on Saturday morning for our first book study group gathering of the school year. The meeting began with a few introductory words from Director Kim Douillard before Co-director Christine Kane challenged us with several quick write prompts. Christine shared a variety of quirky images and unique texts to spark our creativity. In addition, she asked us to think about what worked and what didn’t work for us as writers.

I had come prepared. I had my iPad mini in my bag, and I had also brought along a new college-ruled spiral—just in case. For the activity, I quickly decided to use the spiral notebook. I knew that I would be able to write more words in a limited amount of time with pen and paper. After each round of two prompts, we shared our writing in triads. It didn’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed the photo prompts best, and I even produced some ideas that I might return to and develop later.

hicksAfter the whole group meeting concluded, we met in smaller clusters based on the books we had previously chosen to study. I had selected Crafting Digital Writing by Troy Hicks and was pleased to sit down with twelve amazing educators each of whom, regardless of prior digital writing experience, shared a passion for teaching writing. The diversity in our group led to an engaging conversation as we mapped out our plans for reading and sharing over the next few months.

On the drive back to Vista, I reflected on the discussion about digital writing and thought about the choice I had made that morning to use pen and paper rather than my iPad for the timed writing exercises.

When I arrived at home, I decided to experiment by attempting to compose a blog post in my spiral notebook. I even thought that I would photograph the page and use my handwritten work as my actual entry as a way to blur the lines between digital writing and writing by hand.

But as I took pen to paper something unexpected happened. Even though I set out to write something for my blog, the writing I produced wasn’t the type of writing that I would ever consider posting. It was stream of consciousness journal-type writing much like the writing I have collected through the years in my old notebooks. It’s hard to believe, but for the first time, I truly understood that, for me, the experience of writing by hand differs significantly from writing in a word processing program.

For years, I used notebooks as private spaces for expressing my ideas and nothing more. When writing on my laptop, I have always started with the audience and purpose in mind. When I have written in my journal, I haven’t worried about making sense to anyone other than me. When I have opened up a notebook, I have written without knowing where the next word may lead. My type written pieces have had a logical sequence with solid transitions, but they have often lacked the creative free-flowing energy of my journal writing.

moochieI am looking forward to learning new ways to use digital tools with students as I explore Crafting Digital Writing with the study group. However, there is still something to be said for the personal heart-felt delight of penning words on a fresh piece of lined notebook paper.

As an educator, I know the value of having students write for an authentic audience, but I never want to forget that sometimes a journal with an audience of one can still provide the best reasons to write.

Posted in Education, Living, Teaching, Writing | Tagged | 2 Comments