On Keeping a Notebook

Personal Epistemology Assignment in #Philosophy12

Kuhn & Paradigms

I’ve written here before about being a ‘notebook guy,’ someone who cut my creative teeth with pen and paper and has yet to find the same intimacy in digital space that I have had with notebooks and journals going back to my teen years. This isn’t to say that I don’t do some creative thinking on my computer, or my phone – recording brief demos of songs, or typing up lyrics in a Google Doc instead of writing them by hand, for instance – but much of my thinking begins in these books that I still keep with me at (nearly) all times, even if I have never truly put my finger on just what it is this brand of note-taking is facilitating.

Luckily, GNA Garcia came upon this Lifehacker article that pulls from a few different sources to put some of the necessity of notebooks into better context than I’ve been able to. The first of these sources is author Stephen Johnson, whose book Where Good Ideas Come From has been showing up consistently in my Twitter feed, Pro-D sessions and casual discussions for a few years now.

Johnson’s The Spark File talks about how he uses his notebooks to ‘catch’ the hunches and inklings that may (or may not) become one of those Good Ideas:

…most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful, often by colliding with another hunch.

The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good. And even the ones that you do manage to retain often don’t turn out to be useful to you for months or years, which gives you countless opportunities to lose track of them.

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy – just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

The Lifehacker author, Elizabeth Spiers, writes in On Keeping a Notebook in the Digital Age about how her:

… note-taking works primarily because I have learned to separate my putative spark file from my task list. If I feel the impulse to make a note to myself about something that needs to be done, I put it somewhere else — my actual to-do list or a list of potential projects.

In Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen (also recommended, especially if you manage people in a creative industry), he distinguishes between ideas and “action steps” — separating your notes, sketches, etc., from things that need to be done.

This may not be true of everyone, but I find that I’m the most creatively fruitful when I approach pure creative work and execution separately. If I start with the execution, I’m much more limited in how I think about what I want to accomplish. I won’t pursue a story idea further because I think it’s going to take more time than I have. I won’t explore an article topic because I don’t have all the research at hand. I don’t want potential action steps to make pursuing a new idea seem too intimidating or insurmountable. So I keep separate files for those — mostly task lists associated with specific projects and a master list for overall prioritization.

I’ve kept each of these sorts of books over the years – ideas books, and task-oriented books – but of late have been much freer in veering between the two purposes. The book I’ve been working with this school year is a mix of all of the following: calendars, lists, concept maps, essay and blog post drafts, ideas, songs, sketches and other brainstorms. All of them are necessary parts of my creative workflow, catching, sorting, and implementing the various hunches, inklings and schemes that make up anything I’ve ever thought of as a ‘good’ idea.

What about you? Where do your good ideas come from?

CEA Guest Post: My Guitar Class is more than a Class

Many thanks to Max Cooke for inviting me to lend a voice to the Canadian Education Association‘s series on Innovation in Education, where I offered a story about the evolution of my guitar class, as inspired by retired Gleneagle drama teacher Richard Dixon.

As a mode of teaching, Richard transcended innovation and went about continually inventing his classroom environment out of blank space and the unique personalities that filled it. And while many of these plays were banged out on a typewriter, and others were written into formatted word documents to be printed out and memorized, I always come back to believing that it is this type of invention and innovation our classrooms so badly need today, just as they always have.

On his last day of school, Richard and I were talking about the new guitar class I was going to be teaching the following September, just down the hall from what would no longer be his classroom’s black box. I told him that aside from being excited at the prospect of the course, I didn’t know where I wanted to take it just yet. 

“The important thing to remember,” he said, “is that every class you teach is just another opportunity for students to practice forming communities.”

You can read the whole post on the CEA blog. See the other contributions to the series on innovation here. Thanks again to Max and CEA for the invitation, and to Richard for the eternally sage advice.

Web Radio in the K12 Classroom

Digital Storytelling

Giulia Forsythe's Digital Campfire

I’ve had the good pleasure the last few years to have been able to enrich my personal learning network, as well as add to the constellation of thoughtful individuals that interact with my classroom(s) through the DIY magic of distributed web radio. Even casual readers of this blog will recognize the religious fervour that has often attended to my posts about the magic of #ds106radio, an organic offshoot of the Digital Storytelling course DS106 run out of (originally) the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, as well as (these days) a host of other institutions around the world. In addition to becoming at various times my own open-mic coffee shop, where I’ve written, rehearsed and workshopped almost every song I’ve ever written, DS106Radio has also played frequent host to many a TALONS lesson, field trip, celebration, and a regular spate of Gleneagle’s Music Department showcases.

In the last week, I have been talking to a few of the administrators in our district about the how and what of distributed web radio, and in an effort to collect some of the power and relevance to K12 learning such a setup could offer us, I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to be a part of because of this wonderfully easy, open-source technology solution to building community and communion around shared sound. 

But first, a little history.

The following audio documentary was recorded with a few of the people who had seen DS106Radio grow out of a conversation around a dinner table into a powerful node in each of our networks. Here you’ll hear GNA Garcia interviewing Grant Potter, Guilia Forsythe, Alan Levine and myself about how we’ve seen the radio evolve and effect our lives and professional practices. Alan points out near the end that without the inception of the radio, we wouldn’t even know each other, which, given the amount of time, face-to-face or otherwise, we’ve spent revelling in one another’s company over the past two years, is a humbling thought. (That’s Zack Dowell providing the acoustic musical bed; Jason Toal provided the actual bed.)

Listen to a mini – DS106Radio Rockumentary

But without veering too wildly into my own personal affections for the station, I want to focus here on sharing the ways I’ve explored in bringing my various classroom spaces, and beyond, to the web, often using free software on my laptop, or a $6 app on my phone. It is my hope that with a few examples to get things rolling, we might see some momentum around sharing audio in Coquitlam classrooms.Lunchtime Jams on #DS106Radio

Lunchtime Jams

Almost as soon as we figured out how to ‘go live’ from my laptop and iPhone, my music classroom became a regular performance space for my guitar students, and then a host of other interested individuals to share informal jams, songs and laughter with an audience that just as quickly fell into the habit of tuning into the sounds of the school’s music wing.

An early hit:

Concerts Live Streamed Around the World

It seemed a natural experiment to try running an evening broadcast of our school’s Spring Concert, in 2011, complete with student DJ’s to narrate the evening’s activities, backstage interviews with performers, archived recordings of the Music Department’s tour to Cuba, and even a request by an Internet listener for the in-house crowd to shout, “DS106 Radio For Life” (the station’s immortal tag line).

Since then we’ve broadcast almost every one of the concerts at Gleneagle live onto DS106radio, sharing the ephemeral sounds of the performing arts with an international audience who can recognize our lead trumpet players and vocalists by the tenor of their solos, and who know that in Coquitlam, there are some crazy-talented kids that love to share their art. How many schools or districts can claim the same notoriety? (If they can, I would bet they’re spending more on marketing than we are.)

Class Activity as Public Learning Project 

Last spring, a guitar class I was teaching took on the grandiose endeavour to convert itself into a Thirty Person Rock Band, a process that in addition to being shared on Youtube and Instagram, was conducted almost entirely live on the #ds106radio air, where people were able to tune in and play along with our rehearsals, band meetings, and triumphant last day of school show in the Gleneagle foyer. Our listening audience served as mentors, cheerleaders, and a reflection of the raw energy the creation of live music can bring to a community, and shared in the celebrations at the end of the term.

You can see how it all unfolded on Storify, here.

Sharing our Classrooms with Specific Audiences


It was a great pleasure last year to share in a day of #RadioforLearning with #ds106radio K12 sister-station 105theHive, where my guitar class joined in a day of cross-country broadcasting with classrooms in Ontario and northern Manitoba. As the Hive’s rolling live broadcast took reading exercises from rural Ontario north toward Hudson’s Bay, Gleneagle’s Music Department shared its guitar presentations with an audience that wound up reaching listeners in South America, as well as Hawaii.

Essay Feedback as Podcast

Back in 2011, I brought the audio elements of DS106 into the TALONS classroom as part of our This I Believe essay unit where, in addition to submitting individual essays as recorded spoken word pieces, the class collaborated to remix and synthesize the different threads into larger audio compositions.

In an attempt to fold my essay feedback into the process I had asked the class to engage in, I created my own synthesis of the collective learning into a twenty minute radio show of my own to serve as feedback and commentary on the larger lessons of writing and storytelling that I saw in the group’s essays.

Field Reports & Outdoor Education

Some of the most powerful learning opportunities we bring to our students happen outside of the classroom, on field trips or other opportunities for place-based learning that are effectively captured in photographs and videos, perhaps; but these events and experiential learning also opportunities for capturing vital audio artifacts that might otherwise disappear into the ether.

Remixing the Class Discussion

Just this past semester, one of the #Philosophy12 students recorded a few days’ worth of investigating Epistemology, and the notions of Opinions, Beliefs, and Truth, and posted the files for download on Soundcloud. As a possible extension of these open educational resources, I thought I would try my hand at remixing the contents using the GarageBand app on my iPad. The cognitive value in sifting through an hour of recorded audio to pull together a narrative, or logical argument is something that I found both incredibly challenging, and entirely relevant given the emerging digital landscape of the read-write-sing-remix web, where the original artifact of learning is further-evolved to include new reflective perspectives.

Everything above is just the beginning… 

I’ve tried to pull together as many different examples as I could over the course of a few days, but there may be a few notable broadcasts or events that I’ve neglected to include here. GNA Garcia used to broadcast concerts and conversations from her job at a highschool in Philadelphia. And the Hive folks have been creating live and canned shows for almost a year now (!). Matt Henderson started a terrestrial radio station with his kids in Winnipeg, and I’m sure there are other folks out there podcasting, sharing Audioboos, and finding other ways to explore the power of audio in their classrooms.

But I hope what I’ve shared here can serve as a catalyst and motivation for folks in my own back yard who may want to jump into an experiment with a Coquitlam branch of web radio over the course of the next semester. I’m hoping that local English, Music, Journalism, and other teachers start getting their phones out, warming up their GarageBands and Audacities, and seeing where our own digital campfire might take us as a learning community.

For life.

…a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.


I woke up this morning with the lofty goal of revisiting Gardner Campbell‘s keynote from the Open Education conference that went down in Vancouver this week, The Ecology of Yearning. However, the gods of the Internet didn’t agree and the archive seems to have gone missing for the time being, so I will hopefully return to it soon. In the meantime, I’m digging into an older presentation from Gardner called “Teaching, Learning, and the Digital Imagination” that is hosted on Youtube and his blog.

Even though the talk is only a year old, it synthesizes so many ideas that, even in a year, seem foundational to vastly greater heights. Beginning with Clay Shiky’s quote,

We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race.


Gardner discusses the “Digital Imagination” as a vision of the Internet’s transformative potential. Far more than a data management system, or the efficiency of email, he frames our appraisal of technology’s value or purpose in the tradition of under and mis-valuing innovation. Just as we mistook the true innovative potential of the electric motor, the question is not, to be sure, How can the Internet make us more efficient? but What is the real meaning and appropriate function of the Internet itself? 

Gardner, round one.

Photo Courtesy of @drgarcia

Even as I generally find this sort of argument quite compelling, I was especially struck with the power of the idea that in practicing, refining and education we are striving – one might even say yearning - to oblige a “moral responsibility to be of the most use to civilization,” and that the Internet creates the possibility of a “self-reinforcing virtuous cycle” that I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to witness over the course of the last week with Gardner and other educators out of no more technology than guitar amplifiers and a few printed lyrics and chords.

Audrey Waters highlighted the connection that has become tradition among the DS106 tribe in Vancouver,

I started to write this post, and then found myself spending the evening at a musical jam session with Campbell and others. So there’s that. And that’s actually a wonderful ending to a wonderful beginning of the day. Because jamming is sharing. Jamming is collaborative creation. Jamming is learning. Jamming is process. “Make art dammit,” as DS106 commands us, with the emphasis, I think, on the “make” more than than the “art.” And at the end of the evening with the music ringing in my ears, Campbell’s keynote makes perfect sense, and there’s nothing much to say.


Being able to play music with Gardner a few times this week – including two attempts at the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” among others – added a different authenticity to his words this morning, though. He wasn’t speaking abstractly about his thinking that technology might prove the platform for a heightening community’s potential; he was speaking specifically. Shouting, really. Singing, explaining deftly to a crowd of ecstatic participant-revelers that, “Her name is Gloria.”

Arthur C. Clarke Blackout Poetry

Though it’s not a newspaper (as the original #Ds106 assignment prescribes), I had the idea this afternoon while my teaching parnter was teaching the Arthur C. Clarke short story, “I forget thee, Earth” to give the front page of our handout the blackout poetry treatment.

The text of the new work, Art Clark’s “I forget Earth…” is below, should anyone want to give the piece a Tom Woodward “snowball” and turn the text into something else: song, dialogue, a rock opera…

Ten years old, his father
took up Administration and
Power, the uppermost and
swiftly growing Farmlands.

Great, slender plants
creeping towards the sun,
Down the domes to meet
the smell of life.
Everywhere,
inexpressive in his heart

no longer.

Breathing dry cool air,
residential levels, purged
of smells but ozone.

Here, little father, onwards.

Reach to the observatory.
Never visit, but sense rising
excitement.

One goal: life, outside, surface wide,
and pressurized. Servicing scout car['s]
circular door.
Tense expectancy, settled down in
cramped cabin.


Sharing in whim

I know teachers tend to throw out mixed messages, “Be open, share. Be careful, be scared.” This could be an authentic real world experience to create something beautiful with a larger group of people than those within our immediate community. (I invite other teachers to share this Flickr set and this post to see where it can go. Ask your class to leave poems, stories, haikus, comments anything. Maybe we can write a book, record an album…)

There are many things we can do with the images, the words, the connection. I hope that at least a few of you will share a few ideas in the comments below. I don’t know who will respond, but that is the beauty of sharing in whim 1, if you throw enough out there, occasionally something beautiful will come floating back.

The above photos were shared on Jabiz Raisdana’s blog with an invitation to Zach Chase‘s students to join into the fun with the proposition that if enough comments, poems, phrases and inspiration and were left on the photos, Jabiz would write them into a song that he would share for future mashup, remixes, or…?

What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up! Stones by intrepidflame

And while I mightn’t have “tore it up,” or reinvented any of what had previously been created or recorded, I sat at my kitchen counter after work on Friday, donned a set of headphones, and spent the better part of an hour adding my own voice to a project spanning both North American coasts that had gained its initial motivation and impetus from an unmet friend in Jakarta, Indonesia. In kind I offer my own addition to the project in the hopes that it inspires others to lend their own creativity, perspective, and voice to collaborative expression that would have unthinkable even five years ago (to me, anyway), but is today the sort of thing that can be accomplished on a Friday afternoon, between work and dinner.

My contribution:

Stones by Bryanjack

We’ve been talking about the benefits – personal and collective – that come with sharing a lot this week in the Talons class. Seeking an elusive objectivity in media and student reflections on the recent tumult in Egypt and across the Middle East, the class has moved past a definition of the (capital ‘T’) Truth which linearly separates Right & Wrong, or Truth & Lie, to an understanding that we can only know what we might collectively deign in shared exploration, conversation and reflection, and that this process must be ongoing.

This week we blogged, commented, argued, challenged one another, and constructed our own understanding out of the pieces of media, and truths, we could piece together in posts and a collection of quotes spanning student and journalists’ words, musical evocations, and the frozen images of photographs from halfway across the world.

Yesterday we distilled some of the more potent aspects of these expressions in a Typewith.me page that we hope to continue to shape, sculpt and share in the coming weeks, as a first experiment in working with the web as not only a research and publishing platform, but collaborative space wherein there are few, if any, limits.

We invite you (Mr. Chase’s class, Jabiz’ students, and the rest of you out there) to join in this conversation: comment on our blogs, highlight or share some words that resonate with you about the power of the collective and the human will toward freedom, or take the discussion to the next level.

Share, and be vulnerable: it may just be what we’re here for.

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love ourselves with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee; to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this, just to be able to stop and instead of catastophizing what might happen just to say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable is to feel alive?'”

If it is true, what Liam wrote yesterday, that, “Collective will is the most powerful force in the universe,” then we are truly onto something here. Let’s keep it going.

Today, Zach Chase writes, looking back on what a week it’s been, is the day you jump in and create something.

  1. Bryan’s note: this is so the title of the book / album / movie.