Yet Another Wood Pen Gift Story

Can one every have enough hand made wood pens made by friends from wood you have given them? I bet most to all of you never pondered this question.

Cori and I are currently sitting on the deck of the house in Strawberry, our first visit back since a year ago April when I left to live/love in Saskatchewan.

We have enjoyed doing next to nothing but relaxing. When we arrived Wednesday night, on the front deck was a small wooden box with the pen you see in the image for this post. The return address told me where the box came from. I knew it because Howard Rheingold had emailed a few weeks ago that he had finished this pen from a chunk of spalted Arizona Oak I brought him when I visited in December, 2018.

He had explained the reason it took long (sorry for the extra critters that came with the log, Howard). But what a gift to have this in my hand. It’s not even the first one he sent, I still use one he sent me in 2014– if I recall, it was some of my previous pen stories that inspired him to start making them himself (I hope I remember that correctly, Howard!).

This wood mailing thing goes back to 2010, when I had posted to flickr a photo of some wood I had cut up form an oak tree that I had taken down here in Strawberry.

The story plays out in the comments… but an educator I had known mostly through flickr comments as “Windsor Di” was horrified I would burn the wood when she thought they would be great for doing wood projects. So the natural thing was to get in touch… and I mailed a log to Windsor, Ontario. Yes it’s possible to mail a piece of wood. Or it was then.

Anyhow, months later I got in the mail a collection of the wood pens she turned.


Pens flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

There was more to it, as in 2011 when I made my round the US and Across Canada road trip, I made a stop to visit Windsor, and in the back of my truck was a box full of this wood for her (again, I am not sure how it passed the thorough inspection the border agents did in Victoria).

The story played out again in 2013- some messages back and forth with Andy McKiel who had posted photos of Arbutus trees he saw in Vancouver island and had reminded me of the Arizona manzanita. On learning Andy worked too with wood (you should check him out on instagram for his images of the wood bowls he turns)… it happened again. I mailed a chunk of manzanita to Andy in Winnipeg, and eventually got back pens and an ipad stylus.

My brother-in-law Skip picked up the habit too, and so I end up with a collection of Pens From Friends (and stories).

And I guess it keeps going with this newest one from Howard.

I guess I ought to be writing something pen-worthy. It’s on the “list”. But thanks again Howard, what a treat.

Featured Image:

Chasing the Course Arc: Storied Workshop for Kenyon College

After engaging with a group of high energy faculty/staff at Kenyon College last week, the answer for the Campbell Consortium may just be… “maybe”.

The question was set up as Seeking Answers: Can a Narrative Tie a Course Together? Whether there is such an organization as the Campbell Consortium is beside the point… or is the point… or is pointless.

Okay, I’ve done nothing in two paragraphs to initiate this story, I jumped right into the “ordeal” stage.

Late last year, Joe Murphy asked me about designing a summer workshop at Kenyon. They have had strong support under a Digital Storytelling Initiative. Joe relayed that they have done the personal video story approach, and the web 2.0 approach, and a few more that are in line of my spate of DS sessions- tools and creativity. I sense Joe was looking or something different- like the Courses as Stories podcast I had done with Bonnie Stachowiak.

Joe recruited a great group of faculty to sign up for this experience, from a cross section of subject areas- History, Biology, International student support, Library, Neuroscience, Education, Women’s and Gender Studies, Russian film & literature, and Dance.

This question, can the idea of finding something to drive a course beyond the schedule/syllabus, what I’ve used in DS106, the You Show, (2014-2015 at Thompson Rivers University) Networked Narratives (2017-2019 at Kean University), be spun into other subject areas? Mine were ones where a backstory was introduced, and my co-teachers and I played characters in it, tied by short weekly episodic, low budget production videos. You have to be nutty to do that much extra work.

Besides the subject matter, what can tie a course together?

Based on the comments of the earlier blog post as well as conversations with my nearby storytelling expert (my wife, Cori whose thesis was a deep study of storying real experiences alongside students) the idea of suggesting a class built around a fictional narrative looked narrow. And I like others may think of “narrative” as being fiction, when it is, as Gardner Campbell reminded me, was more broadly a word for arrangement.

So I built in spaces to talk about other ways to “tie” a course together, what was more important was framing in the storytelling concept of an ‘arc’ for the experience. This could be a large Big Question; a theme, a long term project.

It was a brilliant conversation with Cori on a scenic drive (that was to the Great Sand Hills, right?) where she suggested even making the workshop itself have a narrative. Hence the opening video sent to participants ahead of time, where I introduced the “Campbell Consortium”.

My idea for the workshop was not to come with answers, or magic tech, but questions. We would tease out the idea as well as do media making activities aimed at playing out metaphors and themes that could operate along side their thinking of possible arcs in their own courses.

Ah, there was one more wrinkle I put in there, and credit Joe and his colleague Ashley for being willing to do this… I was not there in person.


You see, with my move to Canada last year, my travel status was uncertain into late Spring, and even though I did get my permanent resident card, I am currently without a US Passport (I had to mail it away for renewal, hoping it returns here soon).

We gave thought to surprising them, but that seemed a bit of a blindside, so we let them the circumstances before the workshop, leaving an exit door if it bothered anyone. They all showed up.

So I was present via video screen, not all that different from the ways last year I taught Networked Narratives and a MA Thesis seminar at Kean. We had a two camera set up in the small conference room, one on the back where the room mic could pick up all audio, and portable “Alan on a Stick” camera, an ipad mounted on a tripod on wheels. This meant they could move it around so I could see who was talking.

Joe set me up with a domain to hang my materials, I had him give me a WordPress multisite, and I pulled out the usual bag of web tricks.

A main site… for general info, agendas at

Web site for workshop with title Can a theme or narrative art tie an entire course together?

I also set up a DS106 style activity bank for media creating tasks, a TRU Collector SPLOT for image sharing, and a TRU Writer SPLOT site for participants to write up their ideas as of the end of the workshop.

The days were set up as:

Day 1: Exploring the Narrative Thread – overview of storytelling, more detail on the shape of stories (you know that means the Kurt Vonnegut video). We had a play with the new Epic Heroes card game created by Keegan Long-Wheeler and the rest of the Monomyth Online crew.

They got very engaged in discussion here, and they all wanted to keep their cards (or get a set). They added pictures of their cards and their responses to the Collector site.

Two images of faculty sharing their cards and talking
My view of the room during the Epic Heroes card game

In the afternoon, they picked and choose Image activities from the Make Bank (many borrows from DS106 and NetNarr) — Joe suggested good chunks of hands on creative time (no need to convince me).

One piece I added was inviting participants to contribute to an open Google Doc for the sessions, as one place for shared note taking (see Doc 1 and Doc 2).

Day 2 was The Thematic Thread, an alternative for those who did not feel like a narrative/fictional approach was a good fit, this was looking at thematic/topical ways of course tying. We had a great conversation about non-disposable assignments (with some well deserved pushback on the way I had framed it). There seemed to be good resonance with the Wikieducator type projects and a desire to look more closely at how those work. We also had a nice set of demos/conversations with 4 other Kenyon faculty who shared their approaches of using storytelling, semester long projects, and media making.

For the media making on day two, I set them up with some audio making activities.

Day 3 was aimed more at asking them to develop their evolving idea into some kind of “pitch” to make for some visitors, plus some video/animation type media activities. For the close of the workshop I had invited colleagues to come in via Hangout (thanks Gardner, Ed, Mia) as reps of the Campbell Consortium to give feedback to ideas pitched by participants (these were added to a “Pitch” site).

Yes I could not resist calling this session… Arc Tank (yes, I ripped off my own ripped off idea of Thesis Tank)

Words ARC TANK superimposed on a shape of Kurt Vonneguts shape of story curve, all atop a shimmering underwater view of a place sharks might swim
Pitching to the Arc Tank

For all the atypical workshopness I threw at them, they did not bend or fold. Many stayed in the room working through lunch, and I’m pleased to see the collection of ideas they wrote up. Any feedback you might have would be most welcome:

I did not see a significant taking up of the narrative arc approach. It’s a bit zany to do, is it? My tentative conclusion is that it’s pretty far out there, and likely best suited for the storytelling/media making courses that I have done before. But I’m not giving up on others taking that route.

Mainly I hope the idea of an arc can at least work as a means of thinking of a course more of an experience, a happening, than 16 weeks of assignments leading to an exam and roll the credits.

I sure appreciate Joe being willing to go along with this crazy workshop idea.

We are still waiting to hear back from the Campbell Consortium…

Featured Image:

At the Arts Gala: Making Stories with Sound

(Wow, is there ever a backlog of overdue blog posts. I’m giving myself demerits for tardiness).

Maybe my favorite media thing to teach is audio editing, because it’s typically fat from most people’s experiences. With an offer from Cori to do a session at the Arts Gala event for the Prairies South School Division, I had the chance to bring this as a workshop to high school students who gathered recently at the school in Gravelbourg.

I came with a back of random objects and way too many things to cover; we ended up doing about 30% of what I had prepped… and it was wonderful at that.

Part of the challenge was not being completely sure of the technology available, but that played out well as the classroom I used had a cabinet of laptops. Because no software could be installed, I had tried out a few different web based HTML5 recording and editing apps– nothing gives all the features of Audacity, but they served us well.

I prepped all the materials in a Google Slide show available at

What was in there includes:

  • An opening question of what is sound, like physically. I used the metaphor of a rock tossed in a pond (which worked well as the students sat in a semi circle), asking what is the difference between a big rock tossed in, and how water waves travel.
  • I ask them next to take a minute of silence to notice every possible sound, from most to least obvious. The idea is to have them consider how sound is layered, that we never have an absence of sound, and how it subtly gives a suggestion of the setting.
  • What does digitized sound look like? (introduction to waveform), to show them that like words in a document, sound can be edited by the same commands of copy, cut, paste, that we apply formatting to it (by effects). I had them do some recording in TwistedWave Online, a fine simple audio recorder with a few effects. They ended up spending a good chunk of time in this, starting with very simple sounds and applying crazy effects (one of them used my voice, others made seed sounds with finger snaps, and tapping in front of the mic). Here is a montage of the sounds created in both sessions:
Sounds created by high school students, for nearly all, the first time they had done anything like this.
  • I then introduced them to the world of Foley artists with a short overview video. I always love this as most people have no idea that nearly all sounds in movies are added in post production, and while digitally edited, the sounds are all generated by recordings of real objects. I ask the students to do a short version of this by watching the first minute of a Charlie Chaplin silent film clip (from Into the Lion Cage), first asking them to identigy what sounds might be needed, and asking them each to choose to make the sounds (from the box of stuff I brought in, metal things, wood blocks, cloth, etc). We then do a run through to practice, and on the second time I record the audio. I was so impressed with how much the kids got into the creative part of making the sounds and then getting the timing down. I managed to miss the recording of the first session (sorry! operator error) so this re-edit has the foley sounds created by the second group.

And that was pretty much the end of time. They were so into the editing in the first part I did not want to stop them just in the name of an agenda. Quite a few of them managed to import tracks from YouTube and elsewhere without me even explaining how or got inventive by recording from the playback from their smartphones/

What did not get done was the activity I like doing, the old DS106 throwback of the five sound effect story where the challenge is to create a story by editing together five sounds (either downloaded or generated), but no spoken voice. I typically like using this to teach Audacity skills of layering multiple tracks. That would not have been easy in web based editors, but the Bear Audio Editor was good enough for sequencing sounds together- and it had nice features for importing audio from YouTube.

And we did not even get close to playing with a few web-based musical instruments– I imagined hearing a crazy round of sounds from these ones:

This was a ton of fun for me, and it seemed like the kids in the room had a good play at being creative in ways that were new to them.

You can hardly go wrong asking anyone to generate sounds, especially with license to go zany.

Thanks Cori for setting this up for me and thanks to the Arts Gala participants who showed up for a session likely not knowing what they were getting into.

Featured Image by rony michaud from Pixabay

Seeking Answers: Can a Narrative Tie a Course Together?

This idea has been bouncing in my head for way too long, it’s time to get some help chasing down an answer. And I would be fine if it’s not the one I seek.

I have been contacted by a quiet, off the beaten track, but legit organization, –call them the Campbell Consortium– interested in the application of story approaches in higher education. It might be better explained in a short video.

Joe Murphey at Kenyon College has stepped forward with interest as well, and we are planning a three day workshop series in June to explore the question; hopefully we can interest some good curiosity and willingness to follow this line of questioning.

A recap is in a post following my conversation last summer with Bonni Stachowiak on Episode 218 of the Teaching in Higher Education podcast.

The question the Campbell people have (and I myself) is, what would it take to apply a storytelling approach in courses outside ones about storytelling. So I need some people to probe for an answer, even if it’s “not very possible”.

Having to explain this should compel me to write some kind of short paper / long blog post about it— this has been sitting long on the To Do shelf. What might it mean to have a narrative tie a course together?

It’s not about turning an entire course into a story, it’s more about establishing some kind of back story, or even genre/metaphor that the work students do in a class can tie into, so that it’s more than just a series of assignments (likely disposable). It’s like creating a some kind of analogue of plot continuity in film. It’s something that creates a backdrop or scene for what happens in a course. It’s making something propel the course with story methods of an arc, of building suspense, of creating something that makes you want to know what happens next.

Maybe it’s just my madness.

But here is my short list of possible examples, mostly drawn from storytelling/narrative focused classes.

  • It starts for me with the DS106 Summer of Oblivion masterminded by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), spinning the class as a web version of the movie Video Drone. The course itself became a story that evolved as it went. As Andy Rush noted, “No one shaves their head in an LMS”. I remember being a skeptical of the claim that a course needed a narrative (as you can see, I changed later)
  • The following Fall Michael Branson Smith picked up with a version for York College of a DS106 built around Journey to the Center of the Internet and a mysterious Dr Olivier (some blog posts are around).
  • In the summer of 2012, I co-taught a UMW summer course version of DS106 with Martha Burtis where we built it around a cheerful summer camp called Camp MacGuffin, where there was something slightly sinister behind the scenes. Our joke was that the first thing we did in planning was design our t-shirts. We had a series of videos done as counselors in front of green screen images of camp. In the end, everything blew up in Minecraft.
  • I taught an online version of DS106 in Spring 2013 (for UMW) where there was a loose theme that, as an online teacher, I was stuck in a black and white 1960s TV show. I taught on online version in Spring 2014 for graduate students in the George Mason University Instructional Design and Technology Program (IDT). — because the students were all working in corporate firm, the theme was DS106 Goes to Work. I had a weekly video series playing out a story of the skeptical “corporate guy” (played by me) visiting the media creative guy (played by me). These were all rather low production value videos filmed at my house on iPads and laptops, edited in iMovie.
  • The 2013 summer version of DS106 led by Jim Groom started a series of versions where there was a genre for the course, so assignments were aimed at, but did not specifically have to, use that genre. That one on 2013 was around the stories of the Twilight Zone, or in this case, the DS106 Zone. Later came ones themed around The Wire (jim Groom and Paul Bond, UMW Fall 2014), Noir 106 (Jim Groom, Paul Bond, Martha Burtis, UMW Spring 2015), Tales from DS106 UMW (a comic theme co-taught by Paul Bond and Jim Groom, Fall 2015), a planned Western 106 I had hoped to co teach with Bill Genereux in 2016, eventually run as an open course), UMW Fall 2016 “The Cover Page” (Kris Shaffer), and UMW Fall 2016 “Mission 106” (Paul Bond). There’s likely more I am missing!
  • Perhaps a peak for me in playing out this concept was during a 2014-2015 Fellowship at Thompson Rivers University. Working with Brian Lamb, we ran a DS106 inspired (meaning there was blog syndication, media creation, a daily challenge) thing we called “The You Show”, an open online course aimed at TRU Faculty. I pitched this idea of it being built around a “TV Show” hosted by two technically inept hosts (played by Brian and me), who were mocked by the two “tech guys in the back” (also played by Brian and me). We had visitors each week who played guest roles (like D’Arcy Norman, Nancy White, and Tannis Morgan). As each episode progressed, the inept hosts got less inept, the logo grew refined, and the video production got better– so that by the end episode, the “tech guys” in the back were not even needed. This plot evolved as we went along; each week I would sketch out some rough notes to Brian, we’d pick a location, and mostly improv the action in one take. It was maybe an hour to film and another 2-3 hours to edit in iMovie. I started doing more with multiple cameras, assisted often by Brian’s son who would shoot extra footage on a second iPhone.
  • I brought a fair bit of this You show approach to the Networked Narratives courses (you might call it a cousin of DS106) I have co-taught with Mia Zamora. The first year, I had suggested to Mia we create some mystery in our weekly intro videos, and after a few episodes, this folded into a theme where are videos were being “hacked” by some outside entities (who later we brought into our Mirror World space where the hackers turned out to be friendly). The videos were not even part of the course content, just something we put out there to build a sense of mystery around the course. We did more of these types of videos in the next two years, more as a means to build out the “spine” approach to course planning, not really as content. Because we were in different places, these were “filmed” in Google Hangouts on Air, and lightly edited in iMovie.

But again, these are all examples for course about media making and storytelling. The challenge is to now see what it would take to find a narrative thread in other kinds of courses. And without it being a significant overhead. Maybe I do it because I am obsessive and like being a bit off center ;-) The theme need not be one of mystery or darkness either, it just ought to be something that makes assignments and activities focus on something other than completing them.

This is what I hope we can get going during our workshop at Kenyon College, plus the extra factor that I will be beaming in via video.

Is this a mad idea? What suggestions do you have? Should Kenyon just run away from me?

Featured Image: Added screenshots of my blogpost on the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast and the ds106 site to Arnold Air Force Base image of Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Spectroscopy system placed into the public domain as the work of a US Government agency.