Monday, October 27, 2014


 by Maryeoriginals
What if the sun didn't shine one day?

What if all the people in the world moved to one hemisphere?

If  we could live forever on this earth, how would that change our world? How would that change our lives?

We all speculate. We all wonder what if?

Some of these questions have no answers. At least, not answers that we can immediately access  or identify, nor answers that we can prove-- but these what if's are the stuff of imagination, of our best fiction, and our finest dreams.

But what if we take our wildest wonderings, our most far-out what-ifs and actually sought to answer them, scientifically?

What if there were books dedicated to answering those wild what ifs?

This is the unlikely mission that  Randall Monroe tackles in What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

He introduces his treasure in the following way:

This is a collection of answers to hypothetical questions.
These questions were submitted through my website where-- in addition to serving as a sort of Dear Abby for mad scientists--I draw xkcd, a stick figure  webcomic... This book contains a selection of some of my favorite answers from my website, plus a bunch of new questions answered here for the first time. 
I have been using math to answer questions as long as I can remember...

The questions alone generate interest and engage our imaginations before we even consider the thought-provoking answers.

Just ponder these sample questions from the book:
What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?
What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?
What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?

Not only are the answers both intriguing and surprising, but most lead us to ask many more questions.

In his recent TED Talk, Monroe answers the above baseball question, as well as a question about Google's date warehouse. His talk offers a small taste of the wonder and delight of what if  questions answered with the science, math, physics...and humor and comics.

For more amazing questions and unlikely, yet fun things to think about, visit Monroe's What If? webpage  and his blog,  XKCD: A WebComic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math and Language.

Perhaps you might even submit your own question  to

David J. Smith has written several books that help us think about unfathomably big numbers and concepts by scaling them down to a manageable, "think-about-able" size.


In his latest book,  If: A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers, he again accomplishes this feat, as he presents global, cosmic, geological, and human existence concepts of science and history--- in numbers we can actually imagine and consider.

He tackles the galaxy as if it were shrunk to the size of a dinner plate...

He represents the history of Earth as if our 4.5-billion-year history were compressed into a single year...

He represents average  human life expectancy  as if  it were footprints in the sand...

Smith give us numbers and objects we know, amounts and analogies we can imagine  to foster our thinking about the otherwise vast and unimaginable.

Truth be told, I think most good writing, informational or literary, arises out of a wondering-- a foundational what if.

How can I represent my big ideas?

Can I make this meaning? What if I use this form?  I wonder if I can capture this moment, that feeling, this idea ---and lay it bare on paper.

What are your wonderings?
What is your current what if?

This previous, related blog post will provide additional resources:
Wonderings, What Ifs and Other Questions

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Create a list of your own What If questions.

Select one question to answer in a humorous style.

Research this question and write an essay, answering the questions as accurately as possible, using science, math, or  history.

Draw a comic to address your question.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Keywords unlock our world.

The first thing that Google, Bing, Yahoo, or any other search engine requires is a keyword --the word that will get the ball rolling for finding the information, image, text, or item for which you are searching. 

The more precise the initial word or phrase, the faster and more closely the search will match your desired material. The more accurately you identify the key ideas, the fewer times you will need to repeat the same search. 

There are entire businesses and  digital tools, such as WordSmith , for finding just the keywords that are going to move your business’s homepage  or advertisement to the top of the search engine’s suggested links, giving you the retail advantage over competitors.

This same process applies in the non-electronic world as we use the indices and concordances in books.  We have to know what we are looking for—what word will get us to the page containing the information we want. 

So how do we determine that all important keyword? 

Correctly determining the main idea, the motif, the gist, the essence of what we are looking for is the key to  revealing the needed  magic word..

Keywords can also help us focus our attention in our work.

Teachers at Prospect School in Vermont begin collegial conferences designed to analyze students’ strengths, weaknesses and educational needs by identifying a keyword that has emerged as all data and  related conversation has been considered.  This is part of a process called Descriptive Review developed by Pat Carini.  

What keywords would emerge as you consider your students, your own children or adults that you know?

Words can create problems--words often arise that we all use, words that become buzzwords, but then change in meaning, become politicized, demonized, and/or emotionally charged--- and then as we use them, we no longer all mean the same thing.  

For example, formerly in education, the terms whole language, phonics, and readiness, and more recently, accountability and assessment , fall into this category.  

I deliberately no longer use the term whole language in conversation because it conjures up an image for some, of teaching whole class, for others, not teaching grammar and phonics, for others, just letting students read and write as they please, and for others still, the root of all of our current educational woes.  None of these meanings are accurate --or useful when having a discussion.  

 It is important to define and agree upon how we are using particular words for particular discussions.  It is important to decide what words mean not only in the broader sense, but in this particular moment.

We often ask students to define keywords-- they are all too familiar with the vocabulary sections of standardized tests.

Well Defined: Vocabulary in Rhyme by Michael Salinger presents accurate, yet humorous personifications  of  standardized test-worthy vocabulary words, as he explores the meaning of each term in short poetic stories.

In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Ray Williams examines what words mean, including their historical, political, and cultural meanings, and considers how they acquired their current connotations. Organized in alphabetical order, his “record of inquiry into a vocabulary” also notes how keywords are connected, derived, and dependent upon one another.  

Philip Nel and Lissa Paul deliberately applied Williams’s structure to current children’s literature in Keywords for Children's Literature.

We use key words when reading to gain insight into the writer’s train of thought and the internal structure of her writing.  

 Keywords move us along grammatically through what the author thinking. The author collaborates in this process, using therefore to signify she has come to a conclusion, first, last, after, before, to assist us in following her sequence.  When she makes comparisons, they are indicated by but, however, yet, unless, despite, and evidence for important points are labeled with because and since.  Continuation of earlier thoughts is indicated with and also, in addition, and so forth. 

How effortlessly we can travel through the writer’s mind and follow her logic with the assistance of such keywords. 

 Conceptual keywords further assist us in realizing, understanding, and connecting important concepts and ideas to each other to construct a conceptual framework of the writer’s thinking.  
For example, we cannot have a conversation about evaluation, example, we cannot have a conversation about evaluation, without also talking about assessment
How does the writer relate those ideas? What other words does the author connect?

Understanding the relationships and connections between words and concepts is crucial to learning and understanding. 

 In the classic picture book, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown,  young children can begin thinking about keywords and key ideas.
Identifying the important ideas in texts and figuring out what  the author wants us to know, as well as what is most meaningful to us, is a part of reading.  Although there may be many ideas and details related to a concept, there are usually ideas that are more important than others.This text  invites readers to consider what is essential in defining or describing something. For example she describes rain in this way:
The important thing about rain is
 that it is wet.
 It falls out of the sky
 and it sounds like rain,
 and makes things shiny,
 and it does not taste like anything,
and is the color of air.
But the important thing about rain is that it is wet.
Thinking in this way, forces students to compare and contrast, analyze and evaluate, consider what is essential and what is nonessential. They must clarify their thinking and articulate it to others, both verbally and in writing. This simple structure offers them an avenue in which to engage in this critical thinking work.

Finally, Blexbolex offers us thoughtful and fun ways to consider keywords  and related concepts in his books.   People and Seasons Seasons, both by the  French illustrator,present us with concepts linked in obvious ways, such as Mother and Baby, Man and Woman, Leaf and Caterpillar, but also challenges us to discern less obvious connections as we move through the pages. These seemingly simple texts and images will generate much discussion, regardless of age, as we seek to discover connections, patterns and deeper meanings.

Maria Popova's articles about both People  and  Seasons, on one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pick include many sample illustrations.

As writers, we want to be aware of keywords and how they will assist us in organizing our thinking, our speaking and our writing, as well as helping our readers in navigating our texts.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Think about your own life as if  you were going to create an index for your autobiography.    List in alphabetical order those keywords that should appear in the index.  Can you include at least  two or three words for each letter?

Write a brief reflection on how you use keywords in your life.
Your response may include searching the internet or databases, finding information in books, using indices, or noticing the bold or italicized words in textbooks. 

Write a short, humorous story about a word that both personifies and  defines that word.

Write a poem or essay about the most important thing for a particular item or concept.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


We have all struggled to find  the precise word to express our thoughts.
The appropriate word to convey our message.
The perfect nuance to complete our sentence.

The right word.

We struggle and play with words..  We fumble and flirt with words.
Sifting our options, we may open our dictionary, search our thesaurus,  or check our personal word lists.

Like a diva in a dressing room, we begin to try on words to fit our linguistic figures, discarding style after style, word after word.

We looking for that  je ne sais quoi.

In the Columbus Area Writing Project, several of us have recently formed a new writers group.  We each need to submit our pages to the group members prior to our next meeting so that we have time to  read and comment on each of our pieces,

I am currently rethinking/writing/rewriting/finishing a piece on retirement that I had abandoned a while ago in frustration.

This group has given me the motivation to take a new look.  As I worked with the passage below I considered several options before settling on the word insidious.

It was Katherine Norris who named these surprising, strange thoughts and feelings for me.  Acedia.

The ancient and insidious indifference, the inexplicable restlessness, the paralyzing inattention--acedia that plagued monks.  The spiritual faltering that chased them into doubt and fear and… small sins.

The noonday devil...

Choices before me included sinister, devious, treacherous, crafty, sneaky, deceptive.  Deceptive is the word I had originally used as a place holder while I searched for the right word.

Ultimately, I liked the way  insidious implies almost an unseen seeping inserting itself-- asserting itself-- and I also liked the alliterative sound of insidious indifference.

 When we are struggling to find a word,one of the most helpful tools for writers is a thesaurus.

And the man behind the thesaurus is Peter Mark Roget. If we entered his name in his own lists of words we might also enter synonym beside it.

His Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases has been in continuous publication since 1852. Unlike modern versions written in alphabetical order like  dictionaries, instead, his original publication was a complex network of classified lists arranged by concepts and ideas.

To examine his 1912 version which maintains the categories and classifications of the original click here.

To see a page of his original manuscript housed at the Karpeles Manuscript Library and read his preface click here.

There are many modern and accessible versions of Roget's Thesaurus.

A quick search online or at your favorite bookstore or will generate a long list of options for you.  One convenient electronic version (Kindle), Roget's Thesaurus - Definitive Edition , maintains Roget's categories, his original structure and is also completely searchable.

The complex catalogues and networks of words developed by  Roget have much to say about how we think and communicate. He addressed this in the introduction  to his work

The use of language is not confined to its being the medium through which we communicate our ideas to one another; it fulfils no less important function as an instrument of thought; not being merely its vehicle, but giving it wings for flight.  Metaphysicians are agreed that scarcely any of our intellectual operations could be carried on to any considerable extent, without the agency of words.

We connect words as we build concepts. Semantic networks influence our ordinary thought, daily speech, our academic considerations and conversations, as well as our specialized and disciplinary thinking and writing.

Networks and Knowledge in Roget's Thesaurus, Werner Hullen examines Roget's work in relationship to linguistics, philosophy and history, as well as his influence in other countries.

Hullen also compares several versions of the thesaurus, as well as examining several specific entries in detail considering the cultural and political implications.

For  a comprehensive history and exploration of the far-reaching influences of Roget's Thesaurus, this is an excellent resource.

And finally, now enter The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.

 Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet have created a magnificent picture book for all ages,  a stellar work of art-- an autobiography which narrates Roget's story, captures his love of words, and beautifully and visually honors his devotion to listing, cataloguing,  and connecting words, concepts, and ideas.

We follow young Peter Mark Roget on his sometimes lonely journey with books and words. We watch him as a child of eight start to write his own book---this is where his famous lists began.

On one of my favorite pages, Bryant and Sweet tell us and show his thinking:

as if

The Right Word.

Roget has been helping us in that search since 1852.

How do you find the right word?

Related Post:

 Collecting Words

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Select a piece of writing in which you have been struggling to find just the right word for a sentence or phrase.

Use a thesaurus to identify several viable choices.

Write a short essay or poem or experimental form examining the  nuances of the word choices, the appropriateness of the words, considering  the content, context and container of your writing.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014



So much of our living and loving,  teaching and talking,  thinking and planning is focused on noticing and celebrating differences.  

We make an effort to assure that each child living  in our home feels individually special and valued  as a unique person.

We strive to  make certain that each student in our classes recognizes herself in the books we share, the films we use for content-area learning, the examples we choose, the quotes we offer, and the daily general walking and talking we do in our collective spaces.

In the current educational climate in which we find ourselves-- expecting everyone to jump through the same hoops, use the same curriculum (tightly scripted in many cases), pass the same tests, and so forth-- I think that it is important to remind ourselves and our students that there are, indeed, unique and wonderful differences that we each display and experience, and that these are cause for celebration.

Recently, however, one of our  teacher consultants reported that a student in her class said that we should be spending more time focusing on all of our similarities, instead of constantly reading and talking about our differences. Other members of the class all agreed. 

This comment reminded me of something one of my mentors told me as I was just starting to work on my book.  He remarked that my writing prompts tended to require harder-darker-search-your-soul writing, rather than the "happier" sort.

I guess is some respects he was right.  We are all too thrilled to examine our happier, pleasant, and positive moments, but less ecstatic about turning over the stone that covers our deeper selves. Yet, that is often where the substantive, more meaningful, deeper writing lies.

Likewise, I  guess I also fall into the let's look at the differences category,  rather than we are all alike category.  I believe our uniquenesses make us interesting.

But perhaps, my colleague's students are right, just as my mentor was right.
Perhaps we do need to focus more on our similarities.

Perhaps by first establishing our similarities, the points where our sameness intersects, we can then return to the differences with a renewed and more genuine appreciation-- with the samenesses we have already identified, those similarities that bind us together, and the likenesses that foster our wanting to know each other and understand the differences-- providing a foundation for  collective exploration.

Perhaps we must immerse ourselves in the Me too's before we can honor the many Not mes.
And maybe we first need to identify the I agrees and I think the same things before we wrestle with and for the bones of contention.

When I think about my teaching, this was  always the pattern.  We established the points of our intersections, before beginning to examine our diversions.

One of my favorite tools for initiating this discussion with younger and older kids alike is We Are All Alike... We Are All Different, created by the .   

In both the original and newer edition,  this book examines both similarities and differences.

The book's simple structure can be easily imitated, just as it is, for the youngest writers, and also can be used as a supporting structure for creating a more difficult pattern by older writers.

We are all alike.
We all....
We are all different.
Some of us...
Some of us...
What do you...?
The repeated pattern deals with people-- our bodies, our families, our homes,  our food, as well as our likes and dislikes.

This vimeo makes the pattern clearly visible and becomes  a perfect conversation starter:

We Are All Alike...We Are All Different from KC on Vimeo.

As an additional writing possibility, I offer you an idea shared by one of our  teacher consultants in a past summer institute. This interactive writing activity will also generate alike and different teacher consultants in a past summer institute. This interactive writing activity will also generate alike and different thinking and writing. 

We began by writing Where I Am From poems using George Ella Lyon's original poem by the same title as a model and mentor text.. This generated thinking and writing about our differences, our I Am Also From poem. 

(For additional resources for writing about our lives, see my previous post, Poetic Memoirs )

We are all the same.  We are all different.

But science says we are more same than different.

Genetic researchers have consistently reported that the amount DNA that we all have in common is 99.9%.  What does this mean as we think about people and their differences?.  What does this mean as we classify and sort people,  as we include and exclude folks?

This piece of research may initiate new conversations, inquiry and writing.

More recent findings have lowered this common number to only 99.0%, but to me this is still a remarkable amount of similarity, considering our visible and apparent differences.  The newer, lower number does not significantly change the conversation we might have around the fact of shared DNA.

And finally, as we consider likenesses and differences from a variety of perspectives, I offer the eerie image of sameness presented in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine .

In Chapter 6- The Happy Medium, L'Engle describes the planet/city of Camazotz in which everything is the same, and everyone marches to the same beat, literally.

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of lawn in front,  with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door.
Meg had a feeling that if she could count the flowers there would be
exactly the same number for each house. In front of all the
houses children were playing. Some were skipping rope,
some were bouncing balls.
 Meg felt vaguely that something was wrong with their play. It seemed exactly like children playing around any housing development at home, and yet there was something different about it. She looked at Calvin, and saw that he, too, was puzzled.
"Look!" Charles Wallace said suddenly. "They're skipping and bouncing in rhythm!
 Everyone's doing it at exactly the same moment."
This was so. As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball.
Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again.
Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses.
Like the paths. Like the flowers.
Then the doors of all the houses opened simultaneously, and out came women like a row of paper dolls. The print of their dresses was different, but they all gave the appearance of being the same. Each woman stood on the steps of her house. Each clapped. Each child with the ball caught the ball. Each child with the skipping rope folded the rope. Each child turned and walked into the house. The doors clicked shut behind them.

As a child, this was the only part of the book that I later remembered--it was that disturbing to me..

When I reread the book as an adult, I was surprised to realize that the remembered text was such a small passage, tucked in the middle of the book about so many other ideas.

What about this sameness freaked me out as a kid?  I couldn't have explained it then.   I don't know that even now I can define the  factors that raise the hairs on my neck and make my stomach hurt. as I reread this passage from my past.

Perhaps the disturbing factor is the unrealistic mandated sameness that we now  face in education.

Perhaps that  radical 1% where we differ in our DNA ever strives to assert itself.

When is sameness valued?  When is it less desired?

We are all alike. We are all different.  What does this  mean?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

We have been taught since childhood that we are each unique and  our diversity is cause for celebration.

How are you like other people you know?  in your family?  among your friends? among your colleagues?

How are you different from people you know?

What likenesses and differences do you value?  Which seem to be hindrances?

Write a poem or personal essay exploring your similarities and differences to others.

Write a persuasive essay considering the roles of likenesses and differences in our society.
Consider the  positive and negative aspects of noticing, acknowledging,  celebrating, fostering, or even   mandating sameness or differences.