Archive for the ‘Talks’ Category

Live Assessment

September 8, 2010

This is the page of feedback from my P3 presentation. Use this form ( ) to give more feedback.  The PowerPoint from the session is here on SlideShare.

Radar Chart of Audience Assessment on Learner’s Criteria
Tag Cloud of Other Important Perspectives to consider assessing this work

Additional Comments
I have not yet digested the data from the session. Soon hopefully.

Learning in a Community of Angels

October 30, 2009
Prepared for presentation to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse
November 1, 2009

I want to start by thanking Jayme Jacobson and Eric Wegner for collaborating with me to create this service.

Today I’m going to share a personal reflection that weaves together two stories in my life. One story is the process to charter and open Palouse Prairie School. The other story is from the work I do at WSU, exploring how technology is impacting learning.

There is a place at the end of the program today for your response, but, in keeping with my WSU explorations, the text of my talk is also posted in my blog where you can comment. I’ll get back to why I blog.

The title today comes from a comment made by one of the Charter School Commissioners after Palouse Prairie’s first visit to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, in April 2007. The Commission had sent us away to work on our facility and budget plans. This Commissioner took me aside at a break and said, “You need an angel.”

Driving back from Boise, I realized that I had failed to ask him what an angel was, and more importantly, how to get one.

I think I know now what he meant by angel, in the sense of a financial angel or venture capitalist. Someone who would sweep in and solve the school’s financial problems. Such a person may yet exist for Palouse Prairie School, but in 2007 I didn’t know how to find an angel and so I needed to solve the school’s problem another way. What I found is a community of angels.

The opposite of a community of angels is the story of the little red hen. Wikipedia summarizes the story as: Hen wants to make some bread and she asks the animals which of them will help sow the seed. At each stage, sowing, harvesting, threshing, grinding and baking the other animals decline to help Hen. In the end Hen does not share the bread with the farm animals.

The story is used to teach the virtues of the work ethic and personal initiative. As you will see, I don’t think Hen lives in a community as I value it.

The virtue I would teach children is that of a participatory gift economy, a community created of gift giving.

Wikipedia again. “A gift economy … is a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists)….[R]ecurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within the community.”

Another aspect of the Hen story, that I’ve only recently considered, is that Hen knows how to solve her problem. Its a well-defined problem that just requires executing a series of steps.

Despite the three inch manual from the Idaho Department of Education, starting a Charter school is not just executing a series of steps.

Solving the School’s problem brings me to the other thread in this story. Solving a problem is the context for learning.

Teachers know this, which is why they set problems for students. Some problems have answers in the back of the book, other problems are more ill-defined and set in larger contexts. For example, we see university students working on class projects in our community: designing, analyzing, planning.

Expeditionary Learning would call these challenging problems an exploration into an unknown territory, where the challenge of traversing the territory becomes the teacher.

What I have come to appreciate is the role of community in giving gifts needed to help solve ill-defined problems. Some of these gifts are monetary, but importantly, many are not. Some are skills. Some are enthusiasm and joining into the collective doing. Some are gifts of teaching and learning.

I am calling the people who give these gifts the “small angels” who continue to help Palouse Prairie School.

My title today is “Learning in a Community of Angels” because my joy comes from discovering a personal understanding of a community willing to contribute to my learning (our learning) along the road to solving a problem. This goes beyond my previous experience with community, the joy that comes from communal effort toward a common task.  I’ve shared that joy with some of you at a barn raising.

Styer Barn Raising (mid-lift)

I now see Community is a learning resource. The angels (and there are many) are the people who make up the community.

They have gifts to share, if you can learn to frame or re-frame your problem in ways that they can contribute.

Rather than finding a big angel to solve the school’s problem, what I am learning is to value the gifts from small angels.

But working with small angels requires setting up contexts in which gifts can be given. It involves working on your problem in public, telling your story, and then listening for the (sometimes unexpected) gifts. The gifts often come as teaching. It may be the introduction to another person and some hidden talent they have, or an introduction to a idea and its application. The key is to be open, and to accept a variety of help — to participate in what Cathy Davidson calls Collaboration by Difference — and let the community find the answer. We (not I) started Palouse Prairie School, and we, a collaborative community, are learning to make it thrive.

I cited Wikipedia above. Wikipedia is an example of the work of many small angels. Jimmy Wales had the idea of getting an encyclopedia into the hands of every person on earth. To do so, he needed one that was very cheap. He needed volunteer experts to write it. Today Wikipedia has 1.74 billion words in 9.25 million articles in about 250 languages; 25 times the size of Britannica and growing. But size, or arguments about quality, are not my point here, rather, Wikipedia cleverly presents an invitation for small angels, with different purposes, knowledge, and goals, to collaborate toward a grand vision (even if they do not know or share the vision). Wikipedia is a Collaboration by Difference.

Above, I said that I have blogged this sermon. I blog because of what I learned from George Hotz, the teenager who hacked the Apple iPhone. Hotz had a problem that required he defeat the corporate goals of Apple and AT&T to use his iPhone on the Sprint network. He blogged daily his steps in the process. Not in a vain-glorious way, but to elicit help from angels around the world. And the angels came, and commented in his blog, and provided money and other resources. Hotz’s strategy to work in public and learn from a community enabled him to solve his chosen problem.

I welcome your comments today (or in my blog) in the same spirit, as gifts toward our shared learning.

The joy I am sharing with you is one of community. Community created by a gift economy.

Able to learn.  Able to take collective action.

In the opening words for today, by John Seely Brown, “We participate, therefore we are.” I want to encourage your giving, your learning, your collaboration, your making of our community.

Months ago, when I proposed the topic of this talk, I had no thought that it would land in the middle of the UUCP pledge process. But I am happy that it does.

I want to encourage you to join me in your willingness to give, monetary and otherwise, that creates this community of shared religious dialog. I want to encourage your giving that creates this community of Moscow.

I am sharing my joy of experiencing and coming to understand that community is built not of our co-location, but of our gifts to one another.

Gifts of sustenance or succor.

Gifts of cooperation.

Gifts of collective action and gifts of learning.

Reverence for Wood

October 5, 2009

A talk delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, Mar 20, 2005.
Title borrowed from Eric Sloane’s great little book

This was first posted on PBJ, WSU’s first blog tool, now retired. I rescued it here as part of preparations for another talk I’m giving at the church.


Good morning.

I’m going to tell you stories from my passion as a timber framer.

My stories are of engagement, of connection, of joining. With ecosystems, with people, with life.

Today you have permission to stare at the floor as I talk. Let me tell you about the ecology I see below your feet. The wood is red, or Douglas, fir.

As firs get taller, and crowd one another, the lower limbs drop off. Eventually, new rings of growth close over the wounds. Pretty soon the rings are uniform. Look around for the wavy grain characteristic of wood near knots. No waves, no knots, means tall straight trees.

Think of a tree stump, showing circles of growth rings. Imagine cutting it like a pie. Your cuts are at right angles to the rings, you see the rings edge on, as in this floor. We call this quarter sawn. Imagine cutting tangent to the rings, you see wide wavy patterns, the side views of the rings, typical of modern boards and especially of plywood.

Each ring is a year. Each ring on this floor is maybe 1/16 inch wide. Since these boards are quarter sawn, one edge was toward the center of the tree, the other toward the bark. 2 1/4 inches equates to 38 years. 38 years with no knots, 38 years after the the limbs had dropped and the wounds had grown over.

Look around and you’ll see some yellow edges in a few boards. This is the sap wood, the youngest wood, closest to the bark. Its not as hard, so the mill culled it. I’ve spotted sap wood in this floor that might be an inch wide — so the sap wood represents 15-20 years of growth after the rings  of these boards were lain down.

Let’s assume it takes a red fir 40 years to grow big enough to be limb free on its lower 20 feet. Another 38 years to lay down 2 1/4” of the boards you see, and 15-20 years in the sap wood outside that. The trees in this floor were at least 100 years old.

Given the age of the church, they were saplings when Lewis and Clark visited. The trees that grew up after these trees were harvested could just be reaching a size where new wood of this quality might be harvested. Of course, the forest is not being managed to produce wood like this anymore.

Your homework is to visit Idler’s Rest. The stand of trees along the creek will give you an impression of the forest where this floor grew. These boards lived in a cathedral.

Wood connects me to ecosystems and to time.

Lodgepole pine is a pioneer species after a forest fire. The lodge pole seeds are released from their cones by the heat of a fire, the trees live about 100 years, and as they die, other species of pine and fir succeed them. When mature, the trees are small — 12-14” on the stump, but very tall.

In the summer of 1994 I got a chance to work in a climax lodge pole woods, outside Elk City, gathering the wood for my first timber frame, which now serves as our woodshed. The structure has hand hewn 8×8 timbers of lodge pole, spruce, and cedar.

Hewing, or squaring up a log into a timber, is done with two axes: a felling ax and a broad ax. The felling ax is the long handled ax you know for chopping down trees. To hew a log, you stand on it, and every 18 inches, use the felling ax to chop a notch to touch what will be the plane of your finished timber. Wear heavy boots, you are chopping between your toes. Then, using a sideways swing, you hit into one notch, splitting off an 18” long chunk, called a juggle. Repeat on the second side. Roll the log and do the remaining two sides. You now have a very roughly square timber.

The broad ax has a short handle and a wide blade, sharpened from one side. You stand beside the timber and swing down along the vertical plane, shaving off the high spots left from juggling. If you are good, you end up with a straight, square timber with only tool marks left by the swing of the broad ax.

The best part of hewing in a climax forest, is resting (which I did frequently) and looking at the diversity of little plants that cover the forest floor. The juggles that you have cut off are good firewood, that both warm you and remind you of time spent in the woods.

The other thing about hewing is it teaches you how skillful work should look, and teaches you to read a timber for the marks left by its maker. Having learned to watch for tool marks, and from them to read the skill of the worker, I was delighted to get the scarf joint on display as today’s art, on my left.

Dan Schmidt had this joint on the end of a timber he’d rescued. If you happened to see the cover of the Daily News Friday, there is a photo taken inside the Potlatch mill. In that photo, the beams (top plates) that recede into the distance (maybe 400 feet) were probably joined, end to end, with a joint like this one.

Examine this piece after the service to see the tool marks left by a carpenter who sawed that long flat plane with a hand saw. He did it in a single cut, without wavering or wandering, or needing to plane to clean up his work. There was a time when artisans understood their tools, and wood, and were able to make things like this piece, or to the hew smooth flat timbers.

Working wood connects me to other people who teach me through the marks they leave.

Birch does not show annual rings. Its as strong as red fir, but most engineering tables don’t list it, typically, an asterisk says “used for cabinetry.” Its texture is very uniform. It splits and carves well. Yesterday I was cutting sections from the birch Bill Styer and Jerry Gzerbielski removed behind the yellow house to make into pegs.

The birch tree in our former minister, Lynn Unger’s, front yard, now spans the center of my barn.  It unwittingly turned me into an urban hardwood forester.

From Lynn’s birch, I went on to ash, box elder, chestnut, cherry, elm, linden, locust, maple, Russian olive and walnut. These woods, because of their interesting color, often enhanced by disease that caused their removal, and because of their large limbs that create large knots and interesting grain, brought me together with wood turners, who have gladly taken pieces I could not use and turned them into art.

Urban trees opened my interest in the knowledge our forefathers had of the eastern hardwood forest, and made me aware of the diverse strengths of its many species.

Hardwoods have joined me into a circle of giving among wood workers.

I built a fire this morning: pine and ash, with birch and walnut for kindling.

Every day, from mid-September to early May, (250 times/year) I light a fire. This is the other end of wood’s life cycle in my hands.

I’ve built a fire, 250 times a year, for 10 years. As I was writing this talk I could hear our stove, the soft pinging of a waning fire. I’m aware of the sounds of the stove. I listen for them. They tell me when its working well, when it needs attention. They remind me I am connected. Connected to trees, whose by products I burn. Connected to people whose skills with wood and with tools I’ve admired and emulated.

Its been suggested to me that I should prefer to burn red fir in my stove, its optimal. Its also the kind of thinking that leads to mono-crop agriculture and single species planting in forests. And, we’ve seen with the blight on Moscow Mountain, what single species forestry brings.

I think our forefathers were closer to right. They preferred each tree for its best qualities. Oak or red fir makes a hard floor or a strong beam. Locust makes a rot resistant fence post. Ash and hickory make good tool handles. Cedar makes a good roof or keeps moths from your woolens. Fruit wood makes good smoke for preserving food.

My sister asks why I don’t get a pellet stove. She thinks it would be easier than gathering wood, splitting it,  stacking it, then moving it to the porch, and tending it in a fire.

As if easier is better.

In this case, easier is disconnected.

… from the trees, from knowing that locust is best on a night in the teens, pine is fine for taking off the chill in the early fall. Disconnected

…from the process, both the work which I’ve never begrudged, and the meditation of watching a fire.   Disconnected

… from the history of people who have worked with, and heated with wood. Disconnected

…from the ecologic cost of my own consumption.


How do you decide differently when you are connected to (vs. disconnected from)  the ecologic consequences, aware of (vs. indifferent to) diverse strengths, engaged with (vs. separated from) the human participants and consequences?

For me, a decade after raising my first timber frame, the whole activity is less about building and more about engaging, joining, connecting.

The process, and the materials, have become my teachers, helping me to be more in tune, more connected, more reverent.

The trees and I have an arrangement.