“I never learned to read!”

About 15 years ago one of my brightest, most articulate students told me that she hated to read. I was shocked. She went on to describe reading as a painful chore she associated with school, something she was forced to do on threat of punishment. I looked at the assignments and assessments through her eyes and I saw her point. So I decided to change things up. I invented different ways to assess reading skills. Recently I sat with some students who somehow managed to make it nearly all the way through high school without learning to read – or even caring whether they learned to read – so I’m bringing this one back. Please feel free to share it with the learners and readers in your life, and try it yourself! dp

This was originally published on a high school English course blog, long before the pandemic and the shitgibbon…

You know, as much as we talk about reading, it’s easy to overlook the fact that some of us didn’t grow up with books and occasionally have a hard time with the basics.

Consider poor Wayne:

So, how do you know how well you can sound out words and get through a text without mistakes?

Here’s how:

1. Watch the video below;
2. Get a copy of Fox in Sox by Dr. Seuss;
3. Set up a phone or a camera (or get a friend to help);
4. Read the book as fast and as well as you can;
5. Record your time and the number of mistakes you make;
6. Compare your numbers with mine.  Don’t forget to count my mistakes–I just learned that I’ve been mispronouncing the author’s name my whole life!
7. Post your video and your stats on your blog under the heading I CAN READ!


In reply to questions from the email bag…

  • If you’re having trouble finding the book, here is the text without the pics.
  • My reading was a one-take job, but yours doesn’t have to be. You can practice all you want before posting your best effort.
  • To earn course credit you must publish your post (title: I CAN READ!) by 11:59 P.M. on [date]. Bonus for additional renditions with friends/relatives 🙂

thank you

The Thanksgiving holiday has a troubled history that remains our troubled present. Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation was a patriarchal, overtly religious, plagiarized lie intended to distract Americans from genocide, slavery, and race rioting.

Here we are, 159 years later, still dealing with some of the very same issues.

Today I am putting all that aside to make room for gratitude. I want to celebrate Thanksgiving just because I love feeling thankful.

When I taught high school English, I would end every year’s blog with a post that said something like this:

As I think about it, I want to thank you right now. Seriously. Thank you. You could be doing anything in this moment. I appreciate your giving me the chance to share a couple thoughts with you.

A Useful Reminder

In 2018 I was invited to speak at the MIT Media Lab. The talk was scheduled for the week before my wife and I got married. We made the trip into a prenup honeymoon. It was awesome. We ate clam chowder, visited all the famous historical sites, and saw the Red Sox play the Yankees in Fenway Park.

But just a few minutes after we got to Fenway, the skies opened and the rain poured down. I paid good money for field level seats down the first base line. This was a one-time shot and I worried that the game might be rained out.

Everyone left their seats for the cover of the concourse. Thousands of mostly good-natured, smart-ass fans of both teams crammed in, soggy shoulder to soggy shoulder, and drank beer and ripped each other for wearing the wrong hat and speaking with the wrong accent.

What a night for Open-Source Learning. There are about 417 colleges in the Boston area, so there is a good chance that your bartender and cabby both have advanced degrees. In that moment, everyone was a meteorologist. The truck driver next to me taught me about the doppler algorithms that derive temporal and spatial trends in visualizing precipitation. I shit you not.

My friend Rocco texted me from the North End bar where he works the door: “Give it about 17 minutes. And bring lots of napkins back to your seats because you’ll be sitting in 1/4″ of water.”

17 minutes. On the NOSE. I still don’t know how Rocco did it. But there we were, back in our seats, watching the grounds crew take the tarp off the field. It was glorious.

And then the 20-something kid in front of me says to his date, “I don’t get why I should be thankful about anything.”

Are you kidding me? In this world, you can’t find a reason to be thankful? This marvelous world of baseball and algorithmic storm technology porn? This world, where an epic downpour delays the game for only 17 minutes?!? That is just sad. I winced and thought of former UCLA Speech and Debate Coach Tom Miller, the way he’d scrunch his eyes closed, wrinkle his nose, and – just before completely obliterating your argument – say, “I can give you 263 reasons. Here are 5.”

I can give you 263+ reasons to be thankful. Here are 5.

5 Reasons to Be Thankful

  1. Grateful people feel better. A 2012 study by Hill, Allemand, and Roberts indicates that grateful people report taking better care of their health and feeling fewer aches and pains.
  2. Gratitude can help you get a good night’s sleep. Writing for 15 minutes in a gratitude journal before bedtime can help you sleep longer and better, according to research conducted by Digdon and Koble in 2011.
  3. Gratitude helps us overcome trauma. In a survey of 350 people who had lost their parents, 79% of respondents associated increased gratitude with lower depression, greater appreciation for loved ones, and an overall newfound belief that life is precious. Other studies have associated gratitude with lower rates of PTSD in Vietnam War veterans and improved resilience in coping with the aftermath of 9/11.
  4. Gratitude increases self-esteem. Do you know any really jealous, resentful people who are truly grateful? Not likely. Gratitude makes us more likely to appreciate other people’s successes – and feel better about ourselves as a result, because we’re not obsessing over what they have that we don’t. A 2014 study in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology shows that grateful athletes have better self-esteem.
  5. Expressing gratitude can make you friends. According to Williams and Bartlett (2015), “Recipients of expressions of gratitude were more likely to extend the effort to continue the relationship” with people they’d just met, because expressions of gratitude are associated with warmth, friendliness, and thoughtfulness.
  6. (Bonus!) Gratitude makes us more receptive learners. According to my admittedly informal lifetime of classroom and interpersonal observations, when people are excited about receiving, they get more out of the gift.

Happy Thanksgiving. Every day.

the right tool for the job

I originally wrote this 10+ years ago on a course blog for high school students – it applies now more than ever. -dp


In the words of Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher whose work influenced prominent writers and thinkers from Charles Dickens to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.

It’s easy to mistake the use of the internet in learning as a simple way to make the same ol’ same ol’ seem a little more entertaining. What we’re doing now goes way beyond that. Today you have the ability to use multiple media in ways that most effectively communicate your ideas and your sense of self.  As you select from a rapidly expanding online toolbox, keep in mind that every tool we use has a form, a function, a capacity to be interpreted (and sometimes hacked) by users, and even a “DNA” instilled by its creators that influences the way it’s perceived and adopted.

Technology doesn’t necessarily mean electronics. If you ask any serious writer, s/he will tell you that the action on a keyboard, the balance of a pen, or the texture of paper can make just as much difference as processing speed. If you ask a musician or a craftsperson or a mechanic, buckle up and enjoy the ride, because you’re going to be there a while.

Nothing does the job like a simple, classic, well-made tool.  Here is a picture of me holding a 2 million year-old Acheulean Paleolithic bifacial hand axe— the longest used tool in human history.  It fit my hand perfectly, right down to the indentations for thumb and fingers, like it was custom-made for me– an especially rare experience for a lefty.

Apart from the perfect feel/form/function, there is something about an enduring classic that doesn’t hold true for the phone you buy today that will be non-state-of-the-art in a few months.  This is about more than craft, art, or even quality: this sort of attention to detail is the product of loving care.  It’s the difference between home-cooked and store-bought.  For real practitioners of anything worthwhile, tools aren’t just about techne, they are extensions of our humanity.  Ask anyone who plays their music on a turntable, develops their own photographs, or sends handwritten letters.

And if the last few paragraphs didn’t convince you to re-examine the tools you use and why, maybe a 39-second commercial is the right tool for the persuasive job:

ferocious joy

Fun is underrated. Joy is the truest measure of success in learning.

You know that feeling when you finally solve the mystery, remember the idea, see the solution, hear the music? Oh, that is so good!

What if we made that feeling our priority in helping each other understand concepts and master skills?

Take a moment and imagine the most serious cause you care most about. Is it the environment, reproductive rights, economic inequality, education? Who are the experts you admire for their successes in the field? Imagine what would happen if these champions were also role-models of having a great time.  What if they were consistently, observably happy and joyful in their work? What if they shared their sense of humor, or even just smiled more often?

We know that success breeds fun. Winning cures all sorts of problems. Just look at the teammates who hate each other all season long, hugging and spraying each other with champagne in the championship locker room.

But what are we doing in the meantime, while we’re working toward our goals?

The Hard Part is The Good Part

Too often we overlook the process and focus on the result.

Every rep, every mile, every experiment, every sentence, every mistake, and every failure is the good part. Those moments when we practice and improve, and occasionally stumble, those are the moments when we earn whatever success we eventually achieve.

No one but me knows how many hours I worked today, or whether I got all the way in the cold plunge and stayed there after my workout. In fact, no one but me knows whether I dedicate myself to any given task.

But I know.

And I love it.


Some elements of life don’t lend themselves to a curriculum or a lecture.

The difference between students and learners is that learners are driven to take action.

As a teacher, I can create an environment that is favorable to growth, and I can contribute content that will facilitate understanding, but that’s about it. Learning is located in the learner.

That said, no matter what I’m teaching, I have a great time doing what I do. That makes a difference to the people around me.

I don’t teach subjects. I inspire learners.

Have Fun

There are plenty of valid reasons in the world today for us to feel miserable. Despondent. Hopeless. If you feel that way, please know that I understand.

I don’t want to spill pixels trying to talk you out of your feelings. I have plenty of inspirational quotes, research studies, and philosophical histories if you need them, but for now I just want you to know: Your feelings are beautiful and I respect you.

That said, whatever you are thinking and feeling, I’d like to invite you to conduct a very small experiment. You won’t need to spend any money or tell anyone. Just give yourself five minutes.

Here is the entire process:

1. Take up to three minutes to brainstorm. (If you’re a planner, you can enjoy the entire 180 seconds. Some of your ideas will be pretty fun even if you don’t act on them. If you’re more spontaneous or if you get an actionable idea sooner, proceed to #2.)

2. Have fun.

You have total autonomy in how you define fun, as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else. Close the door and do a ridiculous dance. Say something silly in a really serious tone of voice. Say the same word over and over until it doesn’t make any sense (and then teach someone else about semantic satiation it’s also fun with friends!). There are so, so many things we can do to make today more fun.

Make pancakes with a kid who wields a spatula like a Jedi.

Be Ferocious

Just look at my daughter’s face. She. Meant. Business. I took that picture nearly 10 years ago and I hope she never loses that spark.

She will have to work to keep it, though, because because someone will tell her – and you, and me – that we should be more … something else, and less of ourselves. They’ll tell us to wipe that smile off our face and take things seriously. Or that we should look the part. Dress the part. ACT the part.

In those moments we have to remember: fun is different than frivolous. I have serious fun and nobody gets to have an opinion about my fun, because I get shit done and I am savagely good at what I do. Believe it or not, I wrote that last sentence with a deep sense of humility and honor-bound obligation. I feel a responsibility to speak up and defend fun, especially in learning, because far too many teachers and school administrators feel so beat up in today’s world that they can’t even claim their own excellence for fear that someone will tear them down. To some negative weirdos, having fun raises suspicions: You’re a high school teacher? You say you’re having fun? Are you on drugs?!?

Be ferocious. Protect your joy. You will instantly become more successful.

Seriously: Have fun.

If you’d like to have fun together, or if you’d like some Open-Source Learning strategies for having and encouraging fun, or if you’d like to have a fun argument and help me understand why everything is no fun at all, please feel free to Contact Me and let’s start the conversation!

ain’t no mountain high enough

Listen, baby…

Chapter 1: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

The Cactus to Clouds hike up San Jacinto Peak is the 5th hardest day hike in America. A couple weekends ago I hiked the South Lykken and Skyline sections, which ascend 8400 feet from the Coachella Valley Floor trailhead at the end of Ramon Road to Long Valley and the upper mountain station of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

I felt great. I’m a champion of putting one foot in front of the other.

As the sun rose during the first few thousand feet, I turned every once in a while to appreciate the view (if you look closely, you can even see a wind front picking up dust – fortunately it wasn’t another haboob):

On this trail there is a point of no return. Apart from the fact that going down is harder on knees, ankles, and hips than going up, you won’t have enough time or water to deal with the daytime heat at the lower elevation. The only way home is up. The only way out is through.

Stay with me. This is about more than hiking.

“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” -Marcus Aurelius

There are two Rescue Boxes on this trail.

Lack of preparation can turn hiking the Skyline into a matter of life and death. That’s why they’re called Rescue Boxes, and not Boxes of Water and Food. This is the only help you’re going to get up here unless someone sends a helicopter.

The changes on San Jacinto Peak are deceptively subtle. The plants in the picture of me just below this paragraph look the same as the ones in the picture of me above. They are not the same plants. The plants in the picture below grow at higher altitude – that white thing in the background is the cloud layer in the San Gorgonio Pass between the San Jacinto Mountains and the San Bernardino Mountains.

As I looked past the clouds toward Big Bear, I wasn’t thinking about how the pass was formed by the San Andreas Fault, or how it divides Southern California’s Mediterranean climate to the west from the desert to the east, or how it’s one of the windiest places in the United States…

I just thought, “Damn! We’re above the clouds!”

That’s about when I started feeling the altitude. For a lifelong asthmatic, I have a pretty good VO2 max and I wasn’t feeling short of breath or tired.

I recognized the altitude because I started feeling anxious.

I was no longer excited about the views and I didn’t want to look down.

After the dryfall we had to navigate a traverse and scramble up boulders to Coffman’s Crag. The anxiety intensified.

The traverse wasn’t super technical or very long, it was just narrow, loose, and sloped downhill – and combined with the altitude, that was just enough to make me nervous. Every loose rock that tumbled away reminded me of what could happen if I made a mistake.

I started talking to the mountain. “Thank you.” I said that a lot. “Thank you for this foothold. Thank you for that root. Thank you for letting me hang out here today and get where I’m going in one piece.”

At the beginning of the hike, I was aware of the changes in the plants and rocks as we climbed.

In the middle of the hike, I was aware of the cooling temperature and the thinning air.

By the time we started seeing tourists wandering aimlessly near the upper mountain tram station, I realized that nothing outside myself had actually changed. The mountain is the mountain, at every elevation. You can only see a little bit at a time, but it’s always hotter down there and colder up there.

The real change was in me.

I love General Omar Bradley’s idea that courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. I believe this is a capacity we can build through practice. Why walk up a mountain when you can see the pictures on the internet? Doing difficult things by choice strengthens our capacity to manage our stress and do difficult things when they show up unexpectedly.

Chapter 2: Ain’t No Valley Low Enough

Sometimes we don’t choose our own adventures.

Five days after I hiked San Jacinto Peak, I was driving home from the pharmacy when my brain said, “Surprise!”

Suddenly I couldn’t pronounce words or speak in complete sentences.

In my head, Bob Dylan was singing: “‘Cause you know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is…”

I pulled over and switched places with my wife, who aimed for the nearest Emergency Room.

Four hours later, my CT scan was perfect, my blood tests were perfect, my speech had reconnected with my thoughts, and neither of us had any idea what the fuck happened.

I was miserable and I wanted to go home. All I could think about was how much I’d be charged for each minute I stayed there, each beep of the monitors… Just as I finally disconnected the leads and told a nurse I was leaving, a neurologist finally showed up.

“David,” she said, “let’s talk.”

Oh shit. I sat back down and prepared myself for the worst.

Fortunately, her diagnosis wasn’t a stroke or an aneurysm. My symptoms were consistent with so-called silent migraine headaches. Silent migraines come with less pain, but they involve visual effects and – this was new to me – they can interfere with speech. The doctor called what I experienced a complex migraine.

Earlier I quoted Marcus Aurelius. Over the last few years Stoicism has become an increasingly important part of my thinking. It’s a working person’s philosophy that doesn’t sugarcoat reality. I think that’s the most helpful part of any philosophy or spiritual practice. Deal with what’s right in front of you. One foot in front of the other along the traverse. Memento mori: remember that you’re going to die.

If that seems negative or even macabre to you, think of someone in your life who is unhappy. Then, try this gem on from Anthony de Mello:

“‘What is the secret of your serenity?’
Said the Master, ‘Wholehearted cooperation with the inevitable.’”

I try to avoid expectations that lead to the samsara of disappointment, frustration, or resentment. That’s why I’m careful about how I describe my life. I didn’t “conquer” the mountain or “beat” an illness. I just did some stuff and didn’t die. Yet.

Whatever you take on, and whatever takes you on, I hope you find yourself prepared, strong, and, most of all, understanding of the fact that we are all operating at the mercy of forces far outside our control.

Tomorrow is promised to no one. Have a nice today.

If you’re interested in exploring the spiritual fitness aspect of Open-Source Learning, or if you’d like to explain why this is all dumb and your way of thinking is superior, please Contact Me.