Prologue: A Remembrance

Before I was sentenced to twelve years of forced labor at this modern invention called “school,” I had a couple of years of toddler freedom to explore the vast wonders of my small world. A particularly magical place was my father’s closet. A costume gallery of shirts, pants, coats, ties, and suits of 1950s and ’60s vintage, it was an invitation to drama. This was around 1967, luckily – before the pastel leisure suits arrived. (You have to be a certain age to have that cringing laugh.)

I remember the adventure like it was yesterday. First, drag a chair into the bathroom and place it in front of the sink. Stand on it, reach for the can of Gillette, and lather the face. Breathe deep that minty smell. Then grab the razor, and enact the stately rite I’d so closely studied my father perform each morning: long downstrokes on the cheeks, careful upstrokes under the chin and jaw, short strokes on the “mustache,” careful dabs under the nostrils while pulling down the upper lip – crane close to the mirror for those corners. Careful, careful – there.

Rinse face, towel it, and give one last look to the mirror. Approve it with a nod. Put a couple of dabs of toilet paper on the imaginary nicks to absorb the imaginary blood. Grab the Vitalis, slick back the hair, nod gravely into the mirror one last time. Step down, drag chair back to dining room, and move on to dress.

In Daddy’s Shoes

The shirt is easy to button, and the tie, tied with my own special knot, a thing of pride (no adult is there to tell me I’m wrong). The pants I skip, since the shirt drags the floor. I’m impatient, anyway, for the peak moment of this drama: putting on my father’s shoes.

Wingtips. I didn’t know they were called that then, but I knew I loved them. Those cobbled perforations on toe and sides, the sturdy leather. The choice of black or brown made, the peak moment comes: stepping into those shoes.

They’re big, but so am I. Four and a half, going on five. I can pull it off.

I step into them, turn, and march into the kitchen to announce to my mother that I am ready for breakfast. The smile that breaks out on her face when she turns from the oven to respond? I take that for approval. I eat my breakfast in dignity, the man of the house. Mom clears the dishes – she’s a product of the American ’50s – and off I go to whatever adventure next awaits: hanging out on the roof, exploring the woods behind the house, or inspecting the pregnancy or latest litter – it was always one or the other, it seems – of our guiltlessly promiscuous bitch, Buffy.

Or maybe I hang out with Nanny, my mother’s mother, to play with making sounds and words out of these wonderful cubes with letters on them. It’s called reading.

My first grade teacher showed my reading off to another teacher, a couple years later, as if she deserved the credit. I liked her, but she didn’t. Nanny taught me that before I ever started that thing called school.

Exegesis on the Above

It started as a way to state this: I hope all of Wes’ readers are as generous, as I try to fill his shoes, as my mother was when I tried to fill my father’s.

But then I got carried away by this thing called flow. I like flow. It makes me want to keep writing. As a high school English/Language Arts teacher, this flow is what I wish I could produce in my students. Unfortunately, I teach Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, which forces me to instead force my students to focus on being academic writers. If you read my blog, Beyond School, you know how that rankles. I chose not to pursue a doctorate in literature precisely because I didn’t want to inflict constipated academic analyses on the poets I loved, nor on myself. Now here I am, being forced by a prescribed curriculum and a high-stakes exam to inflict that very thing on my students.

More on that in my next post here, about the “Mini-me” to NCLB’s “Dr. Evil” – the Educational Testing Service.

Anyway, don’t get too Freudian on me about the “filling Wes’ shoes” bit. I’m just saying that Wes is of an entirely different order than I am. I’d read and learned from Wes long before meeting him at the Shanghai Learning 2.0 Conference in October 2007, where I learned how easy and stimulating he is to engage face to face. So it’s an honor to be invited to post here.

An Edu-Autobiography: My Special Niche in 21st Century Education

I’ve explored other educational blogs long enough and widely enough to say that I do think that, as a classroom teacher, I occupy a fairly unique position in 21st century education: it’s a “right place at the right time” thing. Here’s the scoop, by way of a brief history of my teaching career:

I taught at an elite international school in Shanghai for five years. The last year or two I was there, Jeff Utecht of The Thinking Stick blog joined the school. I attended Jeff’s voluntary professional development workshops about Moodle, and began exploring blended learning using Moodle in my Asian history classroom. I loved it, and so did my students. We had fantastic discussions in forums about all sorts of controversial things – whether atheists are by definition without morals (my atheist students put that bit of silliness to rest in short order), whether history textbooks from the United States are any less biased than Japan’s (which relegate such things as the Rape of Nanking to footnotes, if they mention them at all), and more.

I left that school in Shanghai because, while it was a good 20th century school, it felt too big, ossified, and complacent with its own reputation for me to create 21st century change there. Teachers with more seniority or experience held the reigns of power in the English and history departments, and they were not, as a rule, open to the shifts I’d seen in my classroom under Jeff Utecht’s influence.

I took a position at a younger international school in Korea, because it seemed more open to innovation. When I interviewed, high school principal Rich Boerner’s enthusiastic discussion of the school’s ample laptop carts – and his equally enthusiastic responses to my portfolio examples of the Moodle history activities – sold me. (The administration’s openness to allowing me to design a cross-disciplinary English and history curriculum was icing on the cake.) I signed the contract and left Shanghai for Seoul.

My instinct about Korea International School was spot on. In my first year there, I put the laptop carts to constant use in my English and history classes. In both classes, we used Moodle. My English students started blogging in the first semester, as well. At Shanghai, I only had two computers in my classroom for student use. Having a laptop cart with a computer for every student in my Seoul classroom was new, and it took a while to learn a new dance.

EnterMission: A Virtual Vacation and Holiday Conversion

Something wild happened at the end of that first semester. While most of the other teachers at my school took off for Thailand and other sunny climes, I suffered the consequences of my inability to plan vacations, and spent three weeks alone in my apartment in cold, icy Seoul. I had begun a personal blog (nobody knows about that one, since it was anonymous) the summer before, when I was new in Seoul (and newly divorced and alone), but beyond that, I wasn’t tapped in to the world of reading blogs. I just wrote in my own little obscure corner.

But during that vacation, I somehow started reading Karl Fisch’s The Fischbowl,* and for those three weeks read it voraciously. I followed Karl’s links to Darren Kuropatwa, Clarence Fisher,** and Scott McLeod and others, and began learning how infinitely explosive learning could be with those simple laptop carts I was using for Moodle’s walled garden.

And I began blogging about what I learned reading Karl and and his linkages for the rest of that vacation. I was drunk with visions. I wrote about 30 hyper-caffeinated, often wild-eyed (and hilariously plagiaristic and copyright-violating) posts in two weeks on a LiveJournal blog I called, in a fit of prescient luck, “Beyond School.” On New Year’s Eve, I decided to migrate all of those posts to Blogger, and claimed Beyond School on Technorati there on January 1, 2007. ***

I mention this simply because it was, professionally, the watershed moment. It was literally transformative. My personal blog about personal stuff as I adjusted to a new life in a new country was enjoyable to write, but it was still, in the end, just a journal.**** Beyond School – blogging to learn, create, and reflect on other education blogs – was a different thing entirely. It felt more like an inventor’s notebook, an artist’s sketchpad, and a traveler’s log than a journal; and I felt like equal parts Edison, Bosch, and Herodotus. My new blog was a place to dream about educational possibilities in this brave new web, and dream them publicly. Dream I did, and self-publish all on that blog. It made all the difference for the second semester for me and, as you’ll see, for my school.

(And to spoon-feed the obvious: the Shanghai school sent its entire faculty, most expenses paid, to travel to a four-day EARCOS conference as its idea of world class professional development – 20th century thinking at its finest. A year’s worth of EARCOS couldn’t match the value of the 21st century professional development I got simply from reading and commenting on other blogs, and writing on my own – all free, thus kinder to the school budget and, more importantly, to the natural environment.)

Semester Two: Shift Happens in My Classroom

Still swimming under the influence in Karl’s Fischbowl, I started blogging “Teacher Think-alouds” as a way to plan my units with a heavy dose of shift. I can’t recommend this highly enough for teachers. Some quick examples from my first two months of blogging

  • The French Revolution Ant-Farm Diaries**** Thinkaloud: a friend still in Shanghai, Jonathan Chambers, reads and comments on my French Revolution unit Think-Aloud, and helps me improve it that way. Then Jason Spivey, who taught World History 9 in the room next to mine, jumped into this wiki adventure, and voila: the first wall came down. Yes, it was just the wall between our two classrooms, but it was more: it was also the walls of time, since students from four separate classes were all writing hyperlinked, interactive historical fiction diaries based on research of the French Revolution.
  • The Arabian Nights/1001 Flat World Tales Thinkalouds: Building on the improved student engagement Jason and I saw during the French Revolution collaborative writing, I wanted now to explode the next walls: the ones separating my school from other schools in the world. And this time, it was not for history, but for my Arabian Nights unit in my English class. Inspired by Julie Lindsay‘s and Vicki DavisFlat Classroom Project, I “thoughtaloud” on my blog to find the idea to adapt that to my content-area classroom, then contacted Karl Fisch in Colorado and Jeff Whipple in Canada. Karl hooked me up with an English teacher in his school, and Chris Watson from Honolulu somehow found my little blog – or did I find his? – and came on board (this started a relationship that lasts to this day). Down came the walls, as 130 students from three schools around the globe wrote, revised, and gave peer feedback to each other on the 1001 Tales wiki, then published the best stories on the 1001 Flat World Tales blog.
  • A Broken World wiki textbook and companion blog: This unit was a collaboration only between my two world history classes. As this thinkaloud explains, it took minimal planning and labor due to its simplicity: students adapted their paper textbook into a wiki textbook, giving it more engaged language and multimedia content from YouTube and other places, and embedded their own videotaped lectures on their assigned chapters in the wiki. They also blogged reflectively on a group “Broken World” blog about the meaning of World Wars I and II each week.

All of this happened within my first three months of blogging. (You can see more on all those examples and more on my Teaching Gallery page on Beyond School.) Here’s a video describing the Broken World and 1001 Tales projects. (I can’t figure out how to embed it on Wes’ WordPress, sorry.)

Next Post: Shift Happens in My School: We Go 1:1 – A MacBook for Every Child

I’d planned to write this section in this post, but, um – I’m getting married in seven days, and need to take care of buying a certain piece of jewelry today with my fiancee. I think Wes will understand.

But lest you think that next post will be celebratory of the joys of going 1:1, be warned: it will surprise you. While I think the journey is the right one, and will justify itself in the long term, I’ll instead describe some of the hardships I’m facing trying to take my students further beyond school.

Sorry for the length. Thanks for reading – and thanks again, Wes 🙂

*Karl, I’ve given you grief more than one time since this infatuation stage – normally because my passion makes me a jerk sometimes 😉 – but if I’ve never shared how instrumental you were to my awakening, I hope this pays that debt.

**Clarence and Darren must have loved my bumbling first comment on their blogs about how lucky they were to “work with Karl.” I was so wet behind the ears, I assumed that if Karl wrote about them, they must be his protegees.

***I moved again, thanks to Wes’ influence, to a self-hosted WordPress home last October at

***The fact that blogging somehow sparked more of this “mere” journaling – that it sparked me to write more in a few months than I had written in 20 years before blogging – is still wildly significant, though, as a testimony to the power of blogging to motivate writing.

****Thanks to Dan McDowell for this fantastic wiki writing idea.

Photo Credits: In Daddy’s Shoes by dacotahsgirl

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4 Responses to A Short, Strange Trip into the 21st Century, Part 1 (guest post by Clay Burell)

  1. diane says:

    You’re not “filling shoes” you modeling new footwear: sandals & clogs & flip flops oh my!

    Interesting to hear of your evolution [I’m not so much evolving as barging into different dimensions, but that’s my story].

    Your effect on the world has not been a ripple but rather a tidal wave. Those young minds you’re influencing are my hope for the future.


  2. James Sigler says:

    Wow! What a great journey. I connected on several parallels with my own blogging journey. Voraciously reading Wes’ and others’ blogs (and listening to their podcasts” is how I got started blogging my professional learning journey. I was always told that to teach writing well, you had to be a writer. That depth of that writing wisdom can only be realized when you experience to the Flow of writing.


  3. Clay, your journey is fueled by your intense passion for learning and wanting to be out there doing it. Thanks for thinking our Flat Classroom project was significant enough to inspire you along the way, it is a thrill to be in contact with you on a regular basis and to see how you take global collaboration and embed it into your curriculum.
    Also, congratulations for this week!

  4. Karl Fisch says:

    Hmm, Clarence and Darren as my protegees – I like it! Can I take credit for all the Canadian bloggers?

    Clay – you owe no debt. I don’t know how you stumbled upon my blog, but I think it’s pretty clear by now that you would have “awakened” one way or another. And we’re all the better for it.

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