Documenting Your Growth

I used to be an expert at a program on my computer. When I say expert, I don’t mean just good. I used Finale (music notation software) from version 1 (1988) heavily until 1999, completing a good solid decade of almost daily use of that program to write and arrange music. I knew it in and out and I am pretty sure I was what you might consider a world-class expert with that one program. Having just recently downloaded the most recent version, I realize the program has changed, and I’m glad I can open my old files, but man, you can feel the loss of all that skill. It’s almost surreal.

Which is my opportunity to pivot. A friend asked me which one application on the Mac I was the best at. “You have to be an expert at something, right?”

For many years I used Photoshop almost daily. I was fairly good at Photoshop, but never world class. And now the program I think I’m getting especially adept with is Apple’s Keynote. I make a lot of presentations.

Growth is starting one place and seeing that you’ve moved.

My old, original Keynote files are pretty boring. I used a lot of text and fell into the habit of adding bullets when the slide templates invited me to use them. But while I know this software well, it’s not the software I need to talk about. I chose to offer training on communication with virtual platforms and therefore I needed to develop some decks for each workshop session. I’m going to some old standby authorities, Duarte and Reynolds; I have some original insight as well. Then I rewatched a video of Dick Hardt presenting on “Identity 2.0” from so many years ago. That presentation had made such an impression on me, with Dick going through what, a few hundred slides in his one short talk, Lessig-style?

I am selling my learners on the value behind what Duarte calls SlideDocs—a second version of your presentation that acts as the handout. You use the same slideware of choice to make these documents, which I distribute as PDF. Slides are there to enhance your speech. Slidedocs allow folks to reference what you said and to even go into more depth.

Yet, after delivering two workshops I went back and looked at my slides and felt like I’d cheated them. My slides looked interesting, they were bold, they had some great ideas within, but gosh. They just weren’t world class.

The key was the freedom it required me to go through the same process I’d used to create slides—to edit a copy of the SlideDoc and remove (mostly) text—and leave more visuals behind than words.

I was ruined when I casually watched a YouTube after dinner.

A guy was editing a video and not even using slideware to make the video; he used b-roll, motion graphics, and it was really slick. And this part is important. I imagined going through my slides again, ensuring that every slide had movement (animation, transitions), and trying to create not a set of slides I’d use to present with, but an actual video.

Then I stayed up late and started doing that.

Editing/Pruning Twice

My workshops were designed for an hour, but really maybe 90 minutes, with time for audience involvement and discussion. I got my video down to 11.5 minutes. I got rid of the fluff. I deleted so many words and used icons and pictures and more animation. This time I wrote out the script. It was still natural but man, it was so much tighter now. I could really focus on my voice and my gesticulations. Heck, I didn’t even use the video of me talking, it was just a voice over.

I sat there when it was done a little dumbfounded. How could I ever go back to the slides? They didn’t even fully represent what I’d been telling others to do! But making a video changed that.

Of course I am going to make a music analogy. Making a video using slideware is like playing a recording of music. It can be good, polished, and be great. But a recording doesn’t capture the energy one can bring to a presentation in a live session. It’s the most virtuosic option, to perform on a stage, or behind your webcam.

My presentation wasn’t very boring anymore. All I did to keep it visually sharp and interesting spilled over into my delivery: it was more focused, it sounded more confident, and it was tighter. There were fewer ums. It had been well rehearsed and I’d rehearsed it so many times I didn’t need to rely upon what was on the slides.

In conclusion

So this blog post is personal. I wrote it to remind myself I did a good thing by practicing and exercising my perfection-focused muscle for once. I took something good, using software I’m very comfortable with, and made something more good. I am not sure it’s world class so I won’t say great. But this new technique I’ve used—to think of a presentation slide deck as a video—really transformed my game.

I just hope I remember how I created the decks in a few years—I can’t say I how I wrote the musical ideas I did when I was running Finale from a floppy disk.

Browser Bookmarks

One of the things I regret is not saving all of my chats and email from college. I remember learning how to download email at some point and kept copies of some of it on floppy disks. My many hours (days, weeks) on IRC was altogether lost. It was such a blow to lose that part of my life like it was nothing, when I knew and know it would have been so simple to make a copy.

It was that longing for the nostalgia that I’ve gotten better (and worse) at accumulating digital cruft. We used chat a lot in my previous job; not sure I have the time for it, but yes, I have all of those archived. And settling in on a new laptop, I am staring at something that needs my attention: my Safari bookmarks.

Some of these bookmarks likely pre-date Safari on Macintosh. The worst is my messy “bookmarks bar” which Apple now calls “Favorites” versus other bookmarks which don’t appear on the bar and are simply “bookmarks.” One of the most prodigious folders is “Weblogs.” The first two links I still use and have been visiting for at least what? eighteen? twenty years? I am not sure when daringfireball started but it’s held the prestigious #1 spot for a long time. #2 I know was born in the late 1990s when I discovered it as one of the prototypical blogs, Both the men who run those sites are professional bloggers. Many of the others, at least at the top, have gone into the ether. I have no real desire to clean that list, it’s just too long, and the same goes for so many other folders.

It’s easy to get rid the folders without any type of warning from Safari. Go into the bookmarks manager and just select and tap “delete” and it’s gone. Just like that. Years and years of browsing fun all gone in the matter of a keystroke. It was my first sign that I don’t think anyone making browsers (I use a lot of Chrome too) cares about bookmarks/favorites. Trying to move them around, especially in a long list, was tedious; getting the browser window to “scroll” while holding onto 5 bookmarks for dear life was a special challenge.

Going through so many old sites that I remember—especially those now gone—is somewhat depressing. In my mind websites were like physical properties on a street you could get to without too much trouble. Of course Murphy’s and Gimbals and Ukrop’s (it’s late and I’m thinking of stores long gone) are going to be there, right? And when they’re not? It’s like you woke up from a coma and everything you knew about Main Street has gone away and been replaced.

Tonight I renewed my domain names for another five years. How do people just let them go defunct? I’d rather go to your blog and see you hadn’t written since 2016 than find it’s all just gone and it was like you never existed.

I think the biggest flaw in Tim Berners-Lee’s design for the web was the non-permanance of the whole thing. I mean we really aren’t capturing all of the world’s knowledge via are we? That resource is interesting but it’s slow and who says it won’t disappear in a decade?

Saving web links seems almost quaint now. Is it just passé to add bookmarks anymore? Or does everyone just go to social media for a fix of something new, and end up Googling the rest?

Yes, I may be old. But I grew up pre-web and remember it’s emergence in my life very clearly. I had BBS accounts and an email address that only a few people I knew could use to send me electronic mail as early as 1990 or 1991 via the Cleveland Free-net. Imagine it, if you would, walking into a computer lab in college and watching all those college students glued to the PCs in the lab, all running Mosaic. The new addiction had hit strong.

Despite Yahoo and others promising to show us the entire web, we also went out and bought yellow-page style books of weblinks. Yes, you could look up a hobby and find a website to go along with it. Then you realized referring to this book each time was lame. You bookmarked that stuff.

Making our own library of curated sites seemed the most natural thing to do, like starting your own home library. Except did anyone expect us to hold onto those links for nearly twenty years?

And why, oh why, Apple? I found some new weblogs and when I added them to the weblogs folder it puts them at the bottom (where they belong, in chronological adding order) but now on my phone and iPad they’re stuck where? At the top?

I just may need to give up and get rid of the whole lot, one pregnant folder at a time.

Preparing Videos for Canvas

As a course designer for the Canvas LMS, I want to be able to make videos of presentations I’ve created and post them into the course. I primarily use two tools to do this: Quicktime Player (Mac) and Screencast Pro from Telestream. Quicktime for some reason only exports the videos I make using the built-in screen recording feature in .movie format which is not the .mp4 wrapper that Canvas is expecting. And Screencast Pro will export to .mp4 directly, but the videos tend to be very high resolution and are often too big for Canvas.

Many years ago I first encountered Handbrake as a tool that could be used to rip DVDs. Ripping DVDs comes with a warning, as there is copy protection involved that you’re bypassing, so only do it with your own DVDs that you have the right to make a copy of for personal use.

That said, the video compression technology can also process other video formats. So after I export my “original” from either program, I can open the file in Handbrake and I’ve been using the Fast 720p preset.

In the case of my last project, it took a 797 MB file from Zoom and turned it into a 105MB .mp4 file without any notable reduction in quality. I’m sold!

MacOS Permissions After File Sharing

I recently was experiencing some issues around file sharing on MacOS (Big Sur on one end, Monterrey on the other) that had me mucking about in the Sharing pane of System Preferences. When I connected to the Monterrey machine remotely through SMB in the Finder, I had no access to any of the folders in my home folder. I tried being more explicit that I wanted to share those. I specifically called out my Documents folder and applied the user explicit access that way so that I could facilitate file transfer between the two machines.

After years of networking on MacOS, I’d never seen something like this. Eventually when I reconnected, I had my access. All seemed well, until I could no longer launch Chrome on the Monterrey machine, and each movement of a file in the Finder on that machine required me to override with my password. Something was wrong.

I am writing this out in the hope if this happens to you that you have an easy remedy.

The user on the Monterrey machine does not have administrator access. What surprised me was that adding additional share points via the Sharing panel would result in changes to the file permissions. Looking at individual files (such as the Chrome preferences) had essentially locked every file in that user’s home folder. I guess I had the rights to change permissions on my own folders, but I am not sure why offering explicit permissions to key folders to be shared with myself resulted in these changes. Needless to say, that wasn’t the solution I needed to facilitate file copying.

The sign was that file permissions using the Finder Get Info window reported that “everyone” had “custom” permissions. This is of course a horrible label to use, forcing one to the Terminal armed with the need to refresh one’s self with commands like chmod and chown. While I was comfortable applying changes recursively from my main home directory folders, I ultimately chose to do the work via the Finder.

The Get Info Sharing and Permissions on a selected Folder.

I have muscle memory of pulling this up with the shortcut Command-Option-I which lets this window hover as you change what’s selected to compare the permissions, but in order for this to work, it won’t work with the option-enabled variant. What I needed to do was to remove the everyone/custom to a No Access privilege. The little drop/… menu has the option to make the setting recursive “apply to enclosed items…” and that’s what I did.

After I’d done this to all my main folders and my home Library folder, I was all set. Chrome works, the files are all well. My advice is to be careful in the Sharing preferences. A better interface might have warned me that I’d be mucking things up and limiting my own access.

Memory and Scent

My Background

I’m feel somewhat vulnerable for discussing this, but the topic is so fascinating to me, I feel like there is at least some benefit in putting some thoughts down about it. I have a strong affinity for smells; I can’t say I am in anyway unusual from other people in this regard, except that with people in my close circle, I have never met someone as interested in smells. I’ll provide some examples around food, perfume, and wine.

In my early years growing up, my parents ran a sandwich shop in the back of my dad’s family’s bar. Having lived in New Jersey, they called it a “Hoagie Shop,” a term some folks, I’ve learned, will look at you strangely if you use it. A lot of these submarine sandwiches were made by my dad and my grandmother, who I remember seeing running the meat slicer. They’d wrap the sandwiches in white butcher paper and tape it closed after dowsing the shredded lettuce with vinegar and oil.

When these sandwiches came to me at home for a meal, the first thing that hit you was the smell of vinegar; but it was worth taking the time to inhale the other aromas emanating from the package. Too much time has passed for me to be able to put my finger on the actual smell itself, but more than once, I have had what I’d call scent memory flashbacks to those sandwiches. The memories are among my fondest from my childhood around smell.

Some years ago, in France, we booked a tour to visit the Beaujolais region and visited several wineries for tastings. Our guide knew a lot about wine in the region, but moreover, he was almost fanatical about how you were to actually go about tasing wine. He had seven steps he described, and the first experience of actually tasting the wine was at level 5(!). The final step was an upward swirl of the glass into the air, once the wine was gone, for what he claimed was the best part: the post-drink sniff.

I laughed when he described this to us, but not because it looked weird. Yes, swirling your glass as you thrust it into the air upward did look strange, and I would never recommend doing it in public as people will most certainly stare at you. But the point was to introduce fresh air into the wine glass and let that react with the wet sides of the glass, releasing a great bouquet from the trace amounts of wine. He asked me why I was laughing. I told him that I already did this when I’d tasted wine at home.

He became intrigued. “Who taught you this? I thought I’d come up with it!” he said, wearing concern between his eyes and forehead. “I just stuck my nose in, no one told me to do it. The smell is the best part of wine, I think.”

By the end of our tour, he’d announced to three of the vignerons and the other couple that I had a special nose. “John here,” he said, with his obvious French accent, “has quite zee nose.” His test was to have me proclaim was recognizable elements were in the glass. He agreed with most of what I said, but I gave him two more flavors he did not list out, and then he looked at the winemaker.

“Il est vrai,” or some such thing came from the vigneron. He agreed with me on the additional flavors I’d smelled. Our tour guide toasted me on my profound nose.

Upon hearing this story, my mother confirmed I had a big nose. “No, he meant I could smell well,” I told her. She chuckled.

Of course, in high school, it seemed a right of passage to start wearing aftershave or colognes as you began to shave. I grew up right before Axe body sprays had really taken off, thank god. But it didn’t stop me from going crazy in exploring new scents I could wear. My dad had been a habitual wearer of after shave; in the late 1970s it had been Old Spice; in the eighties, it transitioned to Obsession for Men by Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren’s Polo, the green bottle. He’d never had anything with a sprayer, but instead splashed the juice on liberally in the morning. The trail of scent was always hanging in the air as I’d descend the stairs after he’d left for work. It was strong to my young nose. But by high school, learning there was more than these two scents out there was fascinating to me.

Given different circumstances, I am not sure, but I may have been interested in exploring some type of career involving scent or perfume.


Just as some chemicals involved in the sandwiches my parents used to bring me as a young kid flip a switch in my brain, so do other scents and smells. It’s obvious that if I smelled some Polo cologne I’d think of my dad. Two of my favorite scents in the early 1990s were Dior’s Fahrenheit, which I felt was so unusual at the time, and had a cool bottle. The other was Fendi Uomo, which came in a chunky rectangular bottle that was made to look like marble and gold. The center of the bottle was clear, where you could see the cologne.

One of my close friends in high school recently visited a family friend; this man kept a collection of scents in his bathroom and my friend unearthed an old Fahrenheit bottle from a wicker basket. He sprayed it on himself and was taken aback. “John,” he told me, with some passion in his voice over the phone, “it was you. 1991. It was so weird, but that smell took me right back to our junior year.”

One of my other closest friends from high school this past week sent me a special gift. He’d ordered a small decant of the Fendi from the 1990s, which is no longer made. My nose isn’t nearly as refined with perfumery as it is with the mostly foody elements recognizable in wine; I can’t begin to describe the different elements in this scent (but doing so, I think, would be a fun project!), but the scent has this uncanny ability to pull me back through the decades. It’s not that it’s just recognizable, it’s that a whole host of emotions and feelings come back with the olfactory experience as well. It’s wild, really, the range of emotions that come with each new inhalation.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised about our scent memories. I can only imagine animals like dogs and cats use olfactory memory and recognition to recognize their owners, to find their way back home.

I am sure human ability to associate scent with a time, place, or person isn’t new to you. But this has got me thinking about our purposeful use of scent to trigger memory, at least to events, times, places, or people with whom we can’t always be near.

There was no special steps my parents took to have me focus on the smell of those delicious hoagies as a child. It was by chance that I’d smelled those sandwiches, decided I liked the way they smelled, and now have this positive association with those smells when I encounter them today. The smell of Fendi Uomo right now brings me back to my first car, driving around town with my friends. The question I have, I guess, is around the legitimacy of introducing reproducible scents in situ, say, as part of an amazing vacation. It might be that we choose to wear a new perfume on this vacation so that that scent is tied to everything we see and do. Maybe this is a crazy idea, I can’t say.

Lost Scents

My last rumination on scent and it’s role in my own life is around those smells that cannot be reproduced or recaptured. What if Fendi Uomo wasn’t something we could buy anymore? What if one of the sandwich shops here in town didn’t smell anything like those hoagies from my childhood? Or if my favorite Burgundy wine was no longer available for export to the U.S., or worse, wasn’t any longer made? There’s a rather tragic element to this for me. And I suspect that if smells and scents didn’t matter so much to you, if you didn’t have a big nose, so to speak, that it might not appear tragic at all.

I think of this in comparison to our vision and visual memories. Let’s say the picture of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine running beside it brings back great memories for you of a Parisian vacation. You might have an affinity to images of the Eiffel Tower. (Perhaps I’m subject to clichés, but a big picture of the Eiffel Tower lives beside me on the wall in my office.) As you walk around Paris, you can’t always, but can often see the tower. After visiting Paris I experienced too many new things that washed over me as pleasant experiences. The sounds of police cars and ambulances with their unique sirens, the French language being spoken around me, great food, and beautiful architecture. Seeing the Eiffel Tower in person of course is the best, but even that visual representation is something important to me.

It’s not the tower that really means much; instead it acts like an icon of Paris in general.

What if the tower were destroyed? Or all the images of it disappeared? Not seeing it again might really affect me, or anyone else who favorably thinks of this Parisian icon.

You might think this is really strange, but there is a particular smell to the Boston T subway that I have a great affinity for. It’s especially pungent on areas of the Green line. I might not be able to tell you the audible differences between the subway lines if I was placed in one, blindfolded, but by the smell, I could tell you if I was in the Boston T. My experiences in that city, I guess, at some point, were so profoundly important to me. I am sure whatever that smell is isn’t healthy to inhale, but I still like it. To me, Boston without that smell wouldn’t be Boston.

That the Chinese have built a copy-cat Parisian city, complete with its own Eiffel Tower might seem strange to us. Would being there evoke the same emotions? While we might know that it isn’t authentically Paris, I am guessing we still might carry some of the same emotional responses from those we first experienced when going to Paris—just as the Fendi I am wearing isn’t the same exact bottle I’d used, or doesn’t really take me back in time toward being a seventeen year old kid with a black car.

We do live in a society, today, where I think our collective desire to hold onto things and keep them with us is part of our current evolution and societal norms. Many of us are not content only experiencing music on the radio; we collect records, or CDs, or buy into streaming services where we can always go back to an exact copy of our favorite song and relive it. Whether or not it reminds us of a beach vacation with our first love or not, we value having more of something we’ve already had or experienced. It’s why we use our cell phone cameras and probably have cloud accounts of tons of pictures.

The one thing we cannot have is our youth. It’s probably not surprising that seeing people return to their youth in movies is a popular trope, whether it is science fiction or some other trickery to put us back into a version of our younger selves. But as much as we may chase our youth through Botox injections, or by wearing old clothes, or anything else that reminds us of our younger selves, we really can’t go back in time.

I do think it’s tragic if scent is such a powerful thing, as it is for me, to have the power to trigger old memories and not only the memories, but the emotions from those memories, that not being able to put our fingers on those smells and scents is horrible. If there was an iTunes for our lifelong memory of scents, I’d get it or buy it. The smell of pink erasers from the first grade? Sign me up. The smell of someone I admired on a first date? I’d buy that. The ability to visit Boston in my mind while sitting here in Virginia? Sure, why not!

Take Aways

The fact that I can relive my high school emotions and experiences through wearing a scent I consider a special gift and privilege. I don’t know if scent works this way for everyone but it does for me and I am grateful for the experience. But, it isn’t the same as going back to high school. The hoagies from the local store aren’t the same as the ones my parents used to make me. And every experience on the Boston T isn’t a great one. Sometimes it stinks, actually, being hot, sweaty, and tired out, just wanting to get back home or to the hotel.

Which is why the take away for me of thinking about scent and smell is to not bank our happiness from theses olfactory experiences by presuming we’ll get to revisit them again. What I am saying is, when all the Fendi Uomo is gone, it’s gone, and be okay with that. The smell of the night blooming jasmine in Maui was an incredible experience. And while I did come home and want that smell around me all the time, maybe it’s okay that I’ll only experience that in a tropical oasis like Hawaii. And if I go back, and it’s gone, well, that’s okay too.

Rather than pining for these smells again, my advice is to take the time to savor them when they come. This is hard advice to give, as I know it will be hard advice for me to adopt myself. But I do remember hanging out in Maui by the beach, the breeze coming at me with that heady scent of jasmine. I am not sure the smell itself is enough; I’d like to experience everything again, the sun, the ocean smells, the sound of surf. And if I can’t experience that again, well, I can reflect on that experience and that I was fortunate to experience it and enjoy it.

As much as I’d know I’d take another Hawaiian vacation again, that nostalgia for the past is also a filter to new and exciting experiences that I could experience as well. The question for me is, is the attraction to scent too strong to ignore, exploring all those amazing things I’ve smelled and experienced in the past?

For as long as my olfactory sense(s) have on triggering not only my memory and former emotions, I can’t say I will be too successful. But opening myself up to new experiences at the expense of losing myself in nostalgia is nevertheless good advice for all of us.

Reflections on Teaching

My first year of teaching graphic communications and computer applications were intense experiences. I’d just graduated with a masters degree (in music) and suddenly I was thrown into a new job that I hadn’t precisely prepared for! But I had a lot of computer experience and I set about designing lessons on that experience as a designer and computer enthusiast.

I know that sounds weird, but my computer education had started in elementary school when I’d begun to program in the 1980s. I’d been exposed to Logo then BASIC, and eventually 6502 Assembly language. I’d also been the first non-academic customer in my state to purchase Finale and spent many years writing music with notation software on the Mac. I had some skills.

But backing up some old files burned to CD-R discs from my first years of teaching, I came across a lesson I’d designed on the ENIAC computer. I wanted my students to understand how far computer technology had come, and how powerful the iMacs in front of them were in historical context. I’d read about the ENIAC many years ago as I remember my mother helping me write a paper in middle school. I’d never seen it, of course, never used it, or anything like that. This early computer was a figment of my memory, an historical relic that I thought was important in the timeline of computing history. For my lesson, I’d used the Internet to augment my memory.

I don’t mention this lesson because it was profound by any means; seeing the word on the screen, ENIAC, reminded me that many years later, walking around the Computer History museum in the valley outside San Fransisco, that they had the early computers there, on display. It was huge and it looked like furniture, much like I’d imagined it.

“I once taught kids about this thing,” I said to my friend, who wanted to see the special Steve Jobs exhibit. “And?” he asked. “I don’t know. It’s a real thing, and it’s here. It just is kind of surreal.”

The experience of seeing that old machine—one of the first modern computers—was lasting on me. Not because of its size or its role in the history of our country’s military past, but because put into perspective a lot of things.

  • Why was it important to share this with students?
  • What perspective would they gain in learning about an early computer?
  • How did other people who came to this space react to this thing?
  • What were the people like who built it or ended up using it to solve problems and complete necessary work?

I guess I’ve been wired at looking at things historically. I figured, I am guessing, that in order to really know something well it would be helpful to know where it came from, how it works, and what the future holds for it.

This thinking I believe is a direct reflection of the way I was taught about music in college. Take any piece, and to understand it and conceptualize what it is you had to almost take it apart and put it back together again. Who performed it? What purpose did it serve? Who was the one who created it? How was it received? How was it put together? And what has been done more recently around the performance of this work?

I too reflect on the way I approached a recent guide on using Acrobat Professional DC from Adobe. I started with a reflection. On why the software was created, how old it is, and what features have been added over time. Then I turned to how to actually perform different tasks with the software. Finally, I provided a vision for how the software could help others.

As interesting as that story was, or the role the ENIAC played in helping the military crunch equations, it doesn’t really come to life until you can experience it, or so I think. Editing an Acrobat form today is better than it was 15 years ago. I can appreciate the new way fields are presented on the sidebar of the application now after knowing in the past they were hidden behind dialog boxes. I can’t go back in time and help put that old computer together, but looking at it up close, it meant something. And with music, listening to, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations is one way of knowing the music. Reading about it helps. But to really know it, you have to perform it.

Having been trained as a musician has been a rewarding experience as I became an educator, even if what I was teaching wasn’t music.

How to perform advanced tasks in Microsoft Word


  • Mail Merge
  • Forms and Templates
  • Recording Macros
  • Using Footnotes and Endnotes
  • Creating Bookmarks
  • Tracking Changes and Comments
  • Envelopes & Labels
  • Creating a Table of Contents

Mail Merge

Mail merge is a function whereby you create a template of communication, such as a business letter, and replace the information therein with specifics such as name, address, etc. for each recipient. I recommend the use of an Excel spreadsheet to create your list, say, of names, addresses, and the information that needs to be unique in each letter.

Setup your spreadsheet with the first row with labels. In my example, I’ll use the following field names:

  • Title
  • FirstName
  • LastName
  • Suffix
  • Position
  • Institution
  • Address 1
  • Address 2

In turn, below each of these going across, you’ll list your data. One row equates to one individual. It is critically important that you double check your data before performing the merge – to ensure that you do not have mistakes.

Save your Excel file and you’ll need it when performing your merge.

Next, compose your letter. I like to insert placeholders as I write my letter, such as Title FirstName LastName Suffix for instance, which will get replaced with our fields in a later step. If you already  have the letter written with a particular person’s name, you can use that as well.

Go to the Mailings Ribbon and select the type of merge you would like to perform.

In our example, we’ll choose “Letters.”

Under “Select Recipients,” you can select your Excel workbook you created above, or if it is more convenient, you can hand-enter the addresses yourself into Word by choosing to create a new address list.

Under “Edit Recipient List,” you can select which folks in your list (either the one in Excel or the one you typed in Word) will get added in the merge. This is a nice feature if you often use the same list for different purposes.

The next series of buttons handle the fields in your letter. There are enough options to match the fields in your letter to the list you have. As mentioned above, I prefer to start with a fully written letter then I choose “Insert Merge fields.” Seeing the list, you might want to match the Word names precisely as your header row, but then there’s also the Match Fields command, seen below. This allows you to match your own labels with the ones provided by Word, so they do not need to actually be the same.

Next, it’s time to finish the merge. There are again many options. Typically for letters I want to print, I’ll choose to merge everything into one Word file. I do this so that if I want to customize the letters I can still do that before printing them on letterhead.

You’ll also notice you can use email and create PDFs as alternatives.

Forms and Templates

You can add fields in Microsoft Word documents so that others can use your document as a form template. Alternatively, you can create your own template files to make creating the same kinds of documents easier. Forms are a great solution if you intend to get a Word file back filled-in with information. It’s tidier than sending a plain Word file for people to fill in their answers.


If you haven’t already, you will need to add a new ribbon option to your copy of Word. Right click in the ribbon and select “Developer.” This new ribbon includes the tools to build a fillable form within your Word document.

Next, create your document, leaving space for the areas where you want content to be filled in. You can imagine using text fields, drop down menus, checkboxes as the type of form elements to include after creating the skeleton of your document.

Once you insert a text field (I chose a plain text field), you can customize the appearance of it with the properties feature in the ribbon. In the photo below, the field reads “Click or tap…” and the properties include color and the ability to label each field. This is where you can also choose between a normal, “one line or so” length field or one that can accommodate a paragraph’s worth of text. Choose “accept carriage returns” if you want to allow for longer responses.

This properties box becomes more important when you enter another field type, such as a drop-down list (see below). For my dropdown, as an example, I’ve created a list of names that users can choose from within my form.

Finally after you have finished editing your document and adding fields, you will need to choose one more option under Developer.  You’ll want to restrict editing of the file so that recipients of your file can only add content into the fields you have included.

You can add a password so that only you can make edits to the document outside the realm of the form fields. Choose “Yes, Start Enforcing Protection” as the last thing you do before saving your document, or err… form! 


While a form is something you’d prepare to send out to others, templates might be something you distribute to others, or keep for yourself. In basic parlance, a template is a pre-designed document that might include formal elements (say, the parts of a business letter, or the basic format for a newsletter), graphical or stylistic elements, or both. We see options for templates when we tell Word we want to create a new document.

But how do you create a template?

Let’s say I wanted to create a template for table tents: folded pieces of paper that would include our logo and a person’s name–for the purpose of identifying people at our next big meeting. I’d get to work formatting my Word document with the logo and the insertion, say, for the name of someone who I know will be at the meeting. I might even be able to use my template with a mail merge, so that I can customize the creation of multiple table tents with a list from Excel for who is planning to attend the meeting. Either way, once you create your table tent document, just go to Save As.. and choose “Word Template” with the .dotx extension. You can save this on your computer and now when you create a new document, you can view your own personal templates.

While not a table tent, I have had the need to apply our blue letterhead to Word files and so I’ve used this custom template a lot:

If you save your template file (.dotx) outside of Word’s pre-defined area for templates, it will not appear in the New file menu for you. However, you may choose to do this if you want to distribute your template to others.

Recording Macros

A macro is a miniature program you can run to automate a task. Let’s say you want to be able to insert a closing to your letter, such as “Sincerely, John S. Smith.” There are no doubt time savings to be gained by using Macros: examples include removing extra spaces, inserting a common element into your documents (such as a table), or make formatting changes.

In the Developer ribbon (added above), you will find Record Macro on the far-left. The first step is to name your Macro and decide if you want to invoke it from the keyboard or via a button. You can always run your Macros from a list, as well, by clicking on the Macros button in the Developer ribbon.

When recording a Macro, your cursor will change to an arrow and a cassette tape, indicating it is recording. One Macro I created, which I called “Cardo,” would select the entire document and then apply the font, Cardo, at 11 points. After making those changes I stopped the recording. 

Once recorded, I can run that Macro on any document to change the font, wholesale, to Cardo 11 point. 

  • In this video, you can watch Mike create a macro with a keyboard shortcut to insert a table he uses often across multiple documents. He also styles the table before stopping his recording. The video also shows you how to edit the Visual Basic code that’s generated by the recording if you make a mistake.
  • In this video, the narrator uses a macro to remove all of the double spaces after periods (you should only use one space after a period!) and to remove the double returns after paragraphs.

Using Footnotes and Endnotes

Footnotes and Endnotes are two variations of the same thing. Within a document, you can insert a raised number after text as a way to embed a note to that text. You may have read a book with notes included in the text. If the notes appear below the text on the page, these are called footnotes. If the notes are instead collected at the end of the document (or book chapter), they are called endnotes. The Chicago Manual of Style uses footnotes as their mechanism for citing resources in research papers. You can also use them to provide additional information within your document. 

Let’s say we were describing a grant application portal for public schools. We might write:

Public schools in Virginia can use the GrantWrite web portal to create and submit their grant proposal. Private schools are eligible to apply as well, but will use the GrantWrite independent website instead. 

In this example, if I was creating the memo or document for a wide audience of public schools, the discussion of private schools may not be as relevant. I could also write the sentence about private schools as a footnote. 

To insert a footnote, go to the references tab and click the button to insert a footnote after positioning your cursor where you’d like the number to go. Under options you have a number of customizations. Note that as you add footnotes, the numbers are dynamic, and will change when, for instance, you insert a new footnote in between two existing footnotes.

The use of endnotes over footnotes is a personal stylistic choice. In general, footnotes are more usable because you do not have to flip to the end of the document to see the note. However, if you’re preparing a document that uses a lot of notes, the visual look of your document might necessitate using end notes. 

Creating Bookmarks and Cross-References

You don’t have to be a librarian to understand the concept of a bookmark! Bookmarks act as anchors in your document, or pre-defined places you’d like to easily navigate to. These anchors can be defined by a single point or by highlighting a group of words.

To add a bookmark, go to the Insert ribbon and choose Bookmark. You will name your bookmark. In my example, I want to be able to jump to the endnotes section of my document.

The way we use this bookmark is to either use the Go to tool (in the Home ribbon) and choose the Bookmarks and then select the specific bookmark you have named, or, by inserting a hyperlink into your document.

You can insert a hyperlink after highlighting text  with the Control-K shortcut, which is typically used to insert an email address or web address (URL). But you can also link to content inside your document where you’ve placed an anchor or bookmark.

Above, you can see my Endnotes bookmark is listed. You’ll also note that headings are recognized by Word as anchors, by default.  While my example has no headers, the use of headers (applying the header styles to your actual headings) gives structure to the document. Using these, you do not have to replicate bookmarks if you want to be able to jump to different headings. Instead, you’d select the appropriate heading name in the dialog box, seen above.

We recommend the use of headers, and if needed, bookmarks, to make longer, complex documents more navigable. You will notice in this Google Doc, I am using bookmarks ahead of each section. The bulleted list up top acts as my navigation menu to take you to the section of this document you want to read.

Tracking Changes and Comments

The reality is every document created is not always a singular effort. Often we pass documents to others to get feedback, solicit edits, and more. The tool to manage this in Word is called Track Changes and Comments. Both tools are found on the Review ribbon.

Track Changes

When you click on the button in the ribbon, it basically turns this mode on. Edits to the document will appear in a different color, and deletions will show as a strikethrough. When you toggle the button again, the changes are still displayed the same way; edits to your document, however, go back to the normal editing mode. Typically this feature helps editors of a document to show their proposed changes without permanently changing the document. In Google Docs, this feature is called Suggesting for Track Changes; regular editing is called Editing.

In the example above, I’ve turned on Track Changes; I’ve highlighted the word document, and replaced it with masterpiece. It will stay this way until I accept the change. Below, I’ve turned on the reviewing pane to display more information about the revisions. You’ll notice my name appears. If your name does not appear, you will have to add your name under Word’s options so that people can see your name as the one making those edits.

Back in the ribbon, you’ll see the buttons for responding to these changes: Accept, Reject, previous, and next. This will help you jump around your document from change to change and decide what you want to have permanently modified.

Sometimes my editor is just so great I want to accept all the changes and go back to looking at a regular document again! So, under the arrow for “Accept,” you can choose to accept all the changes and stop the tracking.


Adding your suggestions in comments is bad form. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use comments! Use comments to provide feedback when you’re not actually suggesting editorial changes. Highlight the text first, then choose New Comment from the ribbon. In my copy of Word, the comments are configured to appear as balloons on the sidebar.

Again, this is important to have your name assigned in settings so that your name appears accurately in comments. As a teacher, I could use comments to highlight a paragraph and say something like: “This is a beautifully crafted opening. Please take the same care in your ending; I think it needs refinement.” 

Before publishing a document, toggle the reviewing pane to ensure that all comments and tracked changes are removed.

Envelopes & Labels

Both these features are offered under the Mailings ribbon in Word. You can use both envelopes and labels to create multiples of the same thing, i.e., to print your return address on a label or envelope so that they are all the same, or you can import addresses from Outlook.  If you do not use Outlook (like me), but  you created an Excel file earlier for your mail merge, you can reference the same list to create your labels or to print directly onto the envelopes.

Before you begin, be sure you know how to load an envelope into your printer. If you are creating labels, know what label style you have. Avery label numbers can be inserted into Word to design a template that should work perfectly for that particular product.


If you want to create a single envelope, from the Mailings ribbon, choose Envelope. Advanced settings can change the feed direction and envelope size, if needed.

Please know that all envelopes may not be appropriate for your printer; some kinds will seal with the heat of the laser printer.


For printing one or more of the same label across a sheet, click on Labels or visit the Labels tab after you’ve called up the Envelope tool. First, pick the appropriate Label template after clicking on options.

What you put in for the address will appear on each label. Note, you don’t have to put an address in there, you could put any text. Word will then apply that text across all the labels on the template you chose.

Mail Merging for Envelopes and Labels

Finally, if you followed our Mail Merge instructions above you can also use your same list to make labels and envelopes. Instead of clicking on Labels and Envelopes, go back to Mail Merge.

From there, you can choose Envelopes or Labels to create a new labels or envelopes based upon your Excel or Word list (if you added your names and addresses that way). 

This video details how to create labels from a list in Excel using the Mail Merge function in Word.

Creating a Table of Contents

To create a TOC, you could do it manually, but then when edits are made to your document, the page numbers will not automagically update! Instead, use the Table of Contents function in Word to create a dynamic table that will update after you make alterations to your document.

To start, it’s important that you have structured your document appropriately! This means you have used headings throughout your document. At the very least, you’ve used first-level headings (Heading 1) to chunk up your document into sections. Simply styling a paragraph as a heading by changing the color, font, or size, isn’t enough. You will instead want to ensure you have applied this heading style to the text in question.

Headings nest. Take for instance this structure of my document, represented by this outline:

  1. Introduction
    1. About the Author
  2. Solving Simple Slope Problems
    1. The Cartesian Plane
  3. Factoring Polynomials
  4. Dividing by Zero (Not!)
  5. Appendices
    1. Appendix 1
    2. Appendix 2
    3. Appendix 3

Okay, simple structure. In my example, I am using Heading 1s and Heading 2s. Every outline item that has a letter we’d apply a Heading 2. For the main ideas, they’d be styled as a Heading 1. If you had any subheadings under sections such as Appendix 1, then we’d apply a Heading 3 to that, as it’s one level below Appendix 1.

This structure we build helps us create a more usable and accessible Word document. It also helps the Table of Contents function to work.

Once you’ve done that, go to the References ribbon and choose Table of Contents. Once applied, you will have your table inserted into your document.  In my example, you’ll see that the heading structure of my test document is reflected in the inserted TOC.

In the ribbon, you’ll notice there is a button to update the table. Once I add content, the table will not auto-update. Instead, choose this option to have it re-figure the page numbers. If you insert new headings after making your TOC, then you’ll want to update the whole thing.

In general, I insert my TOC as the last step in document preparation to save from having to update it. 

Created on April 8, 2021 with screenshots from Microsoft Word 2016.


I am a detail oriented person. I recently read a colleague’s dissertation and before I could get to the details in the writing, all I could see where inconsistencies in the use of spaces and punctuation. For sure, it was a draft and some people work that way—getting their ideas down first and worrying about the details later. Some people, I imagine, can’t see the details; they instead think in big ideas. I have a friend, for instance, who, to be sure, is a really smart person. But they struggle with spelling words. They take great pains to edit their writing before they send off articles, but in emails to me, they don’t bother. And I’m almost paralyzed trying to read them!

While it sounds like I value a neat and tidy page when it comes to spelling, grammar, and punctuation usage, let it be known that I surround my work space in clutter. It is true, I see the appeal of a clean desk. But I feel more comfortable having tools at the ready. My soda, a few pens, a few stupid things to play with, like rubber bands; I have my notebook, a number of pens and pencils, a remote control, a stack of CD-ROMs. I will use the weekend to clean these all up but by the end of another week, they’re strewn about again. Doesn’t bother me one bit, either!

While people can write, one perfect word at a time, both writing without regard to spelling or punctuation and writing in one completely beautiful sentence after another are equally valid ways to write. While working in a minimalist environment is conducive to some, others might prefer the distractions of things around them, headphones blaring, and a super comfortable chair. To each their own; people have their own ways of being productive.

But one of the things that I’ve noticed about presentations over the years—not the actual act of someone sharing information, but the slide deck they’ve created—is that what you can produce for the screen and what you can produce for post-presentation distribution shouldn’t be equal. If you’ve taken any advice from Garr Reynolds (author of the Presentation Zen books), perhaps you’ll get at where I’m headed: great slides support the speaker. They do so with emotionally-charged photos, a few words, when necessary, and clean visual diagrams that help people see complex systems that you discuss. Graphs are okay, and so are video clips. But a good deck, minus the speaker, shouldn’t be a good deck anymore. And yet the default that I’ve seen for over twenty years in the education field, specifically (but certainly this trend isn’t unique to education), is one of slides that are meant to provide enough information (read: words) to be useful without you. And even sometimes when this works, they’re rarely engaging to look at, and moreover, there were compromises made to fit that content into a slide to begin with.

If you’ve ever been trained on delivering a presentation and directed not to read the words on your slide then you know where I’m coming from. At that point they didn’t need you. And you likely have a better way of spending your time other than reading to adults.

Reading to kids is still cool, though.

Case in Point

I recently (like last weekend) put together a presentation for an upcoming training I plan to do. I’ve gotten into the Zoom rhythm of spending my time showing things, talking them through, pausing, and checking for understanding—all of this after I spend time getting to know the folks who have joined me on the video call. In some cases, I’m teaching how to use a computer software program and so I’ll actually be doing things live.

In other situations, I use slides. But these aren’t the slides I created for the live session.

They’re for what I hand out after the session.

This week’s training is on Google Gmail. I told this to a friend, that I was offering a Gmail session, and he asked me, in jest, “your colleagues don’t know how to use Gmail?” I clarified. “I am going to teach folks how to do cool things with Gmail, like use it to drive up their productivity.”

“Oh. I just use it to send email.”


Now, one could argue that the best way to show how to use software is to use software. I could create a video guide. I tend to love watching videos about people using software. I can control the pace by moving the playhead around and I can actually see someone doing what I want to learn how to do. But I’ve also met people who cannot stand learning from videos. To each their own.

So I do write, but I augment my writing with hyperlinks. If someone else made the video, then I don’t have to. And I see that benefit being, maybe they can make better instructional videos that me, or else they can explain things in a different way than me. If the way I explained it was difficult for others to understand, maybe they’ll have better luck with someone else.

Here’s my first attempt at explaining what makes Gmail unique. This is the handout I plan to share after the training.

So in the example above, it comes from what I call my Slidedoc. This is a trademark from Nancy Duarte, who has written a few books herself. You’ll usually find them next to Garr Reynolds if you still buy books in a store; they both have a lot to contribute on making good slides and delivering great presentations. She uses slideware (for me, my favorite is Apple Keynote) to write a medium-form, graphic rich document. For contrast, here’s the same “page” or slide from the presentation I plan to use:

I kept the same graphic, but this time I get rid of most of that long-form text and replace it with labels. This will be valuable for those unfamiliar with the Gmail interface and how it organizes conversations.

In the slide version, I can use builds or animation to bring each label up as I discuss the features. This way I’m not distracting my audience with too much to read while they listen to me.

Here’s another example from the same set of slides. Note that the boxes, inbox, action, etc., are animated and come up after I explain the cycle steps:

This is a slide; the text is larger and I use some visual references to underscore my points.

And here is the same “slide” as a page in my document:

One could argue that the visual could still stay in the SlideDoc, but I’ll see how things go after my first training.

Linear vs. Non-Linear

You may have noticed from my screen pictures that I include a graphical link in the bottom-right corner of my slides. These will take you back to the second page, the Table of Contents in my PDF document. While folks have no real choice about where we go and how in a live session, they may only want to review, say, Inbox Zero after the training. By creating hyperlinks in your PDF/slideware, you can help produce a helpful document that’s not dependent upon a linear read.

Reusing Content

So my method, again, is to create the Slidedoc first. This is the rich, fully explained version of my content. I use visuals, but the document is for readers. I don’t include animations or embedded videos because it will become a PDF. I do, however, build in hyperlinks to external resources.

I find building this document helps build my expertise on the topic. And I can include more in this handout that I will have time for in the session, and that’s okay.

Then, when it’s time to create the actual slides, I make a copy of the original Slidedoc and then strip out the wordiness. I take out what’s not necessary, I emphasize visuals by increasing the size. I might play a video clip or two; I could even breakout of my slides and do a live demo. But the only time they’ll see those slides is during the call or the live presentation.

The Slidedoc is what they get for dessert.

Why do you make two presentations, then?

Because I know watching people talk about bullets on a screen is far from engaging. I know I’m more valuable making people laugh, smile, think, consider new ideas, than preparing something to read. But I also know if I do a good job at presenting, I am more likely to get follow through after the session. For my example, maybe some folks will try Inbox Zero with Gmail! And when they need support, they don’t need a slide showing off a picture of my inbox.

They may need a reminder about why we’re even doing this.

Or how to setup their Gmail settings. Or what those fancy keyboard shortcuts I was talking about were, because you know, people forget things.

This isn’t about me, it’s about my audience. Slideware isn’t some magical invention that came down from God through Bill Gates. It’s software that allows me to position graphics and tables and charts and text boxes into a rectangular screen. If we care about our audience, we can do better than giving them a vapid set of slides, however well-engineered we made them to capture their attention, hearts, and minds during my forty-five minutes with them.

Slidedoc: Make a page or more than includes enough text to be useful on its own.
Slide: Reuse content from your Slidedoc

Here’s one more example. I think it’s good practice, generally, to give folks a scaffold at the start of a training about what you will cover in the session. This is also an opportunity to ask if there are things I missed that I can possibly address during our time together.

I also point out the link to come back to this page so they just don’t think I have a special affinity for a pile of books.
In my Slidedoc, I include a Table of Contents. It’s the same slide, just linked up so that folks can move around my document.


I’ll name drop once more. Edward Tufte once wrote condemning the use of PowerPoint in organizations to convey rich information. His example included the story of how engineers at NASA used PowerPoint to produce documents ahead of the Columbia flight that ended in disaster. His point was that the information density of a PowerPoint slide was too low to convey enough rich detail; engineers had cut out important details that would have been critical to know before re-entry.

It should be clear that slideware such as PowerPoint or Keynote can be used to create documents. Duarte distinguishes between three densities: slides, Slidedocs, and documents. The point I am making here is that sometimes the best handout after your training or talk is a long form document or video. Or maybe it’s a Slidedoc. But providing slides—with low information density (read: using fonts big enough to be seen in the back of a room)—is never great.

So, I don’t care if you start your training with a joke; an icebreaker, or something else. That’s up to you. I don’t care if your participants are actively moving around the room, or else sitting back in a chair in a hotel ballroom. That’s up to them (and you). But if you want to provide them something helpful that can stand up on its own, which is sometimes what happens with PowerPoint decks (hey, got this great presentation at the conference, I’ll send you a copy!), consider how useful that print-to-PDF version is. We can do better than sharing our slides, we can make Slidedocs.

Try a Slidedoc. You already know how to use the software.


Did I get you interested in the Gmail stuff? Check out Jeff Su’s video on Inbox Zero. I prepared for my training by watching overdosing on videos like Jeff’s. I found his videos to be well-produced, easy to follow, and he’s good about repeating things if you missed it the first time.

Extracting Email Addresses

So email can be a pretty seamless tool for most of us to communicate with others; sitting at a computer, it’s easy to create a message, send it, and when received, to read. That’s not even worth saying.

And I’m not here to make a commentary on how inefficient email can be in the workplace when there are better productivity tools (that’s another blog post).

We recently received a lot of emails and at work we respond to each one. In this case, the emails were not unique. An email campaign had been mounted and many of the emails were the same; when there were variations, they’d come from the same source. In the body of each email was the originator’s email address.

My job was to hand harvest these emails and make a list so that we could send to each constituent a response that acknowledged receipt and talked about next actions. However, as I began this work, I noticed there were quite a few emails. Over 500.

Recognizing Email Addresses

The first step toward automating this process is to get your computer to recognize an email address. Such a search can be done using Regular Expressions. I am not a whiz at these and I really need to spend a weekend to study them more; all I knew going into this was that they were powerful and I am sure someone had needed to do this same type of search before.

I use a Mac, which runs on UNIX, and comes built in with text processing tools. One such tool is called grep, short for global regular expression print, and it allows you to search using a regular expression in a file. The following command, flags, and the regex worked for me:

grep -E -o "\b[A-Za-z0-9._%+-]+@[A-Za-z0-9.-]+.[A-Za-z]{2,6}\b"

This is the first part. I also need to pass it a file to search, and that required a little more preparation.

Preparing the Emails to be Searched

We use Gmail, through the web browser. Which is not helpful, as far as I know, for doing any type of regex searches. The UNIX mailbox format (.mbox) is a text file and can be searched. While there are guides online for exporting your entire Gmail account to a single .mbox file, what I needed were just a subset of the received emails.

  1. First, you’ll want to apply a label to the emails in question. This allows you to sequester them. I would choose a unique label for your extraction process. You can use the checkboxes in Gmail to check all the emails then use the tools at the top to apply the same label to all those emails.
  2. For me, I next selected all the messages in that label group (check the box at the top of the page after selecting the label on the sidebar, and choose the option to select all the messages with that label). I forwarded those emails to my personal email account. Why? Because on my Mac, I use Apple Mail. And within Mail, you can go to Mailbox > Create New Mailbox.
  3. Once the email came in from Google, I dragged the email with all the attached messages into the new Mailbox. Then I Command-clicked on that mailbox in Mail’s sidebar and exported the mailbox. Now I had an .mbox folder.
  4. Inside the folder I now had a single file with all the emails. Including those precious email accounts.
  5. After pasting the grep command into the Terminal, put a space after the ” and then drag over the file from the Finder into the Terminal window. The path to this file magically appears.

Finishing the Task

Once you have the emails and you’re back in the Terminal, we’re almost done. I do not want to see the email addresses on the screen, I want them in a file. To do that, we have to tell the grep command where to put the output. I also want to add some extra tasks before it does so.

| sort | uniq -i > addresses.txt

So put a space before that pipe symbol. The pipe is like a formatting engine. Sort alphabetizes the data and uniq gets rid of duplicates. The -i is a flag for uniq. The > symbol allows you to output everything to a file, and I called the file addresses.txt. So my entire command looked something like this:

grep -E -o "\b[A-Za-z0-9._%+-]+@[A-Za-z0-9.-]+.[A-Za-z]{2,6}\b" /Users/jhendron/Desktop/messages.mbox/mbox | sort | uniq -i > addresses6.txt

The resulting file had more than what I needed to use, but by sorting the list, it made quick work of tidying up the list before I could pass it on to be used to compose responses.

I hope this might be of use to anyone trying to respond to a lot of emails at once using a common response.

Curriculum as Jellybeans

Part of me wishes we could redesign our curriculum. Not mine, not any specific schools’, but all of it—by pouring jelly beans out on the table. I think maybe what we teach is as important question as how students will learn it.

So some have the idea that mixing up traditional notions of “in school” learning with “virtual” learning can be a way to keep up the efficiency of teaching the ways that have sustained schooling for so long while also reducing the potential risk for infection of COVID-19. I realize the idea has real appeal: give students the face-to-face experience for all of its benefits, and combine that with the safety and security of learning from home.

I tend to side with science. There isn’t any pragmatic way to ascertain whether or not someone has been infected with COVID-19 aside from a test, and even the validity of those tests are in question. Without adequate protection or testing procedures, I wonder how we approach putting students in potential harm—and if not them—their extended families—by contracting COVID-19. As it has already been said, the safest approach is to assume everyone else has the virus. I’m an educator through and through, but a part of me can’t get past the fact that putting kids in school puts them at risk. Currently, COVID-19 is the leading disease cause of death in the United States and at the start of this year we didn’t even know it existed.

So let’s take a minute. Our health and the education of our students deserves, I think, a moment. Deep breaths, careful exhalation.

We each have to decide. What is more important? What lies in the balance is getting through a prescripted curriculum and exposure to a virus. Getting through the curriculum at any cost? The thing is, there are things unfolding around us that are quite different from any prescribed curriculum, but they’re real, and we all are being affected by them. “I can’t breathe” is something we just cannot ignore. Temperatures around the arctic circle just reached triple digits (in Fahrenheit, at least). Monuments are coming down, and there are debates on television about our country’s history. Life has changed a lot in just a year and I know it’s rough for many of us to deal with these changes. I have friends whose own children may not experience “a real college experience” and are upset. Others don’t want their kids to fall behind, whatever that means to you, when the fall comes for K-12 students. If we’re upset, even if they are too young to understand why their parents got laid off, or why they can’t socialize with friends, it’s going to have an impact on them.

I think the standards are changing before our eyes and I think we have an opportunity to understand this impact. There is inspiration for lessons around economics, health, science, politics, and social justice all around us. I think it’s a mistake to fret over how to cover an entire year’s published curriculum when there’s the potential for helping us better understand cope with what is happening now.

If you will entertain me for just a moment, I’d like you to imagine a large jar that holds jellybeans or gum balls (your choice). Each of the different colors, let’s say, represents a discipline, like math, language arts, music. And imagine if you could look inside our heads, walking down the street, we’d see that mix of colors all jumbled up. We’ve been through school and we carry with us all those little bits and pieces of that content knowledge.

Except in school we like things organized because organization begets efficiency. The masterminds who work in curriculum and instruction take this jar of beans or gum balls and they pour it out onto the table. They use trays with divots (think of Chinese checkers) to organize content. Suddenly if we watch them long enough, all the beans become organized, into clusters, grouped by colors. Yes, occasionally a blue bean gets mixed in with the pink, but for the most part, each bean, representing different strands of knowledge to be earned by students, is scaffolded, sequenced, and then all that’s left to do, if we follow the plan, is to eat those beans in order.

Eating all of one color is bad for us, so we organize our days in school around eating the pink, then the yellow, then the blue. We take breaks for recess and lunch and go to it again. My apologies to secondary students, they get no recess, but instead a generous five minute break to find the next jelly bean snacking room.

I am hoping you see my point: we clean up life for kids – into small, digestible pieces of knowledge – and organize their day around providing snack-size sequences of beans to them. It’s not recommended we mix these beans up, but instead, they’re sequenced. Addition before subtraction, multiplication before division. Nouns and verbs come before adverbs and adjectives.

The most progressive schools in this country effectively have a different way to dispense the beans. It’s not that careful balance of sequence and such is a bad thing, but it also doesn’t mirror the realities of life. These schools build student knowledge through action, through construction, and in effect, they pour all the beans back into the jar, they shake it up, and the organization of beans isn’t neat, orderly, or color-coded. They’ll see patterns in those beans, and the projects students take on are multi-colored, not single-hued, and the different flavor combinations are to be celebrated.

The progressive educator smiles. “Isn’t this more like real life? Life is made up of all the colors, and they’re rarely so carefully clustered! It’s just like when we look inside your head, there aren’t compartments for each academic discipline, you’ve made sense of things, and the patterns and colors inside your head are what make you unique!”

We can take all the progressive education theorists of our generation, from Dewey to Papert, and they never had to posit the way we educate children against the threat of a killer disease that’s arrested life the way we know it.

I’m not suggesting we stop learning or that we stop teaching. But I am suggesting we slow down. We learned this past spring that if we want to teach from home, the pace has to slow down. Learning away from the structure of school requires time. And so does PBL and learning units designed around challenges. If we’re going to change schedules and how kids are grouped and who they see at school, we can do it based on how many desks fit in which rooms; or we can think about redesigning what learning can look like—perhaps further afield in the progressive spectrum—if we are going to do all this other work to try and make the schooling portion of our enterprise work.

I believe we corner ourselves when we set hard expectations around what teaching and learning has to look like. We corner ourselves when we base our schedules around work and productivity around daily periods of child care. And we corner ourselves when we make decisions out of a binary set of choices: virtual or face-to-face?

The truth is, digital technology can probably do a better job at keeping students within their zone of proximal development than an inexperienced teacher can. I’m not going to say it’s better, or that this solution is on the market today, but as a bold take-away, a computer can quickly assess what I know and what I don’t, it could measure my anxiety and focus, and it can recognize misunderstanding through questioning and provide remedial instructional interventions.

The solution, I think, is how we leverage digital tools in the hands of students to support learning when they cannot be at school. To connect them with their peers and their teachers. To challenge them with projects that mix up the colors of the beans a little, to not ignore what is going on around them. There is a fear, of course, in public education that straying too far away from the checkerboard is chaotic and dangerous. There will be a test. The patterns of beans will have to be replicated.

But right now—is that what is best? Or is there a way for us to address the needs of maintaining a semblance of schooling by mixing things up a bit, at least when it comes to curriculum?