Yes, as my friend Barbara Ganley teased me last week, today i did a fancy pants ****x (TEDx) talk here in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This was made possible by the incredibly generous/gracious Antonio Vantaggiato who invite me to speak at TEDx USagrado Corazón. The theme was “Think + Act”.

More may be written about the event; this is the summary of my talk. It may be a few weeks before the video is added to the Big TEDx Channel in the Tube.

It’s here!

The talk is a re-shaping of the memorable/unmemorable talk I did in 2013 at UMW, similar in my path of looking at my school memories, but this one has a different focus. Because TEDx wants all images Creative Commons licensed, I had to toss all the scans of my old high school teachers, since yearbook photos are copyrighted.

If you want to slide flip, here is the deck (minus GIF animations)

Below are the each slide exported from the deck, and my notes. They only represent an approximation of what I said– I never use a script and frankly… I do not remember exactly what I said. There’s also extra references not in the talk.

Here we go!


We remember things, we forget. It seems simple. But is it?

In the next 18… errrr 17½ minutes I will hope to make you think about your memories of school and then ponder if it has meaning we an act upon. When you look back on your years in school, you likely have vivid memories, teachers that made a difference. These stand out.

But the question I have is what do the negative spaces, the blanks, in our memory tell us about how education happens?

(this animated gif would not work in the theater projection system, BOO)

(this animated gif would not work in the theater projection system, BOO)

We readily call the places computers store information as “memory”. Barring hardware failure or software malfunction, it effectively finds and stores information. But each one is stored at the same fidelity, and level of clarity.

(ditto on remarks about GIFs)

(ditto on remarks about GIFs)

But our human memory does not work with such recall precision, they are not index able, information not always retrievable. Some memories are more vivid than others. It’s rather uneven. For me, I can easily zone in on many parts of my schooling that have vivid sensual impressions, even more than 40 years later. Memorable experiences and especially teachers, stand out. I grew curious about parts where I lack vivid memories. What is it about those periods that have left gaps in my memory? Why are they blank?


This idea of a negative space – you may know the black and white example for demonstrating Figure-Ground perception– depending how you look at it, the image looks like a vase or two faces. Or it is the arrow created by the spaces between letters of the Fed-Ex logo.

Or in this case, what forms the star? Do you see the star or do you see the thighs of of people wearing jeans? Do you see both? Is there a meaningful shape in the parts of my school memory arranged by the gaps in the more memorable ones?


Indulge me as I walk a nostalgic timeline of my own educational experiences. This is the THINK. Think about yours.


In 1970 at Bedford Elementary School, I sat in the second row, 2nw seat in, for Mrs. Foreman’s 2nd grade class. One day she returned a math quiz. She said that the class had done well, but only one student had earned a rather major distinction- a “check plus fantastic”.


Every kid dismissed the idea it was them, but also lusted that it was. Now until this day, I thought of myself as just another kid. Yes, I liked to read, and liked going to school. I watched as she passed my desk and laid my math quiz upside down… I peeked… I was The One. Now this is a rather archaic form of motivation, a crude assessment. It’s out of fashion these days with educators trying to gauge weird things like “grit” or a “growth mindset“.

But you know what? This check plus fantastic changed everything about school for me. I liked getting this reward. I wanted more. I wanted to learn more. I was motivated to do well in school.

And this was pretty small. I am not sure Mrs Foreman saw her recognizing students as being life changing. And she probably had no idea about the effect her Check Plus Fantastic had on me.


My fourth grade math teacher was Mr Fike. Mr Fike. Besides the gym teachers, the only male teacher at school. Kind of tall, with a scraggly beard. Not really huggable. But something he did made me turn on for math. Especially when we learned long division. It was magical. Maybe I was just a budding math geek. You had to look ahead, and plan for the next move. And you could divide any number, big or small, by any number, large or small.

I can still do this.

I could talk about many more teachers from Bedford. !st grade Mrs Berhnardt. My third grade teacher, Mrs Shapiro, stern, and who also taught my older sisters and all my cousins. Miss Piggot, Mrs Isaacson, Mrs Heck.

But I want to move on to the first gap.


Middle school, Sudbrook Junior High. I know I was there 2 years, and I have some creative writing papers and knew I took a special math program in 8th grade. I was on stage crew and ran the lights. But I cannot remember one teacher’s name nor can I visualize a classroom. This seems odd. All I can see is the hallway, the one I moved through quickly so I could avoid getting beat up. By the girls.


High school was a lot different. No it did not look like this. Milford Mill was a typical red brick suburban Baltimore school. Miss Walker must have been a first year English teacher; in my freshman she taught us the structure of Western stories. One day we took a field field trip to see the a western at the movie theater. Our yellow school bus pulled up, and we saw that the movie was Star Wars. Star Wars? I thought we were going to see a Western. You are she said with a sly smile. Pay attention to the plot.

Ironically I am planning a course in the spring of 2016 where I will teach story telling through westerns, including Star Wars.

(By the way look closely at the slide, you will see a special character).


Ahhh Mr Pitz. How did he ever survive school with that name? In stature he looked barely out of high school. He had pimples. We knew he was nerdy, but that was his charm. I had no idea of what pedagogy even was, but there we was having us do peer instruction by giving us a challenge to teach the rest of the class about non-Euclidian Geometry. He also seeded my interest in computer programming; we learned FORTRAN by coloring in punch cards and riding a bus once a week to the school in the district with an IBM mainframe.


Crazy Blooma Friedman, my 10th grade Chemistry teacher. We learned about the Periodic Table, stoichiometry, She insisted we learn how to use a slide rule. She told stories of her date with author Leon Uris. But mostly I remember the method of dimensional analysis to convert units of things, a way you can convert miles per hour to light years per second. I used it in 2008, here as I was converting the price of gas in Iceland from krona per liter to dollars per gallon.


Our tenth grade English teacher Miss Kirshman was strict and unrelenting in teaching us how to write essays. She pushed us hard, but she also opened our eyes to what was the electric words of Thoreau and Emerson. In fact, my core group of high school friends gathered around these writers; you could say we created a non-conformist group. My best friend from that time is still among my closet friends.


My French teacher was Monsieur Rifkin. The only thing I remember from French is how to ask for the soup of the day. But he sparked an interest in Impressionistic art explaining more than technique and what it meant culturally.


And Monsieur Rifkin was so appalled at out lack of understanding English, he took it on himself to teach us extra vocabulary, words that stuck.


Perhaps the most inspirational teacher, Mt Witts made Calculus vital. Yeah, I was still a math nerd. He had regular challenges that were meaningful and relevant, not just book problems. He pushed us to think not just get answers to word problems He showed as a use for the concepts being taught, not just trying to get answers to match the key in the back of the book. We learned how Calculus could explain real world phenomena like acceleration and motion.


The next black spot was first year of university. I entered the University of Delaware as a computer science major… and hated it. Programming seemed abstract and pointless. I cannot remember one computer science teacher, I cannot visualize even being in any classes here in Smith Hall.

I do remember the computer room in the basement, the introduction of the first CRTs, and playing some sort of dungeon game on the mainframe, probably Zork.


Everything changed when I switched majors that took my to this building, Penny Hall. I can remember just about every Geology teacher I took classes from in Penny Hall. I can tell you about field Trips with Dr Pizutto, the challenge of crystallography with Dr Leavens, or doing research on tektites with the appropriately named Dr Glass. I can see all of the small classrooms, the black table labs. I could talk about many of these teachers, but when I took this photo, I was visting the campus again in 2011, some 3 years after I was a student. I walked down the basement, saw the open door, and knocked it to say hello to Dr John Wehmiller.


He looked up, an without much hesitation said, “Alan!”

Dr Wehmiller was maybe not the best lecturer, he had the speaking habit of pausing with an “Oh”… but his Introduction to Geology class was the confirmation I needed to change my major from computer science. I was the kid in the front row of the class, sitting on the edge of my seat reading the whole textbook when only parts were required.

And here is an important part of my message- it’s not just what the teacher does to make things memorable, the student’s presence, interest, and their own place in life are just as key an element. I was ready for this, and it was ready for me.

(not in the talk, but…)

After I continued on to graduate school at Arizona State University, I met John on a highway outside of Santa Fe. I was on a research road trip, and he had taken his son to a music competition. It was not until recalling this on a visit to University of Delaware in 2011, that he told me how his son had won the scholarship at that event to Berklee Music school, and gone on be a session musician, eventually touring as the the bassist for Duran Duran! John said that it was Wes’s birthday, and I passed on a greetings. That’s where John had to pause and let me know that Wes tragically passed away the year before at only 33 from thyroid cancer. See Geology Like The Wolf


Geology is a subject where part of the learning is in a classroom, but the real education happens out in the field.

Allan Thompson (everyone called him “Doc”) was a huge influence on my choice to go to graduate school. He taught many practical and life lessons in class, often leaving the syllabus for some commentary on climate or the environment. he was a folk tale teller. . He was the one who uttered in class once that in fields like Geology where we have many classification schemes, “Some people are lumpers and some are splitters” — I have used that many times in other contexts.

His love for geology and passion came through out in the field Doc was popular for his personality and humor, but it was his care and concern that all of us felt. he led the 6 week field course where we drove out to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Big Tetons in Wyoming to put our education to work. It was where I saw the big western sky and knew my future was in the west. He was a teacher on this trip yes, but much more.

I would dare say he loved his students, he loved teaching. It was obvious. We felt it.


I did go on to graduate school in Geology at Arizona State University. As a graduate student at ASU, a relatively small department that had a high profile because of their success at getting research grants, you go to know your professors (and they you) in and out of class. It was first name basis, it was a softball team and volleyball, it as again shared times in the labs and in the fields.

I could mention nunmerous professors, but I owe much life wisdom to what I learned from my advisor Susan Kieffer, who had come to ASU after I finished my masters. She was a rockstar in Geology, having done a wide range of high profile research projects with the US geological Survey. She took me on as a PhD student.

Sue had a fresh way of approaching problems, but really stressed the importance of writing (she got me being aware of the use of active over passive voice) and promoting the role of science as being a communicator to the public. I also learned of how hard it was for her to had achieve so much in Geology against a lot of adversity in a male dominated discipline.

But more than that, when I reached a point midway in a PhD program where I knew I could not continue, she supported my 10000% when I told her I wanted to go into education (see The Day I Cried in a Canyon). This photo was taken about 4 years ago when I visited her at her new home on Bainbridge Island in Washington State.


I have just tried to share key memories of 16 years of my education. I wanted to put that in perspective. How much would it take to store in a computer’s memory everything that happened in that time span?

This is a crude estimate, but there are people who have been lifelogging storing all the data of their lives (e.g. Gordon Bell) who capture with wearable device video, audio, image, and other data.

From a research paper LifeLogging: Personal Big Data (Cathal Gurrin. Insight Centre for Data Analytics) the data storage for this would be approximately 35 TB per year. For 16 years, this works out to be 560 Terrabytes of data, or would require 120,000 DVDs to store it. That red box is 120 DVS, so I would need a shelf with 1000 rows for all that data.

My stories I shared would easily fit on one DVD. Or actually it would be just a short reel of extras added to the bonus features.

The data amount is small. But the impact, after some 40+ years for some of the memories? Huge.


What do we do with this? What is the ACT? It’s not about lists of tricks or using technology. You can probably guess the secret sauce that applies to the parts of school I find memorable and was missing in the parts not memorable. I cannot offer a series of Twenty Five Tips To Become a Memorable Teacher.

Forgot this non-essential line

I think of the old cowboy Curly in the movie City Slickers. Holding up one finger, he asks them if they know the secret of life. It’s one thing. “You stick to that and the rest don’t mean ______.” But what is that one thing, they ask. “That’s what you have to find out”


Just last week I was talking about my presentation with Amy Collier and she mentioned an old paper by “someone named Pederson” about a “Miss A” that seemed relevant.

With a bit of google I found much more than relevant. The paper:

Pedersen, E., Faucher, T. A., & Eaton, W. W. (1978). A new perspective on the effects of first-grade teachers on children’s subsequent adult status. Harvard
Educational Review, 48(1), 1-31.

is incredible. They studied a poorly performing school in a low socio-economic part of a major north eastern US city, trying to find out what the impact was long term of first grade teachers. Students who started at this elementary school had a very low, like 5% eventual graduation rate from high school. Ironically, the lead author was one of these students.

But there were 3 long term first grade teachers they called “Miss A”, “Miss B”, and “Miss C”. They started first looking at changes in IQ from the 3rd to 6th grade for these students, but later saw that this was not the best measure of impact. So they located them as adults, and surveyed them using a scale of Life success” via employment status, size of house, family members, etc.

There was no preferential loading of students for these teachers, but what they found was students from Miss B, and Miss C ended up with no increase or even a decrease of IQ, and a later standing in adult life of middle or low success. But the ones who had Miss A showed a statistical increase in academic and life success. By the time they did the study, Miss A was in last stages of a terminal illness, so they had to rely on her old students to describe what she did.

She set a bar of expectation for her students, she expected them all to read by the time they finished first grade. She would spend extra time with them, pick out books, give the ones who lacked lunch money her own lunch, all the caring things that a dedicated teacher does.

The most telling thing to ,e was they would ask the adults if they could remember which teacher they had in first grade. More than half of the students of Miss B and Miss C could not remember, but 100% of Miss A’s students could recall her name. And even more amazing — 4 students out of the 100 surveyed identified Miss A as their teacher when the school records proved them wrong.

More not in the talk
I am totally gobsmacked by the scope of this paper, and its methodology (the little I know about it). The authors cite the issues with sample size, but they way they dealt with all of the research elements is impressive. Plus that this was published more than 35 years ago.

The thing that dismays me is that a paper this old (1978) is STILL LOCKED NEHIND A PAYWALL. Why does Harvard, who has more money than Princeton and God, need to keep research locked up?

so this is how the copyright circumvention system works. I asked someone who works at a campus to download and email me a copy. We broke the law. Fuck the law, it”s stupid.

I found the first mention and a worthy summary The Amazing Miss A And Why We Should Care About Her from a talk by Carnegie Foundation’s Daniel Fallon. With some more searching I came across a Dec 20 1973 letter to the editor of the Montreal Gazette by Eigel Pederson (the paper’s lead author) “Miss Apple Daisy’s pupils- an extraordinary measure of success” where we learn more about Miss A, whose real name was Iole Appugliese – she had her students call her Miss Apple Daisy because her Greek name was hard for them to pronounce.

Lastly, what even takes the story more over the top, was again, Pederson’s own story- he was a student himself at this school, though not of Miss A. He did not graduate, but went on to a crafts job, later finishing hs schooling, going on to off all places HARVARD, later teaching at the school he went to, and rising on to be a Provost at McGill University.

This paper is going to be a whole blog post in itself, and seems ripe for some riffing in a Federated Wiki. Later. Back to the talk, but thanks again Amy Collier for turning me on to this paper.


As a teacher, what do you want to be remembered for? For being a MOOC super professor who taught (but never communicated with) one hundred thousand students? For covering content? As helping students achieve a list of competencies?


It’s not always about devoting hours of attention to each student. Designer and writer Frank Chimero talks about a memorable advisor/mentor who gave him 3 powerful words as a review on his work. This was his mentor, who was on the phone while thumbing through Frank’s portfolio. The mentor, paused the conversation and said these words to Frank “Needs more love” — and it made a huge impact on him. Not everything needs to me done with the intensity of Miss A- if you know your students you can offer powerful feedback in small morsels.

How often do we think of love in our work? Is this thing a robot tutor would ever say?

See Chimero’s Lesson

“Needs more love.” Best damn advice I’ve ever gotten. You can keep your practicality and your action items and your take-aways. You can have your instructional advice, your recipes, your prescribed steps to fulfillment, and your ladder-climbing. I’ve got this: this little gem of insight from a man who taught me so much. The only thing that matters is that we care more than we already do about the people and places and projects that we give our time and attention. We’ve got to believe in the stuff.

And, you know? I can forget everything else I ever learned from him and just keep this. I can lose my portfolio, I can lose my clients, my motivation for the work; I can lose my bluster, my attitude, my point of view, my aesthetic. I can lose a million dollars and every client I’ve ever had or could ever hope to get. I can quit design, I can never speak of typography again, I can never put words to another page. I can lose my memory, I can lose myself. All of it can disappear in the next second, and it won’t matter.

I’ve got this. “Needs more love.”


Another huge influence on this mode of teaching is Michael Wesh, Anthropology professor at Kansas State University. He teaches large lecture courses in a way where students are highly active. He teaches in a model that focuses on what the student needs, not about “covering content”. In his recent videos and blog posts at you can hear what he learned from his infant child, doing hand stands in class, taking his students out to lunch not to talk about the course, but to learn more about them, and mainly teaching as a soulful act.


But here is the twist- being memorable is not about your ego on being memorable. All of the examples I shared are based on rather small actions that were not meant to be “memorable”. It just turned out that way. And lest you think I am talking about popularity, the whole goal is not whether you are memorable or not… When I told my friend Kevin about this a few weeks ago he remarked that we should “be humbled by the fact we may never know what’s memorable.”

Nearly all of my teachers I talked about have no idea these things were memorable… to me. That’s why I only have photos of two of them, who I got a chance to tell them much later.

So if you are trying to be memorable, you are going about this wrong.


I want to close with a story about Danny, a student in one of my digital storytelling courses. He always sat in the back, with a hoodie on, and his face mostly hidden behind his laptop. I knew from his blog he had some interest in playing drums, and I made some passing mention of asking who his favorite one was (John Bonham). But from my position at the front of the room, I did not think Danny was tuned in.

My perception was wrong.

At the end of the class, my students make appointments to meet me to review their semester’s work. I ask them what grade they think they deserve and why (nearly 90% of the time the report the same grade I have in mind). But Danny blew me away with the amount of concepts he got from the course, that I would have never known about from my assumptions based on what I thought I saw.

And during the last weeks of the class, while that laptop was up, he was actually recording me in class- I played a part in his video story as “the boring professor”.

I have no idea if me or my course was memorable to Danny. I will likely never know My experience with him was memorable to me. But what matters is that I do what ever I can to understand whats important to my students, what they care about, and aim to provide the best experience that might hopefully be memorable to them.

That’s maybe 80% accurate for what was in the talk. I frankly cannot remember. My method is to be very clear on my opening lines and where I want to go in the end, but often I go a bit off my script (which there is none) in the act of talking. You might have to wait to see the video.

I felt very energized doing this, and despite the bright lights in my face, I could feel the energy coming back at me. All I could tell for sure is that I think as I was talking I was so excited I may have been spitting at the front of the stage (I hope that is not on camera).

The practice on Thursday as really helpful, I almost never fully talk through my presentations before, I do it all in my head. I found my timing was 2 minutes fast, so I knew I could add detail.

I was watching the clock closely, and was pleased to find myself on the last slide with two minutes left, and able to end with about 10 seconds to spare.

In my prep I reviewed Bryan Alexander’s great set of posts on presenting, especially on the attention to voice. I did more deliberate breathing, and use of the extended arms.

So there you go, I’ve done the TEDx thing. Don’t count on it’s logo appearing on my site or my twitter profile, it was just another talk.

But I think it was a good one. Thanks Antonio for making this possible, Tu sei il più grande!

Top / Featured Image Credit: tweeted by @hetsorg — no one seems to ask but twitter images are never associated with a license. WTF?

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Great stuff! I thoroughly enjoyed your walk down memory lane. As you suggested, my own memories of my own schooling came out to walk alongside yours. And I’m still angry about most of it…
    Bit “needs more love” is a great place to get to.
    I have no idea if I have been a memorable teacher or not. I have been severely overworked by the system–for seventeen years I taught five writing courses a quarter for three colleges two hours apart, often in the same day. Somehow I did that, but the view from here in the early half of retirement where I “only” teach two online writing classes, is one of being brutalized.

    I teach online now because a fellow WR 121 teacher in a nearby town just got shot in the head by an insane shooter (Umpqua). I may never enter another classroom face to face.

    So I bring a lot of baggage to the online classroom; what I want to stick on the front of my computer now is, “Needs more love.”

    Good work, Alan, and I look forward to seeing your TEDx Talk!
    Love from Sandy!?

  2. Thanks Alan,
    I have just a few minutes before running to class but I wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed this post, it has so much love in it. I’m reflecting on how to talk to parents in a set of talks that I will give in November at my sons’ school about Digital Identity (the talk is titled “¿Y tú quién eres?… en la era digital?”). There is much here in your blog post that relates to that topic and I hope to jam with you about ideas before I actually give the talks. Yeah, talks plural. I get to give the same talk 3 times for 3 campuses and as fortune has it the last talk will be the campus that my sons attend so hopefully tighter in delivery.

  3. This was awesome to read, Alan. Thanks for sharing. I filed it away a week or so back when you originally posted it and was glad I made it back. I love your approach from the learner’s perspective. It’s easy to forget what those moments you remember (and moments you forget) felt like. I hope we all get moments to thank those who inspired us.

  4. – Quan, i’m deeply toecuhd and moved by the photos. your presentation of your trip is amazing. I felt the entire time as if I was right next to you traveling with you. Thanks for taking me on the journey.

  5. (waving arms back at you)
    What a terrific post, Alan. Thinking of what’s memorable from schooling is a deep, great prompt.

    Did they give you guff for not using notes?

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