Nov 29, 2015

Learning By Doing and The Development of Bad-Ass Skills

I've been thinking a lot about the learning-by doing model of 4-H programs and why this means so much to me. On first glance, it brings to mind the kind of traditional skills that can be modeled and learned through muscle memory--the feel of rising bread dough or the lathe turning just right for a skilled craftsman. And while I adore 4-H for the preservation of traditional skills, I also realize there's more to learning-by-doing than craftsmanship.

This is the diagram of learning-by-doing that we always see in 4-H curriculum:

And this second chart is from a recent article in Mind/Shift, showing the value of mistakes in various situations:

I like seeing the second image as a progression from the first, helping us to process the experience of making mistakes. 

When I consider my own background in comparison to these charts, I realize I spent most of my traditional schooling believing that every situation in my life was high-stakes. I didn't take risks and I didn't stretch. When I made sloppy mistakes, I was too upset with myself to find the learning moment in them. Any aha revelations left me feeling like my mistakes were so obvious that everyone must be laughing at me. If someone had suggested I sit down and consider what went wrong, I would have perceived this as a lecture, intended to punish me by making me feel even worse about what had happened.

The result? I stopped doing any activity at which I was not already accomplished. I quit trying to make any kind of music. I quit drawing. I quit painting. I quit chemistry. I quit math. I quit engineering.

The more things I quit, the more high-stakes it became for me to do well in the areas that remained. I had to do well in English and biology, not necessarily because I loved them, but because they were all I had left.

This is one reason I love 4-H so much for the kids in my life. Yes, 4-H can be very competitive. And yes, there are kids who treat every 4-H situation as high-stakes. That happens. Still, at the core of the program, each project requires that kids set their own goals. Why are you taking this project? What do you want to learn? And then? List the steps you're going to take to get to where you want to be!

I did not learn this in my childhood. It never occurred to me that I could develop a step-by-step process for meeting my own goals. Honestly, it never occurred to me that it was okay for me to have my own goals. I was too busy trying to meet the expectations of others to even consider this. In 4-H, kids have the opportunity to learn how to learn what they want to learn.

This is a serious bad-ass skill.

Of course, in 4-H, we call this a life skill. Just know that, in your head, you can substitute bad-ass every time 4-H uses life as an adjective--and then the words start to pop. 

In fact, 4-H has an entire chart of bad-ass skills:

And this skill, about which I have been gushing? It's listed quietly on this busy, little chart as, "learning to learn."

It's just buried there, as if it's something that should be important--and therefore is not--like an ingredient on the label of a healthy cereal.

But think of it! Honestly, this is the heart of education.

Anything you want to learn? This is how you do it. Break it down. Set goals. Practice. Learn from mistakes. Start from where you are. ANYTHING YOU WANT TO LEARN.

Can you feel the optimism?
The hope?
The excitement?


The world is your oyster.

(Yes, kids. That's a real phrase. Look it up just because you can!)

And what if we still want to limit ourselves to things we already know? 

Well, that's when we start projects off the beaten path, things that sound too fun to miss. Dutch oven cooking. Photography. Guinea pigs. Robotics. Gardening. Poultry. Filmmaking. First Aid. 

We don't always have to play to win. Sometimes we can play to learn--and when we find that awesome, creative, learning space, we can begin making sense of (even delighting in) our own mistakes. And then? The world just opens up. (Like an oyster, yeah?)  

Anything is possible.

Oct 2, 2015

My Problem With Banned Books Week

Book banning offends me because it assumes readers are not intelligent enough to make their own decisions about reading materials.

The correct counterbalance for book banning does not involve exchanging one should for another. As in, "You should read banned books."

The correct counterbalance to book banning involves encouraging readers to develop their own evaluative skills.

It's okay to like and dislike books. Even when it feels like everyone else in the world loves a book, it's okay to dislike it. Likewise, it's okay to be madly in love with a book that others find disdainful.  We don't all have to agree about books.

Traditional press is problematic in the discussion of banned books because what they really want is continued respect and acceptance for the limited canon of books they have chosen to publish.  They are not asking readers to decide for themselves what is good or bad; they are asking readers to react against those who would challenge their canon.

When individuals buy into the idea that there is an acceptable canon, it's not surprising that they want input into deciding what is in it (required reading) and what is not (banned books).

The antidote to the problem of banned books is not reading a banned book and supporting the traditional canon. The antidote is tearing down the very idea of the canon. Be brave. Read widely. Make your own judgements.


Image is a Federal Art Project poster, created by Albert Bender and published in 1940.  Available through The Library of Congress.

Aug 12, 2015

Saving an Ecosystem

Why does the Soda Fire make me so sad?

Let me try to explain.

Our entire sagebrush steppe ecosystem is in trouble. We're not just talking about protecting sage grouse. We're talking talking about protecting more than 350 species of plants and animals (including mule deer and pronghorn antelope), and protecting a way of life for ranchers who depend on the land for their livelihood.

I recently attended a 4-H Wildlife Habitat Education Program contest in Alabama and learned that prescribed burns are a necessary part of maintaining habitat for quail. In many places, where forests replace cotton fields, quail are thriving in the low brush and shrubs. As the forests continue to grow into dense stands of hardwood, the population of quail decreases. To restore habitat for quail, the first thing land managers do is thin and burn.

When we talked about preventing fire in sage grouse habitat, the idea was not intuitive to our audience.  Both here and there, we're talking about smallish birds that love shrubs, right?

Well, yes, but our ecosystems are entirely different.  In Alabama, if you choose not to plant cotton on your acreage, the forest comes back.

The sagebrush steppe my Idaho grandparents cleared to create farmland will never return to sagebrush steppe.  If the land were left fallow, it would be covered by cheatgrass.

Our beautiful big sagebrush simply can't compete with cheatgrass.

When sagebrush burns, the nitrogen level in the soil increases for 3-4 months--and cheatgrass loves nitrogen. (Native plants? Not so much.) So the cheatgrass gets a foothold ahead of the native plants. And then? Right. Cheatgrass also loves to burn. Where once we had fires every 60 years or so, now the same land burns every 3-5 years.  The more it burns, the more nitrogen we have in the soil, and the more the cheatgrass grows.  It's a horrible cycle.

Every time healthy sagebrush steppe burns, cheatgrass moves in.  Because it takes 50-60 years to restore the habitat, and the ground burns every 3-5 years when covered with cheatgrass, we will lose the entire ecosystem without intervention.

We're working on breaking that cycle, but the Soda Fire makes my heart ache.  We're losing ground.

Jun 24, 2015

Writing Workshop Tomorrow!

Writing with Kids!
June 25th, 10am-noon
Slocum Hall, 2nd floor
Weiser, Idaho

Tomorrow, June 25th, I'll be teaching a writing workshop in Weiser, during the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest & Festival​.  The workshop will be one of a series of workshops held in Slocum Hall--a wonderful space being renovated for creative workshops and retreats.

We'll be workshopping in the 4-H tradition of learning by doing and the topic is writing with kids. Cost is $10/person or $20/family.  Half will go to Slocum Hall renovations and half will be donated to send 4-H kids to camp this summer.  

The full workshop description: 

Tell It Like You Mean It - Writing Stories with Kids

Techniques for growing a story through local characters, familiar settings and plots so unbelievable they must be true.

Jun 6, 2015

Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Nominee Announced

Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Nominee Announced

WASHINGTON, D.C. – National History Day (NHD) announced today a teacher nominated to receive the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award. Nominees have shown outstanding creativity, commitment, and inspiration in developing student interest in history. Each state winner is awarded $500, and is eligible for the National Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award. Two national winners, announced on June 18, 2015, will receive $10,000 in recognition of their outstanding efforts.

Johanna Harness of Nampa, Idaho, is one of only two winners from the state. Middle and high school teachers are nominated by their administrators, peers, or themselves for the award. Each participating state is allowed to select one high school and one middle school teacher to receive the state award and consideration for the national award.

“National History Day firmly believes that quality teachers are the best educational tools that students have,” said National History Day Executive Director Cathy Gorn. “The teachers selected as Behring award recipients are a credit to their discipline, and exemplify what it takes to be a quality educator.”

Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award winners are NHD participating teachers who have demonstrated excellence in the classroom. Their work must clearly illustrate the development and use of creative teaching methods that interest students in history and help them make exciting discoveries about the past; award-winning teachers also demonstrate a commitment to helping students develop their interest in history and recognize their achievements.

Harness' students are currently fundraising to pay for their trip to nationals. Contributions can be made here:


NHD is a nonprofit education organization in College Park, MD. Established in 1974, NHD offers yearlong academic programs that engage over half a million middle and high school students around the world annually in conducting original research on historical topics of interest. These research-based projects are entered into contests at the local and affiliate levels, where the top projects have the opportunity to advance to the National Contest at the University of Maryland at College Park. NHD also seeks to improve the quality of history education by providing professional development opportunities and curriculum materials for educators. NHD is sponsored in part by Kenneth E. Behring, Patricia Behring, HISTORY®, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Park Service, Southwest Airlines, the Joe Weider Foundation and the WEM 2000 Foundation of the Dorsey & Whitney Foundation.

For more information about NHD, visit
TWITTER: @NationalHistory

Thank You, Dorothea Dix Think Tank

Many thanks go out to the Dorothea Dix Think Tank for their generous contribution to help Virginia travel to compete at the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland. Virginia has immersed herself in understanding the work of Dean Brooks over the last year, and receiving this donation is a huge honor.

The Dorothea Dix Think Tank was created by Dr. Dean Brooks to decriminalize mental illness. It was established as a donor-advised charitable fund with the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care.

Virginia and Paul leave for National History Day a week from today. They are nearly 75% of the way to their goal, and donations will be accepted through the end of their trip.

May 19, 2015

Fleece to Benefit National History Day Travel

Gulliver is a blue Babydoll Southdown ram. He's a registered yearling and Virginia Harness bought him as a lamb, as a gift for her brother's 4-H sheep project. The first photo shows him in full coat, just after we took off his jacket. 

He was shorn on May 3rd by Daren Withers (an excellent shearer for growers concerned with fleece quality). Today we skirted the wool really well and rolled the fleece for sale. It weighs a mere 1 lb, 13.7 ounces.

The wool will be sold at the Annual Fleece Contest & Sale! through FiberTrain Wool Festival 2015, and the proceeds will go to help the kids travel to National History Day competition in College Park, MD.

More about this fleece type, from

"Babydoll wool is one of the finest wools of all the British breeds. It is short (about 2 to 3 inches) and springy, soft and bouncy, with a surprisingly strong underlying disposition. The micron count typically ranges from 23 to 29 which means many people can wear it comfortably next to the skin. It is easy to spin and produces yarn with a lot of cushion and elasticity. Since it has more barbs per inch than other wool types, it is also ideal to blend with angora or other slick fibers since it clings so well. Its ability to wet felt is very low, although it is fantastic for needle-felting! Babydoll wool is great for socks, mittens, hats, blankets, and sweaters. You will find it has good durability."

And finally, a link to the kids' fundraiser, should you like to donate, but don't know what you'd do with a fleece:

May 13, 2015

Author Talk Tonight!

Tonight is my author talk at Garden City Public Library!  I'll be discussing writing and publishing and staying true to yourself as you navigate the two. I'd love to see you there!

Author Talk!
Garden City Public Library @ 6:30pm