My first podcast: How to Become and Instructional Designer

LearningSeatLogoI started a podcast series called In the Learners Seat with its first episode: How to Become an Instructional Designer. I gathered together ideas from across the internet and added a few of my own to produce what I hope is an encouragement to anyone seeking to try this career.

I’m definitely still on this journey myself, and will continue to be as long as I work.  I just keep learning how to learn and help others do the same.

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Search Engine Optimization

My company asked Rand Fishkin of to come talk about search engine optomization and current trends in the digital advertising world.  Search engine optimization, or “SEO

Photograph of Rand Fishkin in front of his company logo, SEOmoz

” for short, refers to strategies that get a particular website near the top of the “hit list” (also called the “search results page” or SERP).  Getting your website to be close to the first result on the list is obviously advantageous to people advertising their services.  But understanding the process or algorithm by which a search engine like Google operates is shrouded in mystery (at least by Google) so that eager beaver advertisers cannot “game” the system.

In authoring a webpage, I know that one of the first things that you write in HTML code, in what is called the “Head” of the document, are a series of “meta tags”. Meta tags are essentially keywords that search engines use to tailor the results of a search to what the user put in the search window. For a bread company, they might have a meta tag list like “bread, baking, bakery, store, baked goods, Tacoma, Puget Sound Area, 98104, etc. It does no good to write the same word multiple times;  Google will ignore that.  But Google does look for images, videos, and links on a website — besides meta tags — in ordering that site on the results list.  So companies that are tech savvy and struggling for visibility on the web try to do what they can to get their website to come to the top.

This fellow Fishkin is the head of a very successful company that does search engine optimization, and he’s an engaging, energetic, and funny speaker.   In this talk about search engine optimization  (, Fishkin says that nobody can guarantee that any particular website will always list first (unless you pay for that privledge). But, he argues, being first on the list isn’t always the best place to be.  If a website contains video, or an interesting image, that image may display in the search results, drawing the interest of a searcher.  In fact, having video on your website is an excellent way to attract viewers.

Fishkin also recommends that organizations have a Google+ account, along with the very common Facebook page, to increase exposure for that organization.  So I’m trying this out.  I’ve put links to SEOmoz and Fishkin’s talk into this email, and heck, I’ll even shamelessly plug my portfolio at www. to see what comes up when I search for my name, and/or SEO.  Should be interesting.

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Thick skin, warm heart. An oxymoron?

How thick a skin does a teacher these days need to have?

A friend of mine recently related a horror story about his time as a public high school teacher.  He explained that he gave detention to a young woman who chronically talked in class despite being asked not to.  She rarely turned in an assignment on time or if she did, it was never completed.  She eventually earned detention one day for failing to write a single word while the whole class diligently completed an in-class assignment.  She sat in the back of the classroom for forty-five minutes doing the assignment while my teaching friend was at his desk.  He had arranged for other teachers to poke their heads in the door during this time to see that things were going as they should (he had a premonition, apparently).  After she was done and apparently waiting down the hall for a ride after school, my teacher friend graciously asked her if she needed to use his classroom phone to call for someone to pick her up.

Within a day the young woman decided to exact her revenge by saying my friend made sexually explicit comments while she was being kept after school, against her will, for no reason at all, in the classroom.  She claimed that my friend then asked for her phone number and wanted to give her a ride somewhere.

This has got to be a nightmare that many male teachers have.  I can’t speak to what nightmares female teachers have, but I certainly know this one.  Despite being highly principled, ethical, a good teacher, a responsible disciplinarian, gentle, caring, and a consummate gentleman, he was brought before the principal, the young woman, and her mother to answer questions about his alleged behavior.

Fortunately, the non-threatening situation in the classroom, while the woman was completing her assignment, was corroborated by the teachers who my friend had asked to stop by.  At the kind suggestion of my teacher friend, the young woman transferred into another teachers class, and her outspoken, hostile, and flippant behavior completely disappeared.  It was as if the young woman was a dedicated student and my teacher friends “caused” her to “act out”.

End of story?  Not for my friend.  This was one of many straws that broke the camel’s back.  School teachers get beat up emotionally every day.  Students bring charges of emotional abuse, suggestive language, inappropriate advances,  and all manner of things against faculty members because they can.  In our hypervigilence to be sure that the tiny minority of unethical and immoral faculty members are swiftly brought to justice, we’ve lost sight of the unseen damage this does to reputations and mental health.

My friend has dropped out of teaching, discouraged and disenchanted. We’re losing good teachers like him because the cost of dealing with such a barrage isn’t worth  the damage to their emotional health.

I don’t know the answer to this.  There are those who would say that regular challenges to one’s integrity are all part of the job of teaching.  I’ve noticed that those who say that aren’t teachers themselves.

The irony is this:  In order to be a really empathetic, understanding, and excellent mentor, teacher, and role model, you have to be vulnerable.  But in order to survive in teaching you have to have extremely thick skin, and be essentially invulnerable.

I just know that you can’t have it both ways.

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The “Five Paragraph Style” is Alive and Well

One of my early English teachers in high school was a man named Roger Bass.  And one of the signature moments I remember about him was his advocacy of what he called the “Five-paragraph Style”.  He claimed that scores of his ex-students had approached him years after they graduated, saying that this method of organizing a piece of writing made their careers.  He even climbed up on his desk, waved his arms, and said “I’m making a complete fool of myself so you’ll pay attention.  The five-paragraph style is all you’ll ever need to write a good essay”.

As I moved on in life and became a college science instructor (who as a group, are allegedly poor at expressing themselves — what a crock!), I also found the five-paragraph style to be great starting place, whether I was writing a short lesson or a chapter in a book.  As students in my science classes (somewhat bitterly) discovered, I required them to write one essays on every exam.  Oh how they chafed!  How dare I base their grade on their “writing ability”!

Of course I wasn’t grading their writing ability, although for a long time I marked up their copies by circling spelling errors, indicating where I was confused, etc.  What I sought was that they could express themselves clearly in an organized fashion, so I could tell that they really understood the material.

In response to criticism of my outrageous expectations (“This isn’t an English class!”), I wrote up a little guide on how to write an essay answer.  Make it five paragraphs long.  The first paragraph introduces the topic/exam question and lays out three points that will be covered in the essay.  The next three paragraphs took up each point, one by one.  The last paragraph was a summary of what was said.  To make it even easier, I usually asked essay questions like, “Name and explain three ways that microbes can gain access to your body”.

To be frank, my crusade to include essay questions died out after several years.  I fell back into the default position of giving short answer, multiple-choice tests.  It was just easier.  Students didn’t get in my face anymore (about writing, anyway).

But as a teacher, and now an instructional designer, I kept writing manuals and lessons and courses using that old format I learned from Mr. Bass.

Fast forward ten years to when my kids have started writing reports and essays for school.  Thinking I could offer them some tips, I mentioned something about five paragraphs.  “Yeah, yeah dad….we know….introduction, point one, point two, point three, summary.  We hear that every day at school.”.

Really?  Apparently the five-paragraph style is alive and well…although it is called something else these days.  I’d like to think it’s lasted the test of time because it is simple to remember but a powerful organizer.  It helps you get started with writing, having a structure to write within.

Mr. Bass, wherever you are……thank you.  Here’s one guy who agrees.  You can’t beat it.

P.S. I found Mr. Bass online at  He’s also alive and well. 🙂

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In the 1990s, every community college teacher had to sit through workshops about learning styles and how to plan our teaching to address these  styles.  The idea was that you’d give students a test (we all had to take it too) to identify what style or mode they’d learn in best: tactile, auditory, visual, spoken word, etc.  Supposedly then, a teacher would try to deliver content in your best (self-identified) learning style, to maximize your learning and retention.

But while the learning styles concept was great for pigeon-holing, how was a teacher supposed to tailor the curriculum specifically to each and every student?  And what if, as a student, your teacher taught mostly using a learning style you supposedly didn’t have?  Does that mean you’d flunk the course because you wouldn’t learn anything?   About the only useful thing I got out of it was to take a multimedia approach to teaching, so the same content was available across several learning modes– something for everybody.

But “learning styles” have fallen on hard times, and they’re almost unheard of in colleges now.  Are they considered “old hat”, or are learning styles still useful.  Julian Stodd moderates a lively discussion of whether “learning styles”  is still a useful concept in instructional design. Thanks to Julian for weaving so many opinions together and Christy Tucker for the heads up on this post.

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Excerpt from Chris Carrel’s Hylebos Blog (CC was Executive Director)

Eric Stavney served for a little over 6 years and during that time he’s been Vice-President and served two stints as President. Eric stepped up to leadership roles in the board despite this not being his first choice. He did it because the borrd needed someone to fill the roles at the time.

Eric’s first love is on-the-ground restoration work. He has been involved in, I believe just about every restoration project we’ve done, as a volunteer. A devoted father of two really wonderful children, Carl & Linnea, Eric often brings his kids to the events. Both father and children have racked up huge volunteer hours and garnered just about every volunteer reward we offer.

Eric, thank you for years of service to the Hylebos, and your friendship, as well as putting up with me all those times you were President!

All three served on the board during a time of significant growth and substantial achievements in our conservation goals. While board members don’t always get a lot of recognition, and much of their work is done behind the scenes, we wouldn’t be the organization we are today, and we wouldn’t have the acres preserved and restored that we do, without Jim, Eric & Judy. Thank you for being on the board!

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Fuzzy, aka Munch, is gone

This fuzzy little beast has moved on to the next phase of existence.  Where will we get our cardboard shredded now that he’s gone?  Image

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Passing on

Today I’m thoughtful and sad about a friend’s dad who lays dying.  My daughter’s gerbil is probably dead in its little house, for it looked to be in a bad way this morning.  Both of these spirits will soon flee this world, carried onward by the breeze that move through our life.

While I know that death is an essential part of what it means to be alive, there’s no solace there….just acknowledgement that you can’t have one without the other.  As Ursula LeGuin so poetically laid the overarching theme in A Wizard of Earthsea (I’ve added a few commas):

Only in silence, the word,

only in dark, the light,

only in dying, life:

bright the hawk’s flight

on the empty sky.

May departing spirits have an easy journey to where ever they’re going next.

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