South America- Quipu

You know that feeling you get when you really want something, but know that you shouldn’t have it?

Well, recently, I’ve been frequenting the Teacher’s Lounge, only to find that it is littered with cupcakes, doughnuts, cookies, cookie cakes, and everything Sugar. I don’t know if this is a direct result of my teaching classes about [the Cuban singer] Celia Cruz’s trademark of shouting, ¡Azúcar! (sugar) in all of her songs; but regardless, The Sugar Room, as I have now coined it, might as well be magnetic: I can’t stay away.

Don’t get me wrong, I love vegetables and those trendy green smoothies and juices. I love spicy foods, curries, Vietnamese Pho, empanadas, steak, rice and beans, and anything seafood-related. But I LOVE–[note the bold and capitalization and cue lofty, dramatic music]–desserts. Like, to a fault. Dark chocolate and I are BFF’s.

So, in an attempt to justify shoving a second cupcake into my mouth the other day (don’t judge!), my eyes scanned the room for inspiration. Maybe we could feign that the upcoming sugar rush wasn’t a total waste: and it was at that moment that I happened to notice a small package of mint chocolate bars on the table.

It wasn’t that they were calling my name, necessarily. It was the brand that caught my eye: Andes, as in Andes Mountains. As in South America. As in Spanish curriculum territory. As in boom shaka-laka-laka! The librarian had told me something about rope storytelling in South America. Let the research commence. #CupcakeBreakJustified

Where to Begin?

A long, long time ago–we’re talking 2500 BC: or, when the world had primarily hunter-gatherers–someone tied a bunch of knots on a string of llama or alpaca hair [around some sticks], that would be discovered millenia later. We don’t know who this person was, or any specific details about their family. When boiled down to that, it might seem knot so extraordinary… and yet, it was.

You see, these knots would develop over the centuries into an incredible meta-linguistic system. They would be color-coded and distinguished by knot type, direction, spacing, and location. The knots would expand to become a major form of historical documentation and communication for use within the Incan Empire in South America. They would tease linguists and anthropologists with their complex structures and depth of thought.

The word for ‘knot’ in Quechua–the language of the Incas, which is still alive today–is quipu (or khipu, ‘key-poo’). It makes sense, then, that the majority of these knot cords, or quipus, have been discovered in Peru and the surrounding Andes Mountains of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.


Research about quipus is ongoing. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a couple named Marcia and Robert Ascher “grew the known inventory of khipus in worldwide collections from just over 70, to about 400 examples” (Manuel Medrano). This–in conjunction with recent technological advancements (e.g., spreadsheets)–allowed for significant data analysis throughout the following decades. Nowadays, there are over 600 quipus in museum collections around the world, although some estimates claim closer to 800. While quipus are still primarily unintelligible, anthropologists have nevertheless been able to deduce and gather a fair amount of information about these fascinating knots.

For starters, knot color played an important role. Ethnohistorian Sabine Hyland wrote a lovely narrative account about her research here. She traveled to Peru in 2015 and, after many negotiations, was able to visit with an Andean tribe guarding two Collata khipus inside a colonial chest. Hyland saw the khipus firsthand and learned that the colors were sourced from cotton and/or

“delicate animal fibers--crimson, gold, indigo, green, cream, pink, and shades of brown from fawn to chocolate.”

[The colors of these particular khipus were vibrant and] “made of fibers from six different Andean animals–vicuña, deer, alpaca, llama, guanaco, and viscacha (the latter a common rodent hunted for food). In many cases, the fiber can only be identified through touch–brown deer hair and brown vicuña wool, for example, look the same but feel very different.”


Moreover, according to researcher and professor Manuel de León, “the colors of the strings represent different categories–for example, brown corresponds to government; crimson to the Inca sovereign, ruler of the empire; and red to war–while the knots indicate quantities, including the number zero, which is represented by the absence of knots”.


While the Collata khipus are unique in certain ways, khipus are typically quite colorful and varied. Current day research is working to determine the stories behind these knots. For example, the Incas used these portable, lightweight cords to keep track of the new lands they conquered. They would record everything about the area.

“What the Incas would do if they conquered an area was go in and the first thing they would do is send their accountants, their inventory people,” MacQuarrie says.

“They would go in and literally count all of the different resources: the streams, the fields, they’d measure the fields, the people, the sexes of the people, mining, fishing, whatever. They would keep records of it and they would take that information back to Cusco and they would make decisions on how to administer that area.”


So the quipus were used, first and foremost, to record quantities. Medrano mentions in his talk, Knot Just Numbers: Andean Khipu Strings, that the numerical structure(s) of the quipu would seem to indicate that they were likewise used to keep track of debts and credits, such as taxes. Algebraic equations are also evident in the sums of the knots; but quipus were not calculators, rather, arithmetic records.

Both Hyland and Medrano toy with the idea that the quipus may have been used as a tool to record stories and legends. There are strong indications of this fact, such as Rosetta Khipus, in which quipus align directly with historical documents by Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega, and were likely transcribed by the Spanish from quipucamayocs, or specialists from the time period who knew how to read and make the knots. Not everyone could read a quipu.

This is a big deal because the Incan Empire was known not to have a written language; but if the quipus somehow correspond to a logosyllabic system, and someone is able to crack the code, an entire history of Incas will be revealed which, up to this point in history, has been hidden from view.

However, before I venture into solving one of the world’s mysteries, I might need another cupcake. Or an Andean chocolate mint.


  1. Knots representing numbers: The mathematics of the Incas
  2. Unraveling an Ancient Code Written in Strings (& HERE)
  3. We thought the Incas couldn’t write. These knots change everything
  4. Quipu: The Ancient Computer of the Inca Civilization
  5. How The Inca Used Knots To Tell Stories
  6. Quipu: South America’s Ancient Writing System
  7. Knot Just Numbers: Andean Khipu Strings (video)

The Art of Subtraction

I remember subtraction being a big deal in first grade. There were dinosaur eggs on the classroom bulletin board with our names on them and, although I distinctly recall not liking subtraction (addition was so much easier!), I loved my teacher and school and wanted to do well. I don’t know what the dinosaur eggs were about, but I do remember that I got pretty competitive with a boy in my math class and desperately wanted to beat him. Conclusion? Subtraction was important–in fact, wholly fundamental to my six-year-old self’s sense of success.

Continue reading “The Art of Subtraction”

Columbus Day & Word Loans

A few weeks ago, my best friend lent me a heating pad after I injured my back. It was a very thoughtful gesture and much appreciated; but eventually, I returned it. The heating pad wasn’t mine to keep, after all.

Objects and ownership are pretty straightforward, in that sense. I can lend you something, and after a while, you give it back. Now, depending on how [dis]organized someone is, this timeframe might be longer than you originally anticipated; but physical things are clearly here or there, yours or mine. The idea of lending money begins to get a bit more abstract when you are talking about credit (not cash); and to further complicate matters, sometimes the owner of that couch (~that you happened to ‘borrow’ for two years) no longer wants it anymore, which begs the question: did s/he lend or gift it to you?

What happens when we extend this to language? To jumpstart this conversation in my classroom, I like to ask first graders a deceivingly simple question, “So, does anyone know how to say, ‘taco’ in Spanish? What about mosquito? Papaya?” This throws even the native speakers off. Wait a second… (For older students, you can add in concepts, like déjà-vu.)

I can loan you a papaya to take a picture of it and you can give it back (well, you might eat it…), but what about the word papaya? Where did it come from? You see, word loans are not like other loans; they are, arguably, their own category and beast. But let’s back up.

My professional focus as a Spanish teacher is, of course, Spanish and everything that entails (culture, language, all 21 countries, music, food, etc.). But I am also equally interested in fascinated by other languages and particularly, what occurs when they interact or come into contact with one another. So… what happens when languages meet?

Is it like a meet-cute, where they walk off together in the sunset? Or more a ninja style battle, flying from roof to roof at dusk across the city? Or perhaps they don’t even notice each other at first?

Can we personify languages? Do they behave like humans? Every culture and word–and person–has its own story, that is for sure; but unlike people, I think it can be tricky to delineate exactly where one language ends and another begins… particularly when we take word loans into account.

For instance, today: [Christopher] Columbus Day. Now, many have (and had) strong opinions about this Genoese sailor from the 1400s–did you know that he was extremely religious but also thrown in jail for six weeks?–but today we will focus primarily on what happened to the Spanish language when he sailed across the ocean and unknowingly acted as a catalyst for languages to interact.

Let us start with the fact that, according to his diary entries, Columbus wrote in castellano (Castilian Spanish)–although, as philologist and historian Ramón Menéndez Pidal posits here, this was likely not his first language:

« nota reiteradas veces que el Almirante revela ‘ser natural de otra lengua, porque no penetra del todo la significación de los vocablos de la lengua castellana ni del modo de hablar de ella’ ».

Source (6)

Many hypothesize that Columbus’ native tongue was Ligurian, but he was clearly also familiar with Portuguese, Italian, and Castellano, among others. He presumably interacted with the monarchs Isabel and Fernando in Spanish when asking them (repeatedly, until he succeeded) to fund his overseas ventures and [four] voyages to the New World.

I mention this linguistic context and background because the subject of word loans comes up in his castellano diary entries. When languages meet for the first time, there is of course some general confusion. Columbus was actually prepared for this and brought along several interpreters–which was a great plan, except that he did not land in India, and therefore encountered over 600 indigenous languages in lieu of the expected Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Aramaic. Whoops!

Soon after sailor Rodrigo de Triana famously shouted, “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!” (Land! Land!) upon sighting an island in the Caribbean, his fellow crew members and Columbus were to make initial contact with the Taíno natives. The Taínos spoke a language called Arawak. (Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow even explain in their book, The Story of Spanish, that Columbus captured indigenous Taínos and brought them back to Spain for the original intention of teaching them castellano so that they could act as interpreters for the Europeans.)

Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas accompanied Columbus on his third voyage and described this “language of the Indians [as with] the most elegant and abundant of words, and the sweetest of sounds (original: “la lengua de los indios [con] la más elegante y más copiosa de vocablos, y la más dulce en sonidos”). I read somewhere that Columbus himself had used the word, “apacible” (~pleasant, gentle, calm, peaceful) to describe Arawak, but I can’t find the source right now.

Anyway, this is where things get interesting. You see, the beautiful fruit of linguistic encounters is that new ideas are exchanged. As with any voyageur, Columbus and the other sailors learned and were exposed to so many new things in their travels. For example, the Europeans had never seen a canoe before. This is apparent in his diary, where Columbus starts out using the word, “almadía”, or raft in Spanish, to describe what he sees; but over a period of weeks, switches to the Taíno canoa and eventually drops almadía altogether (The Story of Spanish, pp. 99-101).

Here, we see one of the original dictionary entries (1505): canoa, boat of wood; from the Caribbean. How crazy is it that we have access to this information nowadays?

In addition to canoa, the Spaniards took many word loans from Arawak, such as canoe, shark, papaya, iguana, hurricane, corn, hammock, potato, barbecue, and mangrove for foods, animals, and ideas that they did not already have in their own language (i.e., castellano). Can you imagine not knowing what a huracán/hurricane was and experiencing one for the first time? Or seeing a tiburón/ shark or iguana? Or eating a papaya? Or having a barbacoa/ barbecue?

Now, to be fair, none of this is new: linguistic contact occurs all of the time, and we are constantly acquiring new words in our own language on both a cultural and individual level. Whether that is because of a new invention (iPads were invented in 2010, might I remind you), or simply because you moved to the country and someone said, “It’s spitting out” (instead of drizzling), our vocabularies naturally expand over time.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to ponder how one word can be loaned or “borrowed” into another language and end up comfortably living in two places at once. Why are some terms bifurcated? Why is bread bread in English, pan in Spanish, and מָן (mān/ manna) in Hebrew; but barbacoa is shared by Arawak and Spanish, and papaya by Arawak, Spanish, and English? Conversely, how has Icelandic remained relatively untouched, linguistically speaking–(if you speak Icelandic, you can easily understand a text from the 900’s)–whereas English has undergone so many changes it is difficult to pinpoint a time period when it has stayed still?

There are linguistic answers to these questions (Iceland, for one, is geographically isolated as an island, which helped keep the language in one place; whereas English is sort of like your friend’s messy apartment: stuff is just spread out everywhere!)–but all of this still begs the question, how can some words be loaned or borrowed from other languages, while still remaining their own entity? Why did Arawak and Spanish not become one in the same? How many words can a language borrow before it loses its identity, or essence?

Regrettably, I do not have the answers to those questions today. However, I can share [below]–and just for fun–a chart from my FAQ page, if you wanted to delve a bit deeper. In the meantime, Happy Columbus Day!

P.S. Another fun fact: jaguar, petunia, and tapioca, among others–come from the Tupí-Guaraní languages, thanks to later expeditions through South America.

Hiking & Hyperpolyglots

Let me introduce you to my fantasy self. She is an avid hiker. Weekends are spent camping under the stars, and she knows the trails in her area better than the roads to work. She can walk with a pack on her back for 20, 30, 40km without tiring. She spends more time outdoors than indoors, and when she is inside, dreams of inhaling fresh air and the light scent of gardenias floating through a field in the middle of nowhere.

I love my fantasy self. The problem is, she is not real. Don’t get me wrong- I have hiked before (500 miles*, in fact), and I spent much of my childhood running through the back woods of Maine: being covered in bug bites and scratches from blackberry bushes just meant it was a great day, filled with adventure and fun. I own a bevy of camping gear, and binge YT documentaries on the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide from time to time.

Continue reading “Hiking & Hyperpolyglots”

Yes to Pizza.

Once upon a time, there was a Spanish teacher who awakened very early one Friday morning and knew–without a doubt–that it was going to be an amazing day: no ifs, ands, or buts. As if cyberspace wanted to confirm this fact, by 5:30am the algorithms had led her to perhaps the #BestSongEverWritten.

She left the room and nearly missed the surprise ending, but ran back just in time to see it (watch to the end!). She felt an immediate and strong urge to share it with everyone who crossed her path that day; fortunately, she would meet with eight classes, so that wouldn’t be too difficult. It didn’t exactly align with the curriculum, but… yes to pizza. Always yes to pizza.

Then again, did it align? Could it? She wracked her brain. Classes were studying the Nazca Lines–massive geoglyphs in the Peruvian desert that appeared to be roads or trenches in every direction at ground level, but from the air… holy guacamole! They were designs of plants and animals, the longest a whopping 12 miles (20km) long!

The crazy thing was that they had been around for 2,000+ years, but weren’t really discovered or documented until aircrafts were invented. She imagined what it would have been like: “Flying over Peru, Roger that. Wait! A giant hummingbird, there is a giant hummingbird! And a spider! Mayday?!” [pause] “No, I don’t believe they intend to eat me.” “Should we send backup?” “No, I repeat–they do not appear to be an immediate threat. Over.”

In fact, drones and AI are helping to uncover new lines, previously gone unnoticed. In October of 2020, as explained by this article, a faint outline of a huge cat was discovered on the side of a mountain. 143 new geoglyphs have been discovered in the past two years, including one of a humanoid.

Students had been having difficulties imagining just how large these images were, so she planned to have them find the vehicles in the following photo. That would surely impress upon classes the immensity of their size. Wow!

Image Credit

So, pizza. Hmm. There had to be a way in; the song was just too good to hide away in a metaphorically dusty folder in the cloud. Another algorithm led to an animated gif, with a monkey, hummingbird, spider, and a… pizza?! Bingo!

The results of this Spanish lesson about pizza, ahem, Peru, speak for themselves, but she, for one, was very impressed.

Third graders tried making their own miniature deserts and geoglyphs with real sand and red paint (to mimic the reddish desert sand), but it was messier than anticipated: she wound up with red paint IN her hair, students all had red hands from dyeing the sand red, and thus the class switched from The Pizza Song on loop to Elmo’s Para bailar la bamba (because Elmo is red, in case you didn’t follow that non sequitur train of thought).

And since they were all in Peru, it felt like spending a moment at the sand dunes would be an inspired end to the week (best footage starts @3:09 below). After all of that virtual sand dune skiing, who’s hungry for pizza? Happy Friday! ¡Feliz viernes!

Teachers: Here is a more authentic/ traditional soundtrack for background music as students work if *gasp* you don’t like the pizza song.

Southern Spain- Andalucía

The unrelenting Spanish sun beat down on me as I wiped the sweat from my forehead for the umpteenth time, wondering what in the world 44*C was in Fahrenheit. [It turned out to be 110*F.] So this is why they have the siesta, I thought. My brother and I were the only ones walking around the city streets of Granada that afternoon, foolishly searching for tapas and a place to spend the night, when everything was very clearly closed. Scholar-me knew that the siesta existed, knew that it was a part of Spanish culture, but to live it was something entirely different. The “CERRADO” (closed) signs weren’t really necessary: heavy iron doors and gates prevented anyone from even looking inside.

Continue reading “Southern Spain- Andalucía”

Those Dusty Old Tomes

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

THOSE DUSTY OLD TOMES haunt me, inspire me, enrage me, calm me: they are my best friends and my arch-nemeses. I turn the pages quickly, then slowly–slowly, then quickly–skimming the words and frequently returning, crunching on and digesting them one by one as they nourish my heart and soul.

The library is nearly silent this afternoon. A man sets down a stack of books on an adjacent table, pausing to see if he has disturbed anyone. I inhale, and a pleasant sort of mustiness enters my nostrils; history is vibrantly alive here. This cozy, massive den with towers of books in every direction, this place where echos of the past silently resound, acts as a portal to and connection with–or perhaps mural of–humanity itself. How and when did this all begin? And will it end?

An avid reader, Benjamin Franklin began the first public library in the US in 1731 because he wanted to study and share his love of learning with others. Books were quite expensive at the time, and it made sense to compile them so that all could benefit (for a small fee). Many other societies had collected and organized books and materials prior to Franklin, but determining what was, in fact, the first library, really depends on how you frame the question.

What is the oldest continuously operating library? Most scholars agree that that would be Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, Egypt. It is believed that Saint Catherine’s was built to protect and enshrine the area where Moses saw the Burning Bush (Exodus 3). Others say that the Al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco, is the oldest, although that has undergone significant reconstruction in recent years after it was discovered that there was a river running beneath the edifice–resulting in rot and mold and the like.

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in present-day Iraq [formerly Assyria] is considered to be the oldest royal library, and while it was destroyed, archaeologists have uncovered more than 30,000 clay tablets amidst the ruins. The tablets are covered in cuneiform script, the earliest known form of writing. Alexander the Great was inspired by The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal to build his own collection–which became the Library of Alexandria in Egypt; this is toted as one of the largest collections of the ancient world; however, it was unfortunately also destroyed.

Fast-forwarding to present day, we find that the query itself has expanded: new categories abound. It is no longer a matter of defining only the oldest or continually operative library–what about 45+ of the most majestic libraries in the world? Or those buildings housing rare documents, such as Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library? Or how about futuristic-looking libraries, like this one in Tianjin, China?

Tianjin, China–Image Source / Original photos by Ossip van Duivenbode

While Google is well on its way to organizing and documenting the history of humankind, much like a library, it is interesting to note that the library in Tianjin was labeled futuristic in multiple articles: the allure of a space in which you can get lost wandering the aisles, in which you can physically touch books and leaf through their pages–en lieu of clicking on them–would seem to remain an integral part of our future.

There are numerous reasons arguing why libraries should retain a place in society, but this article on The Digital Language Divide takes a unique angle, exploring the underrepresentation of languages and cultures in cyberspace. Technology is advancing faster than most of us can imagine and yet, it would appear that the algorithms still have a long way to go.

  • Library (English).
  • βιβλιοθήκη (Greek).
  • Biblioteca (Spanish).
  • ห้องสมุด (Thai).
  • Bókasafn (Icelandic).
  • مكتبة (Arabic).
  • Kirjasto (Finnish).
  • библиотека (Russian).
  • Maktaba (Swahili).
  • 图书馆 (Mandarin).
  • Bibliothèque (French).
  • סִפְרִיָה (Hebrew).
  • पुस्तकालय (Hindi).
  • Kütüphane (Turkish).
  • Könyvtár (Hungarian).
  • としょうかん (Japanese).
  • Bibliotheca (Latin).
  • Raamatukogu (Estonian).
  • Perpustakaan (Malay).
  • 도서관 (Korean).

I copy the beautiful letters, symbols, shapes, words, and characters from dictionaries with a pen onto paper, silently mouthing the foreign sounds. What would a library have been like a thousand years ago? My thoughts quickly boomerang back to modern life: I wonder if I could order papyrus from Amazon. It’s probably not too expensive. But Carr’s words pull me back into history:

One of the most important things to realize about reading, is that it is a fairly new invention in human history. […] One of the fascinating things about early writing, on slates, on papyrus, even on early handwritten books is, for instance, there were no spaces between the words. People just wrote in continuous script. And that’s because that’s the way we hear speech.

You know, when somebody’s talking to us, they are not carefully putting pauses between words; it all flows together. The problem with that, though, is it’s very hard to read. A lot of your mental energy goes to figuring out where does one word end and the next begin, and as a result, all reading was done in the early years aloud. There was no such thing as silent reading, because you had to read aloud in order to figure out, where is a word ending or where is a word beginning.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

If people seldom read to themselves, would libraries have been noisy, cacophonous venues, everyone shouting over everyone else? Or would a main speaker have taken charge–the present day story-time librarian–inviting the throngs to partake in a community reading? Are libraries on the verge of disappearing, or will they be here for centuries to come? How will they evolve? Should they? What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment below.

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains


There has been an effort in recent years to quash inaccurate definitions of minimalism–to streamline, to declutter, to get to the heart of what exactly this movement and philosophy are all about. While extreme minimalists and ultralight packing lists may be awe-inspiring and provide shock-value, true minimalism is about one thing: getting rid of the superfluous in your life so that you can concentrate on what is most important.

Let us be clear from the beginning that this is not about owning a fixed number of possessions. Rather, it is about understanding what you value and why, from that thing underneath all that stuff that you haven’t seen in seven years and didn’t remember you had (the physical) to how you spend your time on a daily basis (values/principles). It can be delightful to rediscover an item that you haven’t thought about in forever, a buried treasure of sorts hidden behind that other thing you didn’t remember, but were you really treasuring it if it was stashed away and forgotten? The things you care about, you also care for: you take care of items if they are truly of value to you.

Minimalism, then, begins with physical decluttering: a tedious, painful, and eventually joyful process where literally everything you own is evaluated or “graded” by you, the Omnipotent Teacher. International organizational guru Marie Kondo proves your spirit guide here: “Does this spark joy?” While certain aspects of her books may be over the top for some, the focus on what to keep, as opposed to what to throw out, is refreshingly optimistic. Instead of losing yourself to a negative downward spiral of what to get rid of, focus on what you love and let go of the rest.

This letting go, this physical cleansing, allows–in feng shui terms–to begin to move the stagnate energy in your life. When you think deeply about what is important to you, you become more intentional and particular about how you are living your life. You step back to reevaluate how you are spending your days, your life. If you feel stuck, you probably are; but minimalism can help you to escape this Quagmire of Immobility–unless, of course, you are referring to immobility in the sense of not being allowed to leave your home legally. That, however, is an entirely different subject, ha!

In all seriousness, the process of minimizing everything you own is not exactly a walk in the park; it is tough work. Who you were ten years ago is not who you are today: your values and principles have changed, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly, dependent on personal circumstances and general life experiences, as you grow older and wiser. Taking time (our most valuable asset) to sort through our lives and evaluate what is of value to us now, in this particular stage of our lives, can prove both surprising (new values) and life-affirming (old values, or reinforcing staple principles that will stay with you always). We must be judicious but also not wallow for too long in the past, as objects conjure up memory after memory in the Time Capsule called You.

When we rid ourselves of the superfluous, of the clutter clogging up our lives, we define who we are and what is important; we see more clearly: our vision suddenly comes into focus. The realization that we have not had 20/20 vision all along can be jarring but also, ultimately, a welcome reboot and reset. Focus on what is valuable to you and let the rest go.

**Let me leave you with a curated (intentional!) list of resources to peruse HERE, should this topic interest or motivate you to begin. As always, thanks for reading.

Just Play

As a child, I played “school” a lot. My mother says that in kindergarten, I would coerce others to be my students and scribble lessons on a Raggedy-Ann chalkboard. Even as a teenager, I lived in a world of ideas. I remember wanting to figure out how to convert the human body into pure electrons so that I could travel over the phone wires (circuit) to visit my friend in a town twenty miles away. For the record, I never figured that one out, but school was rarely boring; there was always more to learn and do. If anything, I felt overwhelmed at times with the quantity of information available and a serious surplus of interests. Suffice to say, teaching has always been in my blood.

That said, I did not get a degree in education. Instead, I opted for philosophy—the love of wisdom—and languages. The end result was that I entered the classroom as an educator from a different perspective. My philosophy? Learning should be a mix of terrific fun, adventure, and hard work—the kind where you want to work hard to accomplish something. Forget checking off learning standards and textbooks; let’s get to the meat of it all–playing with ideas, exploring, investigating, researching, building, thinking, doing.

Fast-forward twelve years: I am (hopefully) beyond the stage of a ‘beginner’ teacher, have expectations in my class, and a daily routine sprinkled with creative units that spiral, spiral, spiral. The administrative assistant listens patiently as I share about my newest ideas: “What if… we tried to build the Alhambra out of cardboard? Where in the school could students create a life-sized model of the eleven-foot wingspan of an Andean Condor, without the fire inspector getting mad? At 2:30am, I woke up and wondered if first through fifth grade students could collectively name 100 of the 7,000 languages in the world.” I put a lot of thought into my lessons, and yet, sometimes ideas get the best of me and I rush into a project fueled by excitement instead of plans or logic. It generally works out in the end, but because I (along with many educators) spend so much time on work, I felt slightly offended when someone commented the other day–offhandedly–“so students write a little bit in your class and then just play?” Naturally, this got me thinking. Hmm. Well, not exactly. How to explain?

For starters, the phrase ‘just play’ is frustrating. Why do we want kids to grow up so fast? At what age does play no longer become an acceptable form of learning? How can play be viewed in a more positive light? I do not know any savants or polymaths personally, but my understanding is that a true genius plays with ideas, even *gasp* as an adult. Anyone who develops technological gadgets, works with AR or AI, or creates new algorithms is, ultimately, playing with an idea. Anyone who drives a motor vehicle plays with ideas on the highway. It is like a massive, ever-evolving chess game: if I speed up, I can pass him, but then she looks impatient, and he’s on his phone, so what if I went that way? Or I could stay here and slow down, and create a stalemate for that guy who keeps switching lanes. Safety is first, but how do I get out of this traffic jam? We play with ideas all the time, but for whatever reason, the label ‘play’ is relegated to only the youngest of the young.

Image Credit HERE.

I was blown away the other week when, after a quiz (and a few tears), my fifth graders asked to play in a cardboard fort generally reserved for younger grades. They took out the plastic food, started role-playing some sort of spy game, and had a great time… playing. I reflected on that day, along with a quote from Pat Bassett, former NAIS president, for a while.

“Wait a minute! That’s a novel thought: getting to do what you want to do with your friends in class, not just between and after class”.

Bassett Blog 2011/10

…and came to a conclusion: I think he is right. As per my general lack of patience when it comes to ideas, I redesigned my curriculum overnight: students would sign up for centers in the target language that they wanted to do.

Now, fourth graders write short letters in Spanish each day, explaining their plans, and read them aloud to me. They travel to said center, but wait! ¡Señorita! Where did you put the basketball? Where is the paper? Well, I may have hidden it. On purpose. For the—drumroll, please—intention of forced linguistic interactions. Students do get to do what they want in my class, that is, “play”, but it is very intentionally guided. Yes, I did hide the miniature soccer ball in the closet. You will probably need the keys to get it. “Señorita, I need the keys.” Sorry, I don’t speak English. “Necesito las llaves.” Ahh, sí. Now I understand! “Where is the paper?” Umm, I think you mean, “¿Dónde está el papel?”, right? Moreover, I am constantly bombarding them with cultural project ideas: could you help me outline the Nazca Lines with masking tape on my floor? Do you want to build a clay model of Machu Picchu? How could we make a functional water fountain to resemble the ones in the Alhambra gardens in Spain? Is this, “just play”?

After a few weeks passed, I began to get a little worried. The adult in me was concerned that certain ideas and grade levels were overlapping. First graders were not the only ones who wanted to play the class keyboard or paint or build the Alhambra. Third and fourth and fifth and kindergarten did as well. But then a beautiful thing happened: suddenly, ideas themselves began circulating in the hallways. Grade levels were tapping into the same activities, but from different developmental perspectives, and this began to create a conversation. Isn’t this what education is all about?

2020 is around the corner, with creativity chomping at the bit to lead us into the future. Let’s make sure that playing with ideas—at any age—is welcome in that world. Just do it. Just play.

Imports & Exports

The current political/media state has brought to the world’s attention how incredibly dependent and interdependent we–along with millions of people–are on other country’s products and services. An Apple iPhone does not just magically make its way into our hands: the physical hardware comes from somewhere, along with the intelligence, coding, encryption, and software inside the device. And what about the box it is shipped in? Or the paper label on the box? Where was that paper made? What forest did it come from? Which tree? How long ago did this process begin?

Continue reading “Imports & Exports”