Strips to blocks to squares 

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When I first started sewing, I thought all quilts were assembled one square at a time: tiny snippets of fabric pressed, sewn and pressed again into more elaborate patterns. I’ve since learned that quilts are assembled in a variety of ways — sometimes taking strips sold in roundels called “jelly rolls” which can then be cbxvvvvgut down into blocks and then squares. Which is what I’ve done here. 

It’s a bit of the old alchemical solve et coagula. Except that here it’s coagula et solve. The strips are assembled into larger panels first and then the large panels — 6 6/8″ by 43″ are cut down into 6 1/2″ blocks or squares that fit together into quilts.  And then there’s another coagula step — building quilts out of the squares. 

Math teachers may object to the 6 6/8″ fraction. Clearly they’ve never made a quilt. Have you ever tried to measure 2/3″ on a ruler before? Sometimes, teachers need to remind themselves that the actual measured experience on the roller, is more important than the abstraction of the reduced fraction. Sometimes it really is 6/8, because that will become two 3/8″ measurements under the sewing machine needle. We have to be careful about letting our formalized abstractions get in the way of the lived experience of the artisan.

 
There are enough cut squares in the front three piles of the second photograph for one queen sized quilt, one twin sized quilt, for crib quilts or throws, or eight infant quotes. I have some decisions to make.

For Sale: Quilts

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Well, I’ve posted some of my first quilts for sale at my Watermountain Studio website.

So naturally… it’s today that I learn that I can offer these things for sale directly through my blog, here.  Ah, well.

On offer are some of the quilts depicted here:IMG_6131.JPG

The quilt that I’m proudest of, is this one composed of triangles. They’re not arranged in any particular order (other than to form a border of green-black triangles and blue triangles around the borders of the quilt).  Triangles and hexagons are really difficult to get right, and getting started on this project was a little terrifying. This is only the second quilt that I’ve ever done using triangles and hexagons, and I think that it came out pretty well for a second try.

The other three quilts are based on strips-to-squares patterns.  What that means, is that there are a series of strips, say 40″ long by 2 1/2″ wide.  Those are sewn together in groups of three, and then the groups of three are cut into squares of around 6-7″ on a side. Two of the quilts just have a standard edge-binding, like the Blue/Black/White Quilt.  One of them, the colorful one, has a semi-random pattern of gold dots that catch the light.  The Black/White Quilt has an additional border sewn around the edges. Seven of those squares long, and five wide, is about the size of what’s called an Infant’s Quilt in America, or around 30″ x 40″ finished and edge-bound.  A Crib Quilt is about 30″ wide by 54″ long, and that requires a lot more squares, of course.

So now these quilts are all available on Etsy.

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Quilting: three quilts

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I’ve been away for a few days, working elsewhere and on other projects. But it was time to return home, and get back to work.

I finished the tops of these three quilts almost a month ago… NO, it’s exactly a month ago.  Today I got to finish them.  I need to work on my edge-binding techniques.  I still don’t get it right.

And I’m eternally grateful to Beehive Sewing for teaching me how to sew in the first place, and giving me the confidence in my abilities to tackle projects like these. (Fiber Arts Boston Resource and Innovation Center [FABRIC] is also a great place to learn to sew). It’s a good idea, if you’re new to sewing, to take a basic introductory class, and then a few supplemental classes. That’s often enough to get you started with some sophisticated work. Not always, but usually. 

So these quilts are done. What can I say about what I’ve learned?

First, the edge-binding process is difficult. There are a dozen ways to do it, all of them are fiddly and require a lot of attention.  I often don’t have enough patience for the finishing, though I’m getting better.  It’s meditative, really, when you get into it for real.  At the same time, it’s a lot of fussing with a fiddly double-folded strip of fabric that doesn’t ever want to do quite what you want it to do.  So I need to get better at that.

How do you get better at it? Make more quilts, curiously enough. Do it more times. Try again, read a few articles, fail, and try again.

Second, the question of pattern is exceptionally complicated.  If you look at the first quilt, in black and white, you can see that I attempted to create a pattern with my black and white striped squares. That’s great, as far as it goes.  But if you look in closer detail, it emerges that the black and white fabrics have their own sub-patterns. It’s not just black and white; it’s black and white with subtle contrasts. And at a distance, it makes the overall design… murky, even random.

That’s less true with the first quilt with blocks of color.  Joann Fabrics effectively chose these colors for me, when they packaged them in a set.  I don’t think it worked out too badly, but it’s still a little wonky.

The blue-black-gray-white quilt, I think is my favorite.  It sort of has a boyish vibe to it.  Yet it’s got some floral elements to it, so it’s not completely ‘masculine’ as our current society understands it. Again, some pattern-issues emerge when I look at photographs of it that I didn’t see when I was making it.  And I need to learn to do a better job with quilting a quilt — stitching the three layers of a quilt together.  This is something that takes a lot of patience and practice, I’m discovering.

The last photograph shows one of my feet sticking into the frame.  In some ways this is an error, but it also gives you a sense of their size.  It’s not purely 30×40″, an infant-size quilt should be… I’m struggling a bit with the question of sizing of quilts, I admit.  But it’s still a good marker of the size I’m working with.   I’ve found that it’s a bit difficult for me to work with larger sizes than this, underneath the needle of my new machine, though. So I have to think about whether this is the largest that I’ll go, or whether I’ll try my hand at making a queen-sized quilt.

I’ll likely be posting two of these quilts to my Etsy store as For Sale items later this week, along with some tool-roll pencil cases.

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School: Pre-Mortem analysis

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The new school year is starting up soon. So for schools and teachers, I’m continuing this series of posts on content from Dave Gray’s and Sunni Brown’s book Gamestorming, which contains a variety of business-development and business-improvement games for rethinking strategy and tactics… and how to adapt Gamestorming for an education environment.

Schools by their very nature are quietly conservative, no matter how progressive they are in philosophy.  Part of the reason for that is that schoolteachers work with kids — and what worked with one group of kids in past years is likely to work with another group of kids in the present.  Innovation is difficult.  (It’s part of the reason why it’s better to get teachers in the middle years of their teaching career — no set of philosophies or teaching theories is adequate to actual contact with actual children, so teachers with actual experience have more tactics and systems that work with students  “in their heads” and “in their hands”… but new things still surprise them sometimes, and they invent new strategies on the fly out of the fabric of their experiences).

The Pre-Mortem

Schools still get things wrong.  One of the most complicated things they get wrong is the happy enthusiasm at the start of the school year — all the teachers are moderately well-rested after a couple of months away (or not — teachers are sometimes frazzled in August after summer work taken on to pay for their teaching career). The administration and faculty have had a few months to remember their most difficult students with fondness, to let the rougher memories subside, to ignore any community challenges or failures experienced in the past year, and to otherwise let the previous year have a golden glow about them.  And, of course, summer is usually when new policies, schedules, procedures, and curriculum changes get rolled out and planned… well before those polices and programs have actually been tested by actual students.

So my inner Goth is always quietly pleased by the idea of the Pre-Mortem.  When using this game, a group of teachers and administrators identify all of the ways that this current year might wind up a disaster. Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.19.01 AM.png

In my example, you can see that I’ve created the sort of ambitious program that many schools roll out in the fall. There’s a set of big goals to achieve, and a variety of plans to achieve them.  By writing down the big goals, we can see the big picture, and identify the plans that help those goals get achieved.

Every single one of those plans has a person behind it.  Plans don’t come out of nowhere — a person uncovered the idea, and began to push that idea… and now their idea is ON.THE.LIST.  And none of those people want to hear how their program died, especially not at the start of a school year, before it’s even had a chance to succeed.

But.

Schools need to focus on the first item on their checklist, which is teach children and make a good-faith effort to keep them safe.  That’s the first order of business, and all other plans have to be subject to that particular standard. So anything else can — and should be — subject to a pre-mortem analysis, to make sure that it actually achieves its goals.

So once the the goals are announced, and the plan for achieving those goals is on the board… it’s time to do step three, which is to identify the things that go wrong.Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.49.41 AM.png

Many teachers, even ones who’ve spent their whole careers in one school or one school district, have seen the same kinds of issues again and again. Issues of communication, issues of leadership, issues of personnel management, issues of parent-student-teacher interaction, issues of curriculum, issues of trying to do too much.  The Pre-Mortem is an effort to gather and collect that collective wisdom, to write it down, to present it together, and to try to identify certain ways that a group project (like a really amazing school year) might fail before it’s had a chance to fail.

If you could identify what killed the patient before the operation even started (leaving a sponge inside, letting the surgical incision be open for too long, the wrong medication administered), you would do that.  In fact, Atul Gowande in his book The Checklist Manifestodesigned a process that derived from a Pre-Mortem exercise very much like this: “what are the top ten mistakes surgical teams make at the outset of a surgery, that then result in the death or further injury of the patient?  How can we avoid those mistakes?”

So maybe, instead of all the hoopla and celebration that accompanies the start of the school year in most schools, we should begin with a more gothic exercise draped in funereal black:

  • Imagine it’s early summer in 2018
  • What went wrong?
  • Why was it such a terrible year?
  • What could we have fixed earlier than we did?
  • What common pitfalls could we have avoided?

Imagination serves a useful purpose, even if the results are gloomy.  It gets us talking about our blind spots and our failures, which is difficult.  But if it allows us to make the year more successful for everyone, before the school year even starts, then that short few hours of gloom and doom will make everyone’s year that much better, by identifying some risks before they take root.

 

School: Horizontal/Vertical Sort

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A recent conversation with Dave Gray of XPLANE, Inc. got me thinking about his heuristic matrix from the book Gamestorming which he wrote with Sunni Brown. Once I thought about the matrix, though, it was easy to return to Gamestorming, and find other exercises worthy of using in schools.

One of my favorites — but also one of the ones most ineffectively used — is the horizontal and vertical sort.

This exercise consists of three parts.  The first is the generation of a group of ideas using Post-It® Notes.  That might look something like this, in a beginning of the year exercise.  The facilitator might say something like, “What does it take to make the students in your classroom have a successful year?”

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Doing this much of the exercise is nice, of course.  You get a lot of good/random ideas just by reading the Post-It® Notes, pretty easily.

But a horizontal sort is an essential part of the process, and shouldn’t be avoided just because there’s a lack of time.  Here’s how this gets sorted in one way, according to two horizontal categories: expensiveness in school budget, and expensiveness in personal time.

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Now, in a Punnett Square, from biology, these categories of school treasure and teacher time, would be arrayed against one another in a vertical/horizontal sort.  There’d be a chance to think about these things seriously.

But I’ve chosen to sort them this way, to point out that sometimes the teacher’s time and the school’s treasure should be weighed against other issues, like, for example, the school’s stated or guiding philosophy.  That might lead to a sort like this…

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It’s now clear which ideas can be discarded, at least for now.  It means that if a classroom needs to spend 2-3 class periods on the question of rules, it’s a good idea.  If the school has decided on a new mathematics curriculum — that investment should be made.

It also makes clear that the school should begin an ongoing conversation about the role of homework in the school, and that the question of pets or class animals is kind of a sticking point for a lot of folks.

I want to point out that this is a demonstration.  A #fakesort.  All I’ve done is create some generic Post-it® Notes in a word processor, and then sort them according to three categories.  Were this a real activity, you and your colleagues would each have generated Post-It® Notes for 5-10 minutes, then sorted them horizontally according to some relevant categories, and then sorted them vertically according to a different set of categories.

For example, instead of “School Philosophy” you could have made columns that said “individual action”, “Administration action” or “School-wide issue.”

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And I also want to point out that I was altering Post-It® Notes as I created these individual screen-shots, too. So this isn’t a true picture of any one institution. Rather, it’s a demonstration of what kinds of pictures of an institution or a school’s divisions or departments can emerge from a diverse range of inputs (the team writing the individual Post-It® Notes), and the decision to sort those Notes according to a given set of rules or themes.

It’s even fun to work with the same collection of Post-It® Notes more than once, in order to see multiple emergent patterns.

What you MUST NOT DO, though, is generate multiple sets of Post-It® Notes on the same themes or similar themes, over and over again, without processing them.  That way lies madness. You will overwhelm your team, and you will never actually decide on a course of action.  It’s far better to generate a small number of Post-It® Notes once, and then sort them multiple times, in order to develop themes for further conversation.

School: Redesign Homework

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Around this time of year, I always think about how I’m going to re-design my teaching for the fall semester.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m teaching or not, I think about it.

A recent conversation with Dave Gray of XPLANE, Inc. got me thinking about his heuristic matrix from the book Gamestorming which he wrote with Sunni Brown. A heuristic matrix looks a lot like the grid from a spreadsheet, and which I used several years ago to redesign homework.

That grid looked something like this…

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I identified a bunch of broad categories that I wanted my students to learn about.  In this example, based on the broad theme of teaching about Ancient Greece, I have categories like religion, and aspects of art history, politics, literature, philosophy, and science and technology.

I then identified a variety of styles that I wanted my students to learn to write in. These formed the individual columns of the heuristic matrix.    These included paragraphs dealing with compare and contrast writing, where the same paragraph alternates between two different viewpoints or styles. There was also descriptive writing, involving a top-to-bottom explanation of a thing or a place.  Narrative writing, the description of a beginning-to-end process, was another category. Persuasive paragraphs offer reasons for holding an opinion, and attempt to persuade the reader to accept a particular viewpoint.  Exposition attempts to define or explain a person’s ideas or opinions without forcing them on the reader.  Reading comprehension, on the other hand, asks students to engage with an actual historical text.  Self-directed research is another category — independent projects of various kinds.

I haven’t filled in the heuristic matrix completely. Some of this is left as an exercise to the reader (which is to say, perhaps, that I’m lazy or that I don’t wish to think all of this through, or maybe that I don’t wish to share all of my thought process at once).  But the overall structure should be discernible.

I tried to do something similar with a mathematics heuristic grid for a lower grade, perhaps grade 2, grade 3, or grade 4.

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I’m not a mathematics teacher, so you’ll notice that the grid isn’t completely filled in.  But you’ll see what I’m trying to do… I’m trying to come up with a variety of mathematics exercises and activities that don’t revolve exclusively around the traditional “do these 20 problems to learn a type of procedure” worksheets or homework lists.  This is about inventing new forms of assignments and identifying how these can be used to teach or refresh skills that lie outside the usual curriculum norms.

And it’s important to note that YOU don’t have to fill in a grid completely, either. You may only generate one or two useful ideas from a heuristic matrix.  Yet if a few of those ideas have the chance to reinvigorate your teaching, that may be worth i.

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Astrology and Celestial Poesis

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I listened today to an episode of Chris Brennan‘s The Astrology Podcast, in which he talks with astrologer Sam F. Reynolds about Sam’s appearance on a TV show called “Bill Nye Saves the World” from Netflix.

It was a pretty good episode. There was some strong, and useful and thought-provoking back-and-forth between host and guest, centering on the question of whether or not astrology is a science; whether or not there’s empirical evidence for it working (as a middle ground of rigor between anecdotal — “story-based evidence” on the more literary side; or scientific — “big-data-based evidence”); and whether or not any astrologer should get into debates with scientists (or science evangelists) on the subject of whether or not astrology has validity.

I’m really enjoying reading Chris Brennan’s book, Hellenistic Astrology, of course.  Chris’s points in the show were also well-taken: that it’s potentially problematic to ‘give ground and surrender’ right away (my summarization of his words, not a true quote) by agreeing that astrology is not a science.  If one finds oneself in debate with Bill Nye or any other scientist or science-apologist, maybe conceding that astrology isn’t a science right away isn’t wise.

But on the other hand, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what Sam Reynolds had to say.  One thing in particular resonated: the idea of astrology as a language, rather than a science.  Chris Brennan seemed to find this particularly objectionable, because he felt that this undermined the validity of astrology, especially in the eyes of scientists.  However, Sam argued that this helped astrology fit into the realms of literature and poetry more effectively. He called astrology celestial poetry — which I write.

And this brought to mind my regular fascination with the medieval seven: the Liberal Arts (plus philosophy), which I find myself returning to again and again:

  1. The Trivium, or three ways, of language:
    1. Rhetoric
    2. Grammar
    3. Logic
  2. The Quadrivium, or four ways, of mathematics:
    1. Geometry
    2. Arithmetic
    3. Music
    4. Astronomy

It occurred to me that Astrology is a bridge between 2.4 in the above list, and 1.1-3.  One takes the observable data about the sky — the geometry and arithmetic in motion — and use the various degree-coordinates as variables in an equation. These are the placements of planets, signs, and houses; and the resulting aspects between them.  The resulting numeric-coordinate variables are compared with a database of possible text-values, e.g., Mars means this, and Venus means that, and the relationship they both have with the Sun in Leo means this other thing.  The sky, in other words, yields first a set of abstracted number-values and variables… and then it yields a set of words.

Which brings us from the quadrivium, the four-way crossroads, to the trivium, the three-way crossroads.  It brings us from the realm of mathematics into the realm of story-telling, and unites the the two realms of language and mathematics.

When a poet tells a story about themselves, it’s autobiographical poetry.  When a rhetor, an epic reciter, tells the story of the Spear-Danes, they’re reciting history.  But when an astrologer reads the stars for a client, they’re creating a real-time story about time and space in which the client is the protagonist and principal character.  Each and every one of us is the hero of our own birth charts.  That’s who we are — the chief character in our own story.

And that’s why the idea of Celestial Poetry resonated so strongly with me. Because you can buy the celestial poetry I’ve already written:

But Sam Reynolds’ comments also provide me with a way of understanding what I think about astrology.  I don’t believe the stars rule our destiny, for example; Marsilio Ficino, the great Renaissance translator, mystic and magician thought that there were coincidences and correlations between human experience and the motions of the heavens because both were being moved and adjusted by the same invisible forces — and thus astrology is simply a matter noticing and reading the obvious but temporary signs left in place by the road-repair crews — you can see the traffic cones and the diamond-shaped orange signs, and you can see the lane changes plainly enough.  But it doesn’t mean you know who ordered them to put out the cones, or when the work is done.

But literature — poetry, storytelling, song, history — always carries with it some level of validity and meaning.  It’s a way of making sense of who we are as humans. It’s part of the reason I’ve written all those astrological poems, for example — because I’m interested in the idea of cycles of time and changes in the world as a result of changes of time.

So I feel as though I finally have a way to explain and explore astrology in other people’s charts beside my own that makes sense for me — I’m not trying to defraud people out of their money or their time; rather, they’re offering to let me tell them a story about themselves, and about the world they live in. They want to hear their own heroism, their own doubts and failures as a hero, and the moment when they stand and find the courage to do what must be done next.

This is, after all, the reason why so many people go to see astrologers — at moments of crisis or difficulty in their lives, they want to have a sense of how the next part of the story plays out.  They want some predictions that they made the right choices, that this part of the story resolves, and that life does in some fashion go on.  Maybe those are the answers they get; maybe they aren’t.  Either way, though, they’re looking for celestial poetry — for a way to connect the raw celestial mechanics of the heavens above, to their own story and their own meaning.

They are looking for the ways in which the apparently-uncaring Cosmos has written their story into the very movement of the stars.  And that feels like a worthy skill to develop — not just to be a writer of poetry, but a writer of poetry that joins the heights of the farthest heavens to the depths of a person’s soul. There’s no telling whether it will ever win prizes or collect fame or fortune — but maybe it will shine starlight and moonlight on a person’s heavy spirit, and give them a light in a dark and wild wood where the way is otherwise lost.

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