Blogging Compassion Doubt How I learn Learning Zen

Left Hand of Darkness: How I Learn (+Ten Blogs You Should Be Reading)

IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME. Dang do I love the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Christmas lights, trees, turkeys legs, glazed ham, my famous cheesecake. It’s ALL good AND plenty. A few months ago I received an unexpected gift when my  #eduRIVAL Rachel Jones

rachel jones

(she’s from England)

mentioned my blog in her November post “My inspiration. Ten Edublogs you might not read but probably should” Reading her post made me feel like this:


and not just because she mentioned my name, but because I learned about HeavyMetal Leadership, a Chocolate Tzar, and a wonderful teacher named Gwen. I found new friends, new ideas, new inspiration.

Shortly after this wonderful gift I got a present in the mail. My awesome friend Eric Saibel sent me this:


Why? Well I talked to his staff about Social Media in the classroom during a GOA (Google On Air) and because he leads with two swords he went overboard in sending me Pirate swag. Of course there was a string attached, the string was that now I owed HIM a favor and he was happy enough to cash in after he created #EduBlogs a website dedicated to sharing the best Educational Blogs in the WORLD.

eric 2

The greatest hype-man since Flavor-Flav

So here’s your gift Eric. I hope you enjoy it. Of course I’m going to do it MY WAY.

bob Gruen Sid Vicious, USA, 1978

love this photo by Bob Gruen 1978

Not every blog here is a K12 teacher blog, but each one teaches me, and makes me think in a way that I find essential to my classroom learning. Each of the following blogs are as well known to me as the fingers on my hand. So here are the fingers of my learning.

LEFT pinky finger: 99U: Yeah it’s not as useful as a thumb or as weighty as a middle finger, but I’d have a hard time typing or grabbing without my pinky finger. 99U is a daily visit. With short and to the point posts about everything creative and innovative. One day I hope and pray to find myself at their annual conference. I’ll need a financial angel for that. Some of my favorite posts this year are:

RIGHT pinky finger: How I Work: So this isn’t so much a site as a running feature on LifeHacker and I love it. Lifehacker interviews people and asks them questions about how they work. It’s similar in nature to the Stephen Davis’ productivity hacks series.

  • Guy Kawasaki: This was a GREAT How I Work– just loved seeing his approach to work and life, I also like when they include a screenshot of people’s devices so you can SEE the apps. If you don’t know who Guy Kawasaki is… shame. I’ve used his presentation ideas with students and they work.

  • Cory Doctorow: If you follow me on Twitter you know that I’m a shameless Tweeter of the website that Cory co-runs- so of course I was hooked when they ran a How I Work series on Cory Doctorow.

  • The Guys who run Rap Genius (such a cool website) Usually the How I Work series is just about one person, but this time it was about a team. They are pretty funny and you can see their team strategies and work-flow in how they answer their questions.

LEFT ring finger: Sean Cole’s Ideas Out There– I’m completely married to Sean’s thinking and his blog. His blog was probably the first blog I ever followed once I started blogging. In fact the first post I read on his blog was this passionate post about teaching in an all-boy’s classroom. Here are a few posts you should check out:

  • What’s Missing in our Classrooms: 2,539+ words of pure awesome. Half of why I love Sean is that he loves long-form blog posting. I’ve had more than one teacher confess that they don’t finish my blog posts because they are too long (ironic no?) I half imagine that the only people who finish reading my blog posts are people stuck in line, on a plane, on a train, or in a bathroom.

  • Kid’s Write: The Value of Thinking Critically: Dear god… why didn’t I think of this. Sean has his students write some of his blog posts. BRILLIANT.

  • Of Steinbeck and the Joys of Extended Pleasures: Did Sean just write a blog post about the pleasure of reading… of reading Steinbeck? Ring get on that finger.

RIGHT ring finger: Austin Kleon’s Blog. Austin is so amazing that I don’t even care whether he follows me, or interacts with me I just want him to keep sharing. And share he does. If you EVER want to convince someone why sharing your WORK is important- not completed work, your work process, just follow his blog. My friend Sean Ziebarth turned me on to him, I bought Austin Kleon’s book, we modeled our Instructional Rounds process after his book and the rest is glorious history: past, present and future.  Here are three essential reads from this year:

LEFT middle finger: Grant Wiggins and his Granted, and…. blog. I once confessed to Karl Lindgren-Streicher that I’d drink warm beer from one of Grant’s old shoes. Grant told me that was a bad idea.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 2.09.59 PM

I tell students all the time that if they want to stumble into a million dollar job or befriend a gold-digging mate they need to merely walk around a crowded airport with a copy of The Economist. Well Grant’s blog is the educational world’s version of The Economist. Grant doesn’t do design, or fancy big pictures, Grant’s writing and thinking is the big picture. Grant has been sticking it to the MAN for years even when that MAN is some of the more beloved educational movers and shakers or even, GASP, you!

RIGHT middle finger: Cal Newport and his Study Hacks blog. I almost HATE to share this blog with you. His ideas are DANGEROUS and SPOT ON.  Want to get into Stanford with Bs? Want to ace high school doing as little work as possible? Then read on my friends. I shared this blog and his book with my students, the smart ones took the hint.

LEFT pointer finger: Amy Burvall and all of her creative STUFF: Okay it’s not a BLOG per se, but Amy’s creative output is like an avalanche of breadcrumbs and I’m one HUNGRY bird. Just click on the link, follow her wherever she drops anchor and hang on. She is the number one teacher I want to figure out a way to pay for her to teach my fellow teachers for the day. I’m still working on it… Whenever I need a creative jolt: she POINTS the way.


RIGHT pointer finger: Two things I know: If you think you can dance with Mallory Knox, or compete with Rachel Jones, you are DEAD wrong. Rachel’s CREATEINNOVATEEXPLORE blog is pure. Not only did she recently graduate from the GTAUK, not only did her blog get recently nominated for a blogging award, but I just LOVE her blog, her tweets, her whatever she is doing. No matter how busy I get I always have time for her blog.

LEFT thumb: why thumbs? well besides the fact that everyone knows that opposable thumbs make us special, and these two bloggers are special, but I also want to say that I’m just hitching on the minds of these two genius-level thinkers the first being Brad Ovenell-Carter and his ridiculous blog A Stick In The Sand

RIGHT thumb: honestly I don’t even know where to start with Daniel Coffeen: An Emphatic Umph: I mean you can read one of his posts and just think about it for weeks. Heck you could structure a damn fine class around his blog posts.

Now I’ve been a bit bigoted/myopic here. Not everyone has ten fingers or even five fingers on their hand, some only have four. Four? That’s right four.


That’s Sean on the left. You should see him use chopsticks. He gives the best high-fours ever!

So while fingers are important, the real power comes in what brings them all together: your hand. I have two hands (yeah I know not everyone does) I have a Right Hand of Lightness.

Sean is my angel

For those of you who don’t know the story. Sean Ziebarth and I went to elementary school together in Huntington Beach. I got pulled away to a private middle school and he went to another school. Fast forward 30+ years- I buy a house and upon meeting my next door neighbor discover his last name is Ziebarth. Name rings a bell so I ask if he knows Sean, of course they are brothers. Sean and I get reunited.

He tells me he is working for a record label and thinking about teaching writing in college. I tell him the reality of trying to get a full-time gig in college and ask him to try high school. The next thing you know he’s my student teacher and now we work together. I learn more from a meal or car ride shared with Sean than I do from any blog post, or edcamp session. In fact at edcampLA 2014 we should just pile into a car and head to a hole-in-the-wall taco shop and have a “taco with Sean” session. Pretty much anything interesting I do has either come out of a conversation with Sean or has been improved by a comment from Sean. His knowledge of writing, photography, video, design, music, social impact, pedagogy is second to none. Sean’s the one to show me Coffeen’s blog, Sean showed me Kleon’s blog and book, Sean keeps me sane with his wacky loud-mouth routine which is more about sparking risk-taking than asking for attention.

Now you had hesitated a bit back there. I saw that puzzled look, be honest: Theriault what the heck did you mean when you said Right Hand of Lightness?

Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer,

like hands joined together,

like the end and the way. (16.44)

That’s right it’s from this novel:

Left Hand

I have a deep love affair with duality. The old yin and yang as Alex “your humble narrator” would say. It all started with a D- in Geometry. In 9th grade I was in all honors classes at a local private prep school- playing basketball and dialed in. In 10th grade I wasn’t in a single honors class, out of basketball and losing myself quickly. I couldn’t go on to 11th grade math without making up my D in summer school so I convinced my parents to let me take summer school at a local junior college. After the first day I ditched class every time and just walked around the campus. One day I was sitting at a table outside and saw the following written on a blackboard.


It haunted me so much that I took a piece of bark and carved it into my math textbook. (It was a three hour class that I was ditching)

And so began my love affair with the growth mindset of duality. William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Hegel’s Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis, etc… this mindset only works when you allow doubt to enter into your thoughts. The person who thinks they have all the answers is the person who has either died or quit learning. Even Jesus- the savior had doubts about his life:

My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me- Mathew 26

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”- Mathew 27

Having doubts doesn’t mean your ideas are weak or that you are a hopeless waffler it means that you are open to new ideas; open to polishing and improving what you already know; open to the possibility that you don’t know what you don’t know. Doubt is a growth mindset. Sometimes you’ll require a Kierkegaardian Leap of/to Faith to do what you have to do, and if things don’t work you just adjust as needed and try again.

So then what is the Left Hand of Darkness? What teaches me the most and drives me to keep reading, experimenting and learning? The Left Hand of Darkness is:


Hunger or WANT is the greatest educational force. I often tell people not everyone can have a great teacher, but everyone deserves a teacher who WANTS to be great. Hunger is what drives innovation, risk-taking, change and fuels the late night sessions, the humiliating pleads for help or call to action in a sea of apathy. How bad do you WANT it? How HUNGRY are you. Without hunger all the books, blog posts, videos etc… are just shelf stuffers.

Two of my favorite books of all time are A Tale of Two Cities and Grapes of Wrath. In both the concept of Hunger and Want drive the action. They make people capable of grand and sometimes terrible action.

Uncle John2

Uncle John in The Grapes of Wrath: one of the most powerful moments in literature ever

But like William Blake’s Satan, action is an agent of growth- something that Spinoza would understand. If you aren’t hungry to learn you’ve either forgotten what it feels like, or you’ve filled your stomach with trivial garbage.

hungry for light

Where does discontent start?You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the Bastard Time. -John Steinbeck


PS- speaking of The Left Hand of Darkness, my son introduced me to this book last winter break. I read it and LOVED it. My son kept looking at me in curiosity as I wiped away tears. It might not hit you the same way, but with a kid just entering his teens and myself looking back at the meaning of life it was pitch perfect. My son has re-read the book at least five times. If you are looking for a winter or summer read-

reach me 2


  1. Ahem…yeah, tomorrow’s big b-day just got lots and LOTS brighter. Not to mention that Ursula’s “Left Hand” is one of my fav books EVER (shocked?). I’ll be extra hungry for more cake now that you’ve MADE me care about even more great thinkers/doers/two-sword-holders. Cheers to you, Mr. Z, and all the thoughts/words yet to be born & borne forth…E.

  2. A great list, David. I love the honesty of your thoughts. The duality bit is something I secretly struggle with as I am externally on the ‘left hand of darkness’, but I often find myself pondering the other… I look forward to more great exchanges with you, my compadre from accross the ocean. One day it’ll either be Tacos at your place or a braai at mine!

  3. With this post, it’s like you just bought a fancy box of gourmet chocolates (each one different, each one delicious), cracked it open, and said, “Have as many as you like.”

    Anyway, I just stuffed my mouth with a handful. It’s all that I can handle for now, but I’ll be back later for more.

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