Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update





God bless conference planners

Most places I go to speak, I get a warm reception, but Florence, SC, was an exception. It was the chilliest group of librarians I’d ever met. Oh, the people themselves displayed the Southern graciousness, hospitality and charm for which they are rightly famous, but, damn, the ice arena where the general sessions were held froze almost everyone out. (I personally lost three toes to frostbite, but it was interesting to watch the zamboni clear the ice before the keynote.) Lauren Hammond, who chaired the conference, I am sure, is still getting comments.

Every member of a professional organization should be a conference chair at least once in his or her career – preferably early on. It’s a wonderful lesson in just how illusionary control over much of anything actually is.

Our MEMO (Minnesota Educational Media Organization) Fall Conference will be here in Mankato this fall and I am once again the chair. (Fourth time as either conference chair or program chair for MEMO.) It is a labor of love – labor being the operative word. My wonderful, dedicated committee and I start planning the event a year in advance – selecting a theme, special speakers, food, tours, workshops, etc. The venue itself was chosen years in advance. As the conference gets closer, we’ll worry about ribbons, signs, equipment, transportation, nametags, exhibit locations, speakers gifts, etc. But despite our best planning and attention to details, I am sure there will be a few surprises.

Like most conference organizers, we want and need feedback for future conferences, so we ask attendees to fill out evaluation forms for both sessions and the conference as a whole. Most folks are honest, yet generous, in their appraisals of the event. Conference planners, exhibitors, and presenters do take suggestions for improvement to heart and use them. However, there are a few comments I would love to see banned on evaluation forms.

1. The room was too hot/cold. (The person who invents perfect climate control in large buildings should earn a place in paradise.)
2. The dessert was too small/too big/not sweet enough/too sweet/made of ____ which I am allergic to. (Hey, at least you got dessert.)
3. I didn’t agree with the keynote speaker. (You mean s/he made you think?)
4. The workshop wasn’t what I thought it would be. (Did you read the program description or just the title?)
5. I didn’t like the color of the bags/program/t-shirts, etc. (Well, the hospitality chair is a fall and you’re a spring – live with it.)
6. From vendors – There was too little time for attendees to do nothing but attend the vendor area. (Is there ever enough time from an exhibitor’s perspective?)
7. There was a snow storm/rain/heat wave during the conference. (No comment.)
8. I had pay for parking. (Next time we’ll try to have the conference at a shopping mall instead of a convention center.)
9. I misread the program and missed the session I really wanted to go to. (And you have a college degree?)
10. There weren’t enough handouts. (You’re saying you came late to the session?)

Here’s all I’m saying – if you’ve ever written a comment like the one above, please volunteer for next year’s conference planning committee. So much planning work is done online now, geographic distance is not really a limiting factor. You’ll learn very quickly that you can’t guard against the arbitrary.

If you attended the SC conference in Florence last spring, take a minute and send Lawren and e-mail telling her how much you appreciated all the hard work that went into the event.

Conference planners, any other comments you’d like banned from evaluations?

My comment is based on 8 years of attending a conference at Mohonk. We have a 2-hour downtime scheduled after lunch the second day and each year someone complains because 1. they don’t need the downtime and think we should still be in sessions or 2. nothing was scheduled for the downtime.

Comment from Laura Pearle:

Last year in TN, we had a conference chair for the first time run the conference instead of the state president. YIPPEE! Still, I didn’t get to attend a session until the very last one. There are so many details for the conference chair and for the president to oversee. Unfortunately one of our beloved keynote speakers had her laptop stolen while we were at lunch. I spent hours viewing surveillance film in the security booth. Then it was well-deserved time consoling our speaker and being there for her. Earlier in the conference, we discovered the group working with the bookstore didn’t order the author’s books to be autographed and it was off to discover how to overnight books from Oregon to Chattanooga. I am greatly looking forward to attending AASL because I am not in charge of anything. What a heavenly concept. Go to a conference and enjoy being with the professionals, chatting with the vendors, and contemplating “stuff” in sessions. Hooray for the planners!

Comment by Diane Chen — September 13, 2005 @ 11:10 pm


Picking Your Fights

A coach was the keynote speaker at a banquet I recently attended. Is it just me, or do coaches speak only in clichés? This guy had forty-five minutes worth.

He did tell one joke that I had not heard before. It’s on the slightly blue-side, so if you are easily offended, stop reading now. Here it goes:

On his way into the saloon, a runty little cowboy passes his horse and notices that somebody has painted its testicles bright pink. He storms into the bar and shouts, “Where’s the low down dirty varmint that painted my horse’s testicles bright pink? I’ve got something to say to him!”

From the back of the saloon comes a giant, mean-looking cowboy who stands right up to the little cowboy, towering over him. He looks down and says, “I painted your horse’s testicles bright pink. Now just what was it you wanted to say to me?”

The little cowboy gulps, then squeaks, “Just thought you might want to know the first coat is dry.”

The point of the story, said the coach, is that we should pick battles that are big enough to matter, but small enough to win.

Now that is not bad advice, but no one ever goes on to explain just how a person determines a battle’s size or importance. I know more than a few librarians who seem to fight very hard about some very trivial issues and others that feel pretty much responsible for and try to change everything that happens in the entire world.

While I am by no means perfect at picking my own fights, I’ve gotten better at it as I’ve gotten older. One concept that’s worth thinking about is the relationship between one’s “Circle of Influence” and “Circle of Concern” described by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Most people’s Circle of Concern is far larger than their Circle of Influence. (I am concerned about global warming, but my ability to stop it is relatively small.) Covey states, “Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. “

Now that seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Spend your time on the things you can actually do something about. If I am worried about funding for my library program for example, I just might allocate the time I have available to work on this issue as follows:

  • Building budget: 90% Working with my principal, site team, library advisory commitee, and PTA to create a building library budget and to prioritize the building’s budget. Serving on the interview team when selecting new administrators. Working with teachers to build units that require library resources.
  • District budget: 5% Serving on a district library committee. Speaking at school board meetings. Working for the election of library friendly school board members.
  • State budget: 3% Lobbying for state dollars for libraries and the general education formula with teacher and library organizations. Working to elect state political leaders friendly to education.
  • National budget: 2% Working to elect national political leaders friendly to education.
  • Global economic policies: 1%: Staying informed. Donating to “causes.”
How do you know if the battle is too small? That’s easy too. If the issue impacts only you as a librarian with no direct negative consequences your students or staff, it’s too small – period.

So how do you determine which battles to fight?


This I Believe

If you haven’t been listening to or reading National Public Radio’s series This I Believe, do. I submitted my statement yesterday. Try writing one. It’s fun - but tough to stay within the 500 word limit!

I Believe in the Innate Goodness of Libraries

I believe in the inherent goodness of libraries – that their value is above opinion polls, research studies and empirical data.

I came to my love of libraries growing up on a small Iowa farm. The endless soybean fields that needed to be hand-weeded and the remorselessly filling hog barns that needed to be emptied were about as far removed from the oceans and mountains and adventure I yearned for as any place could possibly be. But a small Carnegie public library on the hill overlooking Main Street provided me with a route to adventure. It was the first place I headed whenever we came to town and the librarian knew me well. I still count among my finest moments when she informed me that I read every book in the mythology section. Somehow walking the beans was more bearable when it was a “Sisyphean” labor or when the hog barn was the Augean stable.

In my high school library I found new adventures as I traveled with Heinlein’s spacemen, Tolkien’s Hobbits, and Crane’s Civil War soldiers. In university libraries I found adventurous ideas in the writings of Hayakawa., Postman and McLuhan. By then I’d left the farm behind, but now I was released from the prison of blind ideologies as well. Libraries made that escape possible.

But libraries have another role as well - one I learned as a school librarian. One that a Nigerian boy named Chinedu taught me. Big for his age, talkative, and relentlessly cheerful, he drove his fifth grade teacher and classmates crazy. As a result, Chinedu was often sent to the library for a little timeout where, to be honest, he was still a pest. His silliness could be a real bother to everyone in the library, but he also liked to work. I kept on hand a Chinedu –do list of jobs he could perform. Things would go smoothly for weeks and then Chinedu would do something outrageous like dumping a cart of books just to get attention. I’d go home wondering why the library should suffer his presence.

But late one afternoon, Chinedu reminded me that libraries are not just escapes, but refuges as well. Out of the blue, he approached my desk, grinned, and in his melodious accent declared, “Ahh, Meester Johnson. Dees library. Eet is my hoom away from hoom.” And I was taught that libraries are often the only place in a school or community that is comfortable and welcoming for many people.

Like shade trees, chocolate, and summer afternoons, libraries really need no hard-reasoned defense. I can, of course, dig up research that “proves” libraries improve a community’s workforce and students’ reading skills. But then, with enough persistence, I can find research that supports any point of view.

I’m afraid I don’t use libraries as much as I once did. My impatient nature makes bookstores and the Internet increasingly appealing. But my belief in not just the value, but goodness, of libraries is stronger than ever.
Believe in anything strongly enough to put it in words?