Jul 16

Teaching Dignity and Empathy 2.0

photo of the whiteboard showing revised version of kids' first song.Last Wednesday at Singing For Love I taught a revised version of this lesson. It differed from the first iteration in technical layout, in the better use of questions to direct the inquiry, and the use of better questions. 

The lesson uses photos from Dana Gluckstein’s Dignity: Tribes in Transition series. First, I ask what “dignity” means. Definitions tend to be fuzzy, but I give no hints. Instead I propose that maybe we can figure out what dignity looks like. The kids look at the indigenous faces and I ask questions that make them think about those people’s lives and attitudes. 

Technically, I did one small thing that made a big difference. Using OpenOffice Impress, I made the photos slide backgrounds, not just photos inserted on the slide. Although doing this distorts some of the photos, it removes the borders, making fullscreen truly fullscreen. I’m sure it made for greater impact than the one and only previous time I situated this lesson. 

This time around, I focused on only two main questions. Is this dignity? Is this person happy? Then I just let the kids tell me, and each other as it turned out, as much as they could think up. Why is she happy? What do you think they were doing before this picture was taken, and after this picture was taken? They asked some of their own. 

And then I wrote some of it down as key concepts and asked them to bring the current energy level along with them to the chord changes, and let’s see if we can bring these concepts into the lyrics. The semi-final result is up above. How’d they do? 

We all lost track and worked 15 minutes past our normal break time. Everyone agreed it was a good session. 

Update: I wrote about it here as well.


Jun 25

Quick fix for poor screen reader support of title attribute

As someone who remembers when ARIA was just an idea, I’ve spent a fair amount of time adding title="something descriptive" to many of the links, images, and possibly other elements on web pages I’ve authored and edited. But as developers began relying on authentic users of assistive technology to test their work, and those with differing abilities brought their knowledge and experience into the discussion and onto the Web, we learned we were wrong. Some of us knew that early on, or part of it anyway, and in the paralysis that may sometimes grip those unsure what to do, I stopped using title for anchor tags (i.e. links; <a>) altogether.

ARIA’s all grown up now

ARIA grew up and became the specification. The bulk of screen readers put their support there, and aria-label="making this meaningful" has supplanted the title attribute, freeing it to be what it is.

There’s enough explanation about this on the Internet already, so I’m going to keep this one very short. There are a lot of links in my pages that are in various states that reflected my limited understanding at the time, and maybe in yours too—live and learn! As I’m mostly working with WordPress sites these days, and WordPress has built-in jQuery, I’m sharing this snippet of code that takes text from existing “titles” and places it in an aria-label, or takes the linked text displayed to the visitor and makes it a bit more friendly and conversational than the typical screen reader default: “Link text. Link”

Most of my WordPress sites have a js folder in the theme I’ve chosen’s main folder at …wp-content/themes/theme-name/js, and in it a file called functions.js. Below is a standalone jQuery closure that should work in any site that has jQuery installed. In practice I took the indented part, between the first and last lines, and pasted it below the existing scripts in the existing closure. In Drupal you might put it in …/sites/all/themes/theme-name/js (and load it with a preprocess.inc). If you’re not using a CMS you probably need to wrap it in <script></script> tags, and make sure you place it below the prerequisite jQuery include.

For the blog you’re reading now, which didn’t already have a functions.js file in place, rather than stuff it into another I placed the following line below wp_head(); in header.php, found in the WordPress root folder.

wp_enqueue_script( 'my-custom-functions', get_template_directory_uri() .'/js/functions.js' );

This quick fix should probably be considered a temporary one, but it sure makes my pages sound better with ChromeVox, so I’ll carry on and wait for experts like Geoff Collis and others to tell me what to do next.

(function($) {
  // If there's a title attribute, make sure it's copied to aria-label (for screenreaders)
  // If there's no title, elaborate on the linked text.
        links = $('a')
      	if (this.title){
      	} else {
      		this.title="Go to " + $(this).text() + ".";


Jun 18

Setting up WordPress for Online Learning (Part 1)

Screenshot of WordPress plugin search results for BuddyPress.There are many good reasons busy educators subscribe to blog sites, well-funded web-based platforms, and learn to become “Google educators” etc. Some are practical, some financial, and no doubt some are institutional. I still think there are many good reasons to do it yourself. I think they’re for the most part soundly pedagogical, and hardly ever mutually exclusive from any or all of the above. For me it’s all part of digital literacy for the 21st-century.

Digital literacy for the 21st-century

I’m going to share how I’ve set up SingingForLove, an “art-educational workshop” pilot I’m undertaking this summer with recognized Mexican women’s rights advocate, counselor, recording artist and performer Rosy Cervantes, Counterpoint Counselling & Educational Cooperative Inc., and the help of the Toronto Arts Council.

This site needs to be a safe space for minors who may be victimized and stigmatized by various forms of domestic violence. They need privacy and empowerment. I’m setting this up with the same open philosophy by which I once ran an inclusive, 5000+ user collaboration system for students, faculty, staff, and many other stakeholders at the Faculty of Education at York University for almost 10 years. They will have the power to make mistakes; the biggest mistakes they can make can not result in consequences that extend beyond our community. No one external will see them, or anything they do. Internally, this land is their land. Only the name or nickname they already use in weekly group will appear here, unless they choose otherwise. Rosy and I supply followup and extension of weekly group sessions, support and encouragement. They can exchange messages, create buddy lists and forums, and post whatever they wish.

The critical path of this exercise is as follows.

  1. If you want other people to see your site, purchase web hosting.
    • it’s possible to use the test site we’re about to set up in a classroom without Internet, but I’m not going to discuss that today.
    • it’s not absolutely necessary to acquire hosting first but, as we’ll see shortly, it can help… and you won’t be able to complete the last step until you do, or get full rights to a folder on someone else’s server.
    • it’s absolutely necessary to pay extra for SSL (and therefor a “dedicated IP address”) if you want to provide your community privacy and security—and there’s every reason you should: encryption is a human rights issue, not least because governments have locked people up for accessing certain sites, among other things. Encryption makes snooping more difficult and expensive. SingingForLove will move shortly to its own domain, where it will be https-only.
  2. Set up a test site
  3. Install and set up WordPress
  4. Add and configure the right plug-ins
  5. Move it to your live web host

Set up a test site

The fastest cheapest easiest test site can be had by downloading and installing a so-called AMP stack. this is a preconfigured web developer meant environment that will run from a folder on your hard drive or a USB. You might find a WAMP, MAMP, or LAMP, for Windows, Mac and Linux respectively, but the one I use is called XAMPP, which has cross browser (“x-browser”) support, not to mention another P, for Perl.
Download XAMPP now.
Got it? Good. Open the compressed folder you downloaded and then extract the xampp folder you see there to your hard drive (C:\ maybe) or external drive (I’ve used both USB and flash drives successfully).
Open the xampp folder you just extracted, and have a quick look. The file that launches XAMPP is different for each supported operating system. Identify the ones for your operating system with file names that begin xampp_start and xampp_stop. You might want to create shortcuts to these two files, and place them on your desktop.

Now find the folder htdocs. This is where all the files for your website will go. If you’re the curious type, you can start XAMPP now, browse to localhost and see what these files are all about, but if you want to get on with setting up a learning environment with word press you can just empty it.

Install and set up WordPress

Download and extract WordPress

You get WordPress here. When it finishes downloading, open the file you downloaded and put everything in it into the htdocs folder you emptied in the previous step.

Launch PHPMyAdmin to create your database

This is the only tricky part for me. If you’ve bought web hosting, it’s a huge advantage to name the database you’re creating now the same as it is, or will be on your hosting server. almost every web host gives you a secret ID, and prefixes it to whatever name you type in, usually based on your project or business. You’ll probably end up with something like secretid_MyWordPressDB
Point your web browser to http://localhost/phpmyadmin/ (if you’ve launched XAMPP you can click that link to open it now in another tab or window).

Create your database
  1. Press New in the left side panel to open the Databases tab.
  2. First choice is to give it the same name it has, or will have, on your live server.
  3. Choose a UTF8 collation. utf8_general_ci and utf8_general_mysql500_ci are both good choices.
Create a user to control the database
  1. Click the PHPMyAdmin logo to return to the database server home page (breadcrumb menu says, and then choose the User Accounts tab. Find the New section and press Add user account.
  2. Enter Login information.
    1. Choose a User name noone’s likely to guess,
    2. set the Host name to local [localhost],
    3. use the Generate button to get a strong password, and write all this information down.
  3. Scroll to very bottom of the Add user account form and press Go to create the user. Do not create a(nother) database, do not assign privileges (yet).
  4. The screen that appears should tell you you’ve added a new user. Open the Database tab, find the Database-specific privileges section and select your new database from the list.
  5. With your database selected as shown, press Go. This will open the Edit privileges tab. The WordPress user requires all permissions except Grant. I normally check Check All and then uncheck Grant under the Administration section.
  6. You should expect to see the form reload with a new notice, “You have updated the privileges for ‘MyDatabaseUser’@’localhost’,” where MyDatabaseUser is the name you actually used.
  7. Equipped with an empty database, a database user name and password you’re ready to finish installing WordPress.
Place this information in wp-config.php

Have no fear. If you’ve done everything just as I said you’re about 6 clicks away from launching your new WordPress site on your own test server. You do all of this…

… From the install page

    A note about updates.

    It’s rare that there aren’t WordPress updates available from the moment you first log in. Updates often provide security fixes, and should be run promptly when offered. You need to update plugins, themes and translations. When you choose a theme for your site it’s a good idea to remove the ones you’re not using. I also make it a habit to delete the default Hello Dolly plugin. I’m not going to show any of that here today.

  1. Point your web browser to http://localhost/.
  2. Choose your language.
  3. Enter the information you just created. It should already be looking on localhost, and you should leave the Table Prefix alone. Press Submit.
  4. You should now see a message that WordPress found your database and everything’s going to be okay. Press Run the install.
  5. Now you’ll enter the site’s public name and create an administrator account. In my experience this username should be kept secret, and not resemble your real name or nickname you might want users to find you by. As always on the Internet, you need a strong password. Write it down! Enter a valid email address and choose whether to be visible to honest reputable search engines. I usually check this for my test site and turn it back on when my site’s launched.
  6. Login to your new site.
  7. Apply any and all updates that may be awaiting you!
  8. Install and configure the plugins to finish setting up your secured online learning community.

Set up your secured online learning community

Add and configure plug-ins

These are presented in an ordered list, but some variation is allowed. Akismet (anti-spam) and my security plugin of choice, iThemes Security (anti-hacking/site intrusion), belong in every standalone WordPress blog. I set them up in this order, but APIs won’t actually work on a ‘localhost’ server, and you don’t actually need them until your site is on the Internet.

It seems intuitive to install BuddyPress before its various helpers/add-ons, but I’ve added and experimented in different orders on my test and live servers without obvious problems. I put Restrict Widgets last on the list because several of the others supply widgets, and you then set their visibility from the standard WordPress Widgets page.

Even without security it’s very unlikely your XAMPP-powered test site will be hacked while you configure these. I recommend installing and activating each of them in one task, and configuring them one by one in the very next.

  1. Akismet is pre-installed, but you need an active API key (free; required for your Live server only.)
    • 5-10 minutes, can be postponed until site goes live.
    • Follow the instructions to obtain and install the free API key, or it doesn’t work
  2. iThemes security with API key (free; required for your Live server only.)
    • 2-3 minutes to achieve superior basic security
    • Sign up for API (free) and then press a button to run “Security Check” test/check/setup.
  3. BuddyPress and friends
    • 30-45 minutes to install and configure all
    • If you’re on the Internet, go to WordPress Plugins and use the Add New button, search one-by-one for the names on this list, Install Now and Activate the plugins
    • If you’re not on the Internet you need to download these when you are, and later extract the ZIP files you obtain into your xampp/htdocs/wp-content/plugins folder
    • bbPress (Forums)Before I configure forums I create a private Forum, named after my community, to be the root of all forums.
      • 5-10 minutes
    • BP Simple Private
    • BuddyPress Activity Privacy
      • 1-2 minutes
    • BuddyPress Forum Editor
      • 1 minute
    • PayPal Donation Button
      • 5 minutes
      • Appropriate in some situations
      • Requires a PayPal merchant account
    • Restrict Widgets
      • 0 minutes
    • Configure WidgetsThis is another very important step. BuddyPress has created a number of widgets you can place in any area WordPress thinks of as widget territory. I use sidebards. I added 4 to start, but you can play with it and set up what you need. I chose BuddyPress Login, Forums, Friends and Who’s Online. The 3 screenshots show the process for placing a widget in the sidebar, setting the widget visibility properties, and finally my completed list after dragging and dropping them where I want them.
      • 5-10 minutes

Move it to your live web host

Depending on your circumstances you could do this now, or wait until you’ve added users.

Transfer the files to your public_html directory

I use FileZilla to do this. The remote address is invariably ftp.your_domain.com. You’ll need the FTP Server information usually found in your web host’s after confirmation message, which they usually send once it’s fully set up, a day or two after your first receipt for payment.

Export your test site database, and then import it to your live server

Export/Import using PHPMyAdmin

Return to localhost/phpmyadmin and select the WordPress database. Newer versions of PHPMyAdmin support export templates, and I’m using one here. The important things are to make sure all the tables are selected, and that you’ve got compression. Scroll down and press Go to do the export. The file will normally end up in your browser’s Downloads folder.

The final step is to log into your CPanel (or other site control panel) account on your web hosting server. If it’s the first time you can create a database just as we did above, and then use the Import tab. When the site exists and you want to update it with work you’ve done on your test server, best practice is to back up the database with an export first, drop all the tables, and import your localhost database into the just-emptied live one. If you’ve added files or updated plugins and themes you need to upload the affected folders by FTP. It sounds scary if you’re not used to it, but you’ll master it fairly quickly and build your own routines.

Don’t forget to change the site URL in the Options table!

Very important!: Every time you swap databases from one server to the other you’ll need to update the site_url and home options in the wp_options table, or your localhost will redirect to Live and vise versa. Select the table in the left. Usually those fields are the first two in the list. Double-click to enter the field in edit mode, type the real URL of your community (without an ending slash), and Tab out of it to save.

Setting up WordPress for Online Learning (Part 2)

In Part 2 I’ll tell you how I install the LearnPress LMS plugin for WordPress at SingingForLove.net. I just have to figure that out first!

It’s the nature of DIY technology projects that they often take a bit longer. For me, the rewards have always been that much greater, and tend to be proportional to the extra effort.

I hope you’ve found this helpful!


Jun 13

Where should we start stopping hatred?

When I was 11, my family moved toEthiopia, on the Horn of Africa, for four years. I soon learned the language and it quickly became obvious to me that we’re all the same, and we all want the same things from life. 

The advent of Facebook revealed that some, but not all of my former school mates came away similarly impacted. “Great White Hope-ism” and primitivism still occur, subconsciously or not so much, amongst all of us raised in the Global North, and I personally never considered there can be an end to my own growth. 

I credit travel, my parents’ and family’s encouragement to question authority, and learning the language and culture of my hosts as important factors in my early discovery of our universal commonalities. 

I believe humans probably generate adequate capital to educate every parent and every child born in a similar manner, if we stopped spending it on war and self-aggrandizement. 

Until a day when such a utopian ideal could be achieved, I think something actually doable is to create such opportunities by the millions, for as many young people as possible. Opportunities to meet, live and work with diverse Others in extraordinarily meaningful ways, on genuine shared problems, in an evolutionary redesign of international exchange programs. With 21st century collaboration these could go on to create a 21st century “peace corps” no longer under the spectre of colonialism and white supremacy. 

For such a movement to gain traction to the point of having impact it would still require massive mind shifts and reallocation of resources, and like such efforts would meet overwhelming resistance every step of the way. 

So let’s get started. 

Mar 12

HTML5 3D or bust!

OK. So here we go… I’ve created a personal list of hands-on, self-empowering journeys in digital literacy on which I shall now embark. My aim is to design thick, rich learning1 that’s memorable.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, for many years, some number of educators have been intrigued by what they believe might be a special potential 3D can have for gamification and visualization—its “immersiveness”—in learning. Historically it’s been difficult to achieve.

My take on that is, if we’re waiting for a cadre of teachers who can keep up with current practice in tech-driven sectors and can teach it well in K-12, we’ll be waiting a long time. But there are many people doing those things who can teach well, and others just need an opportunity. Wonderfully blended situations can arise with modest support of professional educators. Educators can be familiar with current practice and keep up with lists of credible experts and other sources, hand that information over to learners, and turn them loose. It’s been called “planned serendipity.”

In order to create a more perfect HTML5–rich learning situation…

I plan to learn…

  1. Three.js
  2. What’s Three.js?

    Three.js is a JavaScript library, which means it’s a set of commands sometimes, as in this case, for the purpose of interacting with a specific API, presumed to be in plainer English than without a library. The specific API ThreeJS interacts with is called WebGL, and that basically interfaces with your computer’s graphics card, using complex geometry—so you don’t have to! This allows you to do things like draw in 3D on an HTML5 canvas—and to import and adapt the freely available and donated creations of others who draw much better than you do. My first foray is here and the next here.

    HTML5 <canvas>

    The amazing magic of the HTML5 canvas tag includes the ability to draw dynamically, and create “game loops,” used to animate nearly all modern computer games. The bad news is, with very few exceptions, what happens on the canvas stays on the canvas. But rather than go off on a tangent explaining exactly what I mean by that, I’ll just tell you it impacts interactions, and then jump straight to my own solution…

    In order to make either pure MP4 video or HTML5 canvas interactive I’ll do DOM manipulation and CSS overlays. This seems to be the general conclusion elsewhere in the community. Coursera and YouTube do the same thing, allowing links and other transparent or translucent items to float over top of the video. As browser support for all the HTML5 video and audio standards, like captioning and subtitles increases this means less and less additional work. But it highlights the foundationsl roles of the three “once and future” coding areas: HTML, JavaScript and CSS. These three aren’t going away anytime soon.

  3. Blender
  4. What will I do with Blender?

    Among the first things I’m learning to do is create UVMaps of 3d meshes and paint them with a two dimensional texture, to create 3-D characters and scenery. these might become parts of standalone webpages, or pieces of videos.

    UVMaps and “Painting” with Textures

    UVMaps are an ingenious way of translating 2 dimensions into 3, for the purpose of wrapping a flat image onto a known geometry. The known geometry might be a free model from a growing list of repositories, the flat image a photo of a prize race horse. Using a two tone checkerboard pattern mapped to the model as an intermediary, we can calculate the warp and apply it to the photo of the horse. Check this out!

  5. VFX For Filmmakers
  6. Which digital ‘video effects’ do I mean?

    Tracking, keying by color matching (green screen) or luminosity and other masking techniques, and compositing—including media created using browser-based scenes created on open source libraries.

Let’s look at each one.


Tracking means placing various 2D objects, like images or movies, onto 3D planes, and assigning markers to identifiable features on the object. Then you assign a virtual camera that tracks those spots. Once you have this information you can use it to align other layers, place them relative to each other, and keep them in perspective in the camera’s view. Tracking can be used, for example, to stabilize a camera, or attach a movie to a flat image of a television screen.


Keying is usually short for “chroma-keying,” referring to colour-matching and replacement techniques, which quite often involve using greenscreens.

Norwich University of the Art‘s and HitFilm‘s 4-week MOOC “VFX for Guerilla Filmmakers” included a valuable look at the history of matte and masking techniques, highlighting their direct evolution to the digital analogies of today. Such perspective informs choosing where, or how to shoot scenes or employ screens of different colors, or why and when to key on luminosity or some other property.

Combining keying and tracking you can create rich scenes that tell exciting stories. It’s far from impossible, nor unheard of, for a creative person with a computer perhaps no more powerful than the one you’re using to read this post, possesed of free and/or inexpensive software and their imagination, to accomplish the sorts of things that once took Walt Disney Studios a dozen or more highly accomplished artists and engineers three months.


Compositing is putting it all together. Walt Disney used to stack glass paintings on top of each other and photograph them from above. Video compositing software like Blender and (free) HitFilm 3 Express (and still-image editors like Photoshop and Gimp) use layers.

Wrapping up

So I’m out to create characters and scenery using Blender, rig and animate these scenes and tell stories using ThreeJS, and put it altogether using HitFilm. HitFilm 3 Express is free and will do all the masking, keying and compositing you need, and get you started tracking. I upgraded to version 4 Pro to get even more in the way of 3D tracking.

The right tools in the right hands…

Who’s a geurrilla filmmaker?

Certainly not I! If I can learn to use it purposefully, I think it can grab attention that might translate to engagement, and I can make things memorable in some of the elearning I expect to produce. All of this is a lot of fun, and I might get good enough at it to get some personal amusement, but I have no ambitions to see my work at TIFF.

But I just know there are future filmmakers and other storytellers to be out there, who only need access to this kind information, and the kind of start I’ve had using Internet resources, to get their imaginations pumping. I think there’s possibly a great deal of value in handing it over and turning them loose.

3-D animation can go into movies, and movies can go into 3-D animation, that can be rendered into semi permanent forms and standalone artifacts, or utilized and engaged with using a web browser. With this short list, it’s already within reach.

Also check out WebGLStudio.js, a platform to create interactive 3D scenes directly in your browser, and 3D Graphics for Web Developers from Pompeu Fabra University Barcelona. You need prior programming experience for this one.

  1. Learning design (LD) is distinguished from “instructional design” (ID) by a more holistic approach to achieving effective pedagogy and appropriate use of technology: “Learning Design aimed to provide practitioners with guidance and support to inform their design process which is pedagogically effective and makes appropriate use of technologies. It is seen as a more encompassing term than Instructional Design, which operates primarily at the level of multimedia; in contrast Learning Design provides a holistic approach to the design process.” (see e.g., Conole, 2015).

Feb 02

Let’s play some Blues

In a repressed society, artists fulfil a sense of harking back to instant gratification, or immediate expression, by doing things that function on the edge of society, or outside of what is conventionally accepted.
―Bat for Lashes
Instant gratification is like instant coffee, only it won’t keep you up all night.
―Jarod Kintz

The importance of instant gratification must never be underestimated, even as we shun the pitfalls. As a guitar student, I know I “both impressed and vexed” my teacher by practicing, and to a fair degree learning material he thought a year or more down the road, instead of what he assigned me (he told me so in so many words). As a guitar teacher in a music store there was also an economically practical reason to get kids “playing something” as quickly as possible, namely to keep them coming back every week, and their parents smiling. This week’s ukulele lesson will apply some of the approaches I came up with way back then, while hitting today’s (Ontario, Canada’s) curriculum expectations for the age group. 

Today they’ll hear some Blues, play some Blues and with any luck begin to feel their own Blues… in 12 bar cycles of 4/4 time! 

Musical content

I’ll use technology—the ‘TuxUkulele’ track introduced last lesson [video]— to walk them through counting and time signature. They’re already good at the counting part and today I’ll teach a 4/4 conducting pattern, showing patterns of other time signatures in the process. 

Image, conducting patternImage, conducting patternImage, conducting pattern
Conducting Patterns
3:4     4:4     6:8

We don’t have computers with our ukes at present, and I won’t subject them to a lecture with a software demo. I’ll always start with a hello and a review and teaser, but then we’ll get the instruments out and begin strumming and playing notes. 

I’m walking back one step from last week. My goal for today is to do a blues “vamp” on the Bb chord, and a “lick” (also “riff” and yes, “motif”) with a triplet feel over top of it.

With ukes in hand…

  1. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach vamp… with and without “swing feel”
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  2. Teach lick… Swing feel makes no difference. Why? Bends and slides cool, ambiguous major/minor 3rd
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  3. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped; hammer on
    “Blues Major” and “Pentatonic Major” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson

    image, notation and tab for lesson

  4. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped, pinky hovers over frets
    “Blues Minor” and “Pentatonic Minor” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson

    image, notation and tab for lesson

Those are nearby, convenient Bb major and minor pentatonic scale patterns that form a perfect segue into ‘TuxUkulele.’

On the SMART board

(keep this short, unless everyone has a computer with TuxGuitar on it)

  1. Launch TuxGuitar, then open ukelele template
  2. Add swing; tempo <= 60; key Bb 
    • Opportunity to show conducting pattern  
  3. Show scale; play 1st position pattern (2 notes/string) for and with the learners 
  4. Show notes;
  5. Show chord symbols;
    • Opportunity to use conducting pattern  
  6. Repeat for lick (if time and engagement allow)

Back in the real world

  1. turn off software (or use purely as metronome)
  2. listening time
    • Robert Johnson Crossroad Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Charlie Patton 34 Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Howlin’ Wolf Killing Floor [Show lyrics] Is this still “swing feel?” (“straight 8ths”)
  3. Identify lyric pattern, 2+1 form
  4. play, student conductors, etc.
  5. Easy Tux Blues, (using tritone relationship) [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file]



How to read music – Tim Hansen [TEDEd Lesson]


Jan 14

The Blues and human dignity

Dignity and respect. Self-esteem, “worthy” of being treated well, honoured for contributing fully. How can we convey those things? How can we teach them? Is there an opportunity here for a picture that’s worth a thousand words?

I’ll attempt to walk the class through a visual encounter with dignity, the role of the Blues before and after emancipation, the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” legend … and write some Blues. Musically, we’ll reinforce our counting, continue driving home the 12-bar form, figure out I-IV-V in additional keys. We’ll master some new chords—and write some Blues around the 2+1 structure of a traditional Blues lyric.
Photo, Dana Gluckstein. Indigenous DignityPhoto, Dana Gluckstein.Photo, Dana Gluckstein. Indigenous Dignity

I’ll ask what they already know about dignity, and whether the people in photos have it … how do they know?

: Being treated with respect, regardless of the situation, and having a sense of self-esteem e.g., having a sense of self-worth; being accepted as one is, regardless of age, health status, etc.; being appreciated for life accomplishments; being respected for continuing role and contributions to family, friends, community and society; being treated as a worthy human being and a full member of society.

The last image I’ll show is Robert Johnson. What’s he wearing, how’s he sitting, what’s he got to be so proud of? What if the suit, hat, guitar and a few more clothes—enough to fill one suitcase—are all he owns, and he carries it by bus and hitchhiking from town to town along dirt roads? 

We’ll stand and do some “dignity awareness studies.” We’ve already beat our chests with the swing video; this will be introduced in similar fashion. These can be posturing and funny at the start (it’s likely somewhat related to rock star posing) but I need to bring back seriousness and wrap it up … ultimately the point is to try to feel increased confidence and self worth associated with feeling dignity and recognizing that of others. 

But wait, there’s one more association to make. I’ll promise to tell them the Legend of the Crossroads after a movie clip. We’ll watch the first 3:20 of Does it Swing? An Introduction to Swing Jazz for Young People (Part 1), to where it talks about slavery and the blues. (I’ll stop it before Basin Street Blues which will watch if there’s time at the end, and learn next visit.) We’ll reflect on that briefly and then take out the ukuleles to learn some Robert Johnson tunes. 

Robert Johnson and the Crossroads Blues

The learners will…

  • Hear Cross Road Blues [or this one] and the Robert Johnson legend. [Here’s a movie trailer.]
    • Lyrics
    • Who’s Willie Brown?
      [Trigger alert: Willie was lynched by a white mob in the Omaha Race Riots of 1919.]
  • Learn the chords F Bb & C and joining Blues lick (these are the chords for Sweet Home Chicago and Ramblin’ On My Mind) and Eb (for Crossroad Blues and Come On in My Kitchen). 
    1. Come On in My Kitchen (Compare with Stones’ You Got To Move)
    2. Sweet Home Chicago
    3. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  • Identify the 2 + 1 pattern of Blues lyric.
  • Perform call and response style imitation and improvisation


Tux Guitar files/chord diagrams, lesson sundries. Bb Blues for ukulele

  • How to set up TuxGuitar as TuxUkulele
    360p Video  or   720p Video
  • Full chart [TuxGuitar] [PDF]
  • Just standard notation [PDF]
  • Just tab [PDF]

For more links and resources please see this concept map

Unit Concept Map

Ontario Curriculum connections, content, rationale, resources
Please see this concept map


DIGNITY for the Seventh Generation Coming

Dana Gluckstein, Photographer & Activist [Museum Collection]
See also: Archbishop Desmond Tutu on “Dignity”

Complete Recordings

Robert Johnson – The King of Delta Blues

  1. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
  2. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
  3. Sweet Home Chicago
  4. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  5. When You Got a Good Friend
  6. Come On in My Kitchen Compare: Stones’ You Gotta Move
  7. Terraplane Blues
  8. Phonograph Blues
  9. 32-20 Blues
  10. They’re Red Hot
  11. Dead Shrimp Blues
  12. Cross Road Blues
  13. Walkin’ Blues
  14. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  15. Preachin’ Blues
  16. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
  17. Stones in My Passway
  18. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man
  19. From Four Till Late
  20. Hellhound on My Trail
  21. Little Queen of Spades
  22. Malted Milk
  23. Drunken Hearted Man
  24. Me and the Devil Blues
  25. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
  26. Traveling Riverside Blues
  27. Honeymoon Blues
  28. Love In Vain Blues
  29. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
  30. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
  31. Sweet Home Chicago
  32. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  33. When You Got a Good Friend
  34. Come On in My Kitchen Compare: Stones’ You Gotta Move
  35. Terraplane Blues
  36. Phonograph Blues
  37. 32-20 Blues
  38. They’re Red Hot
  39. Dead Shrimp Blues
  40. Cross Road Blues
  41. Walkin’ Blues
  42. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  43. Preachin’ Blues
  44. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
  45. Stones in My Passway
  46. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man
  47. From Four Till Late
  48. Hellhound on My Trail
  49. Little Queen of Spades
  50. Malted Milk
  51. Drunken Hearted Man
  52. Me and the Devil Blues
  53. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
  54. Traveling Riverside Blues
  55. Honeymoon Blues
  56. Love In Vain Blues
  57. Milkcow’s Calf Blues
Dec 08

Music Unit – Blues and Ukuleles

The ukulele is a surprisingly versatile instrument. For very little money you can get one that sounds good, stays in tune and is easy to play, and the Internet is full of learning resources for the classroom. I acquired one last week, downloaded a chord chart, and figured out the Blues in C, and how I’ll get a grade 7/8 classroom strumming it.

This week I aim to teach…

  • holding/strumming
  • fretting hand position,
  • 3 chords “I7 IV7 V7 in Key of C”
  • a well-known lick and
  • a strumming rhythm. 

The shuffle rhythm is precisely what drummer LaFrae Sci refers to as “The heartbeat of the blues,” so I’ll show her 8-minute video. We’ll do the interactions she suggests as a class, and then I’ll transfer the “heartbeat” rhythm to the strumming arm. (I also need to remember to find out how many lefties are in the group!)

I’m leaving tuning for later, although I’ll talk about it. I need to make sure the ukuleles start out in tune. I’m going to stress ear training every visit, but this week my first objective is to give them instant gratification, get them  “playing “something.” 

I’ll show the whole group each chord, count off into 3 groups, lead them through 12-bar Blues, swap groups and repeat.


To use TuxGuitar as a tab and notation editor for ukulele, choose Tracks→Properties and set up like the screenshot.

Screenshot, Tux Guitar app set a ukulele.

Nov 11

Music Unit—defining dignity, teaching empathy and the Blues

By the end of Grades 7 & 8, students will:
C1. Creating and Performing: apply the creative process (see pages 19–22) to create and perform music for a variety of purposes, using the elements and techniques of music;
C2. Reflecting, Responding, and Analysing: apply the critical analysis process (see pages 23–28) to communicate their feelings, ideas, and understandings in response to a variety of music and musical experiences;
C3. Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts: demonstrate an understanding of a variety of musical genres and styles from the past and present, and their sociocultural and historical contexts.

In this unit students gain musical skills and language while learning to write and perform the Blues. It’s written by and for a guitarist with background in theory and performance, but in a way, I hope, that can be adopted by any instrumentalist, or even by the less musically inclined teacher with support from local musicians.

Musical outcomes:

  • Learners will encounter and engage with elements of music
    • duration, tempo markings
    • pitch
    • dynamics and other expressive controls
    • timbre
    • texture/harmony
    • form

The expectations encourage students to explore issues related to personal identity and community concerns as they interact with increasingly complex and/or challenging media; to critically analyse and evaluate perspectives in works of dance, drama, music, and visual art; to use inquiry and research skills to extend their interpretive and creative abilities; and to use the arts to explore and comment on topics of relevance that matter in their daily lives. Issues of social justice are often highly engaging for students at this age.

Exploration and communication of multiple perspectives and points of view should be emphasized. The arts curriculum for Grades 7 and 8 is designed to engage students in tasks that they see as meaningful and motivate them to learn about and create art works out of interest as well as to meet curriculum expectations. In addition to the materials provided for instruction, students should have access to a wide range of themes, materials, and activities that are relevant to their personal experiences and interests as creators, artists, and critically literate viewers.

— Ontario MoE (2009, pg 131)

Social justice outcomes:

  • Choose a topic based on a personal story involving fairness, equity and/or social justice
  • Write Blues lyrics
  • Compose and perform music in the Blues form

The introduction is based entirely on what I know. My own musical education was, for the most part, highly Eurocentric. Fortunately my musical upbringing was much less so. By the time I was 11 my parents had exposed me to music as diverse as Miriam Makeba, Ravi Shankar, Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach, and Charles Ives.

I take the learners through an admittedly superficial and brief history of the guitar and “standard” notation, what it might have been like to be a musician 400 years ago—Who did musicians work for? What kind of music did they write?—and I play some Western European music.

Cultural Relevance

To be culturally competent and relevant, based on the demographics of my design, I’ll include parallels to South Indian classical music, the Persian origin of the ‘tar’ in ‘guitar’ and influence of the instrument of the same name, the African roots and history of the Blues as a response of an oppressed people to slavery and subjugation.

I teach blues licks, and I teach that if you can say it, you can play it. This practice strategy has parallels in many African and Middle Eastern cultures and reaches the level of a science in South Indian (Carnatic) music’s solkattu and tala system. The Blues and Jazz contain many examples of “scat” singing, which I use in a couple ways to introduce and reinforce the practice.


Day 1

The unit starts with a small concert by me. I set up my nylon string and an electric, with my amp and array of effects pedals in plain view to arouse curiosity. One of my petals is a Roland loop station, which contains pre-recorded accompaniment I will use in my performance. I have a Smart board behind me and my laptop in reach for accompanying visuals. I’ll play short representative pieces from Baroque, Classical and contemporary periods. I’ll show slides of the music notation and the period and say something about each piece. The acoustic pieces—a chaconne, a minuet, some studies and a performance piece—are chosen to highlight a progression from a context of music purposed for religious services and dance, sponsored by the Church and aristocracy, to one of concerts and freelance performers expressing themselves and making statements.

I use Steve Howe’s Mood For a Day to segue into the modern era by asking the class to guess what century it’s from, and whether it’s another dance, study or a performance piece. The Roland Loop Station comes with pre-recorded demos that include a 12 bar blues. I’ll say a few words about the blues, its form, the blues scale and “licks” then jam to demo . I totally show off and shred some blues licks, but make a point of following the form and scale I described. 

I’ve customized the lesson by storing a backing track from a song I know for certain, having visited the classroom where I’ll be doing this, is something we all know — Under Pressure by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. I prepared it using a MIDI file and a Roland Fantom-S keyboard too large to include in today’s setup.  It’s important not to run out of time before showing the ukulele blues video

The school has ukuleles. The goal of the first, introductory lesson is to situate the music they listen to in historical and cultural context and to inspire and motivate the class to want to learn to play Blues and compose some blues of their own. 

Day 2

Slavery, Dignity and The Blues: Use the Smart board and laptop to show some of Dana Gluckstein‘s photos showing the dignity of indigenous people, including Africans. Of each picture, ask the class if the subject has dignity, why do they think so, and what does dignity look like.

End this short segment by showing the picture of Robert Johnson. Remind the learners about the era and Jim Crow. Tell the Legend of the Crossroads. The purpose of this introduction is to plant seeds for the personal stories of fairness they’ll soon turn into Blues lyrics. 

Distribute pre-tuned ukuleles and demonstrate how to hold them. From this point on we begin to see wide differences in talent, experience and musical motivation emerge, which is a challenging piece of every group musical learning experience. Some kids can learn a I IV V pattern their first time with a ukulele, others may be struggling to curl their fingers and press a string behind a fret. 

With the 12 bar blues form displayed, I attempt to show the fingering for 3 chords and split the class into three groups, each one holding their fingers in place over one of them. As everyone counts I conduct, pointing at each group when it’s their turn to play. The V chord group is also known as the “turnaround” group. We can have some fun improvising turnaround rhythms, and begin using “say it then play it” strategies that they’ll use for as long as they remain involved in playing music.

Day 3 and beyond

We’ll watch Does it Swing? An Introduction to Swing Jazz for Young People part 1link, using points in the video to focus learning strategies to continue learning the ukulele and the Blues, for example, call & response, and I’ll use short activities to tie these directly to the musical elements (tempo markings, pitch, dynamics, timbre, texture, form, etc.) required by the curriculum. We continue exploring the social conditions that accompanied the rise of the Blues, it’s evolution through jazz and ongoing influence on every form of music, ever since.

Lesson Resources…

… are stored in a concept map found here. This map can actually be shared with students, who may wish to provide their own suggestions. If there’s interest and the situation permits we may want to use the cmap cloud (and/or provided/available collaboration support).

CMapTools for Learning Design

This map is organized as a concept map, reading top to bottom and left to right. I accept and promote a formal definition of “concept map” as a structured mind map, detailed here. I like the CMapTools software better than several other mapping tools I’ve used for this process because it looks and works identically in a browser, can be shared via a free cloud repository, and significantly: because I can attach many resources to a single node. 

Beyond learning the buttons, this is the first time I’ve actually used CMapTools. At the time of writing the introductory lesson is reasonably well laid out… I’ll play the pieces in order from left to right, and the things I want to show and tell about each, including direct links to things like the sheet music and images from the period, form sub-concept-like columns underneath. The power of CMapTools can be gleaned by looking at the outline dialog. You’ll also see how to develop concepts into propositions using linking words and phrases. Seeing the outline of my partially developed map not only helped me set up my activities more logically, it helped me better understand the rather powerful tool set this definition of concept map brings to the practice of mind mapping. (My linking phrases, especially near the top of the map, need some work!)

I’m comfortable with the delivery and familiar enough with the material that this kind of map, with the links to content, is all I need. But I think it would be easy to make very precise daily lesson plans from such a sketch. I’ll simply drag the nodes around each activity or resource into more clear-cut columns.


Ministry of Education (2009), Ontario Curriculum 1-8 The Arts [PDF]
Blues Kids of America
Nov 09

Who’s directing whom?

Photo. The cart is placed before the horse, who also looks confused.I’d like to tell you about the first time I taught children how to make webpages, which was in 1993, while a “teacher candidate” in the province of Ontario, Canada. There was an Education Resource Centre with a computer lab, an odd collection of Mac II, Mac Classics, and the last working Commodore 64s I saw for many years, and a few early Windows computers. I caught on quickly and soon landed 10-15 hours of gainful student employment each week. I was then, and remain today, an educator first and a technologist only so far as it supports the learners’ objectives.

Placed in a classroom within the (now defunct) Etobicoke Board, I needed the help of the school’s IT director to make sure each computer in the ambitious early 90s computer lab had access to the software they need during an in between my weekly lessons.

In their 2014 report, People for Education find that fewer than 1% of Ontario schools lack technology but it wasn’t the case in the early 90s.

Pause here to picture such a lab, and remember (as you can read on fact sheet 5 of the Census 2001 Highlights Immigration to Ontario Internet site) the Toronto census metropolitan area (CMA) had one of the highest proportions of foreign-born residents of all major urban centers in the world. Ontario’s public schools always reflect the faces of the immigration realities of the moment1.

My host school in 1993 had something else that was very new in those days—it had an IT Director. As it turned out, the relationship we developed revealed a conundrum that persists in organizations of many kinds to this day.

Naturally my lesson was being evaluated, and my course directors and adjunct professor expected the learning design to reflect my ideas and interpretations of such things as the anti-racist philosophy of education the Faculty espoused—and that I’d be the one directing the learning. So it was, in my very first adventures in electronically enhance learning design I quickly discovered that I wasn’t looking for an IT director — what I needed was a “facilitator,” and all the support and deference in executing my ideas the subtle distinction implies.

The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.
—Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

Among his first questions to me was, why would I want to teach “these children” to write webpages? Maybe he mistook the early 90s fish-eye monitors for crystal balls, because he looked into the third graders’ future and told me they were mostly destined to be “end-users.”

As time passed, under further scrutiny he revealed that he considered his knowledge a territorial matter, requiring security, restricted access, and various other protections. So in my earliest attempt at widening the spread of code literacy I quickly learned that the control of information technology would become a powerful definer of access and privilege.

Quite clearly these attitudes are manifestations of deficit thinking. The relationship that unfolded and the conundrum were as follows: I could not accomplish my goals without him, yet I most emphatically could not let him direct.

More importantly, my grade 3 students could not afford to let him decide their computer science futures, or label them “end-users” with a derogatory connotation.

In the intervening years I’ve seen universities barter and leverage software, educational discounts and lab access in contexts ranging from educational to purely political, from departmental restructuring to instructional design. Technology is not neutral. Technology is political. It is a freedom issue, and an issue of democracy.

…leadership for equity needs to incorporate inclusive procedures such as discussion, transparency, and community involvement as well as an honest treatment of substantive issues that matter (e.g. racism and sexism) […] If we really believe in the ideal of leadership for equity in education, then we need to be aware of the nature of the deficit mentality, its pervasiveness and its dangers. (Portelli , Shields & Vibert, 2007; Portelli & Campbell-Stephens, 2009)

Educators do not need to be programmers to empower programmers. Just as technology support staff must facilitate and help implement the ideas of educational leaders, those leaders must discern and facilitate the educational aspirations of the learners in their charge.



  1. At 16%, China, including Hong Kong and Macau, was the leading country of birth among people who immigrated to Ontario in the 1990s. It was followed by India with 9%, the Philippines with 6%, Sri Lanka at 5.2% and Pakistan at 4.5%. At the time, European immigrants to Ontario were mostly from Poland, Yugoslavia and Russia. Jamaica was the leading country of birth among the Americas. Somalia was the leading birth country in Africa. (StatsCan)


Polgar, Jan Miller (2010), The Myth of Neutral Technology
in M.M.K. Oishi et al. (eds.), Design and Use of Assistive Technology: Social, 17 Technical, Ethical, and Economic Challenges [pdf]

Portelli, John P., Shields, Carolyn M. & Vibert, Ann B. (2007). Toward an Equitable Education: Poverty, Diversity, and Students at Risk. Toronto, ON: Centre for Leadership and Diversity, OISE, University of Toronto.

Portelli, John P. & Campbell-Stephens, R. (2009). Leading for Equity: The Investing in Diversity Approach. Toronto, ON: Edphil Books.

Stager, Gary (2013), Technology is not Neutral – educational computing requires a clear and consistent stance blog post