Look Up! It’s a Space Comet!

I get really, really excited about comets. I remember seeing comet Hale-Bopp back in 1997 hanging in the sky and being amazed that those wanderers exist and that we have a chance to see them from time to time. This year, we’re lucky to have another comet swing by the Earth and though faint, may become a pretty good sightseeing opportunity as we move through January.

South Bend isn’t known for it’s clear winter skies, but last night I had a chance to go outside and do some comet hunting. C/2014, Q2 (also known as Lovejoy) has been below the equator until just recently. Additionally, it just brightened up enough to be seen in dark skies with the naked eye if you know where to look.

Head outside and look to the southeast. Find Orion in the sky, and then look below that for a slightly-lopsided box – that’s Lepus. Hover over the photo below to see a labelled image.

Lovejoy is moving higher in the sky over the next month, through Lepus and up next to Orion. The comet is still pretty faint, but it’s the small, greenish smudge in the photo and should increase in brightness as it moves closer to perihelion (nearest point to the sun) in late January. I don’t have a tracking mount, so my photos are all a little blurry, but I managed to get one that shows the comet’s nucleus and coma.

…and a little closer…

Why am I putting this on a blog about education and technology? A comet sparked my curiosity in space and is something that stands out very clearly even today. Our students live in a world of screens and media. We need to be the people in their lives who expose the bigger world at every opportunity. Not every student will think this is as amazing as I do, but that’s okay – we’re not there to make every student love what we do. If one student gets excited over something bigger than themselves, we’re accomplishing the mission of teaching.

What’s Worth Your Time?

This year, my wife and I decided to make many of the gifts we gave for Christmas. Me, having a bunch of time off from working, and Lindsey, raising a beautiful one-year-old who enjoys playing with necklaces and her dog, had plenty of time to dive into gifts. It’s always extremely satisfying to be able to tell someone, “we made that for you” because it shows intent, love, and a deeper thought about something they might like.

I got to dive into some design work I’d never had a chance to do before. I opened up Inkscape for the first time and taught myself some of the basics of vector editing. It started with creating a new website for my father-in-law, Dave, and then bled over into making custom labels for our homemade vanilla and lemon extracts.

vanilla

lemon

We also chose to take some new photos of Meredith to give to family and friends. Lindsey is an amazing photographer and has a great eye for capturing something with a lens.

The last two months have been rough. There are plenty of bright spots, though, that remind me to be thankful even when things don’t follow the plan. This fall was definitely out of the scope of the plan, but I’ve enjoyed the time regardless of the circumstances. Make sure you spend your time doing things worthwhile.

Teacher

I’m really struggling. I lost my job in November and I’m in the midst of trying to balance what I do with who I am.

I wrote in January about the confusion I feel with identity. It’s even bigger now, with more questions than answers. Bill Ferriter was kind enough to leave a very wise comment for me:

I definitely think there’s an expiration date for people who walk away from the classroom — both in your own ability to understand just what it means to be a real-live bona fide full time classroom teacher and in your ability to maintain credibility as a practitioner in the eyes of those of us who are still in the classroom.

That’s unavoidable. It is what it is.

Your challenge is reminding yourself that your work still carries value. In many ways, you get to empower teachers now in ways that you could never do before. It’s a different kind of rewarding, but it is still rewarding, none the less.

(That’s just a snippet, but it helps.)

In May, I wrote more about being a teacher…what it means for identity and working. I still think that a teacher is a holistic undertaking – you don’t do teaching. You are a teacher. It’s unique in the sense that not many other professions can make the same claim.

I think I had it right back in January – I need to stop defining myself by one quality. I may not be in a classroom, my expiration date may be past, but I’m inextricably wound up in education, regardless of what I do. Maybe that’s the real lesson.

More Email Management Tips

Email is a bear. The Oatmeal covered it pretty thoroughly. I use a few little tricks with Gmail that many people don’t know about, so I figured I’d share a few. Maybe one will help you out.

1. Use filters and create labels. Our inboxes get filled up so fast with so many different things, it’s easy to lose an email from your wife or a friend. Filters and labels are sort of like automatically-applied tags. You set them up ahead of time, and then Gmail does the rest.

The easiest way to set this up is to save a search for emails from someone you want to pull out specifically. For me, I want all emails from my wife to be labelled so I can find them later.

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I would say avoid using the “skip the inbox” option because it’s easy to forget to check for emails from your friend (or wife), and that’s bad.

Essentially, just like filters, labels can let you find emails quickly. They just set the email off to the side for a quick reference. I wrote a post the other day about a helpful search, and I’ve made a label for that so I can find those emails with one click. Note that you can add, delete, or edit any label you have in your Gmail Settings > Labels.

2. Multiple inboxes are your friend. A few updates ago, Google introduced the managed inbox where you were given tabs and emails were automatically filtered into things like Social, Promotional, or Important. Ditch that thing immediately. You miss emails in the long run, and that can be bad. You need a filter and a label for that filter in order to get this to work correctly.

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I love this because I can customize what I see when I log in. I use stars to remind me to do things because I can add them in the mobile app as well. They’re right there at the top, reminding me to take care of those messages. Using “Add Section,” you can apply any filter that you have set up and get it’s own section in your inbox. Be intentional about what filters you set because they can really make your life easier.

3. If it doesn’t need a response, and you don’t need it, delete it. Or archive it. Get it out of your Inbox.

4. Use Google’s advanced search operators. You can use a filter for this, but it’s more about using the Gmail advanced search operators in savvy ways to narrow down your results. For instance, you can use:

has:attachment pdf

and you’ll get any email with an attachment that’s a PDF. If you get a lot of one kind of attachment, this is incredibly helpful. Another one of my favorites is to use:

is:read newer_than:7d

The newer_than:7d returns emails from the past week only. You can search by date, but seeing what’s there from recent days is helpful when you’re trying to stay on top of correspondences.

There are tons of articles online with more tips, these are just some I use to manage my life. My inbox typically only has a dozen or so emails at a time, which is a pretty big accomplishment. Leave your own tips in the comments.

An Argument for Creative Work

This is the final post for my Creativity in Teaching and Learning course, and it’s broken up into three parts.

The White Paper

The first part is a long-form essay on the value of creativity in the classroom. It was formed by pulling together themes from from all of my writing for the course this semester and expands on some of those ideas. Think of it as a big summary about why we need to allow students to work creatively in their learning.

The Elevator Pitch

If you’re short on time, I’ve got the elevator pitch below. It’s a condensed version of the white paper, and hits the major points of the essay. Consider it a one-minute commercial for why you should bookmark the essay to read later.

http://brianbennett.org/audio/creativethinking.mp3

Even Shorter

Maybe you’re on mobile and the audio doesn’t work so well. Fear not, here it is in a tweet:

How To: Find Emails You Haven’t Replied to in Gmail

David Wees asked a question on Twitter today that I thought would be pretty easy to solve:

Turns out, no so much.

In my searching, I did come across a service which reminds you to follow up with emails which are unreplied to you, but not ones which you need to send the reply.

You can use filters and other little workarounds to get it done, but that usually means having to remember to actually add the filter or mark it unread when you’re going through your inbox. That’s hard to remember to do in the moment, and can even be impossible (like if you’re using the mobile app). Luckily, you can combine search operators in the web view to get pretty good results.

The trick is you have to be using a signature so that every email you send has a unique string in it that we can filter out.

For me, I have a link to my website – ohheybrian.com. It’s pretty unique, which makes it a good search term. You can use your name, too, but you want to be careful with that in case the sender used your full name – if that’s the case, it’ll get filtered out.

To find emails which need replies, you want to use is:read -Re: -your_unique_phrase.

This checks for read emails (in case you forgot to mark it unread), without Re:, and without your_unique_phrase.

Mine reads: is:read -re -ohheybrian.

Emails which are part of a thread still show up, but they’re based on the last email of the conversation. So, the thread may contain replies, but you haven’t replied to the last one you received, which can still be handy.

You can limit it even further by using in:inbox or some other filter, but that isn’t usually necessary.

Unfortunately, this isn’t perfect, so you’ll still need to do some spot checking. There is no perfect solution as of right now (no is:reply filter or something similar) which you can use, but Google does have a good list of the Gmail search operators that you can play with to build some pretty powerful searches.