Winter Beekeeping

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Pakis has been keeping a close eye on the bees, especially on the days when the temperature got above 45 degrees.  That’s when the bees go out flying.  They drag their dead brethren out of the hive, they orient themselves with figure eights, they expel waste, and they even find pollen to bring back.  We have ordered a new package of bees that will arrive sometime next month, so we’re gathering supplies and preparing a new hive.
On Valentine’s Day we needed to move the current hive to a newly created platform, and it was heavy enough that I was afraid to try lifting it. A neighbor graciously agreed to help with the move.

Thriving hive 2-22-15

First day of flying from new home


After Valentine’s Day, it stayed cold for a whole wee Finally today the bees could get out again–it was good flying weather.  The picture shows happy bees getting oriented to their new home.


Sadly, there was no activity at all today at the hive of our neighbor, Jennifer.  She got her bees at the same time as ours, and all last summer, hers seemed to be more industrious than ours.  She bought a honey extractor and was able to harvest an entire super (10 frames, about 20 quarts of honey), while we just got a couple of frames’ worth dripping in our kitchen.  We jokingly complained that we somehow got the lazy bees.

A couple of weeks ago, Pakis started noticing less activity in Jennifer’s hive than ours, and today there was none at all.  They opened the hive to find a great honey supply and a large cluster of dead bees.  Even the queen, with her neon green back, was dead.  We all knew the recent cold snap could be treacherous, but it was crushing to see its effects up close.

Dave Fruchtenicht is our local professional and all-around beekeeping guru.  Pakis called him and he came right over to look at the situation.  It’s likely the bees got too cold and couldn’t move to the honey supply.  There was mold in the hive, too, giving evidence of moisture.  But why should this hive die when ours didn’t?  Beekeeping seems to be a mix of guesswork and knowledge.

examining the hive

Post mortem with bee guru Dave Fruchtenicht


Categories: Beekeeping

Questioning and Learning

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

Cloud to Ground Learning

Warren Burger’s book A More Beautiful Question  has gotten me thinking about the relationship between questioning and learning.   It points out that young children ask questions constantly, but the rate slows down when they go to preschool.  By the time children get to middle school, they’re focused on answering teachers’ questions rather than posing their own.  There’s surely a developmental component to this decline, but it’s structural, too: schools focus on answers, penalizing wrong ones, and they leave little room for the questions of learners.

This topic reminds me of a four-year-old child who came to visit my family one time.  He had a new toy in his hand, and the minute he got in the door, he showed it to me, flipped it over, and took out the battery, toy batterysaying, “See?  This is what makes it work!”  He was answering a question that hadn’t even occurred to me.  In…

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Categories: Education

Update: Teaching Online

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

My Global Online Academy course started Sept 4, so after almost a year of preparation, I’ve been officially “at it” for two weeks.  Or maybe three, since I had to arrange and hold Skype calls with my ten students before the course began.  Those were interesting when they happened, and frustrating for the 50% no-show rate.  Each no-show generated an exchange of 3-10 email messages involving apologies, clarifications, and rescheduling, but eventually, I connected with all ten of the students in the class.

Since then, they have taken surveys and quizzes, contributed to discussion forums and pinned their locations on maps… all the tasks I had been developing over the summer.

world map

Digital Journalism students: red = schools, green = personally important places

The systems and assignments are working out fine.  Nothing seems to be too hard, and some students have made lovely observations about the value of journalism to society.  A couple of them have some overdue work at this point.  That worries me because I know from experience that it’s pretty hard to come back from falling behind online.  The drop-ad period is over, so there will be significant consequences for anyone who falls off the train at this point.  It’s hard for me to help, though, when email is about the only tool at my disposal.  I can send a message telling a student what’s overdue, and if there’s no response I can email the responsible adult at his/her school.  That’s about it.  I can’t catch a student at the end of class or in passing on the sidewalk.  I just have to wait for a response.

Fostering community is a big emphasis in GOA courses, and it is possible in part because they are closed.  They aren’t MOOCs, where anybody can see what they write and chime in with interesting or rude comments.  This is a small, private school class, and it’s my job to help the students get to know and support each other.  To that end, I’ve assigned the first group project.  Actually, it’s a partner project, the idea being to start small and maximize the probability of successful interactions.

The assignment went “live,” with the rest of unit 2, on Sunday evening.  It included a short, upbeat video message from me along with this page:

image of course web page

Through the week I’ve been receiving and grading small assignments: contributions to the class current events forum, reflections on the purpose of journalism, and contributions to a discussion of group work (preliminary to actually doing some).  Here’s the short video that introduced the discussion of group work:

Now the partner project should be under way, and I have no idea if students are contacting each other or not.  The first thing they’re supposed to do is claim a decade of the 20th century by putting their names beside it.  So far, no names:

screenshot of project home page (blank)

So I just have to wait.  No sidewalk check-in, no appointed time for class to motivate a last-minute scurry.  I’ve sent an email message to try to bring the assignment to everyone’s attention.  That’s all I can do.

In the background, I’m arranging a “guest speaker” appearance by Tanvi Misra, a reporter for the Atlantic’s City Lab.  She’s young, I know her personally as my daughter’s college roommate, and she does fascinating work.  I’m really excited to offer my students a chance to connect with her, and in the classroom, the excitement would be building.  Online, I can’t detect any response.  Maybe I’m underplaying it, as I have a tendency to do.  But I don’t really know how to whip up enthusiasm in the online medium.  I could create a short video on the subject, but the absence of direct audience feedback creates a daunting potential to look idiotic.

So I’m struggling to feel the personal connection that I’m supposed to be fostering.  Maybe it will come.

Categories: Education

Senior Year Balancing Act

August 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The school year is beginning, and I’m the advisor for a group of twelve seniors.  With a few changes in composition, this group has been together since the beginning of 9th grade.  We call ourselves the “B Team–We’re second to none!”.  “B” was initially for Bessias, though several of the students also have surnames beginning with “B.”  As I think about their senior year, “Balance” strikes me as a good watchword.

Seniors have to engage in two balancing acts.  One is between present and future.  In the present, they are “top dogs” on campus, they have minimal responsibilities, they have the protection of adults and systems.  (They don’t always want the protection, of course, but deep down, they know their lives would be scarier without it).  There’s much to enjoy about the senior year in high school.  Questions about the future loom large, however. These young people have to make their first big set of decisions, they have to submit to a new and consequential form of judgment, and they have to navigate tricky social currents among peers.  It’s not easy to relish the present while the future bears down inexorably.

Seniors also have to work hard on questions of identity while responding to a barrage of What Colleges Want.  Be your best true self, they hear, but make sure you’re exhibiting leadership, volunteering, doing well in classes, cultivating strong recommendations, and taking lots of standardized tests.  And be sure to do well on the those tests.

In the end, I don’t know how consequential the decisions are.  I don’t particularly believe in the quest for the “perfect fit” of student to college.  Students adapt wherever they end up going.  A few transfer.  Different choices surely lead to different futures, but we can never know whether one is really better than another.  The balancing acts will change with age, but resolution…  It will be temporary at most.   I do know this: it’s a pleasure to be part of young people’s lives at this moment of confidence, vulnerability, and possibility.


Categories: Education

Progress in Online Course Development

This week I’m focusing on my Digital Journalism course.  It has to be ready for a tip-to-toe review on August 11, the same day meetings start at Durham Academy.  Technical challenges continue to crop up, but I’m solving them one at a time.  They all relate to how to make everything work in the digital sphere.  Here’s an example from the introductory unit:

I want students to annotate a news article of their choice.  So they have to get their chosen article in a form they can work with–not the BBC or New York Times online; probably print or PDF.  Then they have to mark it up, which is easy with print but needs a tool such as Goodreader or Skitch for PDF (and maybe a tablet computer).  Then they have to upload their product for teacher and classmates to see it and respond.  I explored a bunch of tools before settling on something simple: print the article, mark it with a pen, take a picture, and upload to a discussion forum in Canvas (our Learning Management System).  Any student who has the tools or skills to do it a different way is welcome to use them, but this way I don’t have to teach a bunch of tech tools in the first unit.

Yesterday I got away from such minutia to look at the big picture of the course.  I pulled together all the half-baked units and scraps of ideas that have been building for 6 months and wrote a full year syllabus for Digital Journalism.  “About time!” you say?  I have to agree, but still, it feels good.  I shared the draft with Susan Fine, my Instructional Designer at Global Online Academy, and had feedback waiting for me when I logged in this morning.  (She’s on the west coast, so our schedules are offset).

I’ve never worked with an Instructional Designer or had anyone looking so closely at my work before.  Face-to-face schools rarely afford that kind of instructional support.  In this new medium, and with the added stress of new subject matter, I really appreciate it.  I suppose control issues could come into play for some people, and I know colleagues, especially in public schools, who aren’t fond of administrative oversight.  This feels like meaningful support, though.   It will continue next year, but on more of an as-needed basis.   I really like this model.

Here’s the first part of the syllabus.  You’re invited to see the whole thing–and even add comments–here.

Digital Journalism

Global Online Academy 2014-15


Christine Bessias
Durham Academy, Durham, NC

Course Goals:

  • participate in a key element of democracy
  • explore your local context
  • discover similarities and differences with the contexts of classmates around the world
  • participate in a semi-professional environment: meeting deadlines and fulfilling particular roles in the production of a news blog
  • develop skills for research, interviewing, photography, videography, and layout
  • develop journalistic writing and editing skills
  • critically observe and engage with the work of professional journalists
  • explore issues of personal interest
  • develop interpersonal and technical skills for learning in an online environment

Semester 1

Introduction to Journalism and The Atlas

Sept 4-Oct 10

Course foundations, history of journalism, ethics and essentials of journalistic writing. The Atlas, volume 1, ideas for volume 2.



Categories: Education

Training for Online Teaching

June 28, 2014 2 comments

For the last week, I’ve been immersed in development of the online course, Digital Journalism, that I’ll begin teaching in September.   Twenty-eight other teachers were engaged in similar work under the guidance of the full staff (7 members) of Global Online Academy.   The context for this work was Islandwood, an educational retreat center in the temperate rainforest of Bainbridge Island, Washington.   Most of our days were spent in lodge-style buildings that are not luxurious but are very clean, with amenities such as hot water, wifi, and locally brewed beer in generous supply. After hours we availed ourselves of hiking trails on several hundred acres—a wonderful escape from computer-based work.

Islandwood hiking trail

Hiking trail

The size and intensity of the vegetation, from ferns to Douglas Firs, overwhelmed even my southeastern sensibilities. I got some insight into the experience of people from drier climates who sometimes feel smothered by North Carolina greenery.

All week, the Islandwood staff and GOA staff took care of every detail so that we teachers could focus on learning. Struggling to organize a unit? Talk it over with your Instructional Designer. Is it time for dinner? Just sit down at the table.  Need a profile picture or a plan for getting to the airport? The program manager has camera and master schedule.   It was a seamless operation.

workshop in progress

Working on course development

Each day during the workshop, there were a couple of general sessions about topics we all needed: the history and structure of GOA, the student handbook, strategies for getting a class started. There was also a rotating schedule of 1-hour tech workshops that we could sign up for. The rest of the time we worked individually or collaborted with other teachers at our own discretion. Laptops, smart phones, and tablets saw heavy use, though some worked on whiteboards or pads of easel. We were placed in a resource-rich environment and allowed to organize our own learning process. It’s a model that felt respectful and empowering.

I went into the week with many questions. One of them had to do with relationships that had developed through digital communication. What would it be like to meet people with whom I had interacted long distance for many months?   The answer: not different, but I got a richer sense of them. I got to see them in context, in spontaneous moments, and in interactions with others. But there were no true surprises, no sense that our online relationships were illusory in any way. Based on this experience, I’m thinking about ways to bring local context into my students’ online interactions; I think it will help them come together as a class.

When I signed up for online teaching, I realized that my digital toolkit, which seems pretty robust as a supplement to the traditional classroom, looks pretty puny when it’s all I have to work with. I can now say that it has grown substantially.   Among this week’s victories were gaining familiarity with Camtasia and a program called YTD (used to download YouTube videos).   Here’s the result.

There’s a lot left to do to get ready for class to start.  The real deadline is mid-August, when I’ll get a thorough critique from a GOA Instructional Designer.  It feels good to know what to do and to know I’ll have an advisor going the distance with me.


Categories: Education

A New Setting

boxes & empty shelvesYesterday I finished cleaning out my classroom at Durham Academy, and today I’m trying out Bull City Coworking in downtown Durham.  It’s a space I’ve had in mind to do work for Cloud to Ground Learning almost from the beginning of the concept.

I took a tour in November but never had a chance to try it out until now.  There are a dozen or so people at the work tables in a large, airy room with beautiful plank flooring.  I chose a spot looking out on Duke Street where the parallel parking behavior is quite entertaining!   The Amtrak train whistled by a few minutes ago.   There’s a bit of talk and people coming and going, but it’s mostly pretty quiet.  The coffee is good.

trainThis is truly a transition.  It’s what I wanted, and I know it’s good for me to be the one feeling her way in a new space (more than one sense applies).  It’s supposed to feel weird, right?




Categories: Entrepreneurship