Tinderbox

The Intercultural Club at Kean University has long been publishing Accents, a magazine with articles from matriculated ESL students ranging in language proficiency from beginner to advanced. This past weekened, I was able to figure out a Tinderbox template for websites (designed by Marisa Antonaya) and put Accents online. If you'd like to check it out, click here.

Want to improve your learning? Read Hacking Knowledge: 77 Ways to Learn Faster, Deeper, and Better (via Teaching Hacks), a compendium of tips on learning:

Life-changing knowledge does typically require advanced learning techniques. In fact, it's been said that the average adult only uses 10% of his/her brain. Imagine what we may be capable of with more advanced learning techniques. Here are 77 tips related to knowledge and learning to help you on your quest. A few are specifically for students in traditional learning institutions; the rest for self-starters, or those learning on their own. Happy learning.

Most of it is just common sense, but it's good to have all of these tips in one place and to review them once in a while. One of the interesting ones for me was #29:

Write, don't type. While typing your notes into the computer is great for posterity, writing by hand stimulates ideas. The simple act of holding and using a pen or pencil massages acupuncture points in the hand, which in turn stimulates ideas.

I don't know about the acupuncture part, but I can imagine that having to write notes by hand would slow me down, giving more time for thinking and reflecting while writing. Even so, I do almost all of my notetaking by computer with Tinderbox. Using Tinderbox allows my notes to be revised and searchable. It also allows me to make links between my notes and create a visual representation of those connections, to allow patterns to emerge. So, I can see the value to slowing down and thinking while writing, but there is also the value of revisiting notes, reflecting on them, re-organizing them, and having them in a format that "stimulates ideas." Here's a map view of notes from the Tinderbox site:

Isn't a picture worth a thousand handwritten notes?

Update: I just came across a similar article, 22 ways to overclock your brain at the Ririan Project blog (via Problogger).

Although I use Tinderbox, a note-taking tool, primarily for taking notes, generating ideas, and my weblog, I have been considering how to use it with my classes in terms of class management and curriculum design. Keith Burnet (via Mark Bernstein) has some ideas on using Tinderbox for curriculum design in math:

My hope and summer project is that by refactoring the Maths topics ruthlessly, I can get to a set of small hard nuggets of Maths (a sort of irreducible set of base vectors) that can be rearranged and strung together in different combinations to suit the learning styles of all the various students we see at College. To continue the analogy with Extreme Programming, I hope to associate a class time factor with each note so that you can ‘price’ a route through a topic quickly.

Some months ago I brainstormed topics in GCSE Intermediate Maths with students and a selection of textbooks. I am now beginning to group the grains together and establish links between the topics. So far we have a mind map for the Shape module with three different kinds of link:

  • A contains B (red)
  • A is related to B (blue)
  • A contrasts with B (snot green — the colors can be customised)

Soon I will be able to add a fourth kind of link — StudyNext — that will provide a thread through the material. Perhaps there will be a number of threads to suit different learning styles.

Here's a screenshot of his project:

Curriculum

As Keith notes, the ability to re-arrange the ideas and threads linking them in a visual conceptual map allows "structure and relationships ... to emerge," thus facilitating curriculum design. Fantastic!

Once in a while, when I face some puzzle in writing and posting to my blog, I wonder why I continue to use Flint, a Tinderbox template to create my blog instead of an application made for it like Wordpress. The learning curve is steep, and the license is not inexpensive. Tom Webster ("Blogging with Tinderbox" via Mark Bernstein) reminded why I like Flint for my weblog:

I recently went back to deciphering Flint, which is a collection of macros and templates to turn Tinderbox into a pretty robust weblog generator. Ever since Radio Userland I have liked the idea of maintaining a weblog locally and then only needing to upload html to a remote server with no server install necessary--easy to keep my thoughts on my laptop where they belong, and very simple to publish what I want to publish. I realize that you can accomplish the same thing with a weblog client like Ecto and any garden-variety weblog app, but Tinderbox's ability to replicate a post-it board full of non-linear notes is brilliant and irreplacable. Why does this matter? Look at the popularity of tagging as an organizational scheme for modern blogs. Tagging has become popular precisely because 'chronological' and 'hierarchical' just don't cut it as organizing principles for the giant spinning cork ball of the creative mind.

Tinderbox, however, lets me link any old note to any other old note, and back again--so my notes can be organized like index cards spread out on a table, regardless of how my weblog reads. That makes it much easier for me to revisit things I might have missed, and keep "back burner" thoughts percolating for when inspiration strikes. It also lets me maintain a private weblog and a public weblog all in one Tinderbox document--a highly usable intersection of Wiki and weblog, all searchable and linked on one big canvas. Again, though there are other apps better suited for weblogging, there are none better suited for brainstorming and organizing my thoughts--and now all I have to do is drag a note from one part of my drawing table to another, and it is published (or not). When you can truly live within Tinderbox for everything, the tool itself stops being visible and starts becoming a natural extension of your thought process and not just a "blog tool."

Tinderbox has yet to become a natural extension of my thought process. It takes time to master it. Still, I like the potential for using one application for brainstorming, taking notes, re-combining them, and generating new permutations of concepts that I might not have thought of otherwise. Once mastered, Tinderbox is a great tool for thinking and learning. The weblog is just an extra benefit.

Here are some other articles on Tinderbox:

Matt Neuburg's review: Light your fire with Tinderbox
Matt Neuburg for creating web pages: Creating Online Help with Tinderbox
Tom Webster: Problem Solving with Tinderbox
Tom Webster: More Problem Solving with Tinderbox
Doug Miller: Miscellaneous posts on Tinderbox
Ted Goranson on outlining: Deep Tinderbox
Alastair Weakley: Using Tinderbox for writing

Not really liking the site design from yesterday, I've decided for a lots-of-whitespace-is-better look, at least for now. Items still needing work are the footer, the extra white space under the sidebar, the About and Contact pages, and my RSS feed.

On the footer, Mark Bernstein, Tinderbox's creator, thoughtfully emailed me some ways to keep the year and months on the same line. The simplest method is just to maintain the archive lists myself instead of having them generated automatically by Tinderbox. I'll probably end up doing that way, as it's fairly straightforward and easy, but for someone as absent-minded as myself, I may at times be a month or two behind.

On the extra white space, there should be a way to have the posts lower than the last element in the sidebar to extend to the right margin. Sounds like an "if-then" condition from my one fortran course in 1984. But two decades and several languages later leaves me in a fuzzy, even a non-memory, condition of being unable to write an appropriate "if-then" condition.

At the bottom of my concerns is the lack of proper formatting for the footer on the About and Contact pages. Of a little more concern is my RSS feed: Unlike the Atom feed, the RSS feed doesn't validate, although it does work with NetNewsWire. Perhaps I can fix it after my presenting next week at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference and NJTESOL-NBJE Spring Conference

If anyone has suggestions, I'd appreciate an email.

Due to logistics, Tinderbox weekend is being moved to September 30 (or perhaps October 28), but Mark still held an informal discussion for those wanting to attend on Saturday. And it was great!! My understanding improved on quite a few topics, such as debugging, importing, exporting (even to MS Word), exploding text, attributes, aliases, agents, and so on. Of course, it's still a rather shallow understanding, I'll need to start playing with these items to make that learning real. Right now I'm looking at changing my footer. I'm also playing with the CSS in my blog design. I've changed the background colors and fonts. I'm not satisfied with it, but it's a good beginning in confusion.