Teaching with Storytelling: Linkurious

I went to a cool tech event last night where the presenter nailed one of the techniques I’m always telling teachers to use – and sometimes forget to use myself. “Seb,” or Sebastien, told a powerful short story that perfectly complemented his presentation about Linkurious, his software company that uses graph databases to help financial institutions spot fraud, among other things.

His story described a common way criminals defraud banks:

How to Fraud: 1. Create fake ID, 2. Apply for bank loan, 3. Disappear w/$$$

Courtesy of Linkurious









This was effective for three reasons:

1. It hooked us. Everyone likes crime, and we all like to find out how it’s committed. It makes us feel like Gibbs from NCIS.

2. It raised the stakes. Especially in technology, so many dumb apps are developed to solve the dumb first world problems suffered by app developers: late-night food delivery, getting a lift to the Marina, etc. This story showed why Linkurious actually matters.

3. It matched his lesson. As Sebastien went through the process of correctly ID’ing a case of fraud, he necessarily explained how Linkurious works.


It helped that his slides were so good.  They use legible images and minimal text to illustrate (see what I did there?) the points he was making, like this one, which shows how rings of identity thieves share some of the same personal information, which becomes apparent upon using Linkurious:

How fraudsters share info helps Linkurious ID them.

The techniques that fraudsters share info help Linkurious correctly ID them.











I wish more teachers would do what Seb did. A powerful short story – which includes good visuals – will help make your lesson memorable and effective.

Learning from Barlow

Oh, we got the call Sunday morning about Barlow. Our former roommate’s old cat had been in ill health for some time, and now his kidneys were failiImageng. Scott, our good friend and Barlow’s person, was going to put him to sleep.

Christy cried, and I did too, a little, and after a brief talk we agreed that we wanted to be there. This was the cat we were once obsessed with. The cat we would talk about literally every day we were on vacation. The cat who convinced me to get a cat of our own after Christy and I moved to East Bay.

We distracted ourselves until it was time to meet Scott at our old apartment in the Mission. I made small talk with the new roommates while we waited for Jeff, whom they replaced, to come over. Then we all went to the veterinarian’s office.

We waited in the lobby until we could see Barlow. Swaddled in towels he looked cozy but small. He perked up as soon as we entered the room. Scott held him, still swaddled. We petted Barlow and felt him purr, quiet but distinct. Then Christy held him and cried. He was so light. Barlow slowly climbed up onto her shoulder, his claws getting stuck in her sweater as we pulled him back down – just like old times.

We told some of our favorite Barlow stories: how he’d made himself found 15 years ago, meowing loudly in the bayou outside of Scott’s old place in Texas, a kitten small enough to fit in your hand; how his terrible ex almost gave him away; and how he liked to play fetch with a superball sometimes.

We told Barlow how we loved him. How he was so good to us. How much we would miss him. He grew tired and purred more indistinctly now. Silent the whole time, looking back on it, this Siamese whose insistent meow would echo through our old Mission apartment. Whose tiny snoring once woke me to find him sleeping between me and Christy, under the covers, head on her pillow.

The vet said she had no doubt this was the right decision. That she put down her own dog just a few months before, and did so while he still recognized her, just like she’d promised him.

Barlow still recognized us, and we still recognized him.

Scott sat down with Barlow in his arms, and the vet knelt before them, with the sedative in one hand and a stethoscope in the other, pressed to Barlow’s shaved stomach. He died quickly after living so long, and living so deeply within us. Scott held him awhile longer. And then Jeff said it was time. We called the vet back, and Scott passed the swaddled body to her, and we said goodbye to Barlow one last time.

Powerful Zen Stories & Everyday Life

The book "The Empty Mirror."

“The Empty Mirror,” by Janwillem Van De Wetering

I just finished The Empty Mirror, a young Dutchman’s memoir of spending 18 months in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery in the 1950s. It’s remarkable.

Jan struggles with the physical and mental discipline of life in the monastery. It’s engrossing to see this time capsule within a time capsule, a continuation of spiritual life from medieval Japan reenacted in post-war times.

But what I liked best about the book are the short Zen stories. As I’ve written in my own teaching book, stories are powerful teaching tools, and that’s probably why seemingly every religious tradition uses them. (Some would dispute that Buddhism is a religion, rather than a philosophy. Either way.)

The stories recounted in The Empty Mirror do not disappoint. These are my two favorite. This first comes after Jan asks the master if life has a purpose or not – his whole reason for coming to Japan and going to the monastery:

The master shook his head. “I could answer your questions but I won’t try because you wouldn’t understand the answer. Now listen. Imagine that I am holding a pot of tea, and you are thirsty. You want me to give you tea. I can pour tea but you’ll have to produce a cup. I can’t pour the tea on your hands or you’ll get burnt. If I pour it on the floor I shall spoil the floormats. You have to have a cup. That cup you will form in yourself by the training you will receive here.

(p. 11) Here’s the second story, the one whose lesson I try to put into practice every day:

In China a Zen master travelled with a few disciples to the capital and camped near the river. A monk of another sect asked one of the disciples of the Zen master if his teacher could do magic tricks. His own master, said the monk of the other sect, was a very talented and developed man. If he stood on this side of the river, and somebody else stood on the other side, and if you gave the master a brush and the other a sheet of paper then the master would be able to write characters in the air which would appear on the sheet of paper. The zen monk replied that his master also a very talented and developed man, because he too could perform the most astounding feats. If he slept, for instance, he slept, and if he at, he ate. 

(p.20; emphasis mine in both) This singleminded focus is exceedingly difficult for me. Life is full of distractions and I want to indulge them all. But my daily practice now includes trying to just do one thing at a time. I’m not sure that it makes me at all more efficient. But I do feel it’s making me a bit more mindful, which is obviously the point.

Today, trying to focus on doing just one thing at a time feels a bit like being a 20-something Dutchman studying at a Japanese Buddhist monastery. It’s hard to submit to the discipline; the frustration is palpable. And unlike in the monastery, escaping the practice of mindfulness – by checking email or visiting Reddit – is an effortless, private escape, rather than the public failure of leaving the monastery for good.

What’s the future of mindfulness? I have to think that, if we want anyone to be mindful – including ourselves – it’s stories like this that remind us that it’s a goal worth pursuing. Even if the work is hard, the goal elusive, and the hot tea spills on the floormats.

The Continuing Appeal of Hard Work

AeropressI’m working on a project. Without going into detail, I’ve been working hard, and exercising disparate skills – design, storytelling, fundraising – at the same time.

I have no idea how successful I’ll be. But, if nothing else, it’s really, really interesting. I recently got back from a two-week honeymoon in Japan (hi, Christy!) and the trip illuminated what’s made this whole process so engrossing.

Hard work is inherently fascinating. Whether it’s cabinetmaking or digging ditches or scribbling equations on a blackboard, when you see someone exerting themselves, you can’t help but feel engaged. Just look at the barista above putting his entire weight behind the AeroPress coffee maker! The drink tasted better than any push-button coffee from Starbucks ever could.

It’s like the difference between reading fiction and non-fiction. As Tom Wolfe once said, the power of non-fiction is that “the reader knows all this actually happened.

There’s a similar kind of freight conferred upon an act when you see that it is difficult. Right now I’m enjoying my hard work at this project. I hope that that hard work remains visible to others when this project is unveiled!

I Just Got This Package from India


Through the magic of global capitalism, I just received this book from New Delhi. (54 Rani Jhansi Road)

I know our lives depend on reliable access to international goods. But man, doesn’t the hand-tied string kill it?

Best Book Review Ever

I got this in the email last week and I’m still blushing:

“I teach GED to adults in Virginia and I am taking an online course on teaching adults and another student posted the link to your site in the discussion area. I have to tell you, I am currently finishing up a master’s level adult ed certification and I have read tons of theory and abstractness that really didn’t ‘say’ much to me. Your book is full of real stuff!

- Sherrie H.


Quick Review: “An Ethic of Excellence” by Ron Berger

An Ethic of Excellent: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, by Ron Berger, Heinemann (2003)

Living in a town so small “even other people in the state have never heard of it,” Ron Berger and his five fellow elementary school teachers created an entire school culture that cultivated excellence. From kindergarten, children promote to the next grade by presenting a portfolio of their work over the year to a panel of teachers and townspeople.

While the focus is on children, the ideas around building a culture of excellence apply just as much to adults. And it’s a wonderful, short read. Another magic find from the Strand bookstore in NYC.


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