Friday, December 28, 2007

Robinson on Creativity

Over at TED Talks there's a very entertaining twenty minute video on the theme of creativity in the schools by Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds. Robinson isn't saying anything radically different than Daniel Pink or any number of other commentators, but he's funny and he's very persuasive.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Season's Greetings

One of the collateral benefits of reviewing for Kliatt (see previous post) was that when I went to choose books, there were often a number of books of poetry on the shelves, mostly from writers I had never heard of. So each time I went, I would take four or five books and read through them, and in this way I began to educate myself about the current state of poetry in America. I discovered, for example, that the University of Pittsburgh published a series of small, elegantly formatted works under the imprint of The Pitt Poetry Series, and over the years I was reviewing I discovered and writers who have continued to give me pleasure throughout the years, including David Huddle, Peter Meinke, Ted Kooser, Larry Levis, Carol Muske, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, and Richard Shelton.

Here, in honor of the season, is a poem by Leonard Nathan, from his Pitt Poetry book Carrying On: New and Selected Poems. The poem consists of three sentences, which is part of its humor. I often read it with my students during the week before the holidays; it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on, well, desire. And responsibilty. And the meaning of Christmas. And li' dat. It's worth reading through slowly, out loud. Enjoy.


Waiting for the signal to change
in her favor, she saw him again
between sweeps of the windshield wiper,
the same man on the same corner
last Christmas, remembered now
because he was so wrong for seeing
this time of year in this part of town
where furs and jewels stared back
at one another in shop windows
that he passed unseeing and unseen
in a peacoat blotched and misshapen by age
and rain, himself blotched and misshapen
under a black stocking cap,
in one hand a brown paper parcel
tied with string, and now suddenly,
she was anxious—no, fearful,
because if life, her life anyway,
meant something (and she wasn't sure
it did), meetings as odd as this
might have some purpose, a sort
of repetition to make a point
she knew she wasn't getting yet
and didn't want to because now
she wasn't just fearful, but guilty as well,
and felt the petty cash in her purse
turn to ashes, the gifts piled
in the back seat. become a reason
to look away ashamed, and then
it came to her—a vision—to her
who always saw in things mere things:
There was a box wrapped prettily
in shiny red foil, and in it,
she knew, was the future, its top torn open
to reveal a little room
with a cot, one rickety chair,
an old card table, on it
a dish and cup, both plastic,
and three black wire coat hangers
hung in a closet otherwise empty,
and the smudged window stared blindly out
on smoky brick—the right place
to meditate on soup kitchens
or on the intensive care unit,
but it was the honking behind that woke her
to this world where the man, whatever
he meant, had crossed before her, his eyes
ahead, his heavy face neutral
as worn stone that asked nothing
on its way into the darkening air,
and she saw she had the green light
to move, still shaken, to where
she must to get on home to the tree
the children had put up for her,
the grandchildren were now trimming,
and eased into quieter streets,
feeling boxed inside steel
and black traffic, driven below
by a power she never understood,
and feeling—well, sort of—followed,
and, glancing in the rear-view mirror,
smiled at her little panic, but drove
faster, recalling that this was the time
for exchanging gifts and she had given
that man (somewhere behind her) her guilt
(as if he needed that) so now
it was his turn, and she drove faster,
wondering with a cold thrill just what
he'd picked for her, and slowed down
when she saw ahead through rainy dark
another vision (her lucky day!):
Under the tree, almost buried
in glittering golds and greens and reds,
a brown paper parcel tied with string,
with her name on it, to be opened
the morning of Jesus' nativity,
and what it contained to be held up
in shaky fingers to her breast
(where her heart now worked unwilling
as a windshield wiper) to find,
of course, it was a perfect fit,
a garment made for her alone
centuries ago, and the roan would be there
nodding in the corner, unseen
by the others—not really a man,
a thing older than humans, older
than Christmas, as though a stone or log
could, with terrible effort, take
our shape to tell us something, something
we had to know but didn't want to
because there was no remedy for it,
not even children (it was much older
than love), and she thought of all that ruin
of beautiful torn wrapping paper,
the afterbirth of giving, and saw
also she was simply home, parked
in the driveway, sitting motionless
to stare at the fragile strings of light
melting in the drops that ran
across the glass, and it was then
she put her head down on the wheel
and cried softly because she knew
the reasons for crying and knew too
that if nothing was saved of all the works
of joy, nothing would stop wanting
to be reborn, which made life
a kind of defiance. Yes. Well, then,
drying her eyes, she was ready now
to go in, ready to receive
whatever the children thought she wanted.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Addition by Subtraction

For close to 20 years, starting in the early 1970's, I was a reviewer for Kliatt, which publishes a bimonthly guide for school librarians. Kliatt was originally the brainchild of two former teacher-librarians, Celeste Klein and Doris Hiatt, who faced the dilemma that all librarians must face: a finite budget, and a close-to-infinite range of choices of new books published each year. Given that most of the new books that come out are not readily available for perusal unless you buy them first, assuming you even know about them, how might it be possible to make better choices? That's the question that Celeste and Doris thought about, and the answer, in retrospect, seems obvious enough: you put together a magazine for librarians that will provide them with reviews of recommended books. They rented a storefront in Newton, MA, got the word out to the publishers, and began recruiting reviewers. It wound up being a perfect example, long before the term became popular, of a certain kind of social entrepreneurship.

The publishers were happy to send along free copies of their new books, in the hopes that they would be selected for review and possible purchase by school libraries. The librarians were happy to have solid information to help them make their choices. The reviewers, like me, were happy to be able to go to the office and select books to read, for free. The deal was that if you chose a book you were responsible for giving it a careful read, and if you thought it was worthy of recommendation you wrote a review. If you thought it was either not a good book or not appropriate for a school audience, you didn't have to write a review. In either case, the book was yours to keep. And Celeste and Doris were happy, or seemed to be happy, to be gainfully employed in an area of business that fit very nicely with their values and their personalities. So it was a good deal all around.

I was talking about my Kliatt experience with my students just before Christmas break, because they are in the process of finishing off their semester projects, most of which involve at least some writing. (Many of them involve a lot.) And so as they have been finishing their early drafts the focus has shifted to revision, and I've been trying to share with them some useful suggestions about that process. The first and perhaps most powerful rule of revision that I share with students is one which has been around in one form or another for a very long time. Strunk and White famously advise, "Omit needless words." Similarly, Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, writes

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

Hemingway's implied suggestion is to "cut that scrollwork and ornament out," and that principle of economy is what lies behind the standard all-purpose recommendation that I make to students: "Cut 20%." Of course, when you actually make the effort to do so, you may in fact wind up cutting 20%, or 40%, or only a few words here and there. The actual percentage isn't important, so much as the effort that one makes as a writer to scrutinize each sentence, to weigh each word and phrase, to make each choice purposeful.

It's advice I myself had gotten in high school and college, and understood to be true at a purely conceptual level, but it did not become part of my regular routine as a writer until I started writing for Kliatt. In the interests of representing more books in any given issue, reviewers were strongly encouraged to be concise. Usually the first drafts of my reviews would come in at 1200 or 1400 words, and then I'd have to narrow them down to 500 or 600. I wrote hundreds of reviews over the year, always having, at the end, to go back into them and look hard at every syllable, and it was, as Hemingway has it, "a good and severe discipline."

I wind up spending a good proportion of my time with students, as I read their papers or meet with them in individual conferences to go over, say, their college essays, doing little more than crossing out words, phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs. It's a process of addition by subtraction. Less is more.

Kliatt is, as the URL at the top of this post indicates, still around, with my friends from the early days, Claire Rosser and Jean Palmer, at the helm. Since moving to Hawaii in 1998, I'm no longer in the stable. But it's a worthy publication, and I look back on my years as a reviewer with some fondness. Those of you with connections to school libraries may want to take a look.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Quality Time (II)

Well, it's over. Today was the last day of classes for the year 2007. We'll have eight more days of semester one classes in January, then a week of exams, and start the second semester on the 22nd of January. But aside for some mopping up and some attempts at closure, it's basically game over. Most of my students are handing in their semester projects today. I've given them the option of handing them in when they get back, if they feel they need the extra time, but my recommendation has been that they get it in today so that they can enjoy the vacation without having the project hanging over them.

There's a passage about midway through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which Pirsig identifies as being a defining moment in his thinking: He's visiting the building in which he spent the early part of his teaching career, and he recalls a colleague, Sarah, who "came trotting by with her watering pot...going from the corridor to her office, and she said "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students." This is a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal."

Much of the rest of the novel recounts Pirsig's pursuit of the what might be called the question of Quality: what it is, how you recognize it, how you produce it, how you teach it. It's a concept which has been much on my mind of late. I've spent a lot of hours in the last few weeks working with kids to help them produce work which has Quality. I've been talking with sophomores about their projects, with seniors about their projects, with other seniors about their college essays, and with the Ka Wai Ola staffers (that being our literary magazine, which we publish twice a year) about how to make sound judgments about the quality of the work that we choose to publish.

I've also been turning over in my mind quality discriminations in the reading I've been doing. A student brought Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns to school last week and told me it was a book I should read, so I read it. It's an engrossing, if somewhat grim story, character-based, clearly written in a workmanlike manner. You can open the book more or less at random and see competently delivered action sequences like this:

Mariam turned one corner, then the other. She found the correct street but suddenly could not remember which was Rasheed's house. She ran up then down the street, panting, near tears now, began trying doors blindly. Some were locked, others opened only to reveal unfamiliar yards, barking dogs, and startled chickens. She pictured Rasheed coming home to find her still searching this way, her knee bleeding, lost on her own street. Now she did start crying. She pushed on doors, muttering panicked prayers, her face moist with tears, until one opened, and she saw, with relief, the outhouse, the well, the toolshed. She slammed the door behind her and turned the bolt. Then she was on all fours, next to the wall, retching. When she was done, she crawled away, sat against the wall, with her legs splayed before her. She had never in her life felt so alone.
This passage advances the narrative in very pragmatic way. It's cinemagraphic without being particularly artful; it evokes sympathy for the dilemma of the main character by drawing upon a fairly predictable array of imagistic options and culminating in a throwaway cliché: lost in the street, bleeding knee, throwing up, crawling away, feeling "so alone."

Hosseini has, I think, honorable ambitions. He's both a storyteller and an educator: he wants to portray for his readers the very real suffering that the citizens of Afghanistan, and, in this book, particularly the women of Afghanistan have undergone as a result of the belligerence and brutality of men driven by ignorance, greed, political and religious dogmatism, and lust for power and dominance. He is also attempting to answer some of the questions that the 9/11 attacks raised in the minds of most Americans: where did all this come from? What are the sources of this kind of religious and political fanaticism? These are worthwhile objectives, and clearly there is a ready work in this vein.

There are, however, three problems with what the way he goes about it. The first is that he's just not a very good writer. In the passage above, and in the rest of the book, there isn't much prose that is different stylistically or conceptually distinguishable from anything a competent high-school junior might not produce. The second is that he's simply too much in charge: he knows exactly what he's doing and where he's going, and the story has a paint-by-numbers feel to it, particularly at the end, which is uplifting and heartening in a way that seems calculated and, ultimately, false.

I had actually started reading Don DeLillo's Falling Man before Hosseini's book, and put it aside because I wanted to get the student's book back to her before the holiday break. Returning to DeLillo foregrounded for me the shortcomings of Hosseini's writing. Once again, more or less at random, here is a representative narrative passage:

He worked his way through the frozen zone, south and west, passing through smaller checkpoints and detouring around others. There was a Guard troop in battle jackets and sidearms and now and then he saw a figure in a dust mask, man or woman, obscure and furtive, the only other civilians. The street and cars were surfaced in ash and there were garbage bags stacked high at curbstones and against the sides of buildings. Everything was gray, it was limp and failed, storefronts behind corrugated steel shutters, a city somewhere else, under permanent siege, and a stink in the air that infiltrated the skin.
This passage also shows a character in distress on a street. It also is cinemagraphic, easy to visualize. What's different is the freshness of the imagery, the subtle and satisfying surprises embedded in almost every sentence: the street and cars "surfaced in ash," the city "limp and failed," the "stink in the air that infiltrated the skin." I can no more imagination Khaled Hosseini ending a sentence with a phrase like that than I can imagine 50 Cent singing an aria. The two novelists are inhabiting different realms insofar as Quality is concerned. One is a craftsman; one is an artist. One I read with interest; one I read with interest and appreciation and delight.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Body Language 101

Over at The Valve, Bill Benzon links to this pretty entertaining deconstruction of body language:

Friday, December 7, 2007

Students 2.0

A collaborative enterprise involving students across the world putting together their own edublog is taking off this week. Check it out at Students 2.0.

Students 2.0 Launch Teaser from Sean on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Probable and the Possible

Today our writer-in-residence, Chang-rae Lee, led a one-hour workshop discussion with a group of middle school English teachers. This workshop was really about learning how to become better readers, so that we can help our students to become better readers, so that they may, some day, become better writers. "You can't teach someone to write without first giving them an appreciation of reading. That's what they will have to draw upon when they go to write. Practice reading with a writerly eye and thinking consciously about what the writer has chosen to do, line by line." So that's basically what we did. Chang-rae had asked us to read a fairly short (four page) and quite wonderful short story called "Pet Milk" by Stuart Dybek, and he basically asked us to work through it with him, sequentially and deliberately, paying attention to and asking questions about the choices the writer made from line to line, sentence to sentence.

This is a different kind of reading than we often ask students to do. Often, in schools, we manage to convey the impression to students that stories are somehow to be thought of as elaborate puzzles, and that it is the goal of readers to find the "hidden meaning." I have students who have described their impression of what they have been taught in more or less exactly those words. But, as Chang-rae observed, "literature is not created as a compendium of signs and symbols." Stories, he argued, are about what Flannery O'Connor called "the mystery of of personality." Stories are about people, and about possibility.

"Pet Milk" is about a young man and one of his early girlfriends, Kate. But that's not where the story begins. It begins like this:
Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It's not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable—compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn't real milk. The color's off, to start with. There's almost something of the past about it, like old ivory. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, "Do you take cream and sugar?" Pet milk was the cream.

There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she'd miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the stat- icky right end of the dial. She didn't seem to notice, as long as she wasn't hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street.
We began by looking at the these two paragraphs. Chang-rae told us, "I like to ask very simple, almost dumb questions. Why does this particular story start here? And what does that suggest about what the writer wants us to think about?" We talked about that beginning, about the focus on one particular object, about the overtones and undertones of the very first sentence, about the grandmother and her radio, whose presence in the story raises other questions: "Why do does the writer stay for so long here? Why did he bother with it? Why not something else?" As we thought about and tried to articulate answers to those questions, we found ourselves getting deep into the visible and invisible threads of connection in the story, its architecture. As Chang-rae suggested, "Writing is a series of notions and ideas and details that come together in an orchestrated way. My goal with my students is to talk about any piece of writing and its aesthetic universe. A story is an instituted universe."

When a writer decides to work into the details of a moment, that becomes a form of characterization, "The density of the details reveals something of the character's desires and needs." In this case, as some people noted, the swirling of the pet milk and the swirling of the sky and the swirling of the memories and, later, the swirling of the emotions between Rudi and Kate are interconnecting threads in this "orchestrated universe," a universe that foregrounds, as all stories must, a certain kind of movement.

Our discussion itself did some swirling of its own, from the story itself to the art of writing to student understandings about reading and writing. Most of our students, even the adept ones, perhaps especially the adept ones, think only in terms of linear movement, plot as sequence of events. "Student writers write and move on. They don't write as if they're bearing treasure as they move. But that kind of sustained vision justifies everything that has come before and goes after."

There are other points in the story where the writer lingers. For example there's a passage when the narrator and Kate are at a restaurant celebrating his 22nd birthday:

The waiters in the Pilsen wore short black jackets over long white aprons. They were old men from the old country. We went there often enough to have our own special waiter, Rudi, a name he pronounced with a rolled R. Rudi boned our trout and seasoned our salads, and at the end of the meal he'd bring the bottle of creme de cacao from the bar, along with two little glasses and a small pitcher of heavy cream, and make us each a King Alphonse right at our table. We'd watch as he'd fill the glasses halfway up with the syrupy brown liqueur, then carefully attempt to float a layer of cream on top. If he failed to float the cream, we'd get that one free.

“Who was King Alphonse anyway, Rudi?” I sometimes asked, trying to break his concentration, and if that didn't work I nudged the table with my foot so the glass would jiggle imperceptibly just as he was floating the cream. We'd usually get one on the house. Rudi knew what I was doing. In fact, serving the King Alphonses had been his idea, and he had also suggested the trick of jarring the table. I think it pleased him, though he seemed concerned about the way I'd stare into the liqueur glass, watching the patterns.

“It's not a microscope,” he'd say. “Drink."

He liked us, and we tipped extra. It felt good to be there and to be able to pay for a meal.

So what is Rudi doing in this story? Why is he there? Why does the author, in a story that is only four pages long, give Rudi so much room, pay so much attention to him? What does Rudi's presence suggest about the narrator's desires and needs? Those questions led to further discussion, which again led us deeper into this "orchestrated universe."

The story ends, as many great stories do, improbably, surprisingly. The narrator and his girlfriend are on a train, and they're making out, and the train is barreling through a station, and the narrator says:

The train was braking a little from express speed, as it did each time it passed a local station. I could see blurred faces on the long wooden platform watching us pass—businessmen glancing up from folded newspapers, women clutching purses and shopping bags. I could see the expression on each face, momentarily arrested, as we flashed by. A high school kid in shirt sleeves, maybe sixteen, with books tucked under one arm and a cigarette in his mouth, caught sight of us, and in the instant before he disappeared he grinned and started to wave. Then he was gone, and I turned from the window, back to Kate, forgetting everything—the passing stations, the glowing late sky, even the sense of missing her—but that arrested wave stayed with me. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I'd have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.

The shift in point of view, the sudden move toward dis-embodiment, is both startling and revelatory. It's not what we expect, it's not what is probable. But that, Chang-rae suggested, is what makes it interesting and powerful. "Having created an image, it's the job of the writer to make something of it. We're writing to discover what's possible in the next paragraph, the next sentence. Student writers are attracted to the probable. If something happens 90% of the time in a certain way, they'll write about that. Great writer's don't do that. Great writers invite the possible."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


In our high school, as in many, perhaps most, other schools, students are expected to walk along the thin line between being challenged, productively engaged, and more or less happy and being stressed, sleep-deprived, and more or less miserable. Students get the message that if they are going to be taken seriously by colleges they are expected to get all their schoolwork done, keep up with their homework, do well on tests in as many as seven different subjects, take part in school activities, do extensive community service, have an area of specialty (violin, perhaps, or robotics), maintain a wholesome social life, and be able to hold forth with poise and self-assurance on topics ranging from presidential politics to palindromic prosody. In the context of the students over-busy lives, homework becomes, for many of them, a problem. Students often comment ruefully that the problem is that every teacher seems to feel that his/her own subject is the most important one, and to think that his/her assignments are the ones that should get priority. A number of commentators, among them Alfie Cohn, have recently begun to argue that our assumptions about benefits of homework are false, and that as matter of sound social, psychological, and pedogical policy homework should be either drastically curtailed or entirely eliminated.

The administrators at our school, to their credit, from time to time, ask the department heads to encourage discussion amongst the teachers about homework: why we give it, how much we give, what we hope the students will get out of it. About a week and a half ago I polled my department to get a sense of the condition of our condition with regard to homework. The questionnaire was informal and the questions were not scientifically framed, and not everyone in the department was at the meeting. But the results do paint a picture that more or less confirmed my sense of where we are as a department:

Homework is an essential component of my course.
95% (17 of 18) agree

I give some sort of homework pretty much every night.
89% (16 of 18) agree

Time I expect my students to spend, on average on homework:
Less than 15 minutes 6% (1)
15 minutes to half an hour 24% (4)
Half an hour to an hour 70% (12)
More than an hour (0)

I could teach my course just as effectively if I gave less homework.
20% (3 of 15) agree; 80% (12 of 15) disagree

I grade my students on their homework.
88% (15 of 17) agree.

I quiz students on the readings they do.
69% (11 of 16) agree.

I quiz students on the vocabulary from the readings they do.
42% (5 of 12) agree.

It takes me, on average, how long to return written homework to students:
One day 19% (3)
Several days 44% (7)
A week or so 31% (5)
Several weeks 6% (1)

I allow students to revise and resubmit written homework assignments.
61% (11 of 18) agree

I allow students to do extra credit work to make up missing assignments.
38% (6 of 16)

I allow students to do open-ended free choice writing for homework.
75% (12 of 15) agree

Based partially on what I see here, partially on my sense of what's behind these figures, and partially on my own thoughts, since I am with the majority in most of these categories, here's a preliminary attempt to frame a statement of policy about homework. This essentially a zero draft of a document that I hope to work through with the department over time, with the goal of coming up with a statement that is clear, accurate, and acceptable to everyone in the department. If any of you readers out there have been through such a process and have documents of a similar nature to share perhaps you could email them to me. Anyway, here goes:

We value homework. Given that we have limited class time (most of our courses meet either four days out of six for an hour (56 hours per semester) or three days out of six for an hour and a half (63 hps)) we seek to use class time primarily for the kinds of activities that require face to face interaction, activities like direct instruction, large-group discussion, small-group interaction, oral reading, and presentations. We generally ask students to do the bulk of their reading and writing—which are of their very nature most often solitary activities anyway—as "homework," which might literally be done at home, or might be done during free time (which many students actually do have) at school.

We recognize that there is a limit to what students can reasonably be expected to do. We expect that students will spend, on average, half an hour a night on homework, and certainly not more than an hour. We value the work done for homework enough to include it as a factor in the grade for the course.

Since one of the purposes of homework is to allow students to try out modes of thinking and writing with the goal of continuous improvement, we do make an effort to get the assignments back, with appropriate feedback, to the students in a timely manner, usually (except in the case of major projects) within a few days of when they are handed in. Once the students have been given back their work, there is often the possibility that the work can be revised and resubmitted. The goal of this particular option is not to encourage students to hand in substandard work the first time, but to allow them to be able to experience what it feels like to have handed in work which ultimately does meet the standard set by the teacher.

Finally, while we do see the need for and often give teacher-designed assignments targeting specific reading, writing, or thinking skills, we also value the individual student voice and try to provide students with the opportunity to write on topics and in forms of their own choosing. Our role as teachers in reading and responding to these pieces of writing is to provide useful and constructive feedback about what is successful in the writing, what is unclear or inaccurate, and how the piece might be improved.

Okay. That's it for now. I have a meeting with some of my teachers tomorrow morning and I'll put this very preliminary draft in front of them and ask for feedback. Any of you want to jump in, feel free.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I, Hippopotamus

On Wednesday of last week the Music Department had invited Bruce Fertman to give a workshop for faculty and staff interested in the Alexander Technique, which in essence consists of making physical adjustments to your posture and carriage, and mental adjustments to you ways of intereacting with the world. According to web site of the Alexander Alliance, the Alexander Technique "gives us a working knowledge of the principles which govern human coordination. Through study, we become capable of redirecting excessive effort into useful energy. We learn how to transform tension into attention, fatigue into kinesthetic lightness. Regaining deep structural support, we experience, once again, the sheer pleasure of movement."

It was a varied group at the workshop: some musicians, a conductor, a librarian, a secretary, and some teachers. Fertman spent part of the day explaining some of the background principles of the Alexander Technique and linking them to other disciplines like Taoism and Tai Chi, and a large part of the day working with us individually on posture and technique and presence. It was fascinating to see what adjustments he was making, and to see the more or less immediate changes. He spoke to us about how all of us are programmed to work hard, when what we could be doing instead is learning how to work soft. There's a followup workshop next week, so I may have more to say about it then.

During the early part of the afternoon session we spent some time looking at some line drawings by the mid-eighteenth-century anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus. I had never seen them before, and was quite taken with them. When I got home, I did some scouting around online and found this archive of his drawings, and began looking them over again.

Here is a representative image. It depicts a human skeleton and includes some of the musculature around the neck, shoulders and rib cage and legs. I'm sure that it is instructive from a strictly anatomical point of view, and in fact in the workshop we were encouraged to make observations about the physical structures of the body, and to consider what implications those observations might have for how we inhabit our own bodily structures. But what interested me then, and continues to fascinate me now, is the context in which the skeleton is placed. The backgrounds were apparently added to the images by Albinus's engraver, Jan Wandelaar. The main focus of attention is still on the anatomy study, but why place the skeleton in front of a) a hippopotamus, b) a heavy stone building, and c) an uprooted tree? Why the juxtaposition? According to the Wikipedia, the backgrounds were "highly criticized by such engravers as Petrus Camper, especially for the whimsical backgrounds added to many of the pieces by Wandelaar, but Albinus staunchly defended Wandelaar and his work."

I don't think that "whimsical" is the right word. For me, it's about contrast. The hippo, the building, the tree are all images of bulk and weight and thickness. There's even a heavy gnarled root in the foreground. Against that backdrop, the amazing lightness and fragility and gracefulness (and, to use one of Fertman's words, "verticality") of the human figure is accentuated. I just love the way the two outstretched arms of the skeleton frame and call attention to the rounded back of the grazing hippo. And the fingers of both hands are floating in ways that seem to suggest that the skeleton is still possessed of both life and consciousness. The left hand is making a gesture; it appears to be rising, as if in response to heard or imagined music. It's just a beautiful image, at once a description and a celebration.

The other one that just kills me (if you'll forgive the verbal-visual pun) is this one:

Once again the skeleton, out for a stroll, is placed up against a building or monument of stone, and there are boulders strewn at his feet. But he walks with, again, extraordinary lightness and grace, and the outstretched fingers of his leading hand call our attention to the trees in the background, and the wonderful lightness of their appendages, which are emphasized again, even lighter and more evanescently, in their reflection in the water. And in both pictures there are leafy plants in the foreground which seem somehow to connect to the main figure. In the presence of weight, lightness. In the presence of darkness, light. And in the presence of inanimate objects, life. In these pictures, the skeleton, most often an image of death, is presented, with all due deliberation and respect, as an image of life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Home Stretch

Well, it feels like the corner has been turned. Tomorrow is the last day of class before Thanksgiving. We've got three weeks of classes once we get back, which is pretty much the home stretch. Then a couple weeks of Christmas vacation, a week of classes more or less mopping up, and the semester is over, and I get a whole new group of students to work with.

This part of the race, if I can stay with the home stretch metaphor for a moment, is where a lot of interesting things happen, or don't. My students are all working on major projects of their own design which will pretty much define where they have arrived at the end of the course with regard to quality. And all of the little messages, subliminal and supraliminal, that I've been pinging them with since day one are either having their effect, or not. But when they do, it's satisfying. Here's a paragraph from a reflection paper handed in by a student today:

As I wrote my Poisonwood Bible paper on the opposites of Rachel and Leah, I found myself writing about Rachel as a teenager and how her attitude was, if you don't like something, then complain as much as you can and try to find a way out of it. While Leah's attitude is try to enjoy the situation you're in even if you don't like it, and try to get something out of it. I then realized that this is what Mr. Schauble was telling us about in a previous class. I remember him talking about getting something out of the time we have in English class. Where you can either hate it or wait miserably for it to end, or learn something valuable... After realizing the cowardice of Rachel and the intelligence of Leah, I decided to try and live with Leah's attitude in mind and make the most of every situation.

With all due respect for the weather forecast and the likelihood of snow in November, I still can't help but be encouraged by this. We began the semester by writing down the quote from Christoper Clausen that I have written about before on this blog, and which I perhaps too often return to as a pointer to True North in my classroom: "All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: What kind of world is this?, and How should we live in it?" I'm glad that Barbara Kingsolver's book, whether or not it fits into the category of "great literature," has this student turning the questions over in his mind.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Many Happy Returns

Today is the first birthday of Throughlines. A year ago, I had never looked at a blog. I didn't know what a wiki was. I didn't know flickr existed. I'd never seen a YouTube video. I hadn't used Google as anything other than a search engine, and had no idea what an RSS feed even was. One year, 228 posts, and 15,000 hits later, I'm in touch with via the blogosphere with educators all over the world, I've had my students working on blogs and wikis and Moodle, I've heard from a lot of former students and colleagues, and I've got tremendously stimulating professional development opportunities arriving via Google reader every day in the form of RSS feeds from educators who care about what they are doing and are working at doing it better. Based on how much has opened up this year, I can't even begin to imagine what's going to be going on a year from today. Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to visit, to read, to comment, and to email words of objections, elaboration, or encouragement. It's been a hell of a year.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Are You Serious?

English as a course of study at the high school level sometimes seems to take a back seat to other subjects. Given a choice between whether to show up for math or physics course with a problem set unfinished, or showing up for English with an assigned reading only partially done, or not done at all, many students seem comfortable opting for door number two. The whole question of homework across the board has been a subject of debate nationally and at our school. Last year we spent one department meeting brainstorming some ideas about the role of homework in an English class, and at yesterday's English department meeting we embarked on a followup discussion, and at one point in the meeting I found myself talking about something that has been bothering me lately. It bothers me every semester about midway through, and I usually get over it, but here we are in early November, and here I am again, wondering about Quality, how close our students are to attaining it, and whether we are providing an environment in which quality issues are taken seriously. And so I asked, rhetorically, "What proportion of our students are really serious students of English?" A pretty interesting discussion ensued, and part of what made it interesting is that the question itself clearly made some of us uncomfortable. I had been planning to unpack some of my thinking about this on Throughlines, but my colleague Chris Watson beat me to the punch, and I wound up responding to him on his blog, so I'm basically going to re-present the dialogue here. His post:

Every other week, the English department meets a large group (largest dept. in the school) to discuss courses, initiatives, school business, and overarching questions. Yesterday, we revisited a conversation about homework that's been going on school-wide for a few years. How do we use it? Why do students gain from it? Could we get by without it? And so on. And we ended up discussing what some of us perceived as a move towards a school culture that doesn't foster serious students, specifically in English. Physics and Math maybe a different story?

Many great questions came out of the discussion:

*Is there a difference between being good at something and being a student of something? Waterpolo was the analogy.

*How do we balance encouraging the skills of a good student with the necessary pace of the curriculum?

*Should we expect all student to have passion for English? For example, do we expect all student in orchestra to be serious musicians?

*Is being a serious student, a mastery of skills or an investment in content?

So I left the meeting thinking about these questions, and thinking about how I might present some ideas in a post here at WatsonCommon. Considering myself a serious student of several things, English, leadership, educational technology, surfing, mountaineering, racquetball, marathoning, I thought I'd take inventory of all the things I do as a serious student (maybe learner is a better term).

1. I keep a small notebook with me at all times to quickly jot down ideas, reflections, and observations. This is also where raw ideas are born. Often, what's written here is in the form of lists, pictures, webs.

2. I write in a personal journal, at least 10 minutes a day, for nobody but me.

3. I keep a professional blog and read blogs of people who do similar work, creating a network of creative collaborators. Before blogging, I documented all my work and organized it in binders and folders, ready to reference and share.

4. I try to build a professional library of thought-provoking reading. I think this too is encompassed by the read/write web.

I'm probably missing things. But these are the habits (I wouldn't call them skills) that I believe make me serious. Is this what we expect of students? Or is it something else? Something more?
My response:

Well, I was gonna write about this too, and here you went and beat me to it (not for the first time either.) But yeah, all of the things you mention. Writing figures in three of four items in your inventory, reading in the fourth. It seems to me that reading and writing are critical: reading allows us to broaden our understanding, writing allows us to shape it, extend it, deepen it. I'd add three things to the list:

5. Reflection - staying with an idea inside the mind, turning it over, rotating it, looking at it from different points of view

6. Conversation - talking about something is a way of honoring its importance, and there's something generative about talk as well; putting something words is clarifying and often surprising when it leads you to say things you didn't know you knew or believed

7. Action - putting ideas into motion provides the real test of their validity. A lot of things sound good but don't work in the real world.

I took the position in our meeting that many of our students, including many students who are earning grades good grades, are not what I would consider to be serious students. How many of our students do even half of the things that are on our emerging list? They do what they are told to do, yes. But how many of them write for their own enrichment? How many of them read beyond what is strictly required? (Many of them do not even do that much.) How many of them do we see making any kind of active effort to put the ideas they do care about into practice? How much of their complacency is a result of the climate of expectation we set for them? And if we wanted to change that climate, where might we begin?

So yeah, it was an interesting discussion. Those are serious questions, and deserve serious answers.
I think as teachers we are always walking a thin line. On the one hand we want our students to like whatever subject we are teaching, to like the class, to like us. On the other hand, we want them to push themselves, to work hard, to improve their skills, to produce the kind of work they are capable of. Some of us don't mind playing the bad cop; some of us have trouble with that role. Some teachers argue that if a student writes something that she thinks is good, it is good, and that we should simply praise what is good and ask the student to write more, on the theory that in this way she will come to love writing. Others argue that there are degrees of good, and that if a student's work is not yet good enough, the only way it is going to get better will be if someone tells her what she needs to do to make it good, or, at least, better.

I think a serious student would want to know that. And I'd like to believe that by the time a student is a junior or senior in high school, s/he would have a pretty clear sense of what makes good work good, and a pretty good sense of what it means to be a serious student in any particular discipline. The things Chris mentions in his post seem pretty obvious to me: of course a serious student would read widely, write often, value careful work, and enjoy the time spent doing it. And yet, having written that out, I am once again struck by how seldom I actually see those habits of mind and action on display, even among our best students, how apparently idealistic (unrealistic?) these expectations seem, and how conflicted I feel about the whole business. On the one hand, I'd like to believe that if we were all doing our job well as teachers, our students would being doing their job well as students. On the other hand, I realize that there are a lot of factors—cultural and familial economic and attitudinal and hormonal and developmental and generational—over which we as teachers have little control, and that it's always going to be an uphill battle.

The good news is, it's early November, and in a few weeks at least some of those students we've been holding out on may very well surprise us with work that is just amazingly good. And that is going to be enough to carry us right through until... the middle of next semester.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When The Ship Comes In

The other day we had an all-school faculty meeting in the chapel, one of the only venues on campus large enough for all of us to assemble in one place, and as I was waiting for the meeting to begin I was thumbing through the one of the hymnals on the back of the pew in front of me. This particular hymnal had a variety of separate indexes—by title, author, by theme, by rhythm pattern and so on—and a section of historical notes on each of the hymns. I happened to turn to "Amazing Grace" and discovered two things I hadn't known, or perhaps had been told and hadn't registered: first, that the tune of "Amazing Grace" is based on a pentatonic scale, and second, that the pentatonic scale is the scale that can be played on the black keys of the piano (when starting on E flat). As it happens, I've been fooling around recently, in my somewhat inept and tentative way, with several songs on the piano which are black-key based, and after the meeting I went home and sat down at the piano and sure enough, I was able to play a creditable version of "Amazing Grace," complete with left hand chordal accompaniment, using only the black keys. Who knew?

But as I was trying to figure it out, and occasionally hitting notes I had not intended, I began hearing another tune—obviously there must be thousands of well-known tunes based on the pentatonic scale; I just don't have a strong enough background yet to know which ones—that stuck with me and started rattling around in my head the ways songs do: Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In." (I remember that when I was growing up my mother would often speak of her dreams using the same figure of speech: "We'll go to visit Ireland when my ship comes in." As a child I was for a time convinced that there must be such a ship, and was concerned about what might be delaying it.)

I don't even know where to begin to talk, or write, about Bob Dylan. I've often thought about attempting something, but it's just too big a deal. I could write about Dylan for the rest of my life and only begin to make a dent. Certainly, he was for many years of my life a major influence on my thinking, my sense of the world, my sense of myself and who I was and who I might want to become. There was a period in my life when the appearance of a new Dylan album was the portal to a parallel universe. I'd listen to the album obsessively, over and over, for hours at a time, and when I wasn't listening I'd be running the lyrics I could remember mantra-like through my head. His lyrics were a revelation to me. I grew up in fifties, right? I graduated from high school in 1965, and you know what I was hearing on the radio?

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin' for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
In the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten


The cloak and dagger dangles,
Madams light the candles.
In ceremonies of the horsemen,
Even the pawn must hold a grudge.
Statues made of match sticks,
Crumble into one another,
My love winks, she does not bother,
She knows too much to argue or to judge.


Take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

I mean, seriously? I had done my time; I had gone to elementary school and junior high and high school and done my share of dutiful, dull writing and heard my share of songs, and no one, not even my inspirational sophomore English teacher, had ever given me to understand that it was permissible, that it was possible, to write like that.

Then there was the way he sang: as if the whole standard idea of what a singer was supposed to sound like had been suddenly exploded, evaporated, exposed as saccharine conspiracy. (A figure of speech, by the way, that Dylan taught me to be able to write.) Dylan sang the way he wanted to sing, he sang the way the song needed to be sung. There are those who criticize Dylan for his singing voice; it's a complaint that has always made me jangly and incredulous: there is no singer I have ever heard who has managed to convey a broader or more nuanced range of emotions than Dylan.

Even before the glorious excesses of his heyday as a rock star, even when he was just inventing himself as a folk singer, he had amazing gifts. "When the Ship Comes In" is as good an example as any, I suppose; Dylan in his vatic mode, descrying the shape of the coming day:

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin'.
Like the stillness in the wind
'Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

This has many of the features of a prototype early Dylan song: it presents itself, both in terms of form and diction, as a traditional folk song, and yet has a looseness and flash at the line level that is, well, Dylanesque: the language is compact, it's imagistic, it's formal, and yet it has its own freshness, it's own stamp, as in that third line "the breeze will cease to be breathin.'" The second stanza continues the listing of events, the listing gathering momentum as it grows longer:

Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking.
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.

The sequence of line-ending verbs (split, hit, shaking, sound, pound) sets up the last line, which in the hands of a lesser writer (Eleanor Farjeon, say) would come across clichéd and flat, to be read as something altogether more terrifying. On this morning, "break" is gonna be a transitive verb.

In the middle stanzas we see Dylan giving himself, as he always does, writerly permission to bend the rules of nature for dramatic effect:

Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they'll be smiling.
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand,
The hour that the ship comes in.

On display toward the end of the song is Dylan's characteristic emotional intensity; for this is a song not about pipe dreams, but about comeuppances. There is a day of reckoning at hand, and when it comes, Dylan warns with something approaching manic glee, watch out:

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

You have to admire that "drownded," which in its self-conscious ungrammaticality embodies precisely the overall tonality of self-righteous indignation. I heard somewhere that Dylan composed "When the Ship Comes In" as a sort of epistle to his critics. I wonder where they are now. I know where Dylan is. He's still cranking out amazing music, and I suspect those fishes are still laughing.

Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

Maybe it's because I was just turning all of this over in my mind as I prepared yesterday's post, but I was interested to see that over at Working With Words, John Ettorre has posted this quotation today from Harvey Cox on writing as a spiritual discipline:

Is writing more like prayer, or more like life itself, or a little like both? I am not sure. They all seem remarkably akin to me. They all exact something from us, but it is hard—maybe impossible—to know in advance what that something is...writing, prayer, life: they meld and fuse for me, although if I had to choose, I would surely dispense with the writing before the other two. But so far I have not been required to make that choice, so it is hard to think of any one of them without the other two peeping in from the wings. Consequently, I have come to think of writing as a kind of spiritual discipline.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tai Chi, Aikido, and Writing

For several years recently at our school, Sifu Andrew Lum, one of the world’s most accomplished practitioners of tai chi, led a weekly afterschool workshops in tai chi, an art which involves, movement, breathing, and what might be called centeredness or mental discipline. The word chi in the expression tai chi is usually understood to mean something like “vital energy.” In tai chi, one’s breathing should be coordinated with one’s movements in relation to the movement of chi, which both surrounds us and moves within us. Many basic tai chi movements are large circular movements whose purpose is to stir up the energy surrounding us and draw it into our bodies; these movements are generally accompanied by an inward breath which reinforces or helps to gather chi. Many other basic movements are outward movements of the extremities whose purpose is to extend chi into the immediate surroundings; these movements are generally accompanied by an outward breath which reinforces or helps to deliver chi. The movements in tai chi are thus designed to gather chi, to strengthen and shape it, and then to extend it outward. In this respect the basic dynamic principles of tai chi are not unlike those of many other spiritual or aesthetic disciplines: for example, writing.

The first move a writer generally needs to make is a kind of inhalation, a gathering. It is probably no accident that the word “inspiration” has the literal meaning, in Latin, “breathing in.” Often when I sit down to write and face the blank page in front of me, I quite literally take a deep breath and begin to consider what to write, where to begin. This process of collecting my thoughts is sometimes quite conscious and deliberate, and sometimes simply a quick preliminary to a decision to simply let loose a flow of words upon the page without much conscious deliberation. In either case, though, there is at least a moment of stillness, of gathering, before the delivery of the words onto the paper: the analogical equivalent of the inward breath.

The process of writing, once begun, involves a lot of shaping. As I write these words at this moment, I have some sense of where I am headed. (In fact, I have next to my laptop a notebook in which I have pasted a series of three file cards which I filled out some time after midnight two days ago when I awoke from a restless sleep with many of these thoughts already bouncing around in my head.) But the sentence I am writing right now is taking shape as I type, and I am doing a lot of fiddling around with the wording even as I write. I type a few words, I delete them, I type them again in a slightly different order, I delete them, I try again. The forward movement of the words down the page is not always headlong onslaught, it is more like the movement of the whitewater raftsmen John McPhee describes in his essay “Reading the River”:

When modern canoemen go down a river in a wild-water race, covering distance against a clock, the amplitude of what they do is not so immediately apparent as it is when, at a time of leisure, they stop to enjoy a rapid. They can, for example, go zipping down a braided white torrent and suddenly stop dead in the middle of it, turn around, and hover, like a trout in a stream. Facing the current, they will nose down behind a ledge and let the full force of the river pour upon their bows while they sit there contemplating. They will come schussing through a rip, crash through an eddy wall, rest a moment, poised and quiet, then peel off through the far line of the eddy and drop so fast that soon only their heads are visible from the place where they paused to rest. Darting into an eddy on one side of the river, they will sit steady, facing in the direction from which they came, then slice the canoe decisively into the main current, paddling hard upstream. The result of this maneuver, called a ferry, is that they go skidding sidewise directly across the river, despite its velocity, without moving six inches downstream. To them, the white water is not a chaos of flow and spray but a legible language, and they know how to read it.

For me, writing is like that. Sometimes the flow of words is tentative, hesitant, explorational; at other times the words press forward and flow onto the page as if driven by some sort of internal subliminal logic over which I have little control. More often, there is a sort of dynamic tension between the words as they present themselves to my conscious mind, and the selection and ordering and alignment of those words by my conscious mind, which is guided by a set of rules for the way the language works so deeply ingrained in me that I am hardly aware of them, except in those instances where some particularly tricky rhetorical maneuver—this interruptive phrase, for example, set off from the rest of the sentence by em dashes, which on my computer require a separate three-key entry—demands that I switch from autopilot to conscious control. The entire in-process set of moves involved in drafting a piece of writing is not unlike the analogous set of steps and gestures in a tai chi set, which is also rule-driven and subject to both subliminal and conscious redirection at every stage. More significantly, there is the basic energy-transfer dynamic, in which what has been gathered (chi on the one hand, words and thoughts on the other) is re-shaped and then dispelled, dispersed, distributed into the environment.

My wife is a student of aikido. The root word in aikido, ki, is pretty much the same word and the same concept as the word chi in tai chi, and in fact the disciplines of tai chi and aikido have many other concepts in common. A primary difference is that tai chi is a discipline that is usually practiced individually, whereas as aikido is always practiced with a partner.

The four basic principles of aikido are

1. Keep one point.
2. Weight underside.
3. Relax completely.
4. Extend ki.

“Keep one point” refers to the need for a spiritual and physical center for coordinated movement of mind and body. There is an area of the body just below the naval which is understood to be the center of one’s bodily balance and, not coincidentally, the source and center of bodily energy, or ki. It is a matter of discipline and concentration in aikido to maintain one’s awareness of this center point and to move from the one point, keeping it central.

“Weight underside” refers to maintaining one’s balance by keeping a low center of gravity. By making a conscious effort to stay low to the ground, one is able to move more freely and with greater self-assurance.

“Relax completely” refers to the efficiency of relaxed alertness. One learns quickly in aikido that the body is both stronger and more flexible when it is fully relaxed. One of the core texts that I ask my students to read each year is an excerpt from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintentance in which Robert Pirsig talks about the state of mind that comes with being stuck. The worst thing that can happen, according to Pirsig, is that you become impatient and uptight and frustrated with the situation. That’s when things can go very badly wrong. He says,

Let’s consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that that stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn’t the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it’s exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still, and the like… this is a moment to be not feared but cultivated.

In essence, what Pirsig is saying is that we must be able to relax in such a situation, we must be able to be where we are and not expend energy wishing we were somewhere else. In this case, keeping one point and relaxing completely amount to something like the same thing.

Finally we arrive at “Extend ki,” which is where we come back to the energy exchange dynamic that we first began discussing in regard to tai chi and writing, but that applies in aikido and in every aspect of daily life as well. To extend ki is to take the energy inside oneself and make it visible and effective in the world outside. In a martial arts event, one might extend ki in order to move or block an opponent. In music, one might extend ki by producing a tonal vibration in the atmosphere. In teaching, one might extend ki by establishing psychic contact with every student in the room by virtue of one’s actions and presence. And in writing, one might extend ki in order first to push a line of thought onto a page, and second to develop and shape that line of thought, as for example I have been doing here.

There is also, in almost every discipline, the need to submit yourself to a routine, to practice. Each tai chi class begins with a series of slow stretches, led by the instructor, that are coordinated with inhalation and exhalation of breath. Each stretch is repeated several times, and the sequence of stretches is the same from class to class. After the sequence is completed, we begin to work on our sets. A set is a sequence of choreographed movements, always done in the same order, and again coordinated with one’s breathing. The teacher begins by demonstrating a short sequence of movements. For example, one might raise one’s hands in front of the body to the level of the shoulders while inhaling, drop them down while exhaling, raise them to the sides and over the head in a circle while inhaling, and back down to the front in a circular motion while exhaling, and then stop. Then we repeat. Then we repeat again. Each time we move slowly and with close attention to the breath. After enough repetitions to the point where everyone is balanced and in sync, the teacher might add another movement, crossing the arms in front of the body and “separating the clouds” at eye level, then bringing the arms back down to form a basket shape below the waist. Then we start at the beginning and run through the whole sequence again. And again. And again, until we are ready for the addition of yet another set of moves.

This practice may sound tedious, but it is anything but. It’s relaxing, and reassuring, and forgiving. Sifu Lum says we must learn to “Do without doing; try without trying.” There is no hurry. There is no prize for finishing first. There is no penalty for finishing last, or for forgetting a move in the middle of the sequence. There’s going to be another chance next time, in a moment or two. Ultimately, it’s not about moving ahead. It’s about being centered where you are, about doing what you are doing, here and now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Few Facts

We're going through our fall submissions to the literary magazine, and having our annual discussions of clarification about what makes poetry poetry and what makes good poetry good.

Here's a quiet little poem by one of my favorite poets, Eamon Grennan, which demonstrates, in its patient, painterly way, how an accumulation of sense-based details can develop a kind of revelatory momentum. It also makes a lot of subtly pleasing moves at the syllable level, inviting the eye and the ear to return, to cycle back, to stay inside a little longer. I like the way Grennan directs our inward eye from one fact to the next, building up his domestic portrait layer upon layer, and the way that the surprises in diction (the rain that "sleeks the street," the "cairn of bulky logs," the "striped napkin in its ring")create their own drama and music.

A Few Facts

The chiming clock. The girl at her desk sneezing.
The hiss of traffic after rain has sleeked the street.
The chime sounding off the silent library air.
Outside, a kind of monumental after-icy-rain
relenting, something loosening and the ground
going soft, glistening, the water on it taking in
the world, the broad sycamore drawing water
up its roots, the huge trunk sopping it. In the room
the vase of Cremone daisies: yellow, white
and flaming orange. Shoes and books, a lit figure
bent to her work, lifting her shoulders slowly
up and looking out, letting a breath go. Smiling
when the child comes in with a question. Outside,
the spreading yellow maple shedding branches. A cairn
of bulky logs. Birds from dawn to dusk at the feeder:
black flashings across the blank window. The cats
dazzled, feeling the old hunger. Now the child
is posing, an arabesque by the stove; now she’s
wrapped in a rug, reading; now she’s sitting up
in bed, a duchess, asking for her cardigan, grinning
at the laden tray—its porridge, milk, tea, striped napkin
in its ring—at light seeping through blue curtains.

Monday, November 5, 2007


In his classic and prescient book Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey has an essay entitled "Industrial Tourism and the National Parks," in which he waxes eloquent—often hilariously so—on the mission of the National Park Service, which was established in 1916 "not only to administer the parks but to 'provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.'" The problem, he points out, is that the two imperatives are at least to some extent mutually contradictory:
This appropriately ambiguous language, employed long before the onslaught of the automobile, has been understood in various and often opposing ways ever since. The Park Service, like any other big organization, includes factions and factions. The Developers, the dominant faction, place their emphasis on the words 'provide for the enjoyment.' The Preservers, a minority but also strong, emphasize the words 'leave them unimpaired.'
Abbey's essay explores the dynamics and implications of the conflict between the developers and the preservers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he winds up plopping firmly down on the side of the preservers. In one of my favorite passages, and one which I can't resist quoting here, although it is of only tangential relevance to what is to follow, Abbey indulges himself in the rhetorical pleasures of generating the kind of list I have recently written in praise of:

Once we outlaw the motors and stop the road-building and force the multitudes back on their feet, the people will need leaders. A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right and privilege of any free American. But the rest, the majority, most of them new to the out-of-doors, will need and welcome assistance, instruction, and guidance. Many will not know how to saddle a horse, read a topographical map, follow a trail over slickrock, memorize landmarks, build a fire in rain, treat snakebite, rappel down a cliff, glissade down a glacier, read a compass, find water under sand, load a burro, splint a broken bone, bury a body, patch a rubber boat, portage a waterfall, survive a blizzard, avoid lightning, cook a porcupine, comfort a girl during a thunderstorm, predict the weather, dodge falling rock, climb out of a box canyon, or pour piss out of a boot.
That, he argues, is what park rangers are for: to assist these people. You cannot, Abbey suggests, protect people from their own inclinations, nor from their incompetencies. Nor, he implies, should you want to.

All of which is by way of longwinded introduction to what I really wanted to write about, and which I had in fact already begun writing about when the Abbey analogy began seeping down the stalactites of my brain, and from there through my fingers into Googledocs and ultimately, Dear Reader, for better or for worse, to you. I've been thinking about this for a while, and my concern is both local and global. I'll start with my own school, which, for reasons which for reasons which will become apparent later I am not going to name.

Our school president has a phrase he often drops into his conversations about the mission of our school. He says that we aspire to be "a private school with a public purpose." This aspiration seems to me to be a plausible and laudible. And to the extent to which we are able, given the formidable intellectual and physical resources available at the school, to experiment with and develop best practices, it seems pretty obvious to me that as a school with a public purpose that we should share our successes publicly.

However, our school, as a private school, in all the various senses of that word, is also justifiably concerned with, well, privacy, with security, with student safety. While it might be nice for us to, say, archive podcasts of exemplary classes and make them available online, there are issues, there are concerns, there are policies in place. For example, our school, like many others, has a policy that prohibits students from using their names (at least their full names: aliases and first names are allowed) online. One of the reasons that you do not see me use the school's name very much on this blog (if it is a matter of interest to you, you can view it in my profile, a link to which is in the sidebar) is that we have an at least one administrator whose job description includes monitoring all mentions of the school online, and I don't want to make her job more arduous or problematical, nor do I want to give the impression that the school endorses or supports what I write here. Furthermore, there is this sense that I have, this hunch, never exactly communicated out loud but nevertheless in the air, that to the extent that I am going to be blogging at all, the powers that be would feel ever so slightly more comfortable if I just spoke for myself and kept the school out of it. So that's generally what I try to do.

But. But but. But but but: back to square one: if we are "a private school with a public purpose,: shouldn't we be sharing our work publicly? There was a humorous demonstration of the dilemma recently when Doug Belshaw decided on his blog to share a video about a day in his life as a teacher. Which was a cool idea and certainly of interest to me as a teacher halfway across the world. So I'm watching this video, which takes us up to the point where he arrives at school, and he goes into the classroom, and then the screen goes black and he says, "Unfortunately I can't show you me teaching, and that's because of child protection issues: you can't put any image of a child online unless their parents have signed something in blood or, I dunno, done some sort of dance around the school, so no, I can't show you me teaching, which is a real shame, so you just have to imagine kids working and an entire questioning environment and me trying to get them to use ICT and trying to teach them 21st century skills. It's a shame, but that's life."

So here's our dilemma: how do we share what we do well, and what works for us, when we are constrained from actually showing it? I could easily write, and have in fact written, at length about various teaching practices more or less in the abstract. I have shown examples of student work with the names occluded or aliased. That works to some degree. But if you really want to see what goes on in my classroom, you would need to do more than "imagine kids working." You would need to see my kids at work.

Why should we not be able to show kids in classrooms? I pick up the local paper and see photographs of student athletes and scholarship and spelling bee winners all the time: identified by photograph and full name and school and grade. Perhaps every one of the people depicted has had a release form signed by the parents. Even so, if those people were identified and approached by predators or kidnappers or persons of evil intent, how exactly would the signature on the release form protect them? I have to assume that any parent who is not entirely irresponsible must have counseled his/her children not to take candy from strangers, not to respond to unsolicited inquiries from unknown people, not to strike up email or online relationships with people they have no reason to trust. How exactly is allowing Doug Belshaw to see my students working, or me to see his, configured as a "child protection issue"? If I were a predator and I were looking for a target, would it any harder for me to spend fifty cents on my local paper, find a name, and go from there, than to go online and search classrooms worldwide for revealing information about someone to whom I would then... do what? Show up at school and announce my presence? Go to a particular teacher's classroom door and stand outside, hoping to be inconspicuous, until my target came out, and then offer him/her a ride in my car? I'm not trying to be flip here; I just don't get it. Realistically speaking, a student is much more at risk, by many orders of magnitude, to be attacked on the street walking home from school or doing a paper route (both of these things did in fact happen to children of mine when they were in school) than to be approached by some stranger who has seen a video of them on a school web site.

We can't make ourselves invisible. It's magical thinking. (It's certainly not the only instance: magical thinking arose when one crazy person put a bomb in his shoe, as a result of which every traveler in every airport in the world now has to take off his shoes; meanwhile, tests at various airports about the accuracy of screeners in detecting phony bombs brought into airports by U.S. agents showed failure rates ranging from a scary and depressing 20% to a hair-raisingly appalling 75% at LAX. We have spent billions of dollars in attempt to make ourselves more safe. Does anybody out there feel more safe now than you did, say, ten years ago? What are we doing? Anyone who really wants to commit an act of terrorism is not going to go about it the same way that the last guy did. He's not going to doing what you have prepared against him doing. He's going to come up with something nobody has thought of yet.) What is the point of having our schools linked to a global communications network if we are going to deny our students—and our teachers—access to it?

The great advantage of internet access from an educational point of view is that it allows students and teachers to access a much greater amount of information much more easily than at any time in the past. Likewise, it offers students and teachers a much wider audience for whatever it is we produce: writing, photography, art, music, video. Web sites and blogs and wikis allow students, teachers, and schools to share and celebrate best work and best practices. The internet has the power to be a transformative tool which encourages knowledge creation by students and the raising of professional standards by teachers.

The great disadvantage of internet access from an educational point of view is that it allows students and teachers to access a great deal of data that does not really qualify as information, including data that is skewed or flat-out wrong, as well as bad writing, bad photography, bad art, bad music, and bad video, including, most obviously, violence and pornography. Web sites and blogs and wikis allow propagandists and psychopaths to share and celebrate their obsessions.

The solution to the problem of risk is not to shut off access. Students who want to access what is bad on the internet will find ways to do so, on their own time. Students who are looking for trouble will find it, as they always have, and will, with any luck, learn something from that encounter. You cannot protect people from their own inclinations, nor from their incompetencies. What we need is not a set of restrictions on what can be seen, but an emphasis on teaching students how to make wise decisions about what kinds of content to access or post, and what kinds of trouble to steer away from.

Similarly, the solution to the problem of child protection is not to prevent images of children from appearing on school web sites. We have so much to learn from one another, and so many successes to share, and the technological tools to do so are in our hands. We need to use those tools to share and celebrate what we do well, so that we help the next generation of students and teachers to know and understand the risks, and the benefits, of communication and collaboration.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What Every Soldier Should Know

For various reasons both obvious and subtle, warriors and poets are often at odds. Here's a poem written by a soldier, Brian Turner, which made it into Best American Poems 2007. You can here him read it out loud, with a brief intro, here.

What Every Soldier Should Know

To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will; it is at best an act of prudence.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be a wedding, or it could be for you.

Always enter a home with your right foot;
the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop or I’ll shoot.

Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.

Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.

You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.

There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

A graffiti sprayed onto the overpasses:
I will kill you, American.

Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms, and say Inshallah.

There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai—

and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Next New Thing

So here we are. It's Monday night, but it sort of counts as a Sunday because this was a three-day weekend. (School holiday, long story.) The first marking period just ended there were two primary orders of business over the last few days: first to get the college recs out to the students applying for early admissions, and second to get the papers corrected and the grades done; they have to be entered on the school computer system by Wednesday. Other than that, it's been almost...calm, for a change. Which gives me a little time to think about the Next New Thing, which at this point looks like Moodle.

Moodle has been around for a while, and when I checked it out a year ago my socks were definitely not rolling up and down, but now my school's tech department has signed us up and we have our own-in-house version taking shape with the usual assortment of early adopters knocking themselves out. What I like so far is that in its present incarnation it has some neat features that are more or less immediately usable, and then lots of other bells and whistles that it's going to take me a year and a half to figure out, by which time it will probably have been made obsolescent by the Next New Thing. But, for the record, here's what I'm playing with so far:

Moodle is set up sort of like a blog page. The left sidebar is for maintenance functions, and the right for whatever you decide to put there: calendar, archive, headers for recent posts, etc. and I've created forums for our class to extend their discussion about what we're reading (The Poisonwood Bible, at the moment). Students can rate one another's posts based on whatever criteria you as the teacher decide to foreground; you can, for example, provide meta-tags and ask the students to label entries which meet certain conditions (cites text; raises a question; explores alternative answers, etc.)

There's also a cool feature that allows you (and/or the students) to create a glossary/lexicon. When we do literature circles, I'm asking the lexicographers to select five of their most significant words and add them to the lexicon. The words can be categorized and tagged with keywords (like the kikongo word below). You can also sort and track entries by date, category, and author (useful for checking to see who has completed the homework).

These words then form a database from which you can display a "Word of the Day" (the Vocabulary spotlight in the lower right in the first picture above). There's also a quiz-generating function which I haven't played with yet, and a whole grading module which basically allows you to use the Moodle site as your complete course-management system. I'm not there yet, and don't know if that's where I'm heading. With grading, as with poetry, I'm still more at home with the ambience and soft-edged indeterminacy of pencil on paper.

I've begun creating forums for other class activities. For example, our writer-in-residence Chang-rae Lee visited our class last week, and so I created a forum (number 4 above) and asked each of the students to report on something they thought was interesting or memorable. I've also figured out how to set up widgets in the sidebar, like the flickr badge in the upper right of the first picture, using regular html coding.

There's a group of teachers from the junior school and the academy (high school) who now meet once a week to share what they're up to with Moodle and help each other troubleshoot. One of the supposed advantages of Moodle is that because it's open source eventually you can get access to other modules and programming innovations from people all over the world. All you need to be able to do that is... time. Right now, I've got a foot in the door, and I'm playing around small kid kind in my own little sandbox. My vision is constrained by the realities of everyday teaching. But so far this has been a pretty easy first few steps, and I'm hoping that I'll find more and better functions on the way.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Spaceman Blues

Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues. is, well, an experience. It has to do with events immediately leading up to and including an alien takeover of New York City. It's not a book with much in the way of redeeming social value, and I can't say that it addresses anything in the way of deep philosophical issues, but if it's a ride you're looking for, Bucko, have I got a ride for you. Slattery is an impresario of the imagination, or, as James Taylor might have it, a churning urn of burning funk. Here, for example, is a passage from chapter one. A character of some notoriety, one Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez, has disappeared, and his living quarters have exploded, and the word is getting out:
The news spreads in a widening circle of shock, people are talking about it up and down the street, voices crackle across the air and over wires. He's gone, he's gone, it goes in letters, in words flashing across flickering screens, it is written by planes in the sky. It spreads from the city and moves to the end of Long Island, into New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate, across New England; it moves across the continent over the miles of thrashing grain, the ragged heights of the Rockies, down into the deserts and dense forests and to the opposite shore, where men hear it on shortwave radios at the place where the Mexican border falls into the Pacific Ocean, and the waves roll in gigantic and break against the rocks and sand with a force that ensures compliance. It passes along the piers of Eastern Europe, syllables slipped between knife points and rusting rifles; on the shores of Angola they wail at the ocean, beat their feet into the sand, turn back toward crumbling cities. The news burns bodies in the Bronx, things are cast adrift in the deep water of the East River, people depart into the sky, there are meetings in drainage systems, encoded signals broadcast in the flight patterns of birds, machines stir, motors grind into action at frequencies only subterranean people can feel. And people begin to congregate in the places that Manuel loved. They want to know what happened, they want to understand, but being the kind of people they are, all that wanting turns into partying. In Astoria, Egypt Cafe is jammed to the ceiling, people walk over other people to get inside, they spill out onto the street in front of the laundromat, they raid the delis and liquor stores and close down Steinway, they make a party so big that the police see it and just throw up their hands, set up roadblocks, join in when they get off duty. At the Maritime Lounge in Red Hook, some Congolese soukous band appears out of nowhere and plays for two days straight, they have to coat their fingers with glue in between numbers to keep the skin on, and the crowd crashes in and chokes on seven different kinds of smoke and laughter, they pour beer and whiskey all over each other and dance to break floorboards. The place runs out of alcohol after eighteen hours but people keep bringing in more, they toast Manuel again and again, wish to God you were still here. They end up in the water of the harbor, holding their drinks high and setting them on fire until the end of the second day rolls by and they go to sleep in the street, they crawl home in a blind drag. They pass out in subway cars, they wake up feeling like their brains are cut in half. They go home in pairs and wake up naked with each other, their furniture upended, dishes broken, sheets ripped into long shreds, clothes plastered somehow to the ceiling. (8-9)
The passage gives some sense of the hyperbolic intensity, the syntactical exuberance, the sheer delight in the rhetoric of enumeration that carries the narrative all the way through the book. I've been re-reading On the Road recently as well, and often found myself thinking of Kerouac, and of Whitman, as I read Spaceman Blues. Slattery's prose is jazzy, lyrical, bursting at the seams. Later in chapter one, for example, a party jumps into third gear with the arrival of the band, whose name and methodology are apt analogues for Slattery's preferred method of composition:

The Pan-Galactic Groove Squad crashes through the window at eleven-thirty to claps and cheers and stomping feet; there are twenty-seven of them in this band, they have guitars and basses, keyboards, accordions, horns, banjos, and drums, so many drums, and they set up in no time and begin to play, a beat that starts down low and simple, just the kick and some hi-hat with one bass snaking around it. The rest of the band waits, they're letting the groove get in the pocket, hit bottom. It does; and now two drummers join in, they weave a polyrhythm that brings in one guitar and some pops from a banjo, oh this groove is young but it's growing, and people are starting to move. Now a singer steps up to the mike, puts out some blues that two more singers turn to gospel, harmonies deep and wide that make you want to believe. Five more drummers slip their way into the spaces, two guitars, another bass, a single trumpet line, simple and urgent, and those singers are swelling up, they're filling the groove to bursting, and just when nobody can take another second, they break it open in an explosion of horns and keyboards and shouting strings. The people open up their throats and sing, and everybody screams and throws their hands in the air, they're falling in and stomping it down, sweating and throwing back their heads until they are bound together, band and dancers, into a single thing, and this is a party not even the Hand of the Righteous could stop, it is loud and large and full of joy; and then Wendell steps into the room. (25)
Wendell is Wendell Apogee, the book's main character, who, it turns out, is not only the lover of Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez—the book is in large part a quest story, as Wendell seeks to find out where Manual has disappeared to—but also one of the particular targets of the space invaders. His life is all too frequently interrupted by moments like this:

From Wendell’s window come flashes of green and purple light, scuttles and shrieks. Then a howl that sets the dogs barking for blocks, cats fighting and mating in the alleys to ripping each other to pieces. A glow grows, phasing from blue to orange, and with a scream that breaks glass, the window frames shatter outward and four shapes in purple raincoats fly out, mounted on tiny hovering scooters that emanate a fine red mist. They wheel around each other and then shoot off down the canyon of air between the buildings to lift off into the sky; seconds later, an explosion fires from the ruined wall, the flames leap across the street and warp the glass of the apartments on the other side. Wendell’s apartment is then a smoking hole, gaped at by neighbors, the tatters of his possessions snowing into the street: the limbs of furniture, cushion fluff, and books, hundreds of books burning and flopping to the ground, trailing fire and ash. (63)
You have probably noticed there seem to be a lot of explosions in this narrative. Slattery's story thrives on mayhem, and the tonality is that of apocalyptic glee.

There is one more sequence which I cannot resist citing: a description of the mechanics of Darktown, a whole and wholely imagined city underneath the streets and sewers of the Big Apple. It's an audacious act of the imagination carried off with Slattery's characteristic offhanded wizardry:

Catwalks and narrow metal stairs sway and tangle, metal shacks and globular houses hang suspended in the air, floating bars and restaurants throw out heat and steam, thousands of people climb with bundles on their backs and lights lashed to their heads, shouts and whistles fly across the space, animals scramble amok, babies scream, a riot of music threatens to resolve into a deep, smoky rhythm that shudders and moans. High above, the exposed pipes of the city heating system lance along the cavern ceiling, spouting steam. The belly of a subway tunnel shifts as the train rattles by, looses a film of dust that falls through all this, settling on the heads of the multitude, sprinkling through the latticework to rest, at last, on the water below that teems with boats, people rowing, trundling away with grunting engines. They’re selling things from Bangladesh and Brazil, they the teeth of a hundred beasts not yet named, they have rice cookers and machine guns, blowtorches and flares. It smells of fish, oil, and burnt electrical wire, a scent that trails through the people and the light and sounds, to the arms of the city they can only see as a group of yellow lights, like the shine of dull suns in constellation, dim but carrying for miles. (81)

If the genius is in the details, then I guess Slattery is some kind of genius. His sentences are concatenations of details in compelling configurations: rice cookers and machine guns, blowtorches and flares. I often found myself laughing out loud, not so much at what was being said, but at the zest and spirit with which it was being delivered. Check it out.