Friday, March 30, 2007

Magic Portal


One of the core critical thinking skills I try to give my students the chance to practice in various ways is the ability to shift your point of view. We're midway through The Poisonwood Bible now and they've got a pretty good sense of the cast of characters, so one of the assignments that I like to give them at about this point is to do an observation exercise in which each student chooses a character and then has to go outside the classroom building and spent ten to fifteen minutes observing the world outside through the eyes of that character.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all—I'm not saying that—but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

I projected this passage on the board, and asked the students to imagine that they were going to be asked to continue this piece of writing from where it leaves off and to write their addition in a way which was consistent with what is already there. What are some of the observable features of the text, some of the things that you notice about the way that it is written, that would give you a clue as to how to proceed?

The students readily pointed out some of the obvious features: the first long sentence with its series of commas; the use of mild profanity ("crap" and "goddam"; the speaker's tendency toward overdramatization or overexaggeration ("my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece" and "my whole goddam autobiography"); his skepticism about whether his story is worth telling in the first place ("If you really want to hear about it," "if you want to know the truth"); his reluctance to reveal too much. I pointed out that if they were to write a continuation of this piece and attempt to follow the same basic patterns they had already observed, they'd probably come up with a fairly creditable imitation of Holden's style of speech.

At that point I said something more or less like this:

Today we are going to be doing a magic portal exercise. In about ten minutes, you're going to walk through this classroom door, and when you walk through it you are going to be transformed by the power of your own imagination into one of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible. You are going to spend about ten to fifteen minutes outside on the quad, and you are going to make the attempt to try to see and hear what is going on out there not through your own eyes and ears, but through the eyes and ears of the character you have selected. When you come back to class, you will be asked to write a report on what you have observed, and the challenge is going to be to write that report in the voice of your character.

At this point I read them several examples that students have written in response to this assignment previously, and let them know that in addition to these models there is an online archive available they could look at later as well.)

Then I told them that what we had just done with the Salinger was a kind of rehearsal for the preparation they were to do next, which was to open The Poisonwood Bible, select a passage in which their character's style of speech and thinking was in evidence, and spend a few minutes making observations about that passage in the same way we had done together with the model passage.

After about five or six minutes, we got ready to leave the classroom. I told them they could take a notebook with them, or not, as they saw fit. I reminded them that to be truly in the spirit of the exercise they would have to stay "in character" from the time the left the room until the time they came back. That means that if you speak to each other, or if one of your friends happens to see you, you're going to have to answer them as your character would, and explain later what was going on. (Yeah, I know, not too likely. But some of the kids do rise to the challenge.) I told them I'd be on the front steps of the classroom building, and would wave when it was time to come in. If they looked over and I wasn't there, they would know they were late.

So then we all went out and spent ten minutes observing. I've done this exercise three times myself already, so I didn't do it again today. But I watched the students doing their thing. When time was up, we all came back to the classroom and I gave them ten minutes to begin writing up their observations, which I told them would be due in writing early next week. Just before they began writing, I projected one more example from the archive and pointed out how the writer had managed to capture both what the character had seen and that character's unique way of thinking and speaking.

This is an exercise that the students seem to enjoy doing, and the writing that results is generally writing that I enjoy reading. I think it's probably adaptable to pretty much any text which has multiple characters, and I like the way it gives the students a variety of things to do during the class period. The exercise gets at some basic reading and writing skills, and gives the students, if they take it seriously, which they generally do, a chance to step out of their own skins for a few minutes and see the world fresh. Not a bad way to end the week.

Otherwise Engaged


No substantive post tonight, because I just spent most of the evening working on a draft of a page design my students had come up with as a front page for a web project they're putting together. The formatting was a little tricky so I offered to do it for them, about three weeks ago, and because I knew it was going to be tricky I kept putting it off. Finally I got embarrassed enough about telling them I hadn't gotten it done AGAIN that I finally forced myself to get to it. Eventually each of the segments in front page will have links to pages they have created on our class wiki that illustrate the concepts. Right now I've had to convert the wiki back to a private site while we work out some security issues, but I hope to have it back in public early in April.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Puzzling



I'm a crossword puzzle person. I grew up watching my mom doing the N.Y. Times crossword every day. For her it was like handwriting practice. She'd start in the upper left and work her way down and across, pausing only occasionally. I started doing the Times puzzles regularly in 1994 when I began teaching at a high school where there was a sort of subtle competition among the English teachers to be the first person to drop into someone else's room and casually drop the paper folded to the completed puzzle on the desk of another teacher before starting an apparently innocent conversation. I started doing the Monday puzzles and gradually worked my way up through the rest of the week. The local paper runs the Times puzzles every day (and about six weeks behind), so I've kept after it. Now I'm usually able to go through them pretty much on my own up through Thursday, which is generally a puzzle with an odd theme. The one pictured here, for example, is a very literal rendition of the exhortation to "think outside the box." Friday's puzzle is hard; and Saturday's puzzle, as David Sedaris has put it, "requires the kind of mind that can bend spoons." Saturday morning usually gets off to a start with me reading the paper, turning to the Saturday puzzle, reading all the clues and not knowing any of the answers, and then going over to Google enough of them to give me a toehold.


The Sunday puzzle is actually pretty easy, it's just bigger; and always has a theme you have to figure out. For example, this Sunday puzzle was based around the idea of and on/off switch. In each of the ten or twelve cells in the puzzle where there was a switch, the letters in that cell reading across are O-F-F, and the letters reading down are O-N.)



I still don't know why exactly I find as much satisfaction in finishing a crossword puzzle as I do. It's pretty much a useless skill. Its primary requirement is a kind of pigheaded refusal to go give up. Doing crossword puzzles has also convinced me, in ways no psych textbook ever did, of the power of the subconscious mind. I can't tell you how many times I have put down a crossword puzzle that had stymied me a third of the way or half way through, and then come back half an hour later to find that all the answers I could not get are sitting right there in the front of my mind, lined up like obedient little soldiers, ready to march out into the grid. I've learned to trust the same process when it comes to writing. I'll often start something and then intentionally just walk away and come back to it later, to find that suddenly the writing is easier. So there's that argument for crosswords: it's a workout for the subconscious.

And, I suppose, crossword discipline has prepared me in some oblique way for at least some of the more mundane aspects of my job as department head. Today, for example, I spent most of today doing book orders online through our distributor: 20 or so classes times three to ten books per class times three semesters—fall, spring, summer school. The selection of each individual title involves a number of steps: go to the selections page, type in the title, hit the search button, select the correct version of the book from among the ones shown, select a semester, click to be taken to the page where that semester's courses are listed, check the box for the course to which you want to add this title, indicate the number of teacher copies you need, scroll down to the bottom of the page, hit the "add title" button, and then return to the selections page to add the next title. Nothing to it, the first fifty or sixty times you go through the sequence. After that it starts to get pretty old. But I kept at it, one piece at a time, and eventually, ta da!, I finished it.

And as if that weren't enough, today I also finalized, after about a month of work, scheduling for next year's teachers. Again, a kind of puzzle: x number of teachers (predetermined by the principal using a mathematical formula based on signups) y number of courses, z number of students signed up for each course. I have to figure out how many sections of each course we're going to run, and assign teachers to each of those sections, keeping in mind their own preferences, the need to limit the number of preps for each teacher, the total student load for each teacher, and the ideal student load for each course. Now that I have the plan in place, I'll spend most of this weekend filling out the forms—one for each teacher, one for each course each semester breaking down who is teaching how many sections of each course—that will shape the creation of the master schedule and assign each class, at random, to a certain room. We have just about enough room space to house each class; there's not many empty rooms left over.

Once the master schedule comes back somewhere near the end of the year, and each course has been assigned a teacher and a random set of rooms, I have to spend three or four days doing "room hang," which involves going in by hand and redistributing those classes and those teachers in such a way that all the rooms are used maximally, classes generally meet in the same room, at least some of the teachers have most of their classes in one room, and no teacher has to spend all day running from one room to another. Some classes meet four days out of six, some three. That creates holes, and most of those holes need to be filled. Sometimes you can stagger the course assignments so that a class that meets 10:30 on A, C, and E day alternates with another course that meets in the same room at 10:30 on B, D, and F. That's an efficient use of room space. Sometimes the only way to schedule a class that meets four times a week is to have one of the meetings in a different room; in which case you'd like that room to be nearby, or at least in the same building. (I've got a class this semester than meets A, B, and E day in one room, but F day across the hall.) The worst case scenario, which comes up at least two or three times every year, is when you get near the end and the only rooms you have available for a particular class are in four different buildings on four different days. At which point you sometimes have to go back and start rescheduling whole blocks of time, or else start nibbling away at classes you already had set up, moving one class here and one class there in order to free up a block of time in one room.

For me, the trick to be able to get through it all with some degree of sanity intact is to think of it as a kind of puzzle and give myself enough time to be able to pick it up, put it down, pick it up again, and eventually get it all sorted out.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Mission


The April issue of Harper's arrived this afternoon, and it has, as usual, lots of thought-provoking reading, including an essay by Cynthia Ozick on the current state of the American novel and its readership. Her survey contains some reflections on the inclinations of younger Americans to resist reading entirely. Here she cites and comments on a passage from Dennis Donoghue's New Criterion essay "Defeating the Poem" laying forth the now-familiar indictment:

In class, many students are ready to talk, but they want to talk either about themselves or about large-scale public themes, independent of the books they are supposedly reading. They are happy to denounce imperialism and colonialism rather than read Heart of Darkness, Kim, and A Passage to India in which imperialism and colonialism are held up to complex judgment. They are voluble in giving you their opinions on race and its injustices, but nearly tongue-tied when it is a question of submitting themselves to the languages of The Sound and the Fury, Things Fall Apart, and A Bend in the River. They find it arduous to engage with the styles of Hard Times and The Wings of the Dove, but easy to say what they think about industrialism, adultery, and greed.
So is that where the readers of the next generation are going: to the perdition of egotism and moralizing politicized self-righteousness? The case can be made...that these students will never evolve into discriminating readers. Then where are they going, if not to Faulkner and Achebe and Naipaul? The answer is almost too hackneyed. To the movies, to television (hours and hours); to Googling obsessively (hours and hours); to blogging and emailing and text-messaging; and, undoubtedly, also to People magazine, where the celebrity photos outnumber the words... The audience, or most of it, has gone the way of the typewriter and the television booth and fedoras and stockings with seams.

Ozick frames her entire essay, and the response to the question of What Is To Be Done, in terms of the alternative points of view represented by Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, who represent what might be called the populist school and the elitist school of literary standard-setting. But having considered both of them, she essentially calls for a pox on both their houses, arguing for the continued viability of the novel as a form, and shifting her focus to what she sees as the real problem, which lies with the novel's "ghostly twin," criticism:

The "fate of the novel," that overmasticated, flavorless wad of old chewing gum, is not in question. Novels, however they may manifest themselves, will never be lacking. What is missing is a powerfully persuasive, and pervasive, intuition for how they are connected, what they portend in the aggregate, how they comprise and color an era. A novel, it goes without saying, is an idiosyncracy; it stands alone, it intends originality—and if it is commandeered by genius, it will shout originality. Yet the novels that crop up in any given period are like the individual nerves that make up a distinct but variegated sensation, or act in chorus to catch a face or a tone. What is missing is an undercurrent, or call it, rather (because so much rests on it), an infrastructure, of serious criticism.
Ozick goes on to distinguish between reviewers, various categories of which she skewers with great accuracy and amusement, and critics, which she laments are members of "a phylum, that, at present, hardly exists..." The one critic she does hold up as an example of what others might aspire to is James Wood. I was taken both with the passage she chose to quote from Wood, and with her comment:

Our indebtedness, whether we like it or not, extends to, among other things: the fetishizing of visual detail; the inverted relation between background and foreground detail (or habitual and dynamic detail); the sacralization of art; the privileging of the music of style over the recalcitrance of 'unmusical' subject matter (Flaubert's famous desire to write a book about nothing); the agonizing over aesthetic labor—all this looks pretty new, and different in many ways from Balzac's great achievements and solutions, not least because these new Flaubertian anxieties cannot be solutions. You might say that Flaubert founds realism and simultaneously destroys it, by making it so aesthetic: fiction is real and artificial at once. And I could have added two other elements of modernity: the refinement of 'free indirect style'; and the relative plotlessness of Flaubert's novels. All this is why different writers—realists, modernists and postmodernists— from Stephen Crane to Ian McEwan, from Kafka to Nabokov to Robbe-Grillet, all owe so much to Flaubert, and have been so keen to lay claim to different novels of his.

Surely we have not heard a critical mind like this at work since Trilling's The Liberal Imagination. The key is indebtedness. The key is connectedness. If Wood cannot read Flaubert without thinking of McEwan, neither can he read McEwan without thinking of Flaubert. In this single densely packed paragraph (though he is not usually so compact), Wood reflects on how scenes are constructed; how art imitates faith; how aesthetics can either combine with or annihilate what passes for the actual world. And also: the relation of story to the language that consumes it, and the descent of literature not only from one nation to another but from one writer to another—all the while clinging to a unitary theme, the origin and nature of the modern.

All of the above is of more than marginal relevance to my sense of who I am as a reader, writer, and teacher. There's no question in my mind that the challenge of teaching students to become "discriminating readers" has gotten harder over time. And as a result, I feel like the stakes are higher: I've got to try to be better at what I do in order to compensate for the fact that the students may very well be not as well-prepared or as culturally inclined to do what I would like to try to help them do. Donoghue talks, earlier in the same essay, somewhat wistfully about what he used to try to do as a teacher:

I urged students to believe that the merit of reading a great poem, play, or novel consisted in the pleasure of gaining access to deeply imagined lives other than their own. Over the years, that opinion, still cogent to me, seems to have lost much of its persuasive force. Students seem to be convinced that their own lives are the primary and sufficient incentive. They report that reading literature is mainly a burden. Those students who think of themselves as writers and take classes in "creative writing" to define themselves as poets or fiction writers evidently write more than they read, and regard reading as a gross expenditure of time and energy. They are not open to the idea that one learns to write by reading good writers.
Well, then, that's the dilemma. And that's what's going to get me up in tomorrow morning and back into the classroom, to see what I can do to get at least my own students to consider the possibility that they might be mistaken about that.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Old School


It's the last day of spring break. I spent today at school anyhow, attending the first day of a two-day professional development workshop with a presenter from Apple on "Digital Storytelling," which turned out to be mostly a pretty well-organized walkthrough of various features of iMovie. After showing us some sample student-produced videos, the presenter gave us a set of materials on disk—including film clips, images, and a music track, and a storyboard (for a short documentary about the Vietnam war) to work from—that allowed the sixteen teachers in attendance to get to know some of the features of iMovie and play around with the various editing tools and procedures in a pre-planned way. Tomorrow we will be doing filming some original footage and working that into the movie project we already have started.

Most of the content wasn't really new to me—I've made several iMovies before—but there were some interesting editing features I didn't know about, and it was good to refresh my memories about how to use the tools. The most interesting idea that came up during the day, and the one I'm thinking about now, arose in a side conversation that I had with a colleague, also an English teacher, who pointed out that both today's presenter and Marco Torres, when he was here last month, made a point of how important it is that students who are starting an iMovie project know exactly what message they want to convey and that they shape everything in the move to highlight that message. Both of them more or less insisted that the kids should have the whole film storyboarded out before they even put their hands on a camera.

At a strictly practical level, that makes sense to me. Making even very short films is a time-intensive process, and so I can see why it would be important to set parameters that will make the project time efficient and cut down on sprawl. But—and you have perhaps seen this "but" comiing—as a teacher of English and a practicing writer I do have some reservations the educational value of, well, message mongering. I've more or less beaten this topic to death in previous posts (here and here and here and here, for example), but it seems to me that the most valuable feature of writing as a discipline is that, when it is done well, it allows writers to discover what they don't know.

Writer after writer echoed, in one formulation or another, people like E. L. Doctorow ("Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go... Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.") and Donald Barthelme ("The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.") and Robert Olen Butler ("The literary artist works from the other end. She does not know, before the work begins, what it is she sees about the world. She has in her unconscious, in her dreamspace, an inchoate sense of order behind the apparent chaos of life, and she must create this object in order to understand what that order is. It's as much an act of exploration as it is an act of expression.") If this is what writers do, and we want students to learn how to write, then I think we need to provide them with the chance to do it: to face the blank page with the intention of finding their way toward something as yet undefined.

Of course there are lots of kinds of writing, and many of them are more mundane and more strictly functional. As a matter of practical necessity, I can see why it is necessary to storyboard a movie or do an outline of a thesis essay or pre-plan a twenty-five minute SAT essay, or, for that matter, to write out a grocery list or prepare a letter of thanks or a letter of recommendation. But that's not the only, or the most significant, kind of writing students can do.

So here's my question. What use of video technology would be the analogue of facing a blank piece of paper with a pencil in hand? What sort of filmmaking could we ask students to do which would be primarily, if not purely, explorational rather than expository or persuasive? It's clear to me that the analogue exists in other technology venues, even other Apple products. Garage Band, for example, allows students to go in and start with a beat or with a series of notes or with an instrument and begin looping and layering and shaping something which eventually emerges out of the process of play as something unanticipated and potentially delightful in the same way a poem might emerge on paper as something unanticipated and potentially delightful. So is there a similar way of thinking about film-making, a structure or a set of procedures that would allow students to use the technology as something other than tool for the presentation of ideas they already think they know.

And that's what has bothered me about a lot of the student films I've been shown as models. They're dramatic and they're visually cool and they're effective at making the point they want to make, but the point they want to make is often not very surprising, and the need for compression and economy often makes me worry about what the students have left out, or worse, what they haven't even considered. I have yet to be convinced that movie techonology, in its current interest, is a serious tool for investigation or generation of ideas. If any of you have tried out filmmaking of the kind I have been speculating about, I'd like to hear about it. In the meantime, I still think the best tool for what we're talking about may very well still be... the pencil.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Revelation and Expectation


In 1982 writer/critic John Berger collaborated with photographer Jean Mohr on a book entitled Another Way of Telling, which is an investigation in words and pictures of "the tension between the photographer and the photographed, between the picture and its viewers, between the filmed moment and the memories that it so resembles. Here are some of Berger's remarks from the middle of the book:
One looks at one's surroundings (and one is always surrounded by the visible, even in dreams) and one reads what is there, according to circumstances, in different ways. Driving a car draws out one kind of reading; cutting down a tree another; waiting for a friend another. Each activity motivates its own reading.

At other times the reading, or the choices which make a reading, instead of being directed at a goal, are the consequences of an event that has already occurred. Emotion or mood motivates the reading, and the appearances, thus read, become expressive. Such moments have often been described in literature, but they do not belong to literature, they belong to the visible...

In every act of looking there is an expectation of meaning. This expectation should be distinguished from a desire for an explanation. The one who looks may explain afterwards; but prior to any explanation, there is the expectation of what appearances themselves may be about to reveal.

Revelations do not usually come easily. Appearances are so complex that only the search which is inherent in the act of looking can draw a reading out of their underlying coherence. If, for the sake of a temporary classification, one artificially separates appearances from vision..., one might say that in appearances everything that can be read is already there, but undifferentiated. It is the search, with its choices, which differentiates. And the seen, the revealed, is the child of both appearances and the search.

The one who looks is essential to the meaning found, and yet can be surpassed by it. And this surpassing is what is hoped for. Revelation was a visual category before it was a religious one. The hope of revelation—and this is particularly obvious in every childhood—its the stimulus to the will to all looking which does not have a precise functional aim.

Revelation, when what we see does surpass us, is perhaps less rare than is generally assumed. By its nature, revelation does not easily lend itself to verbalisation. The words used remain aesthetic exclamations! Yet whatever its frequency, our expectation of revelation is, I would suggest, a human constant. This form of expectation may historically change, but in itself, it is a constituent of the relation between the human capacity to perceive and the coherence of appearances. (116-118)

I'm particularly interested in Berger's assertion that "In every act of looking there is the expectation of meaning." When I go out with my camera, I am acting on the hope, if not the expectation, that something will be revealed to me, something that lies behind the appearances and manifests itself through them. It's not something that can be forced; it happens or it doesn't. The same is true, of course, when I pick up a book, listen to a piece of music, go to a museum, watch a movie, sit in on a meeting, take a class, or engage in any of the attention-based activities. I agree with Berger when he says that "Appearances are so complex that only the search which is inherent in the act of looking can draw a reading out of their underlying coherence." What is the underlying coherence, the substratum, the thread of essential continuity that lies behind the phenomena of the world?

Take, for example, this 1936 picture, which I ran across for the first time yesterday as I was looking through a book called Walker Evans: Signs (published By the J.Paul Getty Museum). There is something being revealed here. And, as Berger suggests, the "revelation does not easily lend itself to verbalisation." What can be said inevitably feels reductive and of less consequence than what remains. But at the very least, we can say that this is a sort of testament an explicitly articulated set of values ("old reliable," "honest weight," "square dealings") as well as a certain kind of orderly productivity. The store is neatly maintained. There is an abundant variety of fish on sale (catfish, trout, perch, drum, buffalo, eel), and size of the melons is emphasized by the efforts the two young men in the foreground are making to heft them. The picture emphasizes in its composition (and thus tacitly endorses) symmetry, balance, regularity. The people in the picture know that they are being photographed. The boys are clearly posing, and the two men standing shadowed inside the doorway to the shop are looking out at the proceedings with what we can infer must be wary interest. There is also woman, her back towards us, who can be seen, directly in the middle of the picture, entering the house in the back of the store. Presumably she is less interested in the photographer's work, or in being seen as part of the store operations. If it is often true that the world presents us with raging chaos, it is also true that there is something in the human spirit that wants to clean up, take charge, make order. Which is what I take to be at least one of the subtexts of this photograph. It is, as Berger suggests, to some degree already present, and to some further degree evoked by the presence of Walker Evans on the scene (without which the boys would not be posing), by his choice of a viewpoint (it would be a different picture, and a different story, if it were not taken from directly in front), and by his "capacity to perceive."

Picture credit: UBS Art Gallery

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Convergences


As I've worked my way back into photography over the last few months, I've been doing a lot of reading about photographers, and spending a lot of time looking at pictures on flickr, and trying to clarify for myself what my photographic aesthetic is: what I'm after, what I'm trying to do. A lot of the time I'm just walking around with a camera in my hand and waiting for something that looks like it might be interesting to show up: a scene, a certain kind of light, a dramatic situation, an interesting composition. But I also sense that there are certain kinds of pictures I keep coming back to, compositional patterns and thematic ideas that keep recurring. Some of them are conscious, some of them feel more like hunches, like I'm groping my way toward something I can't identify yet, a pattern that lies behind the other patterns.

I've found myself thinking a lot, the last few days, about Hesse's Glass Bead Game in Magister Ludi, the point of which has obscurely to do with the search for archetypal patterns in music and literature and history and art. It's been forty years since I read that book, but I remember being taken with the concept of the idea of the search for the underlying patterns behind seemingly disparate phenomena. It's an idea that is also the driving force behind Lawrence Wechsler's recent book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, which I first read about in Scott Esposito's blog Conversational Reading a few months ago, and which recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In it, Wechsler gives himself permission to "essay", to root around, to chase loose ends and abandon them to chase others, to observe and reflect on artwork and photographs events that mirror one another in surprising ways. It's an uneven, somewhat disorganized, beautiful and fascinating book.

And then there's Carl Larsson, whom I've written about before, an artist who centered his art firmly around the world he inhabited: his home, his family, his community. Part of what I sense I am after when I am taking pictures is documentation, enumeration: this is the world around me, different from anyone else's in its pure incidentals, perhaps the same as anyone else's in its essences. But there's also in Larsson a subjectivity: he's not painting everything. He's selecting, he's shaping, he's telling a version of a story that is unique to his angle of vision and to what it is given to him to see. So there's that as well.

So, anyway, in the spirit of reflection and experimentation, I'd like to do a series of riffs on a snapshot I took on Wednesday while I was at the Ward Center in the area of Honolulu known as Kaka'ako. Here is the picture:




It's not the kind of picture I usually take. There's a looseness about it. It's not that I just took the picture at random, I had been sitting at the table with my camera in front of me looking out over the parking lot thinking about what picture I might want to take and how I might frame it, and when the woman with the cell phone started walking toward me, I thought, well, let's have her in there, as well, and I raised the camera to my eye and snapped the picture off. Loose and random as the picture may seem, the separate elements all have resonances for me, and convergences (Wechsler's word, stolen, of course, from Flannery O'Connor) abound.

The yellow canopy jutting out from the upper left hand corner is part of the highly elaborate color-coordinated design scheme of Jamba Juice. Jamba Juice is a national chain of stores that has turned the making of fruit smoothies into a sort of science. You can go in a Jamba Juice store anywhere in the nation and order, say, a Peach Pleasure 16 with an immunity boost, which is my current juice drink of choice, and be fairly certain both of what you are getting and what you are going to pay. This particular Jamba Juice location is about a quarter mile from the store which use to be just down the street, but was closed down when the building it was in was torn down to make room for yet another residential high-rise (and adjoining shops) in Kaka'ako. Like the one rising into the sky in as you look in this picture toward the clouds in the background. Construction has been going gangbusters on Oahu for five years now. It ought to be apparent to anyone with a brain in their head that a) Oahu is an island and b) there's only so much construction, so many highrises, so much energy consumption, so much fluid and solid waste, that we deal with on an island. And that at some point, in the interests of sustainabilty, and of the health and welfare of everyone on the island, we need to put the brakes on. But that moment has not yet come, not at this date, not in this picture.

Anyway, the Jamba Juice that was torn down had the distinction of being the highest grossing Jamba Juice store in the nation. That place was cranking out Jamba Juices to tourists and kama'ainas alike from dawn to dusk every day. The new store is further removed from Ward Center, and the parking is not as easy to find, and they inexplicably chose to make it a smaller store anyway, so business seems to be slower there. The two cars closest to the camera are parked behind a yellow line with white lettering indicating that the area is zoned for "15 Minute Parking." In other words, get your drink and then get out of here so someone else can park.

Next to Jamba Juice, not in the picture itself but lending its shadowy presence from behind the lens, is Jamba Juice's partner company, the omnipresent Starbucks. I'm not a coffee drinker, and even if I were I might have misgivings about buying my coffee from Starbucks (expensive, overcaffeinated, responsible for the demise of many a local-owned coffee shop), but unfortunately for my ethical principles someone in the Starbucks labs has discovered a formula for a particular kind of chocolate-chip cookie which is excellent all on its own but all but crippling when combined with the aforementioned Peach Pleasure 16. Especially when the cookie has been allowed to bake for a few minutes on top of the wrought iron tables in front of the store (see lower left of picture) in the benevolently intense heat of the Hawaiian sunshine. I suppose that under the right circumstances, with the right guilt trip run on me, I might be convinced to stand outside Jamba Juice and Starbucks holding a sign objecting to the immanence of the apocalypse as manifested by the omnipresence of standardized corporate retail stores co-opting the national character, and so on and so forth. But I haven't heard that argument in a convincing enough form yet, and in the meantime, the Peach Pleasure/chocolate chip cookie is as close to gustatory nirvana as I have found in my short sojourn on this planet. Which is why I was there on the day it was given to me to take this picture. I don't know who the kid with the Pepsi can is. He, like me, was taking a break, and his choice of oral stimulation, high-fructose corn syrup and carbonated, was a just a tad more mainstream than mine

The parking lot itself is unexceptional. Unless you back up one step and say, wait, where did you say you were? Hawaii? What do we see in this picture which identifies it as being Hawaii? Well, if you look really carefully in the middle of the picture to the left, you'll see mountains (hills, actually, but as close to mountains as you're going to get on Oahu), and a few palm trees in front of the office buildings up by Kapiolani Boulevard. But there's not much of the aina on display. Joni Mitchell didn't get it very far wrong when she said "They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." On Oahu in particular you're going to see a lot of the latter and not very much of the former. The most predominant force of nature in the picture is the immense billowing bank of clouds up along the ridges of the mountains. Those clouds are pretty much always there, shaping and reshaping themselves over the cool mountains, and dissipating in wisps along the edges as they blow down toward the reflected heat of the flatlands below. The weather report in Hawaii is pretty much the same every day of the year: Partly sunny, highs in the mid-eighties, showers windward and mauka (toward the mountains). One could do worse.

The building behind the parking lot is called "Pictures Plus." You can't really see the name in the dinky little version of the picture I can fit in the display on this page, but it's pretty clear in the (30 inch) original, which is one of the. That kind of resolution is one of the nice features of the Sony A100K DSLR I'm using, a birthday gift from my three sons. Pictures Plus. I liked that, that visual joke, and was turning it over in my mind even before I took the shot. But alas, the hope-induding name notwithstanding, Pictures Plus is a basically a frame shop, with a wide variety of frames and a depressingly narrow range of standard-issue schlock art pictures of the sparkling-moonlight-and flourescent-waves school. (If we're looking for deep archetypal patterns here, there's something both predictable and discouraging going on across economics (Gresham's Law) and real estate development ("They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum, and charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em") and art (dolphins frolicking under rainbows). Maybe a better name for the place would be Frames, Minus. At least they haven't screwed up the weather. Yet.)

Which brings us to the heart of the picture, which is the woman the center of the picture, more or less by accident, frozen in this shot for her .15 seconds of fame. She seems, well, intent. She's got a pocketbook on her back and a binder under her left arm and she strikes me as being all business. She's well-dressed, she's focussed, she's got the phone in her ear and a serious look on her face and her index finger is pointed like she's ready to jab somebody with it. She's the one thing in this picture in motion. She wasn't there a moment before, and in another moment, she's gone. One difference between her and me: I almost never carry a cell phone with me. And when I do, I almost never use it. Another difference between her and me: she's working, and I'm on spring break. Another: she doesn't see me. She doesn't know I exist. And probably never will, unless one of her relatives happens on this blog and says, hey, you're on the internet. At which point she will either be interested, or not. Or happy, or not. I certainly mean her no disrespect. She is the surprise guest at this party. She walked into my line of vision and I pushed the button. And then I got to thinking, and kept at it, as I am doing now.

But her presence does bring up a whole series of long-debated issues about public photography and Native American beliefs about not wanting to get their pictures taken because they thought it was having their soul stolen and other questions of propriety. Wechsler on page 33 of his book discusses a photograph by Helen Levitt, and notes, citing Joel Meyerowitz, that "one of the methods by which she accomplished such uncanny capture was through the use of a winkelsucher, a right-angle viewfinder of the sort Ben Shahn was given to deploying at around the same time, an attachment which 'allowed the street photographer to sight along the camera body while standing sideways to his subject, who consequently fails to realize that he is the subject."

One more thing: the poor little tree that seems to be sprouting more or less out of her head, like an idea balloon in a comic strip. That tree, apparently a concession on the part of the parking lot builders to the Joni Mitchells of the world, is having a hard time making it in Hawaii-nei, nice weather notwithstanding. It would probably be happier if it could spend part of the day sitting, like me and the boy with the Pepsi, in the shade, instead of having to withstand the punishing gaze of the Hawaiian sun all day every day.

So there it is: Mission Accomplished. (Topic for a Post at Another Time: Overtones, Undertones, and what you cannot say, or perhaps are just better off not saying, in a blog, in polite conversation, and elsewhere.) A set of reflections, a set of convergences. A reading of one photograph, a slice of time, barely measurable, in my life and the life of the island. Aloha.

What is to Be Done?


Finished What is the What this morning and have been turning it over in my mind ever since, even when I was out this evening taking pictures in Waikiki. (Spoiler alert: I'm going to quote the last paragraph of the book in a minute. It doesn't give away anything of the plot, but even still, if you you're thinking about reading it and don't want to know the last paragraph, stop reading now.) The narrator, Valentino Achak Deng, ends with these words:
Whatever I do, however I find a way to live. I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, and every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.
It's a powerful ending, and honors in an eloquent way the importance of words, the importance of stories, the blessedness of life itself. But there's a zinger in the last line. Heartwrenching and horrific as the events of the book are, one of the things that is made clear again and again is that those in a position to do something about the situation as it once existed and as it exists even today, like the government—and the citizens–of the United States of America, have in fact done the "impossible" thing, consistently and as a matter of course, a matter of policy: they have pretended that Valentino Achak Deng, and the thousands and millions of people like him, do not exist, that what has happened and continues to happen in Sudan and Ruanda and Darfur is not worthy of our notice.

I don't exempt myself from this. Like most Americans, I live out my days in a bubble of good fortune, and most often do not make it my business to look outside. I try to take care of myself, and my family, and my students. I try to avoid situations that look like they will cause me stress or discomfort, or put me in danger. I am, like most Americans, and most people everywhere, I would suspect, cautious about getting myself mixed up in complicated situations that seem like they are beyond my control. Because it's not just Sudan, right? It's not even just Africa. There are outrageous acts of inhumanity taking place everywhere on the planet on a daily basis: in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Nepal, in our cities, even in Honolulu, where last week a family of tourists were dragged from their car and beaten. There's violence and injustice and environmental degradation and homelessness and greed and stupidity of every conceivable variety on display every time you walk out the door or open a newspaper, more problems than you can shake a stick at, and so how do we go about selecting the ones we are going to try to do something about?

So the question I've been turning over in my mind all day is really the same question I've been asking my students to consider as we've been reading Peter Singer and Ian Parker's essay on Zell Kravinsky (there's a link to the article in this post )and The Poisonwood Bible: what do we owe to others less fortunate? Presumably it's more than nothing, and less than everything we have. So how much is enough? It's certainly possible to pretend that the suffering of others does not exist, or, alternatively, that it exist but it has Nothing to Do with Us. But if we choose not to put our heads in the sand, then what?

What Eggers has done is tell Valentino Achak Deng's story so convincingly and so sympathetically that anyone who reads it can no longer pretend that he does not exist. But that seems to imply that something else should change as well. And that's the question that's on my mind tonight. What to do about it.



Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What is the What



It's spring break and I've been reading David Eggers What is the What in great gulps. Eggers first novel did not, in my judgment, live up to its overly ambitious (and admittedly ironic) title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but What is the What more than fits the bill. Eggers has collaborated with Sudanese refugee Valentina Achak Deng and created a novel which spells out in excruciating detail—it's a true story—the odyssey of a child whose life is turned to chaos went Arab raiders come to his village in Southern Sudan and destroy it, killing pretty much everyone but young children. Achak becomes one of a group of thousands of child refugees, who have come to be known as "The Lost Boys" who are driven into an exile on foot that lasts throughout much of his adolescence, and the book tells the more or less incredible story of how he finally arrives in the United States, and what happens after he gets here, which in some ways is scarcely an improvement. It's perhaps too easy to use a phrase like "a must read," but in all seriousness I can't think of a more necessary book I've encountered in my lifetime. It's a harrowing story, but it has moments of great beauty and lyricism as well, and I read it with steadily increasing respect both for Valentino Achak Deng and for Dave Eggers.

Leonard Lopate conducts a very interesting interview with Deng and Eggers here, and Deng has a website which gives information and the plight of the Sudanese refugees here.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Whole Language


Doug Noon has an excellent post at Borderland today which considers the "reading research wars" now being fought in the national newsmedia and on countless local fronts. Even though I've been a high school teacher for some years now, I get pretty easily worked up when I have to listen to people who whose vision of quality and accountability in education is driven by their obsession with standardized testing, people for whom the words "whole language" are some sort of obscenity.

I've been at this for a long time. I started out as an elementary school teacher in 1969, and did my master's degree project by designing a series of pre-reading books that were basically templates within which emerging readers were asked to create the content, in the form of pictures, sight words, and, if they were ready to give it a shot, sentences that could either be dictated to the teacher or written out, invented spellings and all, by the student. I also worked with elementary school students as K-6 writing coordinator for six or eight years in the Canton, MA public schools. As one of my functions in that role, I helped teachers to set up student-based writing programs in every grade from kindergarten on up. Some of the programs were successful, some weren't. The ones that were successful were the ones where the teacher did the necessary followup work on the days when I was not in the classroom, making free-choice writing and author's chair and individual conferences a part of the daily routine. The ones that didn't work were the ones where the teacher, all too happy to have me come in and "take over" the class for an hour here and there, would pointedly be correcting worksheets in the back of the room while I was there, and then simply wait for me to show up again the following week.

My program was based both on my own intuitions and experiences as a K-1 teacher in Nanakuli, HI in 1969-70, and on the work of Donald Graves at the University of New Hampshire (I've written about him before), and it was rooted in the assumption that students have a great deal more knowledge of the way that language works than we give them credit for, or that they are even aware of. One of the most revelatory pieces of writing I have ever run across in this regard is Jerome Harste's "Lessons from Latrice," which is chapter 4 in Language Stories and Literary Lessons. In it, Harste looks closely at what appears to be a set of "meaningless" scribbles from a pre-schooler and begins to unpack the competencies already on display. Latrice knows, for example, that marks have significance. If you ask her to "read" what she is written, she can tell the story she had in mind. She knows that reading is done from left to write and top to bottom. If you ask her to read it again, she knows that the marks do not have arbitrary significance; she tells the same story, and points to the same passages. And so on. What struck me about this essay, which I am recalling from memory at a distance of twenty-something years, is that it was based not on a deficit model (what Latrice doesn't know and can't do—and therefore must be "taught") but from an asset model: look at all she can do already, with no formal instruction at all. Latrice, like every other child, was capable of creating meaning before she was technically capable of reading and writing. So when she hits kindergarten, what do we want to start with, her deficits or her strengths. Do we assume that she knows nothing, and proceed with an instructional program that has that assumption embedded in it in such a way that the message is made quite clear to her? Or do we start with what she already can do and ask ourselves what she might be able to try next? That, for me, was the essential question driving the whole language movement.

A friend of mine was in the doctoral program at UNH while Graves was there, and I went to visit him several times. On one of those occasions I visited a public school first-grade class that was conducted completely as a whole language environment. This was in springtime, and it was a warm day. I arrived at 8:00 in the morning to find the door open. The classroom seemed to consist mostly of bookcases filled with children's books, each with a colored band on the side. The bookcases divided the room up into perhaps eight or nine mini-zones, in each one of which there were students were already at work, reading silently on pillows or reading quietly out loud to one another in corners. Some had their journals out and were writing with great concentration. They didn't look up as I entered. The kids who arrived after me hung up their coats and went immediately to the bookshelves, took down either a book or their journal, and found a place to settle down to work. But where was the teacher? It took several minutes of scouting around before I found her in a corner behind a bookcase, conferencing with a student about her book. She would have each student read out loud from the book they had chosen (it was up to the student to select the book). The she would ask some questions, make some notations on a chart she had set up with each student's name on it, and tell the student to get back to work and send another student over. I wound up sitting down with a number of these students, listening to them read and watching as they wrote. It was incredible. I was working in a third-grade classroom at the time, and there wasn't one of these first-graders who was not reading and writing as well as the best of my third graders.

I talked with the teacher afterwards and she shared with me the considerable amount of work that had gone into setting up the structures that appeared to be so natural. The colored bands on the books, of which there were hundreds and hundreds, were an indication of the reading level. Students were free to choose whatever level they liked, but in the daily conferences the teacher would monitor how well the student could read the book and would sometimes suggest a harder, or an easier, replacement. She knew exactly where each student was, what he was reading, and what he would have to learn to be able to move to a more challenging book. Part of the morning was given over to small group instruction to students who needed to have their attention directed to one skill or another. She would meet with the small groups while the other students continued to read, or write, or share what they had read or written. Some students were working from entries in their journal which had been corrected in order to make a book. (Many of the books that were on the shelves had in fact been authored by members of the class.) There were clear expectations that each student would complete a certain amount of reading, writing, and sharing each week, and the students were responsible for keeping their own records. (They also kept their own attendance by turning over their picture in the chart the door when they arrived.) The entire morning, from 8:00 to 11:30 each day, was a reading-writing workshop. In the time I was there, I didn't see a single student goofing off or acting bored. It was, quite simply, one of the richest educational environments I've ever seen. And there were no worksheets, no workbooks, no texts other than the real books the kids were reading—and writing—and no standardized tests.

I've been around the block a few times since then, and nothing I have seen or experienced as a teacher or a parent has led me to believe that young children are better served by a deficit model rather than by an asset model, by batteries of tests rather than by informed interactions with teachers, by skills and drills rather than by focussed strategic interventions, by standards set by state or federal legislators rather than by individual classroom educators.

One further obliquely relevant observation. When I came back to Hawaii nine years ago, after close to 30 years of experience in Massachusetts, including twelve years as a K-12 English coordinator, I applied to the Hawaii Public Schools, which is chronically short of qualified teachers, for a job. One might have thought that with my background, and Hawaii teaching experience to boot, I might have at least gotten a cursory look by someone in the bureaucracy. I was told by mail that before they would even look at my application I would have to take and pass three different Praxis exams. I took the tests, which were monumentally irrelevant in every respect, and never heard back from the public school system. In the meantime, the private school at which I now teach hired me on the spot, no tests required, thank you very much.

There's a point at which our growing national obsession with credentials and "evidence-based" competency simply wipes out anything resembling common sense. IMHO, we're already way past that point now, and it seems that the debate is just warming up. My heart is with the legions of terrific, dedicated public school teachers who have to fight against all manner of bureaucratic stupidity in order to try to do their jobs well under conditions that are just tremendously discouraging. I wish you luck. I'm afraid you're going to need it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Of Blogs and Substance


Over at The Valve, there's been an interesting discussion evolving that was kicked off by an editorial at n+1 magazine which criticized litblogs generally for failing to live up to what the editors saw as the potential of the medium:
People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blogs reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested .... The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satisfaction—"The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!"—or displeasure—"I shit on Dante!” So man hands information on to man.
I have not read back through all of the give and take surrounding the litblog controversy, but I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what the relationship is between blogging and "real" writing. I don't think it's reasonable to measure the thinking and the writing that is to be found on litblogs or edublogs to stand up to the same kind of scrutiny that one might give to an article published in a magazine with even a few editors, whose job it presumably is to (first) select and (second) edit and (third) check sources for what they are publishing. Bloggers don't have that kind of backup. Most blogs, as far as I can see, are written more or less regularly, and more or less in an exploratory mode. Bloggers are often writing in the heat of the moment, or in the cool of the evening, or over a cup of morning coffee, and what shows up on the screen is, unsurprisingly, at least partially spontaneous. And for those of us who submit ourselves to the practice of blogging as a kind of intellectual discipline, a writing practice of sorts, there is, in fact, a need for speed, at least if we are going to post something with any regularity. I've posted something pretty much every day for four months now, and if I had been looking over my shoulder at those who would be measuring what I was writing against the Platonic ideal of an essay, the definitive statement based on exhaustive research and deep critical analysis, it's unlikely that I would have posted anything at all. Often as I write, especially in the evening, I have one eye on the clock. Even if I were inclined to want to stay up writing for a few more hours, I've got to be up at 5:45 to be ready for my day at school, and so I often begin thinking about bringing a post to a close by 10:00, even while ideas for how to extend it are darting about in my mind. So I guess what I'm saying is that I view the blog less as a theater or arena for performance and more as a kind of playground or practice area. I suspect that somewhere down the line I may be able to go back into my posts and pull together some of the threads and try to weave them into something more fully elaborated and more carefully documented, but that's not really what's on my agenda from day to day.

Granted, there are many edubloggers (Doug Noon and Chris Sessums spring to mind) who hold themselves to a higher standard, who choose to post less frequently, but whose posts are more carefully shaped and more fully developed because they have taken the time to make them that way. But even they are most often engaged in a sort of ongoing dialogue which (thankfully) does not have the feel of traditional formal educational discourse. I would argue that that's the compromise all bloggers face: do we post more often at the risk of superficiality, or hold out for depth at the risk of long periods of silence? I think we all negotiate that territory in different ways. But again, it seems to me that it is in the nature of blogs to be more spontaneous and less formal, and that that is not a bad thing. One of the things I most value as a blog reader is the occasionality and spontaneity of the medium.

And I think, at least so far, that the same holds true of student blogs. I have noticed that if I give an assignment to one class and ask them to post it to their blog, and give the same assignment to another class and have them hand it in to me, the ones that show up on paper tend to be more fully developed and more carefully crafted than the ones that show up on the screen. Maybe that's because they're still new at it. Maybe it's because they know I'm not going to slap a grade on it. Maybe it's because I haven't yet insisted on raising the bar. Or maybe the indictment rings true: maybe there is something about the immediacy and informality of the medium that "encourages.. the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested." My challenge with my students, as with myself, is to encourage them to keep at it, while also encouraging them to ratchet up their expectations of what a substantive blog post might look like.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Another Day


Spent the bulk of the evening reading SAT-format essays from my sophomores. As of last year we have a departmental agreement that we will give the students practice in writing 25-minute timed essays twice a quarter during freshman, sophomore, and junior years. By the time they are juniors they should have had roughly 20 "rehearsals" for the real event.

As I've written before, I don't place much stock in the SAT, much less in the idea that one can be reasonably expected to crank out a substantive essay in 25 minutes. And reading the essays, even the ones that are pretty good, amounts to a kind of self-inflicted torture. Even the well-written ones, that only take two minutes to read, seem like they take a lot longer. I read two, then I've got to get up and get a drink or something to eat and then wander back and plunk myself back down into my seat at the dining room table, knowing full well that the likelihood that I'm going to run into an original idea or even an innovatively crafted sentence in the next batch is next to nil.

But, in the last analysis, it's not a difficult writing task. Stupid, maybe, but not that hard. And it's something that parents—and a lot of the students—take seriously, because they perceive it, correctly, I suppose, to be an important factor in college admissions. So we do our due diligence and work the kids through the process. We look at the rubric. We compare the rubric to the more fully developed rubric we use in our department. We have the kids write essays. We have the kids grade other student essays using the rubric, compare results, talk about what works and what doesn't, why a certain paper might be a 5 for one reader and a 2 for another. We give them back their essays with scores and annotations about what they need to do to improve. We focus on clarity and specificity and logic, and tell the kids not to worry too much, given the 25-minute time limit, about significance or breadth or depth.

And I've got to say it seems to be working. The essays by this year's second-semester sophs are by a considerable margin clearer, better organized, and more convincing than the ones I was seeing from last year's sophs, who had not had any experience with the essay freshman year. I can't imagine who in their right mind would want to read the essays that result, but, given that the goal is to be able to demonstrate a certain kind of minimal competence, the essays do manage to get that done.

I used a recent prompt from an actual SAT (the prompts are posted and updated with each new test session on the wikipedia):
Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

If we are dissatisfied with our circumstances, we think about changing them. But the most important and effective changes—in our attitude—hardly occur to us. In other words, we should worry not about how to alter the world around us for the better but about how to change ourselves in order to fit into that world.

Adapted from Michael Hymers, "Wittgenstein, Pessimism and Politics"

Assignment:

Is it better to change one's attitude than to change one's circumstances? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the students opted for the opinion that it's better to change your attitude. The most frequent, and least effective, argument was that it's better to change your attitude than your circumstances because "it's easier." Most of the students were able to come up with something resembling a plausible argument that a shift in attitude can make a bad situation better. The most interesting essays, from my point of view, were the ones that chose to challenge the Hymers hypothesis and argue that in many situations (the revolutionary war, Gandhi's India, the civil rights movement) real progress was made only when people stopped adjusting their attitude and decided to actually DO something to "alter the world around us for the better.

So, there it is. Nothing startling or educationally inspirational on the agenda here. There are other days, some of which I have written about before, and others which I surely hope I will be writing about sometime soon, where there is something so exciting going on that I just can't contain my enthusiasm. But there are in an ordinary school year, a lot more days like this one. Just another day in the sequence of days in which we're trying to prepare the kids for what comes next.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What Light There Is


Today after school we had an English department meeting at which we spent some time doing a preliminary freewrite and then talking in small groups about the subject of homework. After the meeting, I was walking across the campus with a colleague, chatting with him about some of the ideas that had come up in our separate small groups, when I was struck, not for the first time, by the transcendent beauty of the campus, the clipped grass glowing green under the nearly horizontal rays of sunlight streaming across from the southwest, the dark shadows beneath the monkeypods and palms, birds chittering in the branches. The last few weeks at school have been very busy, and it's easy enough to get closed in by exigencies, to get tunnelled into the piles of papers and correspondence and email and phone messages, to close down and screen out and not even see what's out there. But now we're only two days from spring break, I'm finding time here and there to breathe, and the late afternoon light today felt like a kind of gift.

After dinner I found myself turning that moment over in my mind, and thinking, for the first time in a couple of weeks, that I wanted to read some poetry, just by way of providing a space for that moment of appreciation to expand. And I found myself taking a book off the shelf that I have not read in several years. It's one of my favorites, a collection of poems by Eamon Grennan called What Light There Is. As I was reading the poems after dinner, I thought the one that most closely captured the frame of mind I was trying to preserve was a poem called "Four Deer." For those of you who may not be familiar with Grennan's poetry, I think it gives a fair indication of both the precision of his observation and the artfulness and musicality of his syntax. He's a writer whose syllables are a richness in the mind and on the tongue.

Four Deer

Four deer lift up their lovely heads to me
in the dusk of the golf course I plod across
towards home. They're browsing the wet grass
the snow has left and, statued, stare at me
in deep silence and I see whatever light there is
gather to glossy pools in their eight mild,
barely curious but wary eyes. When one at a time
they bend again to feed, I can hear the crisp
moist crunch of the surviving grass between
their teeth, imagine the slow lick of a tongue
over whickering lips. They've come from the unlit
winter corners of their fright to find
a fresh season, this early gift, and stand
almost easy at the edge of white snow islands
and lap the grey-green sweet depleted grass. About them
hangs an air of such domestic sense, the comfortable
hush of folk at home with one another, a familiar
something I sense in spite of the great gulf of strangeness
we must look over at each other. Tails flicker
white in the thickening dusk and I feel their relief at
the touch of cold snow underfoot while their faces
nuzzle grass, as if, like birds, they had crossed
unspeakable vacant wastes with nothing but hunger
shaping their brains and driving them from leaf to
dry leaf, sour strips of bark, under a thunder of guns
and into the cold comfort of early dark. I've seen
their straight despairing lines cloven in snowfields
under storm, and Indian file of famished natives, poor
unprayed-for wanderers through blinding chill, seasoned
castaways in search of home ports, which they've found
at last, here on winter's verge between our houses and
their trees. All of a sudden, I've come too close. Moving
as one mind they spring in silent waves
over the grass, then crack snow with sharp hard
snaps, lightfooting it into the sanctuary of a pine grove
where they stand looking back at me, a deer-shaped family
of shadows against the darker arch of trees and this
rusting dusk. When silence settles over us again and
they bow down to browse, the sound of grass being lipped,
enough for comfort, they see we keep, instinctively, our
distance, sharing this air where a few last shards of day-
light glitter in little meltpools or spread a skin of
brightness on the ice, the ice stiffening towards midnight
under the clean magnesium burn of a first star.


I like typing the poem out. It slows down my encounter with the words, allows me to fully register and appreciate the many moments in the poem when the emerging logic of a sequence of words is turned with a surprising word ("they've come from the unlit winter corners of their fright") or an entirely new line of thought, like the comparision of the deer first to birds driven across "unspeakable vacant wastes" and then, startlingly, to Indians, "unprayed-for wanderers through blinding chill, seasoned castaways in search of home ports." The poem begins in straightforward description, makes its move toward metaphor and implied social commentary, and ends, again somewhat startlingly, in cosmology. It's a poem is fully alert to, and deeply appreciative of, the here and now; and yet simultaneously attuned to something other, something bigger, something Out There that has not yet manifested itself but is nonetheless present. The poem begins by directing our attention to four deer on a golf course, but by the the end we are looking upward and outward, across the ice stiffening in the gathering darkness to that burning star. It is, typically for Grennan, a poem of great precision and thoughtfulness and delicacy.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Gradewise


It's almost the end of the third quarter, and suddenly kids are showing up in my office in droves in order to meet the requirement, spelled out on the paper I gave them on the first day of class, way back in the second week in January, that they come to see me in conference at least once during the quarter. I'm not complaining; I really enjoy getting to talk with the students individually. But I wish they would spread it out a little bit.

A lot of my conversations with students wind up being about one of two things: their writing or their grade. I've got a standing policy that they can revise pretty much anything they hand in to me for a higher grade right up until the last week of the marking period. So many of them show up with a fistful of papers in hand, wanting to know exactly what all those indecipherable marginal comments that I've written on their papers might possibly say. So we have that conversation. Then usually, when I ask if there is anything else they'd like to talk about, they say something like "Well, could you tell me how I'm doing gradewise?"

I have a number of colleagues who dislike the whole idea of grades. They argue that grades artificialize the learning process and teach the kids to think in terms of a desired grade instead of in terms of what they might be learning, and that grades also artificialize the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the student, encouraging the student to see the teacher as the dispenser of grades rather than a mentor or interlocutor. Some of these teachers prefer to operate within a portfolio system, in which they do not ever put grades on individual papers, but ask the students to keep a folder of materials and then self-assess their performance at the end of the quarter or the semester.

I think I understand the logic of that, and I've tried working with classes that way. I think the portfolio system works really well with certain kids. But it also, in my experience, sets up another kind of kid for a hard fall. The kid I'm thinking of is the somewhat unorganized kid with a lot of outside interests who has a tendency to let things slide until its just past the time when it's possible to actually get it done. They tend to assume, in the absence of other feedback, that they're doing fine, that everything is okay. Then when they find out it's too late and they've let the work pile up too long, and that their grade is going to be a D or an F, they freak out. As do their parents.

So I go the opposite route. I put a numerical grade (on a scale of 1-5) on everything they hand in, and I try to get the papers they hand in back to them the next day so they KNOW how they've done on this assignment before they have to go on to the next assignment. Any time a student asks me he s/he's doing gradewise, I can do a quick scan and give a ballpark response.

Perhaps in the best of all possible worlds we'd all have independently-minded, internally motivated students, and grades would not be necessary. But since we're going to wind up with a grade at the end of the semester one way or another, I'm more comfortable trying to make the process pretty transparent from the get-go, and giving the students the chance to bend their grade upwards if they are willing to work on getting the writing right.

I've also taught in situations where neither the kids nor their parents took much stock in grades, and in that situation you have to find other ways of connecting to where the kids are coming from. But at the school I'm at now, grades are at least a moderately big deal for both the kids and their parents, and so what I'm trying to do is use that concern as a wedge to turn the conversation back to the work at hand.

Image Credit: www.studentsfirst.us

Monday, March 12, 2007

Poisonwood, Again


My sophomores are reading The Poisonwood Bible, and I am once again, for perhaps the twelfth or thirteenth time, reading back through a book that continues to impress me and to satisfy my readerly appetites for style and substance. It's a book with a large narrative sweep, covering thirty years in the history of a family of American missionaries who travel to the Belgian Congo and live there during the brief flowing of its short-lived constitutional democracy. It explores themes of identity and responsibility and complicity at the microcosmic level, narrating events in the lives of the family members as they work through their experiences in the fictional village of Kilanga, and at the macrocosmic level, narrating the all-too-real, historically accurate events involving the CIA's participation in the removal from office and subsequent murder of Patrice Lumumba, and the installation of Joseph Mobutu as absolute dictator.

Concerned as it is with the disparity between the publicly stated goals of American foreign policy and the actual courses of action pursued by the American government in practice, it offers abundant food for thought, whether one looks backward in time (for example, to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy by American business and military agents in 1893), at the present moment (read, for example, Ken Silverstein's sobering but excellent Parties of God in this month's Harper's), or into the somewhat hazy crystal ball at the future, during which we will reap the benefits of whatever wisdom is guiding our current foreign policies, and/or pay the consequences of its shortsightedness and stupidity.

So it's a thought-provoking book at the thematic level. But it's also a remarkably well-crafted book at the sentence and paragraph level as well, and offers subtle pleasures for those inclined to attend to them. Take, for example, this passage:
In the front room our dining table looks to have come off a wrecked ship, and there is an immense rolltop desk (possibibly from the same ship) used by Our Father for writing his sermons. The desk has wooden legs and cast-iron chicken's feet, each clutching a huge glass marble, through three of the marbles are cracked and one is gone, replaced by a chink of coconut husk in the interest of a level writing surface. In our parents room, more furniture: a wooden bureau and an old phonograph cabinet with no workings inside. All brought by other brave Baptists before us, thought it is hard to see quite how... We also have a dining room table and a rough handmade cupboard, containing a jumble-sale assortment of glass and plastic dishes and cups, one too few of everything, so we sisters have to bargain knives for forks while we eat. The cabinet also contains an ancient cracked plate commemorating the World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, and a plastic cup bearing the nose and ears of a mouse. And in the midst of this rubble, serene as the Virgin Mother in her barnful of shepherds and scabby livestock, one amazing, beautiful thing: a large, oval white platter painted with delicate blue forget-me-nots, bone china, so fine that sunlight passes through it. It's origin is unfathomable. If we forgot ourselves we might worship it. (61)
Here, Adah, one of the Price family daughters, describes the physical setting of the house in which they are living. The passage is essentially a list: a table, a desk, a bureau, some household objects. And yet the precision with which the objects are observed is impressive. The genius is in the details: the "chicken's feet, each clutching a huge glass marble, through three of the marbles are cracked and one is gone, replaced by a chink of coconut husk," the "plastic cup bearing the nose and ears of a mouse." There's also the gradual heightening of the emotional temperature of the piece toward the end with the description of china platter, achieved by the arresting simile ("serene as the Virgin Mother in her barnful of shepherds and scabby livestock, one amazing, beautiful thing: a large, oval white platter"), the religiosity of which sets up the even more overtly religious tonality of the closing remark ("If we forgot ourselves we might worship it.") This, coming from a preacher's daughter, suggests both the seductiveness of the beauty of the plate and the implied dangers of that heresy. All of which is by way of setting up a moment, later on in the story, when that plate, and all that it symbolizes, comes into sharper focus.

This is writing which gets a lot of work done in a relatively small amount of words. Kingsolver's selection of details is telling and carefully cadenced, and often poetic (sound out that passage about the chicken's feet one more time, or look again at sequencing of the words in the Virgin Mother simile. This is writing that rewards sustained attention. I've been teaching this book since it came out in 1998, and I still think it's terrific.

Myelination and Horizontality


There was an interesting article in the March 4 Sunday N.Y. Times magazine by Daniel Coyle entitle "How to Grow a Super Athlete." The article focuses on training methods which result in superior performance, which is interesting from a pedagogical point of view, but it also includes one of the best summaries I've seen in print of recent brain research involving neuroplasticity, and especially the role of repetitive instruction in stimulating the development of myelin around brain cells. I had heard about recent research involving the the role of instruction in stimulating physical changes in the brain, but this article brought them into sharp focus. At one point in the article, Coyle is talking with Douglas Fields, the director of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland:
Fields proceeded to explain that myelin is a sausage-shaped layer of dense fat that wraps around the nerve fibers — and that its seeming dullness is, in fact, exactly the point. Myelin works the same way that rubber insulation works on a wire, keeping the signal strong by preventing electrical impulses from leaking out. This myelin sheath is, basically, electrical tape, which is one reason that myelin, along with its associated cells, was classified as glia (Greek for "glue"). Its very inertness is why the first brain researchers named their new science after the neuron instead of its insulation. They were correct to do so: neurons can indeed explain almost every class of mental phenomenon—memory, emotion, muscle control, sensory perception and so on. But there's one question neurons can't explain: why does it take so long to learn complex skills?

"Everything neurons do, they do pretty quickly; it happens with the flick of a switch," Fields said. "But flicking switches is not how we learn a lot of things. Getting good at piano or chess or baseball takes a lot of time, and that's what myelin is good at."

To the surprise of many neurologists, it turns out this electrical tape is quietly interacting with the neurons. Through a mechanism that Fields and his research team described in a 2006 paper in the journal Neuron, the little sausages of myelin get thicker when the nerve is repeatedly stimulated. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates and the faster and more accurately the signals travel. As Fields puts it, "The signals have to travel at the right speed, arrive at the right time, and myelination is the brain's way of controlling that speed."

It adds up to a two-part dynamic that is elegant enough to please Darwin himself: myelin controls the impulse speed, and impulse speed is crucial. The better we can control it, the better we can control the timing of our thoughts and movements, whether we're running, reading, singing or, perhaps more to the point, hitting a wicked topspin backhand.
Coyle also spends some time at the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow. Coyle contextulizes Spartak's success this way: "this club, which has one indoor court, has achieved eight year-end top-20 women's rankings over the last three years. During that same period, the entire United States has achieved seven." So what's going on at Spartak? Well, they're being very systematic about repeatedly stimulating certain nerves in the brain, a process some researchers call "myelinating." Coyle describes what he learned from Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, the woman who heads up Spartak:

If Preobrazhenskaya's approach were boiled down to one word (and it frequently was), that word would be tekhnika — technique. This is enforced by iron decree: none of her students are permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of study. It's a notion that I don't imagine would fly with American parents, but none of the Russian parents questioned it for a second. "Technique is everything," Preobrazhenskaya told me later, smacking a table with Khrushchev-like emphasis, causing me to jump and reconsider my twinkly-grandma impression of her. "If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!"

I thought of something Dr. Fields had said: "You have to understand that every skill exists as a circuit, and that circuit has to be formed and optimized." To put it in Spartak terms, myelin is a slave to tekhnika — and so, in turn, was the Little Group. Preobrazhenskaya didn't instruct them on tactics or positioning or offer any psychological tips; rather, every gesture and word was funneled to teaching the elemental task of hitting the ball clean and hard. Which they did, one by one. A few of the kids had located that magical-seeming burst of leverage that makes the ball explode off the strings with a distinctive thwock.

"What do good athletes do when they train?" George Bartzokis, a professor of neurology at U.C.L.A., had told me. "They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire — lots of bandwidth, high-speed T-1 line. That's what makes them different from the rest of us."
The article has got me thinking about the implications of all this. I would have to confess that tekhnika is not my definition of educational nirvana. I am not by disposition or experience inclined to endorse a drills-and-skills approach to instruction, and yet I have experienced at first hand as a (not very capable) musician—and, in earlier days, as an athlete—how frequent, deliberate repetition of isolated elements of difficult passages eventually leads to a facility that at first seems unattainable. Eventually, with practice, you get better.

So I guess one question would be, "What do good students do when they train?" Should our role as teacher-coaches be to put our students into situations where they are going to repetitively send precise impulses to certain areas of the brain? That begins to sound like an argument for precisely the kind of homework "exercises" that have come under fire from people like Alfie Kohn. Are there some kinds of repetition that are better than others, some that are in fact essential? Are there some sequences of questions, like the ones I referred to in Friday's post, that when asked often enough begin stimulate myeliniation, thereby over time resulting in greater critical thinking ability? How does what we are beginning to learn about brain chemistry help us to make better decisions about instructional practice?

I don't have answers to any of those questions. Yesterday I was at a picnic talking with a colleague about the condition of more or less chronic overstimulation that I have found myself in during the last few years as an educator. I guess I always have felt this way to some degree, but somehow I thought that with increasing age and experience, and presumably, wisdom, that it would get easier. As if. Everywhere I look, there's more think about, and any one of the territories might take a lifetime to explore with any thoroughness. And the fact that there are now internet resources at my fingertips that allow me to go sailing off into the territories of horizontality for long period of time is both a blessing and a kind of curse. Without even stopping to think about, I can say that on campus right now there are ongoing conversations and explorations about sustainability, Web 2.0, constructivist learning, brain research, alternative assessment, service learning, global education, and character education. Sometimes it feels like all of those conversations are essential, and I'm really happy to be engaged in them. Sometimes it just feels like my brain is going to explode. And sometimes, like now, I look at the clock and see it's moving in on 10:00 and if I'm going to be able to get up in the morning what I really need to do is stop writing and go to sleep. So that, gentle reader, is what I am about to do. Tomorrow, as my mother was fond of saying, in her best O'haran accent, is another day.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Heart of the Matter


Yesterday I had a visit from a teacher from Seattle who has been working with a framework for teaching critical thinking about the visual arts. The organization which has developed the methodology is calls itself VUE, which which stands for Visual Understanding in Education. The process that they have worked out, which is called VST (for Visual Thinking Strategies) involved presenting students with works of art and asking them three questions: "What is going on in this picture?" "What do you see that makes you say that?" and "What more can we find?" These particular questions were chosen after much deliberation and experimentation, and the documentation provided on the web site both explains the logic of the sequence and lays out some of the research findings validating its effectiveness. The basic premise seems to be that as students gain experience cycling through this set of questions, their observational skills improve, as does the their ability to think broadly and deeply about what they are seeing.

As I was looking through the documentation, I could sense some parallels between that sequence of questions and another sequence that I have been using for some time in my own sophomore critical thinking course. The three questions that I emphasize at the start of my course, and keep asking the students to keep cycling back through, are "What do you see?" What do you think about what you see?" and "What's another way to look at it?" I've illustrated the first two steps in the process in a previous post. The third step is perhaps the single most powerful move I know in the repertoire of critical thinking, what I sometimes call "the sideways move." The exact wording of the question can vary. "What more can we find?" is one phrasing, "What's another way to look at it?" is another. Or we might ask, "What's another point of view?" or "Let's assume tat everything that we've said so far is true, but doesn't get to the heart of the matter. What are we missing? What's significant that we haven't said yet? How do we get to the heart of the matter?"

I think the important factor, with the VUE methodology as with my own variation of it, is that students need to practice it often enough, and in enough different contexts (looking at a work of art, reading a poem, discussing a passage from a novel, reading a letter to the editor, considering a news story, etc.) that eventually the logic of the sequence becomes internalized, and the students begin to ask those sorts of questions on their own without prompting.

There are a lot of other critical thinking paradigms or modules or sequences of moves that are worth trying. But this is one of the ones that I've found to be most effective over the course of a semester. And I'm encouraged that the people associated with VUE have systematized it and are making an effort to share it.