Thursday, May 24, 2007

Last Words

Tomorrow is the last day of class for this year. I have always found the last day of school to be a little awkward, at least in comparison to the first day, which I always am looking forward to. I've tried various ways of trying to bring the school year to end with something more along the lines of a bang than a whimper, and about the best I have been able to come up with is some form of open letter, like the one I just completed for this year's sophomores. So here, for what it's worth, is my valediction:

An Open Letter to My Students
May 24, 2007

Well, here it is, the end of the semester, the end of the year. It seems like a natural time to look back at the semester, to think about where we are and what it means to be here. I have the sense, as I often do at this time of year, that there are some things I’d like to say, but I won’t really know what they are until I try to put them into words. (I’ve tried to suggest to you during the course of the semester that one of the functions of writing is to help you discover what you think. I know that it works for me that way.) So here goes:

• I hope that this has been a good semester for you. If I had been granted a wish at the beginning of the semester, I’d have wished that you would all enjoy coming to English class, that you would find the readings thought-provoking and the discussions energizing, that you’d feel connected to the work at hand, that you’d write well about things that matter to you, that you’d find yourselves thinking more clearly and more deeply about your lives and how you are choosing to live them, and that you’d find satisfaction in all of the above. Realistically speaking, I know that it’s probably not always going to happen that way for everyone. But one of my goals was to try to make it possible for it to happen that way for everyone. If there is something that I did or didn’t do that seemed to you to make the goal harder for you to attain, I would ask you to let me know in your feedback, so I can try to do better next semester.

• I want to say once again that I was terrifically impressed with the energy and enthusiasm that you put into your quality projects. I challenged you to put together projects which represented the best work you you could do and which would be connected to one of your essential questions or to something you truly care about. You did that. Thank you for your strong efforts.

• Throughout the semester I have asked you to think about the significance of process. When you are engaged in a process (and you are always engaged in a process), the process can change. A good critical thinker pays attention to the process and takes steps to change it when it is not working. That requires patience and attention, and the ability to ask questions. One set of useful questions is this simple strategic-planning sequence: Where am I now? Where do I want to get to? How might I get there? These three questions can apply to any situation that requires thought: reading a poem, writing a story, solving an equation, taking a trip, making a friend. Here's another useful question: Is there another way of looking at this? This is the question that leads to the sideways move, the shift to another perspective.

Although it may not have been obvious to you, many of the assignments you had this term—including the dialogues you wrote, the small group discussions, the blogs and the wiki, and the quality projects—were intended to give you practice in designing and monitoring and adjusting your own processes. I hope that you will find some of that experience relevant and helpful to you during junior and senior year.

• One of the unstated principles that has shaped our investigations this semester’s English course is probably worth saying explicitly at this point. It’s a pretty obvious idea, but it has important implications. The idea is this: language is the vehicle of thought. If you are in the habit of using language carelessly and unreflectively, your thinking is going to lack clarity, precision, logic, and probably most of the other standards of quality we have been trying to achieve this year. If you make the assumption that there is value in being able to think clearly and communicate effectively, then, since language is the vehicle of thought, it follows of necessity that you must pay attention to the words you use, and the words others use. Vaclav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and political activist who rose to be President of the Czech Republic, once wrote a speech in which he made the argument that “Responsibility for and toward words is a task which is intrinsically ethical.” In other words, if you care about the kind of person you are, you should care about the words you use, and how you use them. You words, like your actions, help to define who you are. Learning to write well is not just something you do so you can get good grades in English. Learning to write well is something you do so you can clarify your thinking, explore the world of thought, become a more responsible person. If you truly understand this, then you are always going to be able to find your way.

• Finally, I’d like to say that I have enjoyed working with you this semester and will be following your progress over the next few years with interest. If I can be of any help to you in the future, please feel free to ask. Congratulations and good luck.

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