Friday, June 15, 2007

The Week That Was

Well, it's Friday evening after the first week of what will eventually be six weeks of summer school. I've been working to get my sophomores oriented with regard to the goals of the course — which have largely to do with becoming more capable readers, writers, and thinkers — and I've been trying as well to weave the various strands of the course (the readings, the writing assignments, the class discussions, the group activities, and so on) together so that they reinforce one another and help the students come to see themselves as part of a community whose members value certain habits of mind and support one another in their pursuit of quality. Each day this week, for example, we have begun class by reading a passage that has something to do with thinking. On Tuesday, our first day, we read a poem by Grace Butcher entitled "Crow is Walking," which begins

Crow is walking
to see things at ground level,
the landscape as new under his feet
as the air is old under his wings.

The self-imposed change of behavior, the intentional shift in point of view, leads the crow to reflect on his past and to consider an alternate future. He

checks out his reflection
in a puddle full of sky
which reminds him
of where he's supposed to be,

but he's beginning to like
the way the muscles move in his legs
and the way his wings feel so comfortable
folded back and resting.

Hearing voices coming from down the road ahead of him, he starts to head in their direction:

His tongue moves in his mouth;
legends of language move in his mind.

His beak opens.
He tries a word.

The crow's decision to abandon his old habits and try something new, walking, even for a short time, has brought him to the bring of self-transcendence. He's about to attempt a most un-crow-like thing: he's going to try to speak. I love that the poem ends on that note. What is going to emerge from his mouth? "Four score and seven years ago..?" "Polly want a cracker?" "Caw?" It hardly matters. What matters is the shifting of identity, the broadening of the sense of self, that is the consequence of the self-chosen shift in point of view. This is one of the core principles of critical thinking, as I understand and teach it: you need to be able to step out of your skin, out of your normal way of looking at things, if you want to grow. This is a poem about a character called crow. But it is also a poem about Grace Butcher, who in the writing of it is attempting, like crow, or like me, or like any of my students, to transcend the limitations of background and native ability and produce an utterance, a verbal artifact, which is better than it has any right to expect to be.

Other related readings this week: William Golding's personal essay "Thinking as a Hobby," a short excerpt from Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind dealing with Garry Kasparov's competitions against chess computers, and the lead article from the June 9 Economist entitled "Lessons from Apple: What other companies can learn from California's master of innovation."

This is by no means all we did this week. It was one strand of perhaps six or seven. But I think that one way to get the students to become more mindful of how they are thinking and how they might begin to strategize about becoming better thinkers is to ask them to read, discuss, and write about, examples written by people who themselves are making an effort to be thoughtful about what is going on in their heads. There is certainly no shortage of relevant texts. The only one of these texts that I have used before with students is the Butcher poem. Next week I already have some followup texts lined up. The first written assignment I asked the students to do this week, after we had begun our readings, was to write a short essay in which they were to discuss something that they have learned or come to believe is true about thinking. (There are some samples from previous classes here.) Several students chose to write about the danger that can attend — in sports, for example — when you think too much, when you overthink. So Monday I think we'll take a look at a page or two from Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.

It's early yet, and I don't have a full read on the class. But my sense is that they're getting it, and that they're poised to make some strides this summer. I like these kids. I like this course. I like this work.

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