Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Juxtapositions #37

So here's a strange moment. I'm currently enrolled in an informal seminar course called Plato's Republic. There's a teacher at our school who has taught the course for many years, and each year he offers a special section for interested adults—parents and teachers mostly. He'll be retiring at the end of the year, and I wanted to get a chance to take the course and go back into Plato, whom I had not read since college. We're meeting in a traditional classroom around a traditional table reading a physical book written something like 2400 years ago (I just doublechecked the date, not through Google, which might have been easier, but, for old times' sake, in my twice-rebound copy of Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, which I bought in 1965 and have been using ever since—most often, I must confess, to find answers for crossword puzzles), and we're having actual honest-to-God real-life three-dimensional conversations about timeless issues like the nature of justice.

So this evening I place my Plato on the table, turn to my computer, and here in my Google Reader inbox I find a post from Ken Ronkowitz which features this video, the introductory lecture from a Alexandra Juhasz, a college professor who is teaching an online course about YouTube, on Youtube:

I'm not sure what all of this means. I think that Alexandra Juhasz is embarking on a very interesting educational odyssey, the results of which is going to be much less predictable and impact a whole lot more people than our quiet little seminar over The Republic. Interesting times.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Phase One

The school year has its rhythms, and one of the punctuation marks at our school is parents' night. About a month into the school year, just before the first quarter progress reports come out, our school runs a program where parents come in for two and a half hours and go through an abbreviated version of their child's schedule, moving from class to class for ten-minute introductory sessions in which each teacher gives a brief overview of the course.

It always surprises me how fast the first month goes by and how soon parents' night arrives. I've come over the years to enjoy the experience. I like meeting with the parents, however briefly, and getting a chance to try to put the daily events of the semester in a broader context. With my second-semester sophomores, for example—the ones who took the first half of the course in summer school—I think of the trajectory of the semester as a three-part arc. The first month or so consists of a series of shorter readings and exercises designed both to introduce the students to some of the essential questions and process skills that they will be engaged with for the rest of the semester, and to acclimate the students to one another and to the culture of the classroom. I don't do things exactly the way that other teachers do them, and it takes a while for students to get a read on me and vice versa. One of the reasons that first month seems to go by so fast is that there are so many different sets of adjustments that we are making to one another.

Over the last few days, the class feels to me like its starting to come together. Today, the day after parent's night, there was something in the air that hadn't been there before. The students seem to be a little more focussed and a little less guarded. The class is starting to become a community; it feels like more students are looking around and saying "This is going to be okay." And I'm feeling that too.

The middle part of the arc for the sophomores covers the four or five weeks in which we will be reading together The Poisonwood Bible, which is still one of my favorite books and pretty much ideally suited for a course which a primary strategic focus has to do with learning how to shift your point of view, and why it might be important to be able to do that. It's a book which presents an extraordinary richness of opportunity for the aspiring critical thinker. There's food for thought for a reader coming from almost any direction: identity stuff, psychology stuff, political and philosophical and cultural stuff. There's extraordinarily vivid language and a strong narrative line and characters you can learn to love—or hate. And underlying it all there are the questions of how we learn to deal with one another, and how we define ourselves by the choices we make. It's a book you can sink your teeth into, and a book which gets better upon re-reading. Having The Poisonwood Bible in the center of the arc provides a substantive common reading experience that gives a students a chance to test and hone their emerging analytical skills.

During descending arc, which occupies about the last six weeks of the course, students work individually or in groups on projects which a) link to the essential questions they had earlier been asked to identify and reflect upon and b) demonstrate the kind kinds of quality they think they are most capable of achieving.

It's hard for the students to see the logic of the semester at the beginning. Everything they're being asked to do is just a little bit different than what they're used to, and they don't know yet how one thing leads to another, how the work they are doing on their directed assignments or in their commonplace books or on their cycle papers will be useful to them as they move forward. But they're starting to accumulate enough material now, enough work done, that we can start making those connections.

The segment of the arc is just about complete. Now we start reaching higher.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lowering the Bar

It's been ten days since I've posted anything. I could make lots of excuses, if excuses were called for. The start of this school year, while interesting, while challenging, while incredibly rich and various, has not been easy.

Once upon a time I thought that if I stayed at something long enough, it would eventually get easier. That has turned out to be true in some cases. I can, for example, after three years of practice, now play a C major scale on the piano with both hands without screwing it up too badly. I can throw together a salad in five minutes before dinner, without injuring myself, whereas once it was even money if I could get it done without breaking into the Band-Aid box.

But this is my 38th year of teaching, and I've gotta tell ya, whatever else it is, it isn't easier. The teaching part is always interesting and always challenging in a good way. It's the stuff that's going on around the edges just keeps getting more complex. This week alone I've been teaching classes, responding to student papers, setting up a readings for our writer-in-residence which is to take place on October 4, coordinating the publication and sponsorship of that reading with Bamboo Ridge Press and with the University of Hawaii, meeting with veteran teachers to go over their annual reports and younger teachers to talk about things they have questions about, conferencing with students, preparing a written report detailing how our department is going to move forward in support of the Punahou 2016 Sustainability plan, working with the freshman subdepartment head to strategize about how to use the laptops all the students are now bringing to class, preparing a video report on a learning fellowship with a sustainability focus that took place last year, getting the department ready deal with new course proposals, trying to find some time for reading Anne Fadiman's collection of "familiar essays" At Large and at Small and re-reading Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, as well as for practicing the piano, playing a little chess, and eating a meal here and there. Students are showing up with envelopes full of college application letters they want me to write. Oh, and did I mention that tomorrow night is Parents' Night?

My Google Reader aggregator keeps piling up with interesting stuff. There's a post about essay writing on Ken Ronkowitz's blog that I've been dying to respond to, and I've got interesting new education-related books sent along by Doug Carlson and Eric MacKnight that I want to talk with them about. Not to mention several extraordinarily cool-looking new books, like Writing Toward Home which Christine Thomas recommended on her blog recently.

And then there's Throughlines, with no posts for ten days, which my son was busting me about this afternoon. One obvious and predictable dynamic about not writing is that with each day that goes by in which One Has Not Written, the subtle pressure grows that says that The Next One Better Be Good. Which raises the bar, which creates performance anxiety, which leads to avoidance, which is Where We Have Been.

So what I'm doing here is making a conscious effort to lower the bar. This is not going to be my most memorable post, but it's going to be the post that gets posted today. I've got a lot of nibbles on the line out there.

I was talking with a colleague in a conference yesterday about the course she's teaching and in passing she gave me what feels like an irresistible lead-in for a poem. She was talking about the course she teaches, The Bible as Literature, and a question that arose in the class discussion of Genesis. The narrative demands that we accept that before The Beginning there was God, and that it was only because of his intention that there was a beginning at all. Which raises the question, what does it mean to generate something from intention? The first words we hear God speak are, "Let there be light." So suppose, as a writer, someone (you? me?) were to begin the process of artistic creation by asking ourselves what we might call into being by intention. If you could conjure a reality simply by saying the words, what words would you choose to say?

Of course, it's hardly a new idea. Ian Grant and Lionel Rand noodled around with the concept some 67 years ago in writing the song "Let There Be Love":

Let there be you, let there be me
Let there be oysters, under the sea
Let there be wind, occasional rain
Chili con carne, and sparkling champagne

Let there be birds to sing in the trees
Someone to bless me whenever I sneeze
Let there be cuckoos, a lark and a dove
But first of all, please
Let there be love
So it might look like that. Or like a dozen other songs. Or it might look like something else entirely, after you get done with it, or I get done with it.

Anyway, that was perhaps a ten second snippet of a 40 minute conversation which had easily 100 or two hundred ten-second snippets worth following up on. If there were world enough and time.

So that's the dispatch from the Happy Isles today. Didn't know where I was going, don't know where I've been, don't know what's coming next. Ain't it grand?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Intuition and Presence

Josh Waitzkin's experiences with chess and martial arts have directed his attention to a number of interesting factors in arriving at a state of heightened alertness which he refers to below as a "deep fluid presence." Here are a few more excerpts from The Art of Learning:

Everyone has heard stories of women lifting cars off their children or of time seeming to slow down during a car accident or a fall down the stairs. Clearly, there is a survival mechanism that allows human beings to channel their physical and mental capacities to an astonishing degree of intensity in life-or-death moments. But can we do this at will?

When I started thinking about how I could consistently make my perception of time be different from my opponents', I realized that I had to delve into the operating mechanism of intuition. I suspect we have all had the experience of being stumped by something, eventually moving on to something else, and then suddenly knowing the answer to the initial problem. Most of us have also had the experience of meeting someone and having a powerfully good or bad feeling about them, without knowing why. I have found that, even if a few times it has taken years to pan out, these guiding instincts have been on the money. [When playing chess] I would take in vast amounts of technical information that my brain somehow put together into bursts of insight that felt more like music or wind than mathematical combinations. Increasingly, I had the sense that the key to these leaps was interconnectedness—some part of my being was harmonizing all my relevant knowledge, making it gel into one potent eruption, and suddenly the enigmatic was crystal-clear. But what was really happening?

... In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass in this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick. If we get so caught up in narcissistic academic literalism that we dismiss intuition as nonexistent because we don't fully understand it, or if we blithely consider the unconscious to be a piece of machinery that operates mystically in a realm that we have no connection to, then we lost the rich opportunity to have an open communication with the wellspring of our creativity. (136-7)

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill. While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if "going through the motions" is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment's creative potential—for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line. (172)
Waitzkin provides a lot of pretty interesting scenario-based explanations showing exactly how this frame of mind can be cultivated.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Case Study: How to Be a Student

Some time ago I posted a passage from Bob Dylan's Chronicles where he describes his thought processes as he went about studying the music of Robert Johnson. I was reminded of that passage this evening as I was reading from the book by Josh Waitzkin I wrote about earlier today. At this point Waitzkin was living in Europe in a "gap year" after graduating from high school and before entering college. ("The one-two punch of a fame I wasn't really prepared for [following the release of Searching for Bobby Fischer] and a building sense of alienation from the art I loved had me hungering for escape.") Here he walks us through the study ritual that he created for himself in his new environment:

At this point in my career, despite my issues, I was still a strong chess player competing against world-class rivals. Each tournament game was riddled with intricate complications and hour upon hour of mounting tension. My opponents and I created increasingly subtle problems for the other to solve, building the pressure in the position until the chessboard and the mind itself felt like a fault line, trembling, on the verge of explosion. Sometimes technical superiority proved decisive, but more often somebody cracked, as if a tiny weakness deep in the being erupted onto the board.

These moments, where the technical and psychological collide, are where I directed my study of the game. In the course of a nine-round chess tournament, I'd arrive at around four or five critical positions that I didn't quite understand or in which I made an error. Immediately after each of my games, I quickly entered the moves into my computer, noting my thought process and how I felt emotionally at various stages of the battle. Then after the tournament, armed with these fresh impressions, I went back to Vrholvje and studied the critical moments.

...Usually long study sessions went like this: I began with the critical position from one of my games, where my intuitive understanding had not been up to the challenge. At first my mind was like a runner on a cold winter morning—stiff, unhappy about the coming jog, dreary. Then I began to move, recalling my attacking ideas in the struggle and how nothing had fully connected. I tried to pick apart my opponent's position and discovered new layers of his defensive resources, all the while my mind thawing, integrating the evolving structural dynamics it had not understood before. Over time my blood started flowing, sweat came, I settled into the rhythm of analysis, soaked in countless patterns of evolving sophistication as I pored over what a computer would consider billions of variations. Like a runner in stride, my thinking became unhindered, free-flowing, faster and faster as I lost myself in the position. Sometimes the study would take six hours in one sitting, sometimes thirty hours over a week. I felt like I was living, breathing, sleeping in that maze, and then, as if from nowhere, all the complications dissolved and I understood.

When I looked at the critical position from my tournament game, what had stumped me a few days or hours before now seemed perfectly apparent. I saw the best move, felt the correct plan, understood the evaluation of the position. I couldn't explain this new knowledge with variations or words. It felt more elemental, like rippling water or a light breeze. My chess intuition had deepened... (73-4)

The Art of Learning

I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when it first came out nearly 35 years ago, and it wasn't until I re-read it in the in the mid-90s, after have been a classroom teacher for nearly thirty years, that I discovered just how powerful an influence the book had been on my thinking and teaching. I wound up going into the book and excerpting from the narrative some of the sections that have to do with his ideas about thinking and learning and put them together into a sort of short essay that I ask my sophomores to read each year. The essay has to do with the concept of Quality and the condition Pirsig calls "stuckness." In one of the key passages, he argues that the commonsense view, that stuckness is a bad thing, is mistaken:
Let's consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn't the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it's exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still and the like. Your mind is empty, you have a "hollow-flexible'' attitude of "beginner's mind.'' ...Consider, for a change, that this is a moment to be not feared but cultivated. If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas... Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It's this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

Yesterday a student, an avid and very capable chess player, showed up at my office with a copy of a book he'd just read that he thought I'd like called The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. If the author's name seems vaguely familiar, perhaps you are a fan, as I am, of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was the dramatization of the book of the same name written by Fred Waitzkin about Josh's experiences as a child chess prodigy. Josh went on to become an eight-time National Chess Champion in his age groups. Later he took up Tai Chai and became a national and world champion in that discipline as well. The Art of Learning is his extended reflective essay on his experiences and what they have taught him about dynamics of learning. "What I have realized," he says in the introduction, "is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess—what I am best at is the art of learning" I'm two chapters now into his and finding it pretty fascinating, especially since I am now nearing the end (I hope) of about three months of intensive re-engagement with the game of chess myself. It's been a lot of fun, and I've sharpened up my game considerably, but the fact that I've been playing all that chess, at least an hour or two a day on average, is one of the reasons why I haven't been writing as much, and that's starting to bother me, so I'm going to have to cut back some and find more of a balance.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Paul Potts Blows 'Em Away

Read about this guy in an article about Rick Rubin in the Sunday Times magazine, so I googled him and came across this video. Nice to have somebody sneak up on you once in a while.