Sunday, November 25, 2007

I, Hippopotamus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Home Stretch

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Many Happy Returns

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Are You Serious?

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

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

Many great questions came out of the discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When The Ship Comes In

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tai Chi, Aikido, and Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four basic principles of aikido are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Few Facts

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

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

A Few Facts

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

Monday, November 5, 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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