Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CT 1: The Wheel and the Cross

When I arrived at Punahou nine years ago the sophomore English course was a genre-based course consisting of one semester of "Novel/Short Story" and one semester of "Poetry/Drama." During my first year at Punahou I fell in with a group of teachers who were having regular meetings to talk about critical thinking and how teachers might best be able to teach courses which made an explicit attempt to teach students thinking skills in the context of the content-area classes. Most of the people in the group were familiar with the work of Richard Paul, and were using his schemata for organizing thinking about thinking. Perhaps his most familiar graphic organizer is often called "The Wheel."

Paul breaks critical thinking down into elements (purpose, question, information, inferences, concepts, assumptions, implications and consequences, and point of view). Grouping them in the form of a wheel suggests that, while each of these elements exists a kind in simultaneous interaction with all of the others, it is possible to focus in at any given time on one or another of the elements in order to test or examine one's thinking.

After my proposal for a new course called "Sophomore English: Critical Thinking" was accepted, I began using the wheel with them as point of entry into critical thinking or metacognition. But I was never quite comfortable with the fact that the wheel put these terms into geographical contiguity with one another without making clear what the most frequent or most logical channels of connection among them might be. It was useful to see them laid out together, but it was

The second year I was teaching the course I attended a conference led by Richard Paul at which I was shown a different way of organizing the elements. It was called "The Elements of Reasoning in Graphical Form," (it can be found it The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking and Tools ) and it represented the elements in such a way as to show some of the ways in which one might lead to or be connected to the other in the actual process of thinking:

I liked this version better, but as I began using it with classes I found it a little bit cluttered, and I also found that as I was explaining the basic idea of the elements and their relationship to one another in class, I found myself using my own body as a point of analogical reference. I would say something more or less like this:

One way of monitoring your own thinking is to take a status check of where you are. I am standing here. If I raise my hand and point out in front of me (at which point I do so), that's the direction I might be headed in. That's might represent my future, my purpose, my goal. If I started to walk in that directions, depending on exactly which path I took, I'd wind up in perhaps one space, or perhaps another. And whatever decisions I make, conscious or unconscious, intentional or accidental, will have implications and consequences. (I sometimes recite Frost's "The Road Less Traveled" as a way of illustrating this point.)

Everything that has happened so far in my life that has brought me to this point is behind me (Looking backward over my shoulder). That would include my past education and experience, any information I might have available to me, any assumptions I was making, and so on.

One of the most productive and interesting moves to make, from a critical thinking perspective, is the sideways move. If I'm standing here, I see things one way. But if I take three steps over here, (doing so and then turning), suddenly I have different point of view, and I am able to notice different things. For example, now I can see that Kainoa has a backpack behind his desk, which I didn't know before.

There are a lot of basic critical thinking paradigms: structured routines that you can use to test yourself and move toward clarity, significance, breadth, and depth. One of the ones that I will be asking you to practice frequently is simply to think or write your way through three questions that are closely related to what I have just tried to demonstrate: Where am I now? Where am I trying to get to? How might I get there? To which you might want to add a fourth: Is there another point of view? Is there another way of thinking about it?

As I went through this explanation, I realized that the graphic above was really an upside down representation of the way I was thinking, so I tinkered with it and basically re-drew it to come up with a somewhat simpler version that more closely matched my intuitive sense of the way the elements are related to one another. For lack of a better term, I'll call it The Cross:

Somewhere along the line I also realized that rather than simply start off with this visual representation, I might make it a more interesting experience for the students to come up with their own maps of the critical thinking process. So that's usually one of the first things I do now. Early in the first semester, before we even begin talking about the elements or standards, I ask the students to work in groups of two or three to come up with a visual representation of what thinking looks like. Then I give them sheets of chart paper and ask them to draw out their ideas and present them to the class. Then I explain that in the interests of having a common vocabulary, and so that they will frame to understand how the various followup activities we will do are interconnected, I share The Cross with them. I make a point of explaining that this is a fairly crude and fairly tentative representation of a much more complex and multilayered set of processes, and that we will during the course of the semester be working together to come up with a clearer and more sophisticated common sense of what we are doing. But this is a place to start.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The New American Schoolhouse

Probably at one time or another all educators have daydreamed about what they might do if they were starting a school of their own with no constraints but a blank piece of paper.

One of my colleagues shared this (ten minute) video with me this morning. It offers an alternative vision of what school is, or could be. Daniel Harman, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, describes Fairhaven this way:

This is a school with no set hours, no required classes, no grades, no parent-teacher meetings, and no rules except for the ones the people here make up and vote on themselves. It's a school where youngsters have a say on everything - from whether sipping soda should be allowed in the sound-proofed music room to which staff should be fired at the end of the year.

Students ages 5 to 19 mix freely here with each other and with the teachers (known as "doers"), and are encouraged to take their time figuring out what they want to learn - and then how, when, where, and from whom to learn it. Meanwhile, in their "spare time," they play. Or get bored. Both, according to the school's mission, are welcome activities.

Fairhaven is a so-called "free school." The philosophy behind the model is that humans are curious by nature - and so the most efficient and profound learning will take place when started and pursued by the learner. Freedom and democracy, continues the philosophy, will help develop personal responsibility and maturity.

First thoughts?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Text and Context: The Ongoing Dialogue

Mark and I have been having an extended conversation on the question of the logic of our reading selections in general and one particular sequence of readings on philanthropy that we are doing with our sophomores on the other. A lot of that conversation has been taking place in person, where we've been challenging and helping to clarify each other's thinking. Some part of it has been taking place in this forum, and so this post is picking up some of the threads of that dialogue. Here are a few of the comments that Mark posted today in response to my most recent post on the subject, and my responses. Mark writes:
English 2 is, at least in my mind, foremost a critical thinking course; therefore, I'd say that the strongest message the students should experience is the one that says, "Think critically!" Okay, then in a critical thinking class, shouldn't we ask students to practice evaluating a question from multiple of points of view? I'm not advocating other points of view based on balance for balance's sake; rather, I do so because in this particular course we have to give students the chance to see points of view based on different assumptions, and sound reasoning to go along with them, as models and for their own evaluation. How contradictory to ask students to practice critical thinking, and then to select readings that suggest a conclusion we believe is correct.
If that's what we were doing, I'd agree with you. But I don't think that's what we are doing. The common element in the readings is that they raise the address the question, "What is our responsibility to others?" The readings offer a range of answers to that question. I don't have a "correct" answer in mind when I put those readings out there, and I don't expect that the students are all going to wind up agreeing on one either. I do have a personal belief that answers at either extreme of the continuum—that we have NO responsibility and should never do anything for anybody else; or that we have a complete responsibility and must give away everything own, possibly including our body parts or our lives—are unsupportable, but I don't hear students—or anyone else—making those arguments with any seriousness. They might come up as a theoretical possible positions, but for those of us living in the real world it's clear that any plausible answer must be found somewhere between the extremes and that any answer one arrives at must ultimately be a matter of individual choice.

Second, I return to asking what happens when we give them readings that arise from a point of view informed if not by the same assumptions, then by very similar assumptions? We haven't randomly selected people trying to work out answers, after all; we've selected people whose answers we agree with and praise. That must be because we want, consciously or otherwise, to send a second message.
Again, I don't see that that is what we are doing. The readings are connected thematically, but they don't agree with one another, or with my own thoughts, for that matter. I don't "agree with" Peter Singer when he says (in one of several arguments that he advances sequentially, in an explorational way, that "each one of us with wealth surplus should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty." And I certainly don't agree with Zell Kravinsky when he says, "It seems to me that I should be giving all my money away and donating all of my time and energy."That seems to me to be a recipe for personal disaster. What I DO agree with, and praise, in both men, is that they are each, in their own way, engaging the question, and taking a stand on what they do believe. That's what I ultimately want to encourage the students to do.

Now, The Poisonwood Bible. As Bruce points out, the novel does give them a narrative built from multiple points of view. But no one can read that novel and believe that Rachel represents a point of view that Kingsolver wants us to seriously consider following; one of my complaints about us using the novel in this particular course is that Kingsolver does want to send a message.
Again, I'm not willing to accept your premise at face value. I do not believe that Kingsolver has "a message." Kingsolver herself, in the interview she used to have posted on her web site, talks not it terms of a message but of a driving question, with many possible answers: "This novel is asking, basically, 'What did we do to Africa, and how do we feel about it?' It's a huge question. I'd be insulting my readers to offer only one answer. There are a hundred different answers along a continuum..."

You continue, "When students read the essays we've chosen, they expect to hear a message, for that is the nature of an essay." I agree they have that expectation, but I do not agree that they should be encouraged to think of an essay as a vehicle for the delivery of a message. Some essays may have that purpose, but the etymologically the word "essay" does not mean "message," it means "trial" or "attempt." (I've written at length before about thesis essays and the various kinds of havoc they wreak. An exclusive attention to thesis essays cripples the students both as writers and as readers. If the only essays we ask students to write are thesis essays, it's hardly surprising that they would expect that the purpose of an essay is to "convey a message." That way of thinking about essays, and about texts, seems to me to be almost pathologically reductive. Which is perhaps why I don't see The Poisonwood Bible, as you do, as "a didactic novel," and I think it would be most unfortunate if any of us were to teach it as one. I see it as exactly what you describe as your ideal, a multifaceted novel with the potential to "show us the complexities and wonders of being human and allow us to find, through our reading, our own way through life."

So it appears that we're thinking about these texts quite differently. Despite the differences in our ways of thinking about the texts, what we share is a common commitment to making the students' experience of reading those texts, or whatever other texts we choose, an opportunity to learn something about thinking well, reading well, and, ultimately, living well. What's the best way of doing that? How can we come within our subdepartment to a common understanding of how we intend to contextualize the students' experience with these texts so that the students will NOT fall into the most obvious and most predictable patterns of misreading, which are all too often created by their desire to reduce any of these complex texts to a sound bite? That's a set of questions that can—and should—support a whole lot more dialogue.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Morning Light

I wrote recently about getting a new camera for my birthday. I got up early this morning to take my accustomed early morning weekend walk at Ala Moana Park and took the camera with me to see how it did in the half-light. One of the features of this camera, the Sony A100K, is that it has an image-stabilization module onboard that supposedly makes taking pictures without a tripod a little less problematical. I found that not only was that true, but that the camera, when set on it's night-shooting mode, does even better than I had hoped: it almost seems to suck in light and spread it around. This first picture was taken on the way into the park before dawn. I sat down to take the picture and hold the camera as steady as I could, and the camera did the rest.

The second picture was taken from the Diamond Head side of the park, looking across the small enclosed beach at the end of Magic Island toward the lights of downtown Honolulu. This one suprised me, because there was actually a lot less foreground light than appears in the picture, but the camera compensated for it, and the resulting picture, while not a literal representation, captured the mood of that moment quite well.

The third picture, taken from the Ewa side looking back toward Diamond Head, caught the interesting balance between the park lighting and the emerging light of the sun just beginning to rise behind the clouds over Diamond Head.

This one was taken from just a little bit closer in, looking over the park through the palms toward Ala Wai Yacht harbor. All of these pictures were pretty much point-and-shoot, with some very minimal cropping and postprocessing in iPhoto when I got home. So I was pleased with the way the camera performed under these unusual light conditions.

I actually had a little more trouble once there was more light. I had always thought that the virtue of an SLR is that what you see in the glass is pretty much what you get in the picture, but in this case the camera had trouble reading what I saw. There was a lot more light than shows up in the picture. The grass was really luminous, the edges of the clouds were glowing and everything in the scene was more vibrant. I tried about eight different settings with the spot metering and matrix metering, but either the sky looked good and the rest of the picture was dark, or the foreground looked good and the sky was washed out. This picture was the best combination I could come up with, but it didn't do justice to any part of the scene. I don't know if that's just a fact of photographic life or if there's something I could have done differently. If any of you out there have experience as photographers and can give me any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

At some point I hope to be able to play around with some of the postprocessing tools like Photoshop and Artizen. Right now taking pictures is occupying a growing but still relatively small part of my week. But I've seen some pictures on Flickr lately that are just amazingly interesting. For example, check out this one, taken not too far from where I was shooting today, from Marc Brassard. He's got many others as well, with some notes on how they were processed. (To see other Flickr favorites, click here .)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different...

(I'm going to take a break from the curriculum dialogues and give my brain a little breathing room...)

I grew up in Mt. Kisco, New York, in Westchester County, which was basically a commuter town for people like my father, who took the 6:42 train into New York City every working day, arriving home on the 5:47 each night. My father was not around much when I was a child. I would wake up in time to see him off at the station with my Mom, and I would accompany her to pick him up, but after we came home we would have dinner. After dinner he would retire to his den—a small room just off the front porch where he kept his desk, his bookcases, his scrapbooks and hunting and fishing equipment—I would take my bath and get ready for bed. Sometimes he would read me a story before I went upstairs. He was a big fan of the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess. These stories, in which various animals (Peter Rabbit, Sammy Jay, Jimmy Fox, Johnny Chuck, Old Man Coyote) were given voices and personality traits and were made to interact in ways which put certain virtues and on display—were serialized in the New York World Tribune, and my father would read the current installment to me from the paper, and then neatly clip the story and paste it into a scrapbook after I had gone to bed. Whether or not he read me a story, my mother would always read to me before I went to sleep: Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Books were regular selections. I grew up surrounded with stories of talking animals. Those animals became quite real in my imagination.

My mother—like most mothers of that era, did not have a job outside the home. Her job was to take care of the thirteen room, three-story house on Croton Avenue which I lived in with my parents and my five older brothers and sisters. As I was growing up, I would tend to follow her from room to room as she cleaned and swept and made beds and did the laundry and cooked. I stayed close to her so that I would not have to worry about the wolf, the fox, the pig, and the other animals who I could see outside the windows waiting for me to be left alone so they could come and do whatever it was they were planning to do to me.

Our house had a large, flat, well-groomed front yard and a much larger, sloping, wild-looking back yard. The garage, separate from the house at the end of a long drive way leading down into the back yard, was surrounded by trees, one of which was a crabapple tree. Each year in the late summer as the dwarfish, wormy, sour crabapples began to fall to the ground, my mother would begin gathering the best of them up to make crabapple jelly. I don’t remember all of the mechanics of this process, although I was certainly there with her in the kitchen as she prepared the jelly. I remember large vats of boiling water, and muslin cloth through which the steamy, aromatic pulp was squeezed, and the clear amber liquid that wound up being poured into the rows of jars my mother had boiled and sterilized.

Once the jelly was made and put into jars, it went onto the shelves in the pantry where it became one of the staple foods of my childhood and beyond. Peanut butter and jelly is for me, even to this day, a sandwich, and not a very tempting sandwich at that. But peanut butter and crabapple jelly, well, that’s a meal, and it is one of the most satisfying meals in my repertoire of gustatorial choices. Comfort food.

We moved out of our house in Mount Kisco when I was eleven years old. We were moving to a farm in upstate New York, where it was my father’s intention to retire. It never happened. He died of a heart attack three months before the retirement was finalized. My mother wound up sending me off to boarding school for two years, and by the time I was living at home again, we were living in a small house in a small yard in Fairfield, Connecticut. We had no apple trees, and my mother, who now had to work, had no time to be making jelly.

From time to time in my adult years I would find a store which sold crabapple jelly, but as the supermarkets which drove all the smaller stores out of business began streamlining and standardizing their stock, crabapple jelly disappeared from my life.

Then one day, during a time in which I was spending part of each night reading Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Books and Thornton W. Burgess to my own three children in Randolph, Massachusetts, we got a catalog in the mail from the Vermont Country Store. (Let us pause for a moment to consider the postmodern ironies of a country store with a sophisticated web presence. Okay, that's enough. Back to the story already in progress.) In the back of the catalog was offered a selection of traditional jams and jellies, including, to my delight, crabapple jelly. For nearly twenty-five years the Vermont Country Store supported my addiction to crabapple jelly. The jelly comes neatly enclosed in a cardboard box. (It used to be a wood box, but times have changed. The jelly, thankfully, remains the same.) Each box contains six cylindrical jars about five inches high and an inch and a half around. Each jar contains enough jelly for ten or twelve sandwiches. Two or three years ago I gave up ordering the jelly on the grounds that it was a bit of self-indulgence—these jars ain't cheap—which was probably not logically (or financially) supportable.

But then this year a friend at my school who does business with the VCS learned of my attachment to the jelly, and sent away for a couple of jars and gave them to me for a Christmas present. So now, from time to time, as at lunchtime today, after coming home from three hours of admissions interviews, I can put together a small but satisfying repast that reconnects me with my past: a peanut butter and crabapple jelly sandwich. Can't beat it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Second Thoughts: Reframing the Question

One of the articles of faith that I have come to believe as a writer, and that ask my students to consider and to at least attempt to practice, is that the act of writing not just a means of expressing, but of generating thought. Some writing may be merely expressive or informational, but the writing that generally interests me more is writing that is explorational. I think that this is particularly true of blogging. I won't attempt to speak for others, but often when I sit down to write I do not have a clear idea or a clear end in sight, and the act of writing the words out, one after another, as I am doing here, is what allows the ideas to take shape. I have had to train myself to trust my first thoughts, even if on appearance they turn out to be pitiful weak little things. Because even pitiful weak little nestlings can grow into sleek, golden eagles. The beauty of writing is that it makes first thoughts visible and subject to further contemplation. First thoughts make possible second thoughts.

Yesterday I wrote about a question of balance that arose in a teacher's meeting. I've had one comment on the post already, and have had extended discussions with Mark about what I wrote, and have been turning over all of this fresh input in my mind, and, yes, I'm having second thoughts. The question I posed yesterday was the question that I was able to articulate yesterday. But Mark has encouraged me to re-frame the question, not as a question of balance, but as a question about message, which turns into another, broader question about what we are doing when we teach, and how we contextualize messages. I'm going to talk about this question in the context of our discussion about this particular sequence of texts, but I think that the question Mark is raising is much broader than that, and in fact gets to the heart of what it means to be a certain kind of teacher, whether we're teaching English or Physics or Web 2.0.

At the risk of mis-representing Mark's thinking twice in a row, let me say that what I now understand to be the question he is asking all of the teachers in this particular group to think about is "What is the message that we send to kids when we give them this sequence of readings?"

One message that we might be sending, and which I'm sure, unless we are very careful, the students will think we are sending, is the didactic, moralistic message that "You ought to be doing more." It's utterly predictable that many schoolchildren, particularly teenagers, will react with immediate and perhaps even subconscious resistance to a message which has embedded within a negative judgementalism, something that feels to them like a paraphase of "You're not doing enough" or "You're not good enough." I agree with Mark that this is not a good message to be sending to kids, explicitly or subliminally. But I think there are other ways to contextualize whatever it is that we are teaching that puts the whole enterprise in a different light. And the one I would like to advocate for (tonight, as I second guess myself, fully aware that by tomorrow I may be able to see this more clearly and in a different way—especially if one of you out there writes in to point out the glaring weaknesses in my current position) is linked to the idea of essential questions.

We do a lot of work with essential questions at our school, and I'm not going to get into the whole framework we use for doing that at this point. Suffice it to say that we ask students to look at or perhaps brainstorm lists of questions, ask them to make some discriminations about which questions are more important to them individually, and then encourage them to reflect on, write about, work through their thinking over time in regard to those questions.

This sequence of readings we've been talking about looks different if viewed through the lens of (what I would consider to be a pretty good example of) an essential question: "What is our responsibility to others?" The message sent by this question is a meta-message: it is a message that says "There are some things that are worth thinking about. There are some questions that are worth asking. This is one of them. What do you think?" In the context of this question, the readings present themselves as examples of various people—Peter Singer, Zell Kravinsky, Bill Gates, Muhammed Yunus—trying to work out the answers to these questions for themselves. Seeing what they think allows us to consider, or re-consider, what we think.

Whatever we teach, I think it is of critical importance that we ask ourselves, and answer for ourselves, and be able to explain clearly to our students, what the intended message is. If we're teaching students to use blogs, for example, are we doing that because it's supposed to be cool or sexy? Are we doing it because it allows students to ask better questions or get better feedback or access better information? Are we doing it because all of a sudden they're showing up in class with school-mandated laptops and we need to do something so that the parents won't holler? Are we doing it because it's going to help them develop writing skills or presentational skills or networking skills or technical skills? Are we doing it because we think it's fun and we want them to think so too? What is the message? And do the students know what the message is?

I'm new to blogging. In all likelihood I'm now raising questions that Will Richardson has already written three books about that I haven't even read yet. But the question applies to any discipline, and to any school, and to any group of teachers. I have thirty teachers in my department. There are eight teachers who teach Sophomore English, and though I like and respect all of them, I'm sure that at this point in time we would answer Mark's question the same way. We need to talk about that. And I'm quite sure that even after we talk about, we will still not have exactly the same answer to the question. That's life, that's human nature, that's teaching. But the question is always worth returning to, for second thoughts, third thoughts, seventy-eleventh thoughts. That's what makes it an essential question.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Question of Balance

Once a cycle (every six days) all the teachers of sophomore English at my school get together for an hour to compare notes. Today we started a discussion in which we were making selections for common readings—essays, stories, and poems—for next year, to supplement the two major texts for the year (The Merchant of Venice semester one, and The Poisonwood Bible semester two).

There is one sequence of readings that has evolved over the last few years which explore the question of "What is our responsibility toward those who are less fortunate than us?" It's a sequence which has resonances with the mission of our school, which our President, Jim Scott, likes to describe as "a private school with a public purpose," and with the the themes of the sophomore critical thinking course, which asks students to give some thought to where they stand in relation to others who are different from them, and what strategies might best ensure that we arrive at something like mutual understanding and respect with those people. (Thus Merchant and Poisonwood as anchor texts.)

The sequence starts with "The Singer Solution to World Poverty", an essay published in the New York Times Magazine in 1999 in which Peter Singer, explores in a very clear, pointed, and thought-provoking way the range of possibilities all the way from selling children to get money to buy consumer products (at one extreme) to giving away every cent that you do not spend on necessities (on the other.) The gist of his argument is that most of us do not give enough.

Second in the sequence is Ian Parker's 2004 New Yorker article "The Gift," which profiles millionaire entrepreneur Zell Kravinsky, who gave away essentially all of his money (which generated much praise and respect), and then, feeling that he had done enough, decided to donate a kidney as well (which generated a great deal of consternation and controversy). The third article, also from the New Yorker, is Michael Specter's "What Money Can Buy," an account of how and why Bill and Melinda Gates decided to attempt to eliminate malaria in Africa. And the last is Connie Bruck's recent New Yorker article "Milllions for Millions," which profiles Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and the emerging world of micocredit.

The issue that came up today, and which I would like to frame here in the hopes of generating some response from any of you who may want to weigh in, was brought up by a colleague I will call Mark (which might even be his actual name), who wondered out loud whether this particular sequence was biased, insofar as every article seems to be suggesting that we need to do SOMETHING, and we didn't really have any articulate exponents of the position that we in fact owe nothing at all to anybody. I think I understand I understand the logic of the question, but felt at the time, and said at the time, that a) I don't think that the argument that we are independent agents engaged in a free-for-all to climb over each other to the top is intellectually or morally defensible, b) even if there were available essays (if you are aware of any, please let me know) that were able make a clear and compelling case for unenlightened self-interest, I don't think it's my responsibility as a teacher to include them merely for the sake of balance, any more than I think it's my responsibility as a teacher to teach the "theory" of intelligent design alongside the "theory" of evolution for the sake of balance.

In a recent post on habits of mind I was arguing that part of my teacherly duty as I understand is to try to help students learn to be more tolerant, more openminded, more compassionate than they would have been if they had not crossed my path. I therefore have chosen readings that ask students to think about the extent to which they are willing to engage themselves in helping support the lives of others around them. Some of the students are in fact unmoved by these readings. They choose, at least in the short term, not to act. But, as I point out to them, to choose not to act is in fact to act. You become the person you are by virtue of the choices you make. Or don't make. The question is, what kind of person do you want to be?

Rachel, in The Poisonwood Bible, closes out her final monologue by saying, "If there's ugly things going on out there, well, you put a good stout lock on your door and check it twice before you go to sleep. You focus on getting your own one little place set up perfect, as I have done, and you'll see. Other people's worries do not necessarily have to drag you down."

I understand her position. I just don't respect it, and I certainly don't feel that I should be encouraging my students to respect it by offering it or defending it as one (equal) alternative on a continuum of value-neutral choices.

So, gentle reader, the floor is open for your comments. Should we "balance" our readings? Or should we proceed with a presentation of alternatives that does in fact suggest an agenda, or at least a range of choices within a pre-accepted, if not pre-digested, range of limits?

(Image of Attila the Hun via

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Day in the Life

This was one of those days that keeps shifting shape. I got to school at 7:00, checked my email and RSS feeds, wrote some replies, and got some materials together for my 8:30 English class, where we are beginning a series of activities that are going to investigate the concept of quality: what it is and how we recognize it. The first step in the process is to have the students write three-minute poems. (Explanation in this post.)

At 9:30 I had a faculty partner meeting with a colleague in the Physics department, and we wound up discussing and making some changes in the directions for a long-term project-based unit he's initiating with his students. At 10:30 I went to grab lunch and sat with another colleague from my department, and we talked about what happened when the students in his class basically resisted doing an oral-reading activity he had planned, and the on-the-fly adaptions he made instead of trying to force the issue.

After eating I went back to my office and was doing some work when a student who has discovered I like to play chess came in and asked me if I had time for a game. I told him I had twenty minutes, and we began to play. I was able to gain some positional advantages that translated into a couple of pawns, and then toward the beginning of the endgame I let him fork a rook and next thing I knew I was down two pieces.

I conceded the game, picked up my notebooks, and walked over to the Luke Center for Public Service to meet with three other colleagues to lay out plans for how we are going to support a sustainability initiative, Punahou 2016, which is about to be announced by the school President, and which is going to have curricular implications, especially for sophomores taking chemistry and studying energy. We are trying to set up some frameworks within which individuals and small groups of students can begin gathering and analyzing baseline data with regard to energy use on campus.

So we had that conversation, and then it was back to the office to help one of my sophomore students set up a blog that she's going to use as an alternative to keeping a (paper notebook) commonplace book this semester. Then I had a meeting with a vendor to show him the t-shirt design that the staff of Ka Wai Ola, the literary magazine that I am advisor to, has come up with so that he can send us a quote. Then I had to type up the samples from the three minute poems for each class so that we can go to step two tomorrow.

Then I came home so that I could be here to take delivery of the new camera which my sons got together to buy me for my birthday. I read through the paper, did the crossword, and practiced for my piano lesson tomorrow morning while waiting for it to arrive. The UPS guy finally showed up at about 4:30, and I spent the next hour or so getting it set up. I'm pretty excited about that because I've been taking a ton of pictures of late using a digital point-and-shoot and I'm looking forward to working with a more serious tool. Thanks, guys.

I wound up making some turkey soup for dinner, after which my wife and I drove down to Ala Moana Shopping Center to see if we could find an umbrella to replace the one I left someplace two weeks ago. Couldn't find anything I liked. Went to Barnes and Noble to look at some books, but found I was by this point so bleary-eyed I couldn't tell whether what I was reading was any good or not, so we drove home and I sat down to write this, and found out I had an email from a teacher in China who has been reading my blog and wondered if I could look over a Cloze test they're using and check it for idiomatic usage. So I did that, and then I said to myself that unless today was going to be the day when I finally fall off the blog-a-day wagon I've been ever-more-precariously perched on I'd better get cracking. So here I am. And there it is, a day in the life.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Had plans to write a poem of my own for my 60th birthday, and may get around to it after the fact, but for now I'll just share Stephen Dunn's reflection on his, written in the late 1990's, which seems to me to get everything just about right:


Because in my family the heart goes first
and hardly anybody makes it out of his fifties,
I think I'll stay up late with a few bandits
of my choice and resist good advice.
I'll invent a secret scroll lost by Egyptians
and reveal its contents: the directions
to your house, recipes for forgiveness.
History says my ventricles are stone alleys,
my heart itself a city with a terrorist
holed up in the mayor's office.
I'm in the mood to punctuate
only with that maker of promises, the colon:
next, next, next, it says, God bless it.
As Garcia Lopez may have written: some people
forget to live as if a great arsenic lobster
could fall on their heads at any moment.
My sixtieth birthday is tomorrow.
Come, play poker with me,
I want to be taken to the cleaners.
I've had it with all the stingy-hearted sons of bitches.
A heart is to be spent. As for me, I'll share
my mulcher with anyone who needs to mulch.
It's time to give up the search for the invisible.
On the best of days there's little more
than the faintest intimations. The millenium,
my dear, is sure to disappoint us.
I think I'll keep on describing things
to ensure that they really happened.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Book in the Hand...

Today Will Richardson posted a reference to an article by Thomas Washington, a librarian in the Washington, D.C. area, in which the author expressed concern about the impact that techonology-based information access is having on student reading habits. "We teach students," says Washington, "how to maximize a database search, about successful retrieval rates. What usually gets lost in the scramble is a careful reading of the material. Students are still checking out the standard research fare — the Thomas Jefferson biography, the volume of literary criticism on Jane Austen — but few read it. The library checks the books back in a day later, after the students have extracted the information vitals — usually an excerpt or two to satisfy the requirement that a certain number of works be cited in their papers." He goes on to tell some stories about other interactions he's had with students for whom curling up with a good book is not high on their list of personal pleasures.

I've got to say that I share his concerns. I remember pretty clearly one afternoon last fall when I was walking from my end of the campus to an afterschool meeting at the junior school at the other end. I passed students playing cards. I passed students listening to iPods. I passed students working on laptops. I passed students eating snacks and playing frisbee and sitting around and talking story. I remember being somewhat surprised, and not a little gratified, when I turned the corner by the Wo Center and saw a girl (and it would have to be a girl) sitting by herself under a tree, deeply engrossed in reading a book. The image stuck with me because it was, because it has become, something of an anomaly.

I'm starting to notice the same drift in my own life and work. I've been an obsessive reader all my life. Even in years when my life has been relatively busy I've been able to find the time to read between fifty and a hundred books a year, not counting the magazines and newspapers and student papers and school-related professional development materials and the like. But in the last six months, as I've been spending progressively more time in Blogworld, I'm seeing my reading time—at least as I've traditionally thought of it—diminishing. I'm doing a lot more scanning, or grazing, and I'm finding that very stimulating in certain ways. I'm certainly doing a LOT more writing, a lot more regularly, than I have done at any other comparable period in my life. And yet there's something that I value that feels like it is slipping away.

Reading words on a screen is not the same as reading a book. It's not the same texturally, it's not the same physiologically, it's not the same in terms of its inner dynamics, the architecture of the inner space the activity allows or encourages me to inhabit. Will, in his comment on another post, says "...books, ultimately, are words and ideas, not paper and bindings. Just because something is in digital form doesn’t make it any less a book, does it? Sure the form factor is different, and maybe the experience feels different to those of us who have grown up with paper and bindings. But I have to tell you, I love lying in bed at night reading on my Tablet PC, scrolling pages, marking up the text. If I could get more books in digital form, I would read more of them on my computer. Again, I think the jury is out as to whether this direction is good or bad…it’s just different."

I'm not sure I agree. I agree that the jury is out, but I'm not sure it's "just" different. It's different in a way that has implications and consequences, some of which may in fact turn out to be good, or bad. On Saturdays during January and February I often do admissions interviews for students applying to my school. One question I like to ask is "Do you like to read?" Responses fall into three broad categories. There is a very small percentage of students who say yes, and then, when I ask them to recommend a book to me, are able to speak with some enthusiasm and authority about what they recall about what they have read. There is a somewhat larger group of students, who, knowing that they are in an admissions interview, are tactically savvy enough to say, "Oh, absolutely," but who then prove to be unable to come up with a coherent sentence about any particular book. The largest group, and it grows larger each year, is made up of students who say either "No, I don't like to read, but (sigh) I will if I have to," or "I only like to read certain kinds of books." Take Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket out to the picture, and they're essentially non-readers. Or, more accurately, they're merely functional readers. They may be, and and in most cases probably are, technologically adept. They're good at text messaging and instant messaging and Googling and playing video games. They know how to access information. They graze, grab what they need to get an assignment done, and then move on. But their mental lives, as far as I can see, are about a mile wide and about an inch deep.

"What gets lost," says Washington, "is a careful reading of the material." That phrase, "a careful reading," gestures at a whole set of conditions: a time, a place, a text worthy of sustained attention, a reader with a certain set of habits of mind more or less like the ones I was trying to spell out yesterday. I'm nearly sixty years old, I've been a reader all my life, and I find that under the influence of the Web 2.0 I am reading more widely and less deeply than I used to. At least I am in a position to reflect on what I might be missing and make appropriate adjustments, seek out a balance. But I'm worried about the kids who are never going to know what it is that they missed out on.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Habits of Mind

In the last three posts I've been mapping some of the core ideas that are guiding my current thinking about thinking. When I work with my students, or when I'm trying to be more disciplined or purposeful in my own thinking, I often return to some of the strategies I've listed, and I try to test the work being done against at least the standards I've listed. Neither of the lists is complete. Both of the lists have evolved over time, and my sense of which strategies or standards are most useful or relevant often shifts from year to year, class to class, task to task. I believe that is as it should be. But what I am trying to do, in my teaching life, in this blog, and, to the extent that it is possible—although this is always the hard part—in the conduct of my life, is to be thoughtful, and flexible, and competent, and attentive, and compassionate.

A colleague once remarked to me, toward the end of her teaching career, that more and more she thought that the goal of teaching is to encourage students "to become a certain kind of person." If her suspicion, her hunch, is true (and I'm aware that in the eyes of many it might be problematical), then two questions follow: "What kind of person are we talking about?" and "How can we help our students to become that kind of person?"

What are the habits of mind that would define this "certain kind of person"? A lot of our leading theoreticians have gone after this question. Ted Sizer, in Horace's School, lays the habits of mind out this way:

The habit of perspective: organizing an argument, read or heard or seen, into its various parts, and sorting out the major from the minor matter within it. Separating opinion from fact and appreciating the value of each.

The habit of analysis: Pondering each of these arguments in a reflective way, using such logical, mathematical, and artistic tools as may be required to render evidence. Knowing the limits as well as the importance of such analysis.

The habit of imagination: Being disposed to evolve one's own view of a matter, searching for both new and old patterns that serve well one's own and other's current and future purposes.

The habit of empathy: Sensing other reasonable views of a common predicament, respecting all, and honoring the most persuasive among them.

The habit of communication: Accepting the duty to explain the necessary in ways that are clear and respectful both to those hearing or seeing and to the ideas being communicated. Being a good listener.

The habit of commitment: Recognizing the need to act when action is called for; stepping forward in response. Persisting, patiently, as the situation may require.

The habit of humility: Knowing one's right, ones debts, and one's limitations, and those of others. Knowing what one knows and what one does not know. Being disposed and able to gain the needed knowledge, and having the confidence to do so.

The habit of joy: Sensing the wonder and proportion in worthy things and responding to these delights.

Most of these habits may be cast as skills. Ask the student: Can you analyze this matter for me and then tell me what you find? However, the purpose of education involves more than that. Education is so to convince an adolescent of the virtue of these skills and so to give opportunities to practice the skills that they become almost second nature, and graduates live with them fully after they leave school. Of course I listen. Of course I insist on knowing the facts. Of course I am not fully sure about this new matter, but I know what I know and what I do not yet know. Of course you may have a better idea than mine, and I'll listen to it carefully and with and open mind. Of course I'll do something about this if the situation warrants it. Having the skills today is but a small part of the whole. Being committed to using them consistently tomorrow is the crux of it.

Debbie Meier, one of the founders of the Coalition of Essential Schools, lists the habits of mind of the Mission Hills Schools and explains them by linking them to the questions from which they arise:

Evidence: How do we know what's true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us? This includes using the scientific method and more.

Viewpoint: How else might this look if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectations? This requires the exercise if informed "empathy" and imagination. It required flexibility of mind.

Connections/Cause and Effect: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?

Conjecture: Could it have been otherwise? Supposing that? What if ? This habit requires use of imagination as well as knowledge of alternative possibilities. It includes the habits described above.

Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares?

(On the web site of the Coalition for Essential Schools, Meier makes it explicit that this is not a formulaic list, but a cluster of interwoven and somewhat fluid ideas: "They are at the heart of each curriculum as well as being the basis for judging student performance. We never quite write them out the exact same way, and over the years we've realized they are constantly evolving in their meaning.")

Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, over at, offer yet another listing, this time of 16 thinking behaviors:

Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
Managing impulsivity
Gathering data through all senses
Listening with understanding and empathy
Creating, imagining, innovating
Thinking flexibly
Responding with wonderment and awe
Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
Taking responsible risks
Striving for accuracy
Finding humor
Questioning and posing problems
Thinking interdependently
Applying past knowledge to new situations
Remaining open to continuous learning

Finally, Richard Paul and Linda Elder have their own listing of what they are choosing to call "Valuable Intellectual Traits":

Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs.

Intellectual Courage: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically "accept" what we have "learned." Intellectual courage comes into play here, because inevitably we will come to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for non-conformity can be severe.

Intellectual Empathy: Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.

Intellectual Integrity: Recognition of the need to be true to one's own thinking; to be consistent in the intellectual standards one applies; to hold one's self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one's antagonists; to practice what one advocates for others; and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’’s own thought and action.

Intellectual Perseverance: Having a consciousness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations; firm adherence to rational principles despite the irrational opposition of others; a sense of the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.

Faith In Reason: Confidence that, in the long run, one's own higher interests and those of humankind at large will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties; faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can learn to think for themselves, to form rational viewpoints, draw reasonable conclusions, think coherently and logically, persuade each other by reason and become reasonable persons, despite the deep-seated obstacles in the native character of the human mind and in society as we know it.

Fair-mindedness: Having a consciousness of the need to treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to one's own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of one’’s friends, community or nation; implies adherence to intellectual standards without reference to one’’s own advantage or the advantage of one's group.

Looking at these formidable listings, I am simultaneously inspired, in that I do believe that these things are worth striving for, and intimidated, in that the territory looks so large and there are so many ways of trying even to say where we are and where we're heading. So I look to simplify. For me, in the end, I think all of these listings might be boiled down to a few gentle imperatives: Pay attention. Be patient. Keep an open mind. Do good work.

(Thinker image via

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thinking: Standards

In the last two posts I began an inventory of a number of critical thinking strategies that I have found useful in the clasroom. But as I was finishing yesterday's entry I realized that it would be a mistake to give the impression that a collection of strategies would suffice. If we wanted to approach critical thinking systematically, we would need to put those strategies in some sort of context—which I will attempt in a later post—and then there are at least two other dimensions we would need to explore: standards and habits of mind. Today I'd like to sketch out some turf in regard to standards. I'm going to discuss them as thinking standards, but insofar as writing is a predominant vehicle for conveying thought, they serve as standards of good writing as well.

I am indebted to Richard Paul for much of the framing of the idea of standards. In several books that he has published on critical thinking and on his web site, he has identified a set of standards against by which we can attempt to assess the quality of our thinking. In different publications he's played around with the list; cin the list I just linked to he's naming clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, breadth, depth, and logic. I've adapted his listing to some degree, and grouped them as placards over the board in the front of my classroom. We refer to them frequently as we explore the concept of quality in thinking and writing. They are:

Clarity, Specificity, Accuracy: We start with clarity. If what your thinking isn't clear, or if you are not able to communicate it clearly, we're dead in the water. Clarity is often a function of specificity: that's why we often rely on examples and analogies to make ourselves clear. Big generalities are inherently unclear. And accuracy matters. There's a difference between a flaming-red minivan and a flaming red minivan. The presence or absence of the hyphen—an apparently minor matter of accuracy in punctuation, makes a difference. One of those cars is on fire.

Logic, Significance, Relevance: I group these three together because they are value-adds. If your thinking is not clear, not specific, or not accurate, it's simply not good thinking. However necessary those things may be, however, they not sufficient. It's possible to be clear and specific and accurate and still not be thinking very well. Is your thinking (or writing) organized? Is it well-structured? Are there gaps or redundancies? All of those kinds of structural considerations are what we mean by logic.

It would also be possible to be imagine someone who was being clear, logical, specific, and accurate, but still not demonstrating quality in thinking. For example, I might observe, correctly, that wood and concrete are often used as housing materials, and that lettuce and carrots are often used as foods. The clarity and logic of such an assertion are unassailable. But who cares? Is it relevant? That may depend on context, but in most cases they answer will be "No." Is it significant? It would be hard to think of a context in which that would seem like an important assertion. So out of the universe of possible utterances, which ones seem relatively important, relatively useful?

Breadth and Depth: If all of the other six criteria have been met, it is time to consider the Holy Grail of critical thinking, breadth and depth. Have you considered all of the relevant information, looked at the question from several points of view, made the sideways move, thought about other possibilities? Have arrived at a line of thought that that gets beyond the obvious, that goes below the surface, goes deep?

The strategies I enumerated over the last two days are in essence vehicles by which one might aspire to push one's thinking and writing in the direction of the standards of quality listed above. The next step, which I hope to discuss tomorrow, is to use these strategies and pay attention to these standards not just as an occasional exercise, but as a regular part of the fabric of everyday thought. In other words, to develop habits of mind that support and help to develop quality of life and quality of thought.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Thinkertools (II)

A couple more from the toolbox:

K-I-Q: Especially at the start of a semester, I find it clarifying to work with students on making distinctions about what kinds of processing they are doing when they respond to a reading or any other object of attention: a work of art, a problem-based scenario of any kind. There are three to start with: making observations, drawing inferences, and asking questions. The three relevant trigger questions are: What do you know for sure? What are some things that you may not know for sure, but that you are reasonably certain are good inferences? And finally, what do you need to figure out, what is still open to question?

Analogy: How does the situation you are looking at compare to anything else you may be familiar with? Explain situation A by drawing an analogy to situation B. (Student examples here.)

Juxtaposition: This is a slightly different take on analogy: take two things that may look dissimilar and think through their interconnections. One form is simply comparison/contrast.

Visualization: Often it's true that a picture equals a thousand words. A number of blogs I have looked at recently are referencing this übercool inventory of graphic organizers: you have to see it to believe it.

Reflection: As a followup to many assignments and classroom activities, one of the most clarifying exercises is to ask the students to finish off with a reflection paper (or perhaps a conference), in which they can explicitly think back over and debrief the process. It might a reflection done in regard to a specific process, like reading a poem or writing an essay, or finishing a video project, or it might be more generally a reflection about the overall learning goals and where one stands at the moment, as in these end-of-the-third-quarter reflections about critical thinking itself.

Okay, I could go on. But this is a preliminary listing of some useful tools for directing student's attention not just to what they think, but how they think, and how they might go about thinking better.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Well, it's the start of a new semester, and I am once again working with students who have had a variety of different teachers during the first half of our Sophomore English course. There is a common course description, a fairly well-articulated statement of purpose, and a common rubric for evaluating essays. We teach a number of major texts in common. We meet regularly to compare notes and share ideas. And yet it should surprise no one that in a school with 450 students and up to nine teachers at each grade level, despite all these commonalities, the students entering my class at the beginning of the new semester arrive with widely varying sets of skills and understandings. Since the course designed to have a strong critical thinking course, it is up to me to try to pull together some threads that will help the students individually and also help to build some common understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

I've evolved a number of, well, I need a term here, so I guess I'll call them thinkertools, that I wind up introducing to the students and then reinforcing through various activities through the course of the semester. My hope in this post is to come up with at least a preliminary listing of some of those tools, with a brief explanation of each.

Phrase Your Lack of Understanding as a Question: Many times students encounter something they don't get and respond by saying either "I don't understand," or "This doesn't make sense." (Or worse, "This is dumb.") None of these responses are useful, because none lead anywhere. When a student says, for example, "I don't understand Holden," my automatic response is "Can you phrase what you just said as a question?" Being able to ask the right question, in my experience, puts you well on the way toward an answer. And sometimes, the best questions don't have a single answer, or, for that matter, any answer, but the questions are still worth asking because of the thought processes they engender. (See the Chekhov quote in the sidebar for an elegant statement of this position.)

Question-Based Strategic Thinking: Having come up with a good question, consider as many answers as you can think of, even if they initially look like dead ends: A1, A2, A3, A4...A27. Once the list is out there, you can select, or, if necessary, invent a way of rank-ordering the answers based on whatever criteria are relevant: evidence, adequacy, simplicity (other things being equal, simple answers trump complicated answers). The Future Problem Solving Program has adapted and formalized this kind of process to their scenario competitions, and it's surprising how adept even very young students can become at using it.

Assess Your Current Situation: Three powerful questions that are relevant in any situation are: "Where am I now? Where am I trying to get to? How might I get there?" Whether you're writing an essay or reading a poem or considering where your relationship with your significant other is headed, these questions are worth visiting, and re-visiting.

The Sideways Move: Good thinkers have the ability to shift their point of view. The trigger for the move is some set of words like "Everything we've said so far is true, but there's another way of looking at it." Then consider—or invent—one.

Balance Generalizations with Specifics: The writer's cliché is "Show, Don't Tell." Much student thinking, like most of what passes for thinking in matters of public discourse, consists of what I have come to call BUGs—Big Unsupported Generalities. Like the sentence I just wrote. The next move, for balance, might begin with, "For example..." No one can be specific all the time. But it's useful for students to be aware of when they are generalizing and when they are being specific. As a writing teacher, I would say that I spend about half of my energy helping students figure out what to cut, and most of the other half encouraging them to push down a level or two on the ladder between BUG's ("Life is just a bowl of cherries") and minute specifics (A randomly selected sentence from The Lay of the Land: "The white-capped bay surface reveals, at a distance, only a single wet-suited jet-skier plowing and bucking along, clinging to his devil machine as it plunges, wave into steely wave.")

Write Your Way Through It: I've come to believe that writing is perhaps the single most powerful self-instructional tool we possess. Most students assume that in order to write you have to first know what you have to say. Sometimes you do. But writing can also be a way to generate thought. Five-minute or ten-minute freewrites allow half-formed thoughts and hunches begin to evolve a form. Writing makes thinking hold still. Writing out your first thoughts makes it possible to arrive at second thoughts.

Converse. With Yourself, If Necessary: Each semester I make a point of having students at various times interview one another in pairs, with one partner being responsible for keeping the other one talking by pumping him/her with questions. Then I ask them to go home and write a dialogue in which one person questions the other about whatever the topic was. The results of this exercise (samples here and here) are always vibrant and interesting and alive in ways that student writing too often is not. One powerful way to generate solid thinking is to interview yourself: ask the questions you have, and give the answers that you can come up with. You will in all likelihood surprise yourself.

There are, of course more. But this is the start of an inventory: what's in my toolbox.

(Photo by Alfredo Hisa).

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Lay of the Land (III)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote two posts (here and here) about Richard Ford's book The Lay of the Land, which I finally finished reading the other day. It was a long, slow, enjoyable read. The title phrase has a number of literal and metaphorical interpretations. It works at one level because Frank Bascombe is a realtor, whose job it is to match his prospective buyers with the house they want in the landscape they want. It works at another level because the novel is in some ways a painstaking recreation of the texture of the life in a particular (and uniquely American) time and place: several days around Thanksgiving in the year 2000 in suburban New Jersey. And it works in the more general metaphorical sense, where getting the lay of the land is an exercise in orientation, an attempt to correctly read one's surroundings.

Bascombe is of a certain age (55), has a certain physical condition (undergoing treatment for prostrate cancer), and has suffered some painful familial losses (one of his sons died young, his first wife divorced him, and his second wife has left him when her former husband, long presumed dead, suddenly shows up more or less on her doorstep.) He has weathered all of these experiences with a certain wry, soft-edged, self-deprecating humor. He is not easily distressed. Even when he is distressed, he tries not to let it get the better of him. But he sure thinks a lot. And one of the things he thinks a lot about—not surprisingly, under the circumstances, is what it means to grow old. That's a territory for which each of us must create his own map.

But there are, of course, models for us to examine for their possible relevance to our own situation. In Frank's life, one such model is Wade, whom he first met perhaps 15 years before when, for a time, he was dating Wade's daughter. The relationship didn't work out, but he remained friends with Wade. And now Wade has turned into a crotchety old fart, a character, and Frank watches him with a mixture of fascination and distaste:
Back in the Barnegat Pines days of '84—when Wade took life more as it tumbled, projected a seamless, amiable surface, kept his garage neat, his tools stowed, his oil changed, tires rotated, went to church most Sundays, watched the Giants not the Jets, prayed for both the Democrats and the Republicans, favored a humane, Vatican II approach to the world's woes, inasmuch as we live among surfaces, etc.—back then I just assumed that he, like the rest of us (prospective son-in-laws think such things), would wake up one morning at four, feel queasy, a little light-headed, achy from that leaf-raking he'd done the evening before and decide not to get up yet. Then he'd put his head back to the pillow for an extra snooze and somewhere around six and without a whimper, he'd soundlessly buy the farm. "He usually doesn't sleep that late, but I thought, well, he's been under a strain at work, so I just let him—" Gone. Cold as a pike.

Only old age plays by strange rules. Wade's now survived happiness to discover decrepitude. To be alive at eighty-four, he's had to become someone entirely other than the smooth-jawed ex-Nebraska engineer who was cheered to see the sun rise, cheered to see it set. He's had to adapt—to shrink around his bones like a Chinaman, grow stringy, volatile, as self-interested as a pawnbroker, unable to see his fellow men except as blunt instruments of his demon designs. Apart from merely liking him, and liking to match Wade—remembered to Wade—present tense, I'm also interested for personal reasons in observing if any demonstrable good's to be had from getting as old as Methuselah, other than that the organism keeps functioning like a refrigerator. We assume persistence to be a net gain, but it still needs to be proved. (312-3)

The passage captures quite well the sharply observant and wryly humorous turn of Frank Bascombe's mind. Much of The Lay of the Land is made up of passages like this, passages which are not narrative so much as ruminative. The lay of the land we are experiencing as we read this is the shape of the internal landscape of Frank's brain, the way his thoughts move in mediative, elaborative circles around certain recurring questions and themes. Frank is a world-class ruminator. What makes him such good company is that the questions and themes that he chews on are not-so-distantly relevant to anyone who has managed to find their way to the North End of middle age. It struck me more than once as I was reading that this is a book for adults, not age-of-majority adults, but adults who by age forty have, as the French proverb suggests, the face they deserve. Despite all the wisecracking by the narrator and the sheer linguistic exuberance of the author, this is a serious novel, in every sense of that word.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

And What is Your Name?

Well, the second semester begins tomorrow. We had exams during the second half of last week, a holiday on Monday, and a teacher work day today. Tomorrow I get to meet a whole new group of students with whom I will be spending 56 hours during the next four and a half months. The first day is always a challenging day for me. It's a day I generally enjoy, trying to get a read on the new groups, learn their names, get a sense of what the chemistry in the room is going to be. It's a day I value, and look forward to. (I have a harder time with last days: I always find it difficult to find the right note to end on.)

I have a couple of standard items of business I always attend to. I hand out file cards and have the students answer some generic questions about where they're coming from and what's on their minds. The school suggests/requires that I hand out an "expectations sheet" which outlines the goals of the course and lets the students—and the parents—know how they can get in touch with me. And I usually do some kind of an exercise that allows me to learn their names before the first day is over. The one that has worked the best for me is first to tell them the story of my name: Richard Bruce Schauble.

"Richard" was the given name of my mother's brother Dick Porter, who worked as as an engineer with the Lummus Company in New York City, designing cracking furnaces for refining petroleum. One day Dick decided to bring a co-worker home for dinner with him, a man with the resoundingly Germanic name of Otto Charles Schauble. When Otto arrived at Dick's house for the meal, he met Dick's younger sister Miriam. They fell in love, got married, and some years later decided to name their sixth child, me, after the man who had introduced them.

My middle name, Bruce, was the name that my mother wanted me to be called. But she thought that Richard Bruce sounded better than Bruce Richard, so she put them in that order on the birth certificate. I was named Bruce after my mother's father, Oren Bruce Porter, who passed from this earth several hours before my arrival on it.

My family name, Schauble, is the name of an old German family from the Schwartzwald, or Black Forest area of Germany. I'm not in touch with any relatives there, although Wolfgang Schaüble, five years my senior, has had a long and in some cases unfortunately colorful career in German politics.

Having shared this much about my name and its history with the students, by way of providing a model, I ask them to work with a partner and have the partner share the story of his/her name. Each student is then asked to say his/her own name, to introduce the partner to the class, and then to tell the story of that person's name. While those presentations are going on, I'm mentally going around the room attempting to lock in each name with a face. Usually by the end of the exercise, about fifteen minutes, I've got them down, at least for that moment. If I have trouble the next day, and I usually do have trouble with a few of them, I try refresh my memory by taking attendance.

Depending on how much time is left over, I will either share a brief reading with the students, often a poem, and give them a short writing assignment based on what we have read, or give them another short writing assignment which I most often make up on the spot. If I were making one up right now, for example, I might ask them to think about what name—first, middle, and last—they would have chosen for themselves if they had been given the choice, write that name at the top of the page, and then write the story of THAT name.

I'll close this post with a poem by Mark Strand that a colleague brought to my attention this fall, one which I will probably find some way to work into the exercise I just described, either as a setup or a followup. It describes a moment of wonder and self-recognition and a kind of transcendence, the kind of moment we might hope to experience at least once or twice in a lifetime, or perhaps, if we're lucky, in a new semester of sophomore English:

My Name

Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Juxtaposition III

At the end of his justly famous and much anthologized 1873 essay about a class he took with Louis Agassiz at Harvard, Samuel Scudder quotes Agassiz as saying "Facts are stupid things, until brought into connection with some general law." The statement highlights the importance of context. Take the word "hands," for example. That word in isolation has a denotative meaning, but little other significance out of context. But put it on the page in the vicinity of another word, and significances proliferate. For example:



Now the placement of the words within the same field of vision encourages us to look at the words as being in some sort of unarticulated but inferable relationship with one another. We look at one word, then at the other, and then start thinking about what sort of relationship might exist between them. The space between the words becomes a field of energy in which the mind begins to play.

One of my colleagues at Punahou, Joe Tsujimoto, is the author of several books, among them Teaching Poetry to Adolescents, which was published by the NCTE in 1988. One of his favorite exercises early on when working with students is to ask them to write two-word poems of this kind. The assignment gives students the chance to explore the often surprising power that can be generated by the juxtaposition of just two words.

A lot of Japanese poetry in the tradition of haiku explores the energies between words in much the same way. I once was given a t-shirt with an enso sign (the calligraphic circle at the head to the left). Enso is a symbol of the harmonious interconnectedness of all things in the universe. On the t-shirt was brief poem, also in Japanese calligraphy. I don't recall what the Japanese words were, but the sense of it was something like this:

Flowers on the mountain

Birds on the wave

The placement of those two phrases next to one another encourages us to see them as related to one another, mirrors of one another, their syntactical and imagistic connectedness gesturing at the larger theme of interconnectedness implied by the enso itself.

Of course, all poetry—and all writing, and all thought—might be said to be, in essence, putting one word next to another, one sentence next to another, one idea next to another. And it might also be said the art of teaching is in large part the art of deciding what experience will best lead from the experience students have just had toward the experience they will be having next. Another colleague has a wide variety of context-shifting exercises he asks students to do. If the class has read a short story, for example, and come to the point where they are starting to run out of things to say, he might then ask them to look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music and talk about how they go about making sense of that work of art. That completed, he might ask them to return to the short story, but to try to see it freshly through the interpretive lens they came up with for the work of art. What he is teaching the students to develop strategic thinking analogically: this worked over here; what would happen if we tried it over there?

Essentially what I've been trying to work my way through in these last few posts is some ideas about how purposeful choices about juxtaposition, both within genres and between them, can help to generate broader and deeper thinking. It's a commonsense notion, and one which has many other manifestations other than the ones I've discussed. The basic comparison-contrast essay is one familiar variation. And it's also given me the chance to share a few of the resources that I have found to be helpful in putting these ideas in front of students. If you're still with me, thanks for your patience.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Juxtaposition II

I don't where it was that I first got the idea of asking students to read poems in clusters or two or three. It's easy enough to do, just put several poems on the same subject (or two poems by the same author on different subjects or in different forms) on a page and ask the students to read and discuss them, first individually, and then, as we did in yesterday's post, in terms of how one of them helps us to re-think the other. One of my favorites is a two poem cluster: "Song of the Wandering Aengus" and "Samurai Song" by Robert Pinsky:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had no
Mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

What I like about this particular combination is that even though the poems are formally dissimilar and written nearly 100 years apart, one by an Irishman writing the voice of an Irish mythological figure, and one by an American writing in the voice of a medieval Japanese warrior, they actually seem to exist in a sort of dialogue with one another, the sort of dialogue that has led some of us to talk about literature as a "Great Conversation." I have mentioned before that I often ask students to consider Christopher Clausen's assertion that "All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: 'What kind of word is this?' and 'How should we live in it?'" Each of these poems offers an implied answer to both of those questions, and the interesting thing is that the answers are, at least at first thought, polar opposites. Yeats seems to suggest that there is a certain kind of magic in the world, and that once one has tasted it, that taste will sustain a lifelong odyssey or quest. It does not seem to bother Aengus that he has not yet found his glimmering girl; he is sustained even in his old age by the (gorgeously articulated) vision of what it will be like when he does. Aengus seems to believe that the way we should live in this world is, having found a dream, to pursue it. It's an ethic of acquistiveness. And even if we fail to acquire that which we seek, the quest itself has given purpose and value to his life.

The samurai, on the other hand, has opted for an ethic of renunciation. His answer to the question "What kind of world is this?" seems to be something like "a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, a world in which everything will in all likelihood be taken from you, sooner or later." His strategy, as he says explicitly, is detachment. He has become an expert in substitution, in the strategy doing without by simply working with what is left after what you have is lost: "When I had no eyes, I listened. When I had no ears, I thought. When I had no thought, I waited."

And yet even though these speakers answer both questions differently, there is one important point of similarity: they each do in fact have a code, a philosophy, a consistent way of answering those two big questions. They may disagree with one another on matters of principle, but they are both principled people. Similarly, even though the language—the diction and the syntax and the figures of speech—that they use is quite different (we would talk about how if this were a class), in each case that particular kind language is consistent with their personal and philosophical orientations. Which raises another interesting question for us as readers: if we think of these two as models of a sort, in that they have each come up with a language that is unique and true to their own belief and experience, how do we as individuals do the same? The fact that these are invented voices adds another dimension to the question: not only might we wish to find our own true voice, but we might aspire to be able to speak as truly in the voices of others. Sidney Pollack, at a graduation speech I cited in an earlier post, argued that that effort—the effort to imagine and speak in the voice of others—helps to shape the kind of person you become: "It's a way of understanding the world that functions beyond intellect and it teaches and touches through feeling and experience even when the experience is purely that of the imagination (My italics). Fiction, and by that I mean the aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds, must persuade you to interpret the world through compassion." It seems to me that that is what both Yeats and Pinsky are up to here, and the juxtaposition of their two narrators not only allows me to feel some sense of understanding for both of them, but to see each through the other's eyes.