Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Billy Collins at Iolani

Billy Collins was in town tonight, giving a reading at Iolani School, where he has been "in residence" this week. He read his poems with his characteristic deadpan humor, offering comments in between. It was a very pleasant, listener-friendly evening. Here, by way of illustration, are a few of the poems with his introductory comments:

...I'm referring to the outcropping of gated communities and condo developments that are occurring all over America. And apart from just the ecological despoliation involved, I'm always, as someone who's conscious of language, really taken with the names of them, and typically the names are things like "Deer Hollow" and "Badger Meadows" and so forth, and it always strikes me that these are actually the epitaphs for the creatures who have been driven off in order to create these condos. So I wrote this poem on the subject, and I was saying to the students that usually I don't like to know where I'm going in a poem, I find it more interesting to just follow the drift of a certain thought and see where it goes, but in this case I pretty much knew what I wanted to say about this, I had an opinion, which I usually don't write out of opinions, and that's why I wrote it as a sonnet, because I kind of knew what it was and I could fit it into a box. I called it "The Golden Years" because my sense of the speaker is that he is a fellow of retirement age.

The Golden Years

All I do these drawn-out days
is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge
where there are no pheasants to be seen
and last time I looked, no ridge.

Sure, I could drive over to Quail Falls
and spend the day there playing bridge,
but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail
would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge.

I know a widow at Fox Run
and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge.
One of them smokes, and neither can run,
so I'll stick to the pledge I made to Midge.

Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge?
I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.

I was reading, I don't know why it must have been a low point in my life, but I was reading a book on how to write fiction (laughter)—contemplating a career change—and I came across a page of dos and don'ts, a very basic book, and one of the don'ts I had heard of before, I think, and it kind of popped out of the book, and I used it as an epigraph for this poem, and the "Don't" was "Never use the word suddenly just to create tension." And the example that was given was "I pointed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger. Suddenly, shots rang out." (Laughter) So it's a cheap way to keep the reader on edge. So I thought, well, that's fiction, but I don't write fiction, so poetry doesn't have to adhere to these dos and don'ts, so the result was the poem, which is called "Tension."


“Never use the word suddenly just to
create tension.”
—Writing Fiction

Suddenly, you were planting some yellow petunias
outside in the garden,
and suddenly I was in the study
looking up the word oligarchy for the thirty-seventh time.

When suddenly, without warning,
you planted the last petunia in the flat,
and I suddenly closed the dictionary
now that I was reminded of that vile form of governance.

A moment later, we found ourselves
standing suddenly in the kitchen
where you suddenly opened a can of cat food
and I just as suddenly watched you doing that.

I observed a window of leafy activity
and, beyond that, a bird perched on the edge
of the stone birdbath
when suddenly you announced you were leaving

to pick up a few things at the market
and I stunned you by impulsively
pointing out that we were getting low on butter
and another case of wine would not be a bad idea.

Who could tell what the next moment would hold?
Another drip from the faucet?
Another little spasm of the second hand?
Would the painting of a bowl of pears continue

to hang on the wall from that nail?
Would the heavy anthologies remain on their shelves?
Would the stove hold its position?
Suddenly, it was anyone’s guess.

The sun rose ever higher.
The state capitals remained motionless on the wall map
when suddenly I found myself lying on a couch
where I closed my eyes and without any warning

began to picture the Andes, of all places,
and a path that led over the mountain to another country
with strange customs and eye-catching hats
suddenly fringed with little colorful, dangling balls.

We were talking again in class, or I was running out of my mouth about how, the bigger the subject you take on in a poem, the smaller the approach, that often you need a tiny thing, an aperture, a keyhole, that you can look into this bigger room instead of just bursting through the door. And this is an example, I think, of that, it's a poem that's about something that American children do in the summertime, and it's called "The Lanyard."

The Lanyard

Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

I went to a pretty ordinary camp. I had friends who went to fancier camps, and there was a wider variety of things to be made at their camp. For me, it was potholder, lanyard. I chose the lanyard, "and that has made all the difference." (Laughter). But friends of mine would come back from camp, and they had kilns—I didn't know what a kiln was, but they would make these ceramic things—oh, the third thing you could make was an ashtray of tin, which just meant you took a piece of tin and hammered on it for two weeks, and gave to your father and explained to him that it was an ashtray, instead of just a piece of battered tin—these more privileged children would come home with these cups, they'd make ceramic cups, but they weren't bright enough to put a handle on them, so they were about as useful as they lanyard, and one mother told me, after I had read that poem one night, that these cups are referred to as "lanyard holders."

One little insider tip that I like to give students of poetry is that if you get stuck in a poem, just have a dog come into it, and it will kind of get you out of your self absorbtion for a few lines... dog's just tend to cheer things up when they arrive. But the problem with that is it's a very risky genre because things can get very quickly sentimental, a poem about any kind of house pet, a gold fish, whatever, can get moist, a little maudlin, so again, this is another poem, one of the few poems where I set out with an agenda, I wanted to write a poem about a dog that was as free of sentimentality as I could make it, and the reason the poem is called "The Revanant," which is the word for the day - a revenant is simply a ghost that comes back to pay you a visit:

The Revenant

I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you -- not one bit.
When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.
I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair to eat,
a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.
I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and -- greatest of insults -- shake hands without a hand.
I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.
You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.
The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.
While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all of my strength
not to raise my head and howl.
Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place
except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner --
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


uring the afternoon, after I get home from school, it's been my habit to sit down with the newspaper, browse for the very few minutes it takes me to get drowsy, and then take a nap for anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour to let my batteries recharge. Over the last two weeks, I've broken that pattern and begun establishing another, which is to grab my camera and either jump in the car and go somewhere, or just go for a walk in the neighborhood and get some air. Yesterday I did both. I went out to get a sandwich around 4:00, and then, when I came back, decided that I wasn't quite ready to settle in with my schoolwork yet, so after I put the car in the garage I took my camera and started walking.

ach time I go out with my camera I have a couple of things in mind. On the one hand having the camera with me is mostly an excuse for being outside with something like a purpose. On the other hand, I like the way that having the camera focuses my alertness and keeps me looking. Sometimes I have no clear sense of what I'm looking for; I'm just there with the camera in case something turns up. (I'm reminded of what Flannery O'Connor side with regard to writing: "Every morning between 9:00 and 12:00 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper. Many times, I just sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing. If an idea does come between 9 and 12 I am there ready for it.") Other times, I am on a hunt, I am actively looking for something. That's what I was doing yesterday. I had been reading a book on photography which had a brief passage about Edward Weston and how in the early days of Polaroid photography he had gone out put together a book of photographs based on letters of the alphabet. It was rainy off and on yesterday afternoon, so I wanted to walk close to home. I decided as a kind of experiment to see how many letters of the alphabet I could find as I walked. Photographs of actual letters were ruled out; I was going to try to find the shapes in the physical objects around me.

inding the letters was easy at first. Some of them more or less jumped out at me, and since I had the whole alphabet to work with, there were a lot of possibilities. Then as I went along and started eliminating letters, it got harder to find plausible renditions of the remaining letters. But I was interested in the way the particular mission I had set for myself was changing the kind of experience I was having when I was walking. Instead of seeing the buildings or the trees or the people whole as I normally would, I was looking at intersections and junctures and shapes and shadows. There were a number of times when I more or less lost track of where I was and looked up in surprise some minutes later. A number of people smiled somewhat warily at me as they walked by me while I was bent over a bit of chain-link fence or the top of a cactus; it occurred to me that I might be cementing my reputation as the neighborhood oddball.

etting the whole alphabet put together is going to take a while, but it should be an entertaining pursuit. It's not a project that has any real purpose or payoff, just a kind of noodling around with an idea. I hadn't actually thought of doing anything with the letters until I started writing tonight's post, and had the idea of using the pictures I was going to share anyway as drop caps. So the whole enterprise this evening is a kind of novelty. I didn't know what I was going to wind up doing until I did it, and now it sort of looks like it's done, or at least this part of it is done, for now. This is the kind of thing I might often have done in my original physical commonplace book, freehand of course, but it's a little trickier to pull it off given the formal constraints of the blog. But this has been an entertainment, a confection, a concoction. It'll do for now.

Monday, February 26, 2007

101 Days

I've been at this now for 101 days. I started Throughlines on November 17 of last year, and have been able to keep up with my initial intention to post something each day, even though yesterday's post, as one of my close friends was busting me about, "shouldn't have counted," because it was essentially just a link to a video. In any case, there's an exercise I ask my students to do from time to time, by way of taking stock, and I'm thinking this is as good a time as ever to do it myself. The exercise is a self-assessment in the form of three questions: Where are you now? Where are you trying to get to? and How might you get there?

Where are you now?

Well, I'm a hundred days in. It's been probably the single most productive period in my writerly life. I started out wanting to find out what the whole point was about blogging, and to learn enough to try to find a way to make it work as a tool in my classes. And that has happened. One of my classes is blogging away happily, one of my classes is using a wiki, I've started a blog for the department, and a number of individual teachers, listed on the department site, have jumped in on their own. I've been able to explore a lot of connections, throughlines, running through my head and my teaching practice. I've started to find my way around the edublog community and have been inspired and gratified by the large number of thoughtful and dedicated teacher-bloggers who are trying to do the best by their students and to sustain a serious professional dialogue online. I've been blown away by the crossfunctionality of so many emerging technical tools: flickr, skype, google docs, google reader, youtube, pageflakes, podomatic, and God knows how many more. Three months ago I knew nothing about any of these things. Three months now seems like a long time ago.

I'm reading more every day than I ever have, but I'm reading differently. I've got RSS feeds coming in by the dozens each day, but I'm having trouble finishing books. I've got a stack of brand new books waiting for me by my easy chair, and there are so many things going on in my head that I don't have time to get to them. I've written very little poetry lately, and I'm not even napping the way I used to. I don't know whether this kind of continuous tech-assisted intellectual stimulation is sustainable. At some point I'm going to have to take a deep breath, back off, make some decisions about boundaries, but right now it's still pretty fresh and exciting, and I feel like I'm learning a ton and like the time that I'm spending is time well spent. I collapse into bed at the end of the day and my brain is exhausted. I'm asleep in minutes.

Where are you trying to get to?

I think this is a real essential question for me, and I don't really have an answer for it yet. I'd like to be able to find a sustainable pattern. I've had arthritis in my body for 16 years and I've been able to keep it pretty much at bay because I've worked out a series of stretches and strengthening exercises that I do the first thing in the morning every day without fail in the darkness on the living room rug before the sun has risen. It takes me about 20 minutes, which is enough to have the desired effect and not so long that I'm ever tempted to skip it. I'd like to be able to find the blogging equivalent of that rhythm. Over the last three months I've averaged probably an hour to two hours a day of blog-related just in terms of the writing, and I don't think that's sustainable in the long run, given that I have other responsibilities as a teacher a student (of piano, among other things), a department head, a father, a husband. Plus I need to exercise during the day as well, mostly by walking. And I need to sleep. Right now I have three sets of student papers waiting for me, and I'd like to have them for the kids tomorrow. So the time that I am spending doing this is time I'm spending not doing that.

In a year, I'd like to have some applications and some templates in place that will assist my students in their journeys toward quality in reading and in writing and in thinking and in the conduct of their lives. The question has been raised in a number of quarters recently (like in this post at Borderland ) about why we blog in the first place, and whether we perhaps shouldn't. To me the answers to that question are pretty transparent. I've always been a believer in the discipline of writing, and the value add in blogging is that you not only get to explore but you are able to make connections with other explorers. I'm aware that there are bloggers out there who are doing what they do for entirely different reasons than that, and some for reasons that I do not admire or respect, but that's not really a problem. I don't think they have any interest in what I am trying to do, and I have no interest in what they're trying to do, so we basically don't exist for one another. But I do think that in a year I would like to be part of, and do what I can to support, the community of teachers who are trying to use technology to make learning more interesting and exciting and sustainable for our students.

How are you going to get there?

A few thoughts, resolutions maybe, in the form of a list:

  • I want to use Throughlines as a space to talk to myself, and to anyone else who is interested, about how to read and write and teach well.
  • Having come this far, I'm going to give myself permission to take a day or two off, especially when I'm tired, or conversely, when I'm onto a Big Idea that is going to take longer to work out than I have on any given day to spend on it. It's been a good ride, but there have been times when I would have been better off building longer and hitting the "Publish" button less frequently.
  • I've gotten the framework set up for my students, and so far, in the first month or so of class, I've pretty much made the preliminary decisions about what's to go up on the sites. But it was my intention all along to invite their input and let them start to shape these spaces in ways that work for them, so that's something I need to do more of, starting now.
  • Some of my colleagues, notably Chris Watson, have gotten involved with other teachers across the world and initiated larger projects which at this point almost make my head start spinning. I don't feel I have enough space left in my brain to stake out yet another territory, but I want to keep an eye on what they're doing and at some point try to get my foot in the door.

I'd like to close this post with a sincere thank you to all of you who have been reading this blog and giving me feedback about what you see here. I've appreciated your comments and support, and I've learned just an amazing amount from following what you have been writing in each of your own spaces. The cliché about teaching has always been that it's an isolating profession. What I've learned is that it doesn't have to be.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Standard Lecture #37

Yesterday I found myself repeating to my sophomores a speech I have made enough times that it's become almost calcified. But it gets at something that I believe to be both true and at least potentially significant. It goes something like this:

You're about to start reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. (A few smiles, a chorus of groans.) You've seen and talked with many other students at your grade level who have already been reading the book. I don't know what the word on the street is, but I do know this: at the end of the semester I always ask students to tell me which one book they think we should get rid of, and which one book they think we should keep. And by a margin of about five to one, The Poisonwood Bible is the one that students tell me we should keep.

Not everyone likes the book, of course. It's a long book, it is a book that is going to challenge some of your thinking, it's a book that is in all likelihood unlike any other book you have read up to this point. So I'm going to ask you not to judge the book before we get started. Think of it this way. Of all the people who have ever read this book (or pretty much any other book you are likely to encounter in school) there are a certain number of readers, perhaps a majority, who are going to enjoy reading it, get something out of it, and look back on the reading as having been a valuable experience. Likewise, there is a somewhat smaller group of readers who are going to dislike reading it, not get anything out of it, and, if they manage to finish the book at all, are going to look at it as being a waste of time. Let's represent the two groups this way:

Now, we have to add another factor into the picture: you. As you consider those two groups, I'd like you to think about the question of which group you would prefer to belong to.

Because here's my argument: you do have a choice. It's possible to be the kind of reader who will enjoy the book and get something out of it, and it's possible to be the kind of reader who won't. And which group you wind up in has a lot to do with how you go about reading the book. I had a teacher once who told my class that most good books teach you how to read them well as you go along. In the beginning the book may be confusing or frustrating or hard to get into, but if you stay with it and pay attention to the cues the book is giving you, you can learn to be the kind of reader that particular book needs you to be.

In my experience most students start with the assumption that a book is good or it isn't, and that whether or not it is good has mostly to do with the book itself and very little to do with them. I'd like to start suggest that you try out a different assumption: that whether or not a book is good for you has mostly to do with whether or not you can teach yourself to be the kind of reader that book wants you to be.

That's the real reason we're in school, and why when we're in school we read books. It's not about this particular book at all. It's about whether, in the course of getting a high school education, you can learn how to be a flexible, creative reader, a reader who can adapt to whatever you are asked to read and do it successfully. If you can do that, everything that you have to study in junior year, senior year, college, and beyond will be easier for you than it will be for the student who is stuck with the reading skills he had in fourth grade.

If you are reading a book and the way you are reading the book isn't working for you, you basically have three options. First, you could keep doing what doesn't work, which will probably be frustrating and angst-inducing and generally a bad scene. Second, you could just give up and reach for the Spark Notes or just try to fake your way through it; the problem is that even if you get away with it, which you probably won't, you will have forfeited whatever chance you had to actually learn something during the five weeks we will be spending on this book. Third option: you try brainstorming some ideas about how to read the book in a different way.

Let me give you an example. (I should warn you that this is my version of the story, and that if you asked somebody else they might give you a different version. But bear with me.) Several years ago, before you arrived at the academy, we had a program at Punahou called "The Book in Common." At the end of each school year, everyone—the students, the teachers, the administrators, the secretaries, the maintenance staff—was given a copy of the same book, with the agreement that we would all read the book over the summer. A different book was chosen each year, and it was really nice because when we came back in the fall there were lots of interesting conversations that took place in class and out of class and at lunch about the book we had all read in common, and it was one way of helping to pull a very large community into the same conversation. And they'd usually invite the author to come to the school during the year and speak at assemblies and meet with people who wanted to talk about the book. So that was interesting, too.

But it was always the English department that chose the book, and at a certain point in time the teachers in the other departments said, "Hey, why don't we rotate the choice of book so that different departments get to choose?" So they put together a committee and figured out a rotation and the department that got to go first chose Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, which is set of essays about famous scientists who studied the origins of diseases. I had actually read Microbe Hunters when I was in junior high school and remembered some of the scientists (Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek) and remembered liking it when I read it then.

But as soon as I opened my brand spanking new copy of Microbe Hunters at the start of the summer vacation and started reading, I went, "Uh, oh." I wasn't much liking the book, and I suspected, correctly as it turned out, that most of the students would hate it. Now I could have done what most of the students did, and simply tossed the book aside after the first few pages. But I said to myself, no, we have this book-in-common program and I think it's a good thing, so I'm going to work through this, and in order to do that I'm going to have to shift gears. So instead of reading this book for information, which is what I might have expected to do, I'm going to read this book in order to find out what is bugging me about it. I'm going to read with a highlighter in my hand and I'm going to mark all the passages that irk me or make me feel angry or frustrated and try to figure out why I'm having such a hard time.

Well, a funny thing happened. First of all, I was able to nail down pretty quickly a few things that were affecting my reading. One thing was the author's sense of humor, or what he thought was funny, that wasn't coming across as humorous 80 years later. Another thing was that he had a kind of unusual, formal way of putting his sentences together, and that took some getting used to. But the most important thing was that I had turned the process of reading into a kind of detective hunt, looking for clues to what was making the reading hard for me, and that got to be kind of fun and got me far enough into the book that I started to be realize that the things that were bugging me weren't that important and that there were a lot of other interesting ideas and stories to pay attention to. The more I read, the more I enjoyed the book, and by the time I was done I was pretty happy with it.

So when I came back in the fall all ready to talk about the book with my classes, everyone looked at me like I must be out of my mind. "Read that book?" "No way!" "I didn't get past the first page!" "That was an awful book!" And so on. As it turns out, the reaction against the book was so strong that the next year they just let the whole book-in-common thing slide. So that was the book that killed the Book in Common.

Which, I think, is unfortunate. Understandable, perhaps, but unfortunate. Because if enough people had been willing to adjust their reading strategies to be able to become the readers that book needed them to be, we all might have been able to learn something from one another, and from the experience. And it seems to me that that is what we are here for.

So as we begin The Poisonwood Bible, try to keep an open mind. If the book is working for you, fine. If it isn't, ask yourself what you might do differently. If you have trouble coming up with something, come and see me about it, or bring it up in class, and we'll try to figure it out. My hope, my wish for you, is that reading this book will be an enjoyable and worthwhile. Let's try to make that happen.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Eros and Eris

Took my camera with me to Ala Moana Shopping Center tonight. Was taking pictures more or less at random, and then startled myself when I got this in the viewfinder and took the shot.


This is a poem that I first drafted one night in early January when my son was home on break from college. There was a restlessness in the weather that matched my own (I'm rarely up at midnight) and then I was writing it I heard my son at work in his bedroom music studio, manifesting a different kind of purposeful restlessness.

I let the poem sit for a while and then brought it to Joe Tsujimoto's writing group yesterday afternoon, where I got some useful feedback that gave me a way to go back into it. Probably not done yet, but getting there:


The wind is up tonight, tearing at the louvres, sweeping

along the outside walls of our condo and clutching

at the corners with distraught whistles and moans.

It seems to seek a space in which to flow free, a world

flat and frictionless, mirror-smooth beneath the blackened sky.

In the next room, my son stitches syncopated rhythms

and fragments of songs into a beat to back the rap

that even now is on his lips, pulsing forward, words emerging,

surging, swirling in search of a shape that will hold the freight

of his urge to create a sound that is fresh and seductive and true.

Then there’s me, alone in the living room at ten before midnight,

pencil in hand, trying to lay the loose ends of my thoughts

into a line of syllables that will tame the restless currents

flowing through my mind, assume a shape that satisfies

and sends me off content at last into the stillness of sleep.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

56 Hours

At the end of yesterday's post I alluded to some dilemmas. My shorthand notation for the primary dilemma is "56 hours." At Punahou we have a modular schedule. Most of our classes meet four days out of each six-day cycle for a total of 14 cycles per semester. 56 hours. 56 hours in which I have some kind of a mandate, stated or implied, to have the students read a certain quantity of books and essays and stories and poems; work on improving writing skills in each of several genres; make progress with such other basic skills as sentence level coherence and accuracy and vocab development and mastery of MLA conventions; prepare for the PSAT and SAT; focus on critical thinking skills; learn how to work effectively with one another in small groups; articulate and examine their own essential questions; complete various homework assignments and individual and group projects; reflect on their status as citizens of the world: you get the picture. I'm very much aware of the time passing by during each month, each week, each class period. Maybe you have more hours. In my previous school it was more like 85 hours per class per semester It still wasn't enough.

Marco's afternoon workshop, which I did not write about yesterday, enacted the dilemma in miniature. There were perhaps thirty teachers present, and we had all been asked to bring a video camera with the understanding that we would have a one-hour workshop in How to Produce a Very Short Film. But before we could begin, Marco wanted to share with us some of what teaches his students about "the grammar of film." He ran us through some basic concepts and showed us some really interesting film clips to illustrate what he was talking about and the next thing you know we looked up and the hour was up and we hadn't picked up our cameras yet.

I didn't have a problem with that. Everything Marco had to say was interesting and relevant. But, as it turned out, as it always turns out, There Was Just Not Enough Time. I've had enough experience with using film with classes to know that whatever amount of time I think I can break loose from the list of things I feel committed to trying to accomplish in my class, it's not going to be enough. And if it involves videotaping, fuggeddaboutit. Videotape projects always take four or five or six times more hours than you think they are going to. And that's assuming things go well: that the software does what it's supposed to do, that the hard drive doesn't crap out on you, that someone doesn't inadvertently record over half of your almost-finished project before you get a chance to burn it to DVD.

So the question is, how many of my 56 hours can I play around with? How much of what we do when we are filming or blogging or Googling or whatever we are doing can be integrated with what we already are signed up to do so that we are approaching core content in a novel but still effective way?

A second dilemma that I have been turning over in my mind, and that I have heard others discussing, has to do with demographics. Marco is working in a poverty area in Los Angeles County, and by his own admission the kids he is working with are not channeled toward academic success as it has been traditionally assessed in schools. So, as I wrote yesterday, Marco is actively seeking out alternative channels which offer students a greater chance of success. But Punahou is private school with a population of students who by virtue of having been admitted are precisely the kinds of kids who have shown they can succeed in a traditional academic setting. So what does that mean for us? On the one hand, it would seem ridiculous to say that because these kids are academically successful, they don't really need the (further?) advantages that technological competence would give them. On the other hand, there is a certain plausible systemic inertia along the lines of "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" Despite their supposed advantages, a large number of my students—well, pretty much all of them—do in fact still have significant things to learn about writing well and writing well and thinking well. So is technology going to help us do those things better, or is it a distraction, a red herring?

And then today I had a visit from a teacher from a private school in Seattle where the students have been using laptops in all of their classes for several years. He had just sat in on a number of classes, and admitted that he felt a certain wistfulness when he walked in and saw kids sitting at their desks with books and pens and notebooks. He seemed to feel that there was a kind of attentiveness, a collected connectedness, in the room which is not always present when everyone is sitting with a screen in front of them, for which he now feels a certain nostalgia.

I'll close this reflection by giving the floor to Tim, a colleague in my department, who sent out this (encouraging) email today to a number of us:
It is kind of intimidating to think that every assignment I ever give may become obsolete due to technological changes. In over twenty years of teaching, I think it's probably accurate to say that at least 75% of the time I've started class by saying, "Take out a sheet of paper." The idea that suddenly kids won't bring paper to class, while not a bad thing -- especially from an environmental perspective -- does make the insecure side of me say, "What the heck am I going to do now?" That said, I think it's important to realize that Marco Torres is not a good teacher because he uses technology; he is a good teacher because he takes his students seriously, because he has a passion to see them grow and prosper, and because he is an imaginative, personable guy with a set of skills that work well in high school classrooms. If Torres happened to be born in a different era, and if his teaching prime came, say, 30 years ago, he still would be a great teacher, though he'd probably be doing something other than using iMovie and GarageBand.

His talk made me realize -- and I found this comforting -- that good teaching is not a result of good use of technology, but that technology can be a helpful tool to enhance things that we already do well...

I appreciate what [our tech coordinators] are doing to get us to think about ways to use technology, and I hope I can take greater advantage of their expertise. That said, I'm not worried that the art of teaching is suddenly changing. In fact art is a good analogy: just because digital photography and new media give artists all sorts of new challenges and opportunities, this doesn't mean there isn't value in learning how to paint with brushes, shoot pictures with 35 mm cameras, and draw with pen and ink. So my overall point here is that we should all feel pretty good about the state of teaching at Punahou, and we should remind each other not to panic too much about how the world is changing. It is in some ways for sure. And in other ways, the more things change the more they stay the same...

Our students will figure out how to negotiate the gaps between "old school" and "new." I can think of small steps I can take into the ed. tech realm that can lead, eventually, to bigger steps. As we share big ideas and as we re-train ourselves to use technology, perhaps we can also share our ideas for small, incremental steps. Eventually the big leapers and the small steppers will all reach the same good places...
I think pretty much all of what Tim has to say is dead on. I'm interested in exploring how we can use web tools and video tools and software tools to help students extend the range of what they can do well. The challenge is to find a way to do that while still keeping our eye on what is central, which is not the gadgets and not the products, but on the students. If we can use the tech tools to help our students to think more clearly or more deeply, to communicate more effectively, to understand their lives and to enjoy their time as students, so much the better.

For a few other reflections on Marco Torres, here are posts by Chris and Lara.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Marco Torres: I Can

Okay. From a distance of twenty-four hours, this is what sticks in my mind from yesterday's morning session with Marco Torres. First of all, Marco is a sort of videovangelist. He's had terrific success with Mexicano kids in Los Angeles County by having them make short films. Marco said yesterday that he thinks one of our goals as teachers should be to provide a space in school so that the students can be who they are.

His predominant educational assumption seems to be that "there are opportunities for learning in how you produce information." It's not news that a great deal of traditional instruction asks kids to be passive recipients of pre-selected knowledge, nor that most assessment that we conduct involves asking students to do something with a pen and paper. That doesn't work for some students, and it certainly doesn't work for most Mexicano kids in L.A. So Torres asked himself, "What else is available to assess student understanding besides pencil and paper?" And one of the answers is film.

It's also not news—and this is one of the Big Questions that I've been wrestling with for the last ten years—that a lot of what we typically ask students to do in school is not connected in any real way with the lives students have outside of school. So how do we help students to make that connection? Marco asks his students to create "projects that have wings, that can live outside of the classroom." The films the students make show the world they live in and allow them to speak of their own lives in their own voices. (If you want get some sense of the nature and scope of the work his students are doing, go to the online site for his I Can film festival, and you can spend literally hours viewing the students work from the film festival from this and previous years, which has been archived. The film festival each year has turned into a major community event.)

He showed us onscreen a paragraph from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and let us look at it for 30 seconds or so, and even then some of us had trouble placing what we were looking at. Then he played a one second audio clip of MLK's voice, which was instantly recognizable. He then showed a short video clip from the speech, and we were all right back there. He cited a civil rights leader who has argued that "people do not give photography and film enough credit for the progress that was made in the civil rights movement." It wasn't until the technological tools became available to give a broad audience a sense of what was going on and what was wrong with it that enough people were mobilized to make a difference.

He then asked us to think of the three most significant events of our lifetime, and then projected on the screen images from the Vietnam war, the assassination of JFK, the Challenger explosion, 9/11, and a few others. He asked for a show of hands if any of those images were connected to the events we had thought of, and almost every hand went up. His point: the most significant events of our lives are almost always things we have seen, not things we have read. And most of them we did not see first-hand, but through the media. Those images were produced by someone, using expensive tools.

Now the tools are cheap and omnipresent. Marco's question: If we can communicate that effectively by sharing, producing, and broadcasting video, why are we still doing the same thing in the classroom that we've always done?

Marco's goal is to help his kids find one channel, one vehicle of communication, that works for them, by which they can do something that is going to get them a pat on the back for a job well done. He showed us several student videos, including one in which a girl filmed an interview with her grandfather telling the story of how when he first came to America all he knew how to say when he went out for breakfast was "coffee and donut," until one day a guy in front of him went up and asked for "ham and eggs." So the next day the grandfather was able to go in and ask for ham and eggs, and that was the beginning of his assimilation into the new culture. The video worked as entertainment, as ethnography, and as a testament to the life of the man himself. Making the film made a difference in the life of the student who made it.

So that's the wrapup. From my point of view, it's hard to argue with any of what Marco Torres is saying or doing. But it does pose us with a dilemma or two or three. So tomorrow maybe I'll try getting into that.

Photo by Marco Torres

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Writing of Light

After two sessions with Marco Torres sandwiched around a breakout group discussion and a department meeting in which we gave a brief overview of Web 2.0 and then turned the teachers loose to play with the new toys we had just showed them, I'm pretty much on information overload. It's going to take me a couple of days to synthesize everything that was going on today, and so I'm feeling the urge to simplify. And maybe, after 14 hours of going straight at it, to sleep. So here's one single pregnant idea, mentioned in passing by Marco in his workshop on the basics of film editing, with an illustration of the concept in the form of a photograph which appeared in my Google Reader inbox today, a recent Flickr posting from Flemming Gade.

"Photography is the writing of light."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Explanations, Explorations

Today was a holiday, and tomorrow is Curriculum Day at my school; the kids are out and we have a guest presenter (Marco Torres of San Fernando High School and Apple Computer), who has done amazing things with high school kids by teaching them how to use video as a primary communication tool. He was at Punahou last year and is back for an encore. After his presentation we have department meeting time, so today I went over to school and met with Chris Watson to shape up the presentation we will be doing for the English department tomorrow afternoon. We're dividing the two-hour session up into two segments: Explanation and Exploration.

In the explanation section we're going to provide an overview of some of the tools we've been working with this year: Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Notes,, Flicker, Youtube, Podomatic, blogs, and wikis, and so on. We're also going to show our colleagues, for the first time, the stuff kids are actually working on now, including the wiki and the class page (with links to the individual blogs) my sophs have just gotten started on (I finally got the setup I wanted on the school server using Movable Type as a platform), the various pages Chris's students have created, his wife Anita's class pages, and Mark Maretzki's class pages. We'll show them some other stuff too, like Clay Burell's site in Korea and this wiki Chris showed me which is being set up as a kind of general listing of student and teacher blogs. We're in this knee-deep this semester, and it's new for all of us, but it's been pretty interesting so far and I figure it's about time to get the word out.

In the second hour, during the explorations segment, we're going to give the teachers the chance to work individually or in pairs to a) create a blog in blogger2 (I've put together a set of step-by-step directions complete with screen shots, b) visit the individual student blogs and post comments on some of them or c) do a little bloghopping of their own, either by working from the wiki I just referenced or by going from one site to another via the blogrolls on each site, which is more or less how I began to find my way around these lo these many years ago (well, months, actually. But it sure seems longer.) After our meeting Marco Torres is going to be doing a workshop on creating short videos with kids, and after that the school is hosting a dinner for him, so tomorrow is going to be a blur. Wish us luck.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Common Things

Sarah and I have been having a conversation in the comments section of yesterday's post, and as we were talking about photography and art and silverware I found myself thinking about a book that I came across when I was browsing in a bookstore some years ago. There are some books which are more or less strictly utilitarian, a compilation of words and sentences, but there are some books which are also a pleasure to hold in the hand, books which please the eye and the heart as well as the brain, and this is one of those books. It's a collection of Pablo Neruda poems called Odes to Common Things. It's published by Bulfinch Press and has simple, but quite satisfying pencil illustrations by Ferris Cook.

The Neruda poems are of course quite wonderful, but I probably never would have encountered them if my eye had not been caught that day by the understated but elegant drawing of a saltcellar on the cover. Facing the title page is another drawing, this time of five spoons in a glass.

The odes, presented on facing pages, Spanish on the left, English on the right, are about all sorts of ordinary things: table, bed, chair, dog, cat, bar of soap, socks, bread, onion, tomato; all of them with accompanying pencil drawings.

Here is one passage from from the middle section of "Ode to the Dictionary":

Dictionary, you are not
a grave, a tomb, or a coffin,
neither sepulchre nor mausoleum:
you are preservation,
hidden fire,
field of rubies,
vital continuity
of essence,
language's granary.
And it is a beautiful thing,
to pluck from your columns
the precise, the noble
or the harsh,
Spain's offspring
like the blade of a plow,
secure in its role
of outmoded tool,
in its precise beauty
and its medallion-toughness.
Also that other
the one that slipped
between the lines
but popped suddenly,
deliciously into the mouth,
smooth as an almond,
or tender as a fig.
And, by way of another example, a segment for "Ode to the Spoon":

in an
tiny hand
you raise
to his mouth
the earth's
silent heritage
of the first water to sing
on lips that later lay
buried beneath the sand.

This is beautiful stuff: the poems, and the pictures. And I find them both encouraging because they are what they are, nothing more. The pictures, like the poems, celebrate simplicity, and celebrate with simplicity. (There's also a companion volume entitled Odes to Opposites...)


After a week in which I spent a great deal of time thinking, it was something of a relief this afternoon, to pack up my camera gear and drive downtown a simply wander around with no particular time frame and no particular destination, just putting one foot in front of another and taking the pictures that presented themselves.

Now that I've walked myself out I'm having thoughts again, a different kind of thoughts (second thoughts?), this time about the pictures themselves and some of the implicit logic of the photo-making process. I don't have sophisticated tastes in artwork, but I've developed a few favorites over time. One of first modern painters with whom I felt some sort of tentative, hard-to-articulate affinity was Charles Sheeler. I was taken by his sense of composition, the way he would take something quite literal and present it as a kind of geometrical abstraction. Many of his pictures are in essence a kind colorscape, as opposed to a traditional landscape, and the subject matter is often, as in "Upper Deck," the painting at left, is often technological rather than natural. He seems to be documenting and in some sense celebrating the constructions of mankind.

Similarly, I admire the geometrical precision and balance of many of Edward Hopper's paintings, which seem to be aiming for that middle zone between representation and abstraction. From there it is not too great a step to the more purely abstract paintings of Clifford Styll, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn, all of whom reside in a corridor in the back of my mind as presiding deities when I'm out with my camera. I'm not really consciously patterning my photographs after them, but they have colored the way I see things through the viewfinder.

Here, for example, is a picture I took at Ward Center today. While the subject matter is literal enough, a corner of the walkway on the second floor of Ward Warehouse, I saw it through the lens as a more or less as a study in form and color. Sometimes these pictures don't work out, but this one has a kind of drama that I like.

Similarly, if less obviously, is this picture I took a few minutes later, looking straight down from walkway at a little girl who was one of several children playing in the little ampitheater area they have there. Here Rothko was explicitly in my mind (those five, tonally related vertical stripes) as I framed the picture, but I was taken with the little girl and the implied geometry: she was looking sideways over toward her father and sister at the same time that I was looking straight down at her. I took several other pictures of the father and his two little girls, whose pure and un-self-conscious happiness resonated especially strongly for me after the events of the week.

I went back downstairs and was walking along when my eye was caught by a lime green t-shirt in the window of an old Ford Pinto. I was first interested in the picture as a kind of study of color and form within the horizontal rectangle, and then as I kept looking back to it I was, and still am, each time I look at it, arrested by the suggestion of a bodily presence which is actually a bodily absence.

(As I was writing this, I found myself thinking of William Stafford's poem "At Our House":

Home late, one lamp turned low,

crumpled pillow on the couch,

wet dishes in the sink (late snack),

in every child's room the checked,

slow, sure breath--

Suddenly in this doorway where I stand

in this house I see this place again,

this time the night as quiet, the house

as well secured, all breath but mine borne

gently on the air--

And where I stand, no one.

Presences. Absences. What it means to be present in the midst of absences.)

Walking a little further, I went into a kitchen-goods store, thinking to buy a wine-bottle opener as a gift for a friend of mine. They did not have the kind of opener I had in mind, but the place was an amazingly stimulating visual environment, and I walked around the store quite happily for several minutes taking pictures until I happened to look up and see the store owner giving me stink-eye.

I ignored him, but the next thing I knew a young woman began following me around. Then she came over to me and told me very apologetically that "There's a rule against taking pictures in the store." Really? A rule? And is that a rule that is written down somewhere, or what? "Well, I'm sorry, but the owner doesn't like you to be taking pictures in the store." Ah. A different matter entirely, to be sure. I told her I'd be happy to refrain from taking pictures in the store—and that the owner could rest easy, for I would not be back in a hurry—and took my leave. (Alas. I wonder what the owner was afraid of.)

I continued down toward Ward Center, the other half of the Ward Shopping Complex, and along the way came upon what will serve as the bookend for this reflection: another little study in line and color.

As I said at the start, I guess I needed this time to wander, and I guess that even in my non-thinking mode my thoughts were, inevitably, very much with me, and more or less insinuating themselves into what I was seeing.

There are many ways of thinking about photographs. I'd like to think of the photographs I've been taking lately as kind of testimony to, and celebration of, the small beauties that surround us everywhere, that we, that I, am so often likely to overlook. The title of the book from which the William Stafford poem is taken is "The Darkness Around Us is Deep." Photography is, in essence, all about the light. In the Geoff Dyer book I wrote about earlier, he quotes Dorothea Lange to the effect that "the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera" (9). I'm down with that.

Art Credits:

Upper Deck:
Chop Suey:

Friday, February 16, 2007

Reading as Writers; Writing as Readers

Today I decided to take my sophomores Back to Basics. The other day in class we were discussing our most recent reading, Ian Parker's New Yorker profile of controversial philanthropist Zell Kravinsky, and I had asked one of the small groups to make an effort to "read as writers," considering not so much the "what" of the article as the "how." The group seemed to have trouble figuring out how to proceed, so I thought today we would backtrack and work together to practice reading one particular section from the article from a writerly point of view. Here's the passage we looked at: feel free to skim or skip down to the followup text, since I'll be returning to the example text as we go along.
Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, is a mixed-income community of about four thousand people which tries to maintain a small-town character within the sprawl of housing developments and shopping malls just north of Philadelphia. I made my first visit to Kravinsky in November, parking in front of a wooden-shingled house with a broken photocopier on the front porch and a tangle of bicycles, tricycles, and wagons. A handwritten sign by the door, a marker of spousal frustration, read, "Put Your Keys Away Before You Forget."

Kravinsky came to the door several minutes after I rang the bell. He is slight, and looked both boyish and wan, with pale, almost translucent skin. He wore sneakers, a blue plaid shirt, and tan trousers with an elasticized waist. He seemed distracted, and I realized later that the timing of my visit was awkward: he knew that his wife would not want a reporter in the house, but she had gone out, and two of his four young children were home, so he could not immediately go out to lunch with me. He invited me into a house crowded with stuff, including a treadmill in the middle of the living room. He cleared away enough books and toys for me to sit down on a sofa. His daughter, who is nine, came into the room to say hello, but when Emily Kravinsky came home, a moment later, she walked straight past us into the kitchen, taking the girl with her. Kravinsky followed. He came back after a few minutes and picked up his coat, and as we left the house he said, "She wants us out of here."

We drove to a restaurant in a nearby mini-mall. He ordered a mushroom sandwich and a cup of warm water that he didn't touch. "I used to feel that I had to be good, truly good in my heart and spirit, in order to do good," he said, in a soft voice. "But it's the other way around: if you do good, you become better. With each thing I've given away, I've been more certain of the need to give more away. And at the end of it maybe I will be good. But what are they going to say-that I'm depressed? I am, but this isn't suicidal. I'm depressed because I haven't done enough."

Within a few minutes, Kravinsky had talked of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and the Talmud, and, in less approving terms, of the actor Billy Crudup, who had just left his pregnant girlfriend for another woman. ("How do you like that!") Kravinsky's mostly elevated range of reference, along with a rhetorical formality and a confessional tone, sometimes gave the impression that he was reading from his collected letters. "What I aspire to is ethical ecstasy," he said. "Ex stasis: standing out of myself, where I'd lose my punishing ego. It's tremendously burdensome to me." Once achieved, "the significant locus would be in the sphere of others."

His cell phone rang, and a mental switch was flicked: "You have to do a ten-thirty-one and put fresh money in on terms that are just as leveraged . . . going eight per cent over debt. . . . I think we should do it. It's nice to start with a blue chip."

These contrasting discourses have one clear point of contact. In our conversations, Kravinsky showed an almost rhapsodic appreciation of ratios. In short, ratios are dependable and life is not. "No number is significant in itself: its only significance is in relation to other numbers," he said. "I try to rely on relationships between numbers, because those relationships are constant-unlike Billy Crudup and the woman he impregnated. Even if the other relationships in our lives are going to hell in a handbasket, numbers continue to cooperate with one another."
I began by trying to sketch some ideas based on the assumption that writing is a series of moves. The writer does something first, and keeps doing that until he stops doing that and starts doing something else. "Reading as a writer" involves tracking those moves, figuring out what sorts of decisions the writer is making as the piece of writing unfolds, and then trying to figure out which of those moves might be useful additions to one's own repertoire of writerly moves.

All pieces of writing start the same way: with a blank page (or, perhaps, a blank screen.) And in that moment, the writer is faced with a decision: how to begin. There are lots of familiar off-the-shelf starting patterns: "Once upon a time..." immediately signals we're entering the world of a fairy tale. "Yesterday as I was..." promises a factual first-person narrative. "Dear Grandma..." suggests that a personal communication in the form of a letter will be taking shape. Students generally have no real problem getting started when they write, but the selection processes, the moves they make to begin, are most often sub- or pre-conscious. One of the purposes of this particular exercise is to float some of those subconscious decisions to the surface, where they can be (re)considered.

So I think it's always instructive to look at points of entry. In this case, we begin with "Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, is a mixed-income community of about four thousand people which tries to maintain a small-town character within the sprawl of housing developments and shopping malls just north of Philadelphia." As I explained to the students, I have read something like 342,792 student papers in my career, and not many of them sound like this. So what makes this writing different? What kind of writing is this? What's the opening move?

Well, it's reportorial, for one thing. It starts by reporting demographic facts about a particular town. If we had only the first sentence to go on, we might well expect that this was going to be some kind of sociological analysis of the town itself. But we'd be wrong about that, as the next sentence, busting a new move, immediately makes clear:

I made my first visit to Kravinsky in November, parking in front of a wooden-shingled house with a broken photocopier on the front porch and a tangle of bicycles, tricycles, and wagons.
Now this is a sentence that bears close examination. I asked the students to tell me how many parts the sentence has, and the consensus answer was "two." (Other answers are also instructive, for perhaps slightly different reasons.) The first part of the sentence ("I made my first visit to Kravinsky in November") is interesting not only because it signals more clearly the real intention of the piece (it's not, in fact, going to be a sociological treatise about Jenkintown, but a first-person narrative about the author's visit to Kravinsky's house), but also because it is the kind of sentence that might have appeared in any of those 342,792 student papers. The second part of the sentence, however, shows the writer busting another move, one that I am at more or less constant pains to get my students to practice: the move toward specificity. 342,790 of my theoretical student essays would have continued with something like "and the yard was a mess." But Parker does something more artful, and more helpful, he gives us a selection of details that allow us to picture the yard. The old writer's cliché is "Show, don't tell." Here Parker is showing us how that works. It's also worth noting that the selection of details is not random. He does not mention whether or not the mailbox was open. He does not mention whether or not there was a bird in the maple tree by the front door. Instead, he gives us a selection of details which have a particular significance, and that significance is related to his purpose in the article, which is to tell us what sort of a person Zell Kravinsky turns out to be. The details give us the impression that Kravinsky is a guy who does not pay much attention to his physical surroundings. Parker, in his next sentence, nails that impression down:
A handwritten sign by the door, a marker of spousal frustration, read, "Put Your Keys Away Before You Forget."
This sentence is interesting as the clincher in a series of details that allow us to begin characterizing Kravinsky—as Parker himself is doing as he tries to "read" the situation he's walking into—before Kravinsky has even opened the door. Furthermore, the interpolation of that innocent little authorial inference ("a marker of spousal frustration") suggests that the controversy surrounding Kravinsky and his way of doing things extends even into the confines of his home.

Having walked with the students through the series of writerly moves in the first paragraph, I then asked them to work through the rest of the passage individually, looking for the fault lines, the turns, the places where the author stops doing what he has been doing and starts doing something else. I asked them to pay particular attention to anything they see Parker doing that in the normal course of writing they would have been unlikely to do themselves. After about ten minutes, I asked each student to turn to a partner and share one thing move that they noticed or found interesting. A few minutes later, I asked for volunteers to share something their partner had said that they thought was interesting.

We wound up talking about a number of interesting moments in the piece: the part where Kravinsky orders food but doesn't touch it; the interpolation of the parenthetical expression ("How do you like that!") in the paragraph of indirect quotations, the logic of the selection of the particular direct quotations from what must have been a longer conversation.

At which point, I gave the students the homework assignment which represent the inversion of the exercise of reading as a writer: we follow up by writing as readers, trying to use what we have observed to come up with a piece of writing which is different from, and potentially better than, what we might have written if we hadn't gone through this exercise:

Your assignment: do an interview with someone of your own choice and write up a report on the interview that uses whatever techniques interest you from Parker's article. Your goal is to present a profile of the person you are interviewing, so that we get to know something about that person in the same way that we get to know something about Kravinsky from reading Parker.
So that was English class on Friday February 15. I'm looking forward to reading the students' responses.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

This is Really Something

I've recently asked my students to write some "This I Believe..." essays patterned more on less on the lines of the essays on the NPR web site of the same name. As I've been reading theirs I've been turning over in my mind some of my own core beliefs, one of which has to do with the inherent value of writing, not simply as a means of communication, but as something more personal and ultimately self-referential. As I type these words, for example, I am to some extent aware that there is a group of readers out there, like you, who will be at some point be reading them. But my primary motivation in writing has never been to get a message out to you, the readers. Most of the time, as I write, I am not really thinking too much about my readers, real or imagined. I'm thinking about the words, watching the way the sentence takes shape, trying to figure out what comes next. I'm writing first because it's interesting to me, and, at least sometimes, clarifying, and because it satisfies me at the end of a half hour or an hour or two or three hours to have a coherent body of words in front of me that seems to have come from... somewhere.

So yesterday I got an email from a colleague referring me to a recent essay by Stanley Fish entitled "Why Do Writers Write." In it, Fish describes his reactions to a radio interview conducted by Diane Rehm with Irish author Colm Toibin, who seemed to be brushing off comments from callers thanking him for the influence of his work in their lives, and "asking for recognition and empathy." Fish is initially put off by the author's stance, but after listening further, decides that perhaps Toibin was right after all:
I saw that what I had first regarded as a suspect evasiveness was in fact a determination to be faithful to the practice he was dedicated to and a refusal to claim for that practice effects that could not or should not be its objective. If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about. Writing is about crafting sentences and building them into paragraphs and building the paragraphs into arguments and narratives. What Rehm and her listeners were proffering was a rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification: I write so that you will feel better or I write so that the world will become a better place.
Fish ends his essay with a rationale for writing which makes a clear case for the writing as a means of achieving intrinsic satisfaction:

If you’ve found something you really like to do – say write beautiful sentences – not because of the possible benefits to the world of doing it, but because doing it brings you the satisfaction and sense of completeness nothing else can, then do it at the highest level of performance you are capable of, and leave the world and its problems to others. This is a lesson I have preached before in these columns when the subject was teaching, and it is a lesson that can be applied, I believe, to any project that offers as a prime reason for prosecuting it the pleasure, a wholly internal pleasure, of its own accomplishment. And if your project doesn’t offer that pleasure (perhaps among others) you might want to think again about your commitment to it.
I think this is pretty much exactly right. I don't know about the "beautiful sentences" part; although I admire beautiful sentences when I find them, I don't think I'm primarily oriented toward producing them. If anything, I think I would aspire to be a craftsman rather than an artist. But the part about "the satisfaction and sense of completeness," and the pleasure in writing, "a wholly internal pleasure, of its own accomplishment," yeah, that I can relate to. Don't get me wrong, if you've come this far, if you're still reading, I appreciate that, and I hope that what I have written holds some interest for you and gives you something of what you may have been looking for when you checked in. But it wasn't my primary motivation for sitting down to write this tonight.

The New Yorker magazine used to have a promotional videotape—I loaned my copy to a student and never got it back—which included interviews with various writers like John McPhee and Ann Beattie. I remember in particular the segment with Jamaica Kincaid, who was talking about the now-famous and widely anthologized piece "Girl." What she said, basically, is that she sat down to write it and when she got done with it she put down her pen and knew immediately that "This was...something." She sent it off to the New Yorker and it was pulled out of the slush pile and that was the start of her career as a writer.

I think that it's important that those of us who are teachers find ways of making it possible for students, at least some of the students some of the time, to come to experience that internal pleasure, the satisfaction that comes from having written something that is satisfying not because the teacher likes it, or because it did or did not get published in the literary magazine, but because it just felt great to have written it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

In the Middle

Well, its the middle of the week in what is getting close to being the middle of the semester, and I'm in The Danger Zone for sure. I've spent way too many hours (15? 20?) the last seven days trying to resolve technical issues relating to getting my students blogs set up the way I want them, and in the meantime the papers have been piling up, and so now I'm wading through stacks of papers and I don't know whether to laugh or cry, or both. On the one hand, I am finding that, left to their own devices (given their own choice of topic and form) they are capable of really amazing writiing. In the last three hours I've personal essays and short stories and reflections that are clear and funny and often witty and entertaining, heartening fare for traversing The Danger Zone.

On the other hand, I also have been reading the papers my students many of the same students wrote in response to a directed assignment, one of my standard early-semester litmus tests: "Type out a passage from a work of literature at the top of the page. Write a two-paragraph response. In the first paragraph, tell me what you see. Make observations, statements of fact, things that you are sure everyone else would be able to agree with. In the second paragraph, tell me what what you think about what you see. What inferences can you draw? What hunches do you have? What do you like? What do you not like? What questions arise in your mind?"

This assignment is trickier than it sounds. First of all, the students have to be able to distinguish between when they are being (merely) descriptive or reportorial, and when they are being speculative or interpretive. Secondly, the students have to have some sense of selection: of the universe of things one might choose to talk about when looking at a passage, some are clearly going to be more significant than others. Some might be hardly worth mentioning at all ("This passage consists of 103 words") unless put into a context that illuminates the significance ("76 of which are adjectives with religious connotations.") The two-paragraph limit is designed to keep them focussed and to encourage them to pare down. (I'm reminded of the story about Charles Dickens, who is said to have included as a postscript in a letter an apology along the lines of "I'm sorry this letter is so long, if I had had more time I would have made it shorter.")

But still, even though the assignment has its constraints, it shouldn't be that hard, should it? It's a formula piece, a five-finger exercise, a test of the students' ability to perform a couple of basic processing moves. They're sophomores in what is reputed to be a pretty good high school and they should be able to do this, right? Especially given their aforementioned fluency in the open field.

As if. In the set of 18 papers I just corrected, only five students were able to pull it off with any degree of success. Which now presents me with a series of all-too-familiar interlocking dilemmas. Do I jettison the lesson plans for the next two weeks and go Back to Basics? Do I point out the error of their ways and ask them to try it again? Do I shrug and say, hell, it was stupid assignment in the first place and the only place they are ever going to have to write something so narrowly prescriptive is in the English class of someone as anal-retentive as me? Do I try to come at the same writerly problems from a different angle on the next assignment, and keep coming at it again on the next one, until eventually I wear them down? The semester is already one quarter gone. How critical is this one dilemma, out of the multitude of like dilemmas?

So the shoe has found its way to the other foot. For me looking at the students, as for the students looking at their texts: so many things to see, so many ways to think about what I see. How do pare it down to what is most important? It's late. I'm tired. Tomorrow I'm going to walk into class and find a way to put a positive spin on the message. Great job on the open-ended assignments. On the directed assignments? Nice try. But not good enough. Let's look again.