Sunday, April 29, 2007

Open Forum

There's an exercise of sorts that I like to do in class every couple of weeks called Open Forum. I don't know exactly how I got started with it, but I've been doing it for probably 30 years now in one form or another and it's still one of my favorite class activities. I call it "open forum," and I begin it by handing our a file card to each student and asking them to write down on the card something—a topic, a statement, a question—they would like to talk about. The topic does not have to be related to what we have been doing in class. It can be about anything, and you don't have to sign your name to it. I collect the cards as they are completed, shuffle them up, have the students put the desks in as close to a circle as we can manage in my rather oddly-shaped room, and then I review the ground rules, of which there are four:

1) Only one person talks at a time. If more than one person wants to speak, we start to my left and just go around the circle.

2) After we've been around the circle one time, and everyone has had the chance to say something if they would like to, when it's your turn to speak, you can say "I'd like to move on." At that point we take a vote. If a majority wants to move on, we move on. If a majority wants to keep talking about the topic, we stay with it until someone else moves the question. At which point we re-vote.

3) I reserve the right to censor questions that in my judgment are inappropriate or potentially hurtful.

4) If you don't like a topic, don't complain about it or criticize it. Someone else may like it, and be intimidated by your disdain. Just wait until you have a chance to say "I'd like to move on."

Then I simply read what's on the first card, and we talk until we decide to move on, and then we read the second card, and so on.

What do I like about this activity? Well, it's a nice change of pace, and sometimes when the students are feeling stressed they like to be able to simply sit and talk in a semi-informal setting. I also find that it's not always the same students who talk in regular class discussions who talk in open forum. Something about it feels different to them, and some students really come alive in these discussions who don't do that otherwise. So it's a chance for me to get to know them. Plus, it's interesting. It's unpredictable. Sometimes the topics which would seem least likely generate great discussions.

What kinds of topics come up? Pretty much everything. Here's the list from Friday's 11:30 class:

How does it feel to be almost a junior in high school? How do you feel as the year is coming to a close?


The Triennial Dance Performance (The Little Mermaid)


Interesting Movies

Today's chapel (Mrs. Freitas and her daughter)

Athletic Mental Focus

How many shells does she sell by the sea shore?

Why does having a life matter?

Sustainability Cups: Where can I get one?

Unforgettable childhood memories; the "old days"

Does anyone have any interesting quality projects?

How much do you spend on birthday gifts? (Less than $10 = 2; $10 to $30 = 8; $30-$50 = 5; $50-$100 = 3)

The Virginia Tech Massacre


Sometimes I ask the students to do something as a followup, and sometimes I don't. Since my 8:30 class is working on blogs and my 11:30 class is working in a wikispace, this time I asked them to take seven minutes at the end of class to freewrite about one of the topics, and then to post an elaborated and edited version of their freewrite on the the web by Tuesday. I'm curious to see what they will have to say.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Words

The Words

Wind, bird, and tree,
Water, grass, and light:
In half of what I write
Roughly or smoothly
Year by impatient year
The same six words recur.

I have as many floors
As meadows or rivers,
As much still air as wind
And as many cats in mind
As nests in the branches
To put an end to these.

Instead, I take what is:
The light beats on the stones,
And wind over waters shines
Like long grass through the trees,
As I set loose, like birds
In a landscape, the old words.

- David Wagoner

Wind, bird, tree, water, grass, light. A group of words, a configuration, a constellation. A territory staked out. Outdoors. How often are we anymore outdoors? Is it in our nature to be indoors? Or is that enclosed condition artificial, alien, alienating? (I have as many floors as meadows or rivers.) Give and take. What I take: light and wind; what I set loose: words. Inspiration; expiration. Breathe in; breathe out. Love; death.

There is a bird in the tree. Light shining on grass. The wind moves over the water. Echoes, reverberations. This text in its contexts. Genesis, the garden, the fruit of that tree over there, the one with the bird in it. Yeats and Aengus. I will find out where she has gone, and kiss her lips and take her hands,
and walk among long dappled grass. So on and so forth.

The light beats the stones. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers stone. Stone breaks scissors. Set the words loose. The light bakes the stones. The stones crinkle the paper. The paper hides the scissors. Scissors scratch the stone. Inscription. Description. Re-vision.

Reconsideration: what about those cats? The cats I have in mind live in houses. They stalk the birds that build the nests in the trees near the water. The birds take wing. That's what birds do: they fly. And sing. As you or I might wish to do. Set loose in such a landscape, like the old words. Imagine that.

Would you care to rhyme?
Or maybe try?
Like light and write?
Year, recur?
Wind and mind?
Stones and shine?

Trees and birds:
Wagoner's words.
What are mine?
What are yours?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dancing with the Daffodils

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Along the margin of a bay:
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

It takes a brave English teacher to put this poem in front of a classroom full of American kids today. It's a nature poem in an age when nature poems are not fashionable; it employs the word "gay" in a sense which has been all but driven out of the language by its more vernacular denotation; and then it follows up with the word "jocund," which it is safe to say is a word not one American student in 100 has ever heard. The idea that one's heart might be set to dancing by a vision of flowers is one that virtually none of the students I have worked with in the last 30 years would be able to take seriously. Perhaps one might look at it as a sort of study in poetic structure, but in terms of what it says? Fuggedabowdit.

Furthermore, it's a poem which has become a lightning rod for post-colonialist readers and writers. To say that some people have felt conflicted about the poem would be an understatement. Jamaica Kincaid, who grew up in Antigua, for example, has a short story entitled "Mariah" in which the narrator, a young woman living in America for the first time, unpacks her sentiments fairly bluntly:

I remembered an old poem I had been made to memorize when I was ten years old and a pupil at Queen Victoria's Girls' School. I had been made to memorize it, verse after verse, and then had recited the whole poem to an auditorium full of parents, teachers, and my fellow pupils. After I was done, everybody stood up and applauded with an enthusiasm that surprised me, and later they told me how nicely I had pronounced every word, how I had placed just the right amount of emphasis in places where it was needed, and how proud the poet, now long dead, would have been to hear his words ringing out of my mouth. And so I made pleasant little noises that showed both modesty and appreciation, but inside I was making a vow to erase from my mind, line by line, every word of that poem. That night after I had recited the poem, I dreamt, continuously it seemed, that I was being chased down a narrow cobbled street by bunches and bunches of those same daffodils that I had vowed to forget, and when I finally fell down from exhaustion they all piled up on me, until I was buried beneath them and was never seen again.

Now, in conjunction with celebrations of the poem's bicentennial, we have this little confection which features a large stuffed animal of some kind doing a rap version of the Wordsworth classic. It's a funny piece, and maybe the funniest thing is that as an attempt to reframe the narrative to make it plausible to the contemporary ear, it works. In case the link doesn't work, here's the YouTube Version:

Although I'm sure it would never have occurred to Willy W. to rhyme "retina" with "et cetera," I think he might still have liked the spirit of this version.

Fixing a Hole

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
and stops my mind from wandering
where it will go

I had my piano lesson today. I started playing two and a half years ago, made progress quickly, and then stalled, mostly because I've been running up against the limitations of the bad habits I have picked up from never really learning how to read music. I've been compensating by playing pretty much everything by ear, studying the notation only in the early stages and then relying on my ear and rote memory to pick out the notes as I look at the keyboard. Unsurprisingly, the results have been pretty dismal. It takes me forever to learn each song, and I still can't read music well, because I haven't been practicing THAT, despite lots of tactful little hints. (My teacher is maybe the most tactful instructor I've ever had. She habitually refers to my most spectacular blunders, supportively, as "improvisations.")

So today, when I finally had gotten to the point where I was frustrated enough to finally listen, my teacher took me back to to basics and basically asked me to turn my method inside out: instead of watching the keys and using my ear to guide me, I need to watch the music and use my fingers to find the notes. So tonight I was practicing that way, and it wound up being a lot less difficult than I thought it was going to be. I was able to block out the passages I've been working on so far, and after half an hour or so I was starting to be able to find my way, looking at the music, almost as well as I could without.

Then I decided to practice the rest of the my own little pieces, the ones I do make up more or less by ear, which are mostly simple binary chord sequences in the left hand with arpeggios in the right, with my eyes closed, again relying on my fingers rather than my eyes to guide me. That also resulted in an immediate and dramatic impact in the musicality of what I was playing.

I'm filling the cracks that ran though the door
and kept my mind from wandering
where it will go

I'm starting to get weirded out by Google Reader. Every day there is so much interesting stuff that arrives in my aggregator, and I wind up storing the links as starred items or sending them to, on the theory that at some point I will Go Back and Revisit Them. As Freaking If. I've got my classes to teach, and their paper to correct. I've got my department to run. (Right now I'm just finishing up scheduling for next year.) I've got to exercise and do my breathing every morning to stay loose enough to walk, and I've got to walk every evening to keep from turning into the Pillsbury Doughboy. I want to keep this blog going. We're in mid-production for the literary magazine, working through more than 150 written submissions and 60 pieces of artwork, after which we have to lay it all out, proofread it, and get it to the printer by the end of the first week in May. I'm trying to practice piano every day. I want to read some actual books once in a while. My wife likes to exchange pleasantries once in a while. So when exactly am I ever going to get back?

I'm painting my room in a colorful way,
and when my mind is wandering
there I will go

There was a time when I was keeping only a physical, handwritten commonplace book. After I started this blog, there was about a period of about two months when I was keeping them both. Then as I got more into this, I basically fell out of the habit of keeping the physical commonplace book. It's sitting right now in my big green bag in which I cart my laptop and my papers and books back and forth to and from school each day. Stashed inside it are maybe twenty things I've torn out of papers and magazines as idea starters and artifacts for when I pick it up again. Which I need to do soon. What I did there was broader-based and generated more different kinds of writing than what I'm doing here. I miss that.

I'm taking my time for a number of things
that weren't important yesterday
and I still go

(Random, but nonetheless true, factoid: one of my students has been threatening to buy me an iguana. She seems to feel that there's something iguana-like about my facial expressions, and she apparently thinks either a) that it would do me good to have a kindred spirit around me or b) that it would be a funny thing to be able to give me a hard time about.)

I don't know what kicked off "Fixing a Hole" in my head this afternoon, but suddenly, there I was, singing it softly and obsessively to myself as I walked upstairs to my classroom, and later on my way to lunch. This happens all the time. I'll hear someone make a remark that will remind me of a couple of words from a song and then for the next hour I won't be able to get it out of my head. I assume that happens to everyone. But what's up with that? Often I will get a somewhat eerie sense that There Is a Reason why the reptilian part of my brain is kicking This Particular Song up at This Particular Moment. But what's the reason? Who knows? The reptile isn't talking.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Winging It

This is one of those nights. I'm sitting here at the keyboard with the intention to write, but nothing has pushed itself forward, or at least far enough forward, from the welter of half-formed thoughts and mixed impressions that have been jockeying for space in my brain over the weekend. There's certainly no lack of things to write about. But there are constraints on almost all of them. There are the Ideas Which Aren't Really Worth Getting Into, like my walk today through the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center which is in the process of being renovated to make it less fortress-like in its appearance, or my continuing frustration with not being able to get my fingers and my brain coordinated when I am practicing this ridiculously formulaic little Mozart minuet, or the debate we had today at our literary magazine staff meeting about whether or not including a cute and pretty funny but not very deep piece was going to be worth the trouble it was going to cause us because of its casual deployment, with ironic intent, of the word m*therf*cker.

There are the Ideas Which Are Worth Getting Into But Are Off Limits For One Reason or Another, like the whole involved story of the email a friend of mine prepared but did not send out in response to the email which the director of our ROTC program DID send out relaying with regard to the flag being flown at half mast this week. But it's complicated, and peoples' feeings are at stake, so I'm not going to get into any of that here, at least not now.

Then there are the Ideas Which Are Worth Getting Into And Are Not Off Limits But Which Are Just So Large That One Doesn't Know Where To Begin, like the Future of Education or My Current Take on the Meaning of Life or even my reactions to watching a DVD, this afternoon, called The First Year, which is a documentary which follows five classroom teachers working in inner-city public schools. It was both tremendously inspiring and tremendously discouraging, and I guess it matters which order you put those two adjectives in, but beyond that preliminary and highly generalized characterization of the movie would be a post that it would take me maybe two weeks to write that would have to do with what the teaching profession looks like from the other end of the binoculars.

And finally, much on my mind these last few months, are The Things Which Are Really Important and Fundamental But Unable To Be Put Into Words At All, which would include a significant proportion, perhaps a majority, of what goes on in most of our minds most of the time, right. Some of it falls into the category made famous by Gertrude Stein when she used the word inaccrochable. Some of it is just inaccessible to language, its what Flaubert was thinking about when he remarked that "human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity." And some of it is just not accessible at all, it's either subliminal or it's subconscious or it falls into the category of What We Don't Know We Don't Know.

So that's where we are on this April evening. I usually give my students permission to write one paper each semester about why they can't think of anything to write a paper about. I guess this one has been mine.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

April: National Poetry Month

In honor of April as National Poetry Month, The Sunday Times crossword puzzle today has a puzzle whose themed clues are defiinitions of poetry. The one that got me thinking was Carl Sandburg's which reads "Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance." That's one of a series of 38 rather fanciful definitions which Sandburg came up with, but it does seem to suggest something about the obliqueness and resonance of at least a certain kind of poem. One of my favorite William Stafford poems, for example, is this one:

Tragic Song

All still when summer is over
Stand shocks in the field,
Nothing left to whisper,
Not even good-bye, to the wind.

After summer was over
We knew winter would come:
We knew silence would wait,
Tall, patient calm.

And that cold this winter gray wolves
Deep in the North would cry
How summer that whispered all of us
At last whispers away.

I first came across this poem when I was about 18 years old, and was immediately taken with the way in which it manages, in a very compact space, to gesture at much larger territories of significance. Sure, it's about the changing of the seasons, that moment when the harvest is done, and winter has not yet arrived. But the poem uses its repetitions, its internal echoes, to powerful effect.

The first of them, "We knew winter would come: We knew silence would wait" emphasizes that the coming of winter is itself a part of familiar repetition; but it is not less ominous for its familiarity, and in fact its ominousness is suggested in a number of more subtle, shadow-like repetitions throughout the poem: first the equation, in these two lines, of winter with silence, which echoes the word "still" in the first line, which is developed by "Nothing left to whisper" in the third, which is contrasted with the one sound in the poem: the crying of the wolves "Deep in the North," whose message, it turns out, has to do with "How summer that whispered all of us At last whispers away." The poem thus begins in silence, and ends in the more complete silence after even the whispering has ceased.

All of which is re-echoed, when we re-consider the title, "Tragic Song." Does "tragic song" refer to the cry of the wolves? That would make sense. Does it refer to this poem, which itself is a tragic song? That also makes sense. The two meanings echo one another.

But why "tragic," anyway? Well, we know that tragedy is a word usually reserved for situations where someone has died. But there's nothing about death in this poem apparently innocent little nature poem? Well, actually, there is, and its more or less everywhere. In line two, for example, that word "shocks" denotes the bundles of corn in the field at harvest. But the word has other meanings, no? And it has a literary history as well: it has prominent part in what is perhaps the most famous passage in literary history. Hamlet, in his "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy, considering whether or not to end his life, considers the possible benefits of entering that realm of stillness:

To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
So we have not only the internal echo generated by the double meaning of the word, but the external echo, the voice of Hamlet back in the shadows.

Then we have the move to personification which has its own overtones: "winter" waiting patiently for us, knowing we will arrive eventually, is a pretty obvious stand-in for the One Who Awaits Us All, and his realm "deep in the North" for the afterlife. And then there's the echoing at the syllabic level, the word "winter" (occuring twice) reverberating against the word "whisper" (three times): two-syllable words beginning and ending with the same phonemes, singing their own little song to one another throughout the poem.

Then we have the echoing in the tightly-structred stanzas themselves: four line stanzas repeating three-beat lines with lots of alliteration: the words, the lines, the stanzas all echoing one another, themes and variations. It's a dark, beautiful little lyric, an echo asking a shadow to dance.

(And, as long is it is National Poetry Month, as an added bonus, I'll toss in a listing of other interesting definitions of poetry that I've compiled over time and sometimes share with my classes. Feel free to append your own in the comments section.)

...the rhythmical creation of beauty. (Edgar Allen Poe)

...the best words in the best order. (S. T. Coleridge)

... the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion of the imagination. (Macaulay)
...the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds. (Shelley)

...speech be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

...the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from and overclothed blindness to a naked vision. (Dylan Thomas)
...language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that can not be said. (Edgar Allan Robinson)

...anything said in such a way or put on a page in such a way as to invite from the reader a certain kind of attention. (William Stafford)

...the art of saying everything and reducing it to nothing. (Barbara Helfgott-Hyett)

...a sonorous molded shape of form. (Osip Mandelstam)
...arranging words with the greatest specific gravity in the most effective and externally inevitable sequence. (Joseph Brodsky) instant of lucidity in which the entire organism participates. (Charles Simic) transferred from where the poet got way of the poem itself, all the way over to the reader. (Charles Olson)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Storyteller

I've just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Storyteller. The narrator is, like Vargas Llosa himself, a Peruvian writer, a filmmaker, a teller of stories, and the story he tells is the story of his college companion Saul Zuratas, known as Mascarita. Mascarita starts out as a student of anthropology who becomes interested in the fate of the Machiguengas, one of the tribes of natives living in the jungle and under constant threat of extinction, either in the form of physical destruction by their own enemies or by any of the various governmental or capitalist agencies bent up getting them under control, or in the form of the more apparently benign but nonetheless insidious and culture-destroying ministrations of the missionaries and human-rights organizations looking to help the Machiguengas "assimilate."

The response of the Machiguengas is to retreat deeper into the jungle, to become "the people who walk." And in this mobile, earthbound culture, one of the most important figures is that of the roving storyteller, who carries in his head the stories and legends and myths that bind the Machiguengas together and provide them with an identity.

In middle age, the narrator discovers that his friend Mascarita, who has disappeared and is presumed to have moved to Israel, has in fact gone into the jungle, joined the tribe, and become their storyteller.

There are eight chapters in the book. There is a brief introductory chapter, and then four chapters in which the narrator, speaking in present time, tells us about his own studies of the Machiguena and his relationship with Saul. In between each of these four stories there is a chapter narrated in the voice of Saul, the storyteller, spinning stories and myths end to end as if he were entertaining a circle of entranced Machiguenas. These interchapters are initially confusing and strange and somewhat inconsistent, but the with the help of the surrounding narrative in the main thread of the story and the repetition of certain story motifs within the myths, the logic of the stories and the storytelling process gradually comes into focus.

The essential question that is addressed at many levels in this multi-layered book is: how does a smaller culture maintain its integrity in the face of extreme pressure from powerful outsiders? That's the question Vargas Llosa the storyteller is exploring, and that's the question that his character Mascarita the storyteller addresses explicitly in this passage near the end of the book:

Before I was born, I used to think: A people must change. Adopt the customs, the taboos, the magic of strong peoples. Take over the gods and little gods, the devils and the little devils of the wise peoples. That way everyone will become more pure, I thought. Happier, too. It wasn't true. I know now that that's not so. I learned it from you. Who is purer or happier because he's renounced his destiny, I ask you? Nobody. We'd best be what we are. The one who gives up fulfilling his own obligation so as to fulfill that of another will lose his soul. And his outer wrappings too, perhaps...It may be that when a person loses his soul, the most repulsive beings, the most harmful predators, come and make their lair in his empty body. The botfly devours the fly; the bird, the botfly; the snake, the bird. Do we want to be devoured, no. Do we want to disappear without a trace? No, again. If we come to an end, the world will come to an end, too. It seems we'd best go on walking. Keeping the sun in its place in the sky, the river in its bed, the tree rooted in the ground and the forest on the earth. (220)
This is a very ambitious and innovatively structured novel. It's not a page-turner, but it's rich and surprising and thought-provoking. Varga Llosa credits Father Joseph Barriales, O.P., as the source for the many Machiguena songs and myths that he has incorporated into his narrative. It's a book that is simultaneously an entertainment, a report, and a gesture of respect both for a way of life that is under threat, and for the role that poweful stories play in allowing all of us to hold out against those the forces—whether generated from without or from within ourselves—that have the capacity to destroy us.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Process and Reality

Today I was talking with my sophomore students about our process goals, as I understand them, and placing them in the context of B. F. Skinner's observation that "Education is what’s left over after you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned." I gave them an updated version of the reading response inventory we had brainstormed earlier, and, in the 11:30 class, and encouraged them to think about, monitor, and attempt to expand their conscious repertoire of processing skills as they close out this year and then continue on through high school. I was trying to make explicit what may very well have been implicit (and thus invisible?) to many of them, my hidden agenda. For me as a teacher, it's not so much about content. We could be considering much different content and have much the same kind of a course. This argument will not come as much of a surprise to any educators reading this: it's a familiar argument that processing skills are the key to the future. To cite just one instance of many, Time Magazine's cover story on December 10 was "How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century," and the authors had this to say:

Thinking outside the box. Jobs in the new economy--the ones that won't get outsourced or automated--"put an enormous premium on creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos," says Marc Tucker, an author of the skills-commission report and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Traditionally that's been an American strength, but schools have become less daring in the back-to-basics climate of NCLB. Kids also must learn to think across disciplines, since that's where most new breakthroughs are made. It's interdisciplinary combinations--design and technology, mathematics and art--"that produce YouTube and Google," says Thomas Friedman, the best-selling author of The World Is Flat.
Our Director of Instruction recently sent along an article from the Winter 2007 Independent Schools by Patrick Bassett entitled "The School of the Future." One of the interesting features of the article was a chart put together by Microsoft called the Education Competency Wheel. The wheel is a graphic representation of "education success factors", of which there are six: strategic skills, operating skills, organizational skills, individual excellence, results, and, surprisingly, courage. Each of the these skill sets is broken down in the outer circle to 37 sub-skills. There is a web site with a downloadable version of the wheel, and narrative explanations of each sub-skill, with accompanying proficiency-level rubrics, "essentials questions," suggestions for self-learning activities, and recommended readings.

Once again, the thing that demands attention is that the skills on the list are predominantly processing skills and not content skills. As Microsoft makes its move to envision (and to build, in Philadelphia) The School of the Future, they are emphasizing exactly the sorts of real world, relationship-based problem-solving skills which are NOT being emphasized in the state competency tests across the nation: dealing with ambiguity, negotiating, time management, strategic agility and innovation management, creativity, building effective teams, and so on.

But just because Time Magazine sees it, or Microsoft sees it, or you see it, or I see it, doesn't mean that the kids see it. So today's lesson was mostly to bring the background assumptions forward. It's getting close to the end of the year. I just wanted to get the cards on the table.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On Faith

Today in class I asked the students to look at at Chapter 1 of the Apocrypha from the Bible, the passage sometimes called Bel and the Dragon featuring the prophet Daniel in the court of the Babylonian king, and culminating with the famous story of Daniel in the lion's den. (We've just finished reading the pivotal section of The Poisonwood Bible entitled "Bel and the Serpent," which references the biblical passage in several ways.) I asked the students to read the passage out loud to one another and discuss it in small groups, and then we opened up the class into a large circle and I asked the students to conduct a Harkness discussion. One of the points that emerged from the discussion is that the whole passage is essentially an argument for the power of faith, and argument which Daniel states explicitly in verse 38: "And Daniel said, Thou hast remembered me, O God: neither hast thou forsaken them that seek thee and love thee."

When I asked the students how they felt about this argument, some students said they were unconvinced because the examples being offered—like the angel of the lord delivering Daniel's lunch by carrying Habbacuc by his hair to the lion's den—weren't plausible. One student said that since she's not Christian, the argument didn't really seem relevant. Many of my students are not Christian, or are only nominally so. I am not a Christian myself. And yet I'm not convinced that the story of Daniel has no relevance. My experience as a reader has taught me that if you are reading something which cannot be taken literally, one way to move forward is to consider the possibility that it might make more sense if taken figuratively. So I suggested that the argument for the power of faith might be broadened to include not just faith in the Judaeo-Christian God, but faith in, well, whatever one chooses to have faith in.

There is evidence of the power of faith everywhere. Faith is one of the vehicles that allow human beings, limited in so many ways, to aspire to extraordinary achievement, to experience some form of transcendence. The 1973 Mets ("Ya Gotta Believe"), the U.S. hockey team in the 1980 Olympics, the pyramids, the great cathedrals of Europe, the Emancipation Proclamation: all these—and infinitely more examples—might be offered, are consequences that follow upon strongly held beliefs, acts of faith. I ended the class by asking the students to spend a few minutes this evening writing about some aspect of faith in their lives. And so, in the spirit of the assignment, that's what I'd like to do now.

Where is there faith in my life? Well, for starters, I'm not a Believer. Probably everyone has heard the song that I first learned when I was a member of a choir when I was 12 years old:

I believe, for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows...
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows...

I believe for everyone who goes astray,
Someone will come, to show the way,

I believe, above the storm the smallest prayer, will still be heard...
I believe, that someone in the great somewhere, hears every word...

Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
Then I know why, I believe!

I'm good with the first two assertions: the rain and the flowers, the night and the candle. But that's where I have to draw the line. The notions that everyone who goes astray will be led back to the path, and that every prayer is head, and that there is "someone in the great somewhere" out there listening strikes me as wishful thinking, pure and simple.

The newborn baby is an interesting case. There's a deep mystery there. To bring children into the world, especially into today's world, which is increasingly and increasingly obviously at risk, is an act of faith indeed, but one whose rewards exceed pretty much anything else I can think of. The little guy to the right already seems to have developed, or perhaps inherited, a certain set of skeptical tendencies, but I do have faith, despite an impressive preponderance of evidence to the contrary, that life, including (but not exclusively) human life, is a good thing. I find myself in sympathy here with Adah, the character in TPB who articulates most clearly the realization that human life is contingent:

As a teenager reading African parasitology books in the medical library, I was boggled by the array of creatures equipped to take root upon the human body. I'm boggled still, but with a finer appreciation for the partnership. Back then I was still a bit appalled that God would set down his barefoot boy and girl dollies into an Eden where, presumably, He had just turned loosed elephantiasis and microbes that eat the human cornea. Now I understand, God is not just rooting for the dollies. (529)
Which brings me to another article of faith: I have faith in flexibility, in uncertainty, in the value of being able to shift your perspective and see things from another point of view. Much of the horror and misery which humans beings have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate upon one another and upon the planet originates from what Eric Sevareid describes, in the passage I have been using as a footer for this blog, as "dangerously passionate certainties."

The faith that I have in the value of flexibility, and in the need for all of us to be able to hear one another instead of marginalizing and demonizing and dismissing one another, is what drives my commitment to teaching, which, as I understand it, is largely about encouraging students to try to broaden their angles of vision.

The leaf and the sky? I remember one of my college professors, who claimed to be paraphrasing Aristotle, although I have been unable to track down the reference (any Aristotelians want to help out here?), saying that all worthwhile human endeavor arises from a sense of care on the one hand, or a sense of wonder on the other. The baby, there's your sense of care. The leaf, the sky: wonder-ful.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'm Back... Almost

Well, I'm back in the world. The retreat took me a little further away and took me a little bit longer to get back from than I had anticipated it would. There were a lot of different activities, somewhat loosely connected, and some of them had more immediate and more structured opportunities for reflection and processing than others, so I when I got back, and even now, a day later, I feel a little at sixes and sevens. There are a lot of random ideas rocketing around in my head, and I've been resisting the urge to settle them down lay them out in a line as I am about to do with at least a few of them. But tomorrow I'll be back to the routine of work and classes, and this will all begin to fade, so I guess if I'm ever going to try to put this into context, it's going to have to be now.

Twenty-three of us made the trip out to the Makaha Inn by bus. The first morning activity on Friday, after the introductions, was a storytelling workshop. Our workshop leader, Tim, told us a story from his life as a student, and then asked us to use that as a trigger to write about a story from our own life. He had a line I liked that went "I've heard it said that we remember what we want to forget and we forget what we want to remember; but I'm asking you to remember something you want to remember." Then we shared our stories, first in pairs, and then those who felt the urge were encouraged to share the stories with the whole group.

Then junior school principal Mike Walker shared a story about a time early in his life when he was a camp counselor and got to work with a student who didn't talk much, but who turned out to be a very good listener. Mike's observation was that his experience with this boy was what first gave him the idea that he might want to be a teacher. Mike quoted a mentor of his own who had told him that sometimes "the best thing you can do is listen," and he sort of unpacked the idea that good listeners are what make good teachers, as well as the other way around.

Then Tim read us a story by Shirley Jackson called "Charles," which I had heard before but enjoyed hearing in this context; and we were asked to think of a story from our life in school, and to share that.

After a break, we were taken outside and asked to do an exercise called "The Air Traffic Controller Game." Three volunteers—I was one of them—were asked to stand on a platform alongside a field. Everyone else was either blindfolded or asked to keep their eyes shut, and they were lined up at the other end of the field. The goal of the game was for everyone to walk across the field to where we were without bumping into someone else. The traffic controllers had to shout out instructions to those who were walking into a problem and get them straightened out. So it was a sort of experiment in trust, and paying attention, and hollering instructions that were clear and effective.

The actual exercise took only about five minutes, and seemed to go well; it was only afterward that the traffic controllers were mortified to hear that we had "lost" two of our aircraft, who bumped into each other early on and were therefore disqualified. We went back inside and were asked to write/reflect for a while about the game as a metaphor for teaching. I found myself thinking about how much of my job consists of saying to students, in one way or another, you need to slow down, you need to speed up, you need to change direction. And about the satisfaction that arises when a student arrives home, and the anguish when one of them doesn't make it. Those failures often loom much larger in our consciousness than the successes.

That got me thinking about something that stuck with me from a number of years ago when I went to the David Mallery workshop in Philadelphia, and one of the presenters there was educational psychologist Robert Evans. I remember that he spoke to us about a condition common among teachers and clergy and medical workers he called "The Scarlet G," which stands for guilt. He pointed out that is in the nature of the teaching professions that we feel an outsized sense of responsibility when one of our charges fails. Sometimes it's our fault; sometimes it's clearly not, but that doesn't seem to matter. We beat ourselves up anyway, and the scarlet G starts flashing. His recommendation was to take two file cards. On one card he said to make a list of three or four of the things that we do well and take pride in. On the other card he said to make a list of three or four things we don't do well or obsess about. Then he said, take the first card and pin it up over your desk where you see it every day. And take the other card and put it under a pile of stuff and forget about it.

The theme for the afternoon was "Teachers and Students at the Movies." Academy principal Kevin Conway share one of his favorite clips from "It's a Wonderful Life," the point at which George Bailey, after questioning how the world would have been different if he had never been born, comes to the realizaton that he's "the richest man in town," which Kevin saw as an analogue for our status as teachers.

Then we watched a 45-minute compilation of scenes from a whole bunch of classic teacher movies: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dead Poet's Scoety, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, To Sir With Love, The Blackboard Jungle, Mr. Holland's Opus, The Music of the Heart, Stand and Deliver, and so on, followed by a brief informal discussion period. What I found myself reflecting on was how, with the exception of Stand and Deliver, which I admire, almost every other movie on the list, and almost every movie I've seen about teaching, including, most recently, Take the Lead and Freedom Writers, distorts teaching and learning by means either of satire or of romanticism. I had not seen a movie that struck me as being a truly accurate representation of the reality of teaching as I understand it.

That hole in my movie-watching background was filled up after the break when we all came back to watch the French documentary To Be and to Have, which focuses on one year in the life of Georges Lopez and his students in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. We were warned in advance that it is a slow-paced movie, and it is, but it is slow-moving in a very patient, thoughtful, alert way, and is thus an almost exact stylistic match for Georges Lopez himself, who is the Very Model of the Teacher as I have come to understand the term. The movie pulled together a lot of threads from the day: about storytelling, about listening, about the richness of teaching and of the time we share with students. If you have not seen this movie, I strongly recommend it.

The rest of the afternoon was given over to exercise and talking story and food. I played tennis for the first time in ten years, fully aware that since I can no longer run (arthritis) I would be successful if only I could get through the hour of doubles without injuring myself. The score, thanks to my ineptitude, was 0-6, 1-6, but, surprisingly, with liberal applications of ice and a large dose of Celebrex I found I could still walk on Saturday morning. Mission accomplished.

Saturday morning school president Jim Scott led us in a reflection on the Teacher as a Whole Person. He had us draw a timeline for our teaching lives and divide into segments representing chapters in our teaching lives. He told us the story of his journey as a teacher and administrator, and helped us to think though our own answers to the classic questions: where we have been, where we are, where we're going. I was really impressed that Jim took the time to be there with us, and modeled so effectively the kind of reflective practice the retreat was encouraging us to engage in.

Then Tim led us through the final exercise, which was a variation on an activity he has his students do. It's called the stereotype activity. He started by passing around a whole bunch of papers, on each of which was written in large bold letters a single word or phrase: male, female, high school teacher, liberal, Jewish, Chinese, 30-40 years old, etc. We were each given several papers and told to write down a word or phrase that would describe a stereotype—positive or negative—associated with what was written on the paper, and then pass the paper to the left. Eventually we all wrote something on all the papers. The the papers were posted on the walls around the room, and we went through a three step process. The first step was to write a description of ourselves, starting with our name, using the words in bold that were accurate. So mine read: I am Bruce. I am a high school teacher, an over-sixty Caucasian male, and a liberal." We then each had to read our self-description out loud, and when we were finished, the group responded by saying out loud, en masse, "Hello, (name)." The second step in the process was to stand up, go to each of the papers that applied to us, write down a random sampling of the stereotypical attributes listed on the paper, and then put them together into a description of ourselves that would fit with the stereotypes that people might have of us. We read those out loud as well. The final part of the exercise was to write a description of ourselves as we actually see ourselves. We read those out loud as well, and this time, our audience was asked to applaud. Mine read like this"

Yeah, I know, kind of corny. But also pretty effective and pretty thought-provoking. What Tim talked about afterward a little, and what I found myself thinking about a lot subsequently, is how really none of those descriptions, even the ones we write for ourselves, is adequate. Just as what I am now writing is in no way an adequate representation of even a tiny fraction of what was going on during those two days. There are things I can't write about even if I wanted to, and others I can't even get to hold still long enough to snag them as they go by. All writing is reductive; all speech is reductive; all words are reductive.

We wrapped up, ate lunch, and got on the bus. A lot of people continued their conversations on the bus. I was so overloaded with brain activity that I just lay down in the back of the bus and put some Keola Beamer on the iPod and closed my eyes and drifted off into a quiet space where the images and words and pictures and questions from the retreat played like a kaleidoscope on the inside of my forehead. Gradually, over the next 28 hours, I've been drifting slowly back into the world I came from. I'm almost there.

This was the description I came up with in the final exercise. Seems as good a way to end as any:

I'm Bruce Schauble. I'm a teacher, a husband, a father, a not-very-good-musician, a photographer, a reader, a writer. I believe in dialogue, in conversation, in asking questions. I'm most proud of what my children have become, and of the work that my students do. I wake up every morning grateful to be alive, to be living in Hawaii, to be working in this school with these kids and these people.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Won't be posting tomorrow. Just finished packing for school-sponsored retreat in Makaha tomorrow and Saturday. Each year the school selects, more or less at random, a group of about 25 teachers to spend two days off-campus doing a number of activities that are designed to encourage dialogue and reflection. The retreats include some good food, an evening movie, and some recreation time as well. These retreats are more or less modeled on the David Mallery Seminars for Educators, but they are designed and run by Punahou teachers for Punahou teachers. We'll leave by bus at 8:00 tomorrow morning from school for the one-hour ride to the far side of the island, which happens to be where I began my teaching career as a Teacher Corps intern in 1969. I lived in Makaha for two years—for a while right on Makaha Beach, near the large palm tree in the picture above—and taught elementary school at Nanaikapono School in Nanakuli. Later, when we were living in Waianae, the duplex we were renting was right at the foot of Kamaile'una, the mountain pictured in the background. And then when we finally moved back to Hawaii in 1998, we stayed at a friend's condo in Makaha for the first month we were here as well, before eventually moving to Honolulu. So this is in some ways two days of leaving home, and in some other ways two days of going home. I'm looking forward to the change of pace, the change of rhythm, the chance to take a few breaths and get some perspective before the end of the year sprint gets started.

Picture by Sholecka

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Things They Carry

English is a soft-edged discipline. That's one of the things I most like about it. At any given moment there are probably more things on the agenda in an English class than there are in any other content-area discipline. In responding to a text like The Poisonwood Bible, we might wind up talking about syntax or character development or writing style or psychological dynamics symbolism or religious beliefs or global politics or interpretive strategies or the relationship between art and music or what the sound of one hand clapping might be, and why it matters, or doesn't. Just yesterday in one class we got stuck for a moment on the word "Papist" and wound up in a longish digression about the origins of Protestantism and its relationship to Catholicism, and how that particular set of uneasy relations has defined the recent history of Ireland.

Amidst all this forest of overlapping territories, literary, historical, cultural, and linguistic, it's easy to lost sight of trees. As we get toward the end of the year in sophomore English, I'm feeling the need to ask the students to stop and think about the skill sets they have been accumulating. One of the most important skill sets, especially in terms of the students' ability to do well in upperclass English courses, is the ability to respond thoughtfully and articulately to whatever they are reading. Some students find it hard, confusing, mysterious, and I worry about them. Other students seem to have the knack for it; it just comes easily to them. I worry about these students too, and maybe even more, because they often really don't know what they're doing. They're used to shooting from the hip, and they're good at it, and so they never develop any sort of discipline in their approach to what they read. Most of the time, they're winging it.

All during the year I've asked students to do short pieces of writing that have given them the chance to practice particular interpretive moves. But now we're getting close to the end, and they've got a Big Deal paper coming up in response to Poisonwood in which they're doing to need to frame and put together a substantive essay drawing on all of what we have been talking about in the book and practicing in our short papers.

So yesterday, by way of both warming up for the essay and trying to highlight this particular skill set, I asked the students to open their books to a passage they had already read, the chapter where Brother Fowles makes his appearance, and we did what amounted to a slow-motion sequential read-aloud. I asked one student to read the first paragraph, asked another student to make a comment, and then asked a third student to tell us what the second student had just done. What sort of response was that? What would you call what that student just did? If you wanted to do that sort of thing yourself, what would you be doing? Then we went around clockwise and went through the process again. New reader, new comment, new characterization of the nature of the comment. While all this was going on, I was at the board making a listing of the various interpretive moves being put on display.

Given the slow-motion, three-tier aspect of the discussion, we actually only got through about two pages of the text. But as I told the students in class today, I am actually less concerned at this point about the text itself or what they had to say about it on this occasion, than I am about the metacognitive piece. What are you doing when you respond to a piece of writing? What are your options? What's in your toolbox?

The list we began to put together at the board during this exercise was, by the end of the period, just developing, so for homework I asked the students to keep (re)reading, to think about what they might choose to say about what they were looking at, to identify in this way at least two strategies that we had NOT mentioned in class that are part of their repertoire of reading responses, and to email those strategies to me so I could add them to the list. The responses are still coming in, but here's an interim wrapup:

Reading Response: An Inventory of Moves

Diction: What particular words or phrases seem most significant or surprising or confusing?

Passages: Which passages seem especially relevant or significant? Which passages convey most clearly the important ideas? Where is the writing at its best or most effective? What makes it that way?

Repetitions, Patterns, Motifs: Which repetitions (of ideas, images, words, even objects) can be seen as part of a pattern? What’s the logic of the pattern? What might the pattern represent or symbolize or emphasize?

Compare/contrast: What do you see in the text that reminds you of something else inside or outside of the text? How are those two things the same? How are they different?

Reader response: What goes in your mind as you think about a particular passage? What do you feel? What do you like or dislike? What else does it remind you of? How does it connect to the world you live in, the life you are living? What questions does the text create in your mind? What answers suggest themselves?

Contexts/intertexts: How does the context shape your understanding what you are observing? In what other texts have you seen something similar. How does your previous experience other texts help shape your understanding of this one?

Character analysis: What do we know about particular characters? How do they behave? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What motivates them? How do they compare to one another? How do they change or grow?

Structures (Beginnings, endings, turns, epiphanies): What are the observable structural elements in the text? How many parts are there? How are they related to one another? Where does one part end and the next begin? Where is there a surprise? What points of view are represented? How are they signaled? How does the title relate to the rest of the text? What does the title tell you about the way the author intends the text to be read?

Observations, Inferences, Questions: What do you know for sure? What can you make reasonable guesses about? What remains open to question?

Persuasion: Is there a case that you can make about an arguable point, a thesis?

Cultural background: What does the text reveal about the culture in which it is set? Which aspects of FREEPA (family, religion, education, economics, politics, and arts) are emphasized? Which are deemphasized or ignored?

There are others, and I invite you to add anything that has worked for you that you think might benefit student readers by commenting below. But this seems to work as at least a preliminary set of consciously articulated response strategies. Once the list is complete, I'm going to give each student a copy, in the hopes that at least some of all this will leave an imprint, and that if it doesn't, they'll have the list with them as a kind of map to help them navigate on higher ground.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Life Out of Balance?

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony...
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.

- Joni Mitchell

If one of the world's foremost musicians went out onto the street and played for free, would anybody notice? That was the question that led to this experiment written up in the April 8 Washington Post. In the spirit of inquiry, Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso, took his instrument and played outside the L'Enfant metro station in Washington D.C. for three quarters of an hour on the morning of January 12. Seven people stopped to listen for at least a minute; their reactions were subsequently gathered in interviews and included in the article. Twenty-seven tossed money into the violin case, mostly without stopping. More than 1000 others simply ignored him.

What does that mean? What conclusions can we draw from that? Here's an excerpt from the end of the article:

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of "Koyaanisqatsi," the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L'Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word. It means "life out of balance."

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said. "If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"

That's what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.

Of course, Davies had an advantage -- an advantage of perception. He wasn't a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.

Sundial Dreams

I suppose that if I were to have my wish to be reincarnated with a different set of capabilities, one of the alternate lives I would have on my short list would be that of a Really Talented Musician. I have loved music since I was a child, and have any number of musical heroes, from Andres Segovia to Bob Dylan to (Hawaiian slack-key guitarist) Keola Beamer to Richard Thompson to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In this lifetime, I've tried my hand at any number of instruments, including, let's see: the drums (age 8), the recorder (11), the guitar (16, of course), the harmonica (20), the bamboo flute (22), and most recently, the piano (57). The one one common thread running through all these experiences is my more or less complete lack of musical ability. I don't pick things up quickly. It takes me forever to learn to play a chord progression competently, and then if I don't play it for a week it's gone. It's been a test of my patience, and and even greater test of the patience of my wife and kids, who have had to listen to me misplay one instrument after another for years and years. I stayed longest with the guitar, playing for close to 40 years withoug developing anything like competency. When in my late 50's I began having trouble with my shoulder that was aggravated by guitar playing, I had to give that up, so I began taking piano lessons. The first few months went well; I had learned enough about music to figure out the easy stuff, and I have a teacher who is very patient and encouraging (most of her students are elementary school kids), but the longer I've stayed with it the more I've wished that things musical came a little bit more easily to me.

While I was getting therapy for my shoulder, during the time just after I had to give up guitar and just before I began playing piano, I had a few sessions with a masseuse who had a New Age music CD on in the background with a piano player I decided I liked. He's schmaltzy and sentimental and he's heavy on the strings and soft focus photographs, but he's also really melodic and I like the way many of his songs convey something like joy. I checked out the CD and found that the player's name was Kevin Kern. I was able to download some of his songs from the Apple Store. Since during the time I my shoulder was bothering me I couldn't do much else in the way of exercise, I started a walkng routine and I loaded my favorite Kern songs onto my iPod and listened to them each day while I was out.

Then, I discovered that Kern has his own website, and that he had published the sheet music for at least some of his songs in the form of a book, so I sent off for it and chose one song to work on, a song called "Sundial Dreams". That was two and a half years ago, and tonight as I was practicing that song for perhaps the 5000th time I still found myself sliding in and out of rhythm with it. But it's coming. Another two and a half years and I think I'll just about have it.

Tonight, on a hunch, I thought I'd check out YouTube and sure enough, there are several videos of Kevin Kern, including one where he is playing the song I'm almost able to play, sometimes, almost all the way through once without screwing it up too badly. So, by way of introduction if you've never heard of him, is Kevin Kern:

Monday, April 9, 2007

Project Time

We're approaching the time of the school year that I like best, or perhaps second best, after the first month of school. There are about seven weeks of classes left, and much of the focus in my classes will be giving the students time to complete their independent projects. The students can work either individually or in groups, and I ask them to choose a project that represents something they think they can do well and links to something that they truly care about. For the next three weeks I'll give over one day a week to work on their projects in class; for the three weeks after that it will be two days. During those class periods I meet with each of them in sequence and basically ask each of them the time-honored conference questions: What are you doing? How's it going? Is there anything I can do to help? It's a pretty open-ended framework, and I've been amazed over the last few years at what the students have been able to do. Given choice of form and topic, students have chosen to put on plays, produce documentary videos, write novels, put together mixed-media presentations (art and writing; music and photography; art, music, and writing) do powerpoint presentations, build surfboards, make jewelry, write family histories, profile their teams or their friends, write poetry, put together themed magazines: the works. There is a sampling of completed projects from the last few years at the bottom of the page on the link above.

Along with the project I ask the students to hand in a work log on which they have recorded their hours, and a reflection paper in which they try to articulate what sort of quality they have been trying to achieve and walk the reader through the process they used to achieve it. I'm looking forward to seeing what this year's students come up with.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Play Perplex

Didn't post last night because I was out playing poker. (I've been playing poker more or less regularly, and not very seriously, for something like 20 years now.) There's a regular group of players, mostly teachers at my school, about ten in all, and once every couple of weeks we get together and play for a few hours. Most nights not everyone can make it, but we usually can scrape together six or seven players, which is to my mind just the right number. We play for just enough money to make it interesting, and not enough money to cause anyone any worries should they lose. The cost of a night out, in the worst-case scenario, is about the cost of dinner and a movie.

We've experimented with the structure of the games. The trouble with low-limit poker is that there's not a whole lot of strategy involved; you can't really bet enough to bluff anyone out. And the trouble with no-limit poker, and even pot-limit poker, is that if you get mixed up in the wrong hand you can be done for the evening at 8:00. So we've invented an intermediate rule that one person can bet the pot at any point in any one hand. Which means there are lots of chances to play safely, but also lots of semi-dramatic moments when you have to make significant decisions about the odds, with everyone else looking on and giving you a hard time. It's a lot of fun, and as good a reason as any to spend the evening with friends. It's also a pretty good seminar in strategic thinking. You have to be able to read not only the cards and the amount of money in the pot and the amount of money you have in front of you, but the other people at the table, their mood at any moment, whether or not they are feeling confident or shell-shocked from the last hand, the time of the evening (people tend to play looser toward the end), not to mention whatever other karmic forces seem to be aswirl in the universe. All of which is entertaining and hard to figure. You can make all the right bets and get beaten by a fluke card on the river, and you can completely misread your hand and have it turn out to be a winner anyway. At least in our games, you can.

On nights when we play poker, we're up past my usual 10:00 bedtime, so today I spent a little time at school in the morning processing submissions for Ka Wai Ola, our literary magazine, and then spent most of the afternoon reading. There's a book a colleague loaned to me called The Gun Seller, written by Hugh Laurie, who I gather is an actor on Fox TV when he isn't churning out detective novel spoofs like this one. Or maybe he's a writer when he isn't acting. In any case, it's a book with no redeeming social value that I can determine, but it's really funny and it's had me laughing out loud most of the day. It opens with main character, an ex-Scots guard named Thomas Lang, in the middle of a fight with a guy who is trying to strangle him to death, and works with a kind of manic good humor and cheerful disregard for plausibility from that crisis situation to, well, dozens of others of increasing scope and complexity. There's intrigue, blackmail, geopolitical cloaking and daggering, all delivered in a deadpan wisecracking mode. Good for entertainment, if that's what you're after. If you're after more substantive stuff, you may want to read Darby Dixon's response to The Children's Hospital, which is one of those books that keeps insinuating itself into my consciousness as I read reviews like this. It's moving up the list of Books I'm Going to Have to Read.

I can't resist quoting, at this juncture, the wonderful section from the intro to Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler..., where he reports on the all-too-familiar dilemma of the bibliophile on the loose:

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

the Books You've Been Planning Top Read For Ages,
the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread and the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books by Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).
My problem exactly. So many books, so little time. So why, do you ask, are you wasting that time reading a movie actor's satire of a genre of pop fiction which itself is arguably not worth reading? And while you're at it, go ahead and ask, I know you want to: why are you out playing poker when you could be correcting papers or practicing piano or Writing Something Significant or working for equal rights or global sustainability or world peace?

Ah, yes. Sigh. This is the dilemma that is constantly before us. How do we find a balance between creation and recreation? Between self-indulgence and self-transcendence? All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. On the other hand, time is running out, both on the school year and on my lifetime. Gotta get serious. Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, a good day to Turn Over a New Leaf. For tonight, I'm gonna finish this blog and then finish the book and then rest up so I can start over again tomorrow.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Words From My Perfect Teacher

Just got back from seeing, on the recommendation of one of my students, "Words of My Perfect Teacher," which is a documentary film about three people who become students of Dzongsar Kyentse Norbu Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who now resides in Bhutan but has educational and religious ventures ongoing all over the world. The thrust of the movie, whether or not by intention, is to undercut the entire notion of perfection in one's teachers, and indeed, to undercut the notion of teaching entirely. Much of the behavior that the movie documents, on the part of both the students and the teachers, is arbitrary and self-indulgent and apparently pointless.

I've been a Buddhist of sorts for my entire adult life. The central notion of Buddhism, as I understand it and attempt to practice it, is that your Buddha nature—which is to say your happiness, your most fully realized self—lies within you. The implications of that core belief is that you are, ultimately, responsible for your own happiness, and that you create, to a very large degree, by virtue of your actions, your own karma. American culture is grounded firmly in two mutually reinforcing traditions: the Judaeo-Christian tradition which posits that the source of our happiness is Someone Up There; and the consumerist tradition which posits that happiness, and success, so far as it is measurable, resides in one's ability to Accumulate More Stuff than the next person. The strength of those two strands of American culture is perhaps one explanation for why Buddhism has never really gotten much of a toehold in America.

There are dozens of different kinds of Buddhism, of course, and they vary primarily in the means by which they go about answering the question "If my Buddha nature is already inside me, how do I get it out?" Some forms of Buddhism emphasize meditation. Some emphasize chanting. Some require the renunciation of worldly ambitions. Some demand a life of service. Some ask that you submit yourself to a particular discipline: archery, woodworking, pottery, the making of tea. Some demand some proportion of all of the above. But what Buddism asserts is that, regardless of the practice, the goal is to liberate something that is already inside you. If you're looking outside of yourself—to your friends, to your job, to your family, to your God—you're going to come up empty.

In yesterday's post I cited Adam Zagajewski on self-instruction through reading: "Read your enemies and your friends, read those who reinforce your sense of what's evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can't yet understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are." This notion that reading will allow you to "become what you are" is in essence a view of reading as Buddhist practice. Zagajewski also seems to assume that this sort of True Reading is not conducted in schools: "We do our reading mainly off-campus and in our post-campus lives." Which is, in the nature of things, as it should be. I'd certainly argue—I did argue, yesterday—that as teachers we should certainly attempt to broaden our students sense of what is out there, and of ask them to extend the reach of their reading beyond what they already know. But any such extension can only be a starting point. The real journey in reading is, in Zagjewski's phrase, to "outlive yourself." Which I think he means not in a temporal, but a transcendental sense.

What I liked about the movie was that it was utterly unromanticized. The characters were shown to be what we all are, imperfect human beings with the potential to become more, with at least the inclination toward self-transcendence. What I found disappointing in the movie is that by the end there was very little convincing evidence that either the students or the teacher were any further along in the process than they were when the movie began. There was a lot of interesting footage of London and of Bhutan and the Rinpoche himself. But I left the movie happy to be within the boundaries of my own practice. The seekers in the movie seemed to be determined to miss the point.

Thursday, April 5, 2007


Re-reading Max Frisch led me to post some questions, one of which was about the compromises we are prepared to make. So today's post is a sort of indirect investigation of the notion of educational compromise, as suggested in two readings I happened to read today.

This morning I found in my mailbox at school an article sent along by our Director of Instruction from the March 07 Phi Delta Kappan entitled "Farewell to A Farewell to Arms: Deemphasizing the Whole-Class Novel." The authors, Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey, make the argument that the time-honored practice of asking everyone in a class to read and discuss a classic novel together is educationally inefficient and tends to generate "frustration and resistance" on the part of student readers.

We also hear quite frequently that class novels are selected because they are "good for students." But we know that classics—even award-winning, contemporary classics—do not make the list of what adolescents prefer to read. In addition, we know that students still struggling to read do not get better at reading from tackling difficult books.

They wind up by stating explicitly that "when teachers require all students to read the same book at the same time, English classes are neither standard-centered nor student-centered. Pointing out that "Class novels may actually limit or restrict the variety, depth, and quantity of student reading," they offer, as an alternative, five guidelines for practice:

1) Identify universal themes rather than individual books as a way of guiding instruction.
2) Select texts that span a wide variety of difficulty levels.
3) Select texts that address contemporary issues and that are engaging.
4) Orchestrate instruction that builds students' competence.
5) Teach literary devices and reading comprehension strategies using texts that are readable and meaningful.

Then this morning I come across Robert Epstein, writing in Education Week, who takes the argument several giant steps forward, arguing not just for the abolition of required common readings, but for the abolition of the whole sorry business of high school itself:

The research I conducted with my colleague Diane Dumas suggests that teenagers are as competent as adults across a wide range of adult abilities, and other research has long shown that they are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception. The assertion that teenagers have an “immature” brain that necessarily causes turmoil is completely invalidated when we look at anthropological research from around the world. Anthropologists have identified more than 100 contemporary societies in which teenage turmoil is completely absent; most of these societies don’t even have terms for adolescence. Even more compelling, long-term anthropological studies initiated at Harvard in the 1980s show that teenage turmoil begins to appear in societies within a few years after those societies adopt Western schooling practices and are exposed to Western media. Finally, a wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges.

A careful look at these issues yields startling conclusions: The social-emotional turmoil experienced by many young people in the United States is entirely a creation of modern culture. We produce such turmoil by infantilizing our young and isolating them from adults. Modern schooling and restrictions on youth labor are remnants of the Industrial Revolution that are no longer appropriate for today’s world; the exploitative factories are long gone, and we have the ability now to provide mass education on an individual basis.

Teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults; to undo the damage we have done, we need to establish competency-based systems that give these young people opportunities and incentives to join the adult world as rapidly as possible.
My reaction to these arguments, as they make their way to my desktop, is fraught. On the one hand, I say, "Hmm, yes, well, right. Of course we want to develop a love of reading among students, and of course the way to do that is to encourage them to read things they like, at least in addition to, if not in replace of, the classic texts we might have chosen for them. And of course, the very concept of mass education based on the assumption that teenagers are somehow not ready for "real life" is absurd. On the other hand, both of these arguments seem to run across counter to another strand of what seems to me like common sense, which is that the fact of the matter is that high school students, and in particular American high school students, don't know much to begin with, and asking them to read what they already like, or to leave school entirely and join the adult world (given its current American cultural configuration), seems like an abandonment. It certainly seems unlikely that very many of our students, if they have not been lit up by reading by the time they get to high school, are going to turn into avid readers on their own once they hit the workplace.

One of the most eloquent demonstrations of how little we do know, and what we might aspire to if we were to be the sorts of people who wanted to know something, comes from Adam Zagajewski in his essay "Young Poets, Please Read Everything," from A Defense of Ardor. Zagajewski, a formidably erudite reader and writer, is no great fan of modern culture or of the American educational experience, even when it is working at its best. Like Epstein, he suggests that those who take learning seriously are going to have to resign themselves to doing it on their own time.

Our schools are proud of producing streamlined members of the Great Animal, the new society of proud consumers. It's true that we weren't tortured like adolescents in nineteenth-century England (or France or Germany, or even Poland for that matter): we didn't have to memorize the whole of Virgil and Ovid. We must be self-taught; the difference between someone like Joseph Brodsky, who left school at the age of fifteen and proceeded to read everything he could get his hands on, and someone who's successfully run the full gamut of a modern American education, including a Ph.D., while rarely setting foot outside the Ivy League's safe precincts, doesn't require much comment. We do our reading mainly off-campus and in our post-campus lives.
Toward the end of his essay he compiles a listing of writers with whom a well-read individual, a young poet aspiring to learn his craft, for example, might hope to be familiar:

So, young poets, please read everything, read Plato and Ortega y Gasset, Horace and Hölderlin, Ronsard and Pascal, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Oscar Milosz and Czeslaw Milosz, Keats and Wittgenstein, Emerson and Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot and Umberto Saba, Thucydides and Colette, Apollinaire and Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova and Dante, Pasternak and Machado, Montaigne and St. Augustine, Proust and Hofmannsthal, Sappho and Szymborska, Thomas Mann and Aeschylus, read biographies and treatises, essays and political analyses. Read for yourselves, for the sweet turmoil in your lovely head. But also read against yourselves, read for questioning and impotence, for despair and erudition, read the dry, sardonic remarks of philosophers like Cioran or even Carl Schmitt, read newspapers, read those who despise, dismiss, or simply ignore poetry and try to understand why they do it. Read your enemies and your friends, read those who reinforce your sense of what's evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can't yet understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are.

One of the things I find most interesting and delightful about this inventory is the pairings, the juxtapositions. Plato, sure. But y Gasset? I did read one of his books once, in college, but all that I recall is that he talked about artistic standards. (I'm reminded of the Woody Allen joke about a guy who takes a speed-reading course, completes War and Peace in 20 minutes, and reports, "It involves Russia." One can sympathize.) Eliot, absolutely. But who the hell is Umberto Saba? Cioran? Carl Scmitt? It's noteworthy that Emerson and Dickinson are the only Americans, except for Eliot, who would probably object to the characterization. I'd like to think that I am a well-read individual, and by American standards I supppose I am, and yet easily half the names on this list are either completely unknown to me or are vague ghostly presences in the attic of my mind. I'm a product of and a practicioner in an educational system that has not ultimately encouraged me to read as broadly or as deeply as Zagajewski urges. A good U. S. education has not prepared me particularly well to be a citizen of the Republic of Letters. And then, of course, there are my students. I've had students read this essay and asked how many of the names they recognize. The most I've ever gotten was five. Most students recognize only the three American names.

So. Questions abound. Is the dilemma that Zagajewski's listing highlights best addressed by asking students to read more books that "address contemporary issues and are engaging," on the theory that perhaps if they become devoted readers they will eventually follow their noses to Szymborska and Aeschylus? That may be part of the answer, but I don't think it's the whole answer. Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristotle, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Donne, Pope, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Clemens, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty: every single one of these, and many more, I first encountered in high school. That's where I began to develop a taste for literature, and a sense of the deeper satisfactions that reading can offer. Zagajewski says "Our reading takes places chiefly beneath two signs: the sign of memory and the sign of ecstasy." If our goal is to read for (cultural) memory, to place ourselves in the context of "what our many precursors produced before our minds were opened," then contemporary high-interest reading is not going to get the job done. If our goal is to read for ecstasy, for "the kind of energy that comes close to dance and shamanistic drunkenness," then we have to educate our palates: there are many sources of such energy, but they are not readly accessible to the uninitiated. Which is an argument for asking students to at least attempt to make the reach, to submit themselves to the discipline of reading what is not yet fully within their range of familiarity. Are some students going to resist? Sure. Does that mean we should give up? I don't think so.

Is this kind of education becoming irrelevant? Is it even sensible, in this day and age, to ask students to aspire to an erudition which in all likelihood is only going to alienate them, make them anachronistic book freaks in a world in which communication is streamlined and technology-enhanced and centered not in the past but in the what's going to be happening in the next five minutes? I don't know. Would my life be substantially different if the names in the list in the previous paragraph were as obscure to me as they are to most of our students, or as the names in Zagajewski's list are to me? Well, yes. I suppose I wouldn't be teaching, or at least not teaching English. But not everyone becomes a reader, and I don't suppose that there is any correlation at all between, say, happiness and erudition. (If there were a correlation, it might very well be an inverse ratio.)

Where do we draw the line? What's the absolute minimum we can or should expect students to have read? Is it a matter of minutes of time on task? Is it a set of core texts? Do we come up with a "fondness index" that measures how much students like to read? Do we ask them to do difficult reading now on the assumption that over time they will get better at it? Or do we give them high-interest easy reading now on the assumption that if they become readers they will eventually read more challenging work because they want it?

At our school, we're compromising at both ends. We've cut down in the freshman and sophomore required readings in order to make time for students to choose and share their own books. But we're still asking students to work together to read The Odyssey and Woman Warrior and Merchant of Venice and The Poisonwood Bible. And we try to find ways to help the students make the kinds of connections between those texts and what is going on in their own lives so that the reading experience will be, to some degree at least, engaging and relevant and meaningful. That's where the interesting challenges are.