Monday, March 31, 2008

Meme: Passion Quilt

Mr. B-G tagged me about two weeks ago for the passion quilt meme, but I was offline for a while and am now just getting around to it.


Post a picture or create your own image that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about
Give your picture a short title
Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt”
Link back to this blog entry
Include links to 5 people in your professional learning network

So here's mine:

Literature Circles

There is a primary level of engagement that comes with reading any quality text. But that level of engagement comes with one primary built-in limitation: it's solitary. Of course I love to read, and I hope that one day my students will derive as much enjoyment and enrichment from reading as I have been able to do during my lifetime. But probably most of the reading I do is isolating: it puts my in a world by myself, so much so that I am often oblivious to what is going on around me, a fact that my family sometimes has found at times found quaintly amusing and at other times downright annoying.

But there are other satisfactions to reading as well, and one of them is to be able to share your thoughts about a common text with other readers. That's the beauty of a classroom. The experience of shared reading makes possible another, second level of engagement: participation in a community of discourse. Of course I wish for my students to be readers. But beyond that, I wish for them to experience and learn to value the time that we spend together, helping one another to ask better questions, come up with better answers, go broad and deep, wending our way to the heart of the matter.

(I took this picture of my students engaged in exactly this process during the summer 2007 session of sophomore English. I hope they remember those hours with as much aloha as I do.)

Doing my part to keep the meme going, I'm going to tag

Chris Watson
Bud Hunt
Doug Belshaw
Louann Reid
Chris Lehmann

Saturday, March 29, 2008


It's been a while since I've posted anything here. Three weeks ago I spent three days at the NAIS convention in New York City, and when I came back I had stacks of papers waiting for me, lots of other business to catch up on, and just to make it interesting, 90 applications to review for two high-school English teaching positions we have posted. I eventualy got those 90 applications eventually boiled down to about ten interviews, all of which I have now completed. We've hired one teacher, and will be making another decision this week.

One of the candidates I wound up interviewing is working on a doctoral thesis focusing on utopian science fiction. During that conversation he mentioned a book I had not heard of by an author I had not heard of: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. And that, sports fans, has been where the rest of my time has been going during this last two weeks: I've been immersed in this extraordinary 763-page novel, which I finally finished last night.

The Years of Rice and Salt is an extended thought experiment, a sort of alternative history of the world that starts with a "what if" question: what if the plague, instead of merely reducing the population of Europe by a third, had wiped out the population entirely? What shape might world history have taken if the principal players had been China, India, and the Middle East; and the principal religious systems Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam?

The novel consists of ten books, each of which takes place in a particular era, starting in roughly the year 622 and leading in sequence up to the present. In one of the novel's most interesting conceits, the main characters introduced in each of the ten books are in fact reincarnations of the same spirits that make up their jati, the small group of spirits who are karmically connected and who therefore keeping meeting one another in one lifetime after another. At the end of each lifetime, they meet each other in the bardo, the holding room in the non-earthly realm where spirits are sent to be judged on their life's work, and where their future incarnations are decided upon by the gods. It is understood that it is the responsibility of each human being to struggle, over the course of many lifetimes, to improve the world. As one character says, "Now we are in this lower realm. Our dharma still commands right action, even here. In the hope of small advances upward. Until reality itself be established, by many millions of lives of effort" (580).

The recurring characters with clearly defined dharmic roles are designated by the first letter of their names. The "B" character (incarnated as Bihari, Bistami, Bao, Bai, and Budur, among others) is a sort of everyman: goodhearted, capable, open to instruction. The "K" character (Kyu, Katima, Kerala, Kirana, Kung) is a social activist, a rebel driven by a strong sense of justice. The "I" character (Iwang, Ibrahim, Ismail, Iwa, Isao) is an intellectual, an investigator, someone with a faith in reason and science.

These character types are placed into a wide variety of situations all across the globe, as Robinson reconceives and reinvents human history. Some developments — the discovery of electricity and atomic energy — mirror similar developments in the "real" world. Others are boldly re-imagined. The colonization of the Americas, for example, (by the Chinese, in the absence of Europeans) fails because a Japanese sailor arrives ahead of the Chinese and convinces the Native American tribes to join forcers to withstand the threat. The resulting Hodenosaunee Confederacy winds up being a major world power event to the present day.

Robinson is an adept storyteller, and the individual stories keep you turning the pages. But the structure of the novel, and the room he gives his characters to argue with one another and advocate for various theories, allows him frame within the narrative what amount to exploratory essays on a wide variety of subjects, including religion, philosophy, women's rights, and the function of literature and storytelling and history itself. Here, for example, is a passage from the end of the book where Zhu Isao, an elderly historian, in the midst of considering different ways of thinking about history, talks about what he calls "dharma history," and its opposite, nihilism:

Thus a history like Than Oo's is what some call "Burmese history," but that I would prefer to call "dharma history," being a romance in which humanity struggles to work out its dharma, to better itself, and so generation by generation to make progress, fighting for justice, and an end to want, with the strong implication that we will eventually work our way up to the source of the peach blossom stream, and the age of great peace will come into being. It is a secular version of the Hindu and Buddhist tale of nirvana successfully achieved...

The opposite of this mode is the ironic or satiric mode, which I call entropic history, from the physical sciences, or nihilism, or, in the usage of certain old legends, the story of the fall. In this mode, everything that humanity tries to do fails, or rebounds against it, and the combination of biological reality and moral weakness, of death and evil, means that nothing in human affairs can succeed...

These two modes of emplotment represent end-point extremes, in that one says we are masters of the world and can defeat death, while the other says that we are captives of the world, and can never win against death. It might be thought these then represent the only two possible modes, but inside these extremes Rabindra identified two other modes of emplotment, which he called tragedy and comedy. These two are mixed and partial modes compared to their absolutist outliers, and Rabindra suggested they both have to do with reconciliation. In comedy the reconciliation is of people with other people, and with society at large. The weave of family with family, tribe with clan—this is what makes them comedy: the marriage with someone from a different clan and the return of spring.

Tragedies make a darker reconciliation. Scholar White said of them, they tell the story of humanity face-to-face with reality itself, therefore facing death and dissolution and defeat. Tragic heroes are destroyed, but for those who survive to tell their tale, there is a rise in consciousness, in awareness of reality, and this is valuable in and of itself, dark though that knowledge may be.

I suggest that as historians, it is best not to get trapped in one mode or another, as so many do; it is too simple a solution, and does not match well with events as experience. Instead, we should weave a story that holds in its pattern as much as possible. It is like the Daoists' yin-yang symbol, with eyes of tragedy and comedy dotting the larger fields of dharma and nihilism. That old figure is the perfect image of all our stories put together, with the dark spot of our comedies marring the brilliance of dharma, and the blaze of tragic knowledge emerging from black nothingness.

The ironic history by itself, we can reject out of hand. Of course we are bad; of course things go wrong. But why dwell on it? Why pretend this is the whole story? Irony is merely death walking among us. It doesn't take up the challenge. It isn't life speaking.

But I suppose we also have to reject the purest version of dharma history, the transcending of this world and this life, the perfection of our way of being...We are animals, death is our fate. So at best we could say the history of the species has to be made as much like dharma as possible, by a collective act of the will.

This leaves the middle modes, comedy and tragegy...Surely we have a great deal of both of these. Perhaps the best way to construct a proper history is to inscribe the whole figure, and say that for the individual, ultimately, it is a tragedy; for the society, comedy. If we can make it so.

Such rhetorical flights may not be to every reader's fancy. But I found myself thoroughly swept up by the novel, interested in both its plot line and its arguments, and amazed by its scope and ambition. And, as the last line of the above passage suggests, it is a deeply ethical book, a book that is engaged on every page with the investigation of questions of individual and societal responsibility. The world is, for better or worse, what we have made it, and will become what we are making it now.

For the teachers out there, I can't resist ending by quoting one last passage, spoken by the character Bao, who in his old age has settled into a life as a teacher of college-age students, who often ask him what he thinks about reincarnation:

Over time Bao came to understand that teaching too was a kind of reincarnation, in that years passed, and students came and went, new young people all the time, but always the same age, taking the same class; the class under the oak trees, reincarnated. He began to enjoy that aspect of it. He would start the first class by saying, "Look, here we are again." They never knew what to make of it; same response, every time.

He learned, among other things, that teaching was the most rigorous form of learning. He learned to learn more from his students than they did from him; like so many other things, it was the reverse of what it seemed to be, and colleges existed to bring together groups of young people to teach some chosen few of their elders the things that they knew about life, that the old teachers had been in danger of forgetting. So Bao loved his students, and studied them assiduously...

Over time the students added to his growing internal list of ways reincarnation was true: that you might really come back as another life; that the various periods of one's life were karmic reincarnations; that every morning you reawakened to consciousness newly, and are thus reincarnated every day to a new life.

Bao liked all of these. The last one he tried to live in his daily existence, paying attention to his morning garden as if he had never seen it before, marveling at the strangeness and beauty of it. In his classes he tried to talk about history newly, thinking things through yet again, not allowing himself to say anything he had ever said before; this was hard, but interesting.

Hard, but interesting. Yes it is.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Tree Octopus Threatened with Extinction

Louann Reid posted this thought-provoking video today. I'm passing it along.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kindle the Flame

Miguel Guhlin tagged me for the This I Believe - Kindle the Flame meme, so I'm going to take a shot at it. The root questions under consideration are "What do you really believe about education technology? Why are you interested? Why do you do educational technology?

I guess the obvious place to begin is that I believe in educational technology because, well, it is, indeed, educational. Education begins with access to information. I admit to being blown away by how easy it is to access information of any kind these days, and how powerful the communication tools are. I've been around long enough to remember when what we have now was not even conceivable, much less available. I remember spending hours as a student in high school and college in the sixties searching through card catalogs and library stacks and badly-designed indexes to try to find information or references that in many cases, a majority of cases, were simply not going to be there. I remember spending whole days of frustration thumbing through books at home trying to find some quotation that I vaguely remembered, or misremembered, might possibly be on the top right hand side of a page midway through a book with a blue cover. I remember the early days of the internet when I might have to sort through the first ten pages of results from fivedifferent search engines to discover that there was in fact no information available online about the topic I was trying to research. All that is over, done with, finito. I've got an embarrassment of riches instantly available at my fingertips 24 hours a day anywhere in the world. I've got sophisticated bookmarking systems to sort and categorize them. I've got access to databases and tutorials and blogs and wikis and servers and pretty much every publication under the sun. I've got the ability to connect what I do know to what I don't know in more ways than I can shake a stick at. And so do my students.

If it's true that education begins with access to information, I would argue that it proceeds, in large part, from there, with the processing of information: how it is thought about, how it is discussed, how it is re-presented and disseminated. And once again, technology greatly enhances the possibilities. Take this post. Early this week I received in my aggregator, Google Reader, a post from Artichoke in which he was articulating some of his concerns about the impact of technology on education. That got me thinking and I posted a response in my blog, which was read by Miguel Guhlin, who responded by commenting on my blog and tagging me for a meme started by Jim Holt, which brought me to where I am now, typing these words. Check it out: I live in Hawaii. Artichoke is in New Zealand. Tim and Miguel are in Texas. As recently as ten years ago, none of this processing and sharing of ideas would have been possible. Now it's routine.

Then there's dissemination. Ten years ago the primary audience for what my students wrote was me. If one of them had wanted to reach and/or get feedback from a wider audience, s/he would have had limited options: submit it to the school newspaper or literary magazine, read it at an assembly, nail it to a classroom door. Now a lot of what my students write is available via Moodle and our class wiki to one another, and, if I should choose to click on a single button, to the whole world. And even if I as the teacher choose not to click on that button, my students individually can choose to have as ready and as broad an audience as they might conceivably wish, immediately and for free. And due to the sophistication and ease of use of free tech tools, more of which become available every day, even students with marginal presentational skills (bad handwriting, shaky spelling skills, not much sense of design) can produce professional-looking documents and presentations.

All of which I find tremendously exciting and energizing and hope-inducing. I'm excited about educational technology because for the first time in the history of the world what my students are thinking about or wondering about or writing about can be shared with other students on the other side of the nation or the other side of the world. I'm excited because now best ideas and best practices and best products can be archived from year to year and shared with whoever might be interested (other students, other teachers, other schools) in seeing what quality work looks like. I'm excited because despite the distraction factor, despite the perils of multitasking, despite the fact that all of these options threaten to siphon away class time from more traditional enterprises, at this point in the history of education it really feels like anything my students can conceive of doing is possible. That's the opportunity, and the challenge.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Literacies Olde and New

My school is in the first year of implementing a 1:1 laptop program in grades 9-12. Right now only our freshmen have laptops. Next year they'll be sophs, with laptops still, and our entering froshpersons will be getting theirs. And so on. One of the discussions that we have been having within departments and throughout the school at large is how to make the technology work to help us do better what we already value. The strategic question is how do we make the laptops an enhancement and not a distraction? There is a certain amount of what I think is well-justified anxiety around the issue of time.

As in most schools, we have a certain proportion of students who in truth cannot be said to have mastered the basics. Our departmental mission statement reads

We are committed to provide an environment where students can learn to read compassionately, think exactingly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity, and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and its literature.

The mission statement is carefully phrased. It does not claim that all, or even any, of our students are doing these things at any given moment. It says that we are committed to providing an environment in which they can learn to do these things. Whether or not they in fact do so has something to do with us, something to do with them, and something to do with the tools we put in their hands.

For many generations the primary tools that students have been asked to employ have been the book and the pen. That's what "literacy" was understood to be all about. It has been more or less an article of faith that one learned to be a better reader by reading broadly and deeply, and that one learned to write by writing regularly and with close attention to what one had been reading. Learning to read well, or to write well, was properly understood to be a time-intensive process, one that requires a lot of practice, not to mention a willing mind. Traditionally, most of the time spent in English classes, and in work done for English classes, has been time spent reading literature and then talking about it and writing about it. Even in the good old days, there never seemed to be quite enough time to guarantee the kind of progress one might hope one's students might make.

It's no surprise to any of us that the ground is shifting beneath our feet. New technologies have evolved which seem to imply "new literacies" as well. But how, even in the best-case scenarios, will these new literacies co-exist with the old ones? The challenge to us as teachers is to figure out what the proper balance will be. Should new literacies supplant the core literacy skills? Supplement them? Enhance them? Given that I have 56 hours each semester with my students, how much of the time that I used to spend all of in a not-always-successful attempt to help them master core literacy skills can I now in good conscience give up in order to have them consider alternative literacies?

There's a further problem as well. We have well-established standards of quality for traditional literacies. We know how to tell what is good from what is not good. But what are the criteria for judging the quality of say, a music video, or a photo essay, or a podcast of a public service announcement?

A recent post by Artichoke lays out the dilemma nicely:

Clarifying what the new media literacies involve nudges at the back of my mind every time I listen to a student podcast, interact with a student webpage, read a student blog or view a student-created movie ... which means I have been trying to critique the critical literacies that the students have used/failed to use in their intended communication for deep understanding for quite a while.

And it is not an easy task ...

For whilst we have well established criteria and clearly outlined indicators – those specific, measurable, achievable, relevant targets and success criteria for strategies to meet the purpose of tasks within the primarily text based content of the old literacies in education, we do not seem to have not developed these to the same degree within the visual, audio, tactile etc participatory context of the new literacies. Which is why I am so often made anxious when I listen to student created podcasts, view students’ digital movies and or read student blogs ... I am made... uncomfortable when teachers eschew well-established textual literacy standards in favour of a similarly ill-defined cultural intuition as their students to assess the new content broadcast by students working in these new media landscapes – an approach that sees far too many of them confidently sharing cringe-worthy student creations as examples of new literacy excellence.

How can we avoid betraying both content and process when we introduce blogging, videomaking, podcasting, wikis, webpages and other Web2.0 applications (like social bookmarking, collaborative authorship [text, concept mapping, spreadsheets, timelines], image sharing, calendar sharing, video sharing, book sharing, voice sharing [pod casting], presentation sharing, social networking, communication text, communication voice, blogging, RSS feeds, digital storage, geographical mapping, customisable start pages etc) as useful new literacies to the 21st Century learner? How can we avoid education in the new literacies becoming an example of “corruptio optimi pessima” the corruption of the best is the worst of all?

Those are all good questions, essential questions, questions to which I do not have ready answers but only a sort of qualifed optimism that somehow we'll be able to work it all out as we go along.

I've been trying, over the last two years, to find ways of using technology to supplement and, when possible, enhance the level of engagement that students have with the material they are studying. I've had to cut back some on the amount of material we cover; we are, for example, reading fewer books now than we were a few years ago. But we're doing more writing, and more different kinds of writing, and the students are sharing that writing more broadly - both with one another and with outside audiences - through the use of blogs and wikis, and, more recently, Moodle. It's been a tradeoff, a balancing act. But I have been teaching sophomores. The laptop kids aren't at my door yet. And I'm hoping that by the time they are here I will be ready for them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Against Achievement

Just got back late on Monday from several days in New York City (for the NAIS Conference). It was a good trip, a smooth trip, an enjoyable trip, but I've been paying the price since my return: stacks of papers, emails to answer, a backlog of work to be done and people to see and questions to be answered. Hope to be back to somewhere near normal by the end of the week. Maybe.

In between interviewing teacher candidates in NYC, got to hear keynote speeches from Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink, and also to listen in on a sort of dialogue on the ends of education between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnick. Gopnick in particular impressed me with his impassioned argument that schools generally, and private schools in particular, are getting our mission backwards. He maintained that our goal "should not be to get kids ready [for college, for careers], but to keep them intact." Pointing out that there is a distinction between accomplishment and achievement, he argued that "Children are not naturally and should not be encouraged to be achievers," what he later referrred to as "thick-envelope kids, so driven by the drug of achievement that it gets in the way of real accomplishment." He challenged the assumption that it is the purpose of schools to get kids ready for "real life." "They're alive now," he said. "They'll never be more alive than now, the real time, the true time, the time that matters." He closed with a quotation from one of the characters in Tom Stoppard's play Shipwreck:

His life was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We don’t value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life’s bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it’s been sung? The dance when it’s been danced?