Sunday, November 30, 2008

On Education: Two (Education by Poetry)

I haven’t been in the classroom since June, so I was happy to take up Eliza’s offer to come into her Am Lit Nature classes and walk her students through a short introduction to Robert Frost.

Frost is one of our most misread and misunderstood poets. When I was in school I was given to understand that Frost was a nature poet, a pastoral poet, a genial and benevolent figure in the world of American letters. His most iconic poems, like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken,” were interpreted by my classmates and teachers in ways that I later came to realize stripped them of their complexity, their equivocation, their essential darkness. Part of this was, of course, Frost’s fault. He cultivated the public persona of the grandfatherly presence, the crusty New England sage, the repository of genial wisdom, even as his battle with his many private demons were generating some of his greatest poems.

Another of my colleagues, when he found out that I was going to be talking with students about Frost, remarked, “I’ve never quite trusted Frost.” And that’s a good thing, I think. Frost is not a trustworthy character. He’s a shapeshifter, a ventriloquist, a writer who by his own admission is mostly interested in indirection, or what, in another context, might very well be called lies.

I remember reading Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Frost well after I had graduated from college and being stunned by the amount of pain that Frost had experienced, and generated in the lives of those around him. Grandfather, it turns out, was not a nice guy. As with most writers and artists, his poetry represents the best of him. It represents his iron-willed determination to master, to control, to get right on the page what he could could not master or control or get right in his life. I suspect that that is one reason why he chose to set so many of his poems in the world of nature. As an object of contemplation, a tree, a field, or a snowdrift is, first and foremost, exactly what it is, and there is a kind of purity, a clarity, in that. But for Frost, that essential simplicity rarely stays simple for long. He may be looking at a tree, or talking about a walk in the woods, but he’s always thinking hard about something else. This is, as he himself points out, his characteristic move as a poet, and, for that matter, a move he claims for all poetry:

Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections — whether from diffidence or some other instinct.

That remark is from an essay called “Education by Poetry.” It’s the edited transcript of a talk he gave at Amherst College in 1931, and in it he makes a number of arguments, the most interesting of which, following up on the line of thought he begins above, had to do with the essential value of metaphor as a tool — Frost argues that it is the tool — for thinking. His clearest and most dramatic statement of that point comes about midway through the essay, when he says:

We still ask boys in college to think…but we seldom tell them what thinking means; we seldom tell them it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky.

It’s a nice formulation, especially in the way that he uses an elegant and illustrative metaphor to clinch his point about the power of elegant and illustrative metaphors. Of course, he’s being reductive. He’s telling lies again. There are other modes of thought than the analogical. Frost knows that. But he expects us, as educated readers, to know it as well, and to take his metaphor as what it is, a means of making a point. As he says, in the same essay:

unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere . Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe with science; you are not safe in history…

To the degree that it is true that all thinking is metaphor, it behooves us to recognize both its power and its limitations. And, to Frost’s way of thinking, is the educative value of poetry: it teaches us how to navigate the landscape of metaphor, which is everywhere around us, and all too often invisible.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Education: One

I’ve been out of the classroom now for five months. I’m still involved in education, as a curriculum supervisor, administrator, and all-purpose utility player, but it’s still a little weird for me to wake up, after 39 years of being a classroom teacher, and begin my day knowing that I’m NOT going to be interacting with a group of students somewhere during the day. I’m driving forward, and the territory ahead looks broad and formidable and worthy of my complete attention, but I do tend to keep glancing back in the rear view mirror, watching my teaching career become smaller and more distant. So I thought that over the next couple of posts I’d try to string together some words that might capture some fraction of what I feel to be true to my experience as a teacher and my sense of what is at stake in the classroom. I’m going to try consciously to avoid going after this in a pre-planned or pre-programmed way. If I were to attempt to frame a Grand Theory of Everything Educational, I’d either be too daunted to start, or too likely to get bogged down in Chapter 74, if not in Chapter 2. Instead, I’m going to set my sights lower. I just want to write a paragraph or two each day about something that seems true to me. If I get lucky, maybe on some days I’ll hit on an idea that will sustain me in a more elaborated disquisition. I’m fully aware that some of what I am going to wind up writing will probably be predictable and ultimately un-enlightening. But hey, ya gotta start somewhere.


Today a former student dropped by my office and we got to talking about his college applications and about his possible majors and about what he might expect to happen once he gets to college. I told him the story about what happened when my oldest son was accepted to college, and we got a letter from the school congratulating us on his acceptance, but cautioning us not to make the assumption, as proud parents, that our plans for him, or his plans for himself, would now be realized. The average student at that school, it was pointed out, changes his major at least four times. And, in point of fact, that turned out to be literally true in my son’s case. The field he eventually got a degree in, economics, was a field he hadn’t even considered when he was thinking about college. He had thought he wanted to be an engineer. He only wound up majoring in econ because there was a core course in macroeconomics that he was required to take, and it so happened that the course lit him up and his professor wound up taking an interest in him that opened some doors that at the start of school he had not even known were there.

So what’s the point? The point, to bend an old axiom, might be stated as “Education is what happens when you’re making other plans.” As a student, you need to be open to the possibility that where you thought you were going is not where you wind up, and that that is, in fact, a very good thing. (It’s a lot like writing, actually. For years I have told my students that if you start out knowing what you want to write and you write it and it comes out exactly the way you planned, you’ve probably got a mediocre piece of writing on your hands. The trick is to surprise yourself, to write your way into what you don’t know. The testimony of writers is surprisingly consistent on this. Robert Frost: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Donald Barthelme: “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” E.L Doctorow: “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. ... Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Andre Dubus: “I don't know what characters are going to do. I have to work to discover the character, and I do that by becoming the character and experiencing that life. If I say that I know exactly what a character is going to do, then I've killed that character. The character has to surprise you, the way you should have a sincere conversation, not a rehearsed one. If you plan everything, it isn't a conversation.” And so on and so on and so on.)

This element of indeterminacy and unpredictability seems to me to be at the heart what makes for an interesting classroom. It’s at the heart of the problem I have always had with content-based courses and competency-based assessments that assume that everyone needs to do and learn the same things. It’s not that content isn’t important or that basic skills are not basic. It’s just that, ultimately, they're not that interesting; they're not what I value most as a learner or as a teacher. What I value, and what I hope I have found ways to help students to value and understand, is the search, the exploration, the element of surprise.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Gaudeamus Igitur

is two years old today. I'll mark the occasion with this passage from Orhan Pamuk, whose essay "How I Got Rid of Some of My Books" appears in Other Colors, one of the books in my current rotation:

A writer's progress will depend on a large degree on having read good books. But to read well is not to pass one's eyes and one's mind slowly and carefully over a text: it is to immerse oneself utterly in its soul. This is why we fall in love with only a few books in a lifetime. Even the most finely honed personal library is made up of a number of books that are all in competition with one another. The jealousies among these books endows the creative writer with a certain gloom. Flaubert was right to say that if a man were to read ten books with sufficient care, he would become a sage.

There are a lot of books jostling for position on my list, but if I were confronted by the candidates in an array, I suspect I would reach first for Cormac's McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. And you?

Sunday, November 16, 2008


There’s a fascinating article in this week's Sunday N.Y. Times magazine about poet and essayist Lewis Hyde, whom I had never heard of, despite the fact that he’s regarded as one of the most “illuminating, transformative, and completely original” writers of our age. The article was enough to get me out to the bookstore last night to find a copy of Hyde’s extended essay on Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, entitled The Gift. It’s been a while since I have been as blown away by a book as I have been by this one. I’ve been reading with a highlighter and colored pens in my hand, and though I’ve only read 60 pages or so since last night, the book is already becoming well worn.

The other day I put together a post reflecting on elegance as a criterion for evaluating creativity. In his introduction to The Gift, Hyde suggests another, one suggested by the word inspiration, the etymology of which is from the Latin “spiro,” to breathe. Thus to breathe in, or, as Hyde puts it, quoting Lawrence, to have something breathed into oneself, “the wind that blows through me”:

As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, not does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that "I," the artist, did not make the work. "Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me," says D.H. Lawrence. Not all artists emphasize the "gift" phase of their creations to the degree that Lawrence does, but all artists feel it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Doing the Math

Jason Zengerle has an interesting profile of Malcom Gladwell in the New York Magazine Books Section. (Gladwell has a new book, Outliers, arriving in a bookstore near you on Monday.) In the course of the profile, Zengerle mentioned something from the book that has been rattling around in my head this morning:

Gladwell cites a body of research finding that the “magic number for true expertise” is 10,000 hours of practice. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good,” Gladwell writes. “It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Ten thousand hours. That’s a daunting statistic, but it’s also a hopeful one. I’ve been breaking it down in various ways in my head this morning. Some examples:

In the context of a nine-to-five job, it’s five years. (40 hours a week times 50 weeks = 2000 hours a year.) Intuitively, that makes some sense to me. I’ve spoken with any number of people who have told me, upon taking new jobs, that they figured it would take five years to get to the point where they were really good at it. And it’s been my own experience as a teacher that when I start teaching a new course, I need to teach it for about five years before I really have it in my head and my heart and my bones. I would also estimate that from the time I started practicing writing as a sort of apprentice (early in college) to the point where I started having a pretty clear sense of what I was trying to do and how I was going to go about it (about 15 years later), I must have logged somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours.

In the context of music or art lessons, and an hour of practice a day, it’s twenty-five years. (One hour lesson plus seven hours of practice each week, 52 weeks a year = 416 hours a year.) That also seems about right. There’s always the prodigy types that pick up a guitar at age 13 and are playing like Santana in six months, but really, how many of those have you known? For most of the rest of us mere humans, the only to cut the timeline down is to double or triple up on the practice time. If you want to practice 10 hours a day, you can rack up your ten thousand hours in less than three years. Chances are you’d have a couple of other problems by that time, though.

In the context of coursework in school, it’s either 55 years, counting just class time (an hour a day 180 days a year) or 28 years (if you factor in an hour’s work of homework between each class). It’s worth noting that even if you start in kindergarten, most people top out at 21 years. On the other hand, if you consider all the hours a college graduate in America has spent in class all told, one would have reason to expect that that student, according to the formula, would have arrived a certain level of academic expertise. (900 hours a year x 17 years = 15, 300 hours.) Which is, I suppose, what the college degree is attesting to.

It seems to me that this particular rule of thumb is something that it would be useful for students and aspiring writers and artists and musicians to know about and reflect upon. Zengerle closes his article with another quotation from Gladwell that sums up why:

We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, not because we have a scarcity of talent. We have a scarcity of achievement because we're squandering that talent. And that's not bad news, that's good news, because it says this scarcity is not something we have to live with. It's something we can do something about."

The numbers are in. Let's get cracking. The clock is running.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Where Does It Live?

Chris Lehmann had an interesting post on his blog Practical Theory this morning. I thought I'd share his post, and my comment.


Where Does It Live?

Educators write pretty mission statements. But the problem with so many educational mission statements is that they sound good but bear little resemblance to the real world. This is part of the reason why good ideas get reduced to being called "edu-babble" because the words get invoked but never put into practice, so they lose their meaning.

But ideas have meaning if we let them.

So I have an idea -- whenever we hear or read schools or districts or teachers or administrators make a claim that their school / district / PD session / whatever is about "21st Century Learning" or "Life-Long Learning" or "Project-Based Learning" or whatever claim we may see or read, our first question should be -- "Where Does it Live?"

Educational ideas only have lasting power if they exist within the systems and structures of institutions that claim them. Everything -- every system, every policy, every structure -- in schools represent a pedagogical choice, and we don't take advantage of that. The classes we choose to schedule, the length of the classes, the times they meet -- every possible permutation privileges certain kinds of learning and makes other kinds of learning harder.

So, for example, at SLA, we say that the way we treat each other is based on the ethic of care -- the idea that caring relationships are at the heart of creating healthy learning environments. That idea has to live somewhere or eventually it will get squeezed out or only live within the people who came in already believing it. This is why we have Advisory -- a four year relationship between a group of twenty students and a teacher that ensures that every teacher has a group of kids for whom they are responsible and every students has an adult in the building who will always be their advocate. We had to plan for caring, we couldn't just assume it, and we certainly couldn't just say it.

All schools should be able to point to the places, the systems, the structures that prove that the words we say we believe truly live and are systemized in our schools. If we do this, those edu-bingo words will stop merely being buzzwords and, instead, will give us the rich language we need to teach and learn.

So what does your school claim to believe and where does it live?


Hi Chris,

That's a great question, one that I suspect most schools are wrestling with — or ought to be wrestling with — all the time. And I think you're right to place ideas in the context of structures, of environments. Right now my school is one year into a two-year self-study in preparation for the visit of the WASC accreditation team in March of 2010, and we're spending a lot of time trying to match up what it says in our mission with what we are doing.

The mission reads

We are committed to provide an environment where students can:

Develop moral and spiritual values consistent with the Christian principles on which the school was founded, affirming the worth and dignity of each individual

Develop intellectual, academic and physical potential to the fullest degree, preparing them for college and for challenges facing them now and in the future.

Develop and enhance creativity and appreciation for the arts.

Appreciate cultural diversity and develop social responsibility.

As we've been working on this, the word we seem to keep coming back to is in the first line: "environments." For most of my career I was an English teacher. And if you were to have asked me at any point, "Can you teach students how to write?" an honest answer would have been "no." I have no idea how to teach kids to write. But I have a lot of ideas which have proven to be pretty effective about how to create an environment in which kids can learn how to write.

Now there's a lot of talk all across the educational community about 21st Century skills. Tony Wagner's list, for one example, includes things like "agility and adaptability" and "initiative and entrepreneurialism." Can we teach agility? Can we teach initiative? I don't think so. Can we create environments in which students can be given the opportunity to be agile and to be entrepreneurial? Sure we can.

So I think that's how I'd answer your question. Where does it live? At my school, and perhaps in many other schools, it lives in the environments we create for students: the classrooms, the quad, the playing fields, the cafeteria, the auditorium, the chapel. It is — or ought to be — less about what we do and more about the kinds of choices we provide to our students, and the contexts in which those choices are made. And so, after much discussion, we have arrived at what I take to be our essential question for this self-study: "How do we create environments which promote flexibility, collaboration, and individual attentiveness." It's a question which cuts in two directions. It gets at what we want kids to do, and also at what we want teachers to do. And it pushes the responsibility for decisionmaking right down to the people in the room at the moment. That's what we're about, or what we're trying to be about. That's where it lives for us.

- Bruce

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Okay, so Paul and I were talking at lunch today, following up on yesterday's meeting when he posed the question of what the analogue for Richard Paul's Universal Intellectual Standards would be if we were talking about creativity instead of critical thinking. How do you judge creativity? What makes one answer to a question, on solution to a problem, one essay, one piece of blown glass, more creative than another? Is there a creativity quotient to place alongside the intelligence quotient?

I don't know if there's a list that would parallel clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, and logic. (And I would certainly argue for the inclusion of specificity, significance, and plausibility in Paul's master list. He tends to keep playing around with the list.)

But as we were talking, one criterion popped into my mind which I would definitely want to include in the creativity list. That word is elegance.

Elegance is of course a slippery term. It has, like a fine wine, a lot of overtones and resonances. It connotes a multitude of virtues: simplicity, precision, surprise, aptness. Elegance is the difference between 200 lines of kludgy computer code and ten that do the same work. Elegance is the difference between mate in three and mate in twenty-seven. Elegance has to do how you carry off the task at hand, and how you carry yourself while you are doing it. Michael Jordan was elegant. Dave Cowens, for all his virtues, was not. The iPhone is elegant. In speech, eloquence is elegant. Barack Obama's acceptance speech was elegant, as was John McCain's concession speech, in its own way.

I suppose one might be creative without being elegant, but if I were asked to judge the creativity of two pieces of work produced for the same purpose, one of the things I would be responding to would be the which piece was the more elegant response. To come with a creative solution is to solve a problem that is instantly recognizable as elegant, but only after the fact, after all the inelegant solutions have been tried and discarded. There is an element of felicity in elegance, arising from a sense of joyful recognition, the "Aha" moment, the moment of creation.

So now I've got one word on my list. I'm looking for others. Nominations, anyone?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

What's the Story?

...even in the most austere scholarly report from the archives, the inventive faculty—selecting, pruning, editing, commenting, interpreting, delivering judgements—is in full play. This is not a na├»vely relativist position that insists tht the lived past is nothing more than an artificially designed text...But it does accept the rather banal axiom that claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of the author.

- Simon Schama, Dead Certainties

I attended a wedding a few weekends ago. It was a beautiful wedding held far back in a Waiahole Valley on the windward side of Hawaii. There is much I might choose to say about the wedding, about the estate on which it was held, about the ceremony itself, about the excellent Hawaiian food that was served under a tent after the ceremony, and about the cast of characters, which included many of my colleagues at school and several former students. But in line with today’s theme, which will be dealt with more explicitly a little further down the line, I’m going to screen out most of that and focus on one small thing I noticed during the after-dinner speeches, which was that several of the members of the wedding party alluded to stories which could be told but which, given the celebratory nature of the occasion, would remain untold.

Perhaps the reason my ears pricked up when I heard that is that I had spent a number of hours over the previous week or so reading a book called Three Cups of Tea, which tells true story of Greg Mortenson, an American mountain climber who, having gotten lost on his descent after a failed attempt at the mountain known as K2, stumbles into a remote village in Pakistan, comes to love the people there, discovers that they have no school, and determines to build them one. Against incredible odds, he succeeds, and goes on to become director of an institute responsible for building schools in villages all over Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is able to succeed even though he is, to the reigning muslim authorities, an outsider and an infidel. It’s an inspirational story, very well stitched together by Mortenson’s co-author, David Oliver Relin, from conversations he had with Mortenson and from subsequent visits to the area and interviews he conducted with the many characters who figure in the story. I was about halfway through the book before it occurred to me that Relin’s depiction of Mortenson’s life and thoughts and mission was so completely and unambigously worshipful that it began to raise seeds of doubt in my mind. I couldn’t help wondering if this guy had any flaws at all, and if so, when they might ever appear. I began flipping toward the back of the book, and noticed that the last few pages include lots of information about how readers can support Mortenson’s efforts to “dedicate the next decade to achieve universal literacy and education for all children, especially for girls.” There is even a list of nine recommendations for what to do in the event that the book “inspires you to do more,” starting with visiting their web site and ending with the injunction to “Please direct media or Three Cups of Tea inquiries to or call 406-585-7841.”

Now I certainly think Mortensen’s work is admirable, and, if he is even half the man he is portrayed to be in the book, eminently deserving of knighthood, sainthood, legendhood, or whatever sort of hood one might imagine. It’s just that I can’t help having two suspicions: first, that we’re not getting the whole story, and second, that the story we are getting has been shaped with a particular purpose in mind, which is to generate support, moral and financial, for Mortenson’s mission. By midway through the book I began to feel, to some degree, manipulated, not to say milked. And at that point my enthusiasm for the book began to fade. The bookmark is still sitting there, right where I put the book down two weeks ago, on page 211, and I’m not sure when, if ever, I’m going to go back and read the last 120 heartwarming pages.

Surely it’s true enough that there is no pure story, not Mortenson’s story, not my story, and, and Simon Shama argues above, not history. The stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we bequeath to our children, are I suppose inevitably riddled with significant omissions (some intentional, some inadvertent or perhaps conveniently forgotten) and with embellishments and elaborations that are not exactly lies but what Mark Twain liked to call “stretchers.” Even Hemingway, whose stated writing ethic was to “write one true sentence,” and then another, and then another, was known to indulge in creative mythologizing, shaping his own life story to his own ends. But I do feel more comfortable, I guess, if the story I'm being told has either the appearance of objectivity, or is acknowledged up front as being a work of fiction pure and simple.

Of course, as soon as I make either of these two assertions, I find myself standing at the edge of the kind of conundrum that David Foster Wallace was so adept at articulating. The first one would go something like, if all stories are in essence subjectively rendered versions of events, "circumscribed by the character and prejudices of the author," aren't the ones that present themselves under the aspect of objectivity even more deceptive and morally objectionable than the ones that make their biases explicit? The second one would go something like, "Is it even possible to create a work of fiction, "pure and simple"? Aren't all stories based to a greater or lesser degree (and often to an extreme degree) on lived experience?" In the telling of stories, what is legitimate and what is not? It's a question with very real pragmatic consequences, as James Frey, among many others, has discovered.

Then there's a different kind of perhaps more benevolent manipulation, which is to use story as a vehicle for the delivery of content in the classroom. Two years ago I heard Brian Greene give one of the keynote addresses at NAIS, in which he made the argument that the most effective way of delivering any content in the classroom was to link it to a narrative. In his lecture he illustrated his point by framing a discussion of string theory as the story of an attempt to mediate an argument between Newtonian physicists, whose theories seem to work well at the level of ordinary human experience on planet earth; and Einsteinian physicists, whose theories seem to do a better job of explaining what’s happening when we consider the universe as a whole. As a person who managed to graduate from college having taken only one science course and no math courses at all, I was perhaps Greene’s ideal listener, and the fact that two years later the gist of his argument remains clear in my mind, when so many other lectures and presentations have fallen out of my head, remains for me a convincing demonstration of the educative power of an artfully constructed story.

And of course, the presidential campaign has been in large part an attempt on both sides to create a credible story that resonates with voters, and to argue with or try to discredit the stories told by the opposition. How that story ends is about to be demonstrated, at long last, on Tuesday.