Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Diamond Head

Yesterday I was fifteen minutes early for a meeting at Case Middle School so I stood on the lanai looking out over the rooftops toward Diamond Head and put together this little (3"x 5") sketch. I started with the building in the left foreground, sketched in the outline of the mountain, and then just worked the other little pieces - buildings, trees, rooftops, one at a time. I tightened up some of the linework and added some of the blue ink lines during the meeting (while I was listening), and then dropped in a little more blue on the mountainside and in the sky with colored pencil when I got home. I've worked a lot harder on things that didn't come out as well. This one pleased me.


Recently I ran across a link to The World Question Center on the Edge website. Each year the editors posed a question and invited answers from a wide variety of contributors, which are posted on the site. It's a pretty cool site in that it gives you a window on the generative thinking of many thoughtful and articulate writers, and challenges you to consider how you might go about answering the questions yourself. The 2008 question, for example, has answers from 165 different people, including Alan Alda, Joan Baez, Freeman Dyson, Brian Eno, Howard Gardner, Steven Pinker, and Clay Shirky.Here's a listing of the questions for each year:

1998: What questions are you asking yourself?
1999: What’s the most important invention in the past 2000 years, and why?
2000: What’s today’s most important unreported story?
2001: What questions have disappeared?
2001: What now?
2002: What’s your question?
2003: What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?
2004: What’s your law?
2005: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?
2006: What’s your dangerous idea?
2007: What are you optimistic about?
2008: What have you changed your mind about? Why?
2009: What will change everything?
2010: How is the internet changing the way you think?

Monday, January 25, 2010


A week or two ago we had visiting speakers on campus from High Tech High in San Diego. One of them, Ben Daley, had strong praise for a book entitled An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, so I decided to check it out. It's one of the best books on education I've come across. Berger is a public school teacher (and, I think not coincidentally, a part-time carpenter) who has an extensive practical knowledge of exactly how powerful project based, student-oriented learning can be. His book is an artful balance of clear, specific examples of classroom practice and passionate, informed advocacy for the creation of a classroom environment which places students learning at the center by giving students the chance to do real work for real purposes. But, he argues,

Thinking that projects or critique or portfolios are a magic solution to anything is as silly as thinking high-stakes testing will turn things around. Only as a part of a strong classroom culture or school cultkure are these tools valuable. Culture matters... Students adjust their attitudes and efforts in order to fit the culture. If the peer culture ridicules academic achievement—it isn't cool to raise your hand in class, to do homework, to care openly about school—this is a powerful force. If the peer culture celebrates investment in school—it's cool to care, this is just as powerful. Schools need to consciously shape their cultures to be places where it's safe to care, where it's cool to care. They need to reach out to family and neighborhood cultures to support this." (34)

That's easily said of course, and only common sense. The real strength and beauty of Berger's book lies in how he demonstrates, with example after example, what this might look like and how one might go about achieving it. Berger has not only worked with his own kids in his own classes, but he has also spent a lot of time visiting teachers in other schools, many of them initially skeptical or downright hostile,  to share with them the work his students have done and to help those teachers start down their own path to innovation. As his title suggests, his main point has to do with the quality of the work:

We can't first build the students self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow. I don't believe self-esteem is built from compliments. Students who are struggling or producing lousy work know exactly how poor their performance is—compliments never seem genuine. All the self-esteem activiites and praise in the world won't make them feel like proud students until they do something they can value.

Berger gives lots of examples of projects and theme-based investigations. He talks about the use of models, about the value of multiple drafts (and how to establish that value with students), about the dynamics of critique, and about the importance of making student work truly public. As I write this, I am fully aware that this perhaps does not sound like revolutionary or very interesting stuff. But in his book, it is, and what makes it so is the forcefulness of his examples and the clarity of his presentational style. At one point he talks about what he went through, over a period of years, drafting and re-drafting plans for the house he was to build for his family. The house he eventually built was, as he says, not the grander, more decorative house he originally envisioned. "I kept the original features, took my wife's advice on changes, and shrunk the house down. It was now just a two bedroom, one bathroom house. But a very cool one." That's what this 150-page project feels like to me. Berger has kept it simple and kept it clear, and it is, ultimately, just another book on education. But a very cool one. I'd read it if I were you.

Postscript: I found myself thinking about Berger's argument about the importance of culture when I was reading another book this weekend, a book called King's Gambit, Paul Hoffman's very well-written and entertaining book about chess. While framed as a personal narrative of sorts, it has whole digressive chapters about the psychology of chess, and tournament play, and about chess in pop culture and literature and in history. Discussing the near-total domination of the Russians at the highest levels of chess, he writes:

The Soviets dominated international chess not because they snatched children from their homes and drilled them in the Leningard Dutch Defense and the Volga Gambit, but simply because they had, as the world champion Anatoly Karpov once put it, "such a lot of people playing chess." The game also had a social status that made it far more than a pastime: cultured Muscovites might spend a Sunday afternoon at a chess match instead of the Bolshoi. If a society exposes everyone and values the game, more people are going to catch the fever and pursue it until they're world-class. (94)
(Later, he points out that "at its peak, in the early 1980s, the Soviet Chess Federation had four million members; the United States never boasted more than 95,000").

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Be Sharp

I have a suggestion to make: draw the sting out  
as probingly as you please. Plaster the windows over   
with wood pulp against the noon gloom proposing its enigmas,   
its elixirs. Banish truth-telling.

That’s the whole point, as I understand it.

    - John Ashbery, "Boundary Issues"

Of the ancients, the less said, the better. That was then, this
is the beginning. Let's agree on principles, on plaster, on wood pulp,
on wire. Let's put a line out there, let's traffic in particularities
and not get worked up about the word, the weather, whatever.
Let the letters themselves line up in silence and stand for nothing
but what they are: an G, an E, the shadow of an F, maybe. So what
if C flat is really not the same as B sharp? It was a good joke,
a random thought, and perhaps the more apt for being imaginary.

At the museum the sign said, "Paint what you can't see; see
what you see." No real attribution, not that it matters much.
The point is there's a point there, which I take to be,
there's no point in mere replication. The world speaks for itself,
more eloquently than you or I might hope to say on its behalf.
And yes, it's tragic, and pointless, it leaves us dumb. And so
we turn our attention back inward, we tap a little rhythm
on the table and let ourselves drift back: that day at the farm

when the log came sailing over the wheelbarrow and opened
a hole over the eye, standing stunned and blood everywhere.
Surprise. And later, lesson learned. Or that time on the ladder,
when the wood under the crowbar suddenly splintered and
out you sailed, pinwheeling to the oh so solid earth. That one
hurt too. That's the thing about composition: you start over there,
but what with one thing and another you wind up with windows,
with wells, with nothing that adds up to much, and then its over.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Train Coming

In a recent post, Will Richardson references Allan Collins and Richard Halverson’s new book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, and cites a review of that book which says

Allan Collins and Richard Halverson’s compelling argument for rethinking education may be encapsulated thus: We are not going to fix education by fixing the schools. They are a 19th century invention trying to cope in the 21st century…If schools cannot change fast enough to keep pace with the advances in learning technologies, learning will leave schooling behind. Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology urges education stakeholders to envision a new kind of education that decouples learning and schooling.
This is a topic that has been on my mind for some time. Last year, as I was reading Clayton Christensen's Disrupting Class, I ran across a jarring projection:

The result of these four factors — technological improvements that make learning more engaging; research advances that enable the design of student-centric software appropriate to each type of learner; the looming teacher shortage; and the inexorable cost pressures — is that ten years from the publication of this book, computer-based, student-centric learning will account for 50 percent of the "seat miles" in U.S. secondary schools. Given the current trajectory of substitution, about 80% of the courses taken in 2024 will have been taught online in a student-centric way. (102)

I've seen other estimates that by the year 2016 half of all high school courses taken for credit will be online courses. Now, I don't know how exactly these estimates were arrived at, or how accurate these projections will turn out to be. But if the estimates are even marginally correct, we in the brick-and-mortar world of education are in for a real revolution. It seems to me that there's a train coming down the track, bearing down upon us and threatening to flatten us, but we've got our backs turned to it and our earbuds on and we don't seem to see it or hear or or talk about it much.

Last night at my school we had some visitors from San Diego's High Tech High doing a presentation to local private school heads and board members, and one of them, Ben Daley, was the first person who I have heard say out loud what I have been thinking. The main difference was that my metaphor was a freight train, his was a tidal wave. And he joked, in all seriousness, that a year ago those people who did pay attention to this prediction laughed at it as being unrealistically overestimated, whereas now the people who are laughing at it are doing so because they think it's unrealistically underestimated.

If it's true, if it's even possible, that in five years, or ten years, students anywhere in the country will be able to create their own courses of study and sign up for credit-bearing courses online, then the obvious question is "What are they going to need schools for?" Thinking about "a new kind of education that decouples learning and schooling" forces us to think about pragmatics as well. Why would students bother to show up for school when they can study at their own time at their own pace at home? Why would parents want to pay upwards of of ten or twenty or thirty or even forty thousand dollars a year for private school tuition when their students can learn on their own for a whole lot less? What will the proper function of a school be when it is no longer necessary for students to attend schools?

There are answers to these questions, but I'm not hearing or seeing them being articulated. So maybe that's something I'll work my way around to somwhere down the line.

Image via Glenbourne at Home on Flickr.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Grades, Learning, and Motivation

The other day the principal at my school sent along a query from an administrator from a school in California who was asking for a response to some questions about grades and how they impact student attitudes toward learning. They are good questions, and I decided to take a shot at answering them. The answers I have come up with are provisional and represent my attempt to come up with something that makes sense to me. They certainly don't represent an official statement of school policy. And even as I re-read what I have written, I see places where I could come up with equally plausible arguments which would contradict much of what I am saying here. But, for what it's worth, here's what I wrote. Or a version of what I wrote, I've taken the opportunity to do some elaborations here.

1. How does your grading policy enhance or compromise your school's educational philosophy or mission statement?

Well, it has the potential to do either, or both. We have had many discussions on campus over the years about grading and its impact on the learning process. Some teachers go out of their way to avoid or de-emphasize grades (using portfolio assessments, for example, or simply maintaining an atmosphere of purposeful vagueness with regard to grades) on the grounds that they artificialize they learning process, providing extrinsic motivation at the expense of the intrinsic motivation we might aspire as educators to enhance. Other teachers — and I would count myself in this group — feel that grades, despite the potential downside, do provide immediate feedback to students about their performance, letting them know what they are doing well and what they need to work on. Furthermore, grades represent a language that everyone understands, a sort of universal currency. Even if they don't agree with the logic of the grading system, and even if what the grade may actually signify in terms of performance may vary from school to school or class to class, everybody understands the logic of A, B, C, D, and F. Grades are, for better or worse, the common currency of quality evaluation in school. They are expected, and there is no easier way to drive some students (and some parents) crazy than to withhold information from them about their grades. (I have a few stories I could tell of my own in which I found myself at loggerheads with teachers who I felt were not being transparent about their grading procedures with my own children, thankfully now all grown and apparently none the worse for wear.) My own practice has been to give grades early and often, but to allow students who are so motivated to revise and resubmit any work for which they feel the grade is not satisfactory. Discussion about grades, the logic of grades, the criteria on which grades are based, the design and evolution of the rubrics in place, the distinction between importance of the grade itself and the importance of the work, the process, and the product: all of these subjects provide opportunities for purposeful dialogue with students about what quality is, how it can be assessed, and how it can be achieved.

2. How do you differentiate between formative and summative assessment in your school? What kinds of assessments do teachers at your school value?

Our summative assessments are essentially our final exams at the end of each semester, which are mandated in every department except English. All other quizzes, tests, exercises, and assignments are in essence formative: they are mean to convey useful information to students about where they are and what might come next. We have for many years used a modular schedule in which most classes meet either three or four days per six-day cycle. This schedule creates holes in both teacher and students schedules, and those holes provide many opportunities for students to visit their teachers privately and meet with them in conference to review their work and decide on next steps.

3. What kinds of pressure does the school feel from parents about grades? Is this a problem in your school?

Parents of course are concerned about grades, but my experience as a teacher at this school and also as a public school teacher in Massachusetts has been that parents are generally very open to dialogue and willing to cooperate with the teacher in trying to figure out how to support the student's efforts to do well. When a student is not doing well, or does not seem to be interested in doing well, we try to focus on the reasons for that. We try to maintain a focus on the student and not on the grade, and students and parents seem to respect and respond well to that.

4. What do you see as impediments to authentic learning in your school?

There's no question that some students get themselves worked up about grades, and impose stresses upon themselves that are related to their assumption that they have to get into a certain college or they have to have a perfect GPA. When students wind up walking themselves out onto that ledge, teachers and counselors and deans all make an effort to talk them down. So yes, that's a problem, but it's not the biggest problem. Frankly, I see two large impediments to authentic learning in most schools. The first is those teachers, fortunately a minority, who insist on ramming content learning within their own discipline down the throats of kids on the dubious assumption that the students "need" to learn this material in this way in order to be successful in college and life. I don't buy it. I would be hard put to identify any one particular set of skills or competencies, beyond the ability to read and write and cipher, that are truly essential. I'm not saying kids don't need skills: they do. But the skills one kid needs to be happy may be completely different than those another kid is going to need. One size does not fit all, nor should it. Throughout my lifetime as a student, a parent, and a teacher, I've been actively opposed to the "my way or the highway" school of pedagogy, precisely on the grounds that it is an impediment to authentic learning.

The second is the impact of pop culture in the US today — including pro sports, rap music, reality TV shows, Ultimate Fighting, online gaming, and so on and so on and so on — which is in itself inauthentic, and which makes a dedication or even an accommodation to academic success publicly unacceptable to our boys and young men. A young man today can win the admiration of his peers by being an athlete or a rock star or a surfer or a stoner or a gamer. A young man who is an aspiring scholar or writer or scientist is going to have a much rougher road to hoe with his peers, and to ask that student to have an authentic experience in learning is to ask him to work against the social and interpersonal systems that define him. I'm overgeneralizing perhaps. But not by much. It's certainly not impossible for such a student to succeed, even succeed brilliantly, but such successes are much less frequent and much more dearly bought than they should be in a country that prides itself on its tradition of individualism and free choice.

5. What motivates students to learn at your school and what role do grades play in that? Are there structural/systems pieces that support student motivation outside of grades? What are those?

I think the pedagogical goal is to create environment which honors the individual student and gives that student the chance to ask, and to keep asking, what I consider to be the core questions that generate learning: Who am I? What do I care about? What kind of a person do I want to be? What's my responsibility to others? What do I hope to accomplish? How can I do that? We should ask students to revisit and reflect on these questions in various ways all the way from Kindergarten to Grade 12. I think that getting students engaged in taking those questions seriously essentially makes questions of motivation disappear. Students who aren't motivated tend to be students who can't see the connection between what they care about and what they are doing in school. As educators we should try to help them find that connection, every day, in every subject.

6.What are the emotional issues for students with very low and/or very high grades? How do you address those?

Students with high grades sometimes seem to get stuck on maintaining a high GPA as opposed to maintaining a high curiosity quotient. That can create emotional and attitudinal problems. But again, I don't think it has to. If those students are also addressing the questions I just ran through, it can help to defuse the problems. Students with low grades have other issues. Again, I think it's best to talk with the student about what's going on and work from there.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

On The Road Again

Went to see The Road, finally. It's only playing at one theater in Hawaii now, and I figured if I wanted to see it, I'd better see it before it disappeared. The theater was empty but for a couple of middle-aged couples and a couple of guys behind me who probably only decided to see it because Avatar was sold out again. On the way out after the movie, one of them said to the other, "You know what the best thing about that movie was? The popcorn." The other laughed ruefully in agreement.

I didn't see it that way, but I can understand their disappointment. Judged simply as a movie, an entertainment, there's not much to go on. There are only a few characters, very little dialogue, not much in the way of action, and it's dark. Really dark. It comes by the darkness honestly. The novel is an exercise in the exploration of physical and moral darkness, and implicitly (in the movie the point is made perhaps too explicitly) against the light individuals may choose to carry against it. But McCarthy's novel is carried and made convincing by its language, and the language is a distillation and extension of the style McCarthy has been honing throughout his life as a writer. Take away the language, and you strip the story of its most of its resonance. Unless you manage to find a way to substitute something else for the language. And in cinema, what you've got instead of language is images. That's what made this movie fascinating for me to watch, to see how close, given the inherent problems, the movie could come to re-creating the impact of one in the realm of the other. I'm reminded of a line from Robert Frost where he says (of the attempt to convey spirit in terms of matter, which in this context seems apt) "That is the greatest attempt that ever failed."  Take the following passage from the book, for example:

They crossed the river by an old concrete bridge and a few miles on they came upon a roadside gas station. They stood in the road and studied it. I think we should check it out, the man said. Take a look. The weeds they forded fell to dust about them. They crossed the broken asphalt apron and found the tank for the pumps. The cap was gone and the man dropped to his elbows to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a rumor, faint and stale. He stood and looked over the building. The pumps standing with their hoses oddly still in place. The windows intact. The door to the service bay was open and he went in. A standing metal toolbox against one wall. He went through the drawers but there was nothing there that he could use. Good half-inch drive sockets. A ratchet. He stood looking around the garage. A metal barrel full of trash. He went into the office. Dust and ash everywhere. The boy stood in the door. A metal desk, a cash register. Some old automotive manuals, swollen and sodden. The linoleum was stained and curling from the leaking roof. He crossed to the desk and stood there. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father's house in that long ago. The boy watched him. What are you doing? he said.

This is a very pictorial description, and in the movie this scene, or the first part of it, is rendered exactly. (There were in fact very few surprises in the movie. The scenes they choose to include were often perfectly literal transcriptions of scenes from the book.) But what is a director to do with a line like "The weeds they forded fell to dust around them," and the chains of association that go skittering through the mind after reading those words? Or the line about dialing the number of his father's house? In prose, that line is both revelatory and reverberatory: it's a conscious choice that reveals a subconscious inclination with origins that we can perhaps infer. But there's no way to make it work in the movie. (In this case, in the movie the phone calls gets left out entirely.)

That much said, director John Hillcoat has worked very hard to create a visual style for the movie that does in fact serve as a plausible visual analogue for McCarthy's prose. It's a beautiful movie to watch, for all its darkness. The world it creates does look and feel like the world McCarthy has created. The problem is, if anything, the dark grandeur of the burning planet generates more appreciative attentiveness than the human drama being played out. Maybe that's the point, I dunno.

And Robert Duvall has a wonderful ten minute cameo as an old man they encounter on the road. I didn't realize he was in the movie, and I didn't recognize him at first, underneath the layers of makeup — wrinkles, bad teeth, a beard, and cataracts — that transformed him into reality-wracked old-timer, but as he went into his spooky monologue over the campfire in the evening something in the intonations of his voice and the tilt of his head made me say, "My god, it's Duvall." And sure enough, it was.

Anyway, I'm glad I saw the movie. And the main impact of it was to make me want to go back and read the book again.

(Why "again" in the title? Because I wrote about the book before, here.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I've been working on a series of panels the last few months. I originally got the idea from looking at some work by Alan Leitner, a Hawaii artist who does large abstracts that have these amazing surfaces. Then, as I have written about before, I got interested in the work of Gerhard Richter, whose abstracts are constructed layer by layer by layer. So I started working on plywood panels, a foot and a half to two foot square, with the idea of just trying to explore surfaces and layers and textures. I had seen Scottie Flamm, another Hawaii artist, working on a painting at the Bethel Street Gallery one day, using color worked into a thick medium that turned out to be Venetian Plaster. So I got myself a gallon of that and began using it with serrated putty knives to create underlayments that I could then go back over with layers of color of various degrees of transparency. Yesterday I spent a couple hours mounting the panels on bracing made of square hardwood dowels. Now instead of feeling tentative and flimsy they look and feel more solid. Here's four from the current sequence:

Friday, January 1, 2010


Visited the Honolulu Academy of Arts yesterday to take a second look at the Hokusai exhibit, which I had gone to see earlier in the week. One of the things I like best about the Academy is the way it is laid out, with a number of small courtyards. I've been trying to get back into some kind of rhythm with drawing and writing, so I sat and sketched two views inside. The first one is not very convincing; the whole middle section with the columns doesn't represent well. But the second one has a little bounce to it, and comes close to capturing the combination of light and order that I find there.