Monday, April 30, 2012


(This is the twenty-first in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Process Reflection:

This is the sixth of a series of pen-and-ink drawings I've been working on in this particular format. (The last one I did, which was actually the first in the alphabetical series of posts I started on April 1, is here. That the title wound up being"Urgent," had something to do with the feeling of the piece as I drew it, especially the organic, teeming aspect of it that I noticed as I was working, and something to with the fact that I couldn't think of any "U" words for today that really struck me as being good starters for the post.

I started this one by drawing the detailed shapes in the upper left hand corner, first in pencil outline and then inking in the shapes. I knew pretty early on that I did not want the whole paper to be that busy; I wanted to show some contrast and movement in terms of both size and shape. So as I was completing the Friday night's work (about an hour and a half) I penciled in the diagonal line and its perpendicular, filled in area up above the diagonal, and stopped there. On Saturday I began by drawing in the second, lower diagonal line, and the signature box on the right (a common element for each drawing in the series). Then I drew and inked the forms in the area in the lower left corner, intentionally extending the lines into the adjacent spaces and leading them into larger forms. At that point what I had drawn was a lot of fairly busy small stuff, so more or less on a whim picked up a compass and drew in the big circle, just to completely redefine the rest of the space. I knew I wanted to have some fluid lines penetrating the circular space, so I penciled those in, although I wound up doing too many and erased a lot of them later. At that point I realized whether I was going to have a black circle with white tendrils, or a white circle with black. The decision was going to affect all the other inking I was going to do. I decided to go with the white for greater contrast with what I already had. I inked in the large tendrils first, then laid out and inked the big black areas, then finally returned to the blank area to the left of the circle and did a little formal dance in there. Done for the day (another two hours). Sunday I spent another hour or so re-inking (using pen and ink always leaves little missed spaces, no matter how carefully you try to lay it in the first time) and smoothing shapes. Finally I added the chop, took the photo and formatted that. The result is what you see, more or less, although I've found that the photo does not hold or reflect the light the way the ink on paper does.

Doing this kind of artwork is my play zone, it's where I can watch something unfold under my eyes and fingers, trying to find a balance between exercising some conscious control as I work on it, while at the same time allowing the drawing to take its own shape and become what it seems to want to become. It's a lot like writing. It's a lot like teaching. It's a lot like life.


(This is the twentieth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Image via Wikipedia

'Cause it's time this time in time with your time
And its news is captured, for the queen to use...
(Jon Anderson)

And I get the urge for going
when the meadow grass is turning brown
And the summertime is falling down, and winter's
closing in. (Joni Mitchell) 

Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there (Bob Dylan)

I've been aware of the time going by
They say in the end it's a wink of an eye
And when the morning sun comes beaming in
I get up and do it again. Amen. (Jackson Browne)

One of the most influential courses I took in college — funny how many of these posts wind up looping back 40 years — was a course in Oriental Philosophy, taught by Dr. Lik Kuen Tong, and one of the texts we studied in detail was the I Ching, or Book of Changes.  One of the concepts that I remember Dr. Tong talking about — although from this distance I cannot vouch for the accuracy of my memory, was the Gate of Heaven, understood to be the present moment, the magic portal through which the future passes and is transformed in passing into the past. We can never directly experience the future, and the past is available to us only through whatever impressions are made in present time as the future slides through us in becoming the past. All of the action is happening right now. We can never escape the present, it's all we have: Now. And now. And now again.  (My wife's mom, for many years, was fond of the saying, "The future is a mystery; yesterday is history; today is a gift." I don't think she intended the play on the word "present," but it works.)

So there's something really obvious about time and our experience of it, but also something deeply profound and mysterious about it as well. One of the mysteries has to do with our conflicted relationship with the present moment. On the one hand, we are locked into the present. As children, that presents no problem to us. But the older we become, the more we seem to become programmed to avoid being fully present to ourselves in the present moment. We spend a great deal of our mental energy worrying about or planning for things that have not happened yet, and/or looking back at the past, re-living it in our minds, and trying to understand its implications for our present lives. We spend so much of our time NOT being present to the present, that pretty much every religious tradition, endorses some set of disciplines involving meditation or breathing or prayer or mindfulness training, the goal of which is to bring us back to full alertness and awareness of the present moment. We have to re-learn how to Be Here Now.

Another mysterious thing about time has to do with its relativity, how the same number of seconds or minutes or hours can be experienced as being either much longer or much shorter that it actually was. Artists and musicians frequently talk about how time seems to slip away when they are productively engaged. (Time flies when you're having fun.) Students often watch the clock with disbelief at how slowly time is going by. (One of the professors at my college was fond of addressing students he caught sneaking glances at the clock with the words "Time will pass, Mr. _____. The question is, will you?")

And perhaps the greatest mystery of all about time is that in fact we don't know what's on the other side of it. We're given our three score years and ten, more or less, if we're lucky, on this planet, and then… what? Some of us make the Leap of Faith and imagine for ourselves an eternal afterlife of some sort. Some of us. Like Dylan and Joni Mitchell about, resort to metaphor to allude to the after life winter or darkness or emptiness or endless sleep. Some of us worry some about all of that. Some of us don't.

Then there are the scientists who are interested in the phenomenon of time as the fourth dimension. The cool graphic at the top of the page illustrates, among other things, how the essence of any object cannot be grasped in snapshots. A snapshot gives you something but also necessarily withholds something as well.

What else? Well, there's the ethical issue, which I think is central to our mission as educators, about what amounts to the responsible use of time. Students — and adults — often become quite adept at "wasting time," or to use another phrase that is perhaps more apt, "killing time."  Our contemporary culture in the U.S. seems to be in some ways to be a death star devoted to cranking out more and more diversions and amusements and ways to kill time. I observe on a daily basis a staggering number of man-hours being simply frittered away by students who apparently have nothing better to do than hang out with their friends and skateboard and play video games. If that makes me sound like a crotchety old guy, okay, I am that. But still. I get it that many students are stressed and they need their down time, as we all do. But one of my core beliefs as an educator is that humans have a duty — I don't think it's too strong to say a sacred duty —to develop habits of mind and habits of practice which help to create value in the world and in the lives of people around us. I'm not talking about monetary value, although it is not inaccurate to say that "time is money." I'm talking about using time to do something or make something that will be of some conceivable use or pleasure or assistance to somebody else other than ourselves. There's some kind of calculus of value involved in the management of time. I'm not saying we should be working at every moment to make the world a better place: that ratio is not 100%. But it's not zero either. How to do the numbers in a way that makes sense, that's something we should all be thinking about.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sweepstakes Stats

(This is the nineteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts, should I live so long: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, (in this case, very indirectly indeed) with teaching and learning.)

Doing this alphabetical challenge has led me into some mental landscapes that I would probably not have thought to explore otherwise. For example, back at the letter K, I was struck by the quirkiness of K words generally and the smaller available stock of even those. Which led me to wonder which letters of the alphabet had the largest pool of words. The small ponds were clear from the start. Not too many X and Z words out there, you know that before the start, as anyone who has ever done an elementary school abecedary can attest. But who's the boss daddy of letters? I took it upon myself to conduct a little bit of informal investigative research (counting the number of pages for each letter in the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary). The results are in. Let's hear it for our winner, today's honoree: the letter S. 

The race wasn't even close. S came in with 78 pages, C came in second with 54, followed closely by P with 50. The next group arrived in a tightly-knit pack some distance behind: A and B at 40, T at 38, D and M at 36. X, no surprise, was dead last, with one page. (Z and Y tied at 4).

Summary of the top seven: S, C, P, A, B, T, D

I just took a break from writing this post to see what stats I could track down on the internet and I found my way to The Phrontistery, which is precisely the kind of site that you would presume would have to exist somewhere simply on the grounds that if you can think of something, someone else has probably already thought of it and done it. The letters listed there for the first seven are the same, but order is slightly different: P, S, C, A, T, M, D

I don't know how to account for the discrepancy between S, which finished miles ahead in the Scrabble dictionary, and P, the winner by a nose on the web site, other than to speculate that the Scrabble dictionary does not include words of more than ten letters, and I can think of a ton of pseudo- and psycho- and philo- and pneumo-based words that would not appear there. 

A check of the AHED seems to confirm my original estimate and raise further questions about the Phrontistery dictionary: in the AHED, P comes in at 168 pages, where as S comes in at 229, which gives S more letters by a factor of 1.36, matching pretty closely the Scrabble dictionary ratio of 1.44.

So, back to the Phrontistery site, which has an explanation of sorts: the dictionary that Stephen Chrisomalis, the creator of the site,  is using is one he compiled himself, following various interesting but somewhat idiosyncratic rules:

Welcome to the International House of Logorrhea, a free online dictionary of weird and unusual words to help enhance your vocabulary. The IHL is a component of The Phrontistery, which has many other free word lists and unusual word related resources.

Did you ever have an English teacher who told you 'Whenever you read something, and find a word you don't know, look it up in the dictionary and write it down'? Well, I took that advice to heart. Of course, once you have a few hundred words down on your list, you think to yourself (if you are as obsessive as I am), 'Wouldn't it be a lot easier if I just read the whole dictionary, so that I could just do this word writing thing once and be done with it?' The result, after nearly a decade of conscientious word-collecting, is the International House of Logorrhea.

I have compiled a list of 15,500 English words, ranging from the merely uncommon to the extremely rare, nearly obsolete and just plain nutty! Each word is listed along with a brief, one-line definition. You should be able to get the general sense of most words, without having to read through pages of dictionary definitions. Having said that, don't go out and discard your dictionary. 
I have omitted the following word categories from the IHL:
  • extremely obsolete words (with some latitude, particularly for very interesting or useful terms)
  • words which are of strictly dialectal usage today
  • jargon, including medical, legal, biological, and other terms rarely found in non-specialist writing
  • foreign terms which, in writing, always require italicization
  • inflected forms of words (a single form is included for each word)

There is a ton of other interesting language-related stuff on the site, which I recommend to your attention. 

Process Reflection:

I had not really intended to get into all of this, but I started over there and wound up over here and in so doing managed NOT to address any of the other perhaps more substantive subjects that I had considered, including but not limited to standards, surprise, Scrabble, systems thinking,  serpentine, succotash, stress, satisfaction, and symbolism. And now the evening is slipping away and if I'm going to get any sleep I'm going to have to stop. Sigh. So many subjects, so little time.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Getting to R

(This is the eighteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

I just dropped in, to see what condition my condition was in… (Mickey Newbury)
A reliable wheelhorse... (Gilbert Highet)

Well, somewhere in this little alphabetic odyssey we have embarked upon, we seem to have turned a corner. If M marked the middle and Z marks the end, we're well over the hump. But we're still not close enough that the end is in sight.

For many years, I kept a journal of my teaching practice. One year, in the middle of March, I found myself questioning myself, what I was doing, what my students were learning, why I was still teaching and so on. But there was something about the condition from which I was writing which also conveyed to me a profound sense not just of discouragement, but of déjà vu. I went back to the shelf of previous journals and began looking through them, and, sure enough, pretty much every year, the middle of March was the low point, the point when the novelty had definitely worn off, and even though it was still too far from the end of the year to feel the sense of impending relief, it was close enough to induce despair that I, that we, that the class would ever be able to accomplish the grand goals I had held in mind back in September. It was something of a relief for me to recognize this as a regular and predictable part of the rhythm of the school year, and to see that in a few more weeks we would be almost home, and that it would be downhill all the way to the finish line.

That word "downhill," of course, can be read two different ways. It can suggest, as it just did, that the course is getting progressively easier, and that the sight of the finish line can trigger a boost of energy that will carry us through to the end. But "downhill all the way" can, in a different sense, suggest a decline from the high point of performance, with the likelihood that things will more likely get worse from here on in, rather than better. I am reminded of a quotation from a book I read during freshman year in college. The book made a strong impression on me at that time—I still have it on my bookshelf in my office—and turned out to be a minor but not insignificant factor in my decision to major in Philosophy. The book was The Career of Philosophy, and the author, John Herman Randall, had this to say about the human experience:

The main features of human life remain universal: birth, growing up, making a living, getting on with one's fellows—the urge of sex, the desire to understand—failure, frustration, sickness, and death.

It's an elegantly crafted little sentence, culminating, after the introductory generalization leading up to the colon, with a three-part sequence which mirrors the three phases of life it describes. It's a sentence that has stuck in my head for decades. And, to return to the point that I was making, everything following the second em-dash might be said to be descriptive of a stage of life that we can all anticipate experiencing, sooner or later, that might euphemistically be called "going downhill."

Which is all by way of introduction to what I really wanted to write about, what I have actually been planning to write about, every since way back when (perhaps at M) when I got to R. Because, as it turns out, R has a place in the alphabetical sequence which has already been remarked upon by Virginia Woolf:

One of my favorite passages in literature is the section of To The Lighthouse in which Mr. Ramsay, who has been watching his wife and son from a distance, while trying to resettle his mind following a very slightly disagreeable conversation with the two of them. Woolf takes us into Ramsay's mind as he reflects upon the condition of his condition:

He was safe, he was restored to his privacy. He stopped to light his pipe, looked once at his wife and son in the window, and as one raises one's eyes from a page in an express train and sees a farm, a tree, a cluster of cottages as an illustration, a confirmation of something on the printed page to which one returns, fortified, and satisfied, so without his distinguishing either his son or his wife, the sight of them fortified him and satisfied him and consecrated his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem which now engaged the energies of his splendid mind.

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.

…But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q--R--. Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. "Then R ..." He braced himself. He clenched himself.

Qualities that would have saved a ship's company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water--endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then--what is R? 

A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying--he was a failure--that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R--
Qualities that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the Polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor, whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it, came to his help again. R--  The lizard's eye flickered once more. The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible and, displayed among its leaves, he could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the one hand the steady goers of superhuman strength who, plodding and persevering, repeat the whole alphabet in order, twenty-six letters in all, from start to finish; on the other the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash--the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order. Meanwhile, he stuck at Q. On, then, on to R.

Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of withered old age. Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reach R.

This passage blew me away when I first read it. It dramatizes with great sympathy and perceptiveness exactly what Randall was getting at and exactly what all of us must eventually come to terms with: the gap between our aspirations and our abilities, between the size of the challenges we choose to take on and the amount of time that we are given, as humans, to try to make headway against them. 

The other day I was waiting for a meeting to begin in a classroom and I was looking over some books on a bookshelf. I saw a book there called The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet, whose name I remembered from my study of classics in college. I picked up the book and began thumbing through it, and liking the tonality of what I found there, I brought it home and began reading it last night. I'll close with a passage from the first part of that book in which Highet considers the fate of young (university) teachers who allow themselves to lose sight of the grander goals of scholarship, and where they find themselves a result,.His characterization, while clearly intended to be humorous, is also sobering, if only because Highet is setting the bar very high, for all of us. How many of us, he seems to be saying, can hope even to get to R?

They are apt to take a job teaching (say) "English," and to spend the first few years reading beginners' essays and giving simple general courses. Much of their attention at this time is taken up with getting married, having a family, and trying to meet the bills. Then they may slip into giving the series of lectures on the American novel formerly given by old Professor Crum, who has just retired; and another class on seventeenth-century prose to fit in with a newly announced course on seventeenth century poetry. They spend three years working these up, and write a few articles on points of interest which they meet en route—a new source for Donne's 49th sermon, the first draft of The Princess Cassamassima. They are still reading a large number of students' essays too. Meanwhile their administrative duties begin to pile up, they become members of the Hebdomadal Committee and the Junior Deans, they take on outside work as advisor to the Periphrasis Press and examiner to the Joint Board and reviewer specializing in "avant garde novels," the children are growing fast and food-bills are heavy, then one year there is the additional inducement of teaching in California during the summer session, they have to work up two new courses, and next summer these will be used again, perhaps they could be expanded for a winter series although neither of them really dovetails with the American novel or seventeenth century poetry, still it is a fine thing to be competent in a number of different fields, a reliable wheelhorse, you might say. And they go on like this, filling in here and fitting in there, half because of pressure, half through inertia, until they wake up at age forty and look around to discover that they have not really solid interests, no large book in the making, and so only a vaguely defined reputation. They can still be happy, for it is a delightful career to teach one of the world's great literatures. Yet they will have a sense of lost opportunity, and they will have earned it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


(This the seventeenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

I had it in mind to return to a subject I have written about before: the idea of Quality.  By way of introduction to the subject at hand, here's a quotation from a post I wrote four years ago:

There's a passage about midway through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which Pirsig identifies as being a defining moment in his thinking: He's visiting the building in which he spent the early part of his teaching career, and he recalls a colleague, Sarah, who "came trotting by with her watering pot...going from the corridor to her office, and she said "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students." This is a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal." 

Much of the rest of the novel recounts Pirsig's pursuit of the what might be called the question of Quality: what it is, how you recognize it, how you produce it, how you teach it.

So that's the question I would like to return to today. It's been my observation that many classrooms the traditional (and understandable) focus on the teaching and learning of skills and procedures serves to marginalize what I have come to see as the more important consideration: is the work we are doing ultimately any good? If so, good for what? Good how? And who gets to make that determination?

In doing the work of school, whether a homework assignment or a paper or a project or a video, there are many kinds of quality to which a student might conceivably aspire: quality in thinking; quality in workmanship; quality in presentation and delivery; quality in terms of audience impact, of engagement and satisfaction, of lessons learned.

The problem is, teachers themselves do not generally, as a matter of course, make a point of discussing these quality options with students, nor do the students as matter of course make a point of targeting for themselves particular quality indicators, much less of assessing themselves on how nearly they approached their quality targets.

Some teachers, it's true, do use rubrics, and what is a rubric if not a listing of quality indicators? But generally the rubrics I see are a) more limited in their scope than even the very tentative list I assayed above, b) not usually customized to reflect the goals and inclinations of individual students and c) often internally inconsistent in terms of the choice and organization of categories and the relative weight assigned to each. 

One of the most popular and time-honored of rubrics, the so called "six trait" rubric for writing is a prime example of this organizational confusion. The six traits vary from version to version, but most of them have a list something like this: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. I'm not going to get into a deconstruction of that list, which would take far more time and energy than I have available right now, but consider, just for starters, these questions:

• Given that the presence or absence of an organizational plan and of the conventional use of words are observable "traits" of a piece of writing, which of the other four is categorically consistent with those two?

• What is an idea? Is it possible to write anything which is entirely devoid of ideas?

• What exactly does "voice" mean? How is it different, ultimately, from "word choice?"

• What is the difference between "word choice" and "sentence fluency?" Doesn't one determine the other? Why are they separate categories?

More importantly, what about other quality indicators like specificity or relevance or originality or emotional weight or breadth or depth? It's beyond me a fuzzy, hodge-podgy rubric like the "six trait rubric" became the default standard for quality discrimination with regard to writing in schools. And to the extent that the thinking in the rubric itself is wooly and approximate and categorically inconsistent, how can it help but send the message to students that the discipline of writing itself must necessarily be all of these things? 

Something else I don't like about rubrics, especially rubrics used in common in a class setting. If as a teacher you introduce them after the fact, the students can claim, with some justification, that they didn't know what they were going to be evaluated on before they did the work, and that the use of a rubric they had not anticipated is therefore unfair. On the other hand, if you introduce the rubric beforehand, it artificializes the work process in odd and potentially disturbing ways. Does any artist, does any writer, does any engineer or scientist or historian begin work on a project with a rubric in mind? Not in my experience. One begins the work with the goal of coming up with something good, something interesting, something satisfying, something of quality. It's helpful to know, in a general way, what your primary objectives are. But, as the proponents of the Design Thinking process tell us, it's important, in the early stages especially, to go broad, to try consider a lot of out-of-the-box ideas, and in fact to make mistakes, "failing forward," so that by failing earlier when the stakes are lower you wind up with a higher-quality product later on.

Which is not to say that a rubric cannot have its uses. I think that at some point in the process, it is important for students individually to identify and articulate what kinds of quality they hope to attain in their work, and to share that aspiration with their peers and with the teacher. That could easily take the form of a rubric. (Or not.) The point is, if I as a teacher know what a student is trying to accomplish, I'm in a much better position to give that student useful, targeted feedback in process than if I am working from a generic, one-size-fits-all rubric.

One last point: quality doesn't inhere simply and specifically in the work produced, or in the person doing the work. It has something to do with the interaction between the two, the way in which this particular work engages the best interests of this particular person at this particular time. As Pirsig says, "Quality couldn't be independently related with either the subject or the object, but could be found only in the relationship of the two with each other. It is the point at which subject and object meet."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


(This is the sixteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)


is one of those words that you run across
just often enough that you feel you really
should remember what it means, but just
seldom enough that when you do see it,
you're like, um, isn't that the word that
means something about painting on velvet, no,
wait a minute, it's one of those boxes on top
of an elephant, no, that's a palanquin (or is
it?) Damn, I should know this; I've looked it up
a hundred times... Something about what lies beneath
the surface that you can't quite read any more,
because — okay now I remember — it's been scraped off
and overwritten, although given time and attention
what was present before can be reconstructed
and read. Because it's been there all the time.

Process Reflection

Pretty much every night after dinner my wife and I play a game of Scrabble. Tonight toward the end of the game I had the seven-letter word "twanger," but had no place to put it. That word sent me off on a chain of associations going back to watching the Buster Brown show on television when I was about seven years old, where there was a character Froggy the Gremlin who was often exhorted by Andy Devine, the show's host, to "Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy." (The weirdness of which exhortation is a potentially disturbing essay for another time.) So for a few minutes this evening, I was absently considering making tonight's "P" post about plucking your magic twanger, being more or less disinclined to pursue the line of thought I had first considered, which was to write a sort of continuation of last night's post. That felt like more work than I really wanted to sign myself up for this evening.

So then we went for a drive down to the store, and while we were driving the word "palimpsest" popped into my mind, for no plausible reason other than that it had been driven up by my subconscious mind to displace the word "pluck," and it set off, as we were driving home, the chain of foggy approximation culminating in clarifying recollection that the poem itself is an low-temperature effort to recapitulate. Somewhere in the middle of writing the poem it occurred to me that that process I had gone through in trying to haul the denotation of the word back into the forefront of my brain from where it had been lurking was in fact a kind of analogue for the process of reading a palimpsest, so then I steered the bark of my poem in that direction in the last few lines, let it carry me into the slip, lashed it to the pier, and hopped off. All of which is to say, tonight I felt more like playing than working, and this was the result.

Image via Wikipedia

Monday, April 23, 2012

Open-Source Education

(This is the fifteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

I've been thinking a lot over the course of this year about where schools stand in relation to the idea of education. This is not, of course, a new topic, people have been beating it to death since pretty much forever. (I remember reading Coming of Age in America nearly 50 years ago now, in which Edgar Z. Friedenberg made the case that the real purpose of schooling was not in fact to educate at all, but essentially to ensure the orderly flow of human traffic into the workplace. And Anya Kamenetz, among many others, has been banging this drum hard.) So it is not my purpose here to break any new ground conceptually but simply to attempt to articulate a couple of core ideas which feel in part like realizations and in part like forebodings.

One huge factor in what I see playing out now in terms of education is the rise of open-source education. What seemed unimaginable 30 years ago is now ubiquitous: the availability of pretty much any information you might desire to find via the internet; and the archiving, curation and distribution of that information by both free and for-profit institutions such as Google, Apple, Amazon, TED, Khan Academy, iTunes U, museums, online schools and universities, brick-and-mortar schools and universities offering selected courses in online and blended versions, online versions of virtually every American (and international) newspaper or magazines of consequence, and so on and so on and so on. Not to mention the peer-to-peer sharing and distribution of both commercial and homegrown content via Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and the like, nor what shows up on any given day on any one (or all) of a bazillion blogs.

A second huge factor is ongoing democratization of the means of production of pretty much any creative content. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, either, if you wanted to publish a book you needed to land a contract with a publisher, unless you were willing to pay through the nose for a vanity press to put out a limited edition at your own expense. (Which is what Thoreau did, leading him at one point to write in his diary "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself.") If you wanted to put out a record, you had to get a contract from a record company, which would structure that contract in such a way that they would get theirs before you got yours, if ever. Today, that's all gone. Anyone who wants to write a book, or make a movie, or put out a single, or have a one-man art show, can do entirely on his own and make it instantly available to anyone in the world who is of a mind to view it, using technology he can carry around in a backpack. This is not news. Everybody knows this.

The third huge factor, related to the second, is that the gatekeeping agencies, the ones who got to decide what was good enough to be published, what was good enough to be recorded, what was good enough to get into the art show, have been displaced. Oh, they're still there, all right, and huffing and puffing mightily to preserve what's left of the power and influence they once held close, but the story is no longer about them. The story is about the individual writers and singers and artists and computer programmers and entrepreneurs of whatever stripe who can create whatever they please using tools available to anyone and market them immediately to whatever audience they are capable of attracting. It is, as they say, a whole new ball game.

So what does this have to do with schools? Well, everything. What we've already seen happen in the music industry and what is now happening in the publishing industry is, IMHO, merely the harbinger of what is to come—what is already happening—in education.

First question: why should students spend their time in schools learning what someone else has decided they need to know, when they could just as easily and much more more conveniently and (for those students whose parents are paying for a private school education) much less expensively learning what they want to learn on their own schedule in their own way: by taking online courses, by pursuing individual investigations, by seeking out the resources and the mentors to learn what you need to learn in order to be able to do what you need to do.

Second question: once students who have opted to go this route and have put in their 10,000 hours developing whatever highly-evolved skill set they are inclined to want to develop, what employer in his right mind is going to say, "Look, I know you have the skills I'm looking for, but you don't have a college degree (or a GED) so I'm just going to take this nice young man over here who has no demonstrable practical skills, but has proven that he is capable of enduring sixteen years of following directions in series of classrooms, so I'm going to go with him.

Third question: once the hierarchy of accreditation (the high school diplomas, the college degrees, the WASCs and the NEASCs and the College Boards and the other certifying agencies begin to lose their sway, who will get to say what quality is, what is good enough, and what is not? It's pretty straightforward. If you can get enough people to take you seriously, you're serious. If you can't, you're going to have to try again, or try something else. The flip side of the democratization of education is the crowdsourcing of educational validation.

Obviously, not everyone has the energy or individual initiative to want to go this route, or the perseverance and ingenuity to succeed at it if they do. But I think that it is not unlikely that many of what are now our best students are going to be strongly tempted to take their educations into their own hands. Especially if our schools continue to gulp down the current politically-generated Kool-aid cocktail combination of common core standards and high stakes testing, the effect of which is to drive everything that is not going to be on The Test—which is to say, everything of potential real interest to either students or teachers—right out of the classroom.

It boils down to this. Once upon a time, back in the day, students went to schools (and to libraries, and to bookstores) because that was the only path available to get to information that they needed in order to learn, and the only place to make the acquaintance of people outside of your family and friends that you might learn something from. Now that information, and those resources, are available right from where I am sitting right now as I type this at the kitchen table. In a few minutes I will hit the "publish" button and voila, there will be the evidence of this night's labors, for anyone who cares to see it. So the question we should be thinking about, the question we should be caring about and acting upon, if we care at all about schools, is "In a world where information is cheap and ubiquitous, what should schools be all about?"

I think there are good answers to that question, about which more later, maybe tomorrow. But I don't think those answers match up to very much of what I see going on in schools today.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Nothing Much: Notes

(This is the fourteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

No. Nah. Not. Nope. Null. Nothing. Never. Negative. Non. Nicht. Nada. Nyet.

…it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… (Keats)

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don’t pull you through
Don’t put on any airs
When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
And they really make a mess outta you (Dylan)

Descartes in the coffee shop: "Would you like some milk with that?" "I think not," he replies. And disappears.

Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth. (Sartre)

...Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of. (Shakespeare) 

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. (Hemingway)
I told myself: 'I am surrounded by unknown things.' I imagined man without ears, suspecting the existence of sound as we suspect so many hidden mysteries, man noting acoustic phenomena whose nature and provenance he cannot determine. And I grew afraid of everything around me – afraid of the air, afraid of the night. From the moment we can know almost nothing, and from the moment that everything is limitless, what remains? Does emptiness actually not exist? What does exist in this apparent emptiness? (DeMaupassant)

The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do
If the sovereign can hold on to this
All things shall transform themselves
Transformed, yet wishing to achieve
I shall restrain them with the simplicity of the nameless
The simplicity of the nameless
They shall be without desire
Without desire, using stillness
The world shall steady itself (Tao Te Ching, 37)

What you know you know.
What you know you don't know.
What you don't know you know.
What you don't know you don't know.

Before we begin: the blank page, the empty canvas, silence. Breath. Attention.

One asks not only for the courage of his convictions, but for the courage of his doubts, in a world of dangerously passionate certainties. (Eric Sevareid)

Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing.
Emptiness which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibilities. (D.T. Suzuki)

True words are not beautiful
Beautiful words are not true
Those who are good do not debate
Those who debate are not good
Those who know are not broad of knowledge
Those who are broad of knowledge do not know (Tao Te Ching, 81)

Thursday, April 19, 2012


(This is the thirteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)


Planet K was all about kinky and stark.
Planet M feels much more like home.
First word, mama. First taste, milk.
First sound: music. First memory:
moon over mountain. (Metaphor.)
Macaroons. Mudpies. Marshmallows.
Marbles. Magic. Merlin. Monarchs.
Merry Christmas. Muffins. Mittens.
Making friends. Growing muscles.
Making trouble. (Malicious. Masked men.)
Matches. Mistakes. Moving on.
Mind over matter. Meandering.
Measurements: mountain to molehill,
monster to mouse, millennium to moment,
maxi to mini. Majestic, magnificent, mighty
arrayed against measly, mean and meek.
Maturation. Making meaning. Metacognition.
Mythology. Maps of the imagination.
The Metaphysics of Morals. Mindfulness.
Meditation. (The muchness of suchness
in om.) Miracles. The moment of truth.

Process Reflection:

Pretty much what you'd think. Wasn't in a frame of mind for another declamatory screed. In turning over M words in my mind I was struck by how much richer the possibilities were than with some of the other letters, like K. So I decided to just play with that, see how far I could push it, how I might pull together some of the patterns and threads. This draft doesn't feel finished yet—there are some bumps and wrinkles and elaborations not yet attempted—but it's what I could put together in an hour and a half or so.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The L Word

(This is the twelfth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning. It's also the most nakedly political post I've ever written. So, for the record, a disclaimer: all ideas contained herein are my own, and come out of my head more or less on the spur of the moment. They are not intended to be definitive, but to be exploratory. They should not be construed as being endorsed by my employers, my family, or my friends, or by any other persons living or dead.)

It has been in my mind for some time to attempt to collect my thoughts on the decline and fall of liberalism. I have watched with discouragement and some alarm the way that liberalism as a political philosophy and has been subjected to disparagement and disdain not only in the chummy atmosphere of Republican clubhouses but in the supposedly "liberal" media as well. The "L word" has become the word that no one wants to say out loud, least of all those who might reasonably be accused of liberal inclinations.

Well, I'll say it out loud. I'm an unapologetic liberal, for what I consider to be more than adequate reasons. And frankly, I'm pissed that the most recent leaders of "progressive" inclination, from Al Gore to John Kerry to Barack Obama, have so readily caved in to the right wingers, ceding the terms of the debate to the conservatives and making concession after concession in the hopes of establishing common ground for a dialogue which their adversaries have no interest in conducting.

To a certain extent, of course, that comes with the territory. The very idea of liberalism is rooted in a potentially debilitating assumption. It's the same assumption that grounds the notion of a democracy and endangers democracy in the face of autocratic foes: the notion that diversity itself is a good thing. That assumption plays out in many arenas, personal and political and educational. It implies that two (or three, or many) heads are better than one, that no one has a purchase on the whole truth, that for one person—whether a fascist dictator or a tinhorn sheriff or a religious fundamentalist of whatever stripe—to dictate the nature of "truth" to another or to force decisions upon another is not just a failure of compassion and respect but a fundamental violation of human rights, that to get a "liberal education" is a good thing precisely because it is broadening and has the potential to teach us about what we don't know we don't know and thereby give us valuable instruction about intellectual humility.

A democracy, faced with a declaration of war by a hostile dictator, will always be at an initial disadvantage. A Hitler or a Hirohito can strike first, without even appearing to go through the motions of marshalling public opinion or political support for the move. (My father in law, a WWII veteran, used to say, with some justification, that the United States had never started a war, but we had always ended them. In the post-Vietnam and post-Iraq world, that idea now seems merely quaint, although there's an argument to be made that in both those cases the war would never have been initiated without explicitly deceptive manipulation of public opinion by the politicians in charge. But that's another essay for another time.) But at least theoretically, a democracy requires that matters of public policy require public debate, and that therefore precipitate unilateral action is unlikely to occur except in circumstances of dire and immediate danger to the country. You want to go to war? We're going to need to talk about it first, which takes away the advantage of surprise. That's a disadvantage we accept because we see a greater strength in democracy in the long run. We believe that a system based in dialogue and trust and collaboration and individual initative will ultimately prevail in a contest dictatorial forces of darkness. It's our foundational mythology, told and retold in our pop culture narratives: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Hunger Games.

Likewise, in any conflict between, say, a liberal congressmen and conservative conservative congressmen, the liberal is acting at several disadvantages. The first is that while the liberal is willing—either by disposition of character or by long experience or by virtue of receiving the kind of education that people like Rick Santorum correctly suspect has the potential to lead them away from passive acceptance of received wisdom— to concede the fact that he might be wrong, the conservative can remain smugly and self-righteously assured of his own correctness. Any concessions on the part of the liberal, any move toward a common ground, as Barack Obama has had many opportunities to learn, can only be viewed by his self-righteous rival as further proof of weakness and lack of conviction. (It's a not surprising but certainly telling indicator of the tenor of the times that even such a transparently beneficial mental trait as the ability to change one's mind—something that educators everywhere hope to encourage in their students—gets translated, in today's toxic political and intellectual environment, into "flipflopping," and is seen as disqualifying factor for a candidate for public office. Which is patently ridiculous. Do we really want people running our country who will not ever consider the possibility that they might be wrong?)

The second is that while the liberal is likely to concede that there may be shades of grey and in fact may be inclined to explore the grey territories in hopes of learning something there, the conservative, seeing things very sharply in black and white, has neither motivation nor inclination to engage in dialogue or consider compromise. (This is did not used to be a necessary attribute of a conservative. It has only become so in recent years.) The third is that due in part to the failures of our educational system and in part to the omnipresent anaesthetic effects of sound-bite oriented news coverage, neither the news media themselves nor the general public any longer seems to have any appetite for nuanced commentary or prolonged, painstaking analyis. If you can't say what you want to say in ten words or less, nobody is going to listen to you any more. Phrases like "Pro-Life" or Pro-Choice" or "climate change" or "Tea Party" or "Occupy" suffice to elicit Pavlovian, grunt-level responses on one side or the other. In a presidential campaign in which the most central issue is our economic sustainability, both sides are spending millions upon millions of dollars on 30-second television spots that try to reduce complex ideas to slogans that can be force-fed to the populace. That's an irony that any thinking citizen, liberal or conservative, would likely decry. But I'm not hearing the cries out there.

What is it that liberals stand accused of? Let's leave aside the core beliefs of the lunatic fringe who have allowed themselves to be convinced that, say, Obama is the Antichrist; or that global warming doesn't really exist. What's left are points of view which have been central to our political debates for decades, but have only recently become areas of disagreement in which one side tries to negotiate compromise and the other side makes its members pledge never to compromise. Which is why, in today's world, when you talk about conservatives and liberals, what you're really talking about are Republicans and Democrats. There are still some conservative democrats left, Obama being an example, much to the dismay of his core constituency. But no liberal Republicans need apply. So what are some of the core disagreements?

Republicans accuse Democrats of being in favor of big government. True, at least by comparison with the Grover Norquists and Paul Ryans of the world who would prefer to see no federal government at all. But seriously, do any of us really want to go there?

Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to raise taxes. True, if you want to have any chance of eventually being able to balance the budget. Even if we cut all government services back to next to nothing, it wouldn't be enough. And it wasn't the Democrats who put us in the hole. The last time we had a national budget surplus was at the end of the Clinton administration.

Republicans accuse Democrats of being willing to accept the fact that the United States is not the Chosen Nation uniquely in God's favor. (True again. We're not, no more than were the Greeks or the Romans or the British, nor will be the Chinese when their period of ascendancy arrives. America is certainly unique. But it is, as a matter of historical accuracy and simple common sense, not Exceptional. It is not and should not be exempt from the same rules of conduct we expect of other nations.

What have liberals stood for? What have they brought to pass? (I'm not talking Republicans and Democrats here. I'm talking liberals vs. conservatives. I'm talking about those with a vision of making things better and fairer for everyone versus those who try to hold on dearly to what they already have and resist change on principle.) The end of slavery. The right of women to vote. Labor Unions which improved working conditions for everyday people. Civil Rights Legislation. Social service programs like Peace Corps, Teacher Corps, and Head State. Social Security. Medicare. The end of the Vietnam War. The end of the draft. Antidiscrimination policies in business and higher education. Environmental legislation. Regulation of predatory business practices.

Every one of these accomplishments, and this is a very partal list, came as a result of hard fought efforts by liberals in the face of rigid opposition from conservatives who did not want things to change, who had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were because it was to their strategic and financial and psychological advantage to do so. Ever one of them included at least some degree of government intervention to force people to do the right thing even when they were defiantly resisting that mandate. And by and large, they are all now accepted as having been integral steps in the Story of America, the branding of America as a land of freedom and justice and opportunity.

So here's what I don't understand. I don't understand how anyone in this country who is working person or a woman or a person of color can look at the history of social change in America in the last 100 years and NOT support at least some part, if not all, of the liberal agenda, based as it is on a societal (and constitutional) commitment to equity and fairness and mutual respect. I don't understand how a group of self-appointed know-it-alls can routinely dismiss the rights of women to make their own decisions about abortion, or can say with a straight face that there is no such thing as global warming, or that the short-term goal getting Barack Obama out of the White House or getting Mitt Romney in is more important than the long term goal of re-creating a legislative environment where elected representatives can listen with some degree of respect to one another and commit themselves, not to partisan posturing, but to arriving at realistic compromises that will be in the long-term best interests of everyone in this country and on this planet. If that feels hopelessly optimistic to you, blame it on the liberal in me.

Monday, April 16, 2012


(This is the eleventh in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

(Bye Bye Birdie)

Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!
(Dark Side of the Moon)

Bobby and Missy sitting in a tree,
Along comes love, along comes marriage,
Along comes Missy with a baby carriage.

Okay, a couple of words of explanation. Number one, where have I been for three days? Well, Friday and Saturday I was at a retreat that we run each year for teachers at our school. By Sunday I had come down with (yet another) horrendous cold; I don't know whether it's a new one or just a continuation of the one I've had pretty much ever since Thanksgiving. So I kind of fell off the wagon, not that anybody is keeping track.

Number two, let's face it, K is a weird letter, kind of an alphabetic Katzenjammer Kid. It's hard to take K words seriously. What exactly is one supposed to do with kangaroo, or klutz, or kettle, or kaftan, or kebob, or kazoo, or kamikaze? Just take those words right there; that's a weird little energy zone: intercontinental, all different registers of diction: it's like a Mummer's parade. Even the more serious K words don’t play nicely with other K words: karma and Kafka, keg and kerchief, king and kindle, knee and know, kidnap and keyhole (Although I sense the beginnings of a story there).

I might not even have thought of "kids" if my son hadn't mentioned it during our iChat on Sunday. But it works. First of all, it's maybe the most common word in English for any number of words more formally denoting human beings of a certain age, with varying degrees of emotional and sociological freight: children, progeny, offspring, spawn, and the like. It's a slang word that has been around so long it doesn't really feel like slang any more. (I can remember my elementary school teachers crossing out the word in stories I had written with the admonishment that "A kid is a baby goat." I wonder if anyone does that any more.)

More importantly, for the purposes of this series of blogs—obscure and inconsistently realized as they may be—it's hardly possible to use the word "kids" without calling to mind a whole series of notions about kid-ness that are perhaps worth assaying. So, without putting too much time preliminarily into deciding on a sequence, or, God help us, a thesis, here are some spur-of-the-evening reflections:

• "Kids" as a general category seems to denote not just an age group of say, four- to- eighteen-year-olds, but a certain set of behaviors that can be variously seen by others (parents, teachers, oldsters of various stripes) as either amusingly immature (as in the lyric from Bye Bye Birdie above) or disturbingly vulnerable to the predations of humorless, if not actively meanspirited adults (a la Pink Floyd). But either way it's a word with positive connotations. What's not to like about kids?

• "Having kids" is probably the single most significant and irrevocable rite of passage in the range of human experiences. Certainly, in the long run, it's a more significant rite of passage than the more notorious rite of passage which makes the having of kids physiologically possible. As I mentioned to one of my colleagues at the retreat—and as I have sometimes told my high school students, when the question comes up—I used to wonder, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, when exactly one became an adult, and how one knew, after the fact, that one had done so. It clearly had nothing to do with chronological age. Just because you're 18 or 21 doesn't make you an adult in anything other than a legal sense. But I got the answer to my question the first time I held my infant son in my arms. I remember very strongly the overwhelming realization I had at that moment: this changes everything. Knowing that this child, this wrinkled bundle of muscle and energy and spirit that I had been complicit in brining into the world, was basically totally dependent upon us, his parents, for pretty much everything from that time through the foreseeable future went a long way toward reordering my internal priorities and my sense of myself as a person. (The colleague I spoke to added that that same moment was when she first began to truly understand why her own parents had behaved in the sometimes apparently inexplicable manner they had toward her.

• It has become increasingly clear to me over the years I have been involved in what we optimistically refer to as education that our schools as currently organized make very little sense at all, at least in terms of what is good for kids. What reason is there to suppose that just because we have, say, 25 seven-year-olds (or ten-year-olds, or 17-year-olds) in the same room, that they are all ready to learn the same thing in the same way? I've spent enough time with seven-year-olds, both of my own and of others, to know that there are, well, no two remotely alike. Some are tall, some are short, some are skinny, some are round, some are funny, some are shy, some are athletic, some are musical, some are interested in math, some are interested in manga, some mostly like to sit and listen to the sound of the wind in the willows, or perhaps to read The Wind in the Willows, although that seems less likely now, alas, than it once did. Whatever rationale might have been offered, back in the day, for the wholesale warehousing of kids in school classrooms organized by grades and subjects, that day is long past, and what brain research has revealed about the startlingly differentiated pathways to neural maturity in students of all ages only confirms that our methodologies are outdated and "developmentally inappropriate." So why are those methodologies so difficult to change? Many a book has of course been written about that very question. (Of the ones with which I am familiar, I'd recommend Robert Evans' The Human Side of School Change.) More than I can hope to get into here. Just gesturing at the territory while the train rides by.

• As a teacher, I've put a lot of thought of what I would like to be able to do for my kids, what I would hope that they would learn from their time with me and carry with them into the rest of their lives. I know that it doesn't have a whole lot to do with factual knowledge. It has to do rather with a set of attitudes and habits of mind that would include, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the capacity for having enthusiasms, trust in their own ability to enter a new situation and figure things out, the ability to ask good questions and the resiliency to stick with the questions long enough to begin to find their way toward answers.

At the retreat we were asked to take part in a dialogue exercise that asked us to reflect upon various turning points in our journey as educators, as well as the overall arc or trajectory of that journey. I found myself thinking of (and later sharing with the group) one of my favorite education-related poems, "First Lesson" by Philip Booth, which ends with him wishing for his daughter the same optimistic resiliency and centeredness that I wish for for my children, and for my students:

First Lesson

Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


(This is the tenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Collage: "Voluptuous Discards" RBS 2010

Core belief: the act of writing itself is an act of value-creation. When you write, something is created that did not exist before, and there is at least a chance that that something will turn out to be worthwhile or surprising or interesting to you, the writer, and potentially to others.

Corollary: that writing, like most skill-based activities, becomes better with practice.

Implication: if you value what writing can do, for your thinking, for your brain, for your ability to generate and articulate ideas and work your way from first thoughts to second, more fully developed thoughts, it only makes sense to write regularly: daily if possible.

Definition: Journal: "A personal record of occurrences, experiences, and reflections kept on a regular basis; a diary." (AHED)

Demonstration: In my very first post on Throughlines five and a half years ago, I wrote about making the move from an analog journal—which I was keeping then and am still keeping now—to an online journal. I referenced a poem by William Stafford which I put before you again today, because it's still apt, not just because it helps to develop todays "J" theme—although that's what brought it back to my mind—but because it is such a good example of how even the simplest of writerly moves, like the making of a list, can become a celebration of language, of life, of consciousness, of the act of writing itself:

What's in My Journal

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone's terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


(This is the ninth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

One of the more recent innovations at my school is the creation of The Institute for Teaching, Learning, and Instructional Innovation, most often referred to on campus by its acronym, ITLII, pronounced to rhyme with a sovereign nation north of Sicily. The Institute is intended to be a resource "to foster and facilitate purposeful inquiry into the development of effective teaching practices and the creation of transformative learning environments," and to encourage teachers to share the results of their inquiries with other teachers within our own school as well as with other teachers and schools in Hawaii and throughout the world. Within the framework of ITLII, our school provides support for professional development by encouraging teachers to apply for learning fellowships and curriculum grants that provide them with the time, materials, and logistical support they need in order to conduct explorations of interest to them.

One of the most powerful of spreading "Ideas Worth Sharing," as the worldwide success of the TED talks demonstrates, is by means of video. ITLII has helped to support the creation of a number of such videos in the last year, in the attempt to document some of the interesting ideas that teachers and students are trying out. Here, for example is a video a seventh grade cross-disciplinary project with a focus on economics.

Here's another featuring a high school art class trying out iPads:

Other videos can be found on the "Educator Collaboration" tab of the ITLII web site.

One of the unique things about the Institute is that it is not linked to a particular building or limited to particular set of individuals. We see it rather as a fluid entity connecting and supporting many of the programs already in place at our school supporting student engagement in sustainability, service learning, global education, technology, and arts education, and project-based learning. It is intended to be an enterprise in which every teacher and every student can play a part.

Hiatus (Happiness Runs)

I sort of knew that this week was going to start getting away from me at some point. That point was at about 2:25 this afternoon, when it became clear to me that there were a lot more things that I needed to get done today than I was going to have time for. I just spent two and a half hours at the dining room table trying to get caught up—shades of years gone by—and it's almost time for bed, so any lingering hopes of writing something of any particular significance this evening are pretty well dashed. But I did spend some time at odd moments last night and this morning thinking about H-ness, and the one thing that kept re-presenting itself to my mind was just ridiculous enough to ultimately become today's last words. I mean, if you you're not going to write anything significant, you could just turn to... Donovan!?

Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.

'Nuf said. 'Night, all.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Gene (and Bheu)

(This is the seventh in a series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the day before. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Back in the mid 70’s Lewis Thomas, a cancer researcher associated with the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and before that with Yale University, where he was Dean of the Yale Medical School, came out with a little book of essays called The Lives of the Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, which went on, against all expectations, to win in 1975 two National Book Awards, one in “Arts and Letters” and one in “Sciences.” I had been unfortunate in the luck of the draw as far as my science teachers went in high school and college, and I was taken by surprise by the playfulness and naturalness of Thomas’s thinking and writing, not to mention its breadth. In The Lives of a Cell, and later in The Medusa and the Snail, Thomas gave himself permission to speculate not just about biology but about reading and writing and technology and death and about language itself. In “Notes on Punctuation,” an essay which I have shared with my own students for many years now, Thomas writes, “The things I like best in T.S Eliot’s poetry, especially in the Four Quartets, are the semicolons.” That sentence rocked my 25-year-old mind. A scientist owning up to reading poetry? A scientist who of all that he has read of Eliot declares that he likes the semicolons best?? A scientist with a sense of humor? I hadn’t met any of those, on paper or in real life. I was startled. I was charmed. I was interested. I continued to read, and my notions of what science was all about began to change, as did my notions about what a good writer might aspire to do, or give himself permission to do, in an “essay.”

So this morning when I was thinking about what to choose for my “G” word of the day, I had a vague recollection of some interesting stuff that Lewis Thomas had gotten into in his essay “On Various Words.” Something to do with the derivations of words that had to do with the word “gene” and its many cognates. (Lewis loves words and loves tracking down their derivations; it is largely due to his example that to this day I spend more time in the back of the American Heritage Dictionary looking through Appendix I: Indo-European Roots, than I do looking at the definitions in the front.) So I went to my office and pulled down my well-thumbed edition of The Lives of a Cell. Here is the relevant passage:

There are two immense words from Indo-European, gene and bheu… from which we have constructed the notion of everything. At the beginning, or as far back as they are traceable, they meant something like being. Gene signified beginning, giving birth, while bheu indicated existence and growth. Gene turned itself successively into kundjaz (Germanic) and gecynd (Old English), meaning kin or kind. Kind was at first a family connection, later an elevated social rank, and finally came to rest meaning kindly or gentle. Meanwhile, a branch of gene became the Latin gens which emerged as genus, genius, genital, and generous; then still holding on to its inner significance it became "nature" (out of gnasci).

While gene was evolving into "nature" and "kind" bheu was moving through similar transformations. One branch became bowan in Germanic and bua in Old Norse, meaning to live and dwell, and then the English word "build." It moved into Greek, as phuein, meaning to bring forth and make grow; then as phusis, which was another word for nature. Phusis became the source of physic which at first meant natural science and later was the word for medicine. Still later, physic became physics.

Both words, at today's stage of their evolution, can be taken together to mean, literally, everything in the universe. You do not come by words like this easily; they cannot just be made up from scratch. They need long lives before they can signify. "Everything," C. S. Lewis observed in a discussion of the words, "is a subject on which there is not much to be said." The words themselves must show the internal marks of long use; they must contain their own inner conversation.

These days it is reassuring to know that nature and physics, in their present meanings, have been interconnected in our minds, by a sort of hunch, for all these years. The other words clinging to them are a puzzlement, but nice to see. If you let your mind relax, all the words will flow into each other in an amiable sort of nonsense. “Kind” means a relation, but it also means “nature.” The word for kind is the same as the word for gentle. Even “physics,” save us, is a kind of nature, by its nature, and is, simultaneously, another kind of kind. There are ancient ideas reverberating though this structure, very old hunches.

What I most like about Thomas (beyond his semicolons, which are certainly admirable in themselves) is the fluidity and playfulness of his thinking, the way he exemplifies what can happen “if you let your mind relax.” He knows how to pay attention. He knows how to get a line of thought going. He knows how to ask questions. He knows that even science is not always a science. He models for his readers how being a good learner can make you a better teacher.

Special Bonus: In yesterday’s post I made a strategic decision not to go down the road leading to the F-word. Thomas, in his essay “Living Language,” goes for it, in the context of making an characteristically Thomasonian argument for why science “is a field in which the irresponsible amateur can have a continually mystifying sort of fun.”

Whenever you get the available answer to a straight question like, say, where does the most famous and worst of the four-letter Anglo-Saxon unprintable words [recall: this was 1974] come from, the answer raises new and discomfiting questions. Take that particular word. It comes from peig, a crawling, wicked Indo-European word meaning evil and hostile, the sure makings of a curse. It becomes poikos, then gefaihaz in German and gefah in Old English, signifying “foe.” It turned from poik-yos into faigyaz in Germanic, and faege in Old English, meaning fated to die, leading to “fey.” It went from fehida in Old English to become “feud,” and fokken in Old Dutch. Somehow, from thse beginnings, it transformed itself into one of the most powerful English expletives, meaning something like “Die before your time!” The unspeakable malevolence of the messages is now buried deep inside the word, and out on the surface it presents itself simply as an obscenity.
So now you know.