Category Archives: challenge

Critical Need for Critical Thinking: Presidential Politics, National Drug Epidemic, and Children

Last evening before dinner, I spent a few spare minutes watching the Billionaire Businessman (BBM) address a crowd of thousands in Kansas City, Missouri.  I found myself sucked in more than I expected, or wanted.  What was the draw of this spectacle?  I listened to him weave one of his stories.  Part of me could not stop listening and watching, mostly out of amazement and wonder.  I felt embarrassed that this “expert provocateur”* was capturing my attention.  He has developed the skill of keeping the camera lights on himself.

This “magic” of the BBM reminded me of the Wizard of Oz.  One of the lines that the BBM threw out to the Kansas City crowd was a reference to the “lyin’, thievin’ press.”  For some reason, this particular line at this particular time stood out to me more than others I have heard.  It was not only the line itself, but also the crowd’s enthusiastic shouts of approval and derision.  Then I thought: the whole press?  Everyone who works as a journalist, regardless of which organization employs them?  His lumping all of the press into one handy package took me around yet another corner in my assessment of these public events.

The crowd’s excited applause at such simplistically critical opinions made me wonder.  How much different was my being drawn in than theirs?  Sure I was at home about to eat dinner and they were in the arena gorging on harsh statements, but we were all being sucked into something exciting, something harmful.

Then I began to see the drug-effect of these rallies.  People who flock to the frenzy are getting high.  They shout, and jump, and say “yessir!” They want more, and the dealer gives them what they have come to believe they want.  After all he is a BBM.  He knows how to create and  satisfy conspicuous consumption.  He can turn a want to a need.  He can make them need him.

Next my mind turned to the United States’ epidemic of opiod addiction (see just one set of statistics below).  Facts from the CDC show that many people struggle with, and even die from, addiction to artificially induced excitement.  I am starting to sense a parallel situation with those who attend rallies designed by BBM and “my [his] people.”

Finally, to the main subject of this post: critical thinking.  As a career teacher of teenagers, I worry.  Any formal schooling they receive must develop skills of critical thinking.  For example, an alarm must go off when they hear someone express an opinion about a whole spectrum of professionals with a blanket reference like “lyin’, thievin’ press.”  Critical thinking involves such skills as making distinctions and asking questions.  When students develop even just these two basic skills, they are equipped to keep themselves and their communities healthy.

 

  • Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.
    (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality File. (2015). Number and Age-Adjusted Rates of Drug-poisoning Deaths Involving Opioid Analgesics and Heroin: United States, 2000–2014. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/health_policy/AADR_drug_poisoning_involving_OA_Heroin_US_2000- 2014.pdf.)
source:  American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Opiod Addiction 2016 Facts and Figures”

 

 

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microscopes and telescopes: students solving problems

Today, a short exchange with a high school senior reminded me of a similar moment years ago.  In both instances, I helped a student solve a physical problem.

Today, the student borrowed a copy of Hamlet because he had left his at home.  Soon into the day’s activity, he brought the book to me because it seemed to be missing pages.  It went from page 2 to page 7, and he didn’t know what to do.  He had hit a roadblock, an obstruction, an impediment.  I saw something, and asked to hold the book myself.  I saw some pages protruding from the rest.  Turns out, the binding had started to come loose.  The protruding pages, stuck somewhere in Act Three, were–you guessed it–pages 3 through 6.  I handed him the missing pages, having solved his puzzle.  As he made his own way back to his seat, I followed him to offer a friendly debriefing of the episode.  I said I had exercised a bit of creative problem-solving–by looking outside the immediate surroundings of the puzzle.  It was then I suggested that the solution involved moving from microscope to telescope.  I stepped outside the problem to see it from another point of view, a larger one, one with a wider perspective.  Simple problem, simple solution, but the student about to head off to college came to me before creating the solution himself.  Who knows why, or what this little episode means, but it reminds me of a similar moment  years ago, but that’s a story for another time.

3-combo_grande

photo credit: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0525/5325/products/3-combo_grande.jpg?v=1446237156

 

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the play’s the thing: fun and joy in learning

Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigDuring a recent senior class, I was reminded of the value of play.  In lieu of viewing some films, I decided that student troupes would rehearse the opening of Hamlet.  And I’m glad I did.  The troupes traveled to nearby areas outside of the classroom, in order to prepare  the initial fifty-one lines.  This was the very first time we all held these books in our hands, and the players paid memorable tribute to the riches in the text.  Plus they had fun.  One group decided to go outside, using a patio’s walls as Elsinore’s battlements.  When I went out to check on them, I saw three of the boys tilted back in their chairs with feet up on the table.  As I approached, ready to reprimand, the ghost suddenly drifted into view from upstage right with someone’s blanket draped over her head.  The boy actors fumbled in fear to escape the ghost.  Then I realized that I wasn’t catching them goofing off, but was watching their rehearsal.  On the way back to the classroom, when I explained my first thought and subsequent realization, one boy actor exclaimed, “That’s how good we are as actors.”  Indeed.  Another troupe made an artistic choice that stayed private until one of the players delivered their prologue.  Given the appearance of a ghost, they set their scene in Charleston, South Carolina–known for its heavy ghost traffic.  All the players spoke in dialects of the region, lending a special resonance to particular lines and to the scene as a whole.  One girl player, after the performance, when I asked if she had grown up in Charleston, replied that her father had.  From her first lines, her accent rang as true as any in the group.  Each of those players had her or his own version of the regional dialect, which reminds me of Shakespeare’s many voices.  Speaking of dialects, yet another troupe had a boy player who relished the chance to tour the English-speaking world with his performance.  I don’t remember which character he played, but I clearly recall that across the span of his lines he guided us from London to Cork to Johannesburg and finally to Sydney.  In other words, whether consciously or as an accidental linguistic tourist, he entertained us with his expressive exploration.  In all, we had fun while playing.  I was nervous, as I often am, when we hit day one of our study of this most majestic of plays.  These seniors reminded me to trust the power of this text, and to trust them to have fun.  It was the final day of Winterfest at school, and what better way to enjoy the day.  Such moments convince me, if I needed convincing, that with a bit of guidance about theatrical tools like speech, movement and props or costumes, and with clear encouragement to have fun interpreting and inventing, students come away from the experience having learned these opening lines at a visceral, bodily, emotional level.  They heard and responded to lines much more than if they had watched someone else, like Olivier or Jacobi, render those same lines.

Postscript: Play presumes fun.  Play also exercises confidence at several levels. When students play together, they build things together–memorable things.  This building looks like collaboration to me.  Finally, I was recently part of a faculty discussion that touched on these subjects.  For example, we were considering Physics students who face the idea that a given problem has multiple solutions.  What to do?  Can’t I have just one way to produce the answer?  The recent Hamlet class suggests that something similar faced these student actors, and they enjoyed finding the solution–the interpretation–that worked best for their troupe.  Fun, I contend, played a role.  As did joy.  They enjoyed the work of interpreting the lines.  That joy took them deeply enough into their rehearsal that they came out and up onto the stage with more confidence, and confidence matters when students face a challenge, whether in the lab or on the stage.

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Learning through Exams: Henry Redbird interviews Mr. Brown

Recently, Henry Redbird sat down with Mr. Brown to ask him about semester exams in high schools.  Lately, students and teachers have been wondering why have exams at all.  In the wake of this wondering, I asked Mr. Brown for his thoughts on the subject.

How long do students spend writing an exam, and how long do you spend reading them?

Most students write the exam in two hours.  Those approved for extended time take either three or four hours, depending on their individual accommodation.  For my part, I typically need twenty-five to thirty hours to read the tests thoughtfully.  I take breaks every few hours, so that I stay fresh and attentive to the nuances of individuals’ performances.

What do you look for in a student’s exam results?

As happens during the semester, a rubric governs my assessment.  The basic rubric expects students to organize and express their ideas clearly, to develop those ideas beyond an initial statement, and to provide compelling evidence from the literary texts.  I use these same criteria for the exam.  To help students grow towards greater mastery of content and skills, I usually publish model responses from their classmates, after the exam period.  People who review these models can see where to strengthen their performance on the next exam.  Rather than showing each student where he or she went wrong with a particular question, an impractical idea given the time I already spend reading exams,  I prefer this  model-method for the type of exams they take in this course.  With this approach, students can make the comparisons themselves.

What did you learn from this most recent set of exams?

Here I need to differentiate between the senior and sophomore tests. In the case of the seniors, I learned several valuable lessons.  First is that the test produced a spectrum of results, which I take as a healthy sign.  Some students rose to the challenge of the questions by carefully expressing original insights.  At the other end, some students had trouble creating coherent responses.  For most of the students in between, the questions pushed them to consider familiar material in new ways.  The senior exam had three sections: poetry, reflections on our Nobel profile project and an essay comparing Beowulf to elements in current or historical events.  The poetry section was fairly straightforward, testing students’ working knowledge of basic poetic terms like metaphor, imagery and alliteration.  In applying such terms to their analysis of an unfamiliar poem, they showed a significant range of competence.  The Nobel section interested me most, both before and after I read the responses.  This section, just like the Nobel project itself, was a new project.  I didn’t know what to expect, but student reflections from the exam demonstrated that many students waded through the project’s early stages, but over time came to appreciate the commitment of their chosen scientist and their own work in revising the profile over and over.  It was fun and gratifying to see the care students took in writing these exam reflections.  In the last section, students rose or fell depending on how well they could sustain an argument with specific references to the text.  Beowulf is an old text, and I enjoyed reading the creative ways people could connect elements of that poem to patterns of human behavior they see in other moments of human history, including today’s world.

As for the sophomores, they also had three sections: poetry, short stories and comparative essay.  I enjoyed reading all three of these sections for different reasons.  What I learned most was the skill with which the sophomores analyzed a short story they had only seen once briefly before the exam.  I was very impressed with the care and insight everyone brought to that writing.  I knew they would do well in this section, but I didn’t expect such vigorous success across the board.  The poetry section involved some original composition, and I learned who was most able to produce original lines on short notice.  I also learned, once again, how central one’s understanding of metaphor is to the study and writing of poetry.  People who struggled with those questions, struggled elsewhere in the poetry section.  Lastly, the essay asked them to compare two unlikely partner pieces: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.  These essays showed me a number of connections I had not considered.  Again, as in other parts of this test and the senior exam, students who had a basketful of details to pull from ended up producing the more engaging arguments.

In short, the exam results taught me new ways of thinking about the literature we have read together.  It also confirmed aspects of most students’ semester performances, while bringing to my attention the tenuous grasp other students have on elements of our studies.  These later lessons will help me sharpen not only future assignments, but also my attention to the assessment of those exercises.  When I read a set of exams, I would like fewer surprises, especially negative ones.

What, if anything, do you plan to do differently in the next set of semester tests?

I am not sure.  I don’t imagine huge changes in my approach because this most recent set taught me what I was hoping it would.  During the several weeks leading up to the exam, I kept re-calibrating the questions based on what students were showing about their levels of understanding.  I like the way the questions eventually fit their readiness.  I like to challenge students just the right amount.  Call it the Goldilocks effect.   Next time, I will use the same process but with different material and a group of students who have grown beyond their current capabilities.

In your experience over the years, how much do semester exams contribute to the overall learning process?

I am not sure what they teach students.  I’d like to understand that part of the equation better.  Exams do teach me something, however–something significant each time.  For example, in the case of sophomores, this past set has revealed weak spots in some students’ understanding that had not registered with me before the exams.  That’s a weak spot of mine.  With this knowledge, as I said earlier, I can sharpen our course activities to build understanding more completely across all students.  I know that over the years my work with students has become more productive because of what I have learned from exams.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Brown.

Thank you, Mr. Redbird, for bearing with my long-winded answers.  I think about such things quite a bit, and I don’t always know when to stop.  Now looks like a good time.

 

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A few haiku for you at the Paris climate talks

the moon is waning

even oak leaves are falling

sharp bright stars now shine

___

let them fall, all brown

though they cling with reluctance

let all of them fall

___

in winter the leaves

have all fallen to the ground

traffic now sounds loud

___

leaf blowers have stopped

gone are the oak leaves that were

falling quietly

___

we’re quick to move on

but the seasons each take time

may we look to this

bare trees 1

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DAESH, Listen to this

Another kind of power: “. . . truth and love and hope abide . . . ”

 

 

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Why do people read fiction?

bookshelves556

“Why do people read fiction?” my father once asked me.  Throughout my career as a teacher, I have been trying to answer this question–for him, for colleagues, for students and myself.  Ten years ago, I had to propose an answer for colleagues with whom I taught Humanities.  Students in this course studied History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy and Art.  I found myself asking, “What’s the big deal about imaginative literature?  What does it bring to the table?”  Eventually, I boiled my answer down to three elements: imagination, empathy and expression.   The study of literature exercises these elements in ways other traditional disciplines do not.  More recently, I have asked my father’s question of students.  For example, they write about what is found in a short story like Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” that does not appear in news articles about families fleeing Syria.  This exercise grows out of lines from a William Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” What can we possibly gain from a fictional story on this topic?  Somewhere in Gordimer’s story we find something of value. Lastly, we also study fiction by writing some. This week, while visiting an Engineering Concepts class, I was reminded of what we do in “English” class.  The engineering students faced a design challenge, and the instructions observed that “this problem has many solutions.”  Students had to build a robot that does not “flip over or fall apart.”  These instructions made me wonder how I help students express themselves in a piece of writing that stays upright and cohesive. That’s what the best fiction writers do.  They imagine worlds and invite readers in–far enough in that we can empathize with the characters, struggle with them, experience their elations and deflations.  As I reflect on my father’s question, I am grateful–for two reasons.  First, he showed me that he didn’t know something and wanted to understand it.  Second, the thing he wanted to understand was my experience–in fact, a core part of my life’s work as an “English” teacher.  His question by the bookshelves in our den has stayed with me all these years, and I still wrestle with it.

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mapping reading and the ABCs of verbal art

A colleague showed me this site recently, and I am experimenting with it as a way to push and share this summer’s reading–summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

The site encourages me to read across the map, especially since I teach a high school sophomore class called World Literature.  I owe it to the students and myself and other global citizens to read widely.

Across literary genres and world regions, the human experience shines through.  It houses art, beauty and challenge–the ABCs of verbal art.

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a letter to seniors: who will you choose?

The letter below is primarily for seniors in my current classes.  I invite others to listen in.  Since I am asking these students to email me a letter, I am modeling what I request of them, as they approach April’s “Biography Project.”  

Questions to address in your email to me:  What three books are your current top choices?  How would you rank them today?  What distinguishes each book from the other two?  How did you find these three books and what interest(s) do they represent?  In the case of your current top choice, what aspect(s) do you want to watch most closely?   Phrased another way, what one or two questions will pull you through the reading of this book?  What question(s) will keep you meaningfully engaged?  Organize your answers to these questions as you will.  In my letter to you, I have tried to create a unified piece rather than a simple list of replies in the prescribed order.

My letter to you

For my own Biography Project I am considering three books, two about women and one about a man.  One of the subjects is still living, while the other two have died.  I came across these titles in three different ways, and each book feeds a distinct interest.   My first title I discovered while browsing in our Malcolm Library.  Propped up next to other books on the shelf near the library’s Quiet Room was Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir called My Beloved World (2013). After reading her introduction, I was struck by the personal tone and an overall generosity of spirit.  As one of the few female United States Supreme Court Justices, she has reached a distinctive position of significant influence.  I am interested in the details of how she persevered on her way to this appointment.  For example, what was her early family life like and what kinds of support did others provide as she worked her way through various courts?  What struggles did she face as a woman in these circles?  And as an Hispanic woman?  Where does she find inspiration and strength?  Also, what does she enjoy about this kind of work?

The mention of enjoyment brings to mind Philip Levine’s book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (2001).  I learned about this title from Mr. Levine’s obituary in The New York Times.  He died earlier this winter.  The obituary named a number of Mr. Levine’s books, including this one.  I was intrigued by the subtitle, “Toward an Autobiography.”  The Times described the book as a series of essays, and I thought this approach would also work for our class’s Biography Project.  I would like you students to consider creative approaches to this unit.  Mr. Levine, who has won many prizes and appointments as a poet, fits my strong interest in poetry.  I like his recognition that poetry can speak about anything, even Detroit auto factory work, which he knows firsthand.  Lastly, this book interests me because Levine devotes each essay to someone who has mentored and nourished him as a writer, poet and person.  I think I can learn a lot about him by what he values in his teachers.

Finally, another front runner is one I discovered in a “museum store” on St. Simons Island.  My wife and I had just toured the remains of Frederica, an early colonial settlement off the Georgia coast.  The plaque at one of the town’s house sites briefly describes Mary Musgrove.   James Oglethorpe and other leaders of the emerging British colony depended on her skills as an interpreter.  Her father was a British trader and her mother a Creek Indian.  Given my strong interest in native cultures, I wondered about her story.  As it happens, a recent biography about this woman appeared on the shelves in the gift/souvenir shop at the entrance to the Frederica National Monument: The Life and Times of Mary Musgrove (2012).  The author, Steven Hahn, is a History Professor at St. Olaf College, and has written the most recent biography of this intriguing woman.  At one point, she was among the most significant land owners in colonial Georgia.  I am fascinated by what a bilingual, bicultural woman on the frontier can teach me about not only her ingenuity and “cultural acumen” (Hahn’s label), but also this period in early Georgia history, especially along the coast, which was the first place British colonial ships had to land.

From among these three books, I favor Levine’s book–largely because he writes about mentors and teachers who have shaped his life and his love of writing poetry.  I said earlier that the idea of enjoyment reminded me of his book.  In the introduction to The Bread of Time, he says that the most influential mentors have been those who helped him see what he enjoys.  Simply put, he enjoys the writing of each sentence.  He likes the work.  I look forward to reading someone who takes such pleasure in writing.

_______

postscript

Naturally, I have thought often about this project.  Plus, I am older and have more experience from which to draw ideas.   Therefore, this letter to you may seem too long or ambitious.  I offer it, however, as a sincere picture of my current considerations.  It also serves to illustrate what’s possible in your thinking.  When you email me, I’d like to know what you are considering and why?  Develop your letter with as many specifics as will clearly communicate your prospects.

 

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meeting students where they are

Hamlet

This post concerns an encouragement I have been hearing over the past several years: let’s be sure to meet students “where they are.”  I tend to translate this suggestion in terms of technological tools.  Working with the digital natives of today, I should push myself to find points of contact and types of  exercises that use today’s technology because the teenagers are using it to to communicate with each other and the world at large.

Recently I have been exploring another way to translate the phrase “where they are”–namely the students’ emotional location.  Tools are valuable, and they evolve over time.  The astute teacher watches these developments and adapts the tools that have the greatest potential.  At the same time, however, I don’t want to neglect a core part of people young and old.

For example, seniors in my classes have begun reading Hamlet.  A student asked me why I had assigned them to memorize and speak before an audience Hamlet’s response to his mother, “Seems Madam?”  This student wondered if other schools around the country asked students to do this.  She followed up with “Is this a popular or well-known speech?”   I told her that I thought the emotional content of the speech would resonate with her and her classmates.  The speech, as I read it, scornfully laments to Hamlet’s mother: you don’t understand me.

A close friend visited our home recently.  As we were talking about writing and education, I said that one idea underlying my writing instruction is that teenagers feel this need to be understood by their parents and other adults.  Have you ever felt as if people do not understand you as well as you want?  I carry this question in my mind as I work with students and their writing.  I want them to feel more capable in expressing themselves and their feelings.

For this and other reasons,  I ask seniors to memorize these eleven lines from Shakespeare’s play:

Seems madam?  nay it is, I know not seems.

‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly.  These indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play,

But I have that within which passes show —

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

(1.2.76-86)

 

Then I happened to read a “By the Book” interview with Gabrielle Hamilton (NYTimes BK Rev 23 Nov 2014: 8), in which she answers the question, “What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?”  Hamilton’s response: “Some of those great books do not become available or apparent to you until you are ready to receive them.”

In other words, part of my job is to help high school seniors be ready to receive Hamlet the character.  Instead of  wanting to meet students “where they are,” I want them to meet Hamlet where he is, which, emotionally speaking, is closer to their experience than they or others may realize.  I told this year’s seniors that before they graduate, I would like them to meet a friend of mine.  His name is Hamlet, and he has taught me a lot over the years.  I value this relationship, as it has evolved over time.

 

photo credit: http://us.hellomagazine.com/imagenes/news-in-pics/2009/03/02/david-tennant.jpg

 

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