Category Archives: challenge

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.



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


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.



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.


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what I wish for, what I work for

penIn the days after extremists murdered magazine staff in France, I read essays from several journalists I admire.   This admiration reminds me of what I wish for and what I work for on behalf of students. The first essay was written by David Kirkpatrick, a former student from a school where I used to work.  This fact by itself occasions a certain pride.  Beyond this feeling, though, I admire the perspective he brings to the subject because he lives with his family in Cairo.  He knows his subject because he has made the commitment to inhabit the place.  As transplanted correspondent, he has credibility.  In a sense, he has done his homework.  His new home is his work.  The second essay, by David Brooks, I admire for its memorable metaphor–that and its ability to draw valuable distinctions in this challenging conversation.  For example, he distinguishes between the “adult table” and “kids’ table” of journalists.  Though I do not entirely agree with his placement of some professionals, his image remains with me.  Finally, the third essay, by Nicholas Kristof, shares qualities with the first two.  In addition, it expresses a thoughtful caution for those of us who might react to extreme intolerance with our own version of the same: “One of [the] things I’ve learned in journalism is to beware of perceiving the world through simple narratives, because then new information is mindlessly plugged into those story lines.  In my travels . . . extremist Muslims have shared with me their own deeply held false narratives of America as an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam.  That’s an absurd caricature, and we should be wary ourselves of caricaturing a religion as diverse as Islam.”  Kristof’s essay invites me to imagine the world I wish for and work for.  I wonder what extremists imagine as their intended world.  For my part, as a teacher, I wish for and work for students who can respond credibly to challenging situations, create memorable metaphors and beware of unquestioned thoughts.

p.s. I shared a draft of this paragraph with my students, as a way of showing them some of the reasons we do what we do together, in and out of class.  Periodically, I need to show these reasons to myself and to them.  The events of this past week reinforce my sense of purpose as one adult guide of their development as writers and thinkers.

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ethical decisions in the digital age. exam preamble

Students in my high school classes recently wrote their semester exams.  Before turning to the test questions, they signed the following “Exam Preamble.”  Last week, I asked them to write a brief response to the preamble, so that the paragraph would not surprise them during the exam and so that I could revise parts to fit their thinking.

I welcome your feedback, too.

Before you read it, though, you need background information.  First, throughout the semester students have been using a “prescribed writing template” each time they submit a digital document.  Almost all of their assignments are submitted to, where I leave scores and comments they can access.  Second, they wrote their entire exam on a laptop, which means they had ready access to the internet during the test.  They submitted the completed exam to Turnitin.

I explained to students last week that I am taking a risk in placing this preamble at the front of their test, but this risk represents my respect for them.  The following preamble is founded on several other ideas that I won’t discuss here, but not because they aren’t important.  We have been through an agricultural revolution, an industrial one and now the digital/information age is upon us.  We’re in the thick of it, and we have to wrestle with new flavors of ethical decisions.


Exam Preamble. December 2014

Acknowledgments: Philosophy and Policy

Using a prescribed writing template, with a default pledge-header and acknowledgment-footer, gives you, today’s students, the important experience of recognizing and appreciating your individual interpretations. Waist deep in the digital revolution, today’s students need guided experience of meaningful struggle because the media-saturated culture is relentlessly telling you what to think and do. iPhone sales are up, again. We need to have the newest model, or we won’t keep up with our friends or the world. Stories of long lines outside the Apple store reveal this compulsion. Whether you are eyeing a new phone or considering your stance on immigration policy, other voices are poised not only to give you their chosen information, but also to tell you what you should think. It is important to know your own thoughts, independent of other people. How else can you digest their information or opinions? Experience tells me people, not just students, import other people’s thoughts because they lack confidence in their own thinking. Struggle is natural. Everyone has his or her own struggles. Don’t run away from yours by borrowing someone else’s solution. Stay with the problem and work through it. At schools across the country, I have served on Integrity Councils. Students appearing before the student-faculty boards almost always reveal that a lack of confidence helps explain their wrongdoings. These students, be they freshmen or seniors, say they were worried about their grades or reputation. Sometimes, they simply did not want to be wrong. Ironic? You have reason to feel confident. I want to know your ideas, your way of seeing things. Plus, it is unfair and dishonest to represent someone else’s ideas as your own, when you know you have found them in a source other than your own mind, our class discussions or the literature we have been studying. Class work, brief exercises and past exams all show me the creative ways students respond to questions about character motivation or thematic development. For example, seniors have offered new ways of seeing the sources of Dr. Frankenstein’s struggle, and sophomores are producing insight into the central tensions within Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Students who are creative, confident and honest can make a difference in this world. The world is smarter and stronger, when diverse individuals clearly express their particular perspectives.




I, the undersigned, hereby confirm that I have read and understand the above paragraph.


Also, I understand that if I should access any online source(s), which Mr. Brown strongly advises me against doing, I am responsible for clearly identifying the source(s) in the acknowledgment-footer of my exam. Failure to do so will result in an exam failure and further disciplinary action.



Student signature___________________________________________(date)______________



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high stakes reflecting: screw your courage to the sticking place


summary of recent events with high school seniors:

After a month of studying Beowulf, seniors wrote and re-wrote individual essays, based on ideas they themselves generated.  They spent about a week identifying, developing and refining those ideas in their essays.  They revised their writings with classmates’ feedback, and with mine.  Not until then did they submit the essay for formal assessment–i.e., grades.  Given the time spent, these grades were entered in the most weighted category of “Major Grade.”

Shortly thereafter they completed a written response to four questions (see below*).  I call this exercise a “Regular Reflection,” and students write one after each unit.  This is the third time they have done so since we started school in early August.  And here is the “high stakes” idea reflected in this post’s title.  Though most students completed the reflection in the one class period (50′) made available, they all had submitted this writing by the end of the day, as expected.  So, time spent on this exercise equalled less than 20% of that devoted to the revised essay.  The score for this Regular Reflection, however, carried the same weight as the essay.  It, too, went in the “Major Grade” category.

It feels risky to place both assignments in this category, which means high stakes for me as an educator.  The students have less time to produce quality work, without feedback from anyone else, which translates into high stakes for them, also.

Why do this?  To represent the high value I place on reflective writing and learning.  The student excerpts below** suggest this pedagogical risk is worth taking.  These writings offer me and the students valuable insights.  I wonder if we could imagine a standardized way to implement high stakes testing like this.  Can we scale up such instruments?

long mtn pond

*Regular Reflection questions

Subject/Activity: Beowulf & Old English Poetry

Associations (linking new information to existing knowledge)

What did you already know about this subject? What have you learned from our activities? Explain the connection between your previous knowledge and your new understanding.

Patterns (making patterns from these associations)

In considering your new understanding alongside everything we have studied so far this year, what patterns do you see?

Emotions (feelings about the new experience/information)

How do you feel about what we have been studying or doing? Please develop (explain) your response beyond a single statement.

Meaning (establishing personal meaning)

What personal relevance do our studies have for you? Or what personal relevance might they have? If none, please explain that response.

An enriched environment comes from matching teaching practice to nature of how the brain learns. It learns in six ways:

  1. By associating—e.g., in sensory cortex; it links new information to existing knowledge; it uses power of personal associations (cf. difference between learning as information and as transformation)
  2. By shaping associations into patterns (sometimes forcing patterns that do not exist?)
  3. Runs on emotions—limbic system works as a relevance detector
  4. Mostly beneath the level of awareness
  5. Learns through the body
  6. Makes meaning

(personal notes from “Teaching to the Teenage Brain” conference leader, Gessner Geyer, 25 July 2005)


**student excerpts

“We have been exposed to unique forms of poetry that I had never encountered before. I have learned to enjoy English class because this is definitely not your average class. We expand upon our thoughts much more than I ever have in any other class, and we explore meanings and learn to understand characters. We also learn why the form of poetry we are studying at the time is written the way it is, and learn to write that way ourselves. As far as Beowulf, I feel knowledgeable now about a story I would have never picked up before. I learned to enjoy the poem . . .  I feel much more confident about my understanding of poetry now that I have learned how to dissect poems.” [emphasis added]

” Preliminarily doubtful that I would enjoy Beowulf because of its old age, I astonished myself when I started to become interested in the storyline and characters. Confused when I felt sorry for a demon, I began to almost feel sympathetic for the monsters, especially Grendel’s Mother who suffered great grief after the loss of her son.”

“I see a pattern of exposure to something we may not know much about at all, and then after a brief exposure, explanation of the subject material. We are allowed to explore the material a little on our own and attempt to draw some of our own conclusions before we are taught the material. I like this tactic a lot as it give[s] us students the chance to tackle new material on our own before receiving assistance. This can translate pretty well to the post-school world as we will not always have a teacher their [sic] to help us right away, and we may have to attempt to draw conclusions ourselves.” . . .

“Beginning to reflect on this section of studies, I realize that the impact it may have on me will not be as much related to the content as to how I went about interpreting the content. The paper helped me to look at things I read or study differently. When prompted with a vague [sic] question, you do not respond with a vague response. The point of the ambiguity is to allow you to interpret the question the way you want. It is open ended to allow you to pick a specific point that you are passionate about instead of forcing you to write something you don’t care about. The paper will help me in the future to look at writing prompts a little differently.”

ed park.07nov14

For me, the issue of trust lies at the heart of these conversations.  High school students, especially seniors, are thirsty for trust.  They want to trust adults in the community, and equally importantly, they want to be trusted.  Placing high value on their reflections shows genuine trust.  Why not find ways to do this?  I was powerfully reminded of this lesson, when I read about a former student who, as a high school senior, asked me to direct the original play he wrote that year.  I trusted his talent, responsibility and commitment to creative expression.  You just never know, but if you screw your courage to the sticking place . . . .



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On Being a Student: exposure + reflection = learning

As I have written previously in this series, my recent NEH experience differs significantly from that of my students during the “academic year.”  I applied and was accepted for two weeks of focused study.  I chose the subject, and I  devoted eight hours a day to this pursuit, not counting the preparatory reading before the course began.

By contrast, “my” students attend class for fifty minutes, except for the one eighty-minute block per week.  For most of the students, this class is one of seven they encounter in a day.

During my two weeks this summer, the leaders provided a wide array of material.  We were exposed to a rich range of primary and secondary sources, covering classical and modern poetry from as far west as Sierra Leone and Cordova and as far east as Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.  Because we read, heard and discussed so much, I feel the need to review and reflect on our handouts and my notes.  Without this process of reflection, much of what ran across my ears, eyes and mind will flow over the dam–like the water in the attached photograph from the north Georgia mountains.

This same photograph depicts the beauty of reflection.  Students, which includes me and those high schoolers with whom I work, need time to reflect.  What strikes me most about this picture and this process is the stillness.  The clearest reflection occurs when the water looks like glass, when the pond becomes a mirror.  Yes, we can digest valuable material by moving, performing and altering details of the subject matter–and this often works well, but this post focuses on reflection, rather than active re-working.  (One kind of re-working, for example, to which I am particularly partial when studying poetic traditions, is to compose original pieces in the spirit and/or form of those traditions.  In the context of the NEH work, the ghazal tradition comes first to mind.)

Finally, a reflective tool (reflective pool?) I invented several years ago.  Since then, students in my courses have used it to reveal–to themselves and me–the impact of their studies.  Why not use this same tool to reflect on my NEH work this summer?  According to the students’ “short writing rubric,” I will try to write according to these three criteria: clear, specific, developed.

long mtn pond








Regular Reflection Sheet



Name:_________________________________________   Date:



Associations (linking new information to existing knowledge)

What did you already know about this subject? What have you learned from our activities? Explain the connection between your previous knowledge and your new understanding.


Patterns (making patterns from these associations)

In considering your new understanding alongside everything we have studied so far, what patterns do you see?


Emotions (feelings about the new experience/information)

How do you feel about what we have been studying or doing? Please develop (explain) your response beyond a single statement.


Meaning (establishing personal meaning)

What personal relevance do our studies have for you? Or what personal relevance might they have? If none, please explain that response.



An enriched environment comes from matching teaching practice to nature of how the brain learns. It learns in six ways:

  1. By associating—e.g., in sensory cortex; it links new information to existing knowledge; it uses power of personal associations (cf. difference between learning as information and as transformation)
  2. By shaping associations into patterns (sometimes forcing patterns that do not exist?)
  3. Runs on emotions—limbic system works as a relevance detector
  4. Mostly beneath the level of awareness
  5. Learns through the body
  6. Makes meaning


(personal notes from “Teaching to the Teenage Brain” conference leader, Gessner Geyer, 25 July 2005, Sierra Nevada Mtns, CA)



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On Being a Student: Still Reflecting

long mtn pond

This picture reminds me that reflections are more true when the water is still.  Or maybe, I trust such reflections more than those blowing across a windy surface.  Windy waters also reflect their shores, but maybe I trust the quiet pond’s images more because they show me the leaves more precisely, more clearly.  In the quiet environments, I can devote energy to what’s being reflected rather than to how the reproduction is happening.  The still pond lets the reflection happen–by being central to the process without inserting itself.  It is both the medium and the background at the same time.

When reflecting on being a student, I’d like to stay still long enough to notice details of my experience–so that I am better equipped to appreciate the students’ learning experiences.  Time will tell.

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On Being a Student: How did I get here?

Age gap

Age gap

Reflections on taking a summer course–i.e., NEH Summer Institute called “A Reverence for Words: Understanding Muslim Cultures through Poetry and Song.”

I hope to write a series of reflections on my work for this course.  Why?  Because my job is to guide students who find themselves in my “classroom”–as well as in a number of others.  When teachers remind themselves–first hand–of what it feels like to be a student in a formal course, they are better equipped to help their charges with a similar experience.

First of all, I need to ask “How did I get here?”  How did I end up in this course?  In this particular case, a colleague identified the NEH summer opportunities.  After reviewing the options, I applied to the one that best fit my current interests and personal needs.  Once I was accepted, the coordinators–call them teachers–began sending course materials.

Immediately, we see the difference between this experience and that of most high school students.  I chose this course from a rich variety of options.  I explained to the coordinators and myself the source of my interest.  In short, I am ready to learn this material and understand why.  Most teenagers in traditional formal settings–call them schools–discover the curriculum when handed the course syllabus.  

The accompanying chart, called “Age Gap,” reminds me of the age difference between me and my students.  The red line (S) shows the age of my students over the years of my career, while the black line (T) shows my age.  Lo and behold, I grow older as they stay put.  As the gap enlarges so does my responsibility to mind the difference.  In terms of my NEH course this summer, aside from practical matters like single summer course vs. regular academic year high school schedules, I have years of interest in poetry.  I have taught Humanities courses with Muslim units in them.  I chose this summer course because it represents my personal and professional history and affinities.

Underpinning these reflections on being a student is the difference in age and experience between me and my students.  It’s as if the reflections constitute a scene from a stage play being performed behind a scrim on which is projected the “Age gap.”  We can only see the action by looking through this image of the graph.

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examinations of attention and memory

In this spring’s group of exams, several students in grades 9-12 referred to plays as novels, or vice versa.  While this mis-naming amused or frustrated some teachers, I find it a valuable, and perhaps small, pedagogical puzzle.  I wonder what we learn from such instances–about the students, about ourselves as teachers and about the learning environment that we guide.

A recent article about memory athletes helps me consider these questions.  In the article called “Remembering, as a Sport,”  psychologist Henry Roedigger “found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us . . . is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention” (New York Times 20 May 2014: D4).

For now, I am thinking that the students’ attention over time has not focused on this difference in names.  I also believe that the exam experience, as it currently exists, does not place value on such distinctions that is commensurate with the adults’ degree of consternation.

This is a fun puzzle.  Do we care that the students’ exams refer to The Tempest or Macbeth as a novel?  If so, how much?  And if so, why is the mistake lost on the tenth grade boy or girl?  Keep in mind, that most students accurately label the books they discuss in their essays.  Teachers sometimes punish themselves and students and the learning environment by spending inordinate energy on the things that did not work in some cases.


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Reflecting Students in Novel-Journals



Since I am just starting to read several classes’ worth of student journals, I thought I would share the watercolor work on one of the journal covers.

For each of the five chapters in Gail Tsukiyama’s novel The Samurai’s Garden, students recorded passages, analyses and personal responses that focus on one character.  Their main goal was to see new sides of this character, as the light changed around him or her.

I am enjoying reading these journals even more than I expected.  The pace and tone of the novel, reinforced by this journal exercise,  encourage the students to slow down and reflect on slight developments of character.  I am happy to see how many can sustain such reflection over the course of the whole story.



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