Link to my presentation at the Georgia Independent Schools Association annual conference in Atlanta on Monday, November 6.
Category Archives: creative solutions
The following paragraph comes from a high school sophomore girl’s reflection on a poem she recently wrote. Below her paragraph is my comment.
When I started writing [the poem], I wanted to write about the same type of refugee and what their refuge would be for all lines, but as I wrote I discovered that it was hard to know what their refuge would be. As I have never been a refugee or needed refuge, I do not know their struggles. I can’t assume what it’s like to flee religious oppression or natural disaster or receiving pain from someone who loves me. So as I wrote I thought of all the types of pain a person could go through and what would help them. It was extraordinarily hard and made me upset but it made me think about how I could help these people.
After reading the girl’s entire reflection, I shared this paragraph with all of my sophomore classes because I wanted them to see her problem and solution. I pointed out that by generalizing, she opened the door for empathy. Her adept conceptual adjustment is impressive, and I was excited to explain it to her classmates.
The poem assignment grew out of our study of Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari.” Afterwards, each student was asked to write a reflection, which I call a PDF. (Click here to see the instructions.) The above excerpt comes from the student’s PDF–the Discovery section.
A short while later, after we had studied several more short stories, they each wrote an essay ranking three of the stories according to how effectively they evoke empathy. Their analysis was expected to include one or more of these basic fictional elements: setting, character, plot, and teller’s position. The student excerpt below comes from a boy’s essay draft that shows at least one case where a student applies an idea learned from a classmate. Personally, I think the lesson he learned is valuable not just for the study of imaginative literature.
“The Ultimate Safari” evokes the most empathy of these three stories in readers because of the lengthy journey the characters endure, dangerous setting, and the ending to the plot that leaves us with more questions than answers. The characters in “The Ultimate Safari” are forced to go on a long and treacherous journey to reach safety: “I don’t know which day it was- because we were walking, walking, any time, all the time” (Gordimer 15). Though we may not all know what it is like to be starving in the jungle, everybody has had a task before in their life that seemed impossible and never-ending. It is easy to empathize with what the characters were forced to go through. [edited for clarity; emphasis added]
The underlined sentence strongly suggests that this boy had heard, absorbed, and applied my explanation of his classmate’s solution.
Therefore, giving high school sophomores meaningful and manageable challenges produces insights phrased in their own language, which makes the dissemination of those insights more likely. When I first read that girl’s paragraph, it was a wonderful day. The wonder grew, when I showed it to her classmates, and as some of them used the insight in their own writing. Naturally, I wanted to share this whole story outside the classroom walls.
In closing, let me ask what value such skills have for US citizens, as we hear stories about walls between people. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost.
[Disclaimer: this post is not intended as a platform for personal stories as told on other platforms–as with the Facebook or twitter #metoo posts. Instead, it is an invitation to my students and other readers of this blog to offer thoughtful, respectful responses to the questions below, each of which grows out of Mary Shelley’s novel. I reserve the right to decide when this conversation veers too far from its intended purpose. I acknowledge the risk in publishing this post, and promise to monitor the conversation in a responsible manner. As administrator of this blog, I decide which posts to approve before they become public.]
A young woman writes a novel about a man whose passionate pursuits create unexpected misery for himself and those around him, including those he claims to care about. What he does not claim soon enough is responsibility for this misery.
What went wrong? What makes a monster? Who is a monster? What is monstrous? What influences how we respond to monsters and struggles, internal or external?
I have invited high school seniors in my literature classes to discuss the title of this post–in light of recent events, and in light of Mary Shelley’s novel, published two hundred years ago. If these students are not already old enough to vote and enlist, they will be soon. Why not encourage them to discuss and respond to significant social/cultural issues? Experience teaches me to trust their opinions and insights.
If you are not one of these students, you are welcome to contribute to this conversation, or simply to see what today’s young adults are thinking about an important moral issue.
After high school seniors in my classes read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they wrote a prospectus for an original essay that explores what kind of light her novel sheds on a significant issue they see in society today. Once they had written those pieces and started the essay itself, I showed them my prospectus. Here it is. As often as possible, I like to model for them. In this case, I waited until they had completed their prospectuses, which allowed me to address an issue that had not come up in their writing.
Prospectus: Monster Drugs
According to the US National Archives, just over 58,000 Americans have died as a result of the entire Vietnam War, which began in the 1950s. The number of Americans who died last year of opiod overdoses is 64,000 (AJC 01 Oct 2017: A22). How has this epidemic happened? The editorial board of the AJC cites several elements of this problem, all of which echo Mary Shelley’s novel. First, the editors’ opinion refers to “the human toll of suffering” caused by widespread opiod abuse. Second they claim, “It is a problem not confined to what many might believe are the usual suspects.” In more general terms, the editors mention “opiod abuse and its societal consequences.” Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the AJC editorial board notes that the accompanying guest columns “point out practical strategies for gaining control of this societal scourge.” Attempts to gain control of this national problem echo Frankenstein’s creature because the monster became uncontrollable. So, how has this monster-drug problem happened, and what light can the novel shed on it?
Recently, I asked students in my two Senior English sections to leave comments on an earlier post from this blog–about “senioritis.” (You can read the comments themselves at this link to the post.) The two sections make up about a quarter of the whole senior class. After reading comments, taking notes and grouping ideas, I wanted to reflect on their comments, as a way of honoring their thoughtful responses and clarifying my own thinking. Therefore, I write for them first, and then me and anyone else wanting to join the conversation. The first three paragraphs summarize comment constellations. In the fourth, I reflect on how best to spend the last months together, and what their comments suggest to the whole school.
Woven throughout the comments is some version of the question “What’s the point?” By this they mean why should I continue working hard after getting into college? What’s the point? Asked another way, why does this work matter, anymore? They want to do things that make life “important” and “meaningful.” They say it is easy to slip into “senioritis”–i.e., to shut down after college acceptance. What is the point of trying when they already know where they will be going next year? Since before their senior year, some students have preferred spending time on things they want to know or need to know, instead of things they feel are being “shoved down their throats.” Most students, though, express the general idea that their high school work has served its main purpose, which is acceptance to the “dream college.” After that, with the possible exception of AP courses, what’s the point of trying hard? To quote one student: “nothing you do matters [now], what’s the point?”
Grades count. The majority of students express this idea, directly or indirectly. One student writes that the need for good grades is “pounded into your head” from a young age. Many students mention the sign taped to their freshmen lockers: your transcript starts now. They are told the grades count now that you have entered high school. After college acceptance, the corresponding idea emerges : the grades don’t count anymore. Despite the obvious caveat that colleges notice falling or failing grades, many students feel that the pressure for good grades eases after college acceptance. The clear systemic answer to the question of what counts is: grades count. That’s the primary institutional message. The same student who mentions pounding into heads concludes his comment by recommending we remove grades, making room for truer, deeper learning. Another thread in the question of what counts is the idea of goals. Most students write about the goals they have pursued: get into a good college, and get a good job. The motivation for school work comes from these goals. Even in elementary school, writes one student, they start thinking–encouraged by the school, parents, and other adults–about their “dream school.” Why learn more than necessary to reach these goals, for they are the main reason for working hard. They provide the primary incentive.
Once the goal has been achieved, what next? The trouble comes when seniors find themselves asking this question while still in school. Many of them answer this question by shifting energies to relationships and things they want to remember. Though most are ready to leave school, many are reluctant to leave friends and classmates. This is a liminal period, a time of transition. It is its own kind of time. With less pressure, students can learn new things about themselves and their classmates, experiment, or “slack off.” For some, the excitement about college dims their view of the monotonous, constrained high school days. While slogging through the muck of remaining homework and tests, these students look forward, . In the short term, the forward glance makes some sad about less time with friends and family members. Others can’t wait to break out into new communities. I am particularly grateful for the observation that most students do not care any less than they have. They are the same people, but the circumstances have shifted. In response to this situational shift, they have re-allocated their energies and attentions–to things that now seem more relevant and important. They have a similar amount of motivation and energy, but they spend it in new places.
If you dig around in the student comments about what matters and what counts, you find several people advocating what we might call true, deep, or meaningful learning. Some students are genuinely thirsty for this. For example, they acknowledge that students and society bear responsibility for the school dynamics that favor grade-hunting over the chance to “truly learn.” Ideally, a student “should want to learn [for its own sake].” Instead of grades, this student argues, people should aim “to constantly be learning.” While some admire “rigorous study,” not everyone enjoys work that fits that description. (Personally, I believe that the genuinely curious person, which is most of us, can enjoy rigorous study.) Still others see the ideal goal of learning at school this way: “to shape your intellectual growth.” In sum, many students see themselves as part of a learning system that sometimes does not “cultivate a love for learning.” They have nearly finished navigating this system. When looking back, they see soft spots in the system of incentives. Many acknowledge that they share responsibility. At the same time, they understand what genuine learning feels like. I want to agree with one student who calls school a “powerful force,” rather than simply a job. Patterns in these student comments suggest ways to make the experience even more powerful. For example, we could give “less emphasis on number grades, test scores, [while] looking to explore topics.” This student’s comment reminds me of an article recommended by a friend–a BBC article about Singapore’s move beyond grades. Here’s the article.
In our particular course, we are ending with three different books–two I chose and one they will choose. In the first case, we explored the topic of what it means to be human, in light of the Old English poem Beowulf. Now, we explore the unexpected consequences of science and technology by reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Finally, students choose a biography, autobiography, or memoir that interests them–given where they have been and what interests them. I hope that our final activities match this transitional time for most of them. Time will tell.
During a recent class activity with high school sophomores, I was surprised to find students checking phones and laptops. They were working in various locations near the classroom, to which I had sent them with a small set of basic materials: a paper copy Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari;” a paper copy of study questions on which they could record notes from their conversation; and a pen or pencil. When I visited each group to assess progress, I ended up asking what they needed the phone or laptop for. Since I had imagined them discussing the main question together and coming up with a workable answer to report to the whole class, I was caught off guard by seeing the phones and laptops. Because of my own imagination and assumptions, it had not occurred to me to ask that they leave these devices in the classroom. I will next time. This time, though, as calmly as I could, after all groups had finished reporting, I asked each individual to email me with a brief explanation of the behavior pattern: three groups and three different reasons for accessing the phone or laptop. I asked for individual emails to help me understand the origin of this behavior. In apparently honest and clearly expressed emails, each student offered his or her own analysis. What follows here is a paragraph summarizing their responses.
Either explicitly or implicitly, all of the emails indicate a pressure to please or perform. The pattern across the emails shows how these students experienced and then responded to the pressures. For example, one student expressed the pressure to be “good enough”: “I personally think that the reason all of the groups went outside the resources is because often we don’t think that our work is good enough. We always are striving to get the best grade possible, and sometimes we feel as if we need a little bit of extra help.” For this individual, the pressure is tied tightly to grades, even though I never said anything about this exercise being graded. Apparently, sometimes students operate according to this likelihood, whether or not the teacher mentions grades in the instructions. A second kind of pressure appears in another student’s email: “In doing a group presentation there is always the pressure to make your presentation pleasing and good for the teacher.” Even if grades do not go in the grade book for an exercise, students still make decisions according to the impression they think their work will make on the teacher. This same student went on to write that “At certain times people struggled with interpreting the question and no one understood so they looked to outside resources like a laptop for help” [emphasis added]. Not being sure that their work would please the teacher, they turned to an easily available additional resource. Pure ease of access helps explain their response to various pressures they felt. A different student explained the principle this way: “I guess it was an automatic thing to grab the thing that we are most familiar with. The laptop provided more comfort with the assignment.” Not only was the laptop readily available in this particular case, but it has been available for long enough that reaching for it is automatic. In other words, it happens without conscious thought. To put this principle in the words of yet another student, “Another reason is the accessibility of electronic devices. All the groups had an easy time opening their laptops or phones just for a little help.” Accessible. Available. It was as easy as easy can be to reach for one of these tools. Finally, not only is access easy, but the thinking, the intellectual work is easier, when google comes to the rescue. As one student beautifully expressed it: “I think the origin of what happened in all three groups going outside of the resources provided is just our dependency on technology. We’re in the age where everything can be found on Google and it’s easier and more convenient to just look it up rather than racking your brain when you have limited time.” Ease of access breeds automatic behaviors. Such behaviors, as shown in this email, cause dependency. Unnoticed, unconscious–some might say thoughtless or mindless–dependency. I love this student’s reference to “racking your brain” because students need to wrestle with the pressures of performance, and with uncertainty in the face of challenging questions. They need to turn to each other, and listen to each other, in such exercises. They need to stay close to the text, as I had imagined they would, rather than outsource their thinking. At the same time, in order to encourage this wrestling, I need to find ways to reward evidence of struggling. What does such evidence look like? I don’t know, but I’d like to wrestle with the question.
Recently, as an advisory group of ten students and one teacher, we were scheduled to discuss a book we chose to read over the summer, When Breath Becomes Air. To the session, I brought eleven different apples. Each one an apple, but each one with a different name, shape, color and flavor. Before talking about the book, we sampled some of the apples, giving each one a score out of ten, and eventually asking the question: would eat it again? The clear winners were the Jazz and Kanzi varieties. Some of us also advocated for Ambrosia.
Once we started discussing the book, we had been fueled by fresh fruit juice and multiple metaphors. We had what I thought was a wonderful discussion, with everyone feeling free and encouraged to bring their personal reaction to the conversation. As a result, we left with a richer appreciation of the book and each other.
My hope is that some of us remember the bowl of tasty apples and the exchange of individual opinions.
First a picture of James Rebanks, and a passage from his recent book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District.
Apparently the Bedouin can navigate the Sahara because they have an extensive knowledge of the dunes and sandy ridges, and even though they move slowly over time, they can count the ridges and know with a degree of accuracy where they are and how to get to where they are going. Our cultural navigation, our placing of ourselves and other people, works on a similar structural basis–if you understand the bones of it, you can navigate the detail.
My grandfather and father could go just about anywhere in northern England and they’d usually know who farmed the land and often who had been there previously, or who farmed next door. The whole landscape here is a complex web of relationships between farms, flocks and families. My old man can hardly spell common words, but has an encyclopaedic knowledge of landscape. I think it makes a mockery of conventional ideas about who is and isn’t ‘intelligent’. Some of the smartest people I have ever known are semi-literate. (22)
Mastery, knowledge, insight and appreciation of context–that’s what I admire in this passage. Knowing the bones of a place makes navigation possible. I wish this for my students. At least, I want to help them build foundations for such navigational skills, especially in their reading and writing. I understand Rebanks’ criticisms of conventional ideas about intelligence. At the same time, as I consider my particular hopes as a teacher in a more-or-less conventional classroom, I remember my earlier post on a related topic: What I Wish For, What I work For. As I review that post, several sentences stick out because they echo my response to the Rebanks passage: “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.” These sentences describe a former student turned international journalist, someone who lives with his family in Cairo. The idea corresponds to the Bedouins and Lake District farmers because in all three cases these people know their workplace and its surroundings more thoroughly than any outsider to the terrain. They can navigate the details because they know the bones. This is one of the beauties of the human mind, that it can create a framework into which it places the particulars. Think Plato’s idea of forms, for example. Think mathematical theorems, for another.
Rebanks describes the landscape as a “complex web of relationships”–the fell’s (hill’s) relationship to the valley, his own relationship to the curves of the land, the family’s relationship to neighboring farms, and many other such connections. Thinking of these relationships in terms of students, especially for them as writers, I ask them as they start any written piece: What and for whom are you writing? What is the central purpose? How can you best shape the writing for this audience and this purpose? If they can some day walk their own farm of written works and ask themselves these basic questions, out of habit and without my walking alongside them, I have prepared them well. Keeping in mind that they study with other teachers, too–not me alone. Through multiple influences they develop as writers, and as human beings. At schools, at home and elsewhere, young people find or encounter influences from various people and life experiences. To paraphrase a friend and mentor who recently died, I hope to be one link in a chain of people who help build confidence and skills.
And these two qualities, confidence and skills are related. I wish for and work for young people to find clear expression of their ideas–in writing and speaking. Strong skills breed confidence. Writing skills close the gap between a student’s perceived and actual thoughts. As C. D. Lewis says at the end of his poem, “Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park,” writing is a kind of “controlled woolgathering.”
photo credit: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03282/Shepherding_3282255b.jpg
I had trouble writing this piece because I was composing for two audiences: myself and the general reader on one hand, while also for my students on the other. For example, I enjoy the discursive circling around the two parts of my main idea, but I fear the elaboration may confuse some of my students. This time around, I will err to the side of the general reader. Students, hang in there while I try to explain. Part of what I am doing in the paragraph below is developing the main idea–by rephrasing it, and by explaining the context from which it arose. The main idea appears most simply in the first sentence, while the subsequent sentences develop that idea. Part of the development answers the implied question of “Why are you spending time on this idea? Why does it matter?” In the case of the paragraph below, the main idea matters because many readers express a particular opinion of Lady Macbeth, and I disagree with aspects of that opinion. I want to test the validity of that opinion against a different interpretation. In my experience, the most compelling introductory paragraphs not only state the essay’s main idea, which some call a thesis statement, but also develop it enough that readers understand the value of the forthcoming analysis. We tend to read things more carefully, when we have a sense of why the thing matters. So here is my paragraph about Lady Macbeth.
Not only does Lady Macbeth have a conscience, but she also shows us where it comes from. She reveals what lies at the heart of compassion. She shows us a line in the genome for compassion. Audiences often argue that Lady Macbeth is evil incarnate. She is immoral to the core. Yes and no. She does act in a way that suggests this. At the same time, though, she is not without a conscience. Several spots in the play’s opening show that she has to work at being cruel, implying that she is not naturally so. She has to force herself into ruthlessness. For example, not long after she has read her husband’s letter about his good fortune, she says this to herself, trying to ready herself for Macbeth’s return home: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me from crown to the toe topful / Of direst cruelty” (1.5.38-41). She calls on these spirits, in order to make herself cruel. And not just cruel, but filled through and through with the strongest type of cruelty possible–the “direst cruelty.” Why would she invoke the help of these spirits, if she were already cruel and without conscience? She has a conscience and wants assistance in overriding it, expunging it. This wish for inhuman cruelty explains what she worries about in her husband. She wants to think Macbeth is equal to the task of murdering Duncan, yet she says, “do I fear thy nature, / It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness” (1.5.14-15). She is afraid of his kindness. Why? Because it will get in their way. It will block the path to their being crowned. She not only worries about this obstruction, but she is also afraid of Macbeth’s nature, in part because she understands kindness. She has a conscience of her own, but she fears it. We know she recognizes kindness and compassion because later, as Macbeth approaches her after having killed the king, she says, “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” (2.2.12-13). Notably, she says this to herself before he reaches her. He is within earshot, but not close enough to hear her express this acknowledgment. Perhaps she does not want him to hear her admit this. With her private statement, Lady Macbeth reveals an essential ingredient in compassion. Conscience is based on compassion, and Lady Macbeth’s whisper to herself reveals that it is much harder to harm people close to us. When we know them, we hesitate. At least, that is how natural conscience and compassion work. Of course, Shakespeare’s play focuses on unnatural events.