Category Archives: creative solutions

Brexit, sheep and students: knowing the bones of the land

First a picture of James Rebanks, and a passage from his recent book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District.rebanks.sheep.beck.road.dogs

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.”  



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an unlikely line in the genome for compassion: Lady Macbeth

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.


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Bio intro #2: “The Year of Lear”

This is the second of sample introductions meant mainly for students in my senior classes.  The previous post describes my interest in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  memoir Between the World.

I have just started reading a biography of  Shakespeare.  A particular kind of biography that increasingly interests me.  One that focuses on a single year in the life of its subject.  This sort of biography first came to my attention when my wife gave me a copy of  Rise to Greatness, a study of Abraham Lincoln in the year 1862.  The author, David Von Drehle, chose this one year because of the particular challenges the President faced during that year.  Von Drehle organizes the book by months.  He gives each month its own chapter.  One of the threads running through many of the chapters is the pressure the President faced not to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  He signed it in January 1863.

James Shapiro’s biography is called The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.  I have started it because I read an earlier one of his called A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.  I liked his earlier book well enough to read this one.  An interview at the back of his 1599 book reveals that he has made a conscious choice to write for the general reader, and I can see this decision on almost every page.  He writes lucid sentences, and anticipates my questions.  I had chosen the earlier because it recounts the year in which Shakespeare started writing Hamlet, a play I have taught almost innumerable times.  Each time I read it,  this play finds new ways to astonish and teach me.  I thoroughly enjoyed Shapiro’s book because it helped me understand the context, personal and political, of one of my favorite plays.

Shapiro’s writing makes me want to read more of his work.  I chose The Year of [King] Lear because 1606 saw the composition of Macbeth.  I am teaching this play to sophomores at the moment, so the timing works out well.  As I start this second Shapiro, his forceful scholarship and inviting tone bring me immediately into the world of Shakespeare during the reign of the Scottish King James.  In this time, England has a new set of challenges represented, for example, by the terrorist plot to blow up Parliament and begin returning the country to its Protestant past.  In short, the book will show me the nation’s political struggles and Shakespeare’s responses to them in his plays.

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Bio Intro: “Between the World and Me”

This post, which is under construction (as of 29 March 2016), is meant to model a post that students will produce–those students who have chosen the biography* track as their final project. (Others are choosing the commonplace book option, and they can produce their introductory post based on the collection of questions I have supplied on the course blog.)  For the biography students, I want to model, and experience for myself, the composition of a first post that will appear on each student’s personal blog.  I am writing this piece after having already started reading my biography. Recently it dawned on me that this book puts me in roughly the same stage as my students.  Even though I have started the book, I can re-create the experience of writing an introduction for a general audience.

Students, remember that you may be reading a biography, autobiography, or memoir. My book best fits the definition of a memoir.  

I first learned of Ta-Nehisi Coates from his Atlantic article about the challenges of being a black President of the United States.  His article impressed me for all kinds of reasons, mostly because he described President Obama’s need to balance forces and histories inside and outside himself.  We all face such challenges, but, as Mr. Coates knows from personal experience, this balancing act is especially hard  for black men in the U.S.  Later, I started to see and hear Mr. Coates interviewed on the radio and television.

Then I learned about his memoir called Between the World and Me.  Everything I heard impressed me all over again.  As a teacher, I value clarity.  I try to guide students toward clearer expression of their ideas, and Mr. Coates writes with crystal clarity.  As  I saw in his Atlantic article, and as I am seeing in the early pages of this book, much of this clarity comes from not accepting easy answers.  He goes after the hard truths.  Hard because they are difficult to obtain, difficult to hear and difficult to dispute.  He composes his book as letter to his teenage son, and this set-up gives his memoir extra resonance–not only for me as a teacher, but also for me as a white man.  He is taking me inside his experience–the experience of his body and mind.

He is a journalist recounting and reflecting on his experiences–for the benefit of his son.  He wants his son, and his readers, to know, for example, what he thinks of “The Dream.”  Where does this “Dream” come from?  Who says this is “The Dream”?

As I read his book, which currently I am doing in small chunks because of the book’s poetic density, I have several things I am watching.  First, I need to hear about his experience, which differs from mine in many ways.  Where are the places that test me and my experience the most?  This is the first need, and any others are clearly secondary.  I am also interested in his ideas about writing.  It is his writing that first attracted me.  As a journalist, he has a lot to teach me about strong and purposeful writing.  Writing that pursues its subject, rather than runs from it.





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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.


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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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“No Need for Grades,” a student argues

penStudents in my senior high school class recently had fifteen minutes to write original pamphlets containing statements that would get them expelled from school, if authorities could attribute the writing to them.  This exercise was part of a series that introduced them to aspects of Mary Shelley’s world, before they started reading her novel Frankenstein.  She published this novel when she was just a year older than most of them.  The day of this particular exercise was devoted to Mary Shelley’s husband Percy, who was expelled from Oxford once authorities pinned a pamphlet to him and a friend.  These two young men entitled their pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism.”

Each of my students folded a piece of printer paper into a 4-by-6-inch pamphlet, which made theirs about the same size as Shelley’s. I thought it was fun that one of my students, who wrote the pamphlet below, echoed Shelley’s wording.  As I later told this student, when I practiced the exercise before assigning it, I  composed a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Grades.”  I intentionally imitated Shelley’s title, whereas this student did so unwittingly with “No Need for Grades”:

“There is a consensus, believed and agreed upon, in America, that the grades you receive in school and the scores you get on tests define your future and how smart you are.  While there are benefits in grading to measure proficiency on a topic, the reality behind grades is that they are unnecessary in defining a person’s intelligence.  The passion and work ethic of a student is what defines them; their willingness to learn and keep learning.  Society should not be based on these numbers.  People who do not score as well automatically have less of a chance at getting a good job or a successful future.  This is why there should not be grades.  Every student should find the subject they [sic] are passionate about and study and eventually go into a profession involving that subject.  This leaves the society and community with knowledgeable laborers.”

If you try this exercise, notice the reactions of students as they write and as they imagine sharing their pamphlets.  Some of my classes freely shared, whereas others barely did.  The exercise worked insofar as several students were excited to consider their own thoughts and wonder about their classmates’.  For the record, nobody was expected to share the writing with anyone else, unless he or she wanted to.  In more than one class, someone asked what Percy Shelley had written.  Curiosity bubbled, and the exercise gave them a taste of radicalism in early nineteenth-century England and Europe.



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in their hands.student letters

lettersThe letters in the box were recently written by high school students–in their own hand.  These students on behalf of individuals at risk around the world.  The letters are going to people in Iran, Mexico, Myanmar, USA, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Greece, El Salvador, and several other countries–as part of a campaign coordinated by Amnesty International.  Our school is sending one hundred and seventeen letters in all.  Think of them as Christmas letters–wishing peace and justice for the imprisoned individuals and from the heads of state.

Here are a few verses from Christian scriptures, named on the note to the left of the envelopes.  Mary, mother of Jesus, is speaking to Elizabeth, mother of John:

“he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts

. . . he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

Students can write in many ways for various purposes.  This event gave them a real audience, and their letters make a real difference.  For example, over twenty years ago people wrote letters on behalf of a woman imprisoned by a military-led government.  This year she was elected President of that country.  Her release and rise to power came from thousands of people who applied persistent pressure.  I am not making this story up.  Letter-writers make a difference.

Merry Christmas.  Peace and justice on earth.





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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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