“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.
Category Archives: creative solutions
Recently I posted this writing on Facebook. Given tomorrow’s event in Stone Mountain, GA and the recent dark-of-night placement of the flag at Ebenezer Church in downtown Atlanta, I am reposting it here.
Some forms of modern media encourage simplistic thinking–for example, “heritage not hate.” As individuals and as communities, we inherit various stories. One such inheritance is this statement by William T. Thompson, primary designer of the second national flag of The Confederacy, which featured the battle flag and became the most popular of the three proposed national flags during the four years of the Confederacy: “As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity and barbarism . . . ” (May 4, 1863 DALLAS MORNING NEWS). On April 23 of the same year in the same newspaper, he had expressed the foundational idea of his flag design: ” [the Confederate nation is fighting to] maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior colored race.”
In place of simplistic thinking, all of us, including those across from the President’s OKC hotel yesterday [July 2015], must acknowledge the original beliefs behind this flag. Anything else, to borrow from Mr. Thompson, is ignorant of history, unfaithful to the nation’s aspirations and barbaric towards the painful experiences of others.
As a career teacher, I ask that people do their homework before behaving with mindless malice.
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.
This friend’s work, past and present, continues to inspire me. I recommend you follow him–him and his writing. Do you follow what I’m saying?
Beginning to blog again is like having our triplet children home visiting: we sent all three off to three separate liberal arts colleges this past August — it was oddly like sending them off to school when they were four! Then, fifteen years later, at nineteen, they vanished from our household. But now, instead of returning after a few hours — they don’t come home until a few months have passed by.
Re-beginning this blog about raising children and parenting and “raising amazing learners” after such a long time of letting it sit on the shelf untended, well, it reminds me of a child who hasn’t been home for awhile….but now, has come home to announce, “Let’s talk!” Things have changed…but they haven’t changed all that much. With this blog, the same thoughts and ideas are there – but they haven’t been recorded for way too long a time.
I am a…
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At the end of each week, sophomore World Literature students celebrate with poems. We study some and write some. I believe strongly in mixing reading with making. Typically, the poems match the material we are studying during the other days. For example, last week we began reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, set in Norway. On Friday, I introduced students to Tomas Transtromer, Swedish winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.
During February, while reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, which revolves around Afghanistan, we studied and wrote ghazals. This traditional form began in Arabia with the qasida. Persian culture then adopted the qasida’s opening section, turning it into what poets know as the ghazal.
In a later post, I can describe the various benefits of Poetry Friday. For now, let me say that more have emerged than I expected. For example, students and I look forward to Fridays–as much for the material as for the end-of-week signal. We have come to expect fun discoveries–made by being open to surprises–for instance, in Transtromer’s poem, “The Open Window.” We mine poems for warm-up exercises. In this case, students each wrote lines that give life to an inanimate object. Then they shared objects and wrote more lines.
Last Friday, one student selected as his object a leaf of grass–presumably a dead one to fit the instructions. His choice allowed my brief comments about Leaves of Grass and about finding Whitman’s poems under our boot soles. Poetry is always underfoot. It is everywhere. Not in a designated unit (typically in spring), but everywhere. Committing myself and the students to poetry every Friday embodies the ever-presence of the art. Poetry does not hibernate. It is not a special-delivery package at holiday time. It is in you and me, every day.
So, you cannot knock it down with a sledge hammer. You can’t murder it then share the video of your destruction. It’s not going away–not this week or next week.
I’d like to end with a student ghazal from last month. This poem is part of our cultural inheritance because it borrows from pre-Islamic Arabic poets, Medieval Persian versifiers and modern American high school students. Here is her poem.
Stays in Motion
We cannot see, but we are collections of echoes.
We think we know the real jurisdiction of echoes.
When we think, our thoughts bounce each other like echoes in a cave.
The thoughts we decide on are final productions of our echoes.
Our parents may seem completely different than us.
Keep in mind we are imitations of their echoes.
There is a vast future and a dead past to an echo.
We all die, but we are the never-ending echo.
Some think you can’t change an echo once it has begun,
Keillor, it can be done, the revision of an echo.
art work by Franz Richter, from cover of Tomas Transtromer: Twenty Poems. trans. Robert Bly (Madison, MN: Seventies Press, 1970)
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 Turnitin.com, 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.
Went for a walk this morning, shortly after sunrise. Grey sky, no wind, occasional blue jay and squirrel chatter from the branches. Slight chill, with temperature in the high 40s. And the smell of wet oak leaves on the ground. Such a rich smell. I love fallen leaves. The moist decay unlocks deep scents, like heated herbs in a skillet, or more like wet tea leaves in a cup.
It’s not just the smell, though. Fall and leaves recall lines from one of Wendell Berry’s poems: “a million leaves / alive in the wind / and what do we know.” This time of year we let things fall, we watch them fall. We let them lie. When all has fallen that will fall this season, what’s left? What remains? What do we know? We can’t grasp everything. We can’t do everything. We have limits, and autumn reminds me of these.
Several days ago during our ThanksGiving visit with family, we saw an exhibit of Joan Miro’s art, paintings and sculptures from his last two decades, “Miro: The Experience of Seeing” at the Nasher Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina.
When I visit an exhibit, I usually write little bits in my notebook–a small palm-sized notebook for jotting down phone numbers, websites, poem ideas, opening lines, etc. I think of my Miro notes as an answer to Wendell Berry’s question, “what do we know?” Berry’s lines remain as the epigraph on my personal stationery because they serve as a measurement of sorts. Writing down these Miro notes helps me preserve ideas and phrases that trigger recognition in me. They signal something I know.
Here are my notes, some of which come from the exhibit’s explanatory plaques. My own associated thoughts appear in italics.
constantly evolving universe
As a teacher/educator, I like to think of my work with students as constantly evolving. What I see in the young people and in our institutional environment certainly changes over time, and I like to think it is also evolving.
[in] last two decades Miro synthesized and took stock–fruitful time
Above all, I want the time students spend in school to be fruitful in a variety of ways. More and more, I want the same to be true for the time I spend with them and colleagues. The students need models of and practice with synthesizing. Even more, given their age and today’s culture, they need time set aside to take stock–in other words, to reflect.
repertoire of signs and subjects
As a writer, what are my signs and subjects? What is developing as my particular vocabulary? Our recent ThanksGiving visit gave me a chance to walk through my stepson’s art studio and see the signs and subjects emerging from his work.
found objects as a starting point–then integrate and expand on them
Many of my poems begin the same way, but often with a single found object–wet oak leaves, for example. My essays, on the other hand, tend to start by integrating/synthesizing several found objects or ideas. The essay helps me connect them and thereby see in new ways. Much of the work I give students grows from this same drive to weave apparently separate subjects into a larger vision/understanding.
immobile movement–in an object–soundless music
This idea of Miro’s intrigues me. It has a certain Zen quality. Paradoxical puzzle that invites immobile movement of our mind. We have to be still to consider it. Hegel helps here, as we need thesis and antithesis to reach a third, synthesized way.
primary colors–red, yellow, blue–a painting should ignite the imagination
And Miro’s paintings and sculptures do this. Days after seeing this collection of his work, I feel free flight. He gently guides, while offering the door to your imagination. Seeing new things, imagining other worlds is clearly important to him, and to me. As a teacher, I want to bring students into relationship with the primary colors of language and literature study. They need room to imagine themselves and others with these basic tools.
“Femme en transe par la fluite des etoiles filantes” (1969), acrylic on canvas, tension of dark figure and sparse sky
I love the tension in this painting. If I could take one of the exhibit’s paintings home with me, it would be this one. Its title translates to “Woman entranced by the escape of the falling stars.” The falling stars represent freedom of imagination because they are escaping. Miro’s experience of Fascism under Franco, no doubt, increased his need for free artistic expression.
photo credit: http://www.joan-miro.info/images/works/62.jpg
My last post discusses regular student reflections. When that assignment appears to be failing, it may be succeeding. A student recently did the unexpected. S/he copied sentences from earlier reflections s/he had written for this course. It never occurred to me that someone would do this. As I have considered this episode further, however, I see how I tend to set up situations for students. I guess I am a designer as much as a teacher. I set up situations in which students make meaning from the material. That meaning can be personal, and if it is thoughtfully, genuinely made, it carries beyond the individual, just as Beowulf or Frankenstein does.
In this case, the student revealed that s/he had missed an opportunity to make such meaning. By importing whole thoughts, s/he had saved energy by saving her/himself from thinking about our most recent studies.
Giving students the occasional task of reflecting is like handing them a kaleidoscope. The responsible, engaged or curious students twist the cylinders to rearrange the colored shards. Then they pause to observe the new patterns. The student in question quickly grabbed the kaleidoscope, gave it a slight shake, then wrote what she (wanted me to think she) saw.
So, the assignment worked. It showed me who was thinking and who wasn’t. The non-thinker appeared in sharp contrast to learners. The false reflection initially surprised and disappointed me. Some of the disappointment about the individual’s lost opportunity remains, but the surprise has become confirmation, upon reflection.
photo credit: http://shoutitforlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Kaleidoscope.jpg
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?
*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:
- 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)
- By shaping associations into patterns (sometimes forcing patterns that do not exist?)
- Runs on emotions—limbic system works as a relevance detector
- Mostly beneath the level of awareness
- Learns through the body
- Makes meaning
(personal notes from “Teaching to the Teenage Brain” conference leader, Gessner Geyer, 25 July 2005)
“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.”
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 . . . .
Seniors have just begun their own blogs. If this model post is any indication, wonderful insights await the readers of these student reflections.
In Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the protagonist faces demons and dragons that threaten the lives of those around him as well as his own life. The author eagerly describes the heroic battles in which Beowulf conquers medieval beasts with dangerous weapons. With each monster more difficult to defeat than the last, Beowulf continues to vanquish his enemies and protect the kingdom of the Danes. Heroic even in his last moments, Beowulf embodies courage as he embarks on his journey to defeat the terrifying monsters jeopardizing the kingdom’s well being as a whole. Praise and glory accompanied Beowulf in defeating his monsters, but what about those whose monsters cannot be conquered with a sword or any material object alone? In Beowulf, the beasts were clearly defined and, in the end, each could be thwarted by means of a weapon. However, in reality, our own modern monsters hide in secluded…
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