Category Archives: discovery

open a door for empathy

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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neutron stars: Antigone and Kreon

colliding stars create energy in gravitational waves

stars that have died and collapsed

measuring device in pasadena, ca

telescopes capture image of collision–killernova, 1k brighter than normal explosions

gold and platinum produced [?]

130 million years ago collision occurred–just now reaching us

bob gausch [sp?] for bbc world service radio 5:25am EST

_______

energy in literary universe comes from collision of forces–like Antigone vs. Kreon

two moral, political views collide

 

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microscopes and telescopes: students solving problems

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

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

3-combo_grande

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

 

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meditation on memory: a flurry of birds

What stays in our minds, and why?

As I walked this morning, as the sunlight started to paint the tops of tall oak and pine, I heard a flurry of birds.  Blue jays gave their screech, which sounds much like that of the red-tailed hawk, towhees spouted their cup-of-TEA, and the tufted titmice emitted their little chirps.  Some mornings I am busy looking at the light arise, smelling the damp oak leaves on the ground, and hearing the various birds call.  This morning, though, I tried to focus on just the sounds, just the bird sounds.  Hence the flurry of birds in my mind.

This phrase, which also lives in the subtitle of today’s post, comes from a play my wife directed some time ago.  It’s a collection of vignettes all set during the American Revolutionary War.  The title came to mind because of the internal rhyme with “flurry” and “birds.”  Poets have been using this tool for thousands of years.  When they want to remember, and help others remember, important people and events, they employ such tools.  Devices like rhyme keep things in our mind.  Witness this morning’s walk.

Another tool is concrete imagery, meaning language that appeals directly to any of our five senses.  This morning,  my mind directed my ears to take the reins.  The flurry of birds became a symphony. I heard nothing but birds.

And here comes one of the values of concrete images like this collection of bird songs.  Now that I have returned to my desk, I will soon start a set of senior essays.  By the time I was climbing our driveway at the end of my walk, I had stored the memory of these birds– to use it as an image for my work.  In other words, the birds will help me listen to the student voices in these papers.  I have long believed that each student sings his or her own individual song.  To help these people grow, my job starts with listening.  I need to know where they are, in order to help them move into new skills and wisdoms.  So, as I grade papers today, what stays in my mind, I hope, is the image of this morning’s flurry of birds.  I am looking forward to hearing the range of ideas expressed by these high school seniors, who soon will fly off to other surroundings.

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

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

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

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Learning through Exams: Henry Redbird interviews Mr. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your time, Mr. Brown.

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

 

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A few haiku for you at the Paris climate talks

the moon is waning

even oak leaves are falling

sharp bright stars now shine

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let them fall, all brown

though they cling with reluctance

let all of them fall

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in winter the leaves

have all fallen to the ground

traffic now sounds loud

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leaf blowers have stopped

gone are the oak leaves that were

falling quietly

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we’re quick to move on

but the seasons each take time

may we look to this

bare trees 1

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students advise aspiring leaders

go extra mile when things not going well; take initiative, guide group through task; lead the effort; take control, give honest feedback–without anger, be trustworthy

give voice to voiceless; communicate appreciation; think of others first, help them be better; guide, support, be an example; be a leader, which is different from being a boss; take care of others, take responsibility

trust others; want what’s best for majority; unite the group, be one of them, be experienced

These are my notes from conversations with teenagers (high school juniors).  I asked them what makes a good leader, or what does the word “leadership” mean to them.  My notes record the gist of their answers.  Personally and professionally, I feel grateful to see the patterns in their thinking.

First, these students, who have been my advisees for two and half years, see leaders as people who make the extra effort.  They push themselves forward in some way, in order to guide the group.  Even, or maybe especially, when things are not going well, leaders are the ones who step forward to help improve the situation.  They take control, perhaps giving feedback to the group or to individuals about what actions would make the group stronger and more productive.  According to the students, leaders do all of this in a way that can be trusted, in part because they guide and provide without anger.

The second constellation of comments shows these students see leaders as people who think of others before themselves.  They want to help everyone become a better person, or better at their particular task or role.  A leader takes care of other people–for example, by giving voice to the voiceless.  Though a leader needs the ability to step forward when necessary, he or she also needs to step back, in order to hear and appreciate other voices.  The strongest leaders also communicate that appreciation, so that people feel supported by someone with experience and empathy.  In short, being a leader is different from just being a boss.

Finally, leaders of groups truly trust the other members of that group.  They don’t pretend to trust, or simply say they do, but actually demonstrate trust–for example, by giving others significant responsibilities.  Motivated by wanting what’s best for the majority, a good leader unites the group.  And uniting the group means the leader is part of it, not just in charge of it.  When the leader speaks and acts from experience, the other members of the group can trust her or him.

Again, I am grateful for and excited by the students who shared these thoughts.  As an elder, I am encouraged by the solid ideas  they have about effective leadership.  Their ideas help me consider the leader roles I take on.  Their thoughts also convince me that leaders appear in many arenas in many ways.  Just because you are in a position of public authority or responsibility does not mean you are a leader.  By the same token, you do not have to be in such a position to lead.

Thank you, Advisees!  Feel free to leave a comment.

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Why do people read fiction?

bookshelves556

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

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reading other lives #1: lessons in humility

double-voicing: writing simultaneously for professional colleagues and college-bound students–i.e., the first of my biography blog posts, as a sample for seniors starting their own independent reading in our April Biography Project.  Soon they, too, will post reflections (of similar length and depth) on their blogs.

Now that I have read the first two chapters of my chosen biography, Philip Levine’s Bread of Time, it’s time to reflect on the questions I brought to this project.  I chose this book because it stretches my conception of the memoir/biography genre and because it discusses two of my passions, poetry and teaching. I have been committed to both for a long time.  When I read Mr. Levine’s obituary in The New York Times, I noticed this book because of the seniors’ reading project and the book’s subtitle, Toward an Autobiography.  I like the subtitle’s statement of intent.  It suggests a shade, an aspiration.  It communicates the author’s working toward something that readers recognize.  I just now realize that this notion of working towards something  rather than declaring a victorious achievement echoes my first impressions of Levine.  His first two chapters run more topically than chronologically, and I have been struck by the theme of his humility.

As I read, I am watching for the influences that inspire and define his poems.  I am also interested in his human teachers–people who shaped his worldview, people from whom he knows he has learned.  Finally, since I enjoy writing, I have already been struck by the joy he admittedly experiences in writing lines and sentences.  I wonder where that started and what sustained it.  I have a sense that his joy is sustained–not necessarily generated but sustained–by his “teachers” and mentors.   By the end of chapter two (about holy cities), he is already humble in my eyes.  He acknowledges that he has many people and places to thank for his growth.  Although he has reason to be proud of his accomplishments, his stance so far, as I read it, is a humble, grateful one.  No doubt some of my colleagues, acquaintances and friends who know him personally, or more deeply than I do, may disagree with my early impressions, but to paraphrase part of Neruda’s “Ars Poetica I,” these are my own manual metaphysics and I am moving on to the next chapter.

 

 

 

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