Category Archives: discovery

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.





Filed under discovery, joy, reasons for writing

a letter to seniors: who will you choose?

The letter below is primarily for seniors in my current classes.  I invite others to listen in.  Since I am asking these students to email me a letter, I am modeling what I request of them, as they approach April’s “Biography Project.”  

Questions to address in your email to me:  What three books are your current top choices?  How would you rank them today?  What distinguishes each book from the other two?  How did you find these three books and what interest(s) do they represent?  In the case of your current top choice, what aspect(s) do you want to watch most closely?   Phrased another way, what one or two questions will pull you through the reading of this book?  What question(s) will keep you meaningfully engaged?  Organize your answers to these questions as you will.  In my letter to you, I have tried to create a unified piece rather than a simple list of replies in the prescribed order.

My letter to you

For my own Biography Project I am considering three books, two about women and one about a man.  One of the subjects is still living, while the other two have died.  I came across these titles in three different ways, and each book feeds a distinct interest.   My first title I discovered while browsing in our Malcolm Library.  Propped up next to other books on the shelf near the library’s Quiet Room was Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir called My Beloved World (2013). After reading her introduction, I was struck by the personal tone and an overall generosity of spirit.  As one of the few female United States Supreme Court Justices, she has reached a distinctive position of significant influence.  I am interested in the details of how she persevered on her way to this appointment.  For example, what was her early family life like and what kinds of support did others provide as she worked her way through various courts?  What struggles did she face as a woman in these circles?  And as an Hispanic woman?  Where does she find inspiration and strength?  Also, what does she enjoy about this kind of work?

The mention of enjoyment brings to mind Philip Levine’s book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (2001).  I learned about this title from Mr. Levine’s obituary in The New York Times.  He died earlier this winter.  The obituary named a number of Mr. Levine’s books, including this one.  I was intrigued by the subtitle, “Toward an Autobiography.”  The Times described the book as a series of essays, and I thought this approach would also work for our class’s Biography Project.  I would like you students to consider creative approaches to this unit.  Mr. Levine, who has won many prizes and appointments as a poet, fits my strong interest in poetry.  I like his recognition that poetry can speak about anything, even Detroit auto factory work, which he knows firsthand.  Lastly, this book interests me because Levine devotes each essay to someone who has mentored and nourished him as a writer, poet and person.  I think I can learn a lot about him by what he values in his teachers.

Finally, another front runner is one I discovered in a “museum store” on St. Simons Island.  My wife and I had just toured the remains of Frederica, an early colonial settlement off the Georgia coast.  The plaque at one of the town’s house sites briefly describes Mary Musgrove.   James Oglethorpe and other leaders of the emerging British colony depended on her skills as an interpreter.  Her father was a British trader and her mother a Creek Indian.  Given my strong interest in native cultures, I wondered about her story.  As it happens, a recent biography about this woman appeared on the shelves in the gift/souvenir shop at the entrance to the Frederica National Monument: The Life and Times of Mary Musgrove (2012).  The author, Steven Hahn, is a History Professor at St. Olaf College, and has written the most recent biography of this intriguing woman.  At one point, she was among the most significant land owners in colonial Georgia.  I am fascinated by what a bilingual, bicultural woman on the frontier can teach me about not only her ingenuity and “cultural acumen” (Hahn’s label), but also this period in early Georgia history, especially along the coast, which was the first place British colonial ships had to land.

From among these three books, I favor Levine’s book–largely because he writes about mentors and teachers who have shaped his life and his love of writing poetry.  I said earlier that the idea of enjoyment reminded me of his book.  In the introduction to The Bread of Time, he says that the most influential mentors have been those who helped him see what he enjoys.  Simply put, he enjoys the writing of each sentence.  He likes the work.  I look forward to reading someone who takes such pleasure in writing.



Naturally, I have thought often about this project.  Plus, I am older and have more experience from which to draw ideas.   Therefore, this letter to you may seem too long or ambitious.  I offer it, however, as a sincere picture of my current considerations.  It also serves to illustrate what’s possible in your thinking.  When you email me, I’d like to know what you are considering and why?  Develop your letter with as many specifics as will clearly communicate your prospects.



Filed under challenge, creative solutions, discovery

Poetry Fridays and Islamic Art: they shall not hurt nor destroy

reindeer lampAt the start of this school year, back in August, I introduced an experiment: Poetry Fridays.  Now, as March approaches, the benefits of sustaining this practice are blossoming.

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)






Filed under art, creative solutions, discovery, joy

high stakes reflecting: screw your courage to the sticking place


summary of recent events with high school seniors:

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

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

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

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

long mtn pond

*Regular Reflection questions

Subject/Activity: Beowulf & Old English Poetry

Associations (linking new information to existing knowledge)

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

Patterns (making patterns from these associations)

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

Emotions (feelings about the new experience/information)

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

Meaning (establishing personal meaning)

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

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

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

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


**student excerpts

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

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

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

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

ed park.07nov14

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



Leave a comment

Filed under challenge, creative solutions, discovery, trust

On Being a Student: Still Reflecting

long mtn pond

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under beauty, challenge, discovery, empathy

On Being a Student: How did I get here?

Age gap

Age gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under challenge, discovery, empathy, reasons for writing

Reflecting Students in Novel-Journals



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

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

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



Leave a comment

Filed under art, beauty, challenge, discovery, joy, reasons for writing, trust

astute student explains strife and grief

“It is common throughout the history of man that the failure of individuals to respect and recognize the beliefs, culture, and commonality of other human beings leads to, or creates, strife and grief. The inability or unwillingness to understand, also known as ignorance, is a generator of strife and grief.”


Although just a first draft of an essay’s opening,  these two sentences by a sophomore boy inspire me.  They remind me that the young people with whom we teachers work have deep appreciation for life’s challenges.  The job of adults in school communities is to give them chances to express such appreciation in ways that mean something to them and those around them.


Filed under challenge, discovery, expression, reasons for writing, trust

I’m a designer

As one of the guinea pigs canaries faculty members trying out our school’s new evaluation system, I received visits from two generous, respected colleagues.  One of my colleague’s comments helped me realize that though I often go by the label of “teacher,” I’m a designer at heart.  I design experiences from which students can learn about literature and its capacity to develop imagination, empathy and expression–especially written expression.

I am grateful for colleagues who help me reflect on my intentions and impacts as a designer.  I merely mean that I design experiences.  Then I stay alongside the students long enough to monitor their struggles and satisfactions.  A colleague from another school once told me that the term “assessment” comes from a word meaning “stand next to.”  I have not researched this etymology, but the idea has stayed with me ever since.  I am grateful for that colleague’s conversation, too.

Leave a comment

Filed under challenge, creative solutions, discovery, trust

flying kites and writing essays

This morning my wife told me about the upcoming exhibit of Seamus Heaney materials at Emory University.  A kite will fly above the spiral staircase near the exhibit because the last poem in his last published book (Human Chain) features a kite.  The poem reminds me  of students who are learning to write for themselves, from themselves.  On their behalf, I have copied Heaney’s poem below.


After “L’Aquilone” by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,

Pale blue heavenly air is supporting

A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon

All of us there trooped out

Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite

Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,

Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,

Lifts itself, goes with the wind until

It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle

Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower

climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet

And gazing face and heart of the kite flier

Until string breaks and–separate, elate–

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

1 Comment

Filed under beauty, discovery, empathy, joy