Category Archives: discovery

she’s a C student: naming the creature in FRANKENSTEIN

letter sweater CMore than once I have heard teachers say something like “she’s a C student.”  Having taught in NY, OK, CA and now GA, I have heard such comments in each school.  Although I have tried, I never have understood precisely what my colleagues mean.  Traditionally, students take a variety of courses.  Couple this tradition with the knowledge that we all have affinities for certain subjects: she loves Biology, and he always look forward to History class.  Is she a “C student” just in Art or Math, but not in Biology?  How about him?  More importantly, once a teacher imbibes the thought that “she is a C student,” how does that belief affect the “C student”?
In the paragraph below,  a high school senior  addresses the power of naming.   Through this brief writing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, she argues that when someone consistently receives  a judgment about herself, she starts believing that label.  Student readers, when thoughtfully engaged, have plenty to teach us about how to teach them.  We have to keep our minds and hearts open to such possibilities. (n.b. I have left this writing as is–without editing, except in one case of bracketed letters.  The student wrote this during class as an email, in response to a particular question about the story’s driving forces.)
Based on my reading of Volume 2, I believe that the most paramount concern that governs the direction of the novel is the questionable judgements by which physical differences are termed monstrous. Many times, society unjustly characterizes people’s qualities as “evil.” The monster in the novel “Frankenstein” was not necessarily created bad, but over time, after society socially exiled and evaded him, he turned into what they deemed him to be. One can only stay good for so long when everybody else is telling him that he is bad. “They are kind–they are
the most excellent creatures in the world; but, unfortunately, they are prejudiced against me. I have good dispositions; my life has been hitherto harmless, and, in some degree, beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ou[gh]t to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster” (102). Society’s preconceived notions of good and evil turn innocent people into monsters because they do not give them a fair chance to prove their innocence. If people are called something for so long, they will eventually turn into
that very thing. For example, the monster eventually turned evil and “the mildness of my nature had fled, and all within me was turned to gall and bitterness” (107). The monster could not control himself anymore after being repeatedly shunned and ridiculed by society. He gave up trying to be a noble and good person because no matter what he did, society always found a way to exclude and punish him. Society unfairly judged his differences as evil just because he did not look, speak, and act like everybody else did. As the monster became more and more excluded from society, he developed more and more negative qualities. This made people think that he was evil all along when in actuality, it was just their harsh judgements that turned him against mankind. The monster said “All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”(72). After being told so many times that he was “the wretched” because of his differences, such as his appearance, he began to believe it himself and accepted the hatred.  Overall, it is societies prejudice towards those who are different than the norm that turn the monster evil and shape the majority of the direction of the novel.
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bibs, diapers and pacifiers: Macbeth’s apparitions

armed head Nov 2013The tenth graders and I had fun last week with the opening of Act Four in Macbeth.  We had been bearing down on (finding, recording and analyzing) various passages from Act Three, and it was time to move our sedentary bodies and creative minds.  We had not yet read any of Act Four.  When the students filed in, they saw, on two desks in the front of the room: a stack of blank white paper, several pairs of scissors, some tape, and colored markers.  On the whiteboard, they saw our characters  for Scene One: 3 witches, 1 Hecate, 3 apparitions, 8 kings and Banquo.  After everybody’s name went under one of the lists, they had twenty minutes to make a prop identifying them as a distinct individual within their group.  I played–i.e., let the laptop play–period music to accompany their constructions (Sting singing songs of John Dowland and others).

In such moments, I often recall the problem-solving scene from Apollo 13.

Also, our fun time last week reminds me that students understand more concepts than I sometimes realize or acknowledge.  For example, in Act Four Scene One, the second apparition, which advises Macbeth he need fear none of woman born, emerges as a “bloody child.”  The students could create props that capture the “bloody” part of this vision, but how to handle the “child” part?  Three students, each from a different section, produced three different solutions: a bib, a diaper and a pacifier.  In other words, they understand what a symbol is.  I do not need to explain the concept to them; they naturally chose an object that is itself and that represents something.  They KNOW what symbols are.  I see that they do, and I am glad that our activity reminds me of this knowledge they carry with them into class.

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Growing Writers 18 stealing (voice vs. plagiarism)

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July 23, 2013 · 9:36 am

Growing Writers. Season 2 Episode 2. Voice and Variety

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July 11, 2013 · 9:31 am

Growing Writers, Season 2 Episode 1: Recycling

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July 8, 2013 · 10:31 am

home-grown haiku 1

For my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary, I wrote several haiku to honor the event.  Since several of them need  explanation, which I gave during the anniversary dinner, I  offer that background here–for people who could not attend the dinner, for myself as writer, and for anyone else looking in.  While these posts repeat some of my impromptu comments, they also include thoughts surfacing since the dinner.

In the order of original composition (15 June 2013), here’s the first one:

Two together still

              Moving furniture pieces

                             To where they belong

Many who know me also know that my parents recently moved after having lived in the same house for fifty years, the house in which I grew up from age nine through high school.  Changing homes after that much time is hard, in several ways.  For example, it tests the relationship between those who are making the change.  This test is reflected in the first line.  The word “still” carries the idea of sixty years, which includes the recent struggle of picking up, packing up and re-locating.  The same word also means calm, as in “Before the sun rose that morning, the lake was as still as glass.”  Placing the word “still” at the end of the  haiku’s line reveals this second meaning more effectively than would, for example,  “Two still together.”

Although part of a haiku’s challenge is to create a total poem while allowing each line to read independently, as a kind of mini-poem,  I enjoy the run-on (spill-over) effect of “still / moving furniture,” which is what my parents were doing on the day of the anniversary dinner.  So, the stillness suggested in the first line contrasts in several ways with the lifting, carrying, placing, transporting and other move-related activities.

The third line, then, echoes the initial suggestion of stillness by claiming that things are as they should be, are where they belong, need no more moving.  The move that looked daunting several years ago has put in place not only furniture pieces, but also the realization that change is often both hard and rewarding.  Such realizations come more readily, when we can share the struggles and rewards with someone we love.


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Is this cheating?


Students are returning from vacation, and I have imagined a “real-world” writing assignment.  Although this outline represents my draft thoughts, I am leaning towards using it as a welcome-back exercise–in an attempt to  have the departing seniors (a) write with meaningful purpose and (b) play a significant role in designing our experimental “biography unit.”  Is it cheating to have them spend time writing such an essay?  I don’t think so, but thought it would be fun to ask colleagues and other readers.

Incidentally–don’t tell the students–the “list” they will pick up comes from Tony Wagner’s recent writings.  I won’t name which ones, in case some students are closely following this personal blog.  (A number of them subscribe to our course blog.)



List seven basic skills you will take away from your high school experience.

Pick up list of seven skills identified by recent book on the issue.

Reflect on similarities and differences between these two lists.  For example, what do these patterns mean about your past and future formal schooling?

Use these reflections to write an essay that follows this format:

intro to main idea

most exercised skill in this class

least exercised skill in this class

implications for design of upcoming “biography unit”

concluding thought, which offers insight gained from preceding analysis

(due to TURNITIN by end of this week’s block class; include amended pledge, which acknowledges, for example, conversations with classmates)

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The Art of Translation

The Art of Translation.

I wanted to share this recent reflection by a girl in one of my high school senior classes.

She typically writes with such clarity and depth.

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flip the flippers

One day this week, as the sophomores started reviewing each other’s blog posts, I spoke briefly to the whole group about pedagogy.  Though not using that actual word, I raised this question:  Why bother gathering at a physical place called school?  The question allowed me to share my thoughts on the subject–thoughts that have been developing over the years spent with students in a physical place called the classroom.  As I described my thinking to these sophomores,  I asked them if they had heard teachers mention the idea of a “flipped classroom.”  No one raised his or her hand, but soon after the silent response, one boy offered, “Do you mean students teaching teachers?”  I told him, and therefore the whole group, that although I do not remember adults using those terms , I thought his idea was fabulous.  “I want to remember your idea,” I told him.  “Some time,” I added, “I can tell you stories about students doing exactly that.”  For example, I remember a ninth grader in Tulsa who unwittingly helped me tighten my writing.

So, back to what I was telling the whole class, before this teenager “interrupted.”  I was answering my rhetorical question, using the example of their in-class partner-proofreading.  The most productive use we can make of in-school class-time–I am paraphrasing now– is for real-time social interaction–in the form of meaningful collaboration, for instance.  Let students work together to help each other.  Let them, for example, with our guidance, give each other feedback on their writing.  The adult guidance is key, and we can layer samples, models, practices and demonstrations to develop the basic skills that enable productive feedback.  But, as the adult conversations about flipping continue, I want to include the students–from time to time, not all the time.  Occasionally, I find myself forgetting to extend the hand of respect to the students.  I forget to offer that hand and bring them onto the boat.  Sometimes, in my excitement to cross the river, I find myself on the other side, waving encouragement to the students who stand on the far shore.  “Swim,” I yell.  “Swim.”

The trust and respect that underlie healthy relationships must characterize my time with students, too.   They are intelligent young people with distinct, valuable thoughts.  Why not use all of our human resources, once we have come together in the same physical place called school?

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These three letters represent a course I have been considering for some time: “Farms, Factories and Facebook.”  In this course, students read literature, mostly fiction, that conveys the rhythms and mindsets of three ages in human history: agricultural, industrial and digital.  We might call the third “informational,” but for now I am simply collecting titles and ideas.  For the most part, this collecting has been happening privately.  Feel free to comment with your thoughts.  Feel free to launch such a course yourself.  I trust we will acknowledge each other, when occasion calls for that.

Meanwhile, an article in yesterday’s New York Times profiles a Korean writer whose work fits my picture of this FFF course.  Shin Kyung-Sook’s novel, Please Look After Mom, has made a lasting impression on my wife, since she read it  about a year ago.  When yesterday’s article appeared, we both said we want to read her other novels, I Will Be Right There and A Lone Room.  The Times article describes the  traumatic change in South Korea from an agrarian to industrial society–within just one generation.  Ms. Kyung-Sook’s stories reveal what this dramatic disruption means to Korean families.  The conflicts at the heart of the society reveal the distinct rhythms and mindsets of both eras. Therefore, one of these novels may suit the course I am imagining.

Other literature I have considered defines an era’s worldview from within–think Tess of the D’Urbevilles or Hard Times, for example–rather than across the “time zones.”  Given my experience with home-grown courses like this, I want to find good stories– ones that engage students initially and years later, for their emotional and intellectual impact.  Stories they carry with them.  Analyzing the eras we humans have navigated is part of the course, but I have learned not to impose too much of my own historical ruminations on high school juniors and seniors.  Those ideas provide a sturdy infrastructure, but individual students need to shape their own conclusions in their own way, largely through induction while reading these stories.

That’s it for now. Concerning this course, the time has apparently come to widen what Seamus Heaney calls the “circumference of understanding.”  If you want to see and/or comment on the google doc of ideas and titles, complete the following form.  Thank you.

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