Category Archives: empathy

I wanna care

Before I entered junior high school, my parents sent me to reading camp.  I do not know all of the diagnostic details explained to my parents, but I do remember regularly struggling to read “fast.”  Years after junior and senior high, I find myself telling others, including my high school students, that I struggled to read fast enough to care about the fictional characters I encountered.  Why read, if you cannot care about the people involved?  That became the underlying dynamic of my high school reading–in literature, history and elsewhere.

This remembrance of things past surfaces today, while reading reviews of Gita Mehta’s novel, Raj.  A friend just told me he is considering one of her other novels, A River Sutra, for his Humanities class’s India unit.  While reading about this novel and her other books, I encountered the following excerpt:

Princess Jaya of Balmer, witness to bloodshed and insurmountable political upheaval, realizes that royal India’s demise is imminent. “Although the rich background detail is engrossing, Jaya remains a remote character to whom one never develops an attachment,” PW [Publishers Weekly] said of this novel penned by the wife of Knopf’s Sonny Mehta. Author tour.  (from, emphasis added)

Without having read her books, I cannot agree or disagree with this or any review, but the quoted sentence sparks a memory of my early reading experiences.  The maroonballoon blog has become, especially this summer, a place to remember and recount the dynamics of my own reading and writing.  Time–in the close sense of summer vacation, as well as the broader sense of my career–invites me to reflect on the basic dynamics and associations within my own composing and comprehending.  Awareness of these personal phenomena equips me more robustly, as another colleague might put it, to understand and guide students’ reading and writing.  A heightened awareness allows me to communicate more convincingly, “I’ve been there.”  It also enables me to spot their struggles and deconstruct the confusion they might be experiencing.

Now, as an older person, I enjoy reading and writing, though still struggling to read “faster.”  I look forward, for example, to reading A River Sutra.  I also will be reading Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in the recent Affordable Health Care Act decision.  I just enjoy reading stuff–of various sorts.

Reading a variety is important for students; they need to be flexible readers.  This wide exposure strengthens–i.e., makes more robust–their writing.  In my case, for example, reading the first pages of Justice Roberts’ opinion helped me write my letter of protest to the GA Dept of Revenue.  Writers write their reading.  Seeing Roberts’ careful wording and conceptual coherence inspires me to greater precision.  So it is with students younger than I .

Today’s title, by the way, is meant to echo the label some people use to identify the law officially passed as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-148).  I know this blog post title captures a primary principle in my reading experiences, and I believe it reflects the best instincts of most people, as they consider the long-term health of all Americans.

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leave room, or Raiders of the Lost Art

In this post, I reflect on listening.  If neither title above makes ultimate sense to you, try this one:  Quiet, the bee is sleeping.  On a recent morning, as I was walking near our deck, I glanced inside a small gap–half the width of my little finger–between one of the corner posts and the railing.  In that gap, I noticed a black-and-gold bumble bee sleeping in the pre-dawn quiet, undisturbed.  I enjoyed finding him resting there, and, although I never heard him per se, the twilight atmosphere in which I made the discovery captures a component in the process of listening.  The following reflections on listening grow from a confluence of recent experiences.  Time away from the formal academic year gives me a chance to reflect more richly on such confluences than I usually do during official school days.  I find it helpful to remember this gap vacation and school modes because I often encourage students to reflect, but I need to understand, and take  into account, the various levels and kinds of reflection.  Many school cultures struggle to encourage depth of thinking, especially reflective thought.  Granted the age gap between me and my students makes a difference; I am more inclined to look back on years of experiences.  Even so, my own reflective explorations help me help them.  Somewhat regardless of the depth, I can pull from these writings an appreciation for associations.  How do the chains work?  How, and when, do we most meaningfully notice these links–be they conceptual, sense-related or other.  As I have written elsewhere, and believe as firmly as ever, our mind is powered by association.  We are natural poets all.  Reflective writing opens the window on associations that our brain is making with or without our attention.  

Enough preamble. 

Three days ago, I wrote a letter.  Yes, by hand.  I wanted to congratulate a sophomore whose hard work this past year had produced the most original final exam essay.  When he emailed that essay, he apologized for not having achieved higher grades.  He also, truth be told, said that he enjoyed the class.

In my letter, I asked the student not to apologize because he had faced his challenges with resilience, persistence and unquenchable curiosity.  The final exam asks an intentional sequence of interconnected short-answer questions about The Kite Runner.  Students who were aware of the ideas developing in their answers had the raw material to address the essay question, which they knew would focus on the topic of moral courage in three books: Alvarez’s novel, In the Time of the Butterflies; Wiesel’s memoir, Night; and Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner.   On the top of the short-answer sheet, this student wrote “Finally figured it out!”    Just beneath that declaration, he drew a wide, narrow rectangle in which he wrote: “Main Theme of Book: Guilt: living with guilt and finding a way to be good again.”

Yes, he has struggled this year–struggled to understand.  But that’s exactly the point.  He has not backed away from this challenge.  I am not surprised, but certainly am pleased, that his persistence produced such a distinctive essay.  The writing rings with his own voice, which means his own mind.  He has carved out a meaning that works for him.  Ironically, that meaning involves the ideas of guilt and becoming good.  Consider his email.  This ironic connection reminds me that learning is personal.  While he accurately identifies a major theme in the novel, he also has named a major theme in his course work this year.

How, then, does this episode embody the idea of listening?  In two ways.  First, when I read student essays, and perhaps especially exam essays, which are designed to show individuals’ making new meaning from the course materials and discussions, I listen for their voice, their original interpretations.  Second, this student, with his email apology and exam-sheet declaration, is listening to himself.  He knows that he has crossed over into the satisfying land of understanding.  He is aware of having solved a conceptual problem.  He has spotted the bumble bee sleeping in the gap.


Two days ago, I met a good friend for lunch.  We talked about our families, our jobs–about growing things, making things and trying to figure some things out.  Has has recently written about listening; at least, that’s how my memory of his blog post emerges at the moment.  In particular, he recalls asking William Stafford, “What is at the heart of great teaching?”  Stafford answered, “Find out where your student is, and help him get to the next step.”  Do you hear my connecting Stafford’s response to the idea of listening?  I have always valued listening–in myself and in others.  I am grateful for Stephen’s question and Stafford’s answer because they make me feel good about my work with the sophomore boy mentioned above.  Struggles like his can take a long time to bear noticeable fruit, but we need to remember that the fruit does fall and that it takes time to do so, which is something else that Stephen and I talked about during lunch. (Incidentally, I think of educators’ recent pleas, especially in the context of technology conversations, to meet students “where they are.”  I respect this plea, and therefore want to  understand the various ways in which we teachers can do this.  Some of these ways involve may involve facebook or youtube, while others involve letters and essays.)

another connection

Finally, I have been thinking about Dave Eggers’ book, Zeitoun–an account of a New Orleans family’s many struggles during and after the Katrina disaster.  I highly recommend it.  Pretend America is a person whom you have just asked for a story.  “Tell me a recent story,” you say, “that shows how good you can be, but also how your complicated nature causes needless suffering and indignity.”  Zeitoun is the story America tells.  As for the connection to listening, I am thinking of an image that runs through the book, and appears on the cover:  the main character’s paddling his canoe through the flooded streets of New Orleans.  He is able to help a number of city residents, people and dogs, because his craft proceeds quietly enough that he can hear suffering.  He listens for it and responds.  Part of his reason for staying behind in the city, while his wife and children have evacuated, is so that he can help people.  Listening from his canoe allows him to do this over and over.

Final comments

The title, “Leave room,” refers to my leaving room for students to grow, to “get to the next step.”   Of course, leaving room involves more than just listening, but listening allows me to design the space into which they can grow.  This idea of growing into a space explains the garden photograph I have attached.  You notice that I have left room for the parsley to expand; I may also transplant the tarragon into some of that space.

The title, “Raiders of the Lost Art,” suggests that aspects of today’s culture discourage listening.  At the same time, the title suggests a question: “Who, or what, are the Raiders?”

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banking on growth, or helping seedlings sprout

This morning before driving to work, I thinned out the radishes, again.  Several weeks ago, I started the seeds in small fibrous cells, letting them sprout in the house–on a tray and under a thin plastic sheet.  Once they were ready, I moved the seedlings outside to our wall garden.  More than once now, I have thinned them, so that just one plant grows in its own space.  Last summer, when we had less garden space, I discarded the thinned seedlings.  Now, with the newly prepared larger space, as I pull out and separate tiny strands of radish plants, I can walk them a few feet to my left–to open ground.  I enjoyed realizing that I did not have to waste these tiny plants.  They have potential to grow into full, pinkish red bulbs that eventually we can rinse, slice and eat.

associative leap (using as a connection the idea of not wasting potential)

Moving the slender plants this morning made me think of today’s school schedule.  The spring vacation starts after today, and, as in many schools, we struggle to make the day worthwhile.  We try to spend our time together productively, without wasting it.  I have occasionally told students that as I age, I become less interested in wasting time.  So today, in my sophomore classes, we did an exercise I had been imagining for some time, not sure when or how I would implement it.  I will briefly describe it, along with a few fun discoveries.

Basic exercise

As newly appointed interns in the US State Department, prepare a map (with four basic features) of the Dominican Republic for Secretary Clinton and the rest of her staff.  I can send you, readers of this blog, the one-page instructions, if you like.  For now, just know that we had just finished reading Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, set in the DR during Trujillo’s oppressive thirty-year rule.

Several discoveries

1. As with most such exercises, the main challenge, especially the day before vacation, was to engage all group members in the map-making process.

2. As groups worked, I monitored progress with Photo Booth, an application on our MacBooks that let me film interactions in each group.  During the last five minutes, when I projected the video for everyone, I began to see this filming as a fun, natural way for the students and me to assess varying levels of collaboration within groups.  Also, I have a new tool for my assessing the kinds of questions they ask, and just as important, how I answer those questions.  Among today’s discoveries, this one excites me the most–partly because I have started reading a book about student questions and partly because I see a natural way to mix student engagement, technological tools and my own self-assessment.  The book, incidentally, is called Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions and written by Rothstein and Santana (Harvard  Education Press, 2011).

3. The wording of the assignment’s instructions, appearing below a copy of the State Department’s official seal, gave me license to inject a realistic feel to my interactions with the students.  In my role as Special Assistant to Secretary Clinton, I could make sure they understood the need to work efficiently together.  State Department staff members often need to work on short notice.  They need to find, understand and communicate information with efficient collaboration.  I like to think that today, when some wish they could waste time, we had fun playing roles and learning more about another country.  As one of the team leaders was packing her backpack, she explained where the country’s two major airports are.  Out of genuine safety concerns, this student wanted to make sure that Secretary Clinton landed in an appropriate location.  You will have to believe me that this girl, on the day before spring break,  sounded as if she had suspended her disbelief.  Her imagination had taken her authentically into this assignment.  What a joy it was for me to hear her speak in this tone, in these terms.  We took one person’s potential and planted it in fresh soil.


Filed under beauty, challenge, creative solutions, empathy, expression, imagination, trust, work

empathetic models

Yes, we teachers are, or we have that potential.  In a recent department meeting, I described the three stars of my guiding constellation as imagination, empathy and expression.  A brief word here about the middle term.

Trust and fairness drive lasting relationships between students and teachers.  Incidentally, face to face contact fosters fairness and trust more readily than online communication.  This I believe.

To build trust and fairness, I try to write student assignments, or pieces of them, as often as I can.  Not only does this practice help me anticipate and reflect on their experience, but it also presents an empathetic model to them.  In other words, they see me walk in their shoes.  I can describe my own struggles and successes with the assignment.  Additionally, as in the sample below, I can use my work to show them tricks for theirs.

Yesterday, before they started writing on the topic of true character, I showed them my brief piece on a related passage from Hamlet, the story we are studying.  They were asked how Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy helps determine the level of his genuineness in telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has lost all of his mirth.  I projected, and posted online, my short analysis of the structure of this lost-mirth speech (2.2.278 ff.).  The sample also show students various ways to punctuate the inclusion of quotations.  Enjoy this draft–a draft, mind you.  To present empathetic models, we occasionally need to show drafts.  This reminds some students that we do not have to be perfect always.

Heaven and Earth: the structure of Hamlet’s lost-mirth speech

When Hamlet explains to R & G the likely reasons for their being sent by Claudius to test him, he structures his speech in an hourglass shape.  At the top of his speech, he begins with this broad (general) statement: “I have of late . . . lost all my mirth” (2.2.280).  From there he moves into a specific demonstration of this lost joy, in order to show how deep is his despair.  “This goodly frame, the earth” seems to him “a sterile promontory” (2.2.282-3).  In this section of the speech, he expounds on the beautiful majesty of the heavens.  This paean to the skies leads to the majesty of mankind.  Here lies the hinge.  As the lower part of the hourglass descends, Hamlet exclaims, “What a piece of work is man.  How noble in reason” (2.2.286-7).  As above, he finds several ways to express the glories of human beings.  Alas, at the bottom of the glass, he returns to another broad statement: “Man delights not me” (2.2.290).  Even this magnificent creature mankind brings him no joy; he can find no light in his dark world.  Everything has fallen to the bottom, where it lies still and sterile.


In another class, students are examining specific ways in which Julia Alvarez humanizes the Mirabal sisters, legendary heroines in her Dominican novel, In the Time of the Butterflies.  More than one student has argued that showing a character in her moments of unguarded emotion brings her to life, down from her legendary pedestal.  Alvarez shows the sisters struggling to make decisions, reacting to making mistakes and needing to care for other people.  I believe that we humanize our teaching, and therefore the learning process, when we show students this side of us.  Projecting our version of an assignment can move us this direction.  To borrow from the Hamlet exercise above, such movement shows our true character, which, in turn, encourages students to do the same.  This seems like a fair exchange to me.

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