Category Archives: expression


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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reasons I can’t reveal

For reasons I can’t reveal, I have created a significant number of writing prompts for original stories and essays.  The complete list of these prompts will appear on class homework blogs this year, so that students can regularly use them to start a new piece of their own writing.  Initially, I will likely limit the length, as a way to encourage the habit of writing  and to enable more prompt comments.  The list contains enough prompts that we could write one a week, and I may try to keep this pace at the start of this project.

I mention this project because I plan to participate.  Maroonballoon will host my writings that can model the process for students.  Students will have their own writing blogs, which will house their pieces from this project (for which we do not yet have a name), as well as regular reflections on the course readings.

The project and the student blogs are two more experiments.  Like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider, we need to keep sending forth filament, filament, filament ’til a ductile anchor hold.


In my next post, I will start participating in this project–tentatively titled “growing writing” or “working the soil” or “regular writing.”  The last one appeals to me, since it sets up student blogs for a complementary title, “reflective writing.”  Or we could just say “prompts” and “reflections.”  In any case, I will start with this prompt: Making things is harder than destroying them.  Who do you know who is a successful builder?  What does this person build or make—houses, clothes, food, friends or something else?

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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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pattern recognition

I find myself repeating myself.

As I wrote yesterday’s post, I found myself repeating myself.  In other words, ideas or phrases kept re-emerging, floating to the surface of my attention.  For example, the gaps I mean–to echo Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”  The idea of gaps cycled back through my attention, and I enjoyed its return because that gave me momentum.  The momentum was fueled by the fun surprise of the re-emergence; I did not plan so much as discover it.  A bit like turning over soil and discovering worms wriggling about.  Once the idea of gaps returned for the first time, I began seeing it as a recurring theme that I could intentionally nurture.  A structure of sorts emerged, or a motif.  I could then identify and develop different kinds of gaps.  Sometimes I impose structures beforehand, but at times like this, the frameworks emerge more organically.  In these vacation reflections, I can play around with this organic material.

So what about pattern recognition?  This is a specific skill within the broader ability called problem-solving.  Teachers need to help students develop this specific skill, and literature study provides a tool for this training.  So does reflective writing.  One benefit of my playing around with this organic material–there I go repeating myself–is that I can practice pattern-recognition.  In this particular case, I have seen a concept repeated.  The start of a pattern happened unintentionally, for the most part; I then continued the pattern on purpose.

link to previous post

Students benefit from being able to “listen” to the sequence of their own ideas.  Reflective writing can provide practice at “hearing” recurring concepts in their mind.  Those patterns, I have found, serve as productive launching pads for their individual writing.  Their voices are more likely to emerge in writing that builds from patterns in their own minds.

final comments

I enjoyed seeing the idea of gaps recur.  This recognition had the ring of revelation.  Maybe not to the scale of Joyce’s epiphany, but it had a spark of joyful learning nonetheless, and that’s my main reason for sharing it.  Many writers no doubt have already firmly learned this feeling of pattern recognition emerging from their composing, but–to paraphrase Neruda’s “Ars Poetica I”– I am learning this by working with my own hands, which is the kind of learning I hope for students.

Yesterday, I hung some dill branches in the shed to dry.  Later, we can use the dried seeds to flavor dinner dishes or to plant new seedlings.  In either case, the dill work reminds me of an idea for my youtube series, growing writers.  That series explores connections between gardening and writing.  In the case of dill and yesterday’s post, I have harvested the idea of gaps  for future use.  Since the seeds are drying, I can use them any time I want–to flavor a meal or grow more plants.

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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.


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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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Seeing the Stars from a Submarine

In a section of his most recent book, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, President Carter writes about the symbol of light.  He begins by explaining the importance of the stars to him and his navy crew aboard a submarine.  I was struck by the paradox of navigating by stars while deep under water, before my brain realized the solution:  the submarine must surface to see the stars.

This paradox reminds me of how I sometimes feel as a classroom teacher, looking for dependable guidance while submerged in daily activities. (Not to mention coming up for air.)  At regular intervals, I must surface to use the sextant, if I want to remain safely on course.  President Carter describes the navigational details for people, like me, who need reminding.  He finds three stars, and measures their altitude.  From these measurements, he ascertains his ship’s position on the map.

This description makes me wonder by what three stars I measure my course, and the course of the various groups of students with whom I work each year. Enter Robert Evans, whose recent article in Independent School magazine—shown to me by a generous colleague—describes concrete ways in which teachers can move their professional exchanges from congenial to collegial.  Among his suggested vehicles for such exchanges is the time-tested Critical Friends Groups (CFG).  In other schools, I have participated in such professional in-school groups and found them productive.

President Carter’s chapter about light helps me imagine a particular kind of CFG—one centered on the participants’ three guiding stars.  How does each group member find his or her three stars?  What are those stars?  And how, in terms of students’ daily experiences and accumulated learning, do the adults ascertain their position on the map?  I think of this professional proposal as a Constellation of Colleagues.  We often encounter published frameworks, grids and tables of principles, outcomes and designs.  As helpful as these have been for me and for students over the years, I think it could be fun and productive to explore a natural version, which grows from the participants’ finding, describing and using their own three stars.  When you look to the sky for guidance, what do you use?  Ideally, individuals’ three stars align with the school’s official stars.  Where they do not, people have an opportunity for meaningful discussion.  One advantage to this Constellation of Colleagues idea is that it can cut across traditional disciplines.  People of various backgrounds, interests and training can gather to share basic values.  They can even, as a final creative project, draw and name their group’s constellation.

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the balloon of the mind

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

Part of this blog’s title comes from Yeats’s poem. He captures the constant challenge faced by those who write.

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When you can

When you can, try to experience exercises you give your students.  Below is my draft/sketch of a poem, in response to a question I recently gave students.  Using Rilke’s poem, “I live my life in growing orbits,” I asked them if they were “a falcon, a storm or a great song.”  I asked them to answer in a poem of at least ten lines.  Since they are relatively new to composing their own poems, they only received these instructions.

Later I will tell them that remembering a particular experience can start, or open up a poem.  In this case, instead of choosing one of Rilke’s three images, I combined them–in a poem about an experience I had as a nine year old boy.  This is a draft, remember. Typically, I do not share drafts so soon after they appear, but I did this time.  As with many of my poetic sketches these days, I have the students partly in mind because I want to show them something about a specific assignment, or about poetry in general.  It is hard to disconnect myself from this role, even when I try to write “for myself,” whatever that means.

With the wind and sun at my back,

I spread the bones and feathers

of my dark brown wings, as I pierce

the blue sky like an urgent arrow.

Like lightning, I pedal my young

frame to find my father.

I am a messenger in a storm of fear

that my mother’s mother is dying.

Keening and careening that Saturday morning,

I throw my bike to the ground

and sing my legs faster

than they think they can run.

My mother has sent me to the land

in between, where my grandmother also goes.


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