Category Archives: imagination

subversive activity

The title echoes one of my early teaching bibles, Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  The main inspiration for today’s writing comes from a paragraph in Evangelia G. Chrisikou’s recent article, “Your Creative Brain at Work” (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2012).

After quoting the paragraph, I will comment on the teacher-as-disturber, the openings of Shakespeare’s plays and of Ed Park’s recent short story–as well as the role of poetry.  Shakespeare wrote in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and I did not know him personally, except through his writing.  Ed Park, on the other hand, lives in NYC today, and I do know him, not only through his writing.  For example, my wife and I had lunch with him in NYC several summers ago.

Here’s the quote about brains at work:

Although creativity has long been considered a gift of a select minority, psychologists are now revealing its seeds in mental processes, such as decision making, language and memory, that all of us possess.  Thus, we can all boost our creative potential.  Recent studies show promise for techniques that break down people’s established ways of viewing the world as well as strategies that encourage unconscious thought processes. 

Here are the comments:

Recently, I have billed myself (sorry) as someone who likes to ask questions.  In fact, I am currently reading a book called Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  If we are to help students by educating them, which from Latin means leading them out (presumably of themselves), we have to regularly ask thoughtful, thought-provoking questions, while giving students real practice at doing the same.  The questions drive the work; otherwise, what’s the point of all this reading and writing?

I think of these moments in literature: the opening of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with its raucous crowd of Caesar opponents and proponents (consider present-day Cairo); the start of Romeo and Juliet, with its feuding families; the haunted tower of Hamlet, with its disorienting apparition.  In each case, the story starts with disturbance.  So the story of student learning begins with disturbance, questions and subversion.  What one has thought is tested; new theories, interpretations and understandings must be forged, shaped and tested.

Ed Park’s short story, “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” published in the journal Open City (Winter 2010-2011), begins with entertaining uncertainty.  Halfway through a sentence, I realize the need to adjust the “horizon of expectations.”*  The narrator, being ever so generous, helps me adjust my view.  Here is the story’s first paragraph:

When I call my parents, my mom tells me my dad is busy teaching a class on the internet.  That is, the class is in a classroom but the topic is the Internet.  More specifically, he’s teaching seniors–that is, old people–how to blog, write anonymous comments on news articles without panicking, poke their children on Facebook, and get away with not writing h, t, t, p, colon, backslash, backslash, w, w, w, dot before every web address.

The best poetry breaks down “people’s established views” and “encourages unconscious thought processes.”  I like to think of writing poems as a technique for doing this, with all due respect to what recent scientific studies show.  Think of Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” which asks readers/listeners to take a poem and hold it to the light like a color slide, or run their hands along its wall to feel for the light switch.  Metaphors like these, when students read or make them, turn their lens, tip an object or idea this way or that.

So, in practical terms, what do these ideas mean for work with students?  First, let’s acknowledge the role played by “essential questions” in many curricula.  I understand the rise of this organizational method.  At the same time, as indicated by my current reading,  I believe the strongest school results come from students who know how, and are given the chance or responsibility, to ask their own questions, meaning questions that mean something to them.

This year, I have experimented with broad essential questions that serve the curricula I inherited when I changed schools.  These questions have proved productive enough that I will likely use them again this coming year.  I am finding that they generate students’ sub-questions.  Here are the essential ones I have used.  The number shows grade level.

12 Where do we find struggle, internal and external?  Where do we see monsters or demons, and what makes them so?  What influences our responses to these struggles and monsters?

10 Who am I?  What are my primary responsibilities to myself and the communities in which I live?

For context, I should add that the senior classes began with Beowulf, while the sophomores opened with Oedipus Rex.   Imagine how you would apply the questions to these texts.  Also, I should add that Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation–the one we use–includes an account of his personal linguistic struggle, having grown up in Northern Ireland.  In patiently facing this fundamental challenge, he produces a statement that hangs above the entrance to the classroom in which I teach:  “my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered” (xxvi).  It turns out that the linguistic history of the Old English word meaning “to suffer” resolved Heaney’s personal struggle.

So, let’s keep an eye on established views, while asking questions that may disturb.  We can ask such questions of the material students are experiencing, but we can also ask them of ourselves as educators.  For example, what are the “established ways of viewing the world” among today’s teachers?  Who establishes them?  How do we determine that they are, in fact, established?

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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.


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