Category Archives: reasons for writing

Learning through Exams: Henry Redbird interviews Mr. Brown

Recently, Henry Redbird sat down with Mr. Brown to ask him about semester exams in high schools.  Lately, students and teachers have been wondering why have exams at all.  In the wake of this wondering, I asked Mr. Brown for his thoughts on the subject.

How long do students spend writing an exam, and how long do you spend reading them?

Most students write the exam in two hours.  Those approved for extended time take either three or four hours, depending on their individual accommodation.  For my part, I typically need twenty-five to thirty hours to read the tests thoughtfully.  I take breaks every few hours, so that I stay fresh and attentive to the nuances of individuals’ performances.

What do you look for in a student’s exam results?

As happens during the semester, a rubric governs my assessment.  The basic rubric expects students to organize and express their ideas clearly, to develop those ideas beyond an initial statement, and to provide compelling evidence from the literary texts.  I use these same criteria for the exam.  To help students grow towards greater mastery of content and skills, I usually publish model responses from their classmates, after the exam period.  People who review these models can see where to strengthen their performance on the next exam.  Rather than showing each student where he or she went wrong with a particular question, an impractical idea given the time I already spend reading exams,  I prefer this  model-method for the type of exams they take in this course.  With this approach, students can make the comparisons themselves.

What did you learn from this most recent set of exams?

Here I need to differentiate between the senior and sophomore tests. In the case of the seniors, I learned several valuable lessons.  First is that the test produced a spectrum of results, which I take as a healthy sign.  Some students rose to the challenge of the questions by carefully expressing original insights.  At the other end, some students had trouble creating coherent responses.  For most of the students in between, the questions pushed them to consider familiar material in new ways.  The senior exam had three sections: poetry, reflections on our Nobel profile project and an essay comparing Beowulf to elements in current or historical events.  The poetry section was fairly straightforward, testing students’ working knowledge of basic poetic terms like metaphor, imagery and alliteration.  In applying such terms to their analysis of an unfamiliar poem, they showed a significant range of competence.  The Nobel section interested me most, both before and after I read the responses.  This section, just like the Nobel project itself, was a new project.  I didn’t know what to expect, but student reflections from the exam demonstrated that many students waded through the project’s early stages, but over time came to appreciate the commitment of their chosen scientist and their own work in revising the profile over and over.  It was fun and gratifying to see the care students took in writing these exam reflections.  In the last section, students rose or fell depending on how well they could sustain an argument with specific references to the text.  Beowulf is an old text, and I enjoyed reading the creative ways people could connect elements of that poem to patterns of human behavior they see in other moments of human history, including today’s world.

As for the sophomores, they also had three sections: poetry, short stories and comparative essay.  I enjoyed reading all three of these sections for different reasons.  What I learned most was the skill with which the sophomores analyzed a short story they had only seen once briefly before the exam.  I was very impressed with the care and insight everyone brought to that writing.  I knew they would do well in this section, but I didn’t expect such vigorous success across the board.  The poetry section involved some original composition, and I learned who was most able to produce original lines on short notice.  I also learned, once again, how central one’s understanding of metaphor is to the study and writing of poetry.  People who struggled with those questions, struggled elsewhere in the poetry section.  Lastly, the essay asked them to compare two unlikely partner pieces: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.  These essays showed me a number of connections I had not considered.  Again, as in other parts of this test and the senior exam, students who had a basketful of details to pull from ended up producing the more engaging arguments.

In short, the exam results taught me new ways of thinking about the literature we have read together.  It also confirmed aspects of most students’ semester performances, while bringing to my attention the tenuous grasp other students have on elements of our studies.  These later lessons will help me sharpen not only future assignments, but also my attention to the assessment of those exercises.  When I read a set of exams, I would like fewer surprises, especially negative ones.

What, if anything, do you plan to do differently in the next set of semester tests?

I am not sure.  I don’t imagine huge changes in my approach because this most recent set taught me what I was hoping it would.  During the several weeks leading up to the exam, I kept re-calibrating the questions based on what students were showing about their levels of understanding.  I like the way the questions eventually fit their readiness.  I like to challenge students just the right amount.  Call it the Goldilocks effect.   Next time, I will use the same process but with different material and a group of students who have grown beyond their current capabilities.

In your experience over the years, how much do semester exams contribute to the overall learning process?

I am not sure what they teach students.  I’d like to understand that part of the equation better.  Exams do teach me something, however–something significant each time.  For example, in the case of sophomores, this past set has revealed weak spots in some students’ understanding that had not registered with me before the exams.  That’s a weak spot of mine.  With this knowledge, as I said earlier, I can sharpen our course activities to build understanding more completely across all students.  I know that over the years my work with students has become more productive because of what I have learned from exams.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Brown.

Thank you, Mr. Redbird, for bearing with my long-winded answers.  I think about such things quite a bit, and I don’t always know when to stop.  Now looks like a good time.



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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.





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meeting students where they are


This post concerns an encouragement I have been hearing over the past several years: let’s be sure to meet students “where they are.”  I tend to translate this suggestion in terms of technological tools.  Working with the digital natives of today, I should push myself to find points of contact and types of  exercises that use today’s technology because the teenagers are using it to to communicate with each other and the world at large.

Recently I have been exploring another way to translate the phrase “where they are”–namely the students’ emotional location.  Tools are valuable, and they evolve over time.  The astute teacher watches these developments and adapts the tools that have the greatest potential.  At the same time, however, I don’t want to neglect a core part of people young and old.

For example, seniors in my classes have begun reading Hamlet.  A student asked me why I had assigned them to memorize and speak before an audience Hamlet’s response to his mother, “Seems Madam?”  This student wondered if other schools around the country asked students to do this.  She followed up with “Is this a popular or well-known speech?”   I told her that I thought the emotional content of the speech would resonate with her and her classmates.  The speech, as I read it, scornfully laments to Hamlet’s mother: you don’t understand me.

A close friend visited our home recently.  As we were talking about writing and education, I said that one idea underlying my writing instruction is that teenagers feel this need to be understood by their parents and other adults.  Have you ever felt as if people do not understand you as well as you want?  I carry this question in my mind as I work with students and their writing.  I want them to feel more capable in expressing themselves and their feelings.

For this and other reasons,  I ask seniors to memorize these eleven lines from Shakespeare’s play:

Seems madam?  nay it is, I know not seems.

‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly.  These indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play,

But I have that within which passes show —

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.



Then I happened to read a “By the Book” interview with Gabrielle Hamilton (NYTimes BK Rev 23 Nov 2014: 8), in which she answers the question, “What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?”  Hamilton’s response: “Some of those great books do not become available or apparent to you until you are ready to receive them.”

In other words, part of my job is to help high school seniors be ready to receive Hamlet the character.  Instead of  wanting to meet students “where they are,” I want them to meet Hamlet where he is, which, emotionally speaking, is closer to their experience than they or others may realize.  I told this year’s seniors that before they graduate, I would like them to meet a friend of mine.  His name is Hamlet, and he has taught me a lot over the years.  I value this relationship, as it has evolved over time.


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what I wish for, what I work for

penIn the days after extremists murdered magazine staff in France, I read essays from several journalists I admire.   This admiration reminds me of what I wish for and what I work for on behalf of students. The first essay was written by David Kirkpatrick, a former student from a school where I used to work.  This fact by itself occasions a certain pride.  Beyond this feeling, though, I admire the perspective he brings to the subject because he lives with his family in Cairo.  He knows his subject because he has made the commitment to inhabit the place.  As transplanted correspondent, he has credibility.  In a sense, he has done his homework.  His new home is his work.  The second essay, by David Brooks, I admire for its memorable metaphor–that and its ability to draw valuable distinctions in this challenging conversation.  For example, he distinguishes between the “adult table” and “kids’ table” of journalists.  Though I do not entirely agree with his placement of some professionals, his image remains with me.  Finally, the third essay, by Nicholas Kristof, shares qualities with the first two.  In addition, it expresses a thoughtful caution for those of us who might react to extreme intolerance with our own version of the same: “One of [the] things I’ve learned in journalism is to beware of perceiving the world through simple narratives, because then new information is mindlessly plugged into those story lines.  In my travels . . . extremist Muslims have shared with me their own deeply held false narratives of America as an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam.  That’s an absurd caricature, and we should be wary ourselves of caricaturing a religion as diverse as Islam.”  Kristof’s essay invites me to imagine the world I wish for and work for.  I wonder what extremists imagine as their intended world.  For my part, as a teacher, I wish for and work for students who can respond credibly to challenging situations, create memorable metaphors and beware of unquestioned thoughts.

p.s. I shared a draft of this paragraph with my students, as a way of showing them some of the reasons we do what we do together, in and out of class.  Periodically, I need to show these reasons to myself and to them.  The events of this past week reinforce my sense of purpose as one adult guide of their development as writers and thinkers.

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ethical decisions in the digital age. exam preamble

Students in my high school classes recently wrote their semester exams.  Before turning to the test questions, they signed the following “Exam Preamble.”  Last week, I asked them to write a brief response to the preamble, so that the paragraph would not surprise them during the exam and so that I could revise parts to fit their thinking.

I welcome your feedback, too.

Before you read it, though, you need background information.  First, throughout the semester students have been using a “prescribed writing template” each time they submit a digital document.  Almost all of their assignments are submitted to, where I leave scores and comments they can access.  Second, they wrote their entire exam on a laptop, which means they had ready access to the internet during the test.  They submitted the completed exam to Turnitin.

I explained to students last week that I am taking a risk in placing this preamble at the front of their test, but this risk represents my respect for them.  The following preamble is founded on several other ideas that I won’t discuss here, but not because they aren’t important.  We have been through an agricultural revolution, an industrial one and now the digital/information age is upon us.  We’re in the thick of it, and we have to wrestle with new flavors of ethical decisions.


Exam Preamble. December 2014

Acknowledgments: Philosophy and Policy

Using a prescribed writing template, with a default pledge-header and acknowledgment-footer, gives you, today’s students, the important experience of recognizing and appreciating your individual interpretations. Waist deep in the digital revolution, today’s students need guided experience of meaningful struggle because the media-saturated culture is relentlessly telling you what to think and do. iPhone sales are up, again. We need to have the newest model, or we won’t keep up with our friends or the world. Stories of long lines outside the Apple store reveal this compulsion. Whether you are eyeing a new phone or considering your stance on immigration policy, other voices are poised not only to give you their chosen information, but also to tell you what you should think. It is important to know your own thoughts, independent of other people. How else can you digest their information or opinions? Experience tells me people, not just students, import other people’s thoughts because they lack confidence in their own thinking. Struggle is natural. Everyone has his or her own struggles. Don’t run away from yours by borrowing someone else’s solution. Stay with the problem and work through it. At schools across the country, I have served on Integrity Councils. Students appearing before the student-faculty boards almost always reveal that a lack of confidence helps explain their wrongdoings. These students, be they freshmen or seniors, say they were worried about their grades or reputation. Sometimes, they simply did not want to be wrong. Ironic? You have reason to feel confident. I want to know your ideas, your way of seeing things. Plus, it is unfair and dishonest to represent someone else’s ideas as your own, when you know you have found them in a source other than your own mind, our class discussions or the literature we have been studying. Class work, brief exercises and past exams all show me the creative ways students respond to questions about character motivation or thematic development. For example, seniors have offered new ways of seeing the sources of Dr. Frankenstein’s struggle, and sophomores are producing insight into the central tensions within Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Students who are creative, confident and honest can make a difference in this world. The world is smarter and stronger, when diverse individuals clearly express their particular perspectives.




I, the undersigned, hereby confirm that I have read and understand the above paragraph.


Also, I understand that if I should access any online source(s), which Mr. Brown strongly advises me against doing, I am responsible for clearly identifying the source(s) in the acknowledgment-footer of my exam. Failure to do so will result in an exam failure and further disciplinary action.



Student signature___________________________________________(date)______________



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On Being a Student: exposure + reflection = learning

As I have written previously in this series, my recent NEH experience differs significantly from that of my students during the “academic year.”  I applied and was accepted for two weeks of focused study.  I chose the subject, and I  devoted eight hours a day to this pursuit, not counting the preparatory reading before the course began.

By contrast, “my” students attend class for fifty minutes, except for the one eighty-minute block per week.  For most of the students, this class is one of seven they encounter in a day.

During my two weeks this summer, the leaders provided a wide array of material.  We were exposed to a rich range of primary and secondary sources, covering classical and modern poetry from as far west as Sierra Leone and Cordova and as far east as Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.  Because we read, heard and discussed so much, I feel the need to review and reflect on our handouts and my notes.  Without this process of reflection, much of what ran across my ears, eyes and mind will flow over the dam–like the water in the attached photograph from the north Georgia mountains.

This same photograph depicts the beauty of reflection.  Students, which includes me and those high schoolers with whom I work, need time to reflect.  What strikes me most about this picture and this process is the stillness.  The clearest reflection occurs when the water looks like glass, when the pond becomes a mirror.  Yes, we can digest valuable material by moving, performing and altering details of the subject matter–and this often works well, but this post focuses on reflection, rather than active re-working.  (One kind of re-working, for example, to which I am particularly partial when studying poetic traditions, is to compose original pieces in the spirit and/or form of those traditions.  In the context of the NEH work, the ghazal tradition comes first to mind.)

Finally, a reflective tool (reflective pool?) I invented several years ago.  Since then, students in my courses have used it to reveal–to themselves and me–the impact of their studies.  Why not use this same tool to reflect on my NEH work this summer?  According to the students’ “short writing rubric,” I will try to write according to these three criteria: clear, specific, developed.

long mtn pond








Regular Reflection Sheet



Name:_________________________________________   Date:



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, 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, Sierra Nevada Mtns, CA)



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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.

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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.



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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.


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everyday poetry

This poem from Wendell Berry’s New Collected Poems captures my feeling that poems do not have to change the world, though some do.  They can simply add a song from a person who is like no other.  That’s what we all have in common–we are distinctly ourselves.  Celebrate and develop that  unique voice by continuing to sing.


He comes along the street, singing,

a rag of a man, with his game foot and bum’s clothes.

He’s asking for nothing–his hands

aren’t even held out.  His song

is the gift of singing, to him

and to all who will listen.


To hear him, you’d think the engines

would all stop, and the flower vendor would stand

with her hands full of flowers and not move.

You’d think somebody would have hired him

and provided him a clean quiet stage to sing on.


But there’s no special occasion or place

for his singing–that’s why it needs

to be strong.  His song doesn’t impede the morning

or change it, except by freely adding itself.


p.s.  I don’t yet follow Berry’s statement, “that’s why it needs / to be strong.”  Strong in what sense(s)?  Why does not having a special occasion require this strength? I enjoy the poem because it renders one of my beliefs about the value of regular poetry.  Even so, I need to wrestle with this mysterious statement.  Any ideas, anyone?


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