Category Archives: work

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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“And at times the fact of his absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep.”

A family tribute to our good friend who died suddenly several days ago.

“And at times the fact of his absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep.”.

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Regular Writing #1

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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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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to live on the hillside

As has happened more than once–ask my wife–while walking through a room in our house, I spotted a book.  This time it was Wendell Berry’s Standing by Words: Essays (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 1983).  I pulled it from the shelf mostly because of yesterday’s post–about not wasting chances to grow something.  Passages from Berry’s book have fed me ever since I found it in Durham, NC some years ago.  One of its passages I have framed; it hangs in my office at work. It describes the value of discipline.  Yesterday’s post about saving radish sprouts made me want to review a few passages I had tagged in the book.  I found two to include here.

As some readers may know, Wendell Berry likes to write about farming. In fact, the following excerpts come from his essay called “People, Land, and Community.”  I enjoy and appreciate his descriptions of agricultural rhythms, especially in this our increasingly digital world.  I find comfort and value in his discussion of time.  It simply takes time to grow things, and discipline to stay with the same soil.  I am starting to hear echoes of the teaching profession in passages like these below.

“But to think of the human use of a piece of land as continuing through hundreds of years, we must greatly complicate our understanding of agriculture.  Let us start a job of farming on a given place–say an initially fertile hillside in the Kentucky River Valley–and construe it through time.

“1. To begin using this hillside for agricultural production–pasture or crop–is a matter of a year’s work.  This is work in the present tense, adequately comprehended by conscious intention and by the first sort of knowledge I talked about–information available to the farmer’s memory and built into his methods, tools, and crop and livestock species.  Understood inits present tense, the work does not reveal its value except insofar as the superficial marks of craftsmanship maybe seen and judged.  But excellent workmanship, as with a breaking plow, may prove as damaging as bad workmanship.  The work has not revealed its connections to the place or to the worker.  These connections are revealed in time.

“2. To live on the hillside and use it for a lifetime gives the annual job of work a past and a future.  To live on the hillside and use it without diminishing its fertility or wasting it by erosion still requires conscious intention and information, but now we must say good intention and good (that is, correct) information, resulting in good work.  And to these we must now add character: the sort of knowledge that might properly be called familiarity, and the affections, habits, values, and virtues ((conscious and unconscious) that would preserve good care and good work through hard times” (71-72).

There you are then.  One of my marked passages from Wendell Berry’s book.  Living on the hillside is like living with the students.  Knowledge and memory, affections and patience–we depend on these for results that emerge later, sometimes much later, in time.

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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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literature: super-collider

In the first of my #twittertuesdays @bllbrwn423–a weekly series on tweeking writing–I quote from a novel called The Book Thief.  Liesel, the young female protagonist, finds the first of many gifts in a discarded, deflated soccer ball.


Today’s New York Times reports that teams of scientists have observed a “striking bump” in the data from their colliding particles.  The “suspicious bumps” have become “striking bumps.”  This sub-atomic categorical movement, this small gift, has produced a “tantalizing hint” of the existence of the Higgs Boson, which some call the God particle.

This recent scientific news story intrigues me for all kinds of reasons.  For example, what is the elusive sub-atomic particle at the base of effective, enduring teaching and learning?  Today, however, it intrigues me because I see students in literature study as teams of interpreters.  When particular matter collides in a novel like Frankenstein, for example, how do these students make sense of the resulting material, or the material results?  When Mary Shelley designs her experiment to collide creator and creature, how do these teams of young minds interpret the results?

For example, does Victor Frankenstein’s world of pains transform him from “an Intelligence” into “a Soul”?  Students wrote answers to this question, based on a letter from John Keats to his brother George, as practice for their recent semester examination.  On the exam itself, they agreed or disagreed with the proposition that, unlike Beowulf, Mary Shelley’s novel blurs the lines between protagonist and the “monster.”     Having stated their position, they  explained their claim’s effect on an understanding of the term “monster.”

As a last thought, I cannot help but observe that much of Mary Shelley’s fanciful story orbits around Geneva, home to the noteworthy super-collider that is producing “striking bumps” and “tantalizing hints”–small gifts all, the first of many.


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to articulate sweet sounds

“. . . Better go down upon your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

from W. B. Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”

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