Archive for April, 2011

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Ten Reasons To Consider Writing A Teaching And Learning Blog (Reason Zero: You Can List The Main Points Of Your Presentation In An Easily Accessible Format That Also Illustrates Your Topic)

April 22, 2011

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether people do. • B.F. Skinner (1969), Contingencies of Reinforcement

I am presenting at an educational technology summit today and although I have a handout with examples, I also wanted to illustrate the use of a blog in some related way. As I was working on something else, it occurred to me that all I needed to do was write a post that listed the main points I’ll be covering. I’ll have something to show and I’ll also be creating an outline for the presentation (and yet another reason to “consider writing a teaching and learning blog”). Ain’t life grand?

Here are my ten reasons to consider writing a teaching and learning blog:

1. You Can Embed Class Assignments In Your Posts

2. You Can Address Concerns Without Singling Out Offenders

3. You Can Model Civility Through Your Digital Fingerprints

4. You Can Create Content Collaboratively

5. You Can Provide Easily Accessible Assessment Help And Hints

6. You Can Reference Research You’d Like Students To Think About

6. You Can Encourage Reflective Journaling And Metacognition

7. You Can Connect With Colleagues Who Face Mutual Challenges

8. You Can Provide Food For Thought About Important Issues In And Out Of The Classroom

9. You Can Learn To Write Brief—Or Relatively Brief—Pieces Quickly

10. You Can Learn About Yourself As A Writer, Teacher, Learner, And Otherwise Creative Person, Even If You Don’t Intend To!

I can think of other reasons, but I’m not planning to talk about them today, so, well, never mind! Here’s some home•work for you:

If you were beginning a blog—or starting a new one if you’re already a blogger—what would you write about first? What would you call your blog? Why? What advice would you give yourself—or any other blogger—related to carefully crafting a public persona?

This is perhaps the most beautiful time in human history; it is really pregnant with all kinds of creative possibilities made possible by science and technology which now constitute the slave of man—if man is not enslaved by it. [Women too.] • Jonas Salk

 

 

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It’s Mirthday Sillybration Day! Remember The Wisdom Of Beaver Cleaver’s Father, Ward, Who Said, “You’re Never Too Old To Do Goofy Stuff!”

April 16, 2011

Find something to laugh about. • Maya Angelou

I have long believed that this country needs a day to celebrate joy, silliness, delight, happiness, laughter, and other associated positivities. I am not a Pollyanna since I am prone to my own discouragements, but I do believe that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the negative. Thus I declare that April 16 (guess why!) is Mirthday Sillybration Day.

On with the dance, let joy be unconfined is my motto, whether there’s any dance to dance or any joy to be unconfined. • Mark Twain

Clearly, a Mirthday Sillybration requires no cards to purchase or gifts or decorations or special foods. There is no associated stress and zero expectations. You don’t have to invite company over unless it makes you happy and you don’t feel you need to clean up the house first and/or fix a fancy meal (unless, of course, these are things you enjoy). There’s nothing you have to do except take an hour or two or more to relax or have a good time or reconnect with someone or do something that brings you delight. In the spirit of non-stressful Sillybrating, you can even postpone it if it’s not convenient today and you truly must keep your nose firmly attached to a grindstone.

We should all do what in the long run gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. • E.B. White

If you’re wondering about what you might do, here’s some advice from that master of silliness, Shel Silverstein:

Draw a crazy picture

Write a nutty poem

Sing a mumble-gumble song

Whistle through your comb.

Do a loony-goony dance ‘cross the kitchen floor

Put something silly in the world

That ain’t been there before.

Some time ago, I wrote the following from the Berkeley Health Letter in my journal: “One of the keys to reducing stress isn’t just removing negative experiences from your life, but adding positive ones.” I hope you’ll add something positive to your life today!

Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans; it is lovely to be silly at the right moment. • Horace

Have some fun today! Sillybrate a Mirthday.

Cultivate more joy by arranging your life so that more joy will be likely. * George Witkin

 

 

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I’m A Grownup And It Makes Me Crazy To Be Treated Like A Child Who Doesn’t Know Who She Is Or What She Wants.*

April 12, 2011

I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in school. • Francis Ford Coppola

In my experience, school is mostly about teachers telling students they’re not smart, they can’t learn, or they didn’t do it right, and proving it through tests and dozens of other classroom interactions that show students who’s boss. • Pam Parshall, former community college instructor and student advocate, 2005

My mother loved learning, but she hated school. She read voraciously and kept current on what was happening in the world until her death at age 89. She philosophized and enjoyed talking about big ideas. She was a talented musician who began playing the piano by ear before she started kindergarten, her skill discovered after one of her older sister’s piano lessons when my mother sat at the piano and began to play the exercise her sister Mildred was supposed to be learning, but couldn’t master. My aunt hated piano lessons and quit shortly afterward. My mother became the teacher’s youngest pupil.

For more than two decades, I’ve been asking people when learning was fun for them, and here’s what my mother told me in 2001 when I asked her:

I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.

She went on to describe how little recognition her years in school provided for the things she had talents for or was interested in and how much of her time was focused instead on what she didn’t do well, but would need, teachers told her, in some ill-defined future that didn’t bear any resemblance to what she envisioned for her life. “I struggled with many traditional school subjects, always being told I would need those things to be successful in life, but I never did,” she said.

Throughout the Second World War she supported herself with her music. As a single mother after her first divorce, she supported the two of us with her music. Her music allowed her to remain in her dream house after she and my stepfather divorced. It was her music that kept her moving forward many months after doctors predicted she would be dead. It was her music that was her gift to the world, that brought her a lifetime of joy. “This is something I do well. I know my music touches people,” she told me as she shared stories of people she’d connected with because of her talent.

My mother could never understand how I could go back to school again and again as an adult. “I’d never survive,” she told me. Sometimes I’m surprised I survived it too. Sometimes I’m not sure that I did. It is hard to stay grounded in the possibility of what school can be when you are surrounded by messages of multiple kinds communicating what it is not.

I was recently in a meeting where one of the values I didn’t check on a “good work”-related list was honesty. In the subsequent conversation, I realized why. I do value honesty—although not the for-your-own-good-and-needlessly-cruel-kind—but when it comes to school, I am often not honest. I have more often been compliant, my smiling acquiescence masking an unruly brain trying to figure out how to bend the system to engage my interests. This is not always possible, and as a teacher I appreciate the difficulties inherent in truly addressing the idiosyncratic needs of individual students, so I do not fault my own teachers.

When you’re an adult and you go back to school, your expectations are colored by the years you’ve previously spent in classrooms. If those experiences were positive, or if you’re a person who doesn’t really mind being part of a system—“just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”—perhaps you don’t mind being an adult student in systems often designed primarily for those who transition seamlessly from high school to college. But if you’ve had some life experience, if you’ve discovered for yourself that some of what you were told by your teachers about “real life” is actually myth, if you previously resented being cooped up in a classroom where your interests were seldom considered, you may be disappointed, disheartened, resentful, and recalcitrant when you encounter more of the same.

You may want to know why you should put up with more of what you know will likely prove to be myth as well. You may believe that this time—when you’re paying—the experience should help you become what you want to be, not what a system thinks you should be. You may want to focus on what you’ve discovered interests you. You may actually believe that you know what is best for you.

I am a teacher. I love my work. I believe in the possibilities of school. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. I cherish every educator I know who longs for her or his classroom to offer opportunities for true intellectual engagement coupled with recognition of individual interests and talents. But sometimes I am reminded of how much there is to do to achieve this dream in every classroom and how inadequate I am, even in my own. I want to make a difference, but I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. If she were reading this, my mother would tell me that it doesn’t matter what I cannot do. What matters is that I keep doing what I can, no matter how imperfect.

What difference do you want to make? What keeps you motivated to keep trying?

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible. • E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

In total, I can say that I learned nothing in any school that I attended and see no point in mentioning places where my body sat at a desk and my soul was elsewhere. I wrote some poems in high school but stopped when my mother suggested that I had plagiarized them. • Anne Sexton, from her “Resume 1965,” found among her papers by her daughter

School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. • Leonardo DiCaprio

* The title quotation is from an adult student who asked to remain anonymous, commenting on her experiences in college and being told by her advisor that he knew what was best for her, 2009.

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A Poem Is Never Finished, Only Abandoned.*

April 11, 2011


A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. • Robert Frost

I told someone I lost my mother, but I find her everywhere. She’s lurking at the grocery store and at the movie theatre. She’s hidden in the pages of the books I used to buy and send to her. I see her among the bargains that she loved, like necklaces and earrings discounted seventy-five percent from their lowest marked price. We say the one who’s gone is lost, but I am the lost one, adrift in a world where I founder in the shoals of sadness, snagged by jagged rocks of memory that hide beneath the normalcy of life-goes-on. I try to find the poetry in my remembrance.

I am never sure when a poem begins because the words I write are not usually meant to be poems. I seldom sit down and say “I will write poetry today.” More often, I say “I will write,” and sometimes what emerges is the seed of a poem. Very seldom, a poem springs into being, words rushing onto the page or screen as fast as I can write. Instead, fragments arrive unbidden to be captured, saved, revisited again and again until they spark some resonance within. In my life, poetry cannot be forced and almost never flows no matter how much I might wish that it would. Right now, I very, very badly wish it would.

How do poems grow? They grow out of your life. • Robert Penn Warren

It’s almost three months since my mother died and I have begun many poems since her death. Most have been abandoned and I do not think that I will ever finish them. Revisiting the words is painful, leading me to sorrow, immersing me in grief when I want to remember joy. My mother was asked to leave a grief group shortly after my youngest brother’s unexpected death because she was not sad enough. Her upbeat attitude brought the group down, she was told. She would not want me to wallow in sadness either. “Remember me,” she’d say, “but it would make me sad to see you sorrowful. Enjoy your life and focus on the fun we had together.” I want to. I really do. It is not easy.

A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings—about human feelings and frailties. • Anne Stevenson

I do not want to hide these words where I can find them and be tempted to wrestle them into poems. Instead, I’ll abandon them here and call them done.

February 12, 2011. I wanted to play with the meanings of the word rest, the euphemism for death, the remainder, the break or relaxation, but it won’t come together as I make notes on the back of an envelope while I’m in the car. It’s a perfect example of a notion that could become something but likely never will.

A final heartbeat, a last breath,

and all my life becomes the rest.

Eternal rest

is followed by this daily rest when

life shifts into

days without and every day

I find no rest from emptiness.

I am ambushed by little things , a song on the radio, a pair of ticket stubs in a winter jacket I pull out of the closet when the weather unexpectedly turns cold, daffodils in the snow. I am adjusting to the bigness of forever, but these small reminders pull me back into my grief. As I am looking for course materials, I find something written by the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who authored the novel Gigi on which one of my mother’s favorite movies was based. She wrote: “It’s so curious:  one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions known what it means to want to escape from these things. • T.S. Eliot

February 14, 2011. I get emails from Disneyland addressed to my mother—an annual passport holder—because she didn’t have a computer. Their offers often begin with her name and I cannot bear to cancel them. My jewelry boxes are filled with rhinestone-encrusted landmines of remembrance and letter bombs await in the bookshelves where I secreted mothermail to read again. In the Goodwill, I begin another poem about these unexpected reminders:

I am ambushed by your absence and

every time I forget that you

are gone, you find me.

You lie in wait in the thrift store

where the empty sleeves of sweaters

in your favorite pink grab me

as I troll the aisles.

In the front yard the violets breathe

your name and I know that lilacs will soon

scent the air with your memory.

There are reminders everywhere and I cannot escape them. I do not know if I want to.

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. • William Hazlitt

February 26, 2011. I love wordplay and make these notes while we’re on the way to the grocery store:

Rest in peace, we say,

but in their end, it is our own

peace we seek:

a piece of precious remembrance without tears,

a piece of happiness without regret,

a piece of delight in what once was and

never again will be.

Yes. Rest in peace while we pick up

the pieces and move on.

March 2, 2011: The poet Robert Frost said that poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. I am still looking for the words that will help me remember and forget.

Forgetfulness is easy

if the heart is hardened,

if every thought of you is

abandoned,

if the mind refuses to

stoke the fires of memory and

lets the embers grow cold

from neglect.

Forgetfulness is easy

if all reminders are ruthlessly

purged, brutally

neglected, systematically

destroyed, efficiently

deleted, rooted out, leaving

nothing, not even ghosts of memories

behind.

My Saturday begins and I do not think of loss, but then the phone rings early—my mother was the only one who called me early—but, of course, it is not her and all the work I do after this wrong number bears the imprint of distraction. I cannot find the words today.

What words do you seek? What words do you find?

Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. • Charles Simic

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal. • From a headstone in Ireland

* Thanks to French poet Paul Valéry for the title quotation.

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Overcoming Writer’s Block: A Favorite Hint From The Ex-Lax® Of Writing Teachers (That Would Be Me!)

April 6, 2011


I asked Ring Lardner the other day how he writes his short stories, and he said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces. • Harold Ross

A student once called me “the Ex-Lax® of writing teachers” and I know what you might be thinking. However, this title was not bestowed because my assignments encouraged students to produce nothing but crap. (I do not censor this word here because it got me into trouble several times as a high school teacher, as did the word piss. There are some people who consider these words swearing, but my Grandma Wilkins, an extremely religious woman who said “hmmmm” instead of hell, used these particular vulgarities all the time, so I am inured to their power to shock.) No. I got the laxative title because the alternative school students with whom I was working were producing writing—lots of it—much of it coming from angry adolescents whose reluctance to put pen to paper had caused them to fail previous classes.

I am trained as a secondary English teacher. This means that I know the conventions of writing and I am also overly familiar with the conventional ways to approach writing as a task in school. And that’s the problem. Writing can be fun, but writing that’s always bounded by rules and prescriptions of properness is seldom fun for anyone. Because I made my living with words, often writing under deadline, before going back to school to become a teacher, and because I have been a lifelong researcher of creativity, I know that much of what I was supposed to be teaching about the processes of writing was also crap. I am definitely in favor of eventual correctness and I am not suggesting opening the gates and letting all manner of misspellings and grammatical incorrectness run rampant over the world’s pristine white pages. I am suggesting that an initial focus on these things can stop writers before they begin. I am also suggesting—No, wait! I’m asserting!—that the process of writing is highly idiosyncratic and that processes designed to help student writers may actually hinder some of them.

Some creative people approach writing tasks in well-mannered ways. They are organized and they know where they are going before they begin. I admire them. Surely this is some species of magic. There are writing teachers in this group. Other writing teachers—or teachers who require writing in their courses—are not writers themselves beyond having written the requisite papers or theses or dissertations for the courses they took along the way to getting their degrees. They muddled through these tasks and are sure that if they recommend the magic of well-ordered writing to their students, it will work for these others in ways that it did—or didn’t—work for them.

These teachers can be dangerous. They require standardized pre-writing and brainstorming. They require students to provide carefully detailed outlines before beginning papers. They require well-organized rough drafts that must be approved before an actual paper is written. They require perfectly stated theses and perfect paragraphs from the start. There is a correctness at the heart of their approach and all things must be done properly and in the proper order. These teachers require. They require. And they require some more. And they constipate those of us who have our own processes, whose writing emerges from the chaos of ideas.

I have long admired the work of Peter Elbow who reflects in his 1973 book, Writing without Teachers, on his own experiences as someone who wanted to be a teacher but struggled with writing. Elbow’s theories of composition are autoethnographic, and emerged from his life. Mine have as well. My favorite writing laxative comes from his book, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (1981, 1998). It can be found in Section II: “More Ways of Getting Words on Paper,” where Elbow describes “first thoughts,” saying that this activity asks the writer to just dump* out what s/he is thinking about the topic, acknowledging that these initial ideas are “not good thoughts or true thoughts—just first thoughts” (p. 61). This initial dumping reduces the pressure of initial significance and organization that often causes writers to procrastinate. Once students have something, they can begin to find directions for potential exploration.

Elbow’s idea is related to Ken Macrorie’s (1970, 1976), “I-Search” processes detailed in Telling Writing. To begin an I-Search project, the researcher asks questions:

• What do I want to learn more about? Why am I interested in this?

• What do I already know about this subject?

• What do I need to learn about this subject?

“First thoughts” and “I-Search” beginnings are kinds of brainstorming, another piece of writing theory that has become formulaic and patterned, with well-meaning teachers requiring students to draw circles and lines and make Venn diagrams and engage in multiple kinds of teacher-directed pre-writing activities with colored pencils and Post-It® notes and other aids to creation. However, as the writer Jessamyn West said in an interview in September 1957 in the Saturday Review,There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft.” I heartily agree. I am a list maker, a card collector, a file creator, and a bitpiecer. This means that I write my way into projects bits and pieces at a time—a paragraph here, a phrase there, a page or two in the morning when I awake—filing it all away until the deadline looms and I have to piece together the wordy mosaic of thought and bring order to the chaos.

There is a time for editing and proofreading and making sure that writing is ready to be read. There is a time to consider audience. There is a time to adhere to accepted conventions, particularly in an academic context. That time is not at the beginning of a writing task when writers must mindfully make meaning through an activity as personal as expressing voice on paper. I’ll end with a lengthy quotation from Writing with Power. If you want to be Ex-Lax® for your students, consider his words:

“Perhaps my general point would be clearer if I called this section ‘More Ways of Producing a First Draft,’ but I want to emphasize the fact that first-stage writing need not take the form of a draft. That is, it need not be a single connected piece of writing. There is no good reason why you must try to produce something in your first cycle of writing that resembles the form of what you want to end up with, Of course, if you have a vision of how your piece ought to be structured, yes, by all means do your raw writing in the form of a draft. But if you only have the hint of a hunch or some initial thoughts or incidents or images and you can’t see how they should be shaped, it’s usually best to go ahead all the same and plunge into what I call raw writing. Instead of a draft you will be producing a pile of rough ingredients. The fact is that you usually get more and better visions for how to shape these ingredients by starting to write them out however they happen to come off the pencil than by waiting till you get the so-called ‘right’ structure. Any structure that you dream up before actually getting your hands dirty in the writing itself is apt to be like a plan you work out for travel in an unfamiliar country: it usually has to be changed once you get there and see how things really work” (p. 47).

What do you do to overcome writer’s block? How do you begin a new writing project?

The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax. • Alfred Kazin, Think, February 1963 [Or herself. Sigh.]

* I trust that you are applauding my restraint as I pass up the opportunity to indulge in some verbal pun-ishment here.