Archive for the ‘school’ Category


If They Give You Lined Paper, Write The Other Way *

July 11, 2010

A box of new crayons!  Now they’re all pointy, lined up in order, bright and perfect.  Soon they’ll be a bunch of ground down, rounded, indistinguishable stumps, missing their wrappers and smudged with other colors.  Sometimes life seems unbearably tragic. • Bill Watterson

In my imagined memories I assert myself, tell my teachers no, refuse to do more of the same-old-thing, confess my ignorance, celebrate my strengths. In reality, I did none of these things. I was physically visible in my beautiful-to-me outfits, but I was intellectually invisible. What good were brains?

I hated school. Even to this day when I see a school bus it’s just depressing to me. The poor little kids. • Dolly Parton

Ranting digression: The start of school is on my mind because stores are getting ready for day one before I’ve even finished my final day. I’m still teaching. June is too early to start getting the shelves full of school supplies, but they were already appearing. July arrived and red-white-blue was quickly replaced by the colors of back-to-school. This happens every year, and while I can live with turkeys in August and Santa in September, there’s something about pencils and crayons and rulers and lined paper and bottles of glue and all the rest of it lining July shelves that irks me.

Certain peer pressures encourage little fingers to learn how to hold a football instead of a crayon.  Rumors circulate around the schoolyard:  kids who draw or wear white socks and bring violins to school on Wednesdays might have cooties.  I confess to having yielded to these pressures.  • Chris Van Allsburg

Thinking and asking questions only got me in trouble in school and at home. I learned my lessons well just like thousands of other children will learn or have confirmed this year when school starts again. They’ll comply, think convergently, take tests, raise their hands before talking, line up quietly, follow the rules, and learn to play all the games that adults believe good little girls and boys need to know in order to make it through life.

But I hope that they’ll also learn other things. How to think for themselves. How to have ideas. How to question accepted truth. How to ferret out lies. How to create, whether it’s with words or music or movement or with all the marvelous hands-on stuff the world is full of. How to appreciate themselves and how to appreciate others. How to find joy in little things. How to be optimistic and realistic at the same time. How to be themselves and revel in it.

Actually, all education is self-education.  A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education.  What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book.  You must fill in the colors yourself. • Louis L’Amour

What do you hope children will learn in school this fall?

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him [or her] to learn by creating curiosity, s/he will continue the learning process as long as s/he lives.• Clay P. Bedford

* This quotation is attributed to both Juan Ramon Ramirez and William Carlos Williams, so I provide both.


If I Were Queen Of Education, There Would Be Only Two Grades: Cares Or Doesn’t Care

July 1, 2010

There is, in the act of preparing, the moment when you start caring. • Winston Churchill

Whether you are a student or a teacher or an employee or a parent or a partner or any one of thousand other roles that each of us plays daily, you have to care about what you do if you want to produce good work. You have to love your work—not in the sense that every moment of your engagement with whatever it is that you have to do will bring you unbridled joy—but with an acceptance and a level of involvement that acknowledge its importance in your life.

I’m a teacher. I can tell when students hand in done-on-the-bus work, the kind of stuff that’s cobbled together at the last minute with little thought given to its creation. I’ve written about this before. It brings me no joy to receive this kind of work and even less joy to assess it. Sometimes this worth•less work even meets all the requirements and thus, my assessment can’t be too harsh. The work is likely to pass. But it still makes me sad.

I understand that there is meaning•less work distributed in classrooms all over the world. I understand that students don’t see the point of many things that they are asked to do. Sometimes there are assignments that don’t seem to have much of a point, although if you asked the teacher, there may well be a rationale. As a student, I’ve been asked to do some things that I consider hoopjumping, but I’ve also turned many of those hoops into opportunities to expand the possibilities of exploration in ways that please me and that make what might seem to be an empty exercise into something I cared about and was proud of when I finished.

You can do this too. School or work or parenting or whatever it is that you must do in life is always offering you the opportunity for authentic and enthusiastic engagement. Most teachers won’t tell you this explicitly, but they’re hoping you’ll get it. It’s the secret at the heart of lifelong learning. So your teachers create activities and assignments, design scoring guides, and try to provide helpful guidelines, but they’re also imagining that at least some of you will see beyond these things into the real purpose of education: making your life better, richer, more meaningful.

I’m teaching summer courses and in my on-campus courses everyone is completing a complex yet useful assignment as a major part of the requirements, a plan for their first five days of school. The class includes students who’ve had courses with me before and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t are nervous. What do I want? What will please me? One of the students who’s had other courses with me articulated my philosophy better than I could have. Here’s the essence of Jim Janousek’s comments to the class:

Read the assignment, get the gist of it (what’s the purpose of what you’re being asked to do?), and then produce something that you can use in your classroom (I am teaching teachers right now, but this applies to other student experiences as well—I’ve used much of my undergraduate work as the basis for my professional work). I stress: do something that you can use!

This takes away the anxiety of the assignment and makes it more fun when you’re thinking about implementing those ideas in your own classroom. (There are times when I have very specific goals for students and I am explicit about them, but often the guidelines I provide are simply meant to be helpful for those who don’t have ideas yet about how they want to proceed. I always welcome thoughtful alternatives and suggestions from students.)

What works for you, works for Zinn! (If your intentionality shines through, it’s likely that I will be delighted.)

As long as you put thought and time into your assignment, remember Zinn’s grading scale is cares or doesn’t care. (You got it, Jim!)

What do you need to care about?

We are all functioning at a small fraction of our capacity to live fully in its total meaning of loving, caring, creting, and adventuring. Consequently, the actualizing of our potential can become the most exciting adventure of our lifetime. • Herbert A. Otto


There’s A Land That I Dreamed Of. . . . .Creating A Room Called Home

June 5, 2010

The books one reads in childhood, and perhaps most of all the bad and the good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments throughout the rest of life . . . . . • George Orwell

I’ve been re-reading L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz on my iPhone. It’s comforting to know that this childhood world is waiting any time I long for its familiar words. Although I never believed in the existence of Baum’s fabulous countries, his oft-explored territory reminds me how important such worlds can be.

Many years ago, there was an in-the-theatre revival of the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz. In those days before VCRs and their spawn, this was the only way that youngsters like my cousin Sugar and I could see movies made before we were born. I remember skipping down the street in Los Angeles after the show, arms linked, singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” The sidewalks were sparkly, mica, perhaps, and the world was magical.

I don’t remember what we were wearing, although I’m sure we were dressed alike in those days when we pretended twinship. I do remember our shoes: black suede flats with clear acrylic heels and clear square acrylic bows on the front, a pair that ranks among my top five favorites, right behind our purple leather flats with braided aqua, hot pink, and purple straps. I wore both pair long after I outgrew them.

I also remember this, the words Dorothy said before she begins to sing “Over the Rainbow.” I didn’t remember them exactly then, but I knew what they meant. Auntie Em had just told Dorothy to find herself “a place where you won’t get into any trouble.” Such a place can seem nonexistent when you’re a child, even a good child. Despite the rosy glow that surrounds the idealization of childhood, those days aren’t always happy and carefree.

Dorothy was articulating my longing for home and acceptance when she said to Auntie Em: “A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain…”

In writing about his imaginary worlds, Baum said, “Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine, and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams – daydreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing-are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to invent, and therefore to foster, civilization.”

I know that the imaginary worlds of my childhood are part of what inspires me to ask my students who will soon be teachers to begin creating “A Room Called Home” as they think about what it will be like to be a student in their classrooms. I hope those classrooms will be places that focus on what is right with students, what is good about and for them. I hope those classrooms will nurture creative spirits and build imaginations and encourage civility, kindness, and caring.

I also hope that my students’ students will learn to love learning not simply because they have tests to pass or assignments to complete, but because curiosity and the enthusiastic quest for knowledge will add immeasurably to their lives.

If you were creating a classroom home, what would you include?

It is not on any map; true places never are. • Herman Melville


Books Can Be Dangerous. The Best Ones Should Be Labeled “This Could Change Your Life.” *

April 11, 2010

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
• Oscar Wilde

The things that influence a person’s reading choices are another of life’s many chicken/egg questions. What comes first? Do we seek out books—or websites or magazines or other reading materials—because of what and who we are, looking for affirmation, or do the things we read influence who we become? Is there power in any kind of reading to truly change who a person is? No simple answers here.

I cannot imagine that anyone who writes for public consumption does not harbor some small hope that her or his words will make a difference for someone. Of course, writers intend to resonate with others of like mind, but there must also be some small secret dream that words can change minds.

I have long been a fan of Martin E.P. Seligman’s work. Seligman is the author of Learned Optimism (1990), a book that influenced my work with students in a dropout prevention program. His work in positive psychology also affirms my research into fun in learning. Focusing on the positive through discovery of students’ strengths and virtues and passions rather than targeting solely what they cannot do well is at the heart of my explorations into building students’ skills of interest and activating their desire to learn.

If students only learn to do adequately that which does not appeal to them, if they spend day after day doing things that they don’t enjoy or do well, if no opportunity is provided to become immersed in things that interest them, it’s not surprising that many students do not like school and that they view their experiences with teachers as largely adversarial. Teachers become people who keep smaller or younger or less experienced people from doing what they love, drowning them in a sea of “not fun.”

In 2001, my mother, a talented musician who started playing the piano by ear before she began kindergarten and a poet whose work has comforted hundreds of people, told me, “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.” In 1988, three days before he died, my youngest brother, Greg, told me that he didn’t understand why I was hoping to become a teacher “because no one ever has any fun in school.”

I have a stack of books in my bedroom, overflow from multiple bookshelves in the room. The stack includes books I revisit and reread regularly because they remind me of important truths. Seligman’s (2002) book, Authentic Happiness, is in this pile. I remember it, oddly enough, when I am quasi-watching an episode of The Real Housewives of New York City (yes, I know this is trash, but I’m not really watching—just listening for breast quotations while I do other things).

It’s not just boobwords that tickle my antenna. I’m working on an exhibit I call The TechNObots about the human costs of technology, and when I hear Jill, one of the housewives, playing a months-old voicemail message for another housewife and a psychic, saying that she keeps it and listens to it to remind her to stay strong in her fight with the person who left the message, I hunt out Seligman’s book. Jill is wallowing in hurt feelings and determination not to forgive and her choice is not making her happy.

In Authentic Happiness, forgiveness and mercy is a category in the “signature strengths” the book helps people identify. I make myself a note to add to my TechNObot Collectory: technology makes it much easier to capture and cling to hasty or intemperate words spoken in anger and frustration. I also note a benefit of technology. If you’re looking for real life examples of psychological theory, reality television is a bonanza.

You need not buy a book to find lots of information about Seligman and his work, just Googling® his name will work. I recommend doing so if you are hoping to activate your inner relentless optimist.

Finding happiness in school takes work. You have to be determined to focus on your strengths and passions at the same time you’re working on things that interest you less or are more difficult for you to master. What are your strategies for building on your strengths and engaging your passions? What kind(s) of reading could help?

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little farther down our particular path that we have yet got ourselves.
• E.M. Forster (1951)
, Two Cheers for Democracy

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.”

* Thanks to Helen Exley for the title quotation.


I’ve Been Making a List of the Things They Don’t Teach You in School*

March 11, 2010

I think you should basically teach a kid to read. A little arithmetic, a little writing, but if you can read, that’s the big thing. That’s the biggest thing my education gave me.
• Christopher Walken,
Playboy, September 1997

I’ve been reading about national standards in language arts and math today and such articles always get me thinking about what schools ought to be teaching as well as where the gaps were in my own education. Here’s what Neil Gaiman, Newbery Award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, novels, graphic novels, comics, and much, much more (I love Coraline) had to say about school:

*I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away form someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.

I don’t agree with Gaiman’s final sentence. Many of us learned to read in school. We learned our math skills there. We learned to get along with other people. We learned practical skills and we learned esoteric things that enrich our lives. I do think schools teach things worth knowing. I also think there are things you can and should learn on your own. And I know that there are things that schools should teach but don’t—like self-sufficiency—as well as things they shouldn’t teach, but do. My education left me better schooled in what I don’t like and don’t do well than it did in what genuinely interested me.

Make your own lists, one of things that they don’t teach you in school and another of things you did learn in school that will be useful in your life.

School never taught me how to manage people. The first time I had to reprimand an employee was a nightmare, and then when I had to fire someone, well, I was up all night trying to figure out what to say and what to do if the person fell apart. I wish I’d learned a little bit about these things in school.
• College student response about his post-high school jobs putting himself through college, 2007


If You Were a Verb, What Would You Be?

February 9, 2010

I am a verb. • Ulysses S. Grant

This is post one hundred and fifty. That’s a dozen and a half dozens. That’s a lot of words. That’s obsessive for a daily spare time activity. I’m obsessive about lots of things, but I’m not particularly bothered by my obsessions. I usually revel in them. The title question here is an intriguing way to get to know a study group and today it’s my way of introducing my response to “if you were a verb,” written on June 20, 2007, as part of a class I was teaching.

Everyone brought three quotations that could inspire writing to class, each written on a separate piece of paper. We put all of the quotations into a paper bag* and each drew one out and wrote about it for five minutes. I pulled the Grant quotation. Here’s what I wrote:

There is no verb that I know of that describes the always active state of my mind, racing, connecting, excited about ideas, and always actively pursuing the joys of passionate engagement with life. This happens as I sit in a movie theatre, drift off to sleep, teach a class, laugh with a friend, drink a cup of tea, ride a roller coaster, sit in a meeting, talk on the telephone.

It’s relentless, yet it is seldom unpleasant—only frustrating sometimes when I want to sleep. And the comfort then of paper and pen and a light allow me to drift off, knowing I can always wake and write. I am a verb, but I am a word that exists outside the pejoratives associated with Type A, hyperactive, needs to mellow out, chill out kinds of language often used to describe such obsessiveness. This is not something I want to cure or lose.

But today as I reflect, I realize that perhaps my verb would be write. Or laugh. Or create. Or perhaps just smile.

If you were a verb, what would you be?

Life is a verb.
• Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.
• R. Buckminster Fuller (1970),
I Seem to Be a Verb

* I am a bit obsessed by multiple teaching demonstration and application units I’ve developed. It’s always fun to come with something new to add to them. This activity is part of “It’s in the Bag! Creative Sacktivities for Children of All Ages” which is also part of a larger unit called “Free, Cheap, and Out of the Trash.” Sacks and bags that have been previously used also fit into my “RecycleLit” materials. This overlappery makes me smile. Smile. I am.


You Cannot Truly Outline a Paper Until You Know What You Want to Say and You Cannot Truly Know What You Want to Say It Until You Have Actually Said It

February 8, 2010

I have discovered that you cannot start a book with intention, calculation. You start writing before you know what you want to write or what you are doing.
• E.L. Doctorow

I have made a bold statement with my title and now I must explain it. I shall proceed so that you will understand that I do not believe that no thought precedes writing. Instead, I am trying to be honest about the messy writing processes I use. I’ve read about—and talked to—enough other writers to know that many of them are not as organized as you might imagine. Perhaps you will find comfort in my words as you find your own writer’s ways.

There is much advice about outlining provided in books and online forums: “Each heading and subheading should preserve parallel structure.” “All the information contained in heading 1 should have the same significance as the information contained in heading 2.” “The information in the headings should be more general while the information in the subheadings should be more specific.” (Thanks to where you can find much more if your mind works this way. Honestly, I’m not writing this for you. I applaud you. I congratulate you. There are days when I wish I was—or is it were—you. I must look that up as I can never recall which word is correct in which context.)

I cannot write this kind of well-organized outline until I have finished writing. I am paralyzed by it. Is this heading information, I ask myself, or does it belong in a subheading? What do I do when a section doesn’t have enough subheadings yet? Do I use a capital letter or a Roman numeral here? What comes next? I used to ponder these imponderables endlessly, procrastinating instead of writing. Then I went to work in a job that required writing on a deadline.

There’s no time to craft careful outlines when a deadline is looming and a column or article is due. You have to start writing something, no matter how imperfect. In those pre-computer days, I wrote by hand first so that I could see where changes needed to be made. I still write by hand to capture thoughts and notes on the fly that might be useful for a paper or a project, filing them appropriately until they’re needed.

If you’re a typical student, you usually won’t have the luxury of working on one project at a time. You’re juggling multiple papers and/or projects. Devising a system to capture your ongoing thoughts on each is useful. I use 3×5 cards in my pocket since they’re easy to organize when I’m ready to start. What I have before I begin writing or designing a presentation is not an outline. It’s all those notes I’ve made. Lots of them. My thoughts need to ripen before I pluck them. I try to organize the notes before I start, but I don’t worry if I can’t do it perfectly.

How different the world of writing is now that we’re using computers and can cut and paste and delete and add and create new files for new versions and hopscotch around our writing at will. Now my beginnings are just that. I get started writing. Sometimes what I write first ends up at the end. Sometimes in the middle. Sometimes it gets thrown out as witty and clever and completely inappropriate for the purposes of whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish.

If I’m working on something really challenging, sometimes I write everything out of my head and onto the screen, print it, and literally cut and paste, moving paragraphs or ideas around until they make sense since I can’t see the whole paper at once on-screen. If you do this, number your paragraphs before you start messing around with them. If I know I’m going to employ this technique, I number them on-screen before I print. It facilitates the electronic cut-and-paste that follows.

Often I realize that what I’ve written has huge gaps that need additional information. This is why I believe you should start drafting materials early so there’s still time to fill the gaps in your thinking. I suspect that the rigid outline formats students are sometimes still taught are relics of the days of typewriters when you needed to be pretty sure where you were going before you began writing. Otherwise, you faced the painful prospect of redoing major chunks of your work. I know. I got my undergraduate degree as an English major using a typewriter. No fun.

I once taught high school. I remember the day when the senior English teachers were gathered in the auditorium with all of the seniors to introduce the dreaded Senior Project. The department chair asked someone to describe outlining as it was detailed in the Senior Project Handbook. We looked at one another and, as the pause lengthened, began one by one to confess that we didn’t use those neatly-organized techniques and didn’t want to talk about them. Instead, like a meeting of former substance abusers confessing our sins, we stood up one by one and revealed our shameful writing process secrets. It was one of the best and most honest moments of my high school teaching collaboration.

What are your actual, true, useful writing processes?

I take dictation from that place within my mind that knows what to say. I think most good writers do. There’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration. The idea of “diagramming” an essay in advance, as we are taught in school, may be useful to students, but is foolishness for any practicing writer. The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.
• Roger Ebert