"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, September 28, 2009

Writing well is the best revenge

William Safire, former Nixon speech writer and conservative political columnist for The New York Times has died. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss his politics, which, while essentially conservative, could be unpredictable at times, making him a more valuable columnist than the vast majority of drones working that field.

Our interest in him here is as a language maven. Together with the late Edwin Newman of NBC News, Safire thought wrote about the American language, mostly descriptively rather than proscriptively. (That is, he was more likely to make observations than rules.) Those observations could be found in his Times column "On Language" which ran from 1979 to 2009, many examples of which were collected in numerous book anthologies. Like my favorite writer on language, E.B. White, Safire valued crisp, clear, effective, efficient and unambiguous expression (unless the ambiguity was intentional).

To the extent Safire did have rules, they were expressed in a pedagogically memorable manner:
Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clich├ęs like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
Safire is also remembered as a phrasemaker, mostly for Vice President Spiro Agnew, for whom he coined “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Also memorable, but not to be encouraged, especially since they furthered the Us. vs. Them agenda of the Nixon presidency, the residue of which stills lives with us and makes America so difficult to reconcile and to govern.

Interestingly, Safire himself did not seem to subscribe to that view of the world. He frequently befriended or was befriended by political opponents and had warm friendships with people from all sorts of backgrounds and political opinions. And after all, he was brought into the left-of-center New York Times specifically to be a different voice in that forum. It speaks well for the man and for the manner of civil discourse he represented (and which has been fraying lately) that he is so fondly remembered by so many.

Teaching kids to think straight

A recent article in The New York Times brings to mind the matter I blogged about last week, the search for a way to teach children self-control. The public school system in Red Bank, NJ has developed a curriculum called Tools of the Mind which attempts to develop what they are calling "executive function." I'm no expert, but the skills involved seem to be sequence thoughts and actions, select the needed data and ignore the irrelevant and focus on the task and disregard distractions. Anyone who has spent time around American preschoolers has some idea how rare that skill is.

The article indicates there is no hard data on the results of this program yet, but personally I am grateful someone is making the effort, is really studying how the brain learns and turning away from the idea that the function of schooling is to prepare everyone to go to Harvard and become a doctor or a fund manager.

And the Times article has this little tidbit for a drama teacher like me, who believes that a healthy drama program is not a frill, but a far better exercise in workplace readiness than what goes on in our classrooms:
"[Lev] Vygotsky [Russian psychologist and early childhood development expert] maintained that at 4 or 5, a child’s ability to play creatively with other children was in fact a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator, including her vocabulary, her counting skills or her knowledge of the alphabet. Dramatic play, he said, was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves, to conquer their own unruly minds. In the United States, we often associate play with freedom, but to Vygotsky, dramatic play was actually the arena where children’s actions were most tightly restricted. When a young boy is acting out the role of a daddy making breakfast, he is limited by all the rules of daddy-ness. Some of those limitations come from his playmates: if he starts acting like a baby (or a policeman or a dinosaur) in the middle of making breakfast, the other children will be sure to steer him back to the eggs and bacon. But even beyond that explicit peer pressure, Vygotsky would say, the child is guided by the basic principles of play. Make-believe isn’t as stimulating and satisfying — it simply isn’t as much fun — if you don’t stick to your role. And when children follow the rules of make-believe and push one another to follow those rules, he said, they develop important habits of self-control."
And if you think our students in drama won't school one of their peers who is off-task and out of control, you've never been to one of our rehearsals!

What is drama in school for, anyway?

This is from a recent run of the high-school themed comic strip "Funky Winkerbean." (You can click on each one to expand it and make it more readable.) A young new teacher is being questioned by parents about her selection of the play Wit which depicts a woman battling with brain cancer. I admire the strip for taking the subject on and dealing with it fairly well, but the writer of the strip has, in my opinion, missed the essential point. School drama is for students, not parents, not adminstration, not even faculty like me, who spend many hundreds of hours on a given project and is therefore tempted to select projects for his or her own gratification or personal development. The justification for the production of ANY play has to be the educational progress of the students.

This is not to say that one must always produce plays which are considered Art. There is a great deal to be learned doing a Neil Simon play (which at one time was considered the baseline of crass commercial theater). Every musical certainly teaches something about coordinating a large group effort which employs many different talents and skills toward a common goal set to a firm deadline. But personally, I was very proud of our choice last year to do Working, which is a show about how real people lead real lives. I know for a fact that our students learned a lot from that show--and a lot more than how much fun it is to paint stuff on Saturday and learn to sing in harmony.

Parents' role in all this (and I know this as a teacher and a parent) is to applaud the effort, no matter what. They are not there to be entertained. They are there to enjoy and appreciate the result of the long learning process involved in putting on a play or musical. You don't criticize the aesthetic value of your kid's matchstick replica of the George Washington Bridge. You say, "Good job! That was a lot of hard work. I'm proud of you." Same goes for a play. You want entertainment, get HBO.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The 2009 Winners Have Been Announced!

Another Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has closed and the winners selected for 2009. What is the Bulwer-Lytton contest, you ask? Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, early 19th century novelist, is traditionally credited with the worst first sentence of a novel ever. (Sometimes he is called the worst novelist, but I doubt many people have perservered enough to finish one of his books.) That worst first sentence?
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
The first clause is the famous one, but it is really the long rambling parade of explanatory clauses that are meant to clarify the author's intent, but which serve only to make the whole thing more impenetrable.

Since 1982, in a competition which began at San Jose State University, aspiring bad writers vied to create the worst first sentence for what is usually an imagined novel. (I don't know if anyone has ever deliberately set out to write an entire bad novel just to make a point.) Here is the winner for 2009 by David McKenzie, a 55 year-old Quality Systems consultant and writer from Federal Way, Washington:
Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.
Personally, I believe the use of dialect is cheating. You can read more of this year's winners here. And before you scoff at what you may think to be a feckless endeavor, ask yourself, "Could I do as well-- or badly-- whichever applies?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Delayed Gratification

This very amusing video was sent to me by a friend and colleague. It seems to be making the rounds lately.

It shows some preschoolers placed in a room seated in front of a very tantalizing marshmallow. Each is promised that if he or she will wait until the adult returns, the child can have two marshmallows instead of just one, but that if the child eats the one marshmallow before the adult returns, that will be it, just one marshmallow. A lot of the fun is seeing the strategies these kids devise to keep themselves from focusing on HOW MUCH they want to EAT THE MARSHMALLOW. As greedy for treats as adults and young adults can be, it can be hard to remember the days when that is the ONLY THING ON YOUR MIND.

The video is directly inspired by what is informally referred to as "The Marshmallow Study" conducted by Dr. Walter Mischel at who first conducted a formal double blind experiment along these lines at Stanford University in the 1960s. What makes Mischel's work interesting is his inspiration to extend the study longitudinally, revisiting these same children over the course of their lives. As one would expect, the children who could delay gratification at age 4 had better school careers. On average, they scored 210 points higher on the SAT tests--11 or 12 years later! Naturally, they tended to enroll in post-secondary schools with higher academic standards.

But even more remarkably, they were happy, healthier, more satisfied, more spiritually and materially successful than their more impatient classmates. The ones who couldn't wait had shorter marriages on average, lower job satisfaction, poorer health and greater frustration in life.

You can hear excellent 15-minute radio report on this work, including an interview with Mischel at Radiolab from WNYC, New York public radio.

So perhaps the most important word you can ever say to a child is...Wait...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Project Able

Spent the day today in a workshop along with a number of my colleagues helping develop a program and its attendant website, both called Project ABLE. Able stands for Authentic-Based Learning Environment. Authentic Learning tasks are real-world tasks which call for a synthesis of materials and skills, where solutions are not spelled out for students, but have to be developed and discovered by them. It is not designed to teach a particular bunch of content, but requires the application of data and skills from a number of disciplines to solve a problem. It is "learning by doing"--almost a return to pre-modern apprenticeship, but without such a narrow skill focus. There's a decent description of the idea here.

The initiative is very timely here in New Jersey, where a new set of Core Curriculum Content Standards is emerging--some have been rewritten, some are in draft. All of them are reformatted away from hard and fast "stuff to learn" towards pushing instruction to the higher orders of thinking on Bloom's Taxonomy and employing Howard Gardner's ideas of multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles.

Project ABLE would like to get a lot of teachers, schools and districts working together and sharing ideas for strategies and plans. I just hope they are fast enough--development, especially of the website, has been rather protracted and there are still a number of bumpy spots, and many more opportunities for using technology for collaboration than they are addressing just now. But it is sort of fun to be the lab rats for this particular maze, even I do miss instructional time in the classroom.

Auto Tune The News

I teach a lot of poetry, which I consider the powerful, efficient use of words, especially in comparison to prose. I love what these guys do to the ordinary prose of political discourse and reporting--there is automatic implication of satire from the mere act of setting the news to Auto-Tune. But their actual execution, the melodies, harmonies, repetitions, beats, are all terrific. I can't say I know what do with this educationally just yet, but I have to share it because I just find these funny. Check out all the videos (#5 is a particular favorite) at Barely Political.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Yes, I know you say it must, but, really, must it?

Reported for duty as music director of CURTAINS at the Old Firehouse in Oradell, home of the Bergen County Players, at 1:00 PM this afternoon for a 2:00 matinee, per the usual drill. There was a problem with the electrics which, after some time for consultation and the arrival of the fire company, resulted in a cancellation of the performance. Small coincidence--not, I believe, actual full-blown irony--at the very moment the Fire Department told us to evacuate the building, we were warming up by singing a song about how "the show must go on."

Noel Coward had this one right.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Straws in the wind

Evidently Millburn High School, about a half-hour away from our own New Milford High has a long tradition of senior girls hazing incoming freshman and of the high school ignoring it. Now some of the community is demanding that the school take some responsibility in the matter. Others, traditionalists, we might call them, think the school should butt out? What do you think? Post a comment below.

Internet addiction is on the verge of being recognized as a real medical condition like other addictions. Medical or not, excessive focus on the internet, especially large-scale games like World of Warcraft has caused damage to a lot of lives. Recently, students are flunking out of college in their freshman year in record numbers because of their inability to balance the internet with the rest of their lives when they are released from the constant surveillance of their parents. There is even a rehab program, Restart, designed to treat the problem. What do you think? Is this real, or is it just overhype by paranoid adults? Post a comment below.

I got the expression "straws in the wind" from the radio artist and humorist, I grew up on, Jean Shepherd. You probably know him as author and narrator of A Christmas Story. But I listened to him on the radio between 10:15 and 11:00 from probably sometime in 6th grade through the end of high school, and occasionally after that when I could find his show. To understand the hypnotic fascination of his incredible aural weave of storytelling, social comment and silly music, you really have to sample some of that radio work. If you do, let me know what you think.

Yes, I am a nerd...

...but it's my daughter's fault. Universal Orlando has announced the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for Spring 2010, just in time to celebrate my daughter's graduation from William & Mary. She grew up on Harry Potter, having begun reading the books when she was 11, Harry's age when the series started. You can watch an announcement video about this theme park area here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

MUCH ADO is underway!

We have had auditions for MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which were excellent, the cast list is posted, rehearsals start on Monday and we are really on our way. We have embarked on this journey in the usual Coviello-Lockhart manner--we don't know what we're doing or where we're going, but the important thing is just to start. I've been trying to prepare all summer; read books about acting and directing Shakespeare, read several critical texts on MUCH ADO, study the television production with Sam Waterston and the film by Kenneth Branagh; not to mention close editing of the script to cut it for time and clarity. I even bought a DVD set of the television series ACTING SHAKESPEARE hosted by John Barton, which was not cheap, but which explains how an actor does not overcome the verse but uses the verse in performance of the scene and the character. You see members of the Royal Shakespeare Company such as Ian MacKellan, Patrick Stewart, Judy Dench and Ben Kingsley trying out alternate approaches to lines and scenes in a rehearsal context--a real insight into the process of grappling with a text.

But there is no question that, no matter what level of preparation, we are still leaping into the unknown on Monday. I will be glad to deal with the familiar bits, finishing the design of the set, working on costume ideas with Jess Milne and Sarah Torpie (students taking responsibility unasked--completely mind-blowing). My cast is going to have to be ready to do some homework. I expect to spend an unusual amount of time for me sitting at tables working on the script before we get on our feet. And when we are on our feet and starting to work off-book, we will need a full-time script supervisor to make sure the script is being adhered to--to the letter.

We know we need a lot of elbow grease to do this one well. It is paramount that every one in the cast understand EVERY word they are saying; and then we must make EVERY one of those words as clear to the audience as possible. But none of this hard work will guarantee magic. And that is the promise of every play, but especially every Shakespeare play--that those words will light up a glow and send some magic sparks out into the house. Let's hope. Prepare and hope.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Today In The Computer Lab

Today you are going to be setting up a weblog, or blog, where you will be doing a lot of the writing you will be doing outside class this year. One of the exciting things about writing this way is that you can invite to people read what you write besides your teacher.

Once you get your page set up, you will select a prompt from either the Imagination Prompt Generator or Writer's Digest or this place. Or you can make one up yourself. Maybe you have a subject you are expert on--video games or guitars or vampire novels, or whatever floats your boat. Or you can write about website(s) you like--but be sure to include a link for that page where you discuss it.

You must be absolutely certain that I have the name and the URL for your blog page before the end of class today.