"[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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Top 10 Books I Wish I Taught In English Class

Summertime, and time to prep any works I'm going to teach the first time, and usually revisit the ones I've been teaching, especially books I've only taught once. I don't know about other teachers, but I rarely get a book right the first time out with a class. You need time with young people to learn what they'll respond to, both in the book and in your lesson objectives and designs.

And, truth be told, there are some books that will elude you year after year. Maybe they're great but difficult to get students to connect with (Huckleberry Finn's dialects are often a tremendous barrier). Maybe they're not very good to begin with. (All names of novels suppressed.) And maybe, good or bad, the book doesn't reach you, the teacher, personally and you can't get past that. You haven't found your own connection and therefore have nothing real to communicate.

I struggled with Othello the first year I taught it because neither the students nor I related to that type of extreme sexual possessiveness and jealousy. And Othello's relationship to the rest of the world, his arrogance and defensiveness are hard to reach through, or at least it was for me and a room of 16-year-olds. Then I decided to forget about sex and consider the issue: who do you trust and why? And who around us wants to hurt us, though we can't detect it? Once I approached the play from that direction, it continued to unfold new treasures.

Still, the summer daydream that keeps returning is the speculation as to what books I'd like to teach most if I had my druthers. I presume every English teacher has a list like this, perhaps not written down, but stored in the heart and only allowed in the open every once a while, when we have time to look down any other road but the prescribed curriculum.

So here is my dream list, at least as I can recall now in the early summer of 2010. No doubt other, better choices will occur later, and perhaps I'll post about them. Meanwhile, please add on your suggestions, wishes or dream books at the end of this note, or e-mail them to me.

10. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

I don't teach 5th or 6th grade, which is really when every boy and girl in the world should be required to read this book by international law. And as wonderful and complex as the series gets, the essential message is contained in the first third of the first book--the message every kid alive needs to hear. It doesn't matter what the people you live with or the people you see every day say about you now. There are people in another place (perhaps another time) who think (or will think) that you're fantastic, that you have (or will have) special powers and abilities and that you can (or will) accomplish great things, which will benefit other people. When Harry is inundated with the invitations to come to Hogwarts that his uncle has been hiding from him--when he is overwhelmed with the knowledge that there are people who want him and care about him and will help him become what he will become--I am devastated. It's something kids need to know about themselves, one of those truths that only a fable can deliver.

9. Democracy in America

Yes, I know it's Social Studies, but they never do anything but skim it and pull quotes out of context. DeTocqueville's book is a road book (and there's a great course in and of itself), and should be read as such, perhaps even tracking the journey on a map. Sure, there are great analyses of the root characteristics of our culture and our society. But they all arise from specific observations of behaviors encountered on the road. If this book couldn't get a classroom discussion going, then the teacher involved has no business teaching. [Alternative selection - selected Dialogues of Plato. I know that sounds like heavy going, but I taught them twice to 7th graders, who wrote their own imitation dialogues and performed them.]

8. Angels in America

I teach drama and write and direct plays in schools, so I have to include a play. Angels in America is the best play written in America since Williams, Miller and Albee ruled the theater. (Albee is still writing good plays, but he is no longer the supreme ruler--Mamet is.) It is a miraculous fusion of journalism and poetry, and employs a powerful and convincing stagecraft to bring us from the lower depths to 20,000 feet above the earth. This should be our time capsule play--Dear Future America, If you want to know about the second half of the 20th century, read (and then produce) both parts of Angels in America. Any play that can put an actual literal angel next to the real Roy Cohn and make them equally plausible is a work of sheer transcendent genius. (Alternate work--Brecht's Life of Galileo, the ultimate modern work on the role of the scientist in our dangerous world, in which science is alternately demonized and weaponized.)

7. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

(Note--I originally put My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber here. I would love to go on and on with memoir, and particularly with humorous memoir. But I have to admit that Thurber's humor, much as it appeals to me, may feel musty to a lot of students not used to the style of chaffing that was au courant 80 years ago.) There's nothing controversial or ground-breaking about ATGIB. It used to be taught in schools, but it fell off the list in favor of trendier works. But it hasn't dated a bit. The story of the love between an alcoholic father and his bright, sensitive daughter is timeless. It's about the moment you learn that your parents may be wonderful, but they are not flawless. And that you can forgive them for that.

6. Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver

I have such trouble breaking students of the habit of writing summaries instead of stories. They tell rather than show. We used to teach Hemingway to demonstrate the use of simple reportage in narrative, but he seems stilted and affected today. Carver is, for these purposes, the new Hemingway, and his stories feel more like screenplays than classic literature--simple descriptions of action and dialogue without rendering judgment on his very flawed and often confused characters. A wonderful model as a writer, although many of his stories involve a lot of alcohol, so a big disclaimer would be in order in the event of classroom use.

5. Catch-22

Holden Caufield just whines about the hypocrisy and absurdity of modern life, but Heller teaches us to laugh at it. Not the gentle laughter of acceptance, but the laughter of righteous anger. And, for me, literally LOL--as in, catching yourself laughing and looking around to see if anyone else noticed. Today Catch-22 itself, the rule by which asking to be found insane is definitive proof of sanity is a basic token of cultural literacy. And it would help the kids to know that the so-called "Greatest Generation" was not a mindless group of patriotic simps, awaiting orders from their benevolent leaders. A lot of them got drafted and lot of them hated their COs and hated the service and hated the whole situation that screwed up their lives, all the subsequent sanctimonious about them notwithstanding.

4. A Confederacy of Dunces

This might be a little redundant in light of Catch-22, but for me, you can't have too many laughs in English class. At least the right kind of laughs. The protagonist of Confederacy is fat, spotty and flatulent, but deserving of respect for his insane and paranoid brilliance. If any book cautions against judging a book by its cover, this one does.

3. A Prayer for Owen Meaney

I am an unreconstructed John Irving fan, and Owen Meaney is his best, for my money. I love the juxtaposition of apparent improvisation and careful working out and planning, which makes the final impossible and absurd image of the book devastating and poignant. Like Dunces, we have a misfit hero, a croaking dwarf with the heart and soul of a Cyrano.

2. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

Everyone knows we need greater integration between the sciences and the humanities, but nobody does much about it. This memoir by the Nobel-prize winning physicist is really the diary of a curious mind. It doesn't get into deep science, but it does reveal an attitude of mind that we need far more of in every walk of life. Feynman simply never took anything for granted--always questioning, always probing, always asking things he's not supposed to ask. Moreover, as Feynman's father taught him when he was a small boy, to name something, identify it, classify it is not understand what it is or how or why it works. Tradition, superstition, and culture have no place--only facts. This is becoming scarce in the fact-free universe we are building for our children, where science is being banished from Washington DC and the State of Texas. Plus the book is very entertaining and funny. Feynman is the kid who talks out of turn, but instead of getting in trouble, he makes new discoveries that benefit everyone, including the people who wanted to shush him. Not every teacher may appreciate this habit of mind, by I believe it will be de rigeur in order for the next generation to survive.

I'd like to see more popular science represented on this list, including books by Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, Bill Bryson's Complete History of Nearly Everything, Oliver Sacks, Martin Gardner and Stephen Hawking. Perhaps readings in popular science should have its own semester during one's high school career...

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I confess I still haven't read much philosophy--most philosophers are terrible writers and they spend so much of their time creating jargon that makes their prose impenetrable and dull. Zen is two books in one--an outward road trip via motorcycle with the author and his pre-teen son, and an inward journey, the quest for the meaning of "quality." On the way, we are treated to an introduction to the history of philosophy, plus a father-and-son story that was brought to my mind when I recently saw the film of Cormac McCarthy's book The Road. Which reminds me--I want to read that book, it might make my list next time I do this. Anyway, this book really reinforces the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living.

Actually, I wasn't sure I could fill out a list of ten when I started, but now I know I have to have left off many things that are precious to me that I would want to introduce to students. Would love to see what you come up with, and what I recall in days to come.

Since I began writing this post I finished a YA novel called Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, best known to me as one of the hosts of BoingBoing. It is a very stimulating story about security, technology, encryption, political and technological resistence and the obligations of citizens of a free state under attack. It would probably make my Top 10 list, but I want to write about it separately at length, so let me just say that not only should you read it, but you can read it FOR FREE in its entirety here. That very fact is one of the things the book is about. I hope it is a harbinger of the way our present students are going to be thinking and acting in the 21st century. More on that one later.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Everybody wants to get into the act!

I have worked in two career fields about which everybody else thinks they know something : entertainment and education. And I can tell you, having lived on both sides of both fields--Everything You Know Is Wrong. In fact, in the entertainment field, even for insiders, the golden rule was coined by writer William Goldman back in 1983: "Nobody knows anything." Obviously, that doesn't mean that writers don't know how to put words on a page or a cameraman doesn't know which way to point the camera or that studio executives don't know how to park in their reserved spaces. It just means that nobody really knows what works, what's going to work, why something worked in the past. In entertainment, success is a fluke.

It's not quite so bad in education. We actually do know what works. The problem is that it's not quick and easy. I'm always skeptical of the Ross Perot types who, when speaking about an area in which they have no expertise (government finance, for instance, or education), say, "It's just so simple." What they're really saying is: "I'M just so simple. I haven't the intelligence or patience to develop or understand complex or long-range solutions. So I'm going to treat difficult social challenges like I was Ron Popeil with another amazing gadget to solve all our problems."

I just finished reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch, a research professor of Education at NYU, a blogger for Education Week, and, in earlier incarnations, involved in various school reform efforts from the political sphere, most recently a cheerleader for accountability and choice right up through the adoption of No Child Left Behind. The bulk of the book summarizes a series of attempts at school reform over the last 20-30 years, none of which were backed up by prior research and NONE of which have made documented undeniable improvements in schools. These initiatives include:

1. Hijacking of the movement for rigorous and uniform curriculum by political operatives with their own non-educational agendas:

2. Centralization and top-down management of school boards and districts (most notably in San Diego and New York) combined with insistence on conformity to unproven teaching techniques.

3. NCLB and its "measure and punish" method by which states invent their own standards (and frequently fudge them), apply tests (paid for by local districts) and close "failing" schools, without money or plans to repair the "broken" schools.

4. Free-market solutions such as vouchers and the misuse of charter schools, to punish and de-fund public education, without providing alternatives at an equal or better level.

5. Immense foundations, such as Gates, swooping in and picking pet programs to fund and de-fund at well, dictating procedures and solutions without research or results to back them up.

Let me repeat: There is no evidence that ANY of these systems HAVE WORKED or WILL WORK. They are mostly based on the pet theories of powerful people who have not spent their life in the classroom or in education research. They are mostly of the Ross Perot, "I was successful in one field, so let me apply the same procedures in every other field, because everything in life is (a) Simple and (b) Exactly Like Everything Else. And many of them are based on management principles derived from Harvard Business School case studies, the work of Tom Watson and others, and come down to the re-arrangement of the organization chart, in order to insure that everyone is reading off the same page.

But, this hasty and shallow analysis doesn't even work ON ITS OWN TERMS. Let's imagine General Motors is making lousy cars. (Hard to imagine, eh?) And Toyota makes reliably good cars (and it does, accelerator pedal problems notwithstanding). Let's say GM wants to emulate Toyota's practices so as to result in better cars. On what planet do we think that changing the size of the factories, re-adjusting the organizational chart and closing factories that make bad cars will improve the quality of a single car? Obviously, the proper course of action is to examine the entire quality process of constructing the car. It means STARTING FROM THE OTHER END. We need to study how learning happens, in order to make some conclusions about how teaching can facilitate that. Making sure everyone is uniformly applying an unproven method might make an orderly factory floor, but it does not insure quality.

The most pernicious theory is that free-market forces will improve education. But a beginning economist will tell you that competition is not a cure-all. We had competition for police and fire services 150 years ago, and the result was a lot of unpunished crime and burnt-down houses. Markets give you efficiency, but will neglect unprofitable areas of the market. In education, this means the students who are more expensive to educate, usually because they have special needs. And in fact, those are students who are selected out or "counseled out" of private and charter schools who want to keep their test numbers high. Moreover, competition will not give you the HIGHEST quality, only the highest quality at the price point the consumer wants. School reform via free-market is as flaky and unfounded a theory as the flakiest 1960s "let's roll around on the floor and get in touch with our feelings" educational theory that people on the right complain about. In one well-documented case in New York City, a single building was split into three competing academies, and they immediately fell into squabbling about the use of resources, which brought about the destruction of all three schools.

And research shows that the ideal high school size is about 600-900 students. Smaller than that, schools cannot provide the diversity in courses, advanced placement, athletics or performing arts programs sufficient to put a student in a competitive position for college placement. (Not to mention the lack of a fully-rounded school community experience.)

Moreover, this theory has brought about the misuse of charter schools. As they were originally envisioned by Albert Shanker and others, they were meant to be educational laboratories whose successful results could be examined and adopted, in whole or in part by conventional public schools. They were to work in parallel with and in collaboration with ordinary public schools, perhaps even physically housed within them. Current practice pits the charter schools against the district schools, siphoning off students and resources, sapping the conventional schools without providing reliably superior results for the charter students.

I am not anti-charter school: I began my teaching career in a charter school, and it is probably the only reason I am at all competent in a classroom today. I was in a supportive and nurturing environment, surrounded by other experienced teachers who believed in what they were doing and were commited to it, and transmitted their experience and commitment to me and to our students. Our charter school provided a unique resource to our students, many of whom were overlooked or mishandled in their home districts. We did not "counsel out" the students with learning difficulties--in fact the obverse was in effect. Struggling students were "counseled into" our lottery. And though we don't produce a crop of geniuses, and many of our students finished their time with us without reaching grade level, everyone of them received individual and individualized attention. Every student was the subject of specific care and focus, and could earn a place in the community we built there. I had always hoped teachers and administrators from our sending districts would come visit and observe us, that we could compare notes on what worked and what didn't. But most public school teachers have been taught to fear charter schools by their unions, and now we are all in this adversarial position which is to destructive to both types of schools (and which is just what I believe a lot of anti-public-school politicians want).

I am sorry to see the President, who strikes me as a practical, results-oriented person adopting the airy-fairy theories of a lot of people in suits. (I think the theories look more attractive if they're presented by people in suits instead of people in teaching clothes, but they're still just theories.) So we are still stuck with NCLB, and the government seems to be doubling down on it, even though its results are demonstrably counter-productive. Our educational standards have gotten lower and lower each year NCLB has been in force.

And the principal goal, to ensure that EVERY STUDENT will be proficient by 2014 is obviously ridiculous. Does GE promise to make EVERY JET ENGINE perfect? No--even GE, with the Six Sygma standard, permits a fail rate of .006. That's pretty darn low, but it's not zero. We all have eyes and ears and we all come into contact with children. Even without examining for all their concealed problems--family issues, mental health, etc.--it's obvious that not every child will become a proficient student. If you ran a company, would you guarantee that every customer will be satisfied and that every worker will be effective by 2014? You'd have to be crazy. We all know there will be people who will never read or do math at "grade level."

We can still educate everyone, but we need to decide what we want to teach, which means we have to know WHY we're doing it. And the solution, Ravitch suggests is a curriculum. The curriculum movement got derailed 25 years ago, and it has never really gained traction since. I wrote earlier about the Governors' Conference proposed core curriculum, but it doesn't seem to be making much news these days. The best, most logical, and most practical curriculum sequence I ever read was for music, but it presumed that a district would have a general music curriculum in place for every grade. Fat chance. So the 7th and 8th grade curriculum (which I was responsible for) made no sense without the K-6 curriculum having been mastered. That would, of course, make sense in math or science or even literacy, but given the current mania for testing, no one thinks much about what we want to teach except for the basics.

So all we are worried about is the basics. And since we have begun focusing on just the basics--literacy and numeracy, the numbers have been going down steadily. Now what does that tell you?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Teaching kids to fly for themselves

My favorite theater columnist, Peter Filichia, has a piece today about an actress named Nancy Anderson, who is having a triumph in Peter Pan at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, about 40 minutes from my house.

Peter notes that Ms. Anderson may have had a leg-up in the role, having played it in high school, but she has a remarkable story to tell about that high school experience:
[H]er observations had absolutely nothing to do with her. Instead, it dealt with the kids who enabled her to fly around the stage.

“These were the kids who wore trench coats and combat boots. They were troubled, angry loners,” she told me...These boys were collared by the theater department to [take over running the flying equipment after being trained by the professionals.]"

...“You see,” she said, “to 17-year-old boys, the idea of flying kids around the stage on strong wires is very appealing. These kids knew they’d have a lot of responsibility, sure, but they’d also have a lot of power. And kids around that age are always looking for at least a little power. Here with Peter Pan, a whole group of adults were willing to give it to them, to trust them – and to believe in them. So suddenly these boys who had always just spent their time hanging around doing nothing were doing something special -- gliding people in the air.

...“Some of these kids became my friends, so I got to see that so many of them who seemed to be interested in nothing at all were actually very bright. But too many people failed to notice that. Sure, sometimes these kids didn’t give anyone a chance to see how smart they were, because they holed themselves up in their rooms.

“But...I’m convinced that no kid really wants to be a loner; every kid wants to be part of a team. Sure, there are team sports, but there has to be a team for the kid no one wants on his baseball team. There has to be a team for the kid who gets picked last in gym. Every kid has to feel as if he’s part of something – and that’s why the kids who flew us over the stage -- something that the average kid, no matter how big a jock in high school -- ever gets to do. They felt good about themselves and their ability to work with others. Suddenly these kids felt that they were part of something, and because we were depending on them, they wouldn’t let us down... All because at long last people were treating them with respect. These kids worked their butts off, and they wound up doing a beautiful job.”

... Anderson said that soon after she heard about [Columbine], she thought of this long-ago Peter Pan. “Disenfranchised kids become the most dangerous ones you can have in a high school...If we can only level the playing field a little more, and give the non-sports kids the chance to shine. They have so much to offer, if only someone would take the time to notice. I saw it happen. That production of Peter Pan,” she said, squaring her jaw, “taught me why the arts are imperative in schools. Not just important,” she stresses, “but imperative.”
Every student needs a success scenario in school. Every person needs someone else in the world to affirm their value. Without sports AND arts, how can you build a real community? And how can you prepare students for the "real" world? Multiple choice tests?

Peter's entire piece can be read here, and his regular column appears every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Theatermania.com. As you might guess, Peter is not only a theater enthusiast, he is a very good man.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bail out schools, not just failed investment banks

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich with a proposal for financing education, based on an assumption of the value of education to a society and an economy overall, rather than looking at it as an individual or family undertaking. What do we think about this?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

That time of the year

I'm qualified to teach music as well as English. And I have to say, there are some days--some at the end of the year, some during the mid-winter blahs--that I could really use a piano like this.

Teaching outrageously

This review of a book called Teaching Content Outrageously may overstate the case for bold antics in the classroom, but if you cast your mind back to your own student career, you will probably find that you remember the outrageous teachers first before the others.

Hopefully, you will also remember what it was they were trying to teach. That's the trick: to connect the surprise and even effrontery to the central goal of the lesson.

I have gone so far as to concoct an entirely bogus quiz, full of outrageously trivial questions, even questions to which the assigned reading offered no answers, complete with vocabulary questions on non-existent words. Imagine my disappointment when none of my students were angry at me! They have become such a docile bunch--at least in the comfortable suburban town in which I taught--that they simply did their best to comply and blamed themselves when they didn't know the answers to unanswerable questions.

I let them stew for about half a period, then did a de-brief. Finally, I got to the point I wanted to get to--to ask them what SHOULD be on a literature test. Sometimes it was pulling teeth to get them out of the box they had been put in somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade, when they started reading chapter books. But finally we got to talking about the larger themes and synthesis of material, higher-order thinking, instead of that bottom 15% where multiple choice tests dwell.

Finally, the outrageous tactics must point to the lesson and not to the teacher. Outrageous teaching can reinforce "sage on the stage;" at its best, it directs students to examine themselves and their own assumptions, rather than teacher performance.

Monday, June 14, 2010

How do experienced learners learn?

Experienced people aren't necessarily smarter. Those of us who spend time around younger people know those minds are much faster and more creative than ours. The peak age for creativity in mathematics is 23-25. After that, it's all downhill for most mathematicians.

So what's the point of having experience, if your brains don't work so good no more? You spend less time observing, thinking about, considering, weighing all the stuff that's Just Not Going To Work. Every breakthrough requires the rejection of tons of unworkable alternatives. Experience teaches us to recognize those more quickly, saving time.

There's a brief Scientific American piece here describing an effort to quantify this in geology, by using eye-tracking technology to see what experienced geologists look at. By definition, that also means skipping over the stuff that's not worth looking at. The hope is that this will permit young people to become experts without experience.

Of course, there's a trap here. Many important possibilities are overlooked by older experts because of the It's Never Been Done syndrome or We Don't Do That or Everybody Knows That..., all symptoms of inherited and unexamined assumptions. Often younger people in a field leap ahead by going back and re-examining those brain-dead assumptions.

So it will be interesting to see just how useful and effective this attempt to describe and record the result of experience in a particular field will be.

Monday, June 7, 2010

English class is killing the essay

My parent's generation called them "themes." Students hate to write them. Teachers hate to read them. Brief expository pieces of writing on a subject usually specified by the teacher, set out in a strictly structured format, with all passion and color drained away to make way for rational "on the one hand--on the other hand" sort of blather that students have been taught to believe the teacher will like. No one will ever read them except the teacher, who regrets the forever-irretrievable 20 minutes of his life he spends reading and commenting on this (usually) drivel. Incidentally, a lot of this has been perpetuated by the standardized testing which requires working strictly to formula so as to be evaluated in an economically feasible fashion. (Essays on standardized tests are, we are told, graded in two minutes or less. This is what we are doing to writing in order to dance to the political music today.)

How to did such a great and noble art form get dragged down to this level? We don't define painting by what we did with acrylics in 2nd grade? Why is the word "essay" confined to this horrid exercise? My simple answer is that our students have never read great essays.

I discovered the form via Benchley, Thurber and Perelman. And while I don't imagine those writers will mean a lot to our students (well, maybe Thurber), but they do enjoy David Sedaris, who has the benefit of performing his works aloud very well (a la Benchley). As time went on I became interested in more serious practitioners of the form, such as Ian Frazier, E.B. White (pictured above), I.F. Stone, A.J. Liebling (who is perhaps more of a journalist), Joseph Mitchell and Lewis Thomas. In time I stumbled over Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own being a seminal feminist work), Emerson, Thoreau, Twain (I love his travel books), Orwell, Swift, DeTocqueville and Montaigne. (I confess I have never been able to really make my way through Montesquieu or Macauley, who are supposed to be the true giants.) An extensive collection of public domain essays can be found here.

I am a bit handicapped with many of the major 18th and 19th century essayists, as their given subject is literature itself, in which I am not as deeply read as the average writer of that era, plus I'm just not interested in reading about reading. (This is a peculiarity of writers. There are not, to my knowledge, a lot of music about music or paintings about paintings. Only writers can't resist the temptation to overthink it.)

Far more interesting to me is a Malcolm Gladwell, who writes about science and sociology or a Michael Lewis, who writes about two of the most popular subjects of the day, money and sports (he is author of the book The Blind Side).

Blogger Paul Graham, whose site I've commented on before, writes eloquently about the things called "essays" we had to write (and which I now have to read) for school, which students treat like bodily waste--to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible and never looked at; and the difference between those things and actual essays. He gives some tips and pointers on how to think about them and how to go about writing them, as in this central passage:

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called "essais." He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don't know yet. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That's why I write them.

In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. In a real essay you're writing for yourself. You're thinking out loud.

You can read the entire piece here.

This age of bloggers is, of course, a new golden age for the essay, or if not the essay, what The New Yorker called "a casual." 1 I have a few blogs I check in on regularly, and I encourage students to develop their own list. The great improvement of the internet is that one can not only comment, but the comments can develop into their own dialogue; a virtual salon that 18th-century belletrists could only envy.

We really should come up with another name of those things we call "essay questions" or the 5-paragraph essay that is required for standardized tests. I nominate the term squonkle, which, as far as I can tell, means nothing. I think that makes it eminently suitable.

I expect a 1000-word squonkle on this blog post by Wednesday start of class, no excuses.
1 The term casual was used by Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, to refer to "fiction and humorous pieces of all kinds", and "indicated Ross's determination to give the magazine an offhand, chatty, informal quality". Thurber, James, The Years With Ross, 1959 ISBN 0-06-095971-1, pg. 13. - Wikipedia

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's prom season! Got tape?

Some of these kids can really go over the top with these prom get-ups. Like this couple--I mean, really; a prince and princess? What is this, Halloween? What could those outfits have cost?

Not too much, as it turns out. These prom outfits are made entirely of duct tape. Yes, it's Duct Tape Prom time again, and the winners receive scholarship prize money, and an important lesson about working with and extending available resources.

You can read about the competition, vote on this year's competitors and see galleries of competitors from past years here.

And although the brand name is "Duck Tape" the term is duct tape. It seems the stuff began when the US Military added plastic covering to cloth medical tape in order to make it waterproof. The initial deployment was to seal ammunition containers from moisture. After the war, air conditioning and heating contractors found it useful for sealing gaps, and the color changed from olive drab to silver to match the duct work. Now there are 20 colors marketed and it is a vehicle for creativity. (What isn't?) You can listen to a radio story about it from the NPR show Studio 360 right here: