"[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

Friday, October 28, 2011

Here's a thing. Check it out.

Teachers as a group are, of course, Marxist fascist uptight hippy bully wimps. Nonetheless, you should check into Occupy Education.

You'll feel stupid if it turns out to be the future and you missed it. You know, like you felt back in middle school. ;)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bless you

Admittedly, my experience as a teacher is not exhaustive. I have only worked in three schools full time and substituted in perhaps half-a-dozen other buildings. But as far as I know, schools never provide tissues. Why is that? We need tissues, teachers and students alike. Without them, we can become germ broadcasters, potentially wreaking germ war upon our community. But though we are provided with pens, paper, markers, scissors, chalk, sharpies, glue, tape, paper clips, staples, staplers and even glitter (not to mention $10,000 SmartBoards and such things) no one sees fit to give us a box of tissues.

Before I became a teacher, working in the private sector, large corporations who employed me provided tissues: Hallmark Cards, NBC and the William Morris Agency all seemed to feel that boxes of tissues were not so damaging to the bottom line that they could not be provided to us employees.

In elementary and middle schools, we can count on concerned parents to bring those tissues in. Everyone knows how drippy and snotty little kids can get. I even offered bonus points to my middle schoolers for a box of tissues. But in high school, I guess we are just supposed to live with being sick and let the mucous fall where it may.

So what happens in high school? Teachers buy tissues and bring them in. This is not a huge hardship. But it makes no sense. The only alternative is disruptive to the class, sending a student to the bathroom to get a stack of rough paper towels, which, over the course of a day of the sniffles, will remove six or seven layers of epidermis from your upper lip. Given the cheapness of the commodity and its importance to basic hygiene, why must it become the responsibility of each instructor?

Am I missing something? Besides tissues, I mean?

"I think it would be fun to run a newspaper"

A lot of electrons are being spilled today over the too-early death of Steve Jobs, and rightly so. We speak of his vision, imagination and energy. He is thought by many as representing the kind of innovation that serves as an engine of capitalism.

But I suspect that he wasn't primarily interested in pumping up the capitalist system, although he chose to be an entrepreneur, literally a garage band company. Judging from pictures of them from 1976, when they first introduced the Apple II, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak look as though they think it would be a lot of fun to mess around with computers, make some that everybody could afford and everybody could use, then stand back and see what happened.

There's a key line in Citizen Kane which explains why Kane's substitute parent, the banker Thatcher will never understand his ward. Kane surveys all the businesses he now owns thanks to the shrewd investments of his bank-parent and sees mines and factories and who-knows-what-else in that gallimaufrey. Buried deep in the list of enterprises is a small, shabby unprofitable operation in San Francisco, a fussy and fusty old newspaper. He grins with delight and says, "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper."

From that observation flow power and influence that would not likely have accrued to a mine operator or a stock manipulator. But Kane heard his own siren song and he went and from that his and many lives were forever changed.

Steve Jobs heard that song; not the song of increased productivity or bounding entrepreneurship, but good old-fashioned fun. Maybe more of us should follow that call and see what happens.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Students are turned on by greatness and bored by mediocrity"

(First of all, I apologize for the ad inserted before this video, but I think the clip is worth the wait.)

The title of this post is a quote from a former student of Albert Cullum, who left a career in theater in the late 1940s to teach elementary students, most notably in Rye, New York in the early 1960s, where much of his work was filmed by Robert Downey (Sr.). He created a powerful legacy and a challenge to every teacher.

I've never written about the film A Touch of Greatness because I first saw it before I began this blog, but it has been and remains a major source of inspiration for me as a male, second-career teacher seeking to bring what I learned in my earlier life into the often stale air of the classroom. It probably tells you too much about me that I can't watch even this brief trailer without tearing up, because what is going on is so very beautiful; this deep communication and love between teacher and students based on the teacher's confidence that children can and want to learn in complex and varied ways about the very best in our world and in our culture. We don't have to spoon-feed them the best in our culture or shield them from things we think are too hard or too psychologically complex.

In one sequence, the students are having a spirited debate as to the world's greatest author, between Sophocles, Shakespeare and Shaw. You can see a student who could not be older than 6th or 7th grade expressing a preference for Shaw over Sophocles for his unpredictability. A 6th grader charged up about Shaw!

He taught the classics not because he wanted to be high-falutin'. He did it because they are the essential building-blocks AND expressions of our culture. They state what we believe about what is good and what is bad. They are guides to a good life. To teach them is to reject the idea that our schools are adjuncts to America's employers, preparing productive and docile workers and obedient subjects, I mean citizens.

In short, to make your students readers, give them something they want to read. Now the question for me is not what to teach...I will let my ambition guide me. No, the problem is how to deliver that content past their prejudices about school material, and how to make them the active agents in their own progress and development.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

First impressions of the first week

I am gratified to have received so many messages of support for me in my new position (mostly upright) at American History High in Newark, and so many inquiries about my first week. These Interwebs can really reinforce one's sense of community. (Or, for some people, their illusion of community, but this is not the time or the place.)

So a few scattered observations about Week One, partly to satisfy the curiosity of friends, but mostly to amuse myself when I reread it at the end of the year.

First, the students have been enthusiastic and welcoming, and judging from the comments reported by my principal and colleagues, hopeful for and supportive of me. They in turn seem to be ready and willing to do what is required for success and to effect change in their lives and perhaps the lives of their families. When I talk about ramping up the workload, where I would have received loud protests in my old suburban district, here I get a few murmurs and demurrals, with a general understanding that the expectations must be high in order for them to reach their goals. The students seem to know and accept that the results they want can only come from hard work, even if they have the natural resistance of the young to the prospect of hard work (although usually not the work itself).

The faculty is definitely on-board as well. The school is only five years old, and yet has already had a change of principals and some upheavals in faculty, some caused by the madness of our politics around school funding. [If you ask me, and you didn't, school funding should be in a lockbox as untouchable as that for Social Security, buffeted from changing political winds. It is part of the sacred compact between us and the Americans who preceded us and between us and those who will follow. To suggest crippling changes is to recommend treason to the very idea of America. Sure, we can argue about how to spend the money, and see if we can't do it more efficiently, but savings should be plowed BACK INTO OUR CHILDREN, not any other little projects people have up their sleeves. End of hysterical screed.]

As anyone who knows me would expect, I have far more doubts about myself than about my students, who are still young and flexible. Will I be able to maintain the pace and the standards? Will I find the words to say and things to do to coax and coach my students to performing at a collegiate level? Virtually all of my classes are with seniors (I have a handful of juniors in Creative Writing), and as far as we at AHHS are concerned, they are all college bound; therefore, the biggest part of my job is to make sure that freshman English contains few, if any, shocks or surprises.

So the question is, can I get my assessments out of the trap of worksheet-type short answers on the one hand, but steer clear of assignments that aim so high they become vague and poorly defined? Can I tune the tone of my students' written voices so that they have the detachment of the academic voice without losing passion and personality. (I always think of E.B. White as the perfect essayist - calm, rational and observational while also being warm, human and SPECIFIC.) Will I get these courses to hang together and make sense in the brain as we move from project to project, from one literary work to another? Will I properly differentiate among students and among classes? Will I figure out a bright-line distinction between CP English and Honors English? Will I challenge my AP class without wearing them (and me) out? Will Creative Writing get its focus and not devolve into throwing things against the wall to see what will stick?

I've volunteered to advise National Honor Society, which is a first for me, but seems appropriate for a teacher of seniors. I have only a slight idea of what and how much that entails, so that is terra incognito. I will not even discuss my other extracurricular plans, insofar as they are only in the proposal stage now, but suffice it to say that should they move forward, a huge amount of trenchwork will be required, as there is no pre-existing infrastructure to support such activities, as there was in my last school.

All this to say, I really hope I am up to this. That said, my supervisors are investing a lot of confidence in me, and if I succeed, it will be done more to justify their faith in me than because of my innate belief in my abilities. I know I have taste, energy, seven years of classroom experience and an ability to communicate. I feel the lack of formal training in teaching, especially in literature. This is where I feel most acutely that we should change our titles from teacher to coach. I know how to coach -- that's how we teach music and drama. It's an apprenticeship, trial and error method. There is no map, and that is what I am used to. But real literature teachers have maps, and I will learn to make and use them. And being a mere child of 55, I am just as resistant to doing something new as my 17- and 18-year-old students.

We all know that we have to stop thinking about schools like factories. But are we ready to think of them as laboratories, as loci for, in FDR's words, "bold, persistent experimentation?" To do so is to accept that some experiments will fail. This doesn't trouble me. The default position for young brains is to learn. They will learn, willy nilly, like it or not. Often, the best thing you can do as a teacher is not to impede the education that is going on, with or without your own agency. The question is exactly what and how students will learn. Stephen Sondheim got it right (as he so often does) about our responsibility as parents and teachers.
Guide them but step away,
Children will glisten.
Tamper with what is true
And children will turn,
If just to be free.
Careful before you say,
"Listen to me."
Children will listen...
Also, I really need to get more sleep.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good luck or bad luck - you never know

I am very pleased to announce that I will begin teaching senior and AP English classes at American History High School in Newark on Monday, September 19th. Both the classes I have been assigned and my students are elite. AHHS is a selective magnet high school, rated 6th in its category in New Jersey by the Newark Star-Ledger, with a 100% graduation rate and 97% continuing their education.

It's easy to guess that it will be a privilege to work in such a place. What is less intuitive is that, for me, that only became possible because of all the jobs that seemed wonderful to me that I didn't get. Over and over I would have an interview which seemed reasonably pleasant, but which bore no fruit, and over and over I would curse my bad luck at not being offered such a plum position. Little did I know that the real plum would have been unreachable for me if I had been under contract as of the first day of school. It is one of those weird concantenations of circumstance that makes one realize that while it's pretty easy to know when your luck is good, it's hard to know when your luck is bad.

All through my middle and high school years, I was a devoted fan of the humorist Jean Shepherd, who improvised 45 minutes of comic observation, jaundiced nostalgia, social comment and kazoo music every weeknight for almost 20 years on WOR. Shepherd later became famous as author and narrator of the film A Christmas Story, which weaves about a half-dozen of his written short stories. His first full-scale film project was The Phantom of the Open Hearth starring Matt Dillon as a teenage Ralph Parker taking a summer job in an Indiana steel mill. It was my brother who brought my attention to the film's chilling closing words: "Once you've stared into the enigmatic face of the Phantom of the Open Hearth, she will give you either good luck or bad luck -- no one knows which."

As Hal pointed out, this is an ambiguous conclusion (probably deliberately). It may simply mean that at the time the luck is conferred on a person, that person does not know in advance whether they will receive good or bad luck. Or -- and more significantly -- it could mean that one never knows, even at the very end of life, whether one's luck was good or bad. There are just too many imponderables.

Somerset Maugham's story "The Verger" is an old favorite of mine. It tells of a church sexton whose tiny world is shattered when he loses is humble but beloved job because he is illiterate. Distraught, on his way home, he seeks the solace of tobacco. But he cannot find a convenient tobacconist between the church and his house. Detecting a gap and an opportunity, the former verger scrapes together some savings and opens a tobacco store. And in time another, and another and another until he is the tycoon of a vast chain of stores. A bank manager dumbfounded by the huge deposit being made by this illiterate titan of retail, asks:

Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to [read and write]?"

"I can tell you that sir," said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still
aristocratic features. "I'd be verger of St. Peter's, Neville Square."

I do expect this new position to be a harbinger of good fortune, success and happiness. But I arrived there by dint of a lot of what I thought at the time was bad luck. And after all, I am the son of a woman who, while virtually on her deathbed, wrote an article for a church magazine called "The Blessings of Cancer." You just can't rely on bad luck to stay bad.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

This is how we ALL will be teaching in less than a decade

The Flipped Classroom

This is a good presentation, although it's slightly too simple. I would also add the use of video games, as I discussed in an earlier post. And for those of us who teach writing, videos may not be terribly useful. Most likely, there will be some other online resource for the student to access in non-classroom time.

Still, there's no question this is a better use of the extremely rare and precious resource of teaching time than what most of us do today.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lecturing and teaching

I first saw Professor Michael Sendel of Harvard talking about his book Justice: What's The Right Thing to Do? on The Colbert Report and immediately sought it out. It's a very readable, straightforward, unfootnoted primer on Political Philosophy built on an inquiry into ideas of justice, morality and ethics.

Then I discovered that the course from which this book arose had been recorded for broadcast on PBS and was available on disc and online. In fact, here's the first episode (warning - it's 54 minutes long and there is a good chance you will be fascinated and unable to stop watching):

Now you can paint me blue and call me a Buick, but I don't think any of that is beyond a reasonably accomplished high school senior. (I believe Professor Sendel's course is for freshmen -- they sure talk like freshmen.) And if I had the chance, I would love to build a course on the use of these lectures (they are divvied up into discrete 24 or 25 minute segments), using my own classroom as the seminar-discussion portion of the class between lectures, just like in college. It would be a nice foretaste of college procedure, and these are issues and ideas that automatically engage any young person. In fact, these are the issues that any thoughtful young person MUST reflect on as they are becoming who they will be.

But that's beside my point in making this post. What's really interesting, beside Dr. Sendel's clear and simple explication of the ideas and analysis of the writers and questions considered, is a good illustration of the difference between writing a book and teaching a course. As I said, the book Justice is ultra-clear and ultra-simple to read. I think I even almost understand Kant's categorical imperative, at least if I stand very, very still and don't look at any flashing lights or kitties or anything.

But oddly, it is almost too clear, too smooth. It goes very fast and ideas rush at the reader very quickly. It's probably not a good idea to sit down and read the book straight through, but to stop and reflect for a while between each chapter. But when you watch Professor Sendel teach virtually the same material it doesn't rush at you the same way. We can see him "feel the room," engage in dialogue with the students, incorporate what he needs, deflect what he doesn't, and yet make every student there feel included in the conversation. Because oddly enough, while he is teaching in the most regressive and (research tells us) ineffectual mode available, yet he is effective and his ideas land and stick and leave a residue in your mind after the video is over.

Of course, when you're actually at Harvard you have a week or so between lectures to absorb what Sendel has said, to read the material for the next class, to find the holes in his arguments and to prepare questions about how it all fits together. But even without that, the videos are more effective than the very fine book. I would summarize the difference as teaching.

It all put me in mind of another series of lectures recorded at Harvard back in 1973, when Leonard Bernstein occupied the Norton Chair for Poetry and conducted six very lengthy lectures -- the longest was just shy of three hours -- on the direction of concert music. In fact, the whole thing was a defense of diatonic harmony which had been on the wane for the previous 60 years or so, but which turned around and defeated non-tonal music within a decade of his lectures, especially in the work of Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich. And oddly enough, Bernstein built his argument on linguistic theory, justifying the whole series as a matter of poetics, which was what the endowment was supposed to be for. (But really, who would have hassled Bernstein if he had wanted to show home movies of his dog for 102 minutes?)

Again, the lectures were published as a book, but the book is really missing something. What they're missing is both Bernstein's pedagogical skills and the force of his personality. Which are inseparable, as they are with the charming, though less histrionic Professor Sendel.

Here's a short excerpt explicating Bernstein's central conceit:

Fun, huh? And you don't even have to know anything about music to engage with his ideas. You don't have to agree, but you almost HAVE to respond.

What makes this work, what makes old-fashioned lecturing appropriate for both Bernstein and Sendel is that they are not simply delivering information you could get from a book or a website. They are conducting an inquiry and constructing an argument; engaging in the fine art of persuasion. And to do that effectively, you must bring the power of human personality to bear, provided you have one.

Aw, the heck with it. Here's the entire first lecture by Bernstein, if you've got an hour and three-quarters to burn. It's really worth it.

All of the Sendel course is available on YouTube, and here, where there are supplemental materials. And all of Bernstein's Unanswered Question lectures are on YouTube, absolutely free. (The DVDs cost hundreds.) Isn't this a great age we live in?

And if your school IT guy still is blocking YouTube, show your principal this and start knocking some heads together. Don't take any guff.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The scientific literature

Cards on the table time: I have always had the desire to teach English in a school setting primarily devoted to math and science. This may relate to a family proclivity -- my father, brother and son all are engineering types who were and are extremely articulate and verbal. (My brother is even a published author in his field.)

Or it just may be that teaching English to literature nerds is like shooting ducks in a barrel. How much more satisfying to lead science and math wonks to discover how important the ability to explicate and persuade is? After all, sooner or later, scientific progress depends on the ability to communication with non-scientists, even if for something as crude and utilitarian as writing grant proposals and accurate succinct abstracts of reports?

Literature and Science have a lot to say to each other, and science has provided a number of protagonists in literature, going back to the near-mythic character of Doktor Faustus, who poses the elemental question as to whether it is possible to know too much. More recently, we have turned scientists into characters of legend and, yes even myth. Galileo, Curie, Pasteur, Fermat, Edison, Tesla, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Heisenberg and Feynman have all proved to have achievements and personalities large enough to gather deep cultural resonance, beyond the specific facts of their lives.

Let's leave aside science fiction* and mad scientists, and acknowledge there is a body of film about good and real science. A Dangerous Mind, Infinity, October Sky, and Apollo 13 which has at least as much science as it has adventure. Sloan Science and Film is a major NGO project that celebrates good films about real science.

But the theater has been a far more hospitable place for the serious consideration of science, including Brecht's Life of Galileo, Copenhagen (about Heisenberg and Bohr and the atomic bomb), Proof, In The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, RUR (the play which originated the word "robot"), and the musical Fermat's Last Tango. Any of these would be marvelous to study and/or produce in a high school setting. And, in a way, Shakespeare's Tempest, while about a magician rather than a scientist, deals with the problem of having so much knowledge that on the one hand, you can manipulate the people around you, and on the other hand, the community becomes dependent upon you.

Today, in a technology driven age, it can be argued that Galileo, Tesla and Einstein are more significant mythic figures than Odysseus, Sisyphus and Pandora. In any event, it would be exciting to explore them with students who know more science than I do.
Bad science fiction is about adventure and most good science fiction is actually about politics, which make them irrelevant to this discussion.

Spoiler alert: Stop worrying about spoilers

The reports broke a few weeks ago, and personally I was not surprised at all. "Spoilers" is a misnomer, because knowing the end of a story ENHANCES enjoyment of the work rather than spoiling it, according to a study by two UC San Diego professors published by Psychological Science. As a group, English teachers go berserk at the thought of Cliff Notes and their equivalents being widely available for free online, for fear that students will vitiate the reading process by jumping to a synopsis or summary of the book being read by class.

Aside from the regressive practice of having the entire class read the same thing at the same time, the over-emphasis on revelation on story or plot points keeps students frozen at the lowest level of the reading experience. It teaches students not to enjoy reading, but to endure it in order to get to the important thing -- What happened at the end? Reading becomes a means, not an end in itself.

The threat is not the use of supplemental materials in connection with reading, but their being used as a substitute for real reading. And focusing your reading assessment on having the students know what happened not only cripples and reduces the reading experience but is an open invitation to cheat. It's like the NCLB cheating scandals -- when you place huge stakes on something which CAN be arrived at by cheating, of course people will cheat. Your assessments (and the government's assessments of schools) need to be conducted in such a way that cheating is impossible.

Ancient cultures knew this. The stories of Odysseus, Jason and Oedipus were told over and over and always ended the same. I suspect the same was true of Gilgamesh, not to mention Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. The essence of the oral culture was not surprise endings, but the art of the teller, the beauty, harmony and expressiveness of the verse, the telling details, the vividness of character. Scheherazade didn't stay alive with O. Henry plot twists, but through the artfulness of her storytelling. An Athenian wouldn't think of going to a play for which he didn't know the ending. Likewise, mostly, for an Athenian. Stories were all about the mythos, the definition of the culture that produced the story, its values and aspirations. One is not supposed to be surprised by one's own culture. It's the water you swim in all the time. It's renewing, enriching, inspiring, rejuvenating. Perhaps sometimes cautionary. But never startling, except in the way that all deep truths are startling.

And as teachers of reading, we should be teaching the appreciation of how stories are told, not the content of the stories. We should be dealing with deep thematic content, subtext, structure, style, language, syntax, diction and the relationship of the story to mythos, not What Happens Next.

Bad news. Sooner or later, this is going to require students to write at length and in detail. Which means that you're going to have to read it. And if you don't craft the task well, this could be quite tedious, especially if you have three or more sections doing the same thing at once. (I would love to be able to teach the same course in different order to different sections some time.) But if you're not prepared to read a lot of student writing, much of it substandard in a lot of ways, and make a lot of comments and endure the rewriting process with them, perhaps you're in the wrong racket. Because no matter the value of alternate assessments for different learning styles and different intelligences, the bottom line is the student's ability to decode and encode ideas and emotions from and into written language.

Stories -- they can be told with gestures, with pantomime, with pictures. Stories are not literacy. So if we use stories to advance literacy, let us focus on the literate aspects of that expression, not on the crude lineaments of narrative.

And in the spirit that spoilers make reading better, let me recommend a very fine site, The Book Spoiler. You can even be paid for submitting your own detailed synopses of books, spoilers and all.

You can take your hands off your ears and stop shouting "La la la" now.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

See the music

One of the greatest challenge for teachers of music to children above primary school age is helping them become accustomed to reading music and feeling fluent in its written form. The challenge is even greater if a student becomes interested in composing or conducting. This could be a valuable tool -- animated scores synchronized to a recording, to help forge the direct connection between the visual and aural centers in the brain which is essential for those of us who deal with written music. Whether or not it's educational, it is kind of fun. Here's the first track in Miles Davis's great Kind of Blue album, "So What?"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is Google+ the solution to school social media problems?

Most thinking administrators and teachers agree that there is tremendous power and reach to be harnessed and put into the service of education in the new social media. My former boss, Eric Sheninger of New Milford High School, with over 13,000 followers, has emerged as a national leader in the use of Twitter in connection with education. But the same group has to acknowledge there are problems and pitfalls aplenty.

The biggest problem is that of one's online identity. Or should I say, identities. As you can learn from watching Sesame Street, we have different identities for different people. We are sons or daughters AND parents AND aunts and uncles AND neighbors AND friends AND teachers AND classmates AND advocates AND hobbyists, ad infinitum. Google requires all those identities and circles of friends to rub up against each other rather indiscriminately. Thus, I get unsolicited comments from friends of friends about topics on which I may have no common ground with the commenter. Unless you want to spend all your free time micromanaging your privacy arrangements on Google, everything you do there will be tossed into one common pool.

Personally, I have elected to refrain from, for example, political comment, other than to defend my profession (which has become a political hot potato). But I like to able to share pictures of my family events, vacations and all those cute pet pictures that cause the InterWeb to break down from time to time from the sheer volume. And I don't care for my students to see that. Nor do I want to know what "crazy party" they are at and what they are doing there. When I first joined Facebook I told students I would friend them because I never went there or looked at anything there. But once I started using Facebook actively in early 2010, I unfriended all my students, rather apologetically. (That is a hideous verb, based on the misconception that the people you "friend" are your friends."

Google Plus steps neatly around this by organizing your friends into separate, discrete circles and giving each member complete control as to what circle or circles see what content. I can see the savvy teacher forming a specific circle for each course she teaches, each extra-curricular activity, with some circles sharing content, such as for all-school communications, and others being directed just to individual groups. And none of these people have to see each other with mayonnaise smeared on their face at a family picnic or playing with the family ferret. Obviously, I need to discuss this with my principal and pilot the idea, but I am really hoping that this can be a useful mode of communication before, after and outside the class.

Infusing Poetry into Language Arts Instruction III

Continuing my long slow series on integrating poetry into an overall language arts program, which I began with my anti-Poetry Month post, I urge you and your students to create personal anthologies of poetry and verse to intensify your personal relationship with poetic expression that is of real personal meaning.

If you're reading this, you're probably a savvy teacher and you don't need me laying out all the specifications of the project. I simply want to share what I've learned about doing such an assignment, based on what I think it should accomplish, as contrasted with what usually happens in most high school and middle school English classes.

First and foremost, as I've been trying to emphasize in all of my posts on this topic, poetry should be an all-year, every-week topic, not an isolated unit hastily scrabbled together toward the end of the year. ("Poems are short -- the students are tired...") Do not shuffle it off to a sideshow, or it will become a meaningless waste of time. Poetry works on the mind and the soul incrementally. It needs time and prolonged exposure to work its magic and it does not demand those the way a novel does. So it is up to you to provide those.

So first of all, your anthology project is too small and too short. I see teachers assigning 8 or 10 poems. I can scoop that many up in less than half an hour. I would suggest no fewer than 40 poems -- about one per week for the year, and even that it is a bit cautious for my tastes. It's really easy to find poems one likes.

Second, the poems must be hand-written in the anthology. I know how to cut and paste, so I expect my students have figured that out, too. And cut-and-pasted material is rarely read. To write a poem out by hand is to have a personal physical relationship to it. Quite a palpable physical relationship, for that matter, because one has to plan the use of the available space -- if a line has to be split, or a poem stretches over more than one page. Every word that passes through the pen has passed through the mind, and as many actors and public speakers know, the act of writing something down aids the memory.

Which brings up the next point. You MUST assign memorization. A lot of teachers are shying away from this, either from fear of student opposition, which is fierce on this point lately; and also from a sincere conviction (which I share to some degree) that in the era of easy access to information, memorization is a less important skill. This is certainly true of known and static facts. But there are still things we need to carry in our heads, such as diagnostic information or procedures to accomplish things.

And there is a special relationship between a person and a poem he or she has memorized. If you have any doubt about that, look at this video:

Some grammar school teacher of blessed memory made her students memorize something, and not just anything, but in this case, one of the richest verses in the English language, and that memory provided sustenance in a time of trial, and has remained with him his entire life.

If you really want to see how someone can live completely infused with poetry, see The History Boys. Wouldn't it nice to always have poetry at your mental fingertips for every situation?

Back to the anthology project. The memorized poem really shouldn't be the only one all year. You should do it at least once per quarter and give your students detailed, kind critiques which can help them develop and improve in the aural presentation of verse. Nobody learns much from anything they only do once, or even only occasionally.

All the usual specifications should apply to your anthology project. Have them illustrate and decorate the books, be sure they write a personal reflection of a reasonable length for each verse, and, given that your project will stretch over many months, there should be periodic progress check-ups. You may want to have the students select a theme or some other organizing principle, so that the anthology is less general and perhaps scattered. But you know how to do all that.

I just ask that you stop segregating poetry from the rest of language arts and let it out of its box to play with all the other literary forms - essay, short story, journalism, dramatic work AND full-length fiction, and see what it contributes to the general conversation. I think you'll be happily surprised.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

This story in the Washington Post starts off with some good news:
School leaders in Virginia and Maryland said they are likely to seek exemptions for the most stringent requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law after an announcement Monday that the Obama administration will offer flexibility to states willing to modernize their accountability systems.
Sadly, this is not prompted by the realization that the accountability systems don't make sense, but that most states will not reach the 2014 goals set in the original act. Education officials have got it partially right, saying they want to focus on improvements in performance, not on predetermined proficiency goals.

But the bigger problem is that there is no proven, reliable way to measure what has been learned. We can monitor what teachers intend to teach, we can measure the amount of information that has been memorized, but we still don't know how to measure learning. Which is not to say we should give up. But we need to stop pretending that standardized tests, especially multiple-choice and short answer tests, measure anything valuable at all.

I hope all 50 states apply for waivers to provide for time to figure out new, sound and reliable ways to measure what students are learning, and even better yet -- how the heck it happened...Link happened...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Maybe if a movie star says it...

Matt Damon says a lot of what I've been trying to say here, but maybe people will pay attention if a movie star says it:

By the way, stupid interviewer lady, actors don't do good work just to get their next job. All professionals do good work because they're professionals. They can't help it, or at least they can't help wanting to do their best. Probably not a factor for the hacks at "reason.tv", whatever that is.

Tip of the hat to Rob Lockhart, game designer extraordinaire for highlighting this link.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The persistence of failure

So your car breaks down and you can't tell what's wrong as you're sitting there at the side of the road. You don't know anything about cars, but you do know who to call for help. You call AAA or a towing service. What you don't do is pray. Oh, you might pray for patience or fortitude to cope with whatever challenges this breakdown brings. But a rational believer does not pray for God to fix his car. Why not? Because you hate religion or reject the power of God? No, because this is not an appropriate sphere to invoke the power of God. And, to invoke a reason which is not at all blasphemous, it won't work. I leave it to theologians to explain why this is so, but I expect that God doesn't want us to pray for magic tricks.

And let me repeat this. We don't pray for God to do magic mostly because it doesn't work. Yet we persist with magical thinking with regard to educational theory all the time, and consistently ignore evidence that conflicts with our faith-based convictions.

I don't want to make the mistake of being overly subtle about this: MERIT PAY FOR TEACHERS DOESN'T WORK. It never has. Let's ignore whether or not it should work, or the value of applying market lessons to the profession of teaching. THERE IS NOT ONE SCRAP OF PROOF THAT MERIT PAY HAS EVER WORKED. Educational professionals have known this for years, over a decade at least, but that does not discourage political figures from continuing to bring it up. You don't see politicians advocating the use of astrology or voodoo, but they persist with merit pay for teachers idea because "common sense" says it ought to work. But it never has.

And even if one is skeptical of an assertion because it comes from an interested party, such as a teacher's union, that doesn't make the assertion untrue.

The most recent documentation of failure comes from the Rand Corporation, hardly a bastion of left-wing, pro-union thought. In a carefully conducted, well-documented study, Rand concluded that New York City's merit pay system did not improve student achievement or teacher practices. The city figured this out a while back and dropped the program back in January. "Well," say the pro-merit pay types, "they didn't implement it correctly. If we install it in the correct fashion, it's bound to produce the results we expect."

Except that they've been saying that for 20 or 30 years. How long before you send the voodoo priest home and call a doctor? Because nobody can point to a system that was unquestionably effective and could be copied by other districts. How do I know this without an exhaustive search? Because if somebody had made it work, we would all know what the template was. It would be widely reported, celebrated on the morning news shows and the print newsweeklies and publicized far and near. The very fact that we are still trying to re-jigger this seems to me like an engineer who is still trying to build a flying machine using flapping wings. Surely -- if we just get the wing size right...

And what's so particularly idiotic about persisting with this failed idea is the insulting and unconsidered assumptions that underlie it. That notion is that teachers are basically failures and slackers who flock to teaching for the compensation -- not perhaps the salaries, as most people acknowledge that salaries are relatively low for the level of education and training involved, but because of the security and fringe benefits. Once ensconced in a firm position at the public trough, teachers begin coasting and loafing until someone walks up with a fistful of cash to wave at someone who decides to actually try and do a good job. "Hey," we sluggards say collectively, "There's an idea -- actually teach something. Let's try it!"

What a load. I know most people dislike their jobs, but that is simply not true for more than 90% of teachers. Yes, there are probably some burnouts who are marking the calendar until retirement, but you would be stunned to know how few of them there are. I've never met one. There are some more experienced teachers who employ non-progressive methods of teaching, but that's not because they're trying to get away with the minimum effort.

And even the minimum effort of teaching is pretty difficult. For a person like me, who started teaching in his mid-to-late 40s, it's physically exhausting, and that's not a matter of controlling unruly classrooms. It's the long hours involved in preparation, research, creation of materials and reviewing and assessing student work. For me most days require at least 10 hours of work, leaving aside any extra-curricular projects I have, such as Drama Club. 12 and 14 hour days are not uncommon, especially when you're working on writing projects which require careful reading and comment. It can be grueling, especially around February and March. It can't be done without passion and commitment, or at the very least, the memory of it.

The mythology behind what should have been a harmless piece of fluff like the film Bad Teacher is based on the idea that any drunken, burned-out stumblebum can do this teaching thing without even breaking a sweat. Teachers are chumps and losers. To be honest, I haven't seen the film -- I avoided it -- so I can't analyze it, and certainly not without the perspicacity of this piece. (I know that films today have a lot of silly unbelievable junk in them, but it is hard to believe that in a film released in 2011, a teacher who has gone bad is punished for being involved with drugs by being sent to "Malcolm X High School." Translation -- a school full of those people. Disgusting.)

To be clear, I'm not lacking a sense of humor about teaching. I love School of Rock, in which Jack Black's goofy slacker finds his calling in teaching. But he brings passion to his work, and his teaching is actually a model of authentic-based instruction, in which students collaborate to accomplish a real-world goal. In a way, we should all aspire to be like that character.

But the broader idea behind Bad Teacher is the pernicious concept that the problem with education is teachers. Structural, social and economic problems apparently don't exist. We teachers just need to "bear down" a little harder and success would follow.

Again, anybody got any evidence for that? Or is this just another religious question?

We can argue what the solutions to deeply entrenched problems of society, culture and economic conditions. But I sure do know that you can't "teach around" them. You can't teach around the problem of a student who can't get homework done because he has no idea where he is going to eat and sleep each night due to chaotic family conditions. (This is not as uncommon as you would think.) Or a family which does not or will not support education as an important value. I've known children of very well-to-do families who refuse to do work because they've been guaranteed a situation in the family business. How do you "bear down" on that?

Mostly what's infuriating is that businesspeople and politicians are defining the problems and offering the solutions and excluding educators from the process. I didn't see the politicians telling GM how to build their cars, even as they were sending them hundreds of millions to stay in business. We don't let politicians design the bridges they levy taxes to construct. But somehow they (and everybody else) know more about education than the people involved in the practice every working day of their lives.

I picked the example at the beginning of this post with some thought. Because I actually do know someone who fixed a car with prayer. Years ago, as a traveling entertainer, my wife found herself in a broken-down van desperately trying to get to an Easter morning church service. As she tells it, she said, "I just want to go to church!" and on the word "church" her hand came down on the car. At once it started, and the startled members of her group jumped in the van and agreed they had better darn well get to church.

So, miracles can happen, I suppose. But depending on miracles is no way to build an educational system.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What do you think?

Is this video just a cheesy marketing ploy for Microsoft Word, or is it a way to get students to think of history as a chain of possible alternative actions and outcomes, not to mention a lesson in the value (and ease) of rewriting?

Either way, I wish they'd credited the theme from Parks and Recreation.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Infusing Poetry in Language Arts instruction Part II

This began with my post urging English teachers NOT to celebrate National Poetry Month in April, because that shunts poetry into a calendar-bound ghetto, whereas poetry should be freely roaming around your curriculum, lurking behind every pedagogical corner.

One of your obstacles will be the general resistance to poetry, or, to be more precise, to the way poetry was taught to your students in the lower grades. Too much emphasis was put on rhyme and other technical matters, and the subject matter tended toward nature and other harmless warm and fuzzy topics. It would be surprising to find an elementary school teacher presenting students with poetry that talked to where they really live.

Slam poetry is all about where we really live here and now. It is not interested in posterity. It is literally of the moment, of the moment it is being performed. Even now, into its second decade, there are not a great number of printed anthologies of slam poetry, any more than there are books of rap lyrics. Slam is primarily an aural medium, meant to be experienced, which brings the focus back to the aspect of poetry most greatly neglected in the 20th century. Poetry had become reflexive, self-referential and driven by academia. (The exception in the United States, were the new Black and Latino writers creating a poetry of the streets, designed to be shouted and chanted from the pavement up toward the sealed windows of the people who run things.)

Slam, on the other hand, was born and bred in a barroom and the critics are not academics, but audience members selected at random and given no criterion. The pressure is on for the slam poet to reach the listener immediately and have them like what they hear. Frank Loesser described song lyrics as being written on the side of a train which the audience has once chance to read as it goes by. So it is with Slam. No chance to reflect on the reference to Baudelaire and the significance of post-modernism. Get it now and it goes.

Simply put it, you must understand it -- at least some if not most of it -- on first hearing. This will appeal to your students. Also, it must have a performance rhythm and audience appeal; typically, this is the long upward build to a climax with a denouement, perhaps witty, wry or touching. Performance requires poetry to take a narrative shape, even if the purpose is not storytelling but reflection on a subject -- that narrative shape asserts itself in nearly all oral presentation.

And in New Jersey, and probably your state as well, oral presentation is part of your core curriculum. So forget about making it optional. All students must get up and slam. I leave it to you as to whether you require memorization, they all must speak before the others, learn how to speak clearly and evenly, to emphasize what is important, to vary the speed and the pitch of their speech. I know a lot of them will fight you on it, but it is teaching abuse to leave your students unequipped and afraid of public speaking. I've backed off in this area before for fear of traumatizing children, but I believe that was a mistake. Like other times and places when you must move your students out of their comfort zone, you can't bully and threaten them on this. You must persuade and cajole and coax. But you must insist and be firm. (My thought about memorization is to announce that it will be required, then let them use the paper on the day itself. This provides the benefits of both thorough and complete preparation of the text with relaxation and security during delivery which allows them to focus on the quality of what they are doing rather than the brute effort of recitation from memory.)

And there is the competition factor. My first principal, who is a superb teacher, was always skittish around competition and its negative aspects, which I need hardly recite here. But I believe that many of those negatives are mitigated here, as there is no built-in advantage for the brainiacs or the jocks in this competition. Most years there is at least one or two surprises as to who will excel at slamming. But one of the great values of competition is that it is its own intrinsic motivation. I rarely, if ever, offer prizes in classroom competitions. Pride of success is sufficient. Most young people cannot avoid wanting to compete any more than my cat can avoid jumping on a shiny thing that is moving. Some kind of atavistic impulse kicks in and, provided that they each believe they can be basically competent, they will try to do well at slam.

Getting them to a confidence about basic competence will take some time. Months, probably. You need to start adding the writing of poetry onto other writing assignments right away at the beginning of the school year. Have them add a poetic reflection to their five-paragraph essays. Have them do their classroom warm-up as poetry. Most of all, break the doggerel habit. Too many children are swamped by the tyranny of rhyme and meter and their expressive instincts have been completely suppressed. Find organizing principles other than rhyme, such as repetition, anaphora, antistrophe, alternation of long and short phrases, controlling metaphor and the like. Most of all, get them to write and not worry about the process and the devices much.

A side benefit of writing poetry -- by having to break thoughts and stories into lines and stanzas, they will gradually fall away from turning in prose in one single unbroken paragraph. Personally, I find unparagraphed so literally physically difficult to read, that I will hand such papers back and demand they be resubmitted with some divisions. Again, teaching in the lower grades has damaged them a great deal, and they thrash around fearing they have no topic sentences and that not all the sentences will support that, and generally write as if the chief end of writing was to be able to be outlined easily. As you can see by my style in this blog, I think this is hooey. The chief end of writing is, obviously, communication of (1) emotion; and (2) ideas. (3) Information is OK, but it is a lower order of writing, valuable to know but not aspirational.

How you organize your competition, your teams, selecting judges, involving other classes or other faculty, you are a far better judge than I. I can no more engineer your methodology than you mine. I am just here to be a cheerleader. But make sure that it is fun, that it is competitive, that is emphatic, that is strong, that it is real and true.

And this is authentic learning, in that slam competitions are going on each and every weekend, if not each night of the week, all across this country. As far as introducing your students to the ethos of slam, there are a number of videos on YouTube you could cull. Here's one example:

I would also suggest the very selective use of HBO's Def Poetry Jam -- but you MUST preview this, because unobjectionable material alternates in rapid sequence with very adult themes. I like to use excerpts from a documentary feature SlamNation which although more than a decade old and with some technical lapses, shows a lot of the great early stars of the medium (Taylor Mali, Saul Williams, Beau Sia), and presents the heat of battle well. And the film has a bleeped school-appropriate edition which can be ordered here. Another resource is the Russell Simmons miniseries Brave New Voices, which is too long for classroom use, but excerpts from which can be used to show actual high school students preparing for competition.

All of this is to prove that poetry is not for the faint of heart. It's not just for flowers and clouds and unicorns and rainbows. Although maybe it is for rainbows, because it is a powerful medium for all the colors of your classroom to be heard.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Breaking News: Pride is a better motivator than shame

We've all had those lunch room conversations about the million-dollar grants we'd like to get in order to prove that peanut butter is yummy or that up is different from down. A recent editorial in my local paper describes a study that might fall in that category, at least for most successful teachers and parents. Yet civic leaders and opinion makers never seem to catch on to this basic idea. The idea? If you want to mold behavior, shame doesn't work. I'll repeat that. Shame doesn't work. Pride works better. It's not perfect or complete. There is no infallible tool for the formation of character and setting students on the path toward success, but pride has a way better track record than shame.

Here's how one of the researchers described her experiment:
In one of our studies, we put three groups of subjects alone in a room with a very large piece of chocolate cake, the utensils to devour it and water. We told them they could eat as much or as little cake as they wished. But first, the members of one group were instructed to focus on the pride they would feel if they resisted the cake. Those in the second group were told to imagine the shame they would feel if they ate it, and the final (control) group was simply let loose, with no instructions at all.

We discovered that the study subjects who anticipated pride at resisting the cake consumed far less than those who focused on the shame of succumbing. They also ate less than the control group. In other words, when it comes to self-regulation, anticipated pride outperformed anticipated shame as well as unconsidered, heedless consumption.

That is, if you define the goal as "not eating tempting cake," then picturing yourself succeeding at that goal is a better strategy than imagining feeling ashamed. Translated into classroom terms, picturing yourself getting "A's" and receiving praise is a better motivator than trying to impress upon students the possibility and fear of failure, shame and punishment.

Think how powerfully that could be put to work in your classroom. I know I will try it in mine. I have found simple, brief meditation to be a good tool to help students to calm down and focus on the tasks to follow. Now in addition to the visualization of being relaxed and happy and calm and peaceful, I will add picturing being successful, being praised, feeling good, feeling proud of one's success and accomplishment.

Very simply ask them, "What would it feel like to get an A+ in that course? How good would that feel? Is that worth a few simple sacrifices?"

Anyway, it's something I plan to explore, and I always like to have a little academic verification to back me up.

Friday, June 10, 2011

My imaginary commencement address

I have to be honest with myself. I am never going to deliver a commencement address. I am not now and have no desire to become an administrator or even a department head. I find it challenging enough to try and master teaching to take on responsibility for other teachers. I am not such a distinguished scholar or a successful entrepreneur as would be likely to be asked to speak at some other institution's commencement. It's just not in the cards.

This of course doesn't prevent me, as I sit in the front rows reserved for teachers, letting my eyes glass over as the real commencement speaker begins, from imagining myself in that situation and trying to project what I had to say. So here we go.

Mr. Superintendent, Graduates, Families, Friends and fellow staff. This will be brief, because I don't know much. But if this saves you a couple of bumps in the head in years to come, that'll be great.

1. "Nobody knows anything." This bit of wisdom was coined by novelist and screenwriter William Goldman in reaction to the idea that there are hard and fast rules about what will succeed and what will fail, specifically in the entertainment business. But if you extend it to predictions of human behavior, it's pretty universal. You can learn what has happened, and in the natural world we can make pretty good predictions. But when people tell you that your idea won't work or that the way they've been doing something is the only good way to do it, well, nobody knows anything. And the more sure they are about it, the more likely they are to be completely wrong. Which leads to an important corollary to Rule #1:

1a. Know what you don't know. You will work for and with a lot of people who will claim knowledge that not only they don't have, but nobody has. Know the boundary lines of the sovereign country of What-I-Know and be unafraid to call in people who live and work beyond those boundaries to tell you what's out there. Which relates to the next rule:

2. Learn to find the people who do know something. Perhaps the single greatest skill you can develop in your college and early years in the workplace is to find and identify mentors. Look for those people who are likely to be able to help and advise you and make it rewarding, in terms of your own respect and attention, to do so. And of course, many of those people are dead or otherwise unavailable, but luckily they have written these things called "books." More about that later.

3. Lockhart's Law of Slippage: Everything will take longer, cost more and be a bigger hassle than you thought. Don't be discouraged when things slip off the rails. They are supposed to. Here's a big secret. People older than you are not ipso facto smarter than you. They've just seen more stuff go wrong and therefore can more easily anticipate what will go wrong. They see those potholes coming sooner than you and steer around. See #2. In general, you will be judged more for the way you handle obstacles (anticipated or not) than the way you executed a flawless plan flawlessly (which has probably never happened in human history).

4. FORGET PLAN B!!! Parents and family cover your ears. I know your parents want you to have something to "fall back on." But to embark on a career with Plan B in your head is like entering a negotiation thinking about the lowest price you can accept or playing a game thinking about how much you are willing to lose by. One of your primary jobs at this point in your life is identifying your passion, then committing to it. And you must commit completely, put all your heart and will and resources and effort into it. And the truth is, even then it may not work out. You may not have the right set of talents or circumstances for it all to come true. (Walter Matthau said, "All you need to succeed in show business is forty good breaks.") But I promise you, you will never be happy thinking about the life you could have had if you had only put everything you had into it. Better to fail spectacularly then to drift into your second- or third-choice life, ever wondering if you could have had your first choice. So pick Plan A and be ready to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel for it.

5. Become a teacher and continue to be a student. I'm not saying you should all become licensed schoolteachers. But find appropriate opportunities to pass on what you know and what you've learned. Besides the general societal benefit and the warm fuzzies you'll feel inside, research shows that you most truly master and understand that which you teach. So teach in order to learn. And speaking of learning, you are not done. You have only just begun. You have not acquired a big bag of knowledge, which is what I thought education was. You have acquired a tool kit, to which you will add (hopefully), by which you will continue to acquire the knowledge and skills you need to work effectively, think clearly and live happily. That means you're going to have to keep reading, and not just on the internet, but real books. And think about them, talk about them, share them. And you're going to have to hang around with people who are different than you -- different backgrounds, different ages, entire different philosophies of life, many of which you will completely and violently disagree with. But they will all teach you. When you stop learning, you commence to die.

That's all I've got. Hope your families cooked up a great party for you tonight. It sure beats going out and drinking too much and feeling sick and stupid for a couple of days, which is what we used to do in my day. So you see, things do get better.

Congratulations, good luck, and come back and see us. Not next year because you're feeling homesick, but in five years, ten years, twenty years so you can share with those students then what you found in that big bad world out there after you Commenced.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Real progress

I am delighted that President Obama is no longer talking about "fixing" No Child Left Behind. That's like fixing the Spruce Goose. It might manage a brief flight, but it can't really do anything. Now we are talking about finding why the good teachers are good, mentoring the teachers whose results are lagging and changing the culture of failing schools. Here's the video:

So far Gov. Christie is still not talking about creating better schools or developing better teaching. All he talks about better and faster ways to fire teachers, presumably so they won't pay union dues which are used to make campaign contributions to the Democrats. Someday I hope he develops an interest in governing, rather than building his power base. Meantime, the president seems to be listening to better advice, and is climbing off the all-charter-schools-all-the-time bandwagon. Time will tell.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Integrating poetry into Language Arts Part I

At the outset, I need to be clear about two things. (1) I don't know much about poetry, and even less about the poetic literature. Of the great 18th and 19th century English poets I am almost completely ignorant; and (2) I don't care.

I have always approached teaching English as a discipline of skills (which is why I prefer the name "Language Arts.") I have no special brief for literature over all the other modes of writing. I want my students to build their toolkits as readers and writers, and I don't care much where and how they acquire their tools, so long as they work well. For instance, if you want to borrow from math and use a Venn diagram to teach metaphors, why not?

So from poetry, I'm not as interested in the sheer art of poetry as the craft elements which can contribute to the student's general literacy. To begin with, one of the greatest values poetry brings to writing in general is precision and economy. In a short piece of writing, such as ultra-short story, a song lyric or a poem, every word must be working hard to perform its task and contribute to the entire effect of the piece. Hence the challenge and fun of Hemingway's six word novels, for example:
For sale: Baby shoes, never worn
Playing pool was just an excuse.
I finally realized he loved guacamole.
Said I'd never marry again. Damn.
My secret discovered. Plane ticket purchased.
Two lives, one day. Never again.
He woke to an empty house.
Lost her sweater. Kept his jacket.
Heaven can't. Hell won't. Now what?
Wrong day for the scenic route.
Found true love, married someone else.
Hey Stranger, coffee's on, sit awhile.
So one approach might be to pack and unpack some especially pithy poems or portions thereof.

"So much depends/upon a red wheelbarrow"
"Do not go gentle into that good night"
"I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference"
"I have measured my life out with coffee spoons"
"I held a Jewel in my fingers--/And went to sleep"
"yes is a pleasant country"

(Note - Shakespeare is not useful for this exercise, because he generally seems to unpack his own metaphors and images. As the experienced reader and playgoer will testify, Shakespeare always strives for utmost clarity, and eschews enigma.)

So for example, the "unpacked" version "I have measured my life out with coffee spoons" might be, "My life has become so dull and routine, that each day is like another as each mound of coffee in the spoon is like another." Or, "Another day, another pot of coffee, nothing happening but drinking cups of coffee, day after day." Or, "I keep spooning out my days like coffee until they will all be gone, like the coffee in the jar." Or some combination of all of these. None of these interpretations are all right or all wrong, but they are all contained, all "packed" into those few words, like a huge database packed into a Zip file.

The final exercise might be to take a short story or passage and condense it down into stages. First an abridged version of itself, then perhaps a list of salient points or events, then a poem, then a critical line or two of the poem. This task is best done collaboratively. What you end up with might be banal: Hamlet condensed might be: "Revenge is folly." But that's not important--what matters is what the student experiences or learns in the process of winnowing down the large to the small.

And that, ultimately, is the lesson of poetry -- that which is large contained, encompassed, suggested in that which is small.

Friday, April 22, 2011

DIY is authentic

Mark Frauenfelder in THE ATLANTIC :

Imagine a school where kids could do the following: clone jellyfish DNA; build gadgets to measure the electrical impulses of cockroach neurons; make robotic blackjack dealers; design machines that can distinguish between glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers and sort them into separate bins; and convert gasoline-burning cars to run on electric power.

No such school exists, but in August I went to Detroit and met the kids who did all these things, and more. They—along with 22,000 other people—had come from all over the United States and Canada to demo their creations at Maker Faire, a two-day festival of do-it-yourselfers, crafters, musicians, urban homesteaders, kit makers, scientists, engineers, and curious visitors who congregated to present projects, give performances, and swap ideas. Having attended eight Maker Faire events since 2006 (they’re put on by the same company that owns the magazine I edit), I’ve become convinced of two things about children and education: (1) making things is a terrific way to learn, and (2) schools are failing to teach kids to learn with their hands.

My son attended a technical high school and while he has a natural proclivity for physics, he struggled at first with chemistry. His chemistry teacher suggested that the problem may have been that he thinks with his hands. I don't know if that's true, but I know that the men in my family have an engineering-tinkering proclivity.

The challenge is to come up with some Language Arts DIY -- I mean beside the annual literary magazine and the increasingly irrelevant monthly newspaper, which are only semi-authentic as it is. They really only serve as a function of the school community without any direct outside use or application. But surely students can produce work of more general application. Perhaps they could develop a sustainability plan for the district, which would be a cross-disciplinary project with the Science Department. Or work with the police department and write a safety plan (although that may involve confidential matters which makes student participation impossible).

How about online wikis for the general community; job or recreation resources. Create study or discussion materials. Develop a One Book plan for the entire community. The municipal library may be able to steer students towards needs it or its patrons have.

But the point of these projects is not to look at them as something to earn Community Service points toward graduation. They each have literacy education value of their own. Remember, when our parents and teachers saw us acting out in frustration, they would tell us, "Use your words." Why not use our words to actually make stuff?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Don't celebrate National Poetry Month

Those "Special Months" - Black History Month, Poetry Month, National Widget Month - are a tempting trap for a teacher. Focus on this topic or area for this specified period of time and it will be "covered." It's a little frightening how many English teachers I talk to who freely admit not knowing much about poetry and/or not really liking it.

First of all, not knowing about something is NEVER an excuse not to teach it. It is an invitation to learn more. From my own experience, the most exciting things to teach are the things you are learning at the moment you are teaching. Much better than the stuff you've known for ages and ages. I didn't know much about poetry when I started teaching it, but I think I know something about good writing and bad writing and the difference. The trick is not to be sucked into the craft issues around verse which can smother an appreciation for poetry. If you're teaching English, you should have developed some personal taste, and that's all you really need. Teach what you respond to and/or what you believe your students will respond to.

The idea is NOT to teach "all about poetry." It's to teach poetry. I face this problem in general music courses all the time. Students come in at the beginning of the year with all sorts of facts about how many children Bach had and how old Mozart was when he died, but trivia about the lives of musicians is not music. Similarly, English teachers sink into a swamp of Robert Frost's New England roots, the use of anaphora and how a triolet is put together without ever developing a taste for poetry, either in themselves or in their students.

You know, like this:

In fact, these analytic habits are so ingrained that your students may assist you in killing poetry, like this:

And so poetry becomes a "unit," which is defined as "something we have to work on right now but soon you will be able to forget completely." To read and write poems for one month in an academic year is like only listening to music in the fall. If poetry is going to get under your skin and that of your students, you need to make it part of your routine, at least on a weekly or perhaps biweekly basis -- but no less frequent than that.

WHY should you care about poetry? Your students just need to be able to pass the HSPAs, write a resume and a college essay. They're never going to "need" this. If that's how you feel, stop, step back and remember that you are teaching literacy. Language and its uses. And poetry is language at its most assertive and vigorous, doing what only words can do. It's the same reasons you don't teach art by looking at book illustrations or teach music by studying Muzak. Most of the time we put language to work serving some other master -- typically, persuasion or narrative. (Both of those tasks can be performed by other means.) But poetry is lacuna pro lacuna, words on display, leaping and pirouetting as only they can do.

Step One: Find a whole bunch of poems YOU LIKE that you can explicate with energy and enthusiasm.

Where to look? Here's a few suggestions:

Poetry 180 A poem a day for high school students and teachers at this website created by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. There are two versions of this collection in book form, if you're still attached to those old-fashioned things.

A note about anthologies - you can always look at the big ones, the Norton and the Oxford being the best. But they are rather anonymous and extremely over-inclusive, and you will have to slog through or pass over a lot of poems that mean nothing to you to find one that does. My advice is to find an editor you are comfortable with, or at least understand their point of view, and see what kind of poems they like.

She Walks in Beauty by Caroline Kennedy, an anthology organized around the stages of a woman's life.

Good Poems by Garrison Keillor. There's a no-frills title for you. It's based on a daily radio feature, so you can be sure these poems are good for reading aloud to people who don't go to poetry readings. Read Keillor's preface about poems that are clear, direct and communicative, rather than dense and literary.

An Invitation to Poetry The third volume of the "Favorite Poem Project," which are poems selected by actual humans (not college professors or literary critics) because they are significant to those people. I like this third volume for the classroom, because it comes with a DVD of 27 different people talking about their poems and their lives and reading or reciting the poems aloud. Many of these videos can be seen online at the link above, too.

Editor Robert Pinsky also has a fine collection, Essential pleasures: a new anthology of poems to read aloud, which is a great place to start looking for poems to commit to and recite from memory. I've written before about the virtues of memorizing of poetry, and I am making a resolution to learn a new poem by heart each month, as a challenge to my students.

(If you respond to poetry that's over 90 years old and out of copyright, you can check out this list of public domain anthologies on Bartleby.com. And of course there is a lot of poetry online, so you can simply follow your nose - but that can be very time-consuming.)

Step Two: Learn how to SAY the poem. Not read it, because if a poem is still a thing on a page to you, that's what it will be to your students. You don't have to memorize it, but you should know it well enough to spend most of your time speaking making eye contact with your students. Here's a poem I like to start the school year with, performed by its author, Taylor Mali:

I like this one because it not only notifies students what I expect of them (keep an open mind) but lets them know that I have aspirations and feelings as their teacher, that their progress means something to me.

Step Three: Repeat. Repeat regularly. You'll get better at this, if you only just start by presenting a poem you really like, opening up an issue or two or three that the students can talk about -- that is, be sure it's interactive and not just a performance by you. Don't worry about filling up a period. A few minutes at the start of one class each week would be awesome, as long as it's regular.

The advent of Taylor Mali raises the topic of Slam Poetry, which deserves its own post, especially in terms of incorporating slam into a regular middle school or high school English course, as contrasted with starting a club or a special group. But since I raised the subject, there are a couple of good anthologies and descriptions of the slam phenomenon, Poetry Slam by Gary Glezner and The Spoken Word Revolution by Mark Eleveld.

And I need to write yet another post on the use of writing poetry in a regular course. But I will tell you this from experience: Do not allow them to use rhyme at all for the first half-dozen assignments. Students will disappear down the hole of doggerel. They get obsessed with rhyming and, unless they are skilled and experienced, will not give you anything from the heart or the head, but just string together rhymes and syllables of padding in between. But I do recommend using poetry as a way of teaching ALL KINDS of writing. It teaches students to be economical, visual and precise. More of that another time.

And one MORE additional post I need to write. You need to assign students AND yourself to create an anthology over the school year. I highly recommend creating a class-wide wiki. But that's for another time. Soon, I promise.

So forget Poetry Month. My students know I celebrate Poetry Tuesday. If it's not regular and repeated, it's just "extra" and you will communicate the message that poetry *doesn't count.* And frankly folks, if you are an English teacher and you don't have anything to say or teach about poetry, you might be in the wrong line of work.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fear eats the soul

I live and teach in New Jersey, where we are still living in the shadow of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers just-freshman for whom leaving this world was easier than dealing with the shame that had been put on his sexuality. Obviously, this is difficult for parents -- but it is even more difficult for students, especially those students who feel they may be homosexual, and particularly those from ethnic backgrounds which heap extra disgust and humiliation on anyone who even doubts.

R&B singer Marsha Ambrosius wades into this territory. What do you think -- can this video be an appropriate leaping-off place for discussion, or will it provoke too much anger, fear, ridicule or shame in the classroom and in the hallways afterwards?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Interactivity is Authentic

If you've read much of this blog before, you'll know I am a strong advocate of Authentic Learning, having helped pilot a project to develop a community of educators sharing authentic learning design. But as an English teacher, some of the areas we stumble on in creating such designs are (a) ownership of the work; (b) working cooperatively; and (c) identifying or developing a real audience. Our solutions to these challenges can rude toward the crude, for example, in-class presentations of group projects. You have an audience, but it is not a real one. You may not have co-operative work, but parallel work. And who ever felt ownership of the experience of holding up a chart or a poster and talking about it?

Interactive fiction answers a lot of this. For people of my age, who came of age in the 1970s or early 1980s, you may remember these as text-based adventure games, which were infuriating to us old-school types because the rules and procedures are never set out in advance. You were endlessly lost in some cave trying to figure out how to go right or whether you should put down the candle in order to pick up the wand. And endless prompts as we endlessly tried to do the same thing over and over, despite ample proof that it didn't work. (Or anyway, that's what happened to me.)

But as you may have noticed, technology, especially computers and their programming have developed somewhat in the last 30 years or so. Those text adventures are now called interactive fiction, not least because (a) they are far more sophisticated and complex than they were and (b) they can be created by users, rather than merely existed in closed, pre-packaged forms. And they can be created by teams or groups of users. In short, text adventures have morphed into a quasi-literary activity, in which text can be as good or bad, cursory or detailed, reflective or aggressive as the creator or creators wish. And in the course of this development, interactive fiction is (a) owned by its creator(s); (b) mostly written cooperatively; and (c) is capable of developing a real audience, that is, the players who experience a story as a game, with alternate outcomes (which encourages repetition and re-exploration, a hallmark of good literature).

But our students have grown up completely in the era of interactivity, of the democratization of creativity. Stories told by a storyteller in only one way, as in novels and films, are but one way to experience a narrative, and probably becoming a minority taste. Our students have a natural feel for open-endedness, for the hope built into the idea that the end is not yet written, and that a story is not to be heard, but experienced and participated in. What I'm trying to say is that if you are over 45, this may require some mental adaptation, but I believe such an adaptation is not only advisable, but necessary.

The chances are that many of your students, especially the most imaginative and creative students are already doing this with your friends. You should ask who is participating in this, and what kinds of things they like and how they are interacting with their friends. You might want to scaffold your design with a pilot group, who can get you past your initial stumbles, presuming this is a new or new-ish area for you. (If it's not new to you, you really don't need to read this whole post -- just grab the link for Inform and begone with you!)

And, if like me, you're not sure where to begin among the competing aggregations of fiction, message boards and blogs, may I suggest a site and system called Inform, which was brought to my attention by a close friend who knows how enthusiastic yet clueless I can be about this kind of thing. Inform uses plain-language not just for the text that the players experience, but for the programming code. If you are a fogey like me, you need to adjust to thinking of narrative in terms of creating (or describing) an environment and setting rules by which the narrative will proceed. It's simply a matter of learning to turn over the some of the power of the storyteller over to the audience and relaxing one's grip over the order in which information is dispensed.

Obviously, this kind of writing is not going to yield a Harold Pinter or even a Dan Brown, whose craft is entirely based on the slow, calculated release of information in a particular order. On the other hand, many writers such as Cervantes, Dante and Raymond Carver and John Irving do not exert such tight-fisted control of the timeline.

Here is a video tutorial on some of the programming protocols and systems in Inform. You'll see they are fairly easy and intuitive

The challenge remains to incorporate this into our specified course of study. Of course, there are always ways and means to give encouragement, support and course credit to independent writing. But for the less naturally motivated student, interactive fiction can be used as an analytical tool, especially for those works which we teach with a strong focus on the temporal and geographical environment, such as The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, or To Kill A Mockingbird or The Kite Runner. The environmental aspects and the choices made by the persons in the story can be parsed out in a very precise manner so that the player can see to what extent the narrative is driven by environment and to what extent choice.

"Bold, persistent experimentation." If it's good enough for a US president facing the worst economic crisis in our history, it's good enough for me. Plus IF is bound to be a lot more fun than the National Recovery Act.