Thursday, January 4, 2018

Essays to Blogs to Tweets to One Word?

     I get it. I even like the idea of it. I've tried to make it work for me. I love the inspiration it seems to provide others. But the #oneword craze just doesn't jazz me. In simple terms, I'm reminded (as I Tweeted recently) of a former student's yearbook quotation: "My life cannot be captured in a single quotation." I suspect the irony was intentional in how well this line captured the student. I'm certain there was also some teen and intellectual rebellion happening. It also fits a worrisome trend of reductive thinking, one in which less is not more.
     The earliest essays of the 16th and 17th centuries were not the sort of formulaic expositions that have become standard school assignments. In both Europe and Japan, the essay began as explorations, often consisting of fragmented ideas the author was attempting to piece together in some sort of understanding. Indeed, the thesis, if there were one, often remained unclear until the very end. The term essay comes from the French infinitive essayer, which means "to try" or "to attempt." Montaigne, the first to use the term for his works, described them as attempts to capture his thoughts in writing. Since then, essays have varied greatly in terms of content and purpose, from light-hearted fare to political polemics. Now we find them mainly in certain magazines, and op-ed columns seem to fit the genre.
     One positive aspect of the blogging phenomenon is was that it had many people, without necessarily being aware of it engaging in the sort of intellectual exploration associated with the original essay. This idea holds particularly true in what many called "process posts." I often begin with just a seed of an idea, unsure exactly where the post may end up. I do almost no drafting, editing, or revising. In a way it's like journalling publically. The quality of writing in blogs is not always high quality; it can sometimes be rather poor. But that's besides the point. More people were struggling to capture their ideas via the written word, which often sharpens one's thoughts and leads to unforeseen conclusions. Many notable authors have said something about the notion of not knowing what they thought until they wrote it down. The back-and-forth in comments can extend that thinking. This reason, more than anything else, is why I keep blogging.
       Then along came Twitter with its original 140-character limitation. Try capturing the complexity of your thoughts in that. Yes, some would create threads and thus micro-blog (I think those are the same thing...). And while I love Twitter and have marvelled at some incredible Tweeters, it simply isn't the same. Points come across as definitive rather than speculative. It was interesting to watch as people who first scoffed at the character limit gradually embraced it. When Twitter recently doubled the limit, many folks were unhappy, talking about the forced concision as being the point. Certainly. But is there not also great value in the process that led to such concision, especially in really fine Tweets? Yes, I know that's not really the point of Twitter. Especially not when one has just 280 characters, which is the equivalent of 46.67 words if using the standard measure of five letters and a space.
     Now, a current fad is choosing one word as a yearly theme. It can serve as reminder of one's resolution, becoming a sort of mantra. It becomes very personal, and it's interesting to see what people choose. But what we don't necessarily know is why--unless the person sends out a series of Tweets or publishes a blog post. Words also pack incredible power while remaining quite limited. Context, nuance, connotation, tone--all these matter greatly. Yet they don't exist when a word dangles out there by its lonesome self.
     You may be thinking I need to lighten up, and you're probably right. But I want to be clear that I think all of these are often-powerful things, especially when used together. Still, the linguist/epistemologist/educator parts of me worries that we're reducing life's beautiful, enchanting complexity to over-simplicity. This, in turn, impacts how we read, question, think, feel. Without realizing it, we can find ourselves effortlessly skimming along. To live fully, we have to ponder deeply the intricacies of ourselves and others, individually and collectively. Of every aspect of our existence. That's the heartbeat of great learning.

*An aside: it's interesting that this is counter to so much of what I've long believed about writing, in that you must be incredibly cognizant of writing for your audience. This is almost all about the author. I'm not sure how many people actually read blogs any more.

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Modest (Maybe Not So) PD Proposal

       As I was reading Whiplash, which is about MIT’s Media Lab, I came across this description of staff member Ed Boydon: “Boyden didn’t draw strict boundaries around an object of study—he didn’t have objects of study at all. Instead, he was fascinated by life itself, in all its vibrant complexity” (p 220). The line captured the approach of the Media Lab, where open and never-ending exploration of any topic is standard operating procedure. I also found myself recalling a Twitter chat about professional development, in which I remarked:

Certainly much greater PD than most of the formal events I've attended.
       I'm not interested in ticking off the reasons why so much professional development is poor. Instead, I'm thinking about how it should change to bring about some of the shifts we need to see in education. I think much of that depends on a certain outlook and accompanying mindset. To consider that notion, let's unpack some of what is suggested in that Tweet.
       First are some sweeping implications about the purpose of school and how to meet those objectives. Rather than college or career preparation, school must become life preparatory and thus continually evolve accordingly. Workshops on standard curriculum and pedagogy are therefore inadequate. Further, schools must be not only responsive to societal trends but also learn how to take advantage of them. More importantly, educators--and things always come down to people, don't they?--must broaden their perspective and consider much more than their classrooms and/or subjects. We need more generalists rather than specialists. For example, I love when a teacher sees something cool from any area and wonders, "How can I share this in a meaningful way with my students?" When teachers exhibit their own insatiable, expansive curiosity, they model the sort of joyful learning that school can muffle inside cavernous and echoing academic silos.
       I see schools moving in this direction, and I can imagine them being like "life itself, in all its vibrant complexity." But we still have so much hard work to do, individually and collectively and systematically. As we press forward, I'll feel much better to the responses I would receive to another musing Tweet I posted:

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Fine Art of Cooking

       I don't recall where I first heard the idea that giving students too detailed a rubric (or, I guess, and sort of excessive directions) is akin to simply asking them to follow a recipe.  They may produce an acceptable meal, perhaps even a tasty one. They are, however, very unlikely to ever become true chefs.
       A recent TV viewing experience affirmed the truth of this metaphor in quite literal terms. My wife and I tuned into Chopped Junior on the food network because one of her college friend's 13-year-old daughter was competing. In case, like me, you have no idea what the premise of the show is, I'll briefly explain. There is a certain food theme; in this case, it was fast food. Contestants are given a few random ingredients and told what they have to prepare within a set time. They can augment with whatever is available in the kitchen. After each round one person is eliminated by the adult judges. It's all high-paced, creative, dramatic, and surprisingly entertaining. To remove any suspense, Annabelle won. And her victory captures the larger point.
       She has seven siblings, and I believe she's one of the younger children. When she was around seven, as if life weren't hectic enough, her father lost his job. Annabelle was often told to find what was in the kitchen and figure out something to cook. She began by following basic instructions, only to soon begin branching out and later beginning to experiment in all sorts of ways. Nothing on the show flustered her.*
       Her final opponent was a young man whose two parents are chefs, and he had been training at their feet for years. While clearly talented, he seemed unable to improvise nearly as well. More than that, the pressure clearly impeded his performance.
       It's not that hard to figure out the secret sauce.

*It's also interesting, and perhaps relevant, that she is home-schooled.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Teacher's Ten First Jobs

                Jessica Lahey’s essay “Teaching: Just Like Performing Magic,’ which recounts an essay with Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), contains a great deal of inspiration.  It was first published nearly two years ago, and I recently encountered it again because of some Tweets. While I highly recommend the piece, as I do any of her writing that I’ve encountered, one line in it jarred me. It’s part of a pull quote, and I’m not sure if it comes from Lahey or Teller. It reads: “The first job of the teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.”
                I have so many problems with this statement that I’m unsure where to begin. If I try to thoroughly explain each of them, I’ll have the outline for a book. If I try to summarize, I’ll wind up with a frustrating mass of frustration. So I’ll reduce my basic argument to one rather sweeping assertion.  When our primary focus becomes teaching a subject, we create many of the other problems that plague education, because we forget an essential truth: that what we’re really teaching are young people.
                With that in mind, I’d like to propose ten other possible first jobs of a teacher, perhaps with the subject as context or even tool, although what that is really doesn’t matter.

     --Get to know and love your students.
     --Remember they are developing young people, not professors to be.
     --Tap into their innate curiosity by asking students what they believe and what they want to know.
     --Create a safe classroom culture.
     --Make learning relevant.
     --Share your own ongoing learning (not just that from the past).
     --Decide what risk you’re going to take.
     --Clarify—to them and to yourself—what the most important goals are.
     --Develop a plan for moving out of their way.
     --Shrink your ego so they can grow.

While each of these could be the first job, together they are the job. Do such work, and then a nice by-product may be that students come to love a subject.

Monday, October 23, 2017


     I discovered the word gallimaufry a couple of weeks ago, and it has stuck with me. It means a jumble or confused medley; applied to food, it's a hash. At the same time, it sounds rather elegant (gal-uh-maw-free). So the word captures what I hope this post becomes. Every once in a while I publish a piece which is simply a bunch of seeds that have been buried in my mind, but they've never sprouted into full posts, let alone full ideas. So from this point on, things may become disjointed, even jarring in the lack of transition and development. Perhaps some bits may shine a bit.

The more I think and read about grading/grades, the more I'm convinced it impedes deeper learning in all sorts of ways ..... I've asked many people in various realms what they think effect of current political climate is on young people. Already really concerned, I found this piece from CNN "What the 'Trumpification' of the presidency means to Generation Z" quite disheartening ..... We're being myopic if we don't look beyond Trump and look at larger cultural issues of which he is just extreme symbol ..... I'm encouraged by all the attention the Mastery Transcript Consortium is receiving. I haven't studied in that closely, but I must ask: How is this different than what Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools were advocating back in the 1980s? ..... So many schools now have a Picture of the Ideal Graduate. Wondering how many have a Picture of the Ideal Teacher ..... Speaking of which: What would be the three most important qualities of such? Which single one? ..... One of the things which goes against the idea of work-life balance is that, if we've found meaningful work, aren't we our genuine, passionate self in both? I know that's not really the idea, but I hope you get my gist. And if that's the case, we do better in both realms ..... The old saw claims that what gets valued, gets measured. In many cases, though, I think measuring removes potential value by limiting ..... I remain huge fan of Twitter, despite how toxic a forum it can become. But that's a human problem, not a technology problem ..... Wonder if most problems are really cultural rather than technical ..... Pre-k and K kids bopping in and out of school with oversized, nearly empty backpacks. No matter how many times I've seen it, I love it ..... Given the way handwriting was drilled into most of us as youngsters, why do we all have such distinctive, often messy, penmanship? That must be a metaphor for something ..... The idea of tattoos is growing on me, with greater appreciation for the art form. But I'm no closer to ever getting one, mainly because I can't decide what I would ..... Yesterday the rector at my church talked about the singularity in his sermon. I didn't have the heart to tell him how much closer we may be than the examples he presented ..... Aren't many of the reasons given for why schools must change actually reasons, if extended far enough, that school may not even need to exist? ..... Of course, people always will need something to do with their kids ..... I find it strange to be writing a post in this form when the past couple of months I keep feeling this strange tug to try writing a book.