978-793-1553 fitz@johnfitz.com
Writing a Metacognition

Writing a Metacognition

Know Thyself… Explore, Assess, Reflect & Rethink

 

      If we don’t learn from what we do, we learn little of real value. If we don’t make the time to explore, reflect and rethink our ways of doing things, we will never grow, evolve and reach our greatest potential or tap into the possibilities in our lives. Writing metacognition’s is our way to explore our experiences as students and teachers, and then to honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses, to willfully and wisely reflect on what we did—and did not—do, and to rethink how to move forward in a positive and more enlightened way towards a better and more applicable and capable future.

There are many sides to every experience, so when I ask you to “explore” an experience and write a metacognition, I am not looking for a simple summary of what you did. I expect you to write like you are walking the rocky and jumbled coastline of what you just went through. Recount and relive your experience in a stream of deliberate, dreamlike consciousness. This recounting and reliving can be as scrambled and unkempt as your emotions and memories; there is no “Fitz Rubric” to follow; there are no specific“details” to the assignment—there is only you and your own heart that you can follow with your own iconoclastic bent, will and resolve. You do not have to worry about being understood by your reader. You are only trying to understand and know yourself.

When you assess, there is no way around the need for a bit of cold and reptilian critique. Looking with clear eyes upon yourself is a hell of a hard task, but it is part and parcel of a thinking person’s package. Sure enough, the assignment might be so flawed as to be undoable, but that is, I hope, fairly rare. More likely the great flaw (or the great promise) starts with you, your attitude, and your way of tackling the work. And it ends with you. Pull out a scale and a measuring tape and tally what you produced; weigh it against the scale of time you stole from your life to complete the work, and ask yourself: do you feel like saying, “Check it out,” or do you feel like sighing, “Chuck it out.” To assess is to figure that out.

Once “that” is figured out, your head should kick into full reflection mode. A reflection scours the deeper trenches for whatever insights can be culled from the briny mud of experience. Pull these thoughts and splay them on the deck as they come, for they are all gifts from the sea of the mind, and their true value can be discerned later and kept or cast as wanted or needed. There is no such thing as unwanted catch in a reflection.

If you are unwilling to rethink your actions you are, to use an old adage, condemned to repeat that action. By rethinking approaches you can retool the machine of your being, and in that sense you are continually reborn as a better you. You make sense of yourself and are now clad in a stronger armor with a shield,pike and sword better suited to turn the tide and win the day in any future battle.

Sometimes a metacognition ends up as a disjointed ramble of thoughts and feels (and maybe is) a jumbled expurgation of contradicting thoughts. But that is fine. It is what it is…. Other times, it may flow together so cleanly and fluidly that it comes out as a pure and unified essay that reeks of the nuanced wisdom and strong wine of distilled thought, which is just as fine, yet infinitely more rewarding, more refreshing, and more fit to be shared—if that is the bent of your indefatigable genius.

Do this. Give a damn and figure yourself out.

Be that genius…

Grading

Grading

“Don’t let school interfere with your education…”
~Mark Twain

     Grading is that part of a teacher’s life that should bring some kind of solace to our work. No doubt, it is an arduous chore most of the time for the sheer amount of time it takes to do it well, do it fairly, and to do it in a way that actually helps the student. I am the first to admit, that I rarely feel satisfied after a long round of assessment because I often wonder if I am a reptilian calculator or a warm-blooded human on a mission to inspire, cajole and enlighten a willing and eager student. We teachers (myself included) have to juggle the competing demands of reality with an objective mission to further a subjective aim—that of coaxing the best out of a myriad of living, thinking, feeling students who bring a mosaic of life onto the platter (and splatter) of our curriculums. Amidst the competing demands of a common day, doing what is best for them seldom coincides with what is best for me .

It really feels like (after thirty years of teaching) that I should have mastered the tools of the grading toolbox, but I certainly feel now that I have much to learn and do and practice to head off to my retirement—still some years away—with some sense of satisfaction that I am a “master of my trade.” I am cursed by my burdens of reflection that I am missing out on the path to enlightenment, for I am constantly doing what others do simply because it is what is being done or has been done for generations before me. I wonder if I actually have the strength or wisdom in me to rally academia towards a wiser and more just solution.

How much of a grade should be based on homework? Most of us have no clue what “home” is to most of our students, yet we continually assign homework that is graded like daily take-home tests. It adds several more hours of pressure to what is already an over-burdened day. Homework should never be a test, which usually only rewards the gifted—whether that gift is one of intellect, the gift of a stable and nurturing home free from distraction or the gift of financial resources to tutor, guide and direct a student through his or her paces outside of school.Teachers should teach in class and not expect a student to learn what has not yet been taught. 

Parents and  administrators have become masters at manipulating expectations and as teachers we are only the limbs and heads of some monstrous and manipulated marionette. For the good of our students and our school systems, teachers are tasked to do the bidding of forces we barely even know or recognize. Common core is never really “common” for it suggests there is actually a common student on whom to model these expectations. In our private schools (free from the constraints of common core) we have the equally insidious monster that expects those extra dollars and extra attention to bring a student further up the ladder and poise him or her well and squarely on the next higher rung towards admittance to an even more prestigious school. In both cases, we are removing the wing from the bird and asking it to fly.

If anything should be common, it should be common-sense. Parents deserve to know what their children are studying, and why. Administrators deserve to know how well a teacher is teaching what they have been hired to teach. Teachers need to teach what they know best, and if they don’t know it, to learn it well or beg to be excused—but don’t fake it, and don’t let myopic, budget-constrained business sense overrule common sense and make a fisherman rule over a farm. 

I consider myself to be fairly well-rounded and open-minded enough (arguably, I am sure) but it seems like every professional day takes me further away from core of my passion. I am being asked to teach grit and resilience; I am being asked to develop the moral character of my students; I am being asked to instill honesty, empathy, respect and courage; I am being asked to eliminate prejudice and bigotry; in short, it seems like I am being tasked with shaping the form of a perfect society out of the hard-scrabbled flesh and bones of imperfect youth. Noble, maybe, but I would rather show all this rather than demand it. I bow and bend to these winds of pedagogical changes like a dory anchored outside of the harbor, but I don’t really go anywhere. Should I grade a kid on grit? Is there a way to assess courage or define lack of prejudice? Have schools become the arbiter of social change, policies and correctness? Will it be codified and ruined to the point where it can, should and must be graded? If so, there is money to made somewhere by some professional presenter to tell us how to do it–and soon it will edge and creep into another form of another demand in the life of a teacher.

And I will have to sit through it…

 

Making a Poem Better

Making a Poem Better

     So, you finished your “poem” in whatever genre of poetry you are writing, and you turn it in and proudly think, ‘There is no way any teacher can grade me down after I poured my heart and soul onto the page!” And you know, I do have a hard time deducting points from poetry. I know how hard it is to write good poetry that works for other people as much as it works for the poet itself (and yes, a published poet, after abandoning a poem to posterity, is an “it”) so I tread that fine line between encouragement and helpful prodding. 

My solution is twofold: one, I ask you to write a metacognition that explores what you are trying to accomplish in the poem and how you do this. Second, I beg, plead and cajole you into going back to the poem like a wall builder goes back to a stonewall to see where the gaps are too large or the stones too small to support something as timeless as a wall. As poets, (unlike with true wall builders) there are plenty of stones laying around from which to find a better stone to build a better wall. 

For those of you who hate my metaphors, this means to relook at every line and rethink every phrase and reexamine every word; otherwise, you have no right to call yourself a poet. A poser maybe, but not a poet. 

In practical terms, this means to look at how your words power the poem. Are you simply trying to convey an idea or thought, or are you manipulating the actual words and lines to create an effect in a reader? Are you employing anything from the long list of poetic terms and rhetorical techniques that have proven themselves for, in some cases, thousands of years? Are you creating phrases—the literary equivalent of riffs and chords and bass runs in music—in ways you have never heard or seen before? 

In short, do you give a damn? 

If you do, do it.

If you don’t, it won’t.

Assess

Assess

A Shop Teacher’s Thoughts on How To Create True Assessment  

  Assessment is a terrifying word. I know my students fear it is just a softer term for the harshness of grading–an even more terrifying word, but if we do not assess everything we do, we become the proverbial bearers of repeated mistakes. There are few things that tick my students off more than to get a grade that seems pulled out thin air, riddled with inconsistencies, and is more punitive than enlightening or helpful—but grade we must. It is the Sysyphean chore and duty of every teacher—but does it have to be? Do we teachers have to be final arbiters of fate in this regard? Is there enough room and the grading house to allow the students in? Do our students have to always live like criminals turning themselves over to the authorities for every miscue and misdemeanor in their academic lives—and short of perfection, it seems to be their lot in life. But, if we do not let them in, and if we insist on being their judge and jury, we have squandered the greatest skill they need to master—to be able to to deconstruct their efforts with clear eyes, moral candor, and infinite hope of betterment. In short, let our teaching teach how to assess. Invite students in and let them share and dialogue and assess with us and with each other.

Research shows that we retain little of what we hear in the classroom. The odds increase somewhat (though not dramatically) when we also read what we are supposed to learn; however, learning increases dramatically when we need to present what we learn—and even more dramatically when asked to teach what we have learned. My own students know me as a bit of a pious bear when it comes to learning punctuation; however, as soon as I get on my podium and start talking about punctuation, the room is soon filled with what I call “grammar gas,” which always—as in always—works its way into the very souls of my captives until even the most focused, grade grubbing scholar fades from view and into their own solipsistic reveries—and sometimes simply slip into a hypnotic trance that actually mimics paying attention.

But (the proverbial “but”) when I free them to practice punctuation by watching my videos or laboring through interactive self-grading quizzes and worksheets, they will work endlessly until every single answer is right, and they will then strut around the classroom proud as peacocks to pronounce victory over a dreaded foe. The underlying magic in this approach is that they “see” what they need to do, and while they will never use the word “assess” they are actually living the experience of assessment. They have control of their respective destinies, and they intuitively know where and when they are screwing up and what they have to do to rectify the screw-ups. Putting these newfound skills into future writing pieces is another ballgame, but at least when that red pen circles the comma splice, they are the ones to take the blame, and they can look deeper into themselves for a solution instead of lamenting that I was grading them on something I barely taught!

During exam weeks, I am always amused by teachers who proclaim that no one in their class got higher than a C on his or her exam, as if it were solely the fault of the lazy students who did not prepare for the exam. I bite my tongue and never actually say that they had the whole year to teach what was on the exam. I shudder to think that my back surgeon needed to cram before boring into my spine with a drill! Knowledge needs to be organic. It needs to grow from a well-tended garden fertilized by a continual attention to what makes the fruits and flowers blossom and grow—but instead of a garden, too many students finish the year trying to make sense of a weed-patch of information until they hardly know the weeds from the crops. We move through our curriculums as if driven by a dark force that knows no other way. We teach. We assign. And we grade. And the vicious cycle leaves little room for true and effective mastery. We give what we think is helpful feedback and helpful criticism, but more often than not it is simply degrading commentary that diminishes more than it develops. None of us needs to be assessed more than we—students and teachers alike—as the creators of our works need to assess with skills and techniques that are helpful, hopeful, effective and practical in sustainable ways.

I am better at pontificating than problem solving, and I am loathe to have anyone come into my space and tell me what I should and should not do in my class. I am amazed every day by the sheer dedication I see in my colleagues in preparing their curriculums, grading great sheaves of papers, meeting with lost and wayward students, and easing the minds of over-anxious parents. But we are prey to our own inertia in all endeavors of life, and we need to rethink and retool the grading paradigm and channel our limited energies towards teaching students how to assess and how to move forward after assessing his or her work.

The bear that lurks in the corner of every classroom is the beast of time. No sooner has one task been completed when another rises from the ashes. The lesson planner becomes the tail that wags the dog, and to paraphrase Thoreau: we do not ride the railroad as much as the railroad rides upon us. Our destination is distant and our direction is fixed. The very notion of giving time to students to asses and reflect upon their work is a path fraught with peril and ambiguities, and so even the most well-intentioned and experienced educator is caught in the tangle of duty, obligation and tradition—and ultimately the energy for transformative change remains more dream than reality.

But you can’t jump a canyon in two jumps. We need to make the decision to change the way we grade, and our students need to learn to assess their own work in practical, pedagogically sound and sustainable ways—and we need to make the leap, or at least some of us have to make the jump, if only to show what is possible. All I know is that a good portion of my life is spent reading, marking up, and grading essays. In the crunch times of the year, this amounts to several hours at night when I should be watching NCIS with my kids. It’s crazy, as it seems we grade as if we are the ones being graded—and we are! These marked up essays make their ways into the critical banter in the hallways; they fall into the hands of parents who will dissect and parse our responses more than their children’s work, and we become the fodder of their disdainful gossip. In that sense, my way of grading works. I receive relatively few complaints and more than a share of praise for the efforts I put in, but I no longer think I am doing the right thing. I need to focus on teaching, not assuming a role as sole assessor and arbiter of right from wrong.

In my nostalgia for times gone by, I remember my days as a shop teacher when my most anxious moments at night was to remember to pick up ten 2×4’s at the lumberyard on the way to school—but maybe the approach in the woodshop is a better way. When working in the shop, I never grade their projects; I grade the process of the creation, which certainly levels the playing field. Most importantly, a shop student “knows” what the final product is supposed to look like. They work from drawings, plans, and blueprints; there is a logical and structure and sequence to the workflow, and they can palpably “see” when something is or has gone wrong. These bumps in the road are never a time for criticism—and the student willingly and eagerly seeks the help they need–but more of a time to “figure out” what is going wrong and how to fix it. The do not take the project home to work on the mistakes; they come to the next class ready to work through and overcome the setback. It is a lesson in teaching that can be built into any academic classroom.

The lightbulb for me is to do the heavy work in the classroom where a teacher has oversight of the process and approach—be it writing an essay, completing a lab report, compiling a presentation—or most anything! Homework needs to be what can realistically be completed at home and should be very specific to the needs of the work being done. With seven kids of my own, I have seen firsthand time and time again homework that requires to much processing time and not enough practice time. There is no reason that homework should be a source of massive anxiety, failure, and trepidation—it needs to be doable and calculated to take a certain amount of time, not a list which will take some 10 minutes and others thirty minutes, and it needs to be directly related to the work being done in the classroom. Now, when I assign thirty minutes of reading for homework, I make sure it is thirty minutes by providing audio that is thirty minutes long. If it is an essay or writing piece of some sort, I provide a detailed rubric (blueprint) for them to follow where I only expect a certain type of content not quality of content. If it something I want them to learn and practice by rote, I make sure it is measurable and limited using self-graded flashcard programs and interactive presentations and quizzes. If I grade any one piece of an assignment, it is the writing of a metacognition, which is a brief reflection on a students experience of the process. The refining of the content is always down in the shop…I mean, class.

I realize that to many teachers, my epiphany is no great thrust of genius, and it has been their common practice for years. It is a cornerstone of the flipped classroom, but it is certainly not an approach welcomed or practiced by the majority of teachers I know—some who are stubbornly clinging to the tried and true, some who sincerely disagree with me, and some who are too strapped for time to realistically rethink and retool what they do. The downside of my approach is the time and effort it takes to front-load the classwork and homework; the upside is a more empowered, confident and engaged student. Administrators would be wise to spend less time meeting with teachers and more time spent leading workshops and giving teachers the tools and time to develop and sustain this approach.

By doing the down and dirty work in the classroom, assessment becomes a natural and engaged action down with and through each student in an empowering and rarely punitive way. As teachers we need to see how and where a student struggle with our own eyes, mind and heart—and help them when needed, and we need to free them to figure it out when appropriate and, again, doable, which can only be done in the heady and invigorating dynamic of the classroom—the place where we as teachers have control and where out expectations can be carried out with a semblance of clarity and purpose. We cannot and never will be able to control the dynamic of the home environment. Never.

As always, I drone on. Sorry, but I get pumped just thinking of the possibilities of teaching that are more profound and enduring. Changing my ways (stubborn as I am) was a leap across a wide canyon, but the view from the other side is a pretty awesome view.

To assess is to progress. It is that simple.

Writing a Metacognition

If we don’t learn from what we do, we learn little of real value. If we don’t make the time to explore, reflect and rethink our ways of doing things, we will never grow, evolve and reach our greatest potential or tap into the possibilities in our lives.

Making a Poem Better

     So, you finished your “poem” in whatever genre of poetry you are writing, and you turn it in and proudly think, ‘There is no way any teacher can grade me down after I poured my heart and soul onto the page!” And you know, I...

Assess

A Shop Teacher’s Thoughts on How To Create True Assessment    Assessment is a terrifying word. I know my students fear it is just a softer term for the harshness of grading--an even more terrifying word, but if we do not assess everything we do, we become the...

ASSESS

Thoughts on Assessment      Assessment is a terrifying word. I know my students fear it is just a softer term for the harshness of grading–an even more terrifying word, but if we do not assess everything we do, we become the proverbial bearers of repeated...

Ah, grading…

I am just about to sit down, sip on a cup of tea and grade your essays. Sometimes it is daunting to look at the list of submissions--then look at all the other things in life I need to do--and find the energy to begin...but it is what I have to do. I trusted you to do...

The Power of Simplicity

Years ago I wrote in my journal that my goal in life was to be small, be simple, be wise, be happy, and above all be ready. I cannot honestly say that I have achieved all of these goals, but these are still the “ideals” I strive to live in my life. These are my...

Remember the Time

Write what you know. ~Mark Twain       I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when it comes to the simple, unaffected, and ordinary “journal entry.” Much of my reticence towards the casual journal entry is the public nature of posting our journal...

Teach Like a Shop Teacher

Teach Like a Shop Teacher

 Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World

Create a Better Classroom

for You & Your Students

 

Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills

for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World

Teach Like a Woodshop Teacher

A Workshop Forum & Presentation

 

 

Tools & Tips for Building a Dynamic Classroom

 

Video Essays

Creating video essays out of traditionally constructed essays bring a whole new dynamic and range of possibilities for every student. A hard wrought and well-crafted essay is no longer a static piece of paper tucked away in a teacher’s desk or stashed in a crowded hallway locker. It is a multi-dimensional project that is shared with the world. Check out some of these that were created by my eighth and ninth grade classes.

It’s Over: A Final Reflection

~Paul, Eighth Grade

A Trip with Thoreau

~Charlie, 9th Grade

A New Way of Creating Rubrics

No longer will the term “rubric” create dread in your students. The Crafted Word Rubrics are not checklists; they are guides to help students respond to almost any assignment in a clear and confident way. 

Try them out!

    Few of us can do well if we don’t feel confident in what we are doing, but neither can that confidence be a misplaced confidence that is more succinctly called arrogance–a presumption of skill rather than an actual skill. Every time I create a teaching unit or plan a lesson–or even when I sit down to write something like this–I have to ask myself: “Do I really know what I am teaching, and am I teaching what I know in a way that all of my students are learning what I presume I am teaching?” I have to keep asking myself if I am the sage on the stage or the guide on the side; I have to keep asking if I am teaching essential skills and content or am I teaching what some reading workbook or English composition textbook says I should teach. Thankfully, at heart, I am still the shop teacher I have been for almost twenty years, but I am also the writer and teacher of writing I have been for more years than that. 

    Teaching shop is pretty cool because every kid comes into the shop with an untamed enthusiasm and eagerness to build something that is already in his or her head, and they are remarkably unfazed by their limited woodworking skills or by the scope of their dreams. I remember well an old student of mine who came into seventh-grade shop some years ago with detailed plans for building a one-man submersible submarine (as if you could build a non-submersible submarine:) and he begged me to give him a chance to try and build his design. Somehow he settled for something like a knapkin holder, but I heard the other day that he is now in Navy Seal training, so his ultimate dream never died; however, he learned that dreams can be realized and built out of a series of steps, an accumulation of skills forged out of the iron of real life and a dogged clinging to a vision of what he ultimately wanted to build.

    Young writers (all writers) need that dream and vision, too. They need to love the possibilities that writing offers to build something as awesome and real as a six-board chest or a sparrow whittled out of a piece white pine. They need to go to the empty page with the same sense of possibility as the kid walking into the woodshop, and they need to want to learn the skills that will get them to a place they want to be as craftsmen and craftswomen of words and sentences and paragraphs and stories. Most importantly, they need a place and a way to learn and practice those skills: a workshop of their own to walk into and dream and learn and create.

Thoughts...

Thoughts…

The Woodshop as a Metaphor
 
THOUGHT: The woodshop is a metaphor for what should be possible in the classroom
 
 
Points:

  1. “Ah, the shop!”  It smells good!

  2. They can move: 

  3. They get to use cool tools

  4. They learn to “cut the board all the way through.”

  5. They need help–hence collaboration is natural and reciprocal.

  6. Their hands work as much as their heads.

  7. They own what they are building–and it has a purpose and a destiny.

  8. They get the teachers undivided attention–at least some of the time.

  9. The teacher leaves them alone–most of the time.

  10. Mistakes are fixed, not criticized.

  11. They “never” worry about their shop grade.

  12. They are surrounded by the future possibilities of shop class.
     
  13. They can see that building their toolbox is just a first step towards something like a boat, a chair, a bed, a table, a sculpture, etc: [We can do this in the classroom by having publishing parties, sharing digital portfolios, blogging—anything that allows students to see where their education is going.]

  14. There is a completion of a cycle: Though my students usually have smaller whittling projects going on the side, there is always one “big” project that takes them the entire term to complete, and it is always a source of pride.

  15. What you build stays with you for your life, if you wish.
 
 
 
How Is Your Classroom Experienced?
Thought…
Your classroom should reflect your students needs, not your comfort zone–and definitely not a pedagogy which is not your own.
 
 
Points…

  1. A class is a physical place but also a metaphysical place:

  2. We can alter both the physical and the psychical to create a better classroom.

  3. What does your classroom look like?

  4. Is it yours? Or are you part of the shared classroom model?

  5. Does it reflect that part of you that you want to reflect.

  6. What does your classroom feel like?

  7. Where do you sit, stand, or move when teaching? (There really is not a right way if it keeps the students engaged, interested, and ready).

  8. Is there any cool factor? 

  9. Is your class any different than the classroom next door? Should it be? 

  10. What is the temperature of the emotional warmth?


 
Experiment #1…
 
At your next faculty meeting have the faculty sit in rows of desks.  Raise hands only if you know the answer.

  • Only 30% can respond
  • No talking allowed when leaving the room. 
  • The results of the problem are never published.


 
Experiment #2…
 
Have another faculty meeting where a common school problem or issue is presented and ask if small groups could possibly come up with some solutions. Have this group meet in a room with comfortable chairs or couches, and some refreshments. Let this group present their solutions to the rest of the faculty.

  • Hmmm. How would it go?
 
Respond To the Primal Needs of Your Students
Thought…
 
How do you respond to and prepare for the real and most primal and essential needs of your students?
 
 
Points:

  1. They need you to be genuine: if you can’t then you shouldn’t teach.

  2. Notice them. As much for the good as the bad. Class Dojo maybe?

  3. Say hello when they show up for class. Students need affirmation that they are welcome in your classroom.

  4. Give feedback–verbal, visual, & written. They need affirmation that their efforts on your behalf will never go unnoticed and unappreciated.

  5. Show students you care about more than how they are doing in your class. This is where the power of blogging is unparalleled. In the shop, the very nature of the mentoring makes kids feel connected because the shop teacher really is helping “them.” 

  6. Say goodbye when your students leave: make some sort of tradition surrounding the end of class. Your students last impression is a huge one, so make your goodbye a good and affirming ritual.

  7. Have special days, reward days, random acts of “let’s do something different days.
 
What Does an Engaged Student Look Like?
Thought…
 
What does an engaged student look, act and feel like?
 
 
Points:

  • What is Engagement and what does it took like?

  • How do we create an engaging classroom?

  • How do we nurture and sustain engaged students?

  • How do we assess engagement?

  • Create Rubrics, Folio’s, Videos, and blogging communities.

  • You know it when you see it.

  • An engaged student is willing and happy to figure it out.
  • An engaged student feels like he or she has accomplished something worthwhile.

  • An engaged student appreciates the value and or necessity of the content.

  • An engaged student is alert, involved, and curious.

  • An engaged student “can’t believe shop is over.”

  • An engaged student will actually talk about what they did in class while driving home–and they might even bring it up on their own.

  • An engaged feels like his or her time in your class is time well spent!
What Does a Disengaged Student Look Like?
Thought…
 
It seems like there are a few switches that engage students, but a lot more that turn them off and disengage and disaffect, so focus on what turns them on–and keeps them on!
 
 
Points…

    1. They can’t move.

    2. Everything is boring.

    3. The content and delivery is predictable.

    4. They can only use a pencil and paper.

    5. They work on their own—even when struggling with the basic concepts.

    6. Their heads are exhausted.

    7. Their bodies are exhausted.

    8. They’re hungry.

    9. They don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.

    10. They only get help when they raise their hands.

    11. There is nothing palpable to show when class is done.

    12. They don’t know what they just learned?

    13. They don’t know how they did it?

    14. There is no endgame.

    15. The teacher hates them.
 
….And, yes, the list can go on as long as there is strength in the body.

 

Limits, Rules, Expectations & Values
Thought…
 
Kids spend a huge portion of their childhood in your classroom. What “family values” can and/or should carry over to your classroom?
 
 
POINTS…

  1. Set Rules, Limits, Expectations with the same passion and resolve as you would with your family.

  2. Let them in!

  3. Set rules, standards & expectations.

  4. Create traditions.

  5. Do fun things together.

  6. Laugh a lot and tell stories.

  7. Point out right and wrong. The moral compass!

  8. Forgive and Move on.

  9. Treat everyone equally. Get rid of tracking unless absolutely essential! It is a caste system by any other name.

  10. Treat each student uniquely: know your kids, accept them for who they are. This is quite different than being a “friend” to your students.
 
Create Possibility
I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government 
from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them. 
~Thomas Jefferson
 
 
 
Thought…
 
We need to give our students projects and possibilities that they create, own, oversee, and present. We should not try to own what they create.
 
 
 
Points…

  1. There should always be a project going on.

  2. Projects should include collaborative and individual work.

  3. There should always be some sort of self-assessment.
  4. Students need to be able to claim genuine ownership, be free to pursue new directions and ideas, and exercise responsible and mature judgement when developing and creating that project.
  5. There needs to be an endgame of sorts–some way to showcase and curate that work for future generations to share.
The Power of Portfolios
Thought…
 
We need to create portfolios that capture and collate a history of every student’s journey through school.
 
 
Points…

  1. Collect. Collate. Curate: A new mantra for change!

  2. Our profession is only possible because of those who collected, collated and curated our bodies of literature, art, philosophy, history, and culture.

  3. Metacognition: It is important to remember, reflect and respond as a way of understanding who and how we are as learners (and teachers).

  4. Use journaling as a way to enable and practice metacognition.

  5. There are practical and affordable(as in free)  ways to start doing this today!  

  6. There is no downside. You are just being lazy if you don’t! (sorry)
 
The Perils, Pitfalls & Promises of Technology
Thought…
We need to start bridging the digital divides that are separating teachers and department and find fertile ground (not common ground) to allow our collective and individual digital fluency to evolve in a dynamic and energizing way.
 

 
Points…

  1. Are technology decisions being made for the right reasons?

  2. Are there a few people making the decisions for all of you?

  3. Do you want it that way?

  4. What is holding you back from using more–not less–technology?

  5. Does technology engage or simply distract?

  6. Does it simplify or complify (I need this word to exist)?

  7. Keep the focus on focus!

  8. Does technology make you grumpy?

  9. Do you, as a teacher, fully grasp the implications, limitations, and possibilities of technology?

  10. Is being engaged with and connected with a broader, diverse world important to a child’s education—to you?
 

 
What works…
 
  • Managing classes and curriculum: Using an LMS such as Schoology, Edmodo, Haiku, Canvas, Moodle, Lore, etc., allows for easy access and sharing of assignments, grades, student and parent communication and a relative transparency of process.

  • Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted: [See “What doesn’t work” ]

  • Extending the classroom: online discussions, portfolio sharing, flipped classrooms…

  • Increasing collaborative opportunities.

  • Leveling the playing field.

  • Rethinking pedagogy.

  • Teaches how to manage a digital footprint
 
 
What doesn’t work…
  • That which attracts, distracts–and vice versa–that which distracts, attracts…

  • Complicates the classroom experience: too many logons, computers don’t always work, not enough access at home, hard to find work.

  • Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted.

  • Introduces a world the kids may not be ready for emotionally

  • The learning is too distant from the classroom: kids don’t bond with each other in the same way.
How To Help Teachers

Thought…

How do you help teachers who are struggling to engage their students?  How do you help teachers let go and grow and love and cope and change?

 

Points…

  1. As a teacher, you are the root of the problem or the source of inspiration. [No one wants to admit that they are not able to do well what they’ve been hired to do, nor do schools, private schools in particular, like to air their dirty laundry, and so change is made behind closed doors; administrators give advice, make demands, and press the issue and the teachers being questioned are fearful of losing their jobs, bitter at being unfairly targeted, and often still unable to change.

  2. Metacognition: Encourage teachers to “self reflect.” Explore and possibly embrace initiatives such as The Folio Project. [It has to start with how can we best adapt, change, evolve–whatever–in ways that make us better, more engaging, more joyful, and more effective teachers.]

  3.  What can schools do to help teachers be more engaged and engaging?

  4. Set high, yet realistic, standards that encourage and enable teachers to feel empowered and energized by their career choice.

  5. Let teachers make the best use of their time.

  6. Get rid of content driven faculty meetings and focus on process driven meetings that invite participation, reflection, and renewal—stuff that might possibly energize, enlighten and transform—not simply educate and inform.

  7. Do all meetings have to be synchronous? 

  8. Do all meetings need to be mediated by the same few people with responses generated by the same few teachers?

  9. USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY: Use discussion threads and require teachers to respond within a given time frame.
  10. Post power points and/or presentations online with a comment thread instead of making teachers sit through them.

  11. Take steps to lessens the work and time that keeps teachers from the core expectations of their jobs. Many schools still operate under the assumption that our parents only hear from us once or twice a semester, and so schools place great value on formal communications: conferences; mid-term comments; end of semester letters, etc, all without any built in time to accomplish these tasks in the course of their school days.

  12. Meet less or meet more, but never meet just to touch base unless it is a truly mutual meeting. 

  13. Consider allocating days to parent meetings (a lot of schools already do this).

  14. Have a comment writing and proofreading professional day. If you give teachers the time—even if they do not use that time when it is given.

  15. Use an LMS/CMS that is open, interactive, and dynamic and which gives teachers room to evolve in their teaching practices and maintain communication with students, advisors, and parents.

 

Reflections

Reflections…

Are You Ready?

 

        Writing an essay for me is relatively simple. I choose what I want to write about, and I start writing. There is not a soul in the world who is expecting anything out of this essay—or even know it is being created, which will be great if it dies an early and ignominious death. I don’t have a teacher pushing me in any one direction–like I am pushing you. The writing prompt and the inspiration is already in me; but, though I try to write well, there are no real-life repercussions when I don’t write well.  My audience for this (which is you—my upper school English class) is remarkably small and polite, and as much as I’d like to think that you are captivated by my writing, I know that in reality you are a “captive” to my writing, because, as my students, you are a prisoner in my classroom. You are somewhat doomed to read what I write, but your actual freedom to write is hobbled by a teacher who is intent on extracting (by what must sometimes feel like any means possible) what you know and think about a narrow range of literature–in this case, the first chapter of Walden: the essay called “Economy.” Throw into the mix your other classes and what do you get: a few more books, an era or two of some history; some idea of why leaves turn red; a handy way discerning volume from the breadth and width of a fruit–a smattering of Spanish words or Latin roots: a bookshelf from shop and an abstract oil painting for your wall.  Don’t forget your soccer and football teams, the school play, band, and student life, and now your day is completely filled.
 
But is it full?
 
It is certainly filled with an exhausting range of activities designed and structured to educate, enlighten, inform, and inspire. Your teachers are a diverse mix of people who really do give a damn about you and who spend more time than you might ever imagine trying to create and perpetuate this living and breathing machine called school, but, as Thoreau writes, “we[teachers and students] labor under a mistake.” We fill the day, but we rarely fulfill the possibilities of each day, and we never will until we remove the blinders that keep us on the beaten path. Frightening as it sounds, the lunatics must run the asylum: students must be allowed to take the reins and become learners and explorers, while teachers and administrators must adapt or die.  “New ways for the new; old ways for the old.” (HDT) The world really is a different place now. The “noosphere” or “omega point” predicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin almost a hundred years ago is becoming a reality.  People can be–and are–connected in ways unimaginable to the visionaries and teachers who broke the backs of tradition to create the schools we have today. But times have changed. The desk is more a ball and chain of myopic restraint, while our opportunities for true learning–for all of us–have never been greater. 
 
Something has to give. Society and its schools have become as much slaves to assessment as we are creators of destiny. Measuring someone by “the content of their character” seldom makes it onto report cards. Instead, we measure your progress and achievements with a reptilian calculation of the merits and deficiencies of your responses to specific inquiries and lessons we are convinced we have taught well.  We critique what and how you write, but rarely consider why you write.  Though we seem compassionate and practice empathy, we still erect a barrier that only a few of you can get over unscathed–and those are the celebrated few:  the smart, hard-working, and diligent students who somehow manage to do it all. Everyone else plays catch me if you can, and so this paradigm is set in motion, and it becomes the foundation of almost every school and university in the world. The gifted student becomes a recognizable icon, sculpted, shaped, and polished by the whims of academia. As parents we stumble over each other trying to weave our child’s place on the honor roll or his or her SAT scores–or even the average score of the whole town in comparison to every other school in the district–into the most casual of conversations. On the flip side of this coin, these honors are hardly as respected by peers and classmates (perhaps because  they sense the inherent fraud and advantage to the system) and past prowess as a student soon makes for unsavory and indelicate talk even just mere hours after graduation.   
 
Maybe doing well in school is not such an impressive accomplishment. It is pretty cool that we have a black president raised by a single mom–and we use this as praise for what educational opportunities can do; but history is full of great individuals who rose from humble beginnings. It is a recurring theme of humanity itself. It is part and parcel of what Joseph Campbell has termed “The Heroic Cycle.”  Schools do not create greatness; our primal need to be great is what creates greatness. No one reading this is precluded from realizing his or her individual greatness. We don’t have to be Telemachus facing up to the rowdy suitors in his house, but all of us have challenges that are unmet and untested, and we must meet them and we must test them if we want to be a hero. There is courage and strength of each of us, but not as much motivation, perhaps because the tools we use in school are not the best motivators. We instill as much fear as desire, and there is a subtle paralysis that takes hold. Only if the doors open wider and the walls fall down will we see the expanse of our opportunities–and only if you give enough of a damn to reach for the dream at hand, and then only if you see the dream. Realizing your dream should be your accomplishment, and layering dream upon dream should be your life.
 
Life has a way of doling out hardship in unequal proportions, but school should not be one of them. There is certainly very little that is fair about who goes to what school, but that is the unspoken inequity. We praise the notion of an egalitarian educational system, but we shudder at the thought of implementation.  Few of my Concord friends would ship their sons and daughters to our schools in Maynard because…well, just because.  Ironically, few of my Maynard friends would feel comfortable with their sons and daughters trying to mingle in a Concord milieu.  And so we keep up a pleasant caste system that feeds off the tension between the rich and the poor. It’s like the old camp song: “Don’t chuck your muck in my backyard/my backyard’s full,” but because of the internet, our backyards have merged; the demarcation line is blurred, and there really is a chance for every kid to play on the same field–if we let them.  Caesar accidentally burned down the Royal Library at Alexandria; we shouldn’t do the same with our new library of knowledge. During the first solo circumnavigation of the world, the Afrikaners in South Africa scoffed at Joshua Slocum’s claims that the world was round, even as he was ninety percent of the way around the globe!  Wouldn’t it be ironic if our schools lost the race for knowledge because we dithered at the starting gate?  
 
I certainly did not start this narrative with any plans to take on our educational system.  Sharper minds than mine could tear this essay apart, but only because they have had so many generations to practice.  The hurricane yesterday gave me a rare gift of time today, so I was just hoping to give you a few words to help you get started on your Walden essay. Words have that effect on me.  Maybe my own rereading of Walden made me listen more closely to the drumbeat of my heart no matter how measured or far away; maybe in these political times of gloating,  bitching, and belittling I didn’t want to be one of the thousand hacking at the branches of evil; I wanted to be the one striking at the root. The beauty and bane of Thoreau’s words is how easily they can prove either side of an argument, and my mind is so scattered that I could never get around to organizing all the facts; instead, I’ve simply scattered some seeds among the compost of my experience. Hopefully, one or two will be like the mustard seeds in that parable of Jesus. If not, I’ll have to till again and plant more thoughtfully.

All I know is what I sense: change is coming, and if you have your wits about you, you will be riding the edge of that wave. 
 

Do You Really Want to Be a Teacher?
Let Kids Write
 
        There are plenty of smarter, more gifted, and more interesting writers out there than me or you–but there shouldn’t be a more passionate writer. For better or worse, your blog is you–as my blog is me, and until you want a better you and I want a better me, readers will find another place to go.

         Few things in life are more important than having a passion for something. It is an offshoot of “give damn.” To have a life without a focus on some something or somethings to do and explore and develop on your own is a pretty pitiful life. When I was your age, I had a rock collection that filled a bazillion egg crates with chippings and scrapings I hammered off ; I had snake and reptile aquariums that had specimens of most any cold-blooded creature in the White Pond area of Concord. I had a shortwave radio that I made with my father–and a huge antenna on the roof to help pick up conversations happening anywhere in the world. I had a collection of fishing poles and rods and reels and lures and baits to somehow tease trout, bass, horned pout, kibbers, pickerel and anything else out of the Concord River, Walden Pond, the Assabet, Nashoba Brook and Warner’s Pond. Best of all my family had a plywood sailfish sailboat my father built in our garage from plans he got in somehow to magazine, and in that 12 feet of arc, I got my first taste of sailing–a taste that is as strong today as it was back then. My bedroom was a mess of magazine both strewn and piled–but always read: Boy’s Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular ScienceField and StreamSears Roebuck, National Geographics and any other magazine, book, or journal that fed my passions. Most of those publications are still around to buy in some way today, but there is an even larger world of bloggers out there who cover everything those magazines covered–and a whole lot more. These blogs and websites are where people go to feed their passions and develop their own knowledge and skills. It is where you go and where I go, and the better the blog or the better the site, the more often we return, and the more we return–the more of a mark that writer has left on the world. And that mark says something about that person. You. Something good, I hope.

    In ancient Rome there was a saying: “De gustabus non disputantum,”otherwise known as “There is no accounting for taste,” which is a good thing because it keeps the world to this day interesting, diverse, and dynamic. We don’t have to like what other people like, nor are there any compelling reasons why we should–but we should like something; we should want to be knowledgeable about something, and be good at something, and to constantly be getting better at something. Think of your passions, and think of what you can do to live out that passion or passions and share it with the world. Think of what you are going to leave behind as your footprints in this life. You do not want to be like the drunk sailor Elpenor who fell off the roof and died a death that no one remembers or cares about. As Odysseus himself said: “No songs will be sung about him.” Your “digital footprint” is the song that is sung about you.

     When I first started blogging with my classes–now close to ten years ago–most people were paranoid about kids names being “on the internet,” and so we built firewall on firewall behind private servers to keep you safe and removed from the real internet. In most ways it has been great. It gives you guys a safe place to practice living and sharing in the digital world without the dangers of anyone knowing you are out there. But times have changed. Soon you are going to want your name be out there–and out there in a good and positive way. You are not going to want someone to google your name and come up with…nothing. I am really proud to have discovered that it is relatively hard to study haiku and not come across my website at some point in your studies. I like that if someone googles my name they get the best of me and not the worst of me. I want that for you, too.

     If you’ve got a passion, then keep learning and practicing and experimenting, and then share it with the world. If the seed dies with the flower, there is no beauty left behind.

9 + 3 =

ASSESS

Thoughts on Assessment

 

     Assessment is a terrifying word. I know my students fear it is just a softer term for the harshness of grading–an even more terrifying word, but if we do not assess everything we do, we become the proverbial bearers of repeated mistakes. There are few things that tick my students off more than to get a grade that seems pulled out thin air, riddled with inconsistencies, and is more punitive than enlightening or helpful—but grade we must. It is the Sysyphean chore and duty of every teacher—but does it have to be? Do we teachers have to be final arbiters of fate in this regard? Is there enough room and the grading house to allow the students in? Do our students have to always live like criminals turning themselves over to the authorities for every miscue and misdemeanor in their academic lives—and short of perfection, it seems to be their lot in life. But, if we do not let them in, and if we insist on being their judge and jury, we have squandered the greatest skill they need to master—to be able to to deconstruct their efforts with clear eyes, moral candor, and infinite hope of betterment. In short, let our teaching teach how to assess. Invite students in and let them share and dialogue and assess with us and with each other.

Research shows that we retain little of what we hear in the classroom. The odds increase somewhat (though not dramatically) when we also read what we are supposed to learn; however, learning increases dramatically when we need to present what we learn—and even more dramatically when asked to teach what we have learned. My own students know me as a bit of a pious bear when it comes to learning punctuation; however, as soon as I get on my podium and start talking about punctuation, the room is soon filled with what I call “grammar gas,” which always—as in always—works its way into the very souls of my captives until even the most focused, grade grubbing scholar fades from view and into their own solipsistic reveries—and sometimes simply slip into a hypnotic trance that actually mimics paying attention.

But (the proverbial “but”) when I free them to practice punctuation by watching my videos or laboring through interactive self-grading quizzes and worksheets, they will work endlessly until every single answer is right, and they will then strut around the classroom proud as peacocks to pronounce victory over a dreaded foe. The underlying magic in this approach is that they “see” what they need to do, and while they will never use the word “assess” they are actually living the experience of assessment. They have control of their respective destinies, and they intuitively know where and when they are screwing up and what they have to do to rectify the screw-ups. Putting these newfound skills into future writing pieces is another ballgame, but at least when that red pen circles the comma splice, they are the ones to take the blame, and they can look deeper into themselves for a solution instead of lamenting that I was grading them on something I barely taught!

During exam weeks, I am always amused by teachers who proclaim that no one in their class got higher than a C on his or her exam, as if it were solely the fault of the lazy students who did not prepare for the exam. I bite my tongue and never actually say that they had the whole year to teach what was on the exam. I shudder to think that my back surgeon needed to cram before boring into my spine with a drill! Knowledge needs to be organic. It needs to grow from a well-tended garden fertilized by a continual attention to what makes the fruits and flowers blossom and grow—but instead of a garden, too many students finish the year trying to make sense of a weed-patch of information until they hardly know the weeds from the crops. We move through our curriculums as if driven by a dark force that knows no other way. We teach. We assign. And we grade. And the vicious cycle leaves little room for true and effective mastery. We give what we think is helpful feedback and helpful criticism, but more often than not it is simply degrading commentary that diminishes more than it develops. None of us needs to be assessed more than we—students and teachers alike—as the creators of our works need to assess with skills and techniques that are helpful, hopeful, effective and practical in sustainable ways.

I am better at pontificating than problem solving, and I am loathe to have anyone come into my space and tell me what I should and should not do in my class. I am amazed every day by the sheer dedication I see in my colleagues in preparing their curriculums, grading great sheaves of papers, meeting with lost and wayward students, and easing the minds of over-anxious parents. But we are prey to our own inertia in all endeavors of life, and we need to rethink and retool the grading paradigm and channel our limited energies towards teaching students how to assess and how to move forward after assessing his or her work.

The bear that lurks in the corner of every classroom is the beast of time. No sooner has one task been completed when another rises from the ashes. The lesson planner becomes the tail that wags the dog, and to paraphrase Thoreau: we do not ride the railroad as much as the railroad rides upon us. Our destination is distant and our direction is fixed. The very notion of giving time to students to asses and reflect upon their work is a path fraught with peril and ambiguities, and so even the most well-intentioned and experienced educator is caught in the tangle of duty, obligation and tradition—and ultimately the energy for transformative change remains more dream than reality.

But you can’t jump a canyon in two jumps. We need to make the decision to change the way we grade, and our students need to learn to assess their own work in practical, pedagogically sound and sustainable ways—and we need to make the leap, or at least some of us have to make the jump, if only to show what is possible. All I know is that a good portion of my life is spent reading, marking up, and grading essays. In the crunch times of the year, this amounts to several hours at night when I should be watching NCIS with my kids. It’s crazy, as it seems we grade as if we are the ones being graded—and we are! These marked up essays make their ways into the critical banter in the hallways; they fall into the hands of parents who will dissect and parse our responses more than their children’s work, and we become the fodder of their disdainful gossip. In that sense, my way of grading works. I receive relatively few complaints and more than a share of praise for the efforts I put in, but I no longer think I am doing the right thing. I need to focus on teaching, not assuming a role as sole assessor and arbiter of right from wrong.

In my nostalgia for times gone by, I remember my days as a shop teacher when my most anxious moments at night was to remember to pick up ten 2×4’s at the lumberyard on the way to school—but maybe the approach in the woodshop is a better way. When working in the shop, I never grade their projects; I grade the process of the creation, which certainly levels the playing field. Most importantly, a show student “knows” what the final product is supposed to look like. They work from drawings, plans, and blueprints; there is a logical and structure and sequence to the workflow, and they can palpably “see” when something is or has gone wrong. These bumps in the road are never a time for criticism—and the student willingly and eagerly seeks the help they need–but more of a time to “figure out” what is going wrong and how to fix it. The do not take the project home to work on the mistakes; they come to the next class ready to work through and overcome the setback. It is a lesson in teaching that can be built into any academic classroom.

The lightbulb for me is to do the heavy work in the classroom where a teacher has oversight of the process and approach—be it writing an essay, completing a lab report, compiling a presentation—or most anything! Homework needs to be what can realistically be completed at home and should be very specific to the needs of the work being done. With seven kids of my own, I have seen firsthand time and time again homework that requires to much processing time and not enough practice time. There is no reason that homework should be a source of massive anxiety, failure, and trepidation—it needs to be doable and calculated to take a certain amount of time, not a list which will take some 10 minutes and others thirty minutes, and it needs to be directly related to the work being done in the classroom. Now, when I assign thirty minutes of reading for homework, I make sure it is thirty minutes by providing audio that is thirty minutes long. If it is an essay or writing piece of some sort, I provide a detailed rubric (blueprint) for them to follow where I only expect a certain type of content not quality of content. If it something I want them to learn and practice by rote, I make sure it is measurable and limited using self-graded flashcard programs and interactive presentations and quizzes. If I grade any one piece of an assignment, it is the writing of a metacognition, which is a brief reflection on a students experience of the process. The refining of the content is always down in the shop…I mean, class.

I realize that to many teachers, my epiphany is no great thrust of genius, and it has been their common practice for years. It is a cornerstone of the flipped classroom, but it is certainly not an approach welcomed or practiced by the majority of teachers I know—some who are stubbornly clinging to the tried and true, some who sincerely disagree with me, and some who are too strapped for time to realistically rethink and retool what they do. The downside of my approach is the time and effort it takes to front-load the classwork and homework; the upside is a more empowered, confident and engaged student. Administrators would be wise to spend less time meeting with teachers and more time spent leading workshops and giving teachers the tools and time to develop and sustain this approach.

By doing the down and dirty work in the classroom, assessment becomes a natural and engaged action down with and through each student in an empowering and rarely punitive way. As teachers we need to see how and where a student struggle with our own eyes, mind and heart—and help them when needed, and we need to free them to figure it out when appropriate and, again, doable, which can only be done in the heady and invigorating dynamic of the classroom—the place where we as teachers have control and where out expectations can be carried out with a semblance of clarity and purpose. We cannot and never will be able to control the dynamic of the home environment. Never.

As always, I drone on. Sorry, but I get pumped just thinking of the possibilities of teaching that are more profound and enduring. Changing my ways (stubborn as I am) was a leap across a wide canyon, but the view from the other side is a pretty awesome view.

To assess is to progress. It is that simple.

Ah, grading…

I am just about to sit down, sip on a cup of tea and grade your essays. Sometimes it is daunting to look at the list of submissions–then look at all the other things in life I need to do–and find the energy to begin…but it is what I have to do. I trusted you to do your part, now I must do mine. Since I have so many papers to grade, I have a bit of a system I use. It works for me, and I hope it will work with you. I do not really believe in the term “rough draft.” Every essay should be as good as you can possibly make it be. Then again, no essay is really as good as it can be. Most of your essays use a rubric of some sort to guide the flow, structure and content. If you pay attention to that and if you follow the “details” of the assignment, you will do well. Usually I put checks where you do well; I put slash marks where a new paragraph should be; I circle areas where there is a punctuation, grammar or proofreading mistakes, and I leave a comment with overall assessment of your work. And then I give it a grade.

If you want to revise, rewrite or rework your paper, I will certainly allow that, and I will increase your grade “if” you sincerely work to fix the mistakes. If you don’t, I am not going to chase you down. I will simply hope you work more diligently on the next paper or project. I do my best to return your papers in a timely way. If your paper is not turned in on time, it may take me a while to grade it. I just do not have the time to grade papers at your leisure. Usually, I will ask you to write a brief “metacognition” attached to each paper that lets me know about your experience in writing the paper. It helps me to understand the good and the bad of any assignment, and it should help you understand more fully what you need to work on as you grow and mature as a writer.

Metacognitions do count as journal entries! Sometime tonight your iPad should ding to let you know your paper is in. Please look at your essay, read my comments and try to figure out why I marked what I marked. I screw all the time when I write. I get it.

Writing well is not easy. Smile and resolve to make what could be better, better! It is what all writers worth anything need to do.

The Power of Simplicity

The Power of Simplicity

Years ago I wrote in my journal that my goal in life was to be small, be simple, be wise, be happy, and above all be ready. I cannot honestly say that I have achieved all of these goals, but these are still the “ideals” I strive to live in my life. These are my necessities—and as necessities they are by nature, finite, as opposed to my “wants,” which are seemingly endless…. Our essential question for the year is “What are the necessities of a fruitful and rewarding life?”

My necessities surely are not the same as yours. Perhaps you have never stopped to consider what you consider the necessities of your own life. But you should, and it is my earnest hope that you will. The great writer and philosopher James Henry once wrote that “thoughts are only made real when put into words.” My goal for the year is to help you make real what is in your head and heart. In essence: to begin to discover your true and most perfect self, and to build a foundation under your dreams upon which you can build a good and lasting life. I cannot tell you what this will look like, but I can point you in the right direction–or at least, a direction. The rest is up to you. Your summer reading books,

Your summer reading books, Into the Wild, and The Outermost House describe the attempts by Chris McCandless and Henry Beston to seek profoundly rewarding lives by removing themselves from “society” and attempting to live simply and wisely and as close to nature as possible. Chris, of course, met a calamitous end in the wilds of the Yukon. Beston thrived in a less harsh (though in many ways no less wild) year spent in a small cabin on the outer beaches of a Cape Cod that at the time was a pretty much untamed and scarcely visited stretch of lonely sand and surf. McCandless’s story was told for him by another writer, Jonathan Krakauer, who found Mccandless’s adventure to be newsworthy and worth telling. Beston told his own story in descriptive prose that is widely considered some of the best writing in the English language—though I am sure some of you will disagree with that assertion! For many of you, The Outermost House might have seemed like the most boring book you were ever forced to read. No harm intended. I get that, and I get why you might feel that way. Nothing much really happens: he walks on the beach, describes birds and waves and winds and storms with excruciating detail, but there is no obvious crisis, no looming antagonist to put him in peril. Putting the two books side by side is almost unfair. In

In Into the Wild at least there is true adventure—an adventure which killed Chris in a slow, lonely and cruel way. The Outermost House, on the other hand, reads more like an intellectual and overly detailed diary shared with kind and forgiving friends. So why is it that I am perfectly satisfied to read Into the Wild once and be done with it, yet I can pick up The Outermost House year after year and reread it with ineffable joy and satisfaction? Perhaps it is because Beston’s words grow with me as I grow (and yes, I am still growing!). Perhaps it is because Beston loved and studied the wild loneliness he experienced, while McCandless seemed to continually fight with an unforgiving and harsh nature (and his own harsh nature) in every step of his fateful journey. Perhaps I remember a side of me that was once like Chris McCandless—a darker side of my life best forgotten. More than likely, I return to Beston because he continually gives back to me. I feel wiser and more complete and more human every time I read his words. His words make me want to bring my life back to the wheel and polish it to a more perfect edge, an edge that can cleave apart the tangle of weeds I might be lost in. His words affirm my own desire to live simply and deeply. Mr. Farely and I did not assign these books in an inconsiderate way. In fact, the decision was quite considered. Our hope is that we can start a new conversation with all of you and each of you, and that you can start a conversation with yourself–a conversation that will fill our coming year together. So ask yourself: Why do you want what you want? What do you really need? Maybe there is power in simplicity….

More than likely, I return to Beston because he continually gives back to me. I feel wiser and more complete and more human every time I read his words. His words make me want to bring my life back to the wheel and polish it to a more perfect edge, an edge that can cleave apart the tangle of weeds I might be lost in. His words affirm my own desire to live simply and deeply. Mr. Farely and I did not assign these books in an inconsiderate way. In fact, the decision was quite considered. Our hope is that we can start a new conversation with all of you and each of you, and that you can start a conversation with yourself–a conversation that will fill our coming year together. So ask yourself: Why do you want what you want? What do you really need? Maybe there is power in simplicity….

Perhaps it is because Beston loved and studied the wild loneliness he experienced, while McCandless seemed to continually fight with an unforgiving and harsh nature (and his own harsh nature) in every step of his fateful journey. Perhaps I remember a side of me that was once like Chris McCandless—a darker side of my life best forgotten. More than likely, I return to Beston because he continually gives back to me. I feel wiser and more complete and more human every time I read his words. His words make me want to bring my life back to the wheel and polish it to a more perfect edge, an edge that can cleave apart the tangle of weeds I might be lost in. His words affirm my own desire to live simply and deeply. Mr. Farely and I did not assign these books in an inconsiderate way. In fact, the decision was quite considered. Our hope is that we can start a new conversation with all of you and each of you, and that you can start a conversation with yourself–a conversation that will fill our coming year together.

So ask yourself: Why do you want what you want? What do you really need? Maybe there is power in simplicity….

Remember the Time

Remember the Time

Write what you know.
~Mark Twain

 

    I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when it comes to the simple, unaffected, and ordinary “journal entry.” Much of my reticence towards the casual journal entry is the public nature of posting our journal writing as blogs that are more or less “open” to the public. It is hard for me as a teacher of writing to post an entry that I know is trivial, mundane, and perhaps of no interest to my readers—but that is precisely what I need to do if I am to model the full spectrum of the writing process. Keeping a journal is more than a search for lofty thoughts amidst the detritus of the day; it is a practice that keeps our wits and writing skills honed for a coming feast by rambling through the meat of the day and drifting and sailing to whatever port is nearest to my pen. Writing is always an odyssey, and so I have to let my mind go and journey (journal) where it will.

At the very least, a journal, filled with the scraps and pieces of our daily lives, will outlive our own lives and serve as both beacon and reminder to future generations. Once, in my days as a junkman, I cleaned out an old barn in Maynard after the elderly widower—a man I only remember now as Bob—had died. Scrounging through the Bob’s boxes for anything of value, I came across a series of leather bound journals dating back to the 1930’s. I found a journal marked 1941, so I looked up the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, eager for insight on the profound effect that day must have had on the common man of his or her time. I turned through page after page of impeccable script and learned that Bob and his family went to church in the morning, during which they sang certain hymns (hymns that I can’t remember now—but he did.)  Afterwards, they drove to Stow for dinner with his extended family. He wrote about the meal, the weather, the condition of the roads, and, in two brief lines at the close of his entry: “The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor today. I trust President Roosevelt will know what to do.” And that was it.

At first glance, I saw a xenophobic racist putting blind trust in infallible rulers. I couldn’t reconcile it with the kind and gentle old man, and best friend to my best friend’s father, who had recently passed away. I didn’t see it as a window into another time and another mindset. In the arrogance of my youthful pride, I couldn’t appreciate the elegiac beauty of his day—a whole day devoted to faith and the full circle of family.  It wasn’t until years later when I sat on the bench by the World War Two Memorial in downtown Maynard and scrolled through the scores of boys and men from this one small mill town killed in battle that I realized the full extent of my myopia.  I should have sat in his barn for days and read every word from his journals and then, maybe, I could have seen the evolution of a person through the fullness of time through the clarity of still waters.

Maybe Bob’s youthful ramblings, tempered by the death of so many of his townsmen, could have somehow transformed into the pearls of laconic wisdom that old age should bring—pearls that would fetch a heady price in the market of the modern mind. The greatest tragedy is that we’ll never know. I offered the journals to his son, but he was content to have me throw the whole lot into the back of my Chevy pickup and pay me fifty dollars for the load I scattered into the fires of the Concord dump. The irony of tossing those journals away not more than 150 yards from the site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond remained lost on me for many years, even as I trudged dutifully to the Concord library to scour through the massive tomes of Thoreau’s own journals. The old man had done exactly what Thoreau believed was required first of any man or woman when he admonished all would be writers:

“I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A further irony is that my own journals from my years between eighteen and twenty five years old, which filled a good-sized cardboard box, were also inadvertently tossed into the same dump by a roommate intent on purging all the junk we were accumulating in our Williams Road farmhouse. The Concord dump is now a series of perfectly sculptured hills slowly regaining the shape and character of the woods that Thoreau tramped and stumbled through 150 years ago. It is a noble idea funded by the well-intentioned, but a nobler action would be to dig through the mold and dirt of time and truly find what the past has to offer us, buried almost irretrievably as it is.

Poetry is what is left unsaid. The stolid words of brevity simply point us in a direction only the brave will wander, but through the daily words of an old Italian farmer, I found a new kind of poetry. Pine Tree farm, butted against the rail line on the far side of Walden and owned by the Ammendolia’s, was one of the last of the Italian family farms that used to be scattered in every corner of Concord. Tony Ammendolia was the patriarch who somehow kept the dream alive, even as farm after farm succumbed to the teeming aorta of suburbia. It was there where I worked on school breaks and on summer weekends, picking corn at 4:00 AM before the heat of the day and hoeing seemingly infinite rows of tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, and eggplants in the long, hot afternoons where success and failure crisscrossed and intersected in a struggle to just get by. My Goddaughters were raised there, and their parents, my good friends Deb and Jack, still keep a few acres going to this day. Tony died two years ago after defying for many years the cancer he fought with the same stubbornness that he did the vicissitudes of nature in the cycle of droughts and floods and insects he faced at every turn during his days as a farmer.

Every night for over sixty years Tony would sit at his desk after dinner and write in his journal. Tony knew I was a writer and would kiddingly tease me that he was a writer too, but in a good-natured poke at my transient approach to life, he was also a farmer. I was at Jack and Debs recently for dinner and asked about Tony’s journals. Jack perked up as the proud inheritor of this family treasure and immediately found me one of the many small notebooks that Tony kept. I opened it and felt the tears well in my eyes, for it read like a type of poetry I had never read before. Tony never meandered from the scope of his own life, but his words spelled out a conviction that celebrated both the common fragility and majesty of life with sentences both sparse and foreboding: “Potato beetles got the eggplants on Bedford Street. We will not sell eggplant this year.”  “Three days of rain. Lucky, as the irrigation pumps needs a new valve.” Each entry is a sublime excising out of the ordinary: the sky, the temperature, what was done, what had to be left undone, how much seed, what was selling and what was not selling—but never a mention of the money made or not made. There is never a mention of personal angst or frustration for over sixty continuous years. Those details were best left to imagination and speculation. Some, myself especially, have to call it poetry.

Our own journals need the same attention that Bob and Tony put into their daily records so that our journals can also chart the common unfolding of our lives. As writers and sojourners in life it is our call and duty to map the expanse of our existence. We don’t need to lay our souls bare for all to see and gossip about, but we should find a place to keep a daily journal. Whether it is written in leather bound journals, spiral notepads, or saved as private or public drafts in your blog doesn’t matter, but just a few short lines each day will serve to spark your memory in a later age—and memories wizened in the vat of a thoughtful life will always produce a finer wine. Journaling is a word that has been antiquated before its time. Though fewer and fewer of us take the time to sit with pen and paper, there is still a time and a place for the spirit of journaling to continue.

Make the time to map your own quest. A friend asked me yesterday why I didn’t have a GPS in my truck. He simply shook his head when I answered, “First, I have to remember where I’ve been.” Today’s technologies offer us possibilities unimagined to our literary forbears. Our daily journals can hold both pristine images of our lives via photos, video clips, and music, and most importantly, words. The web allows us to scour the world for like-minded souls that share our particular interests with whom we can share our passions on sites like Facebook, blogs, or personal web sites.

My only issue with much of what is out there on these sites is their self-exploitive and indulgent banality. Bob and Tony’s journals seemed permeated with an almost religious devotion as they chronicled the recitations of their days in rhythm with the pattern of their everyday lives, while on the other side, many Facebook sites I have visited have a tiresome and sycophantic obsession with the painstakingly mundane and profligate side of that persons supposed interests and lifestyle. It is hard—and sometimes impossible—to wrest any kind of context out of the content. Nothing, except a prurient curiosity, keeps me interested—and that is no road to enlightenment for either side of the equation. On some few sites there are links to blogs and other artistic websites where a deeper and more invested side of that person comes through. For them, their Facebook page is simply an adjunct to their life—a social gathering place to rest and draw water with friends and community. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should never be the destination of your journey, and if you can’t see life as a journey—an odyssey of existence—then you simply can’t see.

I guess the word I am looking for is devotion. None of our lives are more complicated than Bob or Tony’s lives. All they did that is different is make time to look closely at what was important to them in the daily unfolding of each of their lives.

Take the time. Remember where you’ve been.