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…
So What’s Your Point?
The Uses and Abuses of Rhetoric
Knowing that you do not understand is a virtue;
Not knowing that you do not understand is a defect.
Nobody likes to be wrong, and for that matter, most of us “like” to be right. Few of us walk around writing, saying or thinking, “Boy, my opinions and views are certainly shallow, uninformed, and alarmingly trivial—but here is what I think….” We like to be assured that what we know and feel is valid and real and informed, for there is a serenity in knowing that we know—or that we have thoughtfully reached a level of knowingness that is somewhere near to certainty. I admit that a certain jealousy sweeps over me when I hear or read someone say exactly what I already think and feel (and though I knew) but I just never found the words or the way to say it with that much eloquence and clarity. Or I am at a party and two prodigious minds are arguing a topic, and I find myself swinging dizzily from one side to the other: “He’s right. No, she’s right. But he made a good point. Now her’s is better.” Worse is when I decide to butt in to the conversation with my limited skills and sketchy half-ass information, and I am forced to slink away with my tail between my legs like a proud, yet sheepish, cur. In each instance I have been victimized by a majestic and compelling use of rhetorical language—which is simply effective and persuasive speaking or writing. But don’t fear. Becoming a more adept rhetorical speaker and writer is a skill that can be learned and practiced in every facet of our academic, social, and intellectual interactions.
The first skill is to stop. Think. Think some more. Then speak. Lao Tzu had it right almost three thousand years ago when he wrote the short poem posted above this essay. He was no doubt annoyed by people who were obsessed with being right, but who were not equally obsessed with knowing what they needed to know before opening their big mouths or wetting ink to papyrus! The wisest and most enduring advice then is to stay the heck out of conversations you have no right or aptitude to be in. Sadly, Lao Tzu’s wisdom is lost on most people, for our lives are full of moments where we are carried away by the ephemeral sound of our own voices and not by the content and wisdom of our arguments. We only need to read or hear the endless screed of Facebook postings, political rantings, and absurd comments that so fill our everyday lives to know that we live in opinion-full, yet shallow, times. I am just as guilty as any of you. Regrettably, it is often impossible to undo what we say or write or post. The only practical (and wise) thing we can do is to start fresh and choose our arguments more carefully, think more deeply, and know when, where, and how to say or write what we want to say or write. Only then will our rhetoric rise to the level of the sublime. Hopefully, this set of criteria for speech giving will not banish us collectively to a vow of silence, for there is much each of us do know, perhaps more than any other person on the planet!
The second skill is to know that a gaggle of thoughts and opinions cannot be simply dumped on the page or on the person like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. We need to complete the picture for our listeners and readers; moreover, we need to let our listeners and readers feel like a part of the building process for without a sympathetic audience our words are but emptiness in a vacuum, and our rhetoric will be a self-aggrandizing show-boating of our superior and subtle thoughts, and we will not convince anybody of anything. A good rhetorician understands his or her audience as fully as the subject matter, and they are willing and happy to meet that audience on a common field of play with a common set of rules for the game at hand. I worked for many years as a boatbuilding wood-shop teacher, and my mantra for building a simple boat has always been the old maxim that “form follows function.” It is much the same with rhetoric: the ways in which we build our arguments and state our cases need to be crafted with the same adherence to sound and effective principles of construction as a craftsman building his or her boat. No doubt there are new and radical boats launched every day, but every one of them must float, and they must move through the water in some semblance of the way the builder hopes they do, or else it is essentially a failure. Interesting, perhaps—but still a failure. Some people have mastered the art and craft of rhetoric through experience, reading, practice, common sense and an uncommon intuition; most of the rest of us are best served by listening, watching, reading, parsing, and perfecting the time-worn and time-tested formulas and spontaneous performances of whomever we feel is simply awesome at drawing sap from a telephone pole, a meal from a loaf of bread, or, simply, sense from sound.
The final skill (which I need to practice right now) is discerning the limits of what you know well enough to speak or write sensibly about, so this is where I leave you off because I am pretty sure that I have reached the limit of my erudition on rhetoric—though not my interest in the subject. I need to be content at this point to be, as Buddha once said, the finger pointing at the moon. If you really want to master the art of rhetoric—if truth is mightier than the sword of your opinions—you’ll figure it out. The obvious starting point is to read Aristotle’s seminal work, Rhetoric, or even just the history of the discussions surrounding rhetoric and its uses and abuses in ancient Greece to the present times. There are reams of discussions and treatises on rhetoric in print and widely available on the internet. Reading Aristotle, who is way more wordy than Lao Tzu, is a sensible place to begin; but, at the very least (and before your next argument) remember what Mark Twain said: “If you don’t lie, you’ll never have to remember anything.”
Let the chips fall where they will…
My entire adult life has been spent writing personal essays. I fact, whenever I write anything else—a song, a poem, or a story—I can trace its birth to some essay I have previously written. Personal essays are how I figure out who I am and what I live for and what I aspire to be or become. In short, my essays are me. I write from my head and heart using as many time-tested tips, tricks, and techniques of the writers craft to say what I want to say as clearly and powerfully as I possibly can.
I want and need you to do the same. You are a perfect and poignant person, and your voice is as valid and real as any other voice in the universe, so everything you don’t write or try to say is deducted from the potential beauty of the universe. You don’t feel, think or believe any less than me or any other person. What you might not believe or realize is that essay writing, aside from getting a good grade or getting into some ritzy school, is all that important.
All I can do is give you the tools to build an essay. You, however, are the materials you use to build the essay, but I can’t make you swing the hammer, cut the boards and build the house of your dreams. That is up to you. If you are not willing, then you are resigned to mediocrity. This class is useless to you.
But if you are willing; if you blow the sparks of your life into flame, then the fire of possibility will be lit and your life will shine like a beacon in the night. You will inspire, comfort and console the lives lucky enough to read and hear your words.
The four main pillars of this class are Read. Write. Create. Share. The first three are the hardest because they require real work, effort, and often drudgery in the midst of your taxing and often stressful life. But to share… To share is as simple and hard as finding the courage to press a button and release your words to a wider world and “let the chips fall where they will.”
In the simple song of Guy Clark, he is not implying he merely wants to build a boat—he is “tired of the same old same;” he is tired of the “same old songs with the same old lines/ the same old words with the same old lines.” Clark wants his words to take him to new places in a brave and enduring way. It is time for all of us—and yes, me too—to “sail into a brand new day.”
― Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights
The most powerful and enduring connection we share as a human race is our desire and need to share stories. We engage in the art of storytelling more than most of us ever realize; whether we are describing our kids’ soccer games, critiquing the latest HBO series, telling a ribald joke, or remembering a long lost friend, event, memory, book, or experience. We listen to stories in songs, in long-winded meetings, in late night BBC broadcasts or self aggrandizing talk radio, on long car rides, and in intimate conversations with friends and lovers. We tell stories for reasons that are so deeply embedded in our psyche and DNA that storytelling is a natural and intuitive response to almost any situation.
Sometimes, when stuck with a rather boorish person, we wonder why the sam hill that person insists on telling insipid stories; but, most of the time we listen, reflect, and respond—usually with stories of our own. It is out of this verbal give and take—our personal and cultural oral tradition—that we reflect and grow and expand the range of our limitations. It is our way to “shuffle off our mortal coil” while still alive. Through stories we live outside and beyond the confines of our short sojourn on earth, but while we are here and struggling through the vicissitudes of everyday life, it is stories that feed our roots and spread our canopy upwards into an infinite sky.
Stories that are worth telling once are worth retelling again and again. Out of this stream of unconscious revision a story is perfected until that story becomes part and parcel of our personal, interconnected, and communal eternity. The best stories survive the ravages of time because we know and sense with an almost mystic unknowingness that a particular story is too good or important to forget. These stories become the canons of our universal literature. We go back to those stories like spawning salmon to the streams of their birth. We need to know our source, and the best and most enduring stories lead us there, even against the tides, currents, and shoals that seem to bar the way. We need to tell and hear and read the stories that bring us to these places.
We need to limit the trivial and search for and embrace the profound stories that have weathered the ravages of time. We need to ask ourselves why we read what we read, listen to what we choose to listen to, and tell what we feel needs to be told. We can’t go on accepting the debased and vapid simply because it is there and easy at hand in its glorified, extolled, and commercialized abundance. We need to seek the higher fruit and walk among the dappled grassand pluck until time and time is done, the the silver apples of the moon [and] the golden apples of the sun.*
Today is as good a day as any to look back and in and begin moving forward. Shut something off, and turn something else on. There is something else on your shelf, something in your mind, and something within your range that is waiting for you.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Some thoughts from the trenches…
Not everything can be put into a box. For years I have been trying to teach middle school and high school age boys “how to write” by using a series of extremely detailed rubrics that leave little to chance, but maybe (I can’t believe I am writing this) I should just stick with helping them think imaginatively, take risks, learn the meat and bones of effective writing—and then write, write, write, write, write…
I am serious. It seems like every time I try to “teach” writing, I am met with sincere, yet vacuous eyes almost pleading to be freed from the contradictory admonitions spewing out of me like smoke from a tall factory stack on a wild and windy day.
When I simply let them write and blog and journal about “whatever,” they sooner or later become better writers, more interesting writers, more confident writers—writers who are invested, engaged and inspired by the “process” of writing. They are more like kids at recess playing whiffle-ball for the sheer joy of the game. Not baseball you might say—but pretty damn close. By and large, when the boys come to like writing, they might actually listen to my droning. Heck, they sometimes even (maybe) want to write the classic five-paragraph expository essay.
I need to get back to the more magnanimous and enlightened practice of allowing my students to write instead of mega-focusing on teaching them how to write. In the same way they learned to speak, they will figure it out how to say what, and when and why what they write works or doesn’t work. (How’s that for convoluted writing!) I am not ready to can my rubrics and chuck them in the trash. I just think they have become the cart pushing the horse for me—an easy fallback that gives shape and form and meaning to content—never a bad thing!
A writer needs to feel that he or she is the engine pulling the train and not the passenger being pushed to a dark precipice. Every English teacher should let kids write. (Even better, every English teacher should be a writer—a flesh and bones writer in the same way our music teacher knows and plays his music and is, hence, a real musician!) Writing for the sake of writing should be, front and center, a part of every academic day. As a parent, I would be more than willing to let go of some “critical” component of the schools curriculum to allow it to happen. The old adage: “Readin’, Writin’ and ‘Rythmatic” rings pretty soundly for me. Everything else is tasty, but proscribed, icing on the cake.
Sometimes nothing works. No matter what I do as a teacher, some few of my students will learn little, write little and leave my class little the wiser, which is a sad, but hardly debatable, reality. We just don’t reach everyone, and we often don’t reach the students that need to be reached the most. In those times, all we can do is keep the red pen of criticism wisely at bay and hope they see that the door to our heart is always open and that the starting line is still there.
And let them tell their story.
And show them how to tell it well.
And hope they listen…
I am constantly asking my students (and myself) to reflect on the literature they, and I, read. As I have grown older—and not necessarily wiser—I find myself only reading literature that I am sure will prod me out of my intellectual and emotional torpor, like a lizard basking in the newfound warmth of spring. Right now it happens to be The Brothers Karamazov, a book I first read as an eighteen-year-old literary newbie. It might have been the first time I didn’t turn away from a book because of the daunting length of the text and the panoramic sweep of life it covers. It is now a completely new experience, though it still resonates with the young and restless soul that even now permeates the fibres and sinews of my aging and ageless self. That book made me think.—and forced me to think beyond and into my myopic experience of life thus far.
In short, I could not read without responding. The reflections of my mind needed an outlet, so I found myself arguing and assenting long rambles in notebook journals or with anyone who would listen to me, argue with me and explore with me. In that way the novel became—and still is— a part of me. The more I wrote about what I read the more I knew the book. By knowing what I knew (and did not know). I realized that only by exploring through reflection could I answer through an essay.
Most of us have to write essays about subjects we know precious little about; hence, our essays have the taint of soured milk—still milk, but hardly worth drinking…
Our teachers mark us down for inserting the I voice into our writing as if “we” don’t really exist—as if there must always be proof beyond ourselves that “knows” more than we know—as if that is something we don’t already intrinsically know. To me, a good essay reeks of what we know, what we have explored and what we are seeking to know, and it is a damn pity when a teacher robs us any part of that triad.
You are only wrong when your facts are wrong, distorted by prejudice or bigotry, or so steep in self-indulgent arrogance that your words fail to resonate with any kind of lasting ring—like a drum without a skin or a harp without a string.
You are equally wrong when you simply spin words into a song without music, words without meaning and foundation in your own heart—without the essence of the real and palpable you to speak with a clarity that helps others to see and feel and experience “your” experience.
A reflection is simply your recreation of your inner experience of experience. In reflecting we see our warts and blemishes clearly until those imperfections are diminished by the truth and sincerity of our search for meaning and substance to give voice to that search—and that search should extend beyond yourself. No doubt if you wondered something, someone else wondered the same thing, and maybe even wrote about it.
Keep exploring until your inkwell is dry and your head is emptied.
And only then should you write your essay…
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
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.
The Woodshop as a Metaphor
THOUGHT: The woodshop is a metaphor for what should be possible in the classroom
- “Ah, the shop!” It smells good!
- They can move:
- They get to use cool tools
- They learn to “cut the board all the way through.”
- They need help–hence collaboration is natural and reciprocal.
- Their hands work as much as their heads.
- They own what they are building–and it has a purpose and a destiny.
- They get the teachers undivided attention–at least some of the time.
- The teacher leaves them alone–most of the time.
- Mistakes are fixed, not criticized.
- They “never” worry about their shop grade.
- They are surrounded by the future possibilities of shop class.
- 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.]
- 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.
- What you build stays with you for your life, if you wish.
How Is Your Classroom Experienced?
Your classroom should reflect your students needs, not your comfort zone–and definitely not a pedagogy which is not your own.
- A class is a physical place but also a metaphysical place:
- We can alter both the physical and the psychical to create a better classroom.
- What does your classroom look like?
- Is it yours? Or are you part of the shared classroom model?
- Does it reflect that part of you that you want to reflect.
- What does your classroom feel like?
- 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).
- Is there any cool factor?
- Is your class any different than the classroom next door? Should it be?
- What is the temperature of the emotional warmth?
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.
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.
Respond To the Primal Needs of Your Students
How do you respond to and prepare for the real and most primal and essential needs of your students?
- They need you to be genuine: if you can’t then you shouldn’t teach.
- Notice them. As much for the good as the bad. Class Dojo maybe?
- Say hello when they show up for class. Students need affirmation that they are welcome in your classroom.
- Give feedback–verbal, visual, & written. They need affirmation that their efforts on your behalf will never go unnoticed and unappreciated.
- 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.”
- 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.
- Have special days, reward days, random acts of “let’s do something different days.
What Does an Engaged Student Look Like?
What does an engaged student look, act and feel like?
- 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?
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!
- They can’t move.
- Everything is boring.
- The content and delivery is predictable.
- They can only use a pencil and paper.
- They work on their own—even when struggling with the basic concepts.
- Their heads are exhausted.
- Their bodies are exhausted.
- They’re hungry.
- They don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.
- They only get help when they raise their hands.
- There is nothing palpable to show when class is done.
- They don’t know what they just learned?
- They don’t know how they did it?
- There is no endgame.
- The teacher hates them.
….And, yes, the list can go on as long as there is strength in the body.
Limits, Rules, Expectations & Values
Kids spend a huge portion of their childhood in your classroom. What “family values” can and/or should carry over to your classroom?
- Set Rules, Limits, Expectations with the same passion and resolve as you would with your family.
- Let them in!
- Set rules, standards & expectations.
- Create traditions.
- Do fun things together.
- Laugh a lot and tell stories.
- Point out right and wrong. The moral compass!
- Forgive and Move on.
- Treat everyone equally. Get rid of tracking unless absolutely essential! It is a caste system by any other name.
- Treat each student uniquely: know your kids, accept them for who they are. This is quite different than being a “friend” to your students.
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.
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.
- There should always be a project going on.
- Projects should include collaborative and individual work.
- There should always be some sort of self-assessment.
- 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.
- 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
We need to create portfolios that capture and collate a history of every student’s journey through school.
- Collect. Collate. Curate: A new mantra for change!
- Our profession is only possible because of those who collected, collated and curated our bodies of literature, art, philosophy, history, and culture.
- Metacognition: It is important to remember, reflect and respond as a way of understanding who and how we are as learners (and teachers).
- Use journaling as a way to enable and practice metacognition.
- There are practical and affordable(as in free) ways to start doing this today!
- There is no downside. You are just being lazy if you don’t! (sorry)
The Perils, Pitfalls & Promises of Technology
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.
- Are technology decisions being made for the right reasons?
- Are there a few people making the decisions for all of you?
- Do you want it that way?
- What is holding you back from using more–not less–technology?
- Does technology engage or simply distract?
- Does it simplify or complify (I need this word to exist)?
- Keep the focus on focus!
- Does technology make you grumpy?
- Do you, as a teacher, fully grasp the implications, limitations, and possibilities of technology?
- Is being engaged with and connected with a broader, diverse world important to a child’s education—to you?
- 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
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?
- 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.
- 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.]
- What can schools do to help teachers be more engaged and engaging?
- Set high, yet realistic, standards that encourage and enable teachers to feel empowered and energized by their career choice.
- Let teachers make the best use of their time.
- 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.
- Do all meetings have to be synchronous?
- Do all meetings need to be mediated by the same few people with responses generated by the same few teachers?
- USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY: Use discussion threads and require teachers to respond within a given time frame.
- Post power points and/or presentations online with a comment thread instead of making teachers sit through them.
- 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.
- Meet less or meet more, but never meet just to touch base unless it is a truly mutual meeting.
- Consider allocating days to parent meetings (a lot of schools already do this).
- 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.
- 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.
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 Science, Field and Stream, Sears 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.
I have been teaching, writing, playing and performing for over thirty-five years, while during these last ten years I have been given the time and space and support (and funds) to create a classroom and pedagogy that through stops and starts and a deliberate evolution of ideas and practices has come to be known simply as “Fitz English.” I have always been somewhat of a traditionalist in my approach to what I teach, but I have always been driven to improve the classroom experience in a way that empowers students to become more confident, fluent, and engaged readers and writers; moreover, I have never “clung to my ways” or to any “ways” for that matter! When something worked, I tried to make it better. When something did not work, it went into my overflowing bin of teacher trash–and a mighty big bin it is. I can only thank my students and an enlightened and indulgent administration for placing a sacred trust in my hands–for the learning and practice of effective and powerful writing and reading skills is a sacred trust, and a duty that any wise teacher lives through in every class he or she teaches.
The seven guiding principles of The Crafted Word are the product of my own education in the hardscrabble reality of the classroom. The seven pillars: Read, Write, Create, Share, Collaborate, Assess, and Reflect capture the essence of what it takes to enable a more profound and enriching experience of a sustainable and dynamic literary life. I try to give my students whatever they need to flourish in their next academic year; however, I try even harder to build a foundation and approach to reading, writing and content creation that will serve and guide them throughout the odyssey of each of their respective lives.
For a new person entering my classroom, the most noticeable feature of my classroom is what is missing–desks! There are no desks. There is, however, a large round table around which students can stand or sit on stools (not chairs). It is at this table where we meet to discuss the coming class period, to share the work we have completed, and to prepare for the coming project–and there is always a project to undertake.
There is a large library of books arrayed along one wall surrounded by comfortable chairs. There are a few computers set on a standing bar; there is a widescreen TV on one wall. There is a stage set up with a green screen and mics and lights; there are two alcoves set up as recording studios–but there is no pencil sharpener; there are no reams of paper on a shelf; there are no blackboards or whiteboards, or posters hung on the walls–only guitars and banjos and framed artworks. There is–and there has not been–any paper shared between myself and my students for over ten years. Paper is simply not needed and, for me at least, is simply an inefficient hindrance to the work we do.
For many teachers, the classroom seems like an anathema. The lack of paper seems foolish and unwise. The distractions of technology mixed with students plopped upside down and sideways on the floor and across the arms of comfortable chairs is more than they can handle. Few teachers are jealous of my room, yet I guard it jealously–though I am very eager and willing to share it (and the secrets it holds)–freely and openly.
There is a great fear that real teaching and real learning cannot happen in a room where motion, action, and relaxation intermingle–where sitting takes a distant second to standing, where reading and writing on iPads, tablets–and even phones–is encouraged, where every essay is turned into a video or a podcast, where a blog post is recreated in a multi-media portfolio, and where everything is shared with each other, oftentimes created with each other, and always respected by each other. I
If I sound like I am crowing like a rooster at dawn, I am; and I will keep on crowing until one of my students says, “This is too easy,” “I’m not learning anything,” or “You really should get another job.” I will keep on crowing until a parent can sincerely say, “My child did not learn enough or write enough,” “Where is the rigor or basic skills my child needs?” or “What a waste of a year my child had in your class.”
If I have not crowed so loudly as to turn you away, keep scrolling and let me show you what I mean and how this approach can work in any classroom. I have the gift of a well-created classroom, but the essence of what I am trying to do could be accomplished in my backyard in a circle of pumpkins. The site right now is a work in progress, but please contact me you have any thoughts that can help me continue to build on this approach and, as they say, “Make it better.”
Have fun and “give a damn…”
What a boring title…rubric-based writing…I am sure this would be a big seller on Amazon: “Buy Now and Save on Fitz’s Narrative Paragraph Rubric!” Frustration guaranteed! Used by hundreds of angry students…
And I could on and and on because I have heard it all, seen it all, and lived it all because anytime I assign a writing piece to a class, it is almost like some law of Newtonian physics comes into play: there is an equal and opposite reaction to my intentions, and you–my young students–will find all sorts of ways to make the assignment seem like horrible, cruel, and useless punishment.
I mean—using a rubric to make our “writing voice” sound natural is like using paint to make an apple look ripe. Maybe I should be fired.
Or maybe you should just man up, read the entire assignment (otherwise known as directions, which I am sure you hope your dentist or surgeon follows) and find out if maybe—just maybe— this rubric thing will help you write a paragraph, essay, or story that really does sound like “you” speaking at your very best.
All writing is artificial. It may be sincere and honest and heartfelt, but it is still fake; you can’t peel the words off the screen and eat them. But— good writing makes a writer and the reader feel more real because the power of the words splayed upon the page helps us experience life in a deeper and more direct way, and therein lies the paradox of writing: if any of us wish to become a more real writer, we need to learn how to make readers feel more real by using the double secret techniques and tools of the writer’s trade. We need to learn how to slowly and deliberately craft our thoughts into words that look, feel and sound real.
Like an acorn or a cat…
I’ve created these rubrics and tweaked them over the years to help you–and me–figure out how to best express our thoughts and feelings in a way that feels alive and natural. There really are no rules in writing. It all boils down to your desired audience wanting to keep reading whatever you are writing–and when that reader is done to have them say, “Yes, that was time well-spent!”
Give them a try. Discard what you don’t like. Add in in what you want.
Every writer is essentially an explorer
I stood in a long line waiting with Pipo for his first ever ride on a roller coaster. Things that move in strange ways are a big deal to him. When he first came to live with us, he was eight years old and had never even been in a two story house. On his second day here, we took him to Floating Hospital in Boston and strode into the elevator with an insouciance, which, in retrospect, reflected an utter lack of cultural awareness for a young boy in a strange land. The door shut, the elevator moved, and Pipo screamed and clutched me in his fear. Now, eighteeen months later, he stood wringing his hands, intermittently laughing and grimacing at the thought of the “The Yankee Cannonball.”
“Will it be scary?”
“Will I scream?”
“Will I throw up?”
“I don’t know. I might.”
“You better not!”
“We really don’t have to go.”
“Yeah, we do.”
I could see his head racing a hundred miles an hour. I distracted him by yelling at some high school kids who were swearing at each other. “Don’t do that.”
“Why? They shouldn’t be swearing.”
“What if they beat you up?”
“I’ll hide behind you.”
“Mama will beat them up if they beat you up.”
“She better. Comb your hair up so you’re forty eight inches tall.”
Leaning on his toes he was just the right height. Squeezing into the car the single safety bar held me in a crushing gut squeeze while leaving Pipo astonishingly free to squiggle and squirm. “Do people ever fall out?”
“What does ‘rarely’ mean?”
“It means that only kids who ask a million questions fall out.”
The cars slid toward the first hill and were grabbed by the chain. He held the hand grip, smiled, and raised his eyebrows in mock fear. “There’s the bus! I wish I was on the bus. I like the bus.”
“I like the bus, too.”
The first hill caught us both by surprise. “Oh, man.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. Pipo squinted his eyes and held the bar in front of him. I think he held his breath for ninety seconds. The girl behind us used every form of the F-word ever created. “Was it fun?”
“Want to go again?”
“No. Never again.”
We found the rest of the family in the water park. Dripping and shivering, they all ran up to Pipo and asked if he really went on the Yankee Cannonball. “Yup, but never again. No way, Jose’. Who wants to go on the bumper cars?” Denise looked at me like I was a bad father forcing his son to be a man. “He wanted to go.”
“Yeah, right. Was he even tall enough?”
“With a micron to spare. It was another one of those things he just had to do.”
Denise and I both understand that part of Pipo. When he decides to do something, he’ll do it, no matter how much angst it causes him—or us. He is not so much interested in overcoming fear as he is in facing his fears. He embraces fear as an experience and not merely as an emotion. It is a lesson in courage from which we can all draw inspiration.
The Yankee Cannonball is also a perfect metaphor for the written word. The empty page looms in front of us like the rickety roller coaster. We can’t call ourselves writers if we refuse to get in the car and go. We can’t call ourselves writers if we don’t tell the whole story, replete with every dip and turn of our inner and outer experience. We can’t give in to the temptation to leap from the car at the first sign of fear, and we can’t tell the story from a distance. But, that is exactly what so many writers do. They mistakenly believe that the cold reality of fact is more important than the multi-dimensional dynamic of experience. It is much safer to have opinions than to question assumptions. We want facts, and we want a sense of assuredness that we are making wise decisions in our lives, but are we always willing to take that ride with Pipo through the hairpin turns of experience? Are we willing to distill our facts through the directness of experience? Without the parable there can be no sermon.
Our lives our full of the parables upon which we can contribute an enduring legacy to the world. Those legacies are the journal entries, poems, songs, stories, novels, and essays that capture people’s imaginations and fires their passion, or simply stirs the embers of a world that needs pondering. I have no problem with the well-wrought essay that presents an impeccable line of reasoning and logical argument, but if I sense a fallacy, a hypocrisy, or a lack of magnanimity, I quickly create a distance between myself and the writer who is simply out to set me straight. Seek out the writers who know of what they speak, and you will be rewarded with a truth you can cherish and turn in your mind for years to come. To become that writer you need to return to the source of your own wisdom and chip away at the stone of memory until it takes a shape—the infinite and varied shapes of literature and writing—that can be held in our eyes and opened in our hearts, and our minds.
For years I have had an idea for a novel, but I never actually sat down to begin writing it. The idea was too complicated, the characters to diffuse, the length too daunting in the face of a busy lifestyle, but I thought of Pipo getting on the Yankee Cannonball in spite of every rational fear he had of roller coasters. So I began to take an hour or so out of every day and began writing my book. My car caught the clicking chain and took me to the point where gravity took over. I am barely down the first hill, but the ride is exhilarating and real. I see the track laid out before me, and, like Pipo, I’m not sure what every turn and twist will bring, but I do know there is an end to the ride, and that is where I draw my strength. Maybe I will walk away woozy and say “never again.” But at least I will know.
Think of what you “really” want to write.
And begin writing.
Take your foot off the brakes, but keep your eyes on the road
Once, back in my days as a logger, I cut through a big white oak. I didn’t realize that the trunk was mostly rotten and hollow until my chain saw was most of the way through the monstrous tree. After the mad crush of the tree to the ground I noticed blood on my saw and on my legs. In cutting the tree down, I inadvertently massacred a whole raccoon family: a mom and seven incredibly small babies. I was pretty bummed about it all, but while moving the family out of the stump, I noticed the smallest ball of fur hobbling way on three legs.
One had survived. I picked him up and named him Rocky (after the main character in The Beatles big hit “Rocky Raccoon.” He fit into my shirt pocket with plenty of room to spare.
When I got home, I put him on the table in a cake dish filled with straw. I wasn’t even sure how to feed it. Its eyes were still closed. I heated up some milk in a pan on the stove and sucked some warm milk into an eye-dropper, and as luck would have it, Rocky slurped it up.
For the first few weeks warm milk was all Rocky could eat, but as time went on he grew into a fun little terror who would eat almost anything. He even learned to open the refrigerator door himself. He laid on his back in the mornings when I was milking my goats begging for me to squeeze the teats milk all over his face. He would steal the chickens’ eggs as if it were his birthright.
I felt like a young dad doing everything a dad needed to do. I wanted to raise a raccoon that could live in both worlds: the wild world and my world. After about six months Rocky was a pretty stout and healthy three-legged raccoon. I felt more and more confident that he could now live in both a feral and a wild world.
So I let Rocky outside on his own.
Later I saw a hawk circling overhead the hay field. I saw a coydog skulking in the tangle of brush beside the woods. I heard the awful cry of a fisher cat somewhere deep in the swamp.
Maybe I let Rocky go too soon. Maybe I should have given him a better rubric for life.
But that is no way to live…
Do you really need a rubric for this assignment?
Some of the words you’ll find within yourself;
The rest, some power will inspire you to say.
The Odyssey, ~Book 3, Lines 29-20
Nobody ever told me to read The Odyssey—and that was the greatest educational travesty of my life. I first read it after High School while working at Colonial Motors in West Concord. I didn’t “get it” any more than the most confused among you, but what I did do is “feel it.” I felt its primordial power and emotional bareness; I felt another world, another age, and another human journey come alive inside of me. It made me feel that I was a part of long and unbroken lineage of humanity searching for truth and purpose in a world—especially my world, a world not always blessed with clarity and opportunity. I had always been the kid in the back of the class staring out the window dreaming of a better world—and scheming a way to get there. I liked to read, and we read good books in school, but I only lived in those books for the moment. Good books were like a party with a great group of friends: fun, exciting, and memorable, but not life changing. They died, most of them, the moment I closed the book; but, The Odyssey changed my life. It showed me that wisdom is not learned, it is cultivated by deliberation and attentiveness.
I say this and you might wonder why it is not changing your life. (Hopefully, on some level, it is changing your life.) You might wonder if you are missing something everyone else is getting. You probably wonder why I feel it is worthwhile to read this book during your 8th grade year. Why don’t we just watch “Star Wars” or”24″ or “Wizard of Oz?” Why? Because “Star Wars, “24” and “Wizard of Oz” are archetypes; they are variations of experiences infinitely more real; they are built on the backs of hundreds of books and movies that came before them: but, The Odyssey was built on human experience; it was created out of our most primal need for the wisdom, hope, and guidance that will get us through life. The Odyssey doesn’t give us the tools we need to tackle the problems of life, it simply shows us the heroic nature required to deal and cope with the setbacks, sorrows and tragedies of every life. Bright-Eyed Athena might not be at our side helping us through the day, but The Odyssey shows us that Athena comes in many guises and seldom reveals her true self, and that we, too, need to accept wisdom at opportune and inopportune times in its many forms and guises.
As much as we are taught to stay away from strangers we still must turn our ears to the words they speak—for it might be the very truth we long and need to hear. We might not have a six headed monster on one side of the hallway and a deadly whirlpool on the other, but we do have to make tough decisions where the outcomes range from bad to worse. Don’t despair or even allow for frustration. If you wonder what is going on, then you are doing the right thing. Please, keep on wondering. I hope you wonder; I hope you wonder about who you are and where you are going; I hope you wonder about the problems of life; I hope you wonder where you will find the strength, the wiles, the courage—and the desire—to face these problems with insight, cunning and perseverance. This is what Odysseus had to do; and, if you are to grow towards your individual greatness, then this is what you must do as well. If songs are to sung about you, then you must be the hero of your own odyssey through life.
In a few short weeks you will have defeated me. You will leave my classroom a pillaged wasteland of poems, projects, broken pencils, essays, reflections, ballads, cheese-its, comments, short stories, blogs and granola wrappers. Maybe you will burn your Huck Finn mini series, shred your twenty writing mistakes, meditate—literally—on your haiku book, delete your website, disown your blog, and refuse to listen to ballads, write clear opening sentences and/or paragraph your thoughts; you will throw-away your active reading sheets, erase your margin notes and refuse to admit you know where a comma goes; you will dangle and misplace modifiers and use lusciously disturbing adverbs and insipid adjectives at will. You will forget when Kat died, when Huck tricked Jim, and when “Leaves of Grass” finally ended.
It might feel like you forgot everything you are supposed to remember.
But you will not forget The Odyssey. It does not happen.