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…
Trying to pull a final day
Back into the night, execute
Some stay of time,
Some way to wrap
The fabric of Summer
Around the balky,
frame of Fall, sloughing
My skin, unable to stop
This reptilian ecdysis—
This hideous morphing
My students, tame
As lab mice, won’t understand
My unblinking eyes,
The hissing of my speech,
The expansive hinge of my jaw—
Or my insatiable appetite—
Until I swallow them whole
Into my elongating belly, feasting
On their impeccable,
“Don’t let school interfere with your education…”
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…
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.
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.
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.
"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...
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...
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...
Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World Create a Better Classroomfor You & Your Students Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World...
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...
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...
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...
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...
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…”