978-793-1553 fitz@johnfitz.com
The Silver Apples of the Moon

The Silver Apples of the Moon

Stories are a communal currency of humanity.

― 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.

Teach Like a Shop Teacher

Teach Like a Shop Teacher

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

Create a Better Classroom

for You & Your Students

 

Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills

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

Teach Like a Woodshop Teacher

A Workshop Forum & Presentation

 

 

Tools & Tips for Building a Dynamic Classroom

 

Video Essays

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

It’s Over: A Final Reflection

~Paul, Eighth Grade

A Trip with Thoreau

~Charlie, 9th Grade

A New Way of Creating Rubrics

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

Try them out!

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

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

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

Thoughts...

Thoughts…

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

  1. “Ah, the shop!”  It smells good!

  2. They can move: 

  3. They get to use cool tools

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

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

  6. Their hands work as much as their heads.

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

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

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

  10. Mistakes are fixed, not criticized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  3. What does your classroom look like?

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

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

  6. What does your classroom feel like?

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

  8. Is there any cool factor? 

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

  10. What is the temperature of the emotional warmth?


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What is Engagement and what does it took like?

  • How do we create an engaging classroom?

  • How do we nurture and sustain engaged students?

  • How do we assess engagement?

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

  • You know it when you see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. They can’t move.

    2. Everything is boring.

    3. The content and delivery is predictable.

    4. They can only use a pencil and paper.

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

    6. Their heads are exhausted.

    7. Their bodies are exhausted.

    8. They’re hungry.

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

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

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

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

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

    14. There is no endgame.

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

 

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

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

  2. Let them in!

  3. Set rules, standards & expectations.

  4. Create traditions.

  5. Do fun things together.

  6. Laugh a lot and tell stories.

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

  8. Forgive and Move on.

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

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

  1. There should always be a project going on.

  2. Projects should include collaborative and individual work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Points…

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

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

  3. Do you want it that way?

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

  5. Does technology engage or simply distract?

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

  7. Keep the focus on focus!

  8. Does technology make you grumpy?

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

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

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

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

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

  • Increasing collaborative opportunities.

  • Leveling the playing field.

  • Rethinking pedagogy.

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

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

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

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

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

Thought…

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

 

Points…

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

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

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

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

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

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

  7. Do all meetings have to be synchronous? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reflections

Reflections…

Are You Ready?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 + 11 =

Read…

Read…

The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours if you learn only some words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations. It is not in vain that the farmer remembers and repeats the few Latin words which he has heard. Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?

~Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

Think hard, reach down deep in your heart and soul
for a way to kill these suitors in your house,
either by stealth or open combat.
You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—
It’s time you were a man.
Book 1, Lines 338—342, The Odyssey

     Read well; read deeply, and read often. Three short phrases sum up the greater part of what is basic to an understanding of a complex and evolving world. To read well you need to read closely, to think imaginatively and to allow yourself to be challenged intellectually, emotionally, culturally, and politically. To read deeply is to search for meanings, morals and messages within the images and actions within a text . It forces you to decipher the metaphors that cling to the twists and turns of plots, or it prods you to understand the spartan logic of a philosopher’s mind as he or she lays out a reasoned reflection on the conundrums and constants of life. To read often and well is to place reading before the lesser pursuits of the day. Second only to the feeding and sheltering of the body is the feeding and nurturing of the mind—and there is no greater food than a piece of great literature!

Not all of you have the courage to read a good book, and that is a travesty only to yourself. Some of you have already blocked the gates to the greater reservoirs of your mind. How can I teach you anything? How can I expect you to be moved when you are anchored in your safe and shallow harbor? If you are not touched by a book, then don’t touch it—don’t wound eternity with an idle mind. “But,” you say, with exasperation; “you give us these books; you force us to read them. How can we be touched when we are force-fed what to read? How can there be romance when there is no passion? What teenager does not want to rebel against the directives and edicts of a misguided teacher?”

Therein lies the rub: “Misguided!” What if the teacher is not misguided? What if, on the contrary, he or she is very well guided by life, instinct, and vocation? How could you then, not listen? Why wouldn’t you listen if there was some measure of hope that this teacher could guide you to a greater understanding of life than you ever dreamed possible. I know that at a certain point in my life I let Henry David Thoreau be my teacher, and only then did I realize that it was cynicism and laziness that kept me from accessing the opportunities created by reading the great works of literature, and so I began a thirty-two year adventure of reading—a journey where I still feel that I am barely out of the harbor! The first book was The Odyssey and I’m damn sure it will be the last—if I have any control over it. Life is too precious to chatter and blather with fools and strangers. If you are unwilling to face the challenges of The Odyssey, go back to your face book page and gossip with the idle minds of your generation—and mine, for that matter.

If you are afraid to become a man, then don’t become one.

8th: Nobody Told Me to Read “The Odyssey”

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

 

Fagles OdysseyNobody 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.

The Power of Simplicity

The Power of Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Writer’s Do

What Writer’s Do

This is perhaps the biggest thunderstorm that I haven’t been in.  The lightning is flashing and bolting to the ground, and the thunder is booming in every direction—though it is all five miles away.  Here there is no wind or rain.  The sky is bright directly overhead, but the tall pines on the far side of the field are backdropped in roiled, dark clouds.

Strange.  There is a shift in the clouds.  They are coming towards us now from the northeast….

I had to run from under the comfortable shelter under the awning of our RV and take some “shelter from the storm” as a huge gust of wind and pelting rain came at us from this strange direction. Just as suddenly, it shifted again and renewed its course to the southwest leaving me perplexed and dampened.

Writers often do the same thing with their writing.  They build up a storm of unimagined intensity and create a looming confrontation between the opposing forces whom have been long at battle in their story line.  Readers sense the impending conflict that will finally resolve the richly thickened plot; the wind whips, lightning flashes, thunder crashes and…

The storm takes a new direction—blows all hell and fury in another direction—and then returns to its insidious and relentless march to the sea (in New England, all thunderstorms march to the sea!) but the reader is no longer in the path of the storm; they are stranded like a desperate mariner on a now lonely shore watching the clouds boil away over the horizon. The writer, still caught up in his or her storm, assumes the reader is still with them anticipating the coming climax, but they are not.  They’re more like me;  they are left wondering why the storm took that irrational jog to the southeast, because that is the rational response to mystery—to ask why. There is no reason—aside from perhaps a schoolmasters admonitions—at require us to wade through the muck of tortured writing.

Most of us are rational and surprisingly intuitive, and a good writer needs to recognize and respect that reality. Good readers are like oft jilted lovers wary of another disappointing affair. They know when to put a book aside and find another writer, one who won’t let them down. They love the reward of a well-written story, an inspiring essay, or a compelling narrative; they love writers who consistently provide that reward, and they return to those writers over and again with their time, attention, and money.

A good writer is not in love with his or her own writing.  They are in love with the process of writing well, regardless and because of their chosen genre! I will read and re-read Patrick O’Brien’s endless repertoire of naval sea novels, not because O’Brien’s novels are masterpieces of literature, but because he consistently provides a rewarding reading experience for “me” as someone who loves stories of naval battles! O’Brien found his niche, and he found his audience.  It is an audience that he respected and worked tirelessly to please before passing away (sadly for his devoted audience eager for more novels) at a ripe old age. Though O’Brien will never be placed among the pantheon of “great” writers, what he aspired to do, he did well, and certainly well enough for me.

Thoreau once said, “Measure a man, not by what he is, but by what he aspires to be.” My readers are, by and large, writers who aspire to be better writers. In the greater scheme of things, I can only give you bits and pieces out of my own insights, experiences, and aspirations. I am only the proverbial finger pointing at the moon.

You will only reach the moon through your own labors.

~John Fitz