02
Dec
14

full frontal

At the first whiff of plagiarism, I am quick to launch a full frontal assault. Check the plot summary or, for my student, uncharacteristic phrase against its occurrences online; assign a zero for the assignment, request a meeting, send a parent/guardian email, deliver the offending evidence to an administrator who can track other screw-ups by the same perp.

These are all in my arsenal of responses to the Demon Plagiarism. From there it is a short walk to sending a herd of pigs off the cliff, and having the teachers-only job satisfaction of seeing a student crumple into tears as years of bad behavior are repented of, and finally wading into the water with him, emerging with faces to the sun, both knowing that Creative Commons has our allegiance forevermore, and the laws of copyright shall remain inviolate. “from this day to the ending of the world.”

But today yesterday I brought out a new weapon; a kinder gentler means by which to assert my dominance over the spirit that bedevils young writers. In my feedback to the writer I referred not once to the “P” word. I made no mention of credit. I appealed to the writer’s sense of authority, personhood, audience and purpose. [See images below of writers at my school creating and sharing their work for a variety of authentic purposes and audiences in secondary English and science, also second-grade/tenth-grade collaboration.]

Because of my recent focus on expressing “what the words do to the reader” — both in peer and teacher response to student writing as well as mentor/class texts — my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged for responding to cutting and pasting of another’s work.

my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged

Rather than corner the student with an awkward out-of-class confrontation, I took a different approach by responding just as I would to any electronically submitted draft. Instead of using the authority of our student handbook and its policy, I appealed to the authority of the reader.

➡️Will your reader know these big words?
➡️Where does the reader hear your voice?
️➡️Why should your reader be interested?
➡️Which class discussion or personal inquiry question got you thinking about exploring this topic? If the reader can see your thinking process, you might persuade her to thoughtfully consider your point of view.

Although I have slightly modified these to protect the anonymity of the writer, they differ drastically from my typical frontal assault: Is this your own work? Where did you get it? Why didn’t you cite the source? What did you think was the goal of the assignment?

All of which are mere pretenses and preamble to the often unstated Big Gun: Whatever could have possessed you to think I, all-knowing, would not recognize this as another writer’s work? You have insulted me, broken our trust, and demonstrated that you do not value the deities of the writing process (insert constellation of choice, for me Bay Area Writing Project, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Sheridan Blau, Tom Romano, Dons Murray and Graves to infinity and beyond)?

As I often remark, I am the one doing the learning here. Because of my interest in authority in the classroom, I see this as an opportunity to wait and observe the outcome — just as I do with every other paper at this later drafting stage. By turning the focus inward, I am able to monitor my own problem-solving process, identify the place where my own ego gets in the way, and try an innovative or at least creative solution that eases the burden for the student in one way by subtly shifting it.

The student’s responsibility would have been to justify himself (his cheating behavior) to me and to his parent, at least; but now it becomes more about justifying his writing choices to his readers. If the writer is willing to assume creative control over this writing task, the finished written product will communicate a chosen purpose clearly and strongly to a specific chosen audience, which it does not yet do.

The paper will have voice and the student will exercise choice. This is my first blog entry ending with the term “Voices and Choices.”

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29
Nov
14

Strangers on a plane

How would you describe the CEL (Conference on English Leadership) and NCTE convention to others? As I traveled home, I found myself explaining it to Alphonso, a D.C. pedi-cab driver who toured me past the monuments; to strangers on a plane, a mother and daughter returning from a trip to Puerto Rico; and to a shopgirl a perfume fragrance counter saleswoman at Macy’s. Notice, I already monitored my phrase and revised it because of my audience. In what ways do we self monitor and alter our messages for specific audiences?

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During the conference itself, I used persuasive terms with a college professor who was at the contemporaneous ALAN conference, and beforehand I chose humorous analogies to give my students a picture of where I was heading. For my parents and sisters, who know a lot about my 25 year teaching career, and have attended professional conferences themselves, I wrote a letter detailing particulars of my personal involvement that would distinguish this year’s conference from those of previous years.

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As I had the privilege of visiting a New York publishing house office this week, I noticed this sign on an editor’s desk: “I am silently correcting your grammar”, which was hilarious to me because both English teachers and editors, whose complex roles cannot be distilled into a single phrase, are frequently oversimplified and misunderstood as grammar police. This becomes evident whenever we meet strangers on a plane or train, who suddenly feel the need to excuse themselves for speaking improperly, or for not being readers or writers.

Since all writing is language choice, we choose language to suit the occasions of our dialogue. I have never had the chance to use these words in a sentence before, but CEL made it happen: “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.” Can you picture me, waving my bill under the ticket window of the National Harbor Ferris Wheel, contradicting their devil-may-care no cash policy?

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Tailoring our tongues to meet particular situations involves knowing something about our audience. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst insisted on this as one of the keys to adolescents understanding complex non-fiction, as they shared recent collaborative work with us on Tuesday at CEL’s closing session. “What does the author assume I know already?”

Learning to listen
As I planned this blog post, I expected to present you with a fun challenge to write about a recent event you attended — conference, performance, holiday celebration, service opportunity — for several different audiences, say: children, peers, strangers and administrators (the Oxford comma debate matters here).

“I went out to dinner with some new friends, and we rode the Ferris wheel together…”

“I spent several days with high-powered speakers on cutting-edge topics…”

“I got to go to Washington, D.C. to tell researchers about the exciting writing you guys are doing…”

But as I relive each of my actual conversations, I realize they involve not so much constructing a stance, but rather listening to the person I am interacting with. I found out from Nadine at Macy’s that she was an English major, but could not stand the thought of her love of books such as Jane Eyre being dehydrated by dry analysis; that Alphonso, a D.C. native, used to be a bike messenger and has never been to California, and will have to find different work when weather prohibits operation of his pedi-cab for the season; that the mother-daughter love reading books, which were stolen the second day of their two week vacation; that the visitor from Paris at the Blue Note jazz club believes Paris is “not what is used to be”; that the airport shuttle driver works seven days at peak travel seasons; that Audrey, a session attendee, believes collaboration can lead to shared values and assumptions about writing.

We not only enrich a conversation by knowing the people we speak with, but I learn and grow myself by hearing them. The difficulty comes now, when I ask myself if I can be as diligent, open-eared, and knowing of those in my inner circle as I am with strangers or acquaintances.

All the “out-of-town” practice, as David Perkins calls it in learning, has to be brought to bear on the big games: our marriages, families, significant friendships, and career.

What good is it if I carry on inconsequential small talk with someone I meet once a year or once in a lifetime, if I don’t apply more careful listening in my most dear relationships?

Because of this,

Sara, I want to be the best listener I can; please be patient with me. I love you more each day, and want to know you even better.

Susan, I want to be a better friend and colleague, to keep asking the right questions.

Patrick, I want to be a better friend, to offer support where you need it and receive your input when you offer it.

Tyler, I want to be the kind of encourager you are to me.

Judi and Janice, I hope to be the brother you can depend on to celebrate your triumphs and share in your disappointments.

Evan, I hope I can be a better mentor; please help me know the ways I can support you this year in your teaching.

Writing is important, and conferences are helpful; but relationships and love are essential, necessary, foundational. The purpose for communicating is understanding, empathizing, knowing and loving people: communion and community themselves.

So go ahead, know your audience. Don’t just be a clanging cymbal, Gordon; “though I speak with tongues of men and of angels…[without] charity…I am nothing.” My plea: reduce me to Love.

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(me on the left, Chris Bronke on right)

20
Nov
14

mirror exercise

In drama games we play mirrors, where the goal is to “follow the follower.” First one partner leads and the other follows her/his gestures and expressions as if facing a mirror; then they switch roles: the focus is on following the leader, on close observation. But as they continue, a fluid exchange of leadership occurs, until when both members of one mirroring unit function perfectly, neither an observer nor even the twain can tell who leads. They have achieved the goal of following the follower.

In my English classroom such moments occur as frequent flashes, but just as in drama those spectacular star bursts of creative energy have brief half lives, until you look again and once more it is obvious who leads who.

I have practiced the co-leader co-learner philosophy for at least 8 years now, in class and in my St. John’s College Alumni seminars, at CEL conferences and at church book studies; it even shows up in jazz music when I try to work on songs at the piano with a sax player, and this year it adds a new focus to my Professional Development circle of 4 teachers each struggling to learn about ourselves as instructors with the observations and insights of the other 3.

Today it feels as though my English classes are one long attempt to generate more flashes of following followers. Am I wishing for more beauty in the constellation of student interactions with texts and each other? Clearly, yes.

It seems my students don’t recognize the flash, spark, beauty when I have found it.

Consider my 10th graders, who helped write stories with 2nd graders in October (at our K-12 school): when self evaluating, students didn’t feel their work merited a grade; however, I was able to see that their accomplishment had met at least 5 of our school’s major learning outcomes, in categories of service, critical thinking, and communicating. Grades themselves weren’t the issue, but even as we have begun to move toward narrative feedback of student progress, the language of standards and Envisionment learning (Langer) is not yet adequate to meld in student minds with what they actually accomplish: they do not see reflections of themselves in words yet, but still see themselves as grades.

My seniors notice the problem with being identified as grades, numbers, ACT scores. They desire to be known by colleges for their interests, skills, and personalities; what’s more, they dream of a higher ed experience that they can tailor to their own needs and interests–one that won’t kill off their love of learning things.

I am now focused on starting a Utah StuCamp, modeled on the EdCamp movement, in which a half-day of free meetings with other teens, without an agenda, affords students the opportunity to express themselves and have their voices heard by others, including teachers who assist in the logistics of the operation. I think students need to hear other students, in order to figure out whether they experience learning as more “doing” or “done to”.

Creative problem solving

Continue reading ‘mirror exercise’

13
Nov
14

kicking the habit of lethargy

I know what bothers me about this subject: Genius Hour, MakerSpaces both involve students to the point where they become authors of their own learning – exactly what i am after.

So where’s the beef? I want to transfer the self-directedness, inquiry, problem-solving, and energy of curiosity to English Language Arts classroom.

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Re-enactment of Sybil’s {spoiler alert} death in Picture of Dorian Gray. Do not attempt this at home. No students were harmed during this activity.

Not that it never appears there – far from it! Yet there are some days or weeks where it can feel like the sparks of creative thinking have sputtered and died before many students enter my room.

It is clear from much that I learn from my students that they do relate what they are working on – a class novel, for example – to real world issues, their life experiences, and to other learning. Yet when it comes to making decisions about their own learning, they take a back seat, leaving others to make decisions for them.

Admittedly it is easier to have another person — teacher, peer — decide for you; but when you resign your own right to choose in class, you also abdicate responsibility for learning.

Some students act as if they would rather be told what to do and how to do it every time, which gets old before a child hits third grade. By middle school it has become habit; by high school an addiction.

No wonder I feel like Sisyphus.

I am tired of pushing. Let someone else pull the weight for a while.

rapt: an answer to prayer

This week I saw surprises leap out at me from the embers of lethargy.

  • In an impromptu moment, one student began reading aloud from Thomas Hardy and held classmates in rapt attention for easily ten minutes, using voices full of expression, pausing occasionally to think aloud;
  • One class performed Shakespeare scenes after having planned and rehearsed, narrowing & selecting them from a play before choosing volunteers to direct and choreograph; 
  • Widely varied student interests and curiosities were shared about To Kill A Mockingbird;
  • Freshmen had fun speaking in varieties of dialect as they read Dickens

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08
Nov
14

Engaging eyes remix

I want my students to see new artwork. Art critical of ideas that harm women. It is timely now, when news articles appear describing threats against women opposed to misogynistic violence in video games.

Enter Jerusha Pimentel. This artist and friend allowed me to use her provocative images of women and men as an introduction to and commentary on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 

Jerusha Pimentel's "stripper Series"

At the risk of narrowing inquiry early, I chose to use art to draw in my British Lit students, establishing a mental image of a recurring pattern they could watch for in the book; it established also the message that it was going to be OK to discuss the male gaze, double standards for men and women, and date rape.

I was permanently changed by reading Toni Morrison’s “Playing in The Dark”, because in it she shares a vision of rereading old books to see things in them we had not noticed before; she challenged me to hear unwritten voices and listen to unspoken stories; I want to pass this quest on to my students. When I approach a classic book in English class, I desire to be open to hearing my students’ discoveries.

It helps me this month to think of new works as doorways into older books. Artwork such as Pimentel’s speaks directly into the lives of today’s young women, addressing body image and men’s distorted views of the female, and interrogating  traditional understanding of gendered concepts of innocence and vice. A single effective visual can become a touchpoint for many discussions and discoveries relating today’s world and a classic text.

Face in Jerusha Pimentel's "Stripper Series"

We can do much to support our students – present or past – in producing thoughtful responses to today’s issues.

Teach literature as an ongoing conversation in which their voices are welcome and needed. If it is a closed conversation, why invite participation?

Encourage not only creativity but imagination: some of my students share that they believe they are helpless when it comes to changing the grading system itself and the way parents, colleges, and teachers equate grades with “success”. Learning, they write, is about more than a grade. We can help young people imagine the possibilities of change and progress even in the most entrenched facets of culture.

Another friend and artist, John Kuhn, began sharing conversations and discoveries with me in 9th grade. In his twenties now, he continues to explore the connections between art, thought, and culture.

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Engaged learners become interested in the world and remain so. Engaged teachers demonstrate interest in their students by being open to the possibility of new discoveries in old texts.

If I had taught this the old way, I would have resorted to a dual focus on allusions in the novel, and symbols of purity. I can’t with integrity ask students to examine multiple perspectives in a text if I am unwilling to listen to their voices. I hope that art provides an engaging starting point for conversation.

Once visual art has been introduced, it is an easy step to invite students to create art of their own in response to the reading; even to take notes using creative methods such as Daniel Weinstein shares in his Creativity Core.

06
Nov
14

before vs. after

BEFORE
The time change has wreaked havoc with my sleep system. Waking early, I used the extra time this morning to develop a few conflict cards — improvisation tools for students to use in class today. I have finished, and am certain these will prompt lively engagement from my British Lit students reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

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We are about to read the chapter in which Tess and Angel reveal their past to each other in an agape meal: so named by the author. Sensing that the students will benefit from a sharpened sense of the forces at work in the new bride-and-groom’s minds, I plan to use 1-minute skits in which pairs and trios dramatize the internal conflicts.

I employed a familiar id vs. ego or angel vs. devil motif, generally with opposing forces urging Angel Clare to resort to either his pride or humility, his impulses or reason. I also took the couple through the ages, asking pairs to play similar situations in 1620s & 1850 (American Lit students will recall Hester, Pearl, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale), 1968 and 2014.

Because most have read The Hunger Games, I also included several antagonisms related to literary issues. A gifted screenwriter is offered $15 million to produce a script which in no way criticizes modern culture or society. Hardy and the author who acknowledges his influence on her work, Suzanne Collins, challenge the young writer to refuse the contract, in the name of artistic freedom. My final card is a challenge between Katniss and Tess to see who is stronger.

I can’t wait to see how they will react, but I am pretty certain they will love to be out of their seats and up on their feet doing fast-moving scenes that relate to challenges they face.

AFTER
So, actually it was a good result: it was still a nice day, just before lunch, so we stepped outdoors to tackle the skits.

I was most pleased with the students’ ability to enter into the spirit of the tug-of-war, not over the character’s decision as much as over the ideas that are relevant to lives today.

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Students role-played both earnestly and with melodramatic flair, confessing sordid pasts and buried children, tempting one another to abandon or stay with their partner, to forgive or forget each other.

Because double standards for men and women still exist, it was satisfying to see both young men and women making strong arguments for equal treatment. I was also delighted that all but one person had read The Hunger Games (and even she had read parts) and got into persuading the young writer not to compromise his freedom, citing familiar anecdotes about Collins’ real life cultural inspirations.

Wouldn’t you know it, three people were absent from that one class? Yet that afforded the others a few more minutes of stage time. I even had more cards than I was able to use.

I am pretty sure that these imaginary scenes will serve the students as “frontloading” for the upcoming chapter about the Clares’ wedding night. We had taken a few days away from the novel in order to write and share fiction. I feel confident that with such skits and today’s sense of playfulness fresh in their minds, readers will be ready to appreciate and actually enjoy Hardy’s scene.

Photos of earlier scenes

02
Nov
14

Elementary: a realm apart

I worked as a learning partner with a freshman student on Thursday and Friday as we read “The Red-Headed League”, a Sherlock Holmes story by A. C. Doyle. Although I had read the short story numerous times, this was my first time reading and hearing it read aloud most of the way through. One paragraph especially stood out.

Watson’s narrator writes about feeling mystified at the ease with which Holmes sees clearly, in the midst of the “confusing” and “grotesque” details of the case.

I equated Dr. Watson’s wonderment at Holmes’s mastery to the way students are mystified at our expert interpretive “performances” of English classroom texts. They likely see as magical our detection of hidden symbolism, analysis of setting, understanding of internalized conflicts. The apprentice James Watson stands in awe of the Master Sherlock Holmes, whose idiosyncratic reading of persons, situation, and detail is phenomenal, unattainable.

Even Holmes would have him believe that if Watson only becomes an astute observer he, too, will perpetrate astonishing feats of detection.

We ELA teachers fall into the trap of suggesting that a few meager degrees on an Expert-Novice continuum separate the gurus from the gurees. Is it really true that by demystifying the reading process

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Holmes cites ridiculously minute bits of data, such as awareness of the pigmentation of Chinese tattoos. to support his reasoning. No strategy other than obsessive observation might offer Watson a hope of rivaling his friend’s competency for crime detection and problem-solving; Holmes’s wide experience provides him rare entree to the gathering of such trivial data. Which of us, finding herself on a visit to China, would consume the hours in making a study of variations among local tattoos?

Watson tells us “I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity” in his dealings with the Master.

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These Sidney Paget illustrations from the original Strand Magazine facsimile reveal Sherlock doing the thinking and work as Watson tags along. His disciple, James, feels as inadequate to the task as Jesus’ disciples must have felt when the Master sent them out in pairs to practice. Similarly mystified, when encountering stubborn demons, they marvel at Christ’s ability. They admit, as Watson must, that their teacher is in a realm apart.

If there is any place our students have an advantage over us at their age, it is in their insatiable curiosity: such curiosity drives Holmes to fasten upon minutiae, and presumably prompts Watson to write memoirs about his master teacher.

Since 2001 when I attended an AP Institute and first understood the importance of student questions, through recent years when Judith Langer in her description of Envisionment Learning suggests “asking relevant questions” as a class goal, and The Right Question website, Essential Questions, and Socratic seminar questions (and Victor Mueller’s prepared follow-up questions), I have explored the ways students come to appreciate their own questioning role as necessary to learning and problem-solving. When they do the work of asking better questions, they feed natural curiosity and train it expand into all areas of lilfe, like a Halloween night horror movie creature, The Blob, which takes over the whole town.

Mysteries and horror are not that far removed. Holmes borders on the monstrous–isolated, obsessive, so calculating he can appear inhuman. Elana Gomel points out that the cool, unemotional criminal Stapleton from Hound of the Baskervilles is a mirror of Holmes, to whose “cold, precise” mind “emotion” is “abhorrent” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”, quoted in “Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject”). Gomel stresses that the reader of mysteries feels comforted by them, for readers desire to know that the world and other people make sense.

It is a wild stretch of imagination for a non reader to believe how much pleasure in a lifetime may be derived from the inky marks on a virtual or paper page. How much more imagination and faith is required to trust that a full length work provides even more pleasure!

In order to read the world and other people, experience and observation certainly help, but a sense of initial curiosity and deep wonder are readily available to a learner at any age.

I fear, however, that curiosity slips noiselessly away some time during late adolescence. What can we do to foster curiosity?

At Utah’s first #EdCamp last month I attended a session on Curiosity, which made me more keenly aware of its silent departure from the purple room of pedagogy. We participants were like party goers on the eve of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, dancing from room to symbolic room pretending that education can thrive even while a plague of indifference gathers its army at the castle doors.

I found curiosity alive and well this week as my 10th grade students led 2nd graders through the editing process on a collaborative story.

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Wonder is not gone. Children can be inspired by teens; teens can be reminded of their impulsively curious younger selves; and we their experienced, obsessive, compulsively curious teachers can model a reading life; we must not tyrannize nor oppress them with a sense of their own stupidity. Rather, we might show them how their own sense of curiosity can lead to hypotheses, solutions, and deep and satisfying reading experiences. They, like us, are only trying to make sense of the complex text of the world and its people.




Gordon’s Tweets

RSS Good Questions

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