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.

coyote paints 1

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

IMG_1720.JPG we equip readers to perform readings such as we arrive at after years of literature study, curiosity, and attention to fine detail?

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.

02
Nov
14

against discovery learning?

Who could be against discovery?

We define it ill.

Today it means entrepreneurship, novelty, knowing and doing, making culture, apprenticeship. There is a goal, a telos. To innovate, to change, to add, to perform, to practice. MakerSpaces, Genius Hours.

It is theory and practice united. Learn A-Z, now go and create a letter or alphabet that has yet to be imagined.

engagement with mystery

Yet I hesitate to embrace wholesale the concept of engaged learning that suggests a workshop mentality to every learning situation.  I picture a broader conception of discovery: the intersection of acts of imagination and with the apprehension of mystery. I am torn between wanting to invest time and energy in collaboration and invention, or in slow reading, deep thinking, and sustained conversations that stem from as well as lead to acts of attention expressed through writing.

Below are my musings about my uneasy rest in the Discovery learning camp.

discovery and revelation are  inseparable

My reticence stems from appreciation of an older form of the word discover which indicates unveiling, revelation, and making known. As long as we can admit

A few years, Plato described a kind of discovery learning that the learner finds difficult to convey to others. The true world outside his Cave is beautiful and true, but incommunicable to other cave dwellers. It must be seen to be believed, but darkness and limited vision harness the learner’s contemporaries.

There is a problem to solve: how to communicate a life-altering mystery to fellow human beings? Words alone will not succeed.

Imagination is necessary.

In my own classrooms I listen to student voices discovering that literature speaks, igniting empathy and other products of imagination. The harshness of Maya Angelou’s early years as represented in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings sensitizes students to inequalities and injustices in history and their own cultures, lives.

The “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedict contrasts with the unforgiving imaginations whose violent inflexibility stabs Hero. Whereas B&B discover self-knowledge, Hero herself learns, as Tess Derbyfield does, “there is no good in men”; then she marries one.

imagining and making

A liberal education, in contrast to one emphasizing practical application can teach how both innovative and ancient ideas have been expressed, challenged, and modified; you can learn to evaluate the properties of an enduring idea. The student of ideas learns to revolve concepts in the mind for examination, facet by facet; theories are apprehended, applied, modified, or generated in physical labs and through discussions, writing, limitless activities, and by reading.

It isn’t a far stretch of vocabulary to compare today’s MakerSpace classrooms with the patronage system of the Arts: studio space, time, and materials are provided by schools (whether privately funded by tuition and grants or publicly by taxes) or public libraries whose leaders believe such classrooms are consistent with its mission, purpose and goals.

inquiring minds

I am wondering if a spell being cast by the nova nebula has underplayed the roles of imaginative language and free inquiry in learning. There is much to be said on the for the internal view of life and reality which takes shape over a long period of sustained engagement with a universe of ideas.

But if we as educators thrive on providing learning experiences which have the goal of innovation and new discovery, I fear we bypass crucial moments of the discovery process, at least we exclude such moments from the current broader rhetoric about learning.

new & ancient creations in dialogue

I want my students to see new artwork that reflects a point of view critical of ideas harmful to women, to read journalism describing attacks on freedom, such as threats against women who are opposed to violence against women in video games, or pepper spray deployed against pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong. I also want them to dig down and consider what democracy is, and at what cost it is delivered or purchased. Does one wish it upon others? must it be discovered and learned or can it be given to and taken from a culture?

Artist Jerusha Pimentel allowed me to use her images

Pimentel "Stripper" series

Pimentel “Stripper” series

of women and men as an introduction to and commentary on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I hope that seeing an artist who wrestles with ideas will drive them to think about the ideas a novelist wrestles with; I assuredly hope they too will begin wrestling with ideas, and will generate new and provocative ways of representing their own voices in dialogue with the present and past. 

As I adjust my thinking about this as a balance of theory versus practice–it may not be as simple as pitting “useless” gifts (thinking) against “useful” ones (doing) – a dichotomy Dylan Thomas uses for humorous effect in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. A child’s mind and hands like toys. We teachers have come to see productivity as a measure of understanding, and engagement as a measure of learning. What is practical to adults is often useless and boring to kids.

learningspace vs makingspace

Production does not equate with learning.

Human work is not all artistic and theoretical pursuit, or even inventing, engineering, or marketing useful products that simplify or enrich our lives; much of our endeavor is mind-numbing, repetitive, and hazardous. As Tim Keller writes, it is cursed because we are too far removed from its original and dignifying purposes (Every Good Endeavor 2012).

I suppose that whatever educators can do to restore enjoyment of good endeavors is beneficial to learners. It is good for people to learn to enjoy work and the satisfaction it can bring, rather than looking to financial gain or performing for a grade or promotion. But do we make demands on the work, or does the work make demands on us?

demands of work

In the movie “Birdman” Michael Keaton’s character is beset by doubts about his own relevance and dignity, dramatically represented by conflicting voices in his life. Ed Norton is the voice of the actor’s work, work above all; Emma Stone is the voice of purpose – What does it all mean? The villainous alter-ego of his early career fame as Birdman speaks urgently into his head appealing to his prideful desire for staying power and box office draw. In an ironic scene the main character seeks dignity in his life even as he parades around a theater block in undignified dress yet trending on Twitter. His life spins out of control.

Lucy in Sara Zarr’s Lucy Variations wrestles with the coinciding pleasures and pressures attendant on the career of a competitive concert pianist. Demands encroach on her life — demands made by her family, mentor, and herself.

Work will always make demands on us. But there may be a peace that comes with relinquishing control.

relinquish control

Even in my own classroom, I find tremendous satisfaction in those numerous moments — whole days, even– when authority and control are shared among all participants. Ironically, I  continue searching vigorously during my off hours for ways to engage students even more: to offer them greater freedom, control, and autonomy. From my restless pursuit, I cannot desist.

I am not against exploring, discovering, creating. I just want to save some time for reflection, rest, reading. Ceaseless activity is wearying.

In my new post, I will investigate the role of creativity in problem-solving, teaching for thoughtfulness, and making connections with ELA content and skills.

20
Oct
14

no bad days

Most of my blog posts are shunted to “drafts” because of incomplete thought. I hope to state up front, today, that the reality is I will not develop this one as much as I could, but rather, like each class each day, call it “good for one day”.

Like many school days, this one had ups and downs. One class saw volunteers either form committees, who set paper deadlines and established principles for fair grading practices, or prepare to model an editing conference. Another class interacted with a younger grade level class as they co-wrote stories. But along with their sparkle came some mud: some students handed in last week’s work incomplete carelessly done, or took a devil-may care attitude to free reading books or writing tasks.

My students who are usually engaged in class were distracted by SSR — sustained surreptitious reading, and those usually wrapped in personal books or reading ahead projected themselves into the class activities.
Absences of key students in pre-assigned roles meant that others shared more than they otherwise might have, while also filling a gap left by less prepared students.

Although during third and sixth periods I did not have time to share my fiction prompt by Ursula Le Guin, nor my sample attempts at her writing exercise, my students did decide on our next steps in class reading, writing, and performance.

I know that tomorrow I will hold numerous writing conferences, receive forty letters from students about their free reading books, listen to discussions of Shakespeare, Hardy, and Wilde, and wonder whether to wrest control from their hands. This, you see, is the most difficult of all decisions, for upon it depends so much.

Democratic, student-centered learning opens the door of a room that exists to serve student learning purposes. At the high school level in English this means some uncomfortable minutes spent every day as I listen to learners and wait for the processing of ideas — the second draft thought that inevitably will follow their initial draft thinking aloud. It must be an uneasy time for the students, too; today that came out effectively when mavericks spoke out in contrast to the majority, swerving the reigns of the whole cartload and helping true consensus, compromise, and accommodation to occur.

I don’t always need a refined, revised draft as a blogger. Taking you to the room I actually reside in immediately following the intertidal flood and ebb that is the end of my school day, before the effluvia settle, is not telling you how my day has gone. It is still a fresh impression on my mind; it will be hours before I can evaluate my own silences and interjections.

It was not at all a bad day.

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