The Dickens?

I was startled when I discovered that architecture and fragrance could be the subjects of essays. My discovery opened up new realms of nonfiction for me as I became aware that good writers can reveal hidden processes, invisible forces and ideas, and interesting personalities. My New Year’s resolution: to ensure that my students have opportunities to discover for themselves the power of essays.

I suspect now that I had always assumed commercial, aesthetic, and functional uses alone dictated the design and execution of buildings and colognes, if I thought about it at all.

Armand Vaillancourt Fountain (1971) at Mustin Herman Plaza; Michele Ursino photo credit.

It should have been clear to me at 12 years old that the sculpture pictured above could not be explained by ordinary “sense” – it did not make economic, artistic, nor practical sense to have this concrete fountain near the San Francisco waterfront.

A few years later I walked past another architectural marvel, one denigrated by my professors at S.F. State.

Paffard Keatinge-Clay 1969-73 design; photo attribution Vard Uzvards (Flickr ).

In the 1980s, I would read Allan Temko of the SF Chronicle reviewing new buildings, such as art museums. Temko, 1988 finalist for a Pulitzer, engaged me with his reviews. At the time, in college, I read film and theater criticism religously; I admired that a writer could treat a building as if it were literature, as though its existence incarnated an idea worth listening to. https://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2006/05/raising-hell-allan-temko-and-foxes.html

The New Yorker once ran a piece by Chandler Burr profiling perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. Burr’s 2005 article refers to essais, story, poetry, art, and signature: building a montage of language that persuades me that builders of a fragrance are artists seeking expression of an idea.

So, having discovered the startling power of essays, I was startled in an opposite way last week as I began to hear a concern from my middle school students: “Someone told me there is an essay due!” In fact, I had avoided using the term “essay” for precisely this reason; it awakens a “school” mindset and deadens the “learning” mind and lively writing that accompanies interest and inquiry. I had called the assignment “letter to a reader”, and had buried Nancie Atwell’s (In the Middle) term “letter-essay” deep in the details of the assignment. Not deep enough.


Of course, the sculpting of concrete and the layering of scents are only stand-ins for activity of all kinds, and for the keen observation and reflection that leads to compelling writing projects. A paper written to fulfill a teacher’s assignment may not even properly deserve the name essay. What I began seeing in the final days of the Fall term were less like dreary essays or letters, and more like short notes with a summary appended. Here is what happened.

The week before the holiday break I received the dull writing I had steered away from all term. Although the letters I received in early December were glorious, were actual letters written to me as a person–about a free reading book, its world, and the mind of my young reader exploring that world, inviting me into it–despite the glorious early letters, “the ravages” of the final week, as O Henry might have put it, cannot be undone. One writer offered a single paragraph intro and conclusion, engorged with 5 pages of summary. Another shared a two-page cutting from their book, and a paragraph tagged on at the end explaining their choice (but not?).

” a work of vast ability in the somniferous school of literature” (Hawthorne)

Hope ahead

But I proceed with excitement toward an upcoming series of classroom writing events. Inspired by Sarah M. Zerwin’s Point-less and Liz Prather’s Project-Based Writing; Tom Newkirk’s Unbound and Kwame Alexander’s Write Like This; I am feeling confident and hopeful that my learners will progress toward “secure” and “expanding” in their control over writing processes, those terms the upper half descriptors I use in our recent move away from traditional grades and toward a learning focus.

One thing these writing-focused books for teachers share is a passionate affection for offering writers STUDIO TIME. When students are given the opportunity to write, rework, receive feedback, self-evaluate, and publish all kinds of writing–poems, fiction, or nonfiction genres–they practice important decision-making strategies that are transferable to many other goals. As far as my resolution goes, these opportunities become essential for the discoveries that are about to happen.

Their writing is about to leap off the page. I am reading a fair share of recent nonfiction myself, such as Homer: The Very Idea (James I. Porter) or The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Sophy Roberts) and recent essays by Robert Clark on Sylvia Plath’s house, Sara Zarr on Nomadland, or Jonathan Lethem on J.G. Ballard’s science fiction short stories.

In most cases, the essayists offer an anchor by writing about people who have gone through turbulent times, and the authors consider their and our response to what Malcolm Andrews this month called “the growing complexities of life.” Addressing the Dickens Fellowhip, he invited participants to critically read paintings that hearken back to an idealized view of the countryside and its landscape. Whether “reading” modern architecture, Victorian parks, profiles, or van life, good essayists enlist readers in a journey. They help us see what is under the surface, and offer us fresh ways of seeing.

fresh sight

…For to hear or read a verse of Homer was to do more than simply listen to a song. It was to be put in touch with a reality that was no longer accessible except through the medium of the poems: it was to see directly through the poet’s eyes.”

James I. Porter (p. 26, University of Chicago Press 2021)

Whatever I do as a teacher, I hope that I promote the sort of authentic writing that can engage with a changing world, that can open a window to the past, offer a glimpse of the future, and speak to the present.

It is not too much to expect even that my students will come to their own experiences of art, nature walks, urban trails and open spaces expecting journey and story. Even further, I resolve to provide them with studio time: opportunities to write about their explorations and discoveries in order to reflect on those events — their meaning and idea. If cologne can tell a story, if journalism has a point of view, and if Dickens scholar Andrews is correct, and “sweet view[s]” in the England of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot imply perspectives or people whose assumptions and stories are worth examining, then the daily life experiences and interests of my own students contain similarly valuable stories.

And beyond writing itself, I want for young people to view the world as a place they can inhabit, alter, address, and create in. I hope they feel a freedom in believing that a building they might design can express ideas, and that a fragrance, a line of clothing, or a food menu they create communicates a point of view, as is often emphasized by two of my favorite encouragers/educators [I kids you not] Tim Gunn and Gordon Ramsay. When I take time to sit, write, walk, and to really reflect on their and my learning cycles, our parallel paths find a meeting point. Is that a vanishing point? I am curious what disappears when I become co-learner. I think I will have greater empathy with students, more patience with their individual processes. Can I wait till the end of the school year to find out what discoveries they have made? Time will tell.

Wayne Thiebaud, above and below, died this week.
Are we each on our own learning curve, which tends in the same general direction, like the parallel lines in these paintings, eventually meeting farther along on the journey?

a lost pair

(Part 2 of 2 that began with a “Stifled Scream”)

“What do you think this piece is about?”

I asked this question 5 months ago, and only now am I beginning to hear verbal responses to it.

Five months; or, truth be told, nine months – since it was August when I posed the question first after we would read a poem or story.

In an ordinary year, such answers from my students might have come hours, days, or weeks after my frontal assault on this particular territory. Interpretive, individual ground; formed in a context of classroom talk, numerous short texts, film clips, and illustrations. But at least the lines are shifting. I try to avoid battle imagery when thinking about teaching, as I have found that it promotes an oppositional approach to my instruction. But in this case, the fight is against an invisible force hidden behind cultural rocks: intransigent structures sheltering traditional practices, student anonymity, and teacher-directed activity.

Hunter Abdo, "Catch the Wind", based on "A Christmas Memory" by T. Capote.

in this post

  • my narrative of students turning a corner in ’20-’21
  • my diary entry assessing the difficulty of writing about the imagery of “lost pair of kites” in Capote’s essay
  • my test draft of the assignment to write about “A Christmas Memory”

Students finally began to speak up in May. I chose Annie Dillard’s essay from Teaching A Stone To Talk, “A Hill Far Away”, to address student questions that had been posed in response to a survey I had created. I had sensed that students were unsure where to position themselves with respect to the visible world, the unseen world, spiritual traditions, and the unknowable aspects of The Divine. My guess is that they figure we adults have worked this out already; to our discredit, we have too often acted as though our own individual certainties and confidences are the rule. In their early adolescence, however, they are ready to challenge all our assumptions and certainties, not yet having been taught that faith without doubt is dead.

Besides being led by student inquiry, I was driven to select Dillard’s interesting meditation by its genre. The nonfiction voice and register they tend “naturally” to fall into when they write are seldom the voices we read or study in class, as though they default to a Platonic ideal of what school writing ought to sound like. I continue, however, to offer opportunities to discover and imitate the first person meditation, reflection, or vignette. We even discovered this week that fictional techniques are used by authors of essays; Dillard’s contains a “signpost” that Probst and Beers call a “Memory Moment”. In response to a student question about how to write a note about literature, I had led these students through six lessons from their book Notice and Note.

I had also designed a series of three film lessons, then three literary “classics” too; each lesson centering on a single scene from a major work. Students entered controversies over visual texts, including Jane Eyre illustrations by Santiago Caruso. Once face-to-face school commenced, the room became “warmer”, the physical energy of my students palpable, and I was able to better track their attention and listen to questions that could prompt my responsive teaching.

My strategic attack on echoing rocks–not on silence itself, but on the ghostly shadows that appear as apathy but are truly covert interest–commenced with skirmishes: I wanted to take back for my class a spirit of inquiry.

I continued inviting student commentary, out loud during classes and silently in writing, and urging student choice via surveys, book clubs, independent reading, journal topics, mind maps, and reflections; student choice supported by time to work and models of good work.

I introduced more student examples, interviewing writers from the front of the room about their own process. I experienced and even displayed frustration at times, when dead silence reverberated, like night deserts in Mason Dixon paintings of the open West. I resisted the urge to belittle; I summoned Patience.

Lafayette Maynard Dixon “Arizona” c. 1940, Amazon art print

At last, students reacted to Dillard’s piece with “turn and talks”, then shared out, venturing ideas such a “Keeping an open mind” and “Life is about relationships.” Growth was occurring in scattered plots of dappled sunlight across a range of 7th- and 8th-graders

A younger class, too, began to respond with idea statements instead of the more usual one-word or literal answers. Speculating about a picture book, The Curious Garden, one 6th grade student hypothesized “You can discover beauty in the most unexpected places.”

Now, at the end of this extraordinary school year, I am breathing somewhat easier with the knowledge that interpretation is not dead. It was merely dormant for a season.

photo by GH

from my writer’s notebook in december 2020

N.B. I teach at a private Christian school, thus the use of literature addressing both holidays and holiness from a culturally or thematically religious perspective is assumed. Nonetheless I want to broaden and deepen conversations about art and faith. I offer the entries below as a window into my personal process, admitting that my response to literature is idiosyncratic and playful. What I would draw from it are that: a. we should do a theory of difficulty for every assignment; and b. we should complete the writing we assign our students; lastly, c. playfulness on paper leads to unexpected ideas and then to idea statements which will become essential for engaged conversations.

Here, below, follows the first draft of a piece I wrote in advance of my class, as my way of ascertaining the difficulty of the task I expect of them. I honestly don’t know yet if I will assign this [an essay on Capote] as written work: I had felt the students were ready to discuss their initial responses to a reading, in conversation at least, but the silent virtual void that met me last week failed to support my feeling. If anything, there was evidence to prove the contrary, and my students were not ready.

It could be they don’t want to speak up in front of their friends; it could be the piece is longer than most we have analyzed this semester, the exception being a Newbery novel. It could be [that] the two days a week of language arts in our school schedule is inadequate to establish the number of habits I assume them to have internalized. Or it could be I have not used the simple wording “what do you think this piece is about?” often enough since August, when I initiated its use in Don Graves -style writing shares.

theory of difficulty

About difficulty: I had “front-loaded” a notion about kites, through a set of drawings we all did before I read the Capote selection aloud. I had paused for think-alouds occasionally, mainly to point out compound adjectives, having introduced them on the first day. I had pointed out that we were working at the word level – a level where exact word order makes a difference – “a pair of kites” vs. “a pair of lost kites, hurrying toward heaven”, and where additions create interest (a la Christensen). And I had written out the prompt in charcoal pencil in my own imagination book, screen-shared via the virtual classroom document camera. “What do I think this piece is about?”

So I admit being a bit surprised when no one spoke until “Charlie” sang out “what do you mean by ‘What do you think it’s about?’?”

I began to rethink my approach. It seemed sound. But what do the brain and the reader actually have to do while they are in the selection, in order to address this prompt? I set out writing my own whimsical version of an answer, “sinning boldly”, just having fun in a free-for-all of ideas as they splashed across my mind-screen and hummed in my ears just beyond the seasonal jazzy tunes playing in the background as I wrote.

Here is what I did on the first (and only) draft:

So far, this essay seems on its surface to be about fruitcakes- that is, inspired by cold autumn weather, Buddy-Capote recalls typical November occurrences with “my friend” – an unusual person – a child/adult. It seems to be about collecting and distributing a holiday treat.

   But at a deeper level, it feels —- I should say WE FEEL through his language – words, word order, word choice – the humor and hearts that moved hands to prepare such gifts, the boldness Buddy learns from a woman others dismissed as a fruitcake (batty). “The others” – hmm … unnamed – I feel the huge winter world of this “pair” of kites. They are light while others are “heavy”, they party innocently, give freely, move about uninhibitedly. 

   They establish friendly relations with scary strangers such as Haha – also dismissed as a murderous halfbreed; or powerful Presidents and foreign missionaries. Their tablecloth is laid an invitation to all to partake freely of “bread without cost” (the Bible) and spread before the countryside: those inside the house appear uninterested in these two, so, like the man in the parable of the kingdom of God, they having been rejected now go and scatter invitations far and wide, passing on to those outside their lineage what “bounty”, “brimful”, they have. It is only useful if it is shared. 

   All this, a gospel-centered heart, is at the core of Capote’s story. 

   “A pure heart, that’s what I long for; a heart that follows hard after thee.” 

   All that emerges from parts I and II; what will the narrator do in the last part? We may be in beatitudes territory – having been in the land of the meek and lowly, I conceive of mourning, of comfort, to balance out the purity of heart. 

    The pure at heart shall see God. 

The kites hurry toward heaven. 

   I “imagine, consider” as the speaker implores me to do in his opening, as contemplation and delight mingle in his theology, that the foolishness on display is despised by The Wise – “the ones who know best”. 

    I ponder, I suppose, if his “Memory” of the title is a collective one, not as obviously as a mish-mash of gathered tinsel from tidbits of scrambled years, but rather, more like the carefully assembled orderly account of Christmas that St Luke provides for us, a shared memory, if you will, of the moments of our faith that made us who we are; but which, like his gospel, will leave us staring into the heavens as he does in the first of Acts: the rest of the story of my own ascent to Jerusalem — the march outward from spiritual childhood into a chilly unresponsive, Wise World, far from pure or innocent, yet a springtime nevertheless of growth, greenery, youth and summer, love, life, actions that leave behind the fragile fond friendships, the lines slackening which once kept our kites so close to the earth. We each snap the cords that can keep angels flying too close to the ground; but in doing so, there is a danger we’ll become “lost” in our hurry. 

    What IS this essay about (his Christmas memory), if not about life’s feast, and my own need for a welcoming host on either side of those impenetrable clouds, to receive me? 


Stifled Scream

As I stood there at my standing desk on Monday, I was ready to scream.

“What do you mean, ‘what’s it about?'”, my 8th grader asked.

I have been asking this question of the essays and other pieces we read and write. I taught the students, since August, to ask themselves “What is my piece about? What do I think my piece is about?” and for peer responders to offer “I think your piece is about . . . ” as one way of helping a writer know whether they are being clear.

So how could we arrive at the end of a semester and not recognize this prompt?

It works when Don Graves does it!

Another moment, equally wrenching, comes from my 7th grader on Tuesday in a breakout room. Scene partners are reading their parts, using a script I have typed out and posted to our Google Classroom. “I don’t have it. Where’d you guys get it?”

“Google classroom,” a partner replies, helpfully sharing their screen.

“I don’t have that class in my Google Classroom.”

Sure enough, when I check my dashboard, the student has not joined the class. I discover in the process that they are not the only one to have somehow evaded the net of invitations I broadcast earlier this semester.

How could I reach the end of a whole semester, and still have failed to establish the patterns and habits I expected?

In Part 2 of this post, I will share my own experiment with writing the “I think this piece is about . . . ” response to Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”.

Between now and my next class meeting with the 8th graders, I will need to apply the “theory of difficulty” David Perkins writes about, and determine which parts, if any, of my whimsical foray might serve as models for what a student could be expected to do, as they “play a junior version of the game”; but also as they apply nearly four months of practice (added to a lifetime) since August.

Perkins, David. Making Learning Whole. Wiley 2009.


the power of praise

“You’re fast, on that.”

A bicyclist passed me on the left, just as we entered a tunnel on a sunny weekday morning.

Something about his tone, or his phrasing, implied that another person may find my equipment a hindrance to optimal performance. But evidently I was riding in such a way that he was prompted to commend my cadence or speed.

“I’m borrowing the bike; it is a little small for me.” I had been pretty impressed with its titanium frame, its Presta valve, and its lightness.

“You’re good.”

As the rider pulled away in front of me on the paved bike path, I noticed the professional looking bicycle jersey he wore — a long sleeve black uniform with red and white lettering and symbols.

I began to consider what I had been doing that might have inspired comment. I had become accustomed over the years to people saying things as I rode past on my own bike, such as “nice bike”, but they were generally teasing. (It’s a Schwinn from just about the era where the front wheel was being shrunk to the same size as the rear.)

avalon_music on Flickr

I realized that I assessed my cadence, my shoulders, my gear, my breathing — my mask, partly in response to his attire. It felt good to receive praise from a stranger who looked like he could be practicing for the Giro d’Italia or La Vuelta a España.

pilates and praise

“Good, Gordon.”

I have noticed how the smallest acknowledgment from my Pilates instructor on Zoom makes me willing to continue: another variation, another quarter hour; another week.

What do my two recent encounters with simple praise suggest to me about my own online instruction?

They make me want to be deliberate in pointing out regularly, often, something each of my students is doing that is deserving of praise. To use their names, let them know I am watching, correcting at times, even as my Pilates coach does. It is frequent, ongoing feedback.

We may not wear uniforms, but our words in the writing lab have an effect on young writers.

In my upcoming classes, as we begin in August with distance learning, I will seek meaningful ways to offer frequent, personal praise and coaching from the sideline to help my young writers.


back in the saddle

Writing teachers write.

So goes the mantra I learned at The Bay Area Writing Project some summers ago.

No, I haven’t published here for the best part of a year. But in the classroom I have continued to write with my students.

I am particularly working this summer on tuning my skills at writing in front of students, given the unusual conditions that exist for all teachers now. That means modeling both writing and revision; I can model through demonstrations, sharing my own screen via Zoom as I compose during class, and by showing the work of students and professional writers.

During the spring, I frequently composed on a doc (Google or Paper), and occasionally on Zoom’s “whiteboard” or by adding a second device to use as a document camera on my pen and paper.

Our favorite times, as attested to by my students, were poetry prompts garnered from The Slowdown Show, after having made a supporting contribution to the program.

739: Cherry Blossoms The Slowdown

Today’s poem is Cherry Blossoms by Toi Derricotte.
  1. 739: Cherry Blossoms
  2. 738: Park Benches with Teeth
  3. 737: A Small Moment
  4. 736: For the Korean Grandmother on Sunset Boulevard
  5. 735: Deep Learning

keep it moving

Some of our best feelings during a day of distance learning involved physical activity such as tearing paper, making masks, or similar crafts projects involving paper-folding, cutting with scissors, handling glue-stick tape, watercolors. This kept me active as well, designing ways to incorporate my iPad as a second camera, or positioning my laptop on a rolling adjustable-height table to allow me to stand and demonstrate at a larger desk or tabletop.

After a friend let me try her bone conducting headphones, I started my own search for a similar Bluetooth (cordless) earphone/microphone headset, which is not “in-the-ear”; I prefer not inserting earbuds, and I also appreciate hearing things in my environment. Furthermore, I was getting cauliflower ears from daily classes and some evening and weekend Zoom meetings. I want the privacy and flexibility that headphones offer.

Robyn Seglem’s article in Voices from The Middle (Vol 27 No. 3, March 2020) describes a practice of leading students through yoga (or Pilates, my new favorite!) poses, until we wobble, and eventually flow. Pose, Wobble, Flow. The technique becomes an analogy for doing hard things in class, such as learning to practice a new writing strategy or develop and improve a familiar one. Again, this is a modeling practice best done away from the tangle or tether of headphone cords.

I chose zBones brand, and am pleased with them. I am quite surprised, actually, that various companies producing these mainly as sport or hearing-impaired devices aren’t capitalizing on the educators using Zoom. Don’t we all need a lightweight wireless headset that gives us freedom of movement? I still remember weeks of buttoning my blazer over my headphone cord, then getting up to move away from my desk between Zoom sessions and repeatedly dragging the laptop with me in my haste to grab water or take a quick stretch break.

untethered . . . almost

The second hardware piece I have finally solved (and am testing out with a colleague today 🙂 ) is connecting my iPad with a cable to my Mac in order to share its screen during Zoom meetings. I know, it shouldn’t be too complicated — but it was.

There are a few apps compatible with iOS mobile devices that don’t have a corresponding version for the larger laptop or desktop models. I can easily swipe screens using the iPad as well, which makes it appealing to me rather than having to toggle back and forth in multiple stacked screen-shares, pre-loading and setting up each in succession. In my classroom Apple TV is the natural wireless way to address the issue, but without that particular screen-sharing option remotely leading class off-campus, the lightning cable is finally operative!

Yes, it means being tethered to a table next to the Macbook Air, but now I can share mentor text paragraphs from the Kindle app, or poems from the IF poetry app. I also enjoy using many randomizers, timers, and drawing and painting apps that are workable on the tablet but impossible without a touch screen.

no conclusion

So I am excited to get back in the saddle and write with my kids. Back into the classroom in whatever shape that takes, come August. Back in the habit of composing for my peers on this blog.

I take great inspiration from my colleagues at NCTE and CEL with their generous offerings of social gatherings, important, uncomfortable discussions about race, gender, inclusiveness, and “whose canon?”.

I am grateful for the collective wisdom of past and present colleagues, and of leading educators sharing their vulnerability and experimentation during this crisis, as are Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle in their videos and Twitter feeds. Carol Jago as an editor and an encourager of teachers everywhere.

Since my learning is still in progress, I leave this unresolved. I will follow in a second post considering how to offer feedback during distance learning.

A monument to Tigua women near El Paso at Ysleta Cultural Center. https://www.ysletadelsurpueblo.org/tourism-hospitality/cultural-center

from there to here

Route 50 – The loneliest highway

Fatigued by driving on Major route 80 between California and parts east, I chose to set out for the Golden State by way of Highway 50, picking it up off of Route 6 in Utah. I settled in for a calm, relaxing journey as I came through Santaquin. This is the last big town for a while. A good place to gas up. From here on in there will be relatively few towns. There is only one place posted “no services for 85 miles”. On average I would say there is someplace to stop for a comfort station at least every hour; but these are not necessarily marked as cities on a map: some are motels, like Cold Springs, which are posted with FOOD and LODGING icons, but which are not full mini-marts nor gas stations. Keeping the gas tank more than half-full gave me confidence to get across the desert terrain.

Look for this icon across the state to claim your free Survival Guide book and get it stamped.

Road trip across nevada

Each participating business or visitors’ center has a city name ink-stamp: they will stamp pages containing the map, the mail-in postcard, the major city’s info, and participating organization’s listing in that region. [N.B. There is nothing about teaching in this post, but I learned that many of those who lodged as I did in Austin were teachers and professors. I tried to write about things I would like to have known before taking this trip myself.]

One of the very few rest areas. No rest rooms here; and the other rest stop I clearly recall was “closed”.

I would make a point of stopping where restaurants, gas stations, or numerous historic landmarks offer a chance to get out of the car, walk around, and get refreshment.

Stokes Castle

My first night was spent in Austin, Nevada, at the Union Street Lodge. Though some of the lodging along the whole stretch feels a bit “Bates Motel-ish”, and the historic districts are half “ghost town” half thriving, my spacious accommodations, thermos of hot morning coffee, and tasty french toast and bacon breakfast, and great hosts made this stop fully alive! They had told me to catch the sunset from the castle, a mile’s walk – which I did; I read about a number of bike trails, featured in a small local booklet, and chose to ride my road bike up to and past the castle the next morning, for views up and down the whole broad valley.

I assume that since there were vacancies at my bed and breakfast, there were other vacancies in the motels down the street and along the highway. Before I started the trip, I was concerned about making my goal for each day’s driving. would I always be able to make it to my destination? If I needed to, could I find a room with no reservation? I am pretty sure in any town there would be something, and I did use the phone several times on the road to call ahead. Verizon is said to be the best for this region; I used AT&T and though there may have been a few No Service spots, I had service when I needed it.

There were other drivers on the road, even if there might be several minutes between them in either direction. I never had the concern of being totally alone for long, but there were so few cars as to keep the drive very relaxed: no hostile tailgaters. Occasionally cyclists are on a section of the road, but this was rare, and typically accompanied by posted yellow caution signs about cyclists sharing the road.

Singing Sand Dune doesn’t whisper any longer, due to dune buggy devotees, but any chance to get off the roadway and stretch your legs will be worth it. There are dozens of Nevada-shaped signs and interpretive markers. They pop up with little notice – at 70 mph you make split-second choices about whether to pull over.
I would have done this!

Ely has food trucks! Based on a tip, though, I went to The Jailhouse Casino, to find Juanita and Chava’s Taco Shop. Just what the doctor ordered: the salsa bar had salsa verde, salsa roja (so hot I had to shy away from it!), and pico de gallo; plus pickled jalapeños and radishes, sliced cucumber, house-made tortilla chips. Next time I may try the park across the street, and get some food truck lunch for a picnic. At this location, go to the Jailhouse Casino cashier for your stamps.

the room where it happened

Docent Bill Pickering points out the upper room at Fort Sutter in Sacramento – where gold was first weighted and determined in fact to be gold in 1848. This is the only original building, but there are many historically accurate “living history” rooms and activities, especially popular with California History curriculum (4th grade).

Historic sights were part of the attraction. There are Railroad museums in Ely and Carson City, a courthouse in Austin, mining and archeology sites, petroglyphs, and others.

Sacramento has its Old Town, Fort Sutter, and the American River Bike Path. The bike path has various access points; I suggest finding one with a lot of people – the parking are under a highway on the far East end didn’t feel that safe to leave my car. I have ridden much of the path itself before, though, which is well-travelled.

I picked up road maps and guidebooks before the trip from AAA, and read a great blog by a couple who had taken such a road trip within the last two years. A more helpful map found in a guidebook I picked up at the Border Inn listed and marked many major sights, including viewing areas for wild horses. The thing about highway 50 is that there are quite a number of signs indicating a turnoff (cross-street), but little or no explanation, and only 1/4 mile warning. Then, as you approach the road sign, the mileage appears – often 7 to 10 miles for interesting sights. One was marked something like “You Dig ‘Em Fossils” – TRILOBITES – 10. The point is to be ready to make split-second decisions by deciding to slow down whenever possible to give yourself time to read; have a pre-planned number of minutes you can afford to set aside for exploring novelties.

It is a scenic highway, and just driving with a single goal of getting across Nevada would offset the benefit of choosing this route over Interstate 80. As long as you are on this relaxing road, allow yourself to go at a “slow pace” (still 65-70 mph most everywhere) and let yourself pull off for unusual stops.

I turned out at a reservoir, since it was only 1 1/2 miles off the road. The pavement turned immediately into an unpaved access road. I assume many other similarly marked sights are on unpaved roads. There are quite a few places along the way where RVs or tents were set up – recreation areas requiring a permit, but not necessarily attended by a ranger. But some had a one-hour grace period if you walked in on foot, no payment required.

Carson City Capitol Building
Tiled entrance to a contemporary mercantile bears traces of historic past

At Carson City, I realized the major portion of my “lonely” drive was over with – big city; lots of people.

As David Letterman used to say, “You’re tired; but it’s a good kind of tired.”

Old City Hall behind the main street in Austin, NV


daggers and dreams

David Downing’s Just Theory promises to be a powerful book, a tool for exploring certain aspects of learning in our 21st Century. I am still in the early chapters of the book, newly available from NCTE. I hope other English teachers (or “classical” and liberal arts/humanities teachers) also reading it this summer might want to exchange comments or questions about it. In the current section, “Why Is Plato So Upset at the Poets, and What Is Western Metaphysics?” I am wrestling with the term “dialectics” as Downing explains it, and having to reframe my thinking. In this post I reflect on my prior knowledge of that term, and then offer a brief example of a contemporary novel that connects to but is not overshadowed by allusions to canonical literature.

By the end of Chapter Two, we are rolling into adventurous territory, having to consider which is more subversive – poetry or philosophy; we must reexamine assumptions about Plato’s world and literature’s role with respect to independent thinking and democratic learning.

Dowling helpfully examines concepts of interest to me as an English teacher. Downing demonstrates important links between dialectics and dualities, binaries, and absolute truth. His illustrations from “The Allegory of the Cave” and Hegel reacquaint me with theories of knowledge I encountered at St. John’s, and revive a thread which was initiated at the California Association of Teachers of English. Presenter Amy Goldman alerted us to the “Platonic ideal” language in Fitzgerald’s work; her Facebook group “Teaching The Great Gatsby” has been a fun resource.

When I read a book that connects to my prior knowledge, reawakens past positive experiences, and triggers new thinking, it is similar to a “beach read”, only I need to carry a notebook!

In my Curriculum and Instruction class at San Francisco State University under Helen Gilotte, teacher candidates in the late 1980s were expected to use dialectical journals as tools for our students’ learning. Whether called dialogue journals, double-entry journals, or a facing entry logs, variations abound and continue through template structures such as “They Say … I Say”. As the author points out, one familiar derivative form of dialectic is “thesis – antithesis – synthesis”. I am always hoping students will enter the Great Conversation and that, in their expository writing, they will transfer the two-column practice (“quotes” and “commentary”) into support for written and spoken positions across the curriculum.

authentic and learner-centered

I soon recognized the value of dialogue journals as a starting point for opening classroom conversation, and continue to use them in new incarnations, often combining them with Sternberg’s creative, analytical, or practical responses and with pre-, mid-, and post-discussion thinking log entries. In his 2010 Critical Education article about Mikhail Bakhtin’s influence on critical education pedagogy, Trevor Thomas Stewart (U. of Georgia) writes: 

Making authentic dialogue the centerpiece of instruction creates spaces for teaching and learning to become a multi-voiced activity that offers both teachers and students the opportunity to be active participants in meaning making.   

Trevor Thomas on Bakhtin’s influence

Dedicated to incorporating better practices in my own classroom by de-centering the teacher in conversation, I applied and was accepted into the St. John’s College Graduate Institute, where we read and discussed works of the Western Canon active participants in Socratic seminars; faculty tutors facilitate dialogue between students, but lectures are reserved for campus-wide weekly assemblies. At St. John’s in Santa Fe I encountered Plato and The Republic again, which is Downing’s starting point.  

Wrestling with new concepts, or reformulating familiar ones, can be difficult for me. But the implications are useful for my upcoming year. First, Downing’s exploration of dialectic and cultural shifts promises to address the establishment of more just spaces for student learning; second, the early chapters alone provides me with useful historical background for a new Judeo-Christian Ethics class; and finally, through disequilibrium, I am forced to find a balance or synthesis as I reckon with traditional values intersecting with contemporary lives.  

Contemporary resonate with Classic as Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and Quiñonez collide

One such intersection is to be found in Ernesto Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams, a 2000 novel in which the Gatsby-like Willie Bodega from Spanish Harlem is briefly compared with Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“He was street nobility incarnated in someone who still believed in dreams. And for a small while, those dreams seemed as palpable as that dagger Macbeth tried to grab.” 

Bodega Dreams

Intersections like this one are significant to me. I have been reading the novel as a potential multicultural alternative to Gatsby for my junior English class. I am surprised, however, when the spectre of an Elizabethan character wades across the stage of my mind. Such moments of surprise and delight offer good opportunities for readers, learners. Ghosts and daggers have power. They haunt, suggest imbalance, invite usurpation, destabilize the status quo. Great books have always done this.

If a newer book such as Bodega Dreams can summon students to talk back, listen, and feel, we teachers can make room for it at the table. If a book invites my Latinx students into a conversation with The Great Gatsby and Macbeth, why not revisit our booklists?

Not only is there a cool Shakespeare connection to this 21st C. novel, but Amy Goldman demonstrates a Plato intersection in Gatsby which is echoed with the idealism in Bodega Dreams: “Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.”

Goldman had alerted us to Fitzgerald’s use of green light as hope, and of romantic idealism. Here, the narrator describes Willie Bodega, whose

"life had been triggered by a romantic ideal found only in those poor bastards who really wanted to be poets but got drafted and sent to the front lines. During that time Bodega would create a green light of hope." 

Ernesto Quiñones from Bodega Dreams

Just Theory is most vitally interesting to me because it pursues questions I, too, have been seeking to address through my own recent reading. How closely aligned are contemporary Social Justice and classical Justice? What factors contribute to learning and are activated by the de-centered authority in inquiry-driven English classrooms? Because of my existing curiosity about Socratic learning, cultural shifts, YA literature, and critical pedagogy; and because of the author’s familiarity with English education, I am eager to keep reading.

Poetry, like democracy, fosters genuine individuals.

M.A.R. Habib from History of Literary Criticism and Theory:
From Plato to the Present
(2008). Quoted in Just Theory

My closing thought is that when language gets a hold of us, it is a perfect opportunity to make that language a star for a moment or two. Put sentences on the table, play with them, and let us talk about “what the words do in you”, as Peter Elbow says. When we are awake and alert to words, their power becomes palpable – whether destabilizing or empowering.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

LEWIS CARROLL (Charles L. Dodgson), Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 6, p. 205 (1934). First published in 1872. Bartleby.com “Respectfully Quoted”, 7/28/2019

Works Cited: 

Downing, David. Just Theory. NCTE 2019

Goldman, Amy. “Teaching The Great Gatsby in 2019: How to Love Gatsby” Feb 23, 2019. CATE Convention, Burlingame, CA.  

Quiñonez, Ernesto. Bodega Dreams. Vintage Contemporaries. March 2000. 

Stewart, Trevor Thomas. “A Dialogic Pedagogy: Looking to Mikhail Bakhtin for Alternatives to Standards Period Teaching Practices” Critical Education (Vol. 1 No. 6) Aug 26 2010. Accessed July 18 2019.

Image: Blackgang Chine | Tumblr https://www.tumblr.com/search/blackgang+chine


Constructing Trust

open to interpretation

As I browse through The Annotated Emma, Jane Austen’s novel annotated and edited by David M. Shepard, I pause longer than usual over his Notes to the Reader, where he signals plot disclosures and literary interpretations. He explains that Austen “developed … with great skill” several “mysteries … crucial to the story”, and I lean in to listen more carefully, because I have settled on this novel for an upcoming high school English course. Then I come to a complete halt, since I need to see him face to face as he tells me this: “Comments on the techniques and themes of the novel … represent the personal views and interpretations of the editor.” I realize that such a disclosure may be one of the most helpful aspects of my own instruction that I can offer to my students.


open to question

I have mentioned elsewhere how as a sophomore I asked my own teacher “How do you know?” What I was really wondering was, “What tools can I use myself to construct meaning, notice an author’s craft, or spy a symbol embedded in a landscape of detail?” I may have been curious about how much of what had been placed before us was open to question. As I design my course, it may be beneficial to students if I publish similar disclosures at the outset. I appreciate the way Shepard expresses himself, stating that while his views will “provoke disagreement”, he hopes that “in such cases the opinions expressed [will] provide useful food for thought”. And I sincerely trust that my students desire to think critically, needing only to be shown both where and how such questioning can be most productive; their questioning demands my openness to disagreements.

out of a job

I am describing a process by which students learn to be resistant readers. A full menu of theory and procedures for care and feeding of confident and resistant readers may be explored in Gordon Pradl’s Literature for Democracy. What I glean from Pradl’s work, including his NCTE session several years ago on a texts’ authority and context, is that authority, whether of a text, a teacher, or an interpretation, must be allowed to withstand scrutiny.

In a classroom, what would it look like for the teacher to invite questions about her, his, or their own interpretive process? When does a young reader become confident enough, feel free enough, to enquire of the instructor or tutor? It happens best when the younger apprentice sees themself supported by the tutor who guides, but who necessarily does not do all the leading.

apple norms size standards

Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

I have heard it said that teachers hope to become obsolete – once our students think, write, and read independently, there is no longer any need for us. I want to revise this commonplace. There shall always be a need for experienced readers in a community of readers. If we press toward ensuring shared authority of both co-leaders and co-learners in our interpretive communities, anyone might feel not only welcome at the conversation table, but also enfranchised: having a sense that their full participation as members of such a community is worthwhile. The conversation should feel so lively, unplanned, visceral, and thrilling that no one wants to miss the new revelations or discoveries that might happen there.

a shift in control

Where discussions are thought-provoking and texts are inviting, according to Judith A. Langer, students learn literary language, with support of a teacher, from their involvement in “discussions that matter”. The focus of the course must be on readers developing their own changing perspectives and interpretations; she argues that “a shift in control from teacher to student is a necessary first step for the social interactions to shift from recitation and guesswork (What is it the teacher wants?) to substantive thought and discussion that can extend students’ range of understanding.”

Learning to listen to students’ ideas and to base instruction on students’ responses is a difficult shift to make. (99)

What can I do in September this year to make the shift easier for my own students?

close up of gear shift over black background

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For one thing, I can take a lesson from Shepard and demystify my own interpretive processes, by being transparent at the outset of year that my own analysis of a book such as Emma is not the content of the class; rather, their own emerging understandings will be.  I can focus less on homework and grading policies and be more upfront about shifting toward assessments and feedback designed with student thinking, social contexts, and multiple readings and texts in mind.

trust and voice

I have felt at my most vulnerable before students when sharing my writing with them: writing before them, or reading a poem or homework assignment I have written alongside them. Such openness to criticism was presumably a signal of my trust in them to be respectful of my fragile creations and ego. Yet a stronger and more intentional invitation of their trust in me would be issued by course disclosure of expectations at the outset.

A Star Is Born 2018 Trailer – at smooth.com

You have a voice. The opinions expressed here are open to question, provoking disagreements, providing food for thought. Your thoughts matters. I will support your learning purposes. The texts we explore are avenues down which we walk together. There are also some great stories here. And we will get to know some people; and wherever avenues are explored, we’ll encounter more mysteries – “mysteries crucial” to our stories.

Recommended Reading

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. 1980. Harvard University Press.

Langer, Judith A.  Envisioning Literature 2011. Teachers College (Second Edition).

Pradl, Gordon. Literature for Democracy Reading as a Social Act. 1996. Boynton/Cook [Heinemann] .




My Passion, you ask?

I like finding things out with help.


This may actually be a key to some of the things I am passionate about.


Recently, for instance, I have joined several book clubs because I like to keep reading new things – whether they be volumes by Dickens and George Eliot or Shakespeare I have not fully read, new titles out across many genres and including Young Adult and multicultural authors; or discovering ideas about art, education, via a well-written essay or film review.


The club’s help comes by virtue of an ethos that we will arrive at a specific date and time and discuss the work without a prescribed agenda. The other part of this is when I discover a reading that encourages me to seek out a filmmaker or artist or musician or author I feel that reading HELPED me along toward something I was not aware I was missing.


I began taking piano lessons, getting some help in playing jazz piano from a jazz pianist. I was already interested but needed help with skills, hearing, listening, feeling rhythms. And the guidance offered was not the sort I would have found in books: direct and immediate feedback was helpful.


I joined a weekly bridge game several years ago as a substitute player. I would do my book and online learning during the week between Bridge Club meetings. But at the club we would play a hand and I would receive lectures by my partners if I ignored a rule I had not learned, or if I asked for help.

   I learned better when I asked for help than when I was lectured but had not even known the rule I was violating.  


So I apply a similar policy in my approach to classroom learning. We can all cover a reading together in my English class, or all work to bring a poem to life through dramatization in small groups – – – but students have more chance in those small groups to ask for individual help on a specific line, a gesture, a comprehension or interpretation than they would have if questions and investigations were handled one person at a time in large class.

   Socratic seminars are built around question-posing, and when students arrive after homework readings with THEIR questions brought to the seminar table, the interpretive community (See Stanley Fish Is There A Text in This Class?) becomes all-important. Here I am doing something WITH the students, not TO them. (See Self-Directed Education and articles on exploration vs. education – “Educare, Educere…”) We learn together about Henry James and the effect of his ghost story. I learned yesterday, by watching my students’ reactions to a dramatized scene from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, that Thomas Hardy has as much appeal in this day and age as ever before – that we all clearly approve of the 17-year old woman’s resistance to the overt advances of an older male to whom she stands in an inferior position. I wonder silently how they will connect this scene and the male character’s later unwanted advances with the #MeToo movement. And I anticipate we all will enjoy seeing improvised role-playing where the tables are turned and what the scene might look like if a woman were in a position of power and a younger male or female were the object of emotional or physical abuse or harassment.


I need students’ help to understand such things; it keeps teaching literature FUN and INVOLVING!


I am passionate about learning not being confined within the classroom. I have enjoyed taking Pilates classes in recent months and learning with help of instructors and class members how to properly exercise, use equipment, and acquire better knowledge of anatomy/musculature. Now even on my independent hikes and bike rides I am aware of how to work out more wisely and safely. I am also learning how dancers think about their physical tools: I had known that actors see our bodies as tools for expression – but now I can appreciate dance in a way I had not before.


My passion for learning as “finding out, with help” aligns with Vygotsky theories of a proximal zone of development.


My ongoing passion in the language arts, then, is – to discover better ways to keep learners IN THE ZONE (I capitalize since there is a book on this topic by Nancie Atwell). How do readers and writers remain in the zone where they are able to do things ALMOST independently but still depend on another person to AID them? – to honor that fine line between challenge and frustration.     


Can you all – parents, learners, co-teachers, administrators, and co-leaders – please help me?

Photos: Top – Socratic seminar group – St John’s Salt Lake City Alumni Group; Bottom – students generated and led an activity using art to understand a concept. 



a little learning is a dangerous thing

I came upon this allusion to Alexander Pope in Jane Austen yesterday. She writes:

Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice [fastidious or scrupulous]. Birth and good manners are essential, but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company; on the contrary, it will do very well. My cousin Anne shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious.

In Persuasion, protagonist Anne listens to cousin Mr Elliot, and disagrees on this point. If I recall it properly, from freshman year at college, Pope’s Essay on Man declares it this way:

A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierean spring.

I stand corrected – checking my source, I see it does indeed come from Pope, but is found in “An Essay on Criticism”, the spring being the “metaphorical source of knowledge of art and science, according to Wikipedia.

I equated Anne’s listening to her cousin with my class reading, reading aloud, and  listening to Flannery O’Connor’s phrases this week “good country people” and “nice people”.  Like Anne, we hear the words but are uncertain how to judge them. Are they spoken ironically? Which characters are conscious of their own and others’ use of the terms as cant, or platitudes? I remember my instructor, “Lord” Grundt, telling “Clear your mind of cant” (another line from Pope, I believe).

For several days now, beginning when one student missed an assignment and offered to make it up, students have taken turns volunteering to lead class, with my support. Their decisions can frustrate me, but I proceed with the knowledge that they are taking small steps toward full self-directed learning and self-regulating.

It feels dangerous to me, as if perhaps these stories are too fragile, these students too delicate to read the best of short fiction without an experienced guide. I once had a friend who had led river raft trips in Utah and Colorado, and who explained that an experienced guide knows where all the rocks and currents are: navigating in June is very different from running the same rapids in August, as water levels change so much. What terrors might await us at the hands of an inexperienced pilot?

Well, so far this week we have survived the perils of two 45-minute classes and even the cataracts of a 90-minute block. Among the dangers well behind us are decisions about

  • how much time to spend on free reading
  • accountability
  • taking turns reading aloud
  • making sense of complex texts
  • discussions
  • analyzing diction

If I must me honest, no one fell out of the boat. Each leader had the opportunity to actually make decisions about how we spent our class time. Classmates all respected and responded to instructions given by the leader.

The class demonstrated that they were practicing self-directed learning and self-regulation.

I occasionally flourished and fluttered my reams of little notes, big notes, stacks of books, wildly and recklessly displaying my knowledge, preparation, willingness to bend over backward to assist if the ship went down, became worried that no Captain was there to steer them in a specific direction. I held my tongue until it was bruised.

In our case, a little learning was not a problem. We passed the dangers. I am pretty sure the students are better for it. As I listened to their conversations, circulating around the room, so many had picked up interesting insights about the characters and meaning of the stories. Certainly, I heard crazy interpretations and even one fascinating retelling, which I am pretty sure was a student embellishing a summary with many false details to see if his friends had actually read one of the sections for homework.

The morning felt relaxed, casual, yet businesslike. The uncomfortable knot I get in my stomach when we read a significant work of literature dissipated and I was able to enjoy the ride. 

Are you enjoying the ride today? 

Offer students more opportunities to take the helm. You may be in for the ride of your life.  





Gordon’s Tweets

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