Archive for the 'Dialogue' Category


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.  






run away! ! !

Yes, I am obsessed with, and keep returning to Monty Python.

As inspiration, as nostalgia, as poultice; as philosophy.

Thanks in no small part to the gift of the COMPLETE Python collection on DVD, courtesy of best friend and science educator extraordinaire, Susan Berrend. Beneath a shared love of British gardens, humor, and baking shows (and no small affection for Oxford commas and Anglican prayers) resides an even deeper shared commitment to pedagogy, an unwavering interest in discerning student needs and experimenting with new ways to meet those needs.

Which brings me to the force of my allusion to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. King Arthur and his knights are on a quest, but when nearing a treasure horde which may yield the coveted grail, they are frightened by a rampant rabbit.

avoidance strategy

This year I have seen students avoid reading. Some practice what Kelly Gallagher describes in Readicide – where students get assignments done without actually reading. This is ascribed to teacher expectations. One of my students, fascinated by problem-solving, is absolutely convinced that by dedicating time and energy to memorizing punctuation rules and grammar definitions she will inch her way forward and improve her standardized testing score.


running from or running toward?

Lest I forget that learning is social, and that literacy processes do not occur in a vacuum, these avoidance strategies serve to alert me to the motivating factors in my learners’ worlds.

One learner is driven to complete tasks as quickly as possible in order to move on to the social interactions they look forward to that day. Therefore they will do precisely what the teacher demands, in order to prove to their parent that their calendar is now open to schedule play dates and plan parties. My skill set allows me to integrate even those plans into journaling, research, organizing, and writing-to-learn; I can also involve cooking, makeup, and executive function lessons in authentic and meaningful ways.

For such a student, part of my challenge is to de-school the learner, who will benefit when they see learning as something one does for oneself, as opposed to what one does for others in authority. True, there are wonderful social benefits to the greater community when individuals grow intellectually and acquire wisdom; but one does not learn to love reading just to complete a checklist whose goal is to free one FROM reading.*

race to the finish

Today’s Preakness Stakes reminds me that other learners, like my prescriptive grammarian pupil, run headlong toward a clear goal they have set for themselves, which motivates them. Even if I do not understand the full enticements of these goals, I must acknowledge their power in putting a student in charge of her own learning.

My student can tell me how she learns best, what I should focus on, and how quickly she is improving; she can also relate which fall semester class she wants to qualify for, and how many minutes a day she will dedicate to this finish line. Now, I am no genius, but if you don’t like reading I am not sure why you would want to get into a course that expects you to do a ton of it. The challenge? Actually, I suspect that, like thoroughbreds, the air of competition somehow drives them to top performance.

Yet what role do I play as a democratic instructor who advocates for student voice and shared authority? As a trusted teacher and coach, I can offer advice and exercises that stretch the reader, inviting her take up a text and enjoy it.

I suspect that my I do not fully understand my influence at this time.

A couple of nights ago a school parent from the past recognized me at a concert, and made a point of telling me “Mr. Hultberg got me to like Shakespeare!” The parent also said that our production of King Lear made Shakespeare clear to them. This was poignant, since the performer on stage was Michael Bigelow, a jazz arranger and saxophonist, who had played Lear in that show, which I stage directed and Berrend tech directed.

I have also received a printed invitation to an upcoming ceremony at my current school, and I R.S.V.P.-ed in person to the preteen who had handed me the slip. She said, “I knew you would dress nice, because you always show … respect for people.”

At this moment I simply want to show my respect for the learning choices my students make, and to honor the freedom I claim to value.

When it is most important in their lives, I have to trust that my role as an engaged reader and lifelong learner will exert its due influence some day.

rabbit rampant

So the next time you are frightened by a rampant rabbit, or notice students running quicky in the opposite direction from which you wish to lead them, P A U S E. Remember that they are on a personal quest of their own, and nothing you can do will alter its course. Confide in your trusted friend as I do in mine; value your relationships with students and colleagues, knowing that others will be inspired by your commitment. Trust that what is most important to you – a garden, music – will not fail to exert its due influence in its time.

*Checklists: As I write this post, many of my students are actively engaged in reading ten books this summer in order to win free passes to the state fair!

Image at cited in

Degas painting public domain

Photo by GH pradlfan 5/17/2018


yesterday once more

When the emailed Groupon ad for Barry Manilow in Las Vegas at half price finally fell into my IN box, I wondered if there really might be something to this “algorithm” thing.

Did it know that I secretly hum Carpenters songs and “Could This Be The Magic?” as I ride my bike this spring?


I had the same nostalgic feeling this morning as I stumbled upon a remark about teaching the art of conversation. It recalled me to the sense of purpose and excitement I had first felt as I completed my bachelor’s degree in Speech and Communication Studies.

Nostalgia is a persuasive tool.

Classroom Conversation

In an essay on Slow Teaching, Mike Grenier of Eton College describes using educational research to inform good teaching. Not much of a surprise, but one detail hurled me back to the ‘eighties with all the force of a Barry Manilow anthem:

I vividly recall the evenings sitting on the floor of our instructor’s home, circled up, reporting back our observations from that afternoon’s Human Interactions class small group discussions. It was the charting and turning of such discussion into data, and analyzing that through conversation theory that sparked my classroom practice of recording book discussions in English class.

I developed new charting systems – replacing Symlog with Kathleen Andrasick’s Opening Texts seating chart, tracking the added element of time with Martin Nystrand’s Opening Dialogue, and coaching student co-leaders to monitor their own participants’ contributions employing Victor Mueller’s In The Block series (e.g. Socratic Seminar in The Block).

Slow Teacher

According to Grenier, there are 4 essential maxims for the Slow Teacher, first established by conversation theorist Grice:

1. Manner

maintaining the most helpful order and structure in what we say

2. Quality

truthfulness or accuracy

3. Quantity

when to lecture, to talk, to prompt, or in fact to say nothing

4. Relevance

sticking to the topic

I strive to be an effective slow teacher, but find myself hurrying to catch up to students who are scurrying away.

In my next post, I want to take a look at why they are running, and what they are hurrying toward.


best practice

The funniest play I have directed is the one-act “Sure Thing” by David Ives. Two strangers–a man and a woman–meet in a cafe, and the man make many choices that abruptly terminate the conversation. Each time, the conversation is punctuated by the ding of a bell, and resumes immediately from the beginning, a little like Groundhog Day. For instance, he asks “What are you reading?” and when she tells him, he says “never read it.”


“What are you reading?”

“War and Peace”

“Ah! Tolstoy.” And this time the conversation is allowed to continue its path.


When I wish that life were like art, I wish it worked like the conversations in this play. Take job interviews.

In January I was asked about my favorite author. “Charles Dickens.”

February, the interview got to the next stage, with a different cast.

Best book you’ve read all year? “Leo Strauss and The Problem of Political Philosophy“.


March. Favorite American author? “Truman Capote.”


Favorite historical period. “That’s easy. Victorian. Oh, and Regency. Uh, pretty much the whole Nineteenth Century. British.”


“And the Enlightenment.”


“O.K. Medieval and Renaissance. Chaucer, Shakespeare … Sorry, I can’t leave out Jane Austen. And then there’ Middlemarch, the best novel of all time. So, yeah, like I said – Victorian England. But the book is set 30 years before she writes it, see?



Once recently, I was practicing naming the best book of the year and why i thought so. I was on my bike, riding and riding, constructing a free response answer. Modifying, revising, editing. I tortured myself because I wanted honesty, but also depth.

My final answer: Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. Not too political, not too highbrow, a good solid literary hardboiled.

The next interview, though, they didn’t even ask.


I think the best practice for interviews is more interviews. I have been practicing a lot lately. I though one went really well a few months ago. I could work here. Before leaving I asked, “Hey, do you know Bob Smith?”


I saw Bob later that day, and he said he had been let go for refusing to post positive mentions of the American President on his Facebook page. A friend overheard us and said “That’s illegal”. Not in this state.


I have been practicing saying very little: keep it brief.

What do you know about [our organization]? “Oh, I know everything, are you kidding? First, there was — And then — After that you added — And then I come to the — [I continue telling all I know about the company – and I mean everything]”


A “DoNotReply” email expresses gratitude, “Applicant”, for my interest in their organization.


And then there is my favorite:

Do you have any questions for us?

“Do I!!??? I thrive on curiosity! Can I ask you …”

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

David Ives knew what he was doing.




we few, we happy few

I am on the road before dawn and arrive at the check-in area for background actors. It is still dark, and yellow signs installed with red blinkers have lit my way from the main road to the crew parking for the tv series shooting today.

Several of my Saturdays this year, and a handful of my weekdays off, I venture out to locations within an hour’s drive from home.

Once I arrive, I invariably recognize a face or three from similar jobs. We have very little to say to each other. A general rule of on-set silence is observed, and we feel a common bond in our adherence to it. Our fealty to the extras code unites us.

It is a bit of a nomadic life: we travel with a garment bag or suitcase stocked with possible costumes for the day, having been given a rough parameter a few hours earlier.

I have expanded my band of brothers today. I feel a strange connection with a “partner” driver who I passed or who passed me countless times, wordlessly, always staring directly ahead. Our eyes are fixed either on the road in front of us or on the Production Assistant who cues us to drive. We have been hired because our cars are needed today.

It feels like a slow-motion game of “chicken”, each of us parked at opposite ends of a blocked-off city street which is made up to resemble a main street in Anytown, USA. We drive toward each other at a rate of between 8 and 10 miles per hour, reach the terminus of the set, designated by a local police vehicle, execute a three-point turn and repeat the process.

My driver double and I are bound by more than a repetitive task; we are linked mutely by walkie-talkies that have been assigned us to carry in our cars. We hear “stand by; SETtle; rollPLEASE, rolling . . . and BACKground” . . . “CUTting, going again”.

It wouldn’t be any great transgression if we were to strike up a conversation once out of our vehicles and in the green room again. (Less glamorously called “Holding”)

It would feel a little like the fraternity established a few days ago at the public library when an older gent stood near my stack of books, head tilted, and smiling as though he had a thought he wished to share. I invited his comment — and was regaled for maybe twenty minutes by a hail of memories about Louis L’Amour, a paperback of whose was the topmost title on my stack, which also included a treatise on translation, a french novel about Melville, and a Freudian treatmenr of Hard-Boiled detective novelists. It would feel, that is, that we have some bond that is worth more the less said about it. My grandpa read L’Amour. This man had read everything by and been to the places where.

The classroom, the library, the green room. All are places where relationships are cultivated. I can recall my first green room at thirteen where adult actors played cards at a card table while waiting for their scenes. Waiting backstage is another form of silent communion: you want to listen to the moments of a show going on before the curtain, while you are behind it–audiences breathing, laughing, clapping; fellow actors singing, going up, recovering. A silence unites us. In a library one finds commonality in books, reading, and enjoyment of the written word. It may be now that libraries feed our need for warmth, for connectivity, and for lectures and programs that bring together a community. But a classroom is still deciding what kind of relationship it offers, what its adherents serve, and if its value is worthy of our fealty.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

There is the Mr. Chips type of silence demanded of a class by a respected teacher (though not always given). Then there is the beautiful sound of rustling pages and occasional whispers heard during a free reading period when kids are encouraged to share what’s going on in their favorite books. There are the gut-wrenching words “O Captain, my Captain” issuing from a high schooler’s lips on a day when I wondered why I was in the teaching profession. I might call these the useless sounds of school, after Dylan Thomas’s ironic description of “useful presents”. Adults value these, officially.

And then there are the useless sounds – which receive very little ink. This week I heard: the sound of pillows slapping against skin during a pillow fight, the smack of muddy shoes on the tile floor after being outdoors, an English Language Learner asking for my help writing a song and singing it to a new student after practicing, a twelve-year-old explaining the new ukelele chords he is learning, and students of various ages playing animals after creating and drawing their characters with the encouragement of an older yet new student. Useless, hard to test, impractical in adult worlds: but filled with value.

Play-based learning and free self-directed activity can unite school children much as theater, plays, and music have formed the basis of many relationships in my life.

It is almost as if everyone could do with a turn behind the wheel in the land of make-believe. Driving on a street past imaginary store-fronts rigged up just for the day, listening not to a radio station but to a faceless voice in the cupholder telling you when to go; there is no purpose for your journey, and the GPS would have no success in giving you directions, since you literally drive a block, turn around, and drive the opposite direction until the voice says “Cut”.

But even this gesture, as if in imitation of life and prayer, bears the shape of a holy communion. Even now, as my fingers slip over these keys, and I pause to glance up, what do I see but twenty-five background extras – teens, parents – seated in a nondescript meeting room on a Saturday which is clearly used as a chapel come Sunday? A podium, a keyboard, chairs facing a carpeted altar, on which a father relaxes in a beach chair on his cell phone, flanked by two sons sitting behind him to the left and right on the raised rug. We might all be in prayer given that most eyes are lowered to handheld devices, a few to laptops, a few to math books and a James Dashner novel.

If I sometimes have a hard time separating make-believe from prayer, it is probably because I have had many sacred moments in spaces we occupy when doing music, the arts, and education. The silent half hour before classes resume every morning, when you just might share a cup of coffee and some “down time” with a fellow teacher; the unspoken trust when building a set and two or more pairs of hands engage with tools, wood; reading a student journal or personal essay that goes to the heart of a matter. It isn’t necessarily dead silence that accompanies these moments, but rather that one-way communication is enough…or eye contact and signing says it all. The walkie-talkie of course had a button for talking – but neither of us used it. We were eavesdropping on the communication between production crew all day. Waiting.

In a way I suppose we are still waiting.

I turned my radio off at the end of the day. I gathered up my belongings as a pair of set dressers took down the deli menu and window dressing in silent cooperation. I turned my radio in at the end of the day. But I didn’t surrender that part of myself that was attuned to critical language, the crackle of static, the turn signal on the road, or the quiet voice inside me that felt slightly tethered to my driving double, as I saw her car pull past me after dark while I walked into the night. All of us transporting back to warmly lit real homes after a day of make-believe. And in sleep, too, I listen. In waking, what do I hear? In rising, what signs do I look for that the coming day will have sun, light, friends, joy, and a little magic in it?


[Images: Sacred image of L. Olivier as King Henry V in the Crispin speech from his 1945 film. Courtesy archbishop-cranmer.blogspot]



My first P.D. James mystery was received as a Christmas gift from my grandmother, Hazel. I had been in an Agatha Christie phase, begun in eighth grade just prior to the release of the classic Albert Finney treatment of Murder on the Orient Express, and had kept a list of every title I read. Getty Images/Bettman

I had visited the local library and copied out a complete chronological listing of Christie’s Poirot stories, plays, and collections, with alternate American titles. At the time, before the release of Curtain, everything fit onto a single college ruled sheet of binder paper. I checked off each title as I read it, and added second or third checks whenever I reread a book.

Grandma’s gift was my first taste of a police procedural genre, which eventually dominated my crime novel intake. I had dabbled in Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner series, especially intrigued by the fanciful idea that one, two, or even three writers might generate and continue a series with a famous detective, leaving some question for future audiences about whether they were getting the real thing.

Certainly my earlier addiction to the Hardy Boys series had taught me that Franklin W. Dixon became a stand-in for any number of writers and adapters who refused to let Frank, Joe, and Chet remain in a universe of “retorts” and “jalopies” and “roadsters”. Grosset and Dunlap


Now I am in a further phase in my reading, having toured the ouevres of Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, and John Sandford. But when new mystery series are exhausted, I return home to old reliable authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and P.D. James. While there are elements of mystery in the Regency and Victorian novelists just named, such as who Frank Churchill really loves, or who stabs Tulkinghorn; it is James who truly makes herself at home in the mystery genre yet turns it into an opportunity to explore the psychological drama of dramatis personae.

I am surprised at my own curiosity about these specific fictional worlds of Austen and James. I feel something drawing me to learn more about the specific characters that populate Austen’s novels, and the real lives that inspired their creator. And just now, as I reread Death Comes to Pemberley, I trust P.D. James to investigate and unravel the skeins of interwoven lives, of author and fiction, and of women then and women now.

I do enjoy an effective mystery set in the worlds of established writers: I am in the middle of well-done books involving Charley Field, the real life inspiration for Bleak House‘s Inspector Bucket, and Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, main characters from Middlemarch.

Yet much as I am still activated to seek out and devour the works of George Eliot (Marian Evans) and Charles Dickens, I fall once more into P.D. James’s hands. Austen is a subtle writer; she has left far more unsaid than either Evans or Dickens. Somehow I believe James wants to excavate the motivations, to pen the previously unspoken thoughts and feelings running underneath the words on Jane’s pages.

What I am seeking further is a handle on Jane’s view of education. I have become convinced over the past year that Jane Austen saw and felt both the injustices of an education system that favored boys, and the benefits of instruction that prepared one for life. Education included: habits and associations, combined with a young person’s nature and talents, to form understanding and character. I also rely on Jane, Dickens, and Evans to suggest and reveal ideas about schooling through their idiosyncratic use of literary devices. One might say I have been “investigating a case” of my own.

the usual suspects

Naturally I have traced the movements of the usual suspects — governesses, pedants, remarks directly made about reading, and character names such as M’Choakumchild. But I also find that “improvements” assumed to be part and parcel of one’s learning are echoed, intimated, and foreshadowed through upgrades to landscape. Mild conflicts which arise over the meaning of an apparently flowing style of a handwritten letter, or over the destruction of an old avenue of trees to make room for a new one, may do much to reveal, suggest, or amplify the internal conflicts in Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. Ultimately my fascination today is with the faćade of gentility we erect and cling to through a misplaced idea of “civility”, when underneath we want to scratch another’s eyes out.

I am indebted to Grandma Hazel for putting me on to P.D. James; I am curious what she will unearth on this tour of Pemberley about the human tendency to sicklie o’er a native hue of resolution with the pale cast of thought.

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