Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading Reflections: Carr's THE SHALLOWS #1

This general series contains personal reflections on my current reading.  

Having recently started Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010), I offer some initial thoughts, several of which came up at this morning's (delicious quiche) breakfast with my wife, brother and sister-in-law. 

The cover of a teacher monthly--I think it was called TEACHER MAGAZINE--maybe twenty years ago or so, featured a sturdy young Marlboro man of a teacher (in jeans and a t-shirt) standing in a desert.  Knee-high sage brush dotted the sandy floor. The camera angle made the man loom large, with the desert vista stretching behind him.  At his feet sat a tiny Mac Plus, tilted slightly to one side as if disoriented or tired.  The He-Man teacher showed viewers that he was in charge--man and his chosen tool.  He would decide how and when to use this machine.

Four years ago, our faculty held a week-long summer institute focused on technology. Our discussions produced the consensus that we best serve students by reminding them that "technology" means "tool," and that we all should develop the habit of first asking what we want to do.  Then, we choose the tools that suit the purpose.

In Carr's opening chapters, he appreciates this popular conviction that we are the tool-users, but he introduces the core of his apparent thesis:  the tools themselves use us.  In other words, they change us.  Specifically, the internet changes how we think, not just what we think.

Our family breakfast discussion touched on social-networking tools, like Facebook.  I think we agreed that such tools are training teenagers (and their brains) to move away from empathy at an important stage in their development.  The appearance of anonymity or distance, among other features, lures them into "communicating" without understanding the receiver.  The technology itself produces the effect.  In the opening chapters, Carr has not addressed this social networking topic, but his main idea seems related insofar as empathy presumes depth and his title is The Shallows.

At the breakfast table, I could not help but put in a plug for reading literature because as teenagers move outside themselves, literature helps them develop skills of empathy by inviting them to imagine other people's lives.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Language Study #6: enjoy writing

Ideally, students learn to enjoy the satisfactions of composing and comprehending.

Satisfaction takes time; digestion proceeds across minutes, hours or days.  For students to experience satisfaction in composing or comprehending, they need time to feel it.  Recognition of accomplishment plays an equally important role in this process.  Teachers promote this satisfaction by giving students time to compose, alongside the burgeoning ability to recognize accomplishment.  These are quiet joys, internal joys amid today's spectacularly visual and electronic culture.  [Ed. note, I wrote the first pieces of this series eight years ago, but have chosen to keep their original wording.]  In terms of composition, students can feel satisfaction, for example, at overcoming an obstacle.  How will they begin a letter, essay or poem?  How will they find a word or sentence that says what they want, that, according to Tolstoi, infects the audience with the writer's feeling?  In terms of comprehension, students can feel satisfaction, for example, when detecting a pattern.  While reading The Age of Innocence recently, I was made impatient by the narrator.  I began to think Wharton was cheating me with her omniscient narrator.  From the beginning, again influenced by Tolstoi's What is Art?, I asked which character Wharton cares about.  She sides with no one, except perhaps Countess Oleska.  Her criticism runs so close to anger that she exploits the narrator.  She uses it as her own personal tool.  As a result, moments of Archer's thoughts in the narration ring less true.  I enjoy comprehending the story to this degree, and wish similar enjoyment for students.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Conducting Class.Series Introduction

In this series, I reflect on the dynamics of the learning environment's basic unit, the class.  Several years ago colleagues and I created a template for classroom observations.  The topics in this series come from that template.  I chose the series title, "Conducting Class," because it reminds me of an orchestra conductor.  I like to think of groups, like students or faculty, as playing their individual instruments in service of the whole song.  I thought of calling the series "The Learning Environment," but wanted to focus the writing more than that.  I can still refer to the general idea of a complete environment, while using the musical analogy to focus on specific dynamics of a class (lesson) and the location in which the learning takes place.

In keeping with the musical theme, the term Opus (Op.) will refer to a general category, with its own introduction.  Under that introduction, I will use the term Number (No.) for reflections on specific dynamics within that category.  For example, the initial post in this series will introduce the first general topic: "Conducting Class Op.1: Engaging Students."  That will be followed by "Conducting Class Op.1 No.1: students aware of task," "Conducting Class Op.1 No.2: students are engaged," and so on.

n.b.  As I develop a new series in this blog, I imagine a primary audience.  In this case, for example, as a more experienced (not better, juts more experienced) classroom teacher, I imagine those of you who have come to the profession more recently.  I hope that some of these posts give you fuel for developing and enjoying your work with students and colleagues.  You are the primary audience I imagine, but, at the very same time, I imagine others like myself who can use these pieces to continue reflecting on our practice.  The river can run deeper, if we allow that to happen.  When I left the school where I began full-time teaching, people asked my why I was leaving.  I said my rate of growth was slowing.  I still believe that we can keep growing in our jobs.  Not only is this growth energizing and productive, but also we have a responsibility to keep remembering what growth feels like first-hand, since we ask students to experience this, too.  It is fun and fair, therefore, for experienced teachers to regularly reach and reflect.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Literature and History in Stegner's ANGLE OF REPOSE

As noted in the post about ancient Celtic Culture (01 July 2010), I will be exploring the relationships between literature and history.  Since I began teaching Humanities six years ago at a brand new high school (The BAY School of San Francisco), I have been challenged and intrigued by these relationships.  Hired as a Humanities teacher with primary experience in literature, I have had to identify, for myself and colleagues, the core benefits of studying imaginative literature.  What distinct gifts come from this study?  What do poetry, drama and fiction bring to the table--for example, when studying modern China, ancient India, Renaissance England or the contemporary Americas?  These posts help me articulate what I am coming to see as the enduring values of the literary experience.

As also noted in the recent Celtic post, sometimes literature and history overlap--as with the master-poets who served as historians.  Even with the overlap, the differences seem worth exploring.  I have enjoyed what my new teaching assignment has shown me, and the challenge has sharpened and deepened my appreciation for the primary values of imaginative literature.

With these comments as preface, I offer an excerpt from Wallace Stegner's novel, Angle of Repose, for which he won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize.  If you have read the novel, you know that Lyman, the narrator, imagines the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward.  At the same time that he is working on this writing project about the past, he has present-day encounters with his son, Rodman, who helps care for his wheelchair-bound father.  In the father-son discussion about Lyman's work, some of Lyman's distinctions emerge.  For example, where one finds primary meaning figures in his definitions.

Here is the brief exchange, which occurs about half way through the novel.  Throughout the novel,  Lyman fights what he sees as Rodman's history-deprived need for "zing."  (As in earlier posts, I have used bold font to emphasize certain ideas.)
      "I'm not going to put any of that [information about Lyman's grandfather's Deadwood days] in," I say.
     "You're not?  Why not?  You know all about it.  You're writing a book about Western history.  Why leave out the colorful stuff?"
     "I'm not writing a book of Western history," I tell him.  "I've written enough history books to know this isn't one.  I'm writing about something else.  A marriage, I guess.  Deadwood was just a blank space in the marriage.  Why waste time on it?
     Rodman is surprised.  So am I, actually--I have never formulated precisely what it is I have been doing, but the minute I say it I know I have said it right.  What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in.  What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.  That's where the interest is.  That's where the meaning will be if I find any.

Stegner, Wallace.  Angle of Repose.  Doubleday, 1971. Penguin, 1992. 211.

Picture.Student Writers # 1: Invite your audience


 First in a series of architectural analogies meant to help student writers. 
  Walk my neighborhood, as I do daily with our dog, Sybil, and you will see a variety of interesting buildings.  The photographs in this series help me remember some basic principles of successful writing. 


Invite your audience.
I like this doorstep because of the two pots of purple flowers, the strength of the purple against the gray steps, and the clean lines of the whole entryway.  This house elegantly invites my eyes up the stairs to the arch at the top.  For example, since the pots sit against the house rather than on the street-side ledge, my eyes move from left to right--from unadorned to adorned ledge.  Simplicity also plays a role.  These steps have just two pots, and that's it.  This simplicity, in turn, establishes contrast between the gray steps and purple flowers. (Incidentally, the plant's leaves are dark purple.)  Finally, whoever painted these steps did a careful job.  The painter has applied the paint evenly, without any stray swatches or splatters.  The resulting clean lines complete the inviting nature of this entrance.

In writing, carefully paint the entrance to your story, poem or essay.  Invite your readers by giving them something to look at--something towards which their eyes will naturally move.  Start simply, with clear lines.  A cluttered stairway haphazardly composed may send them down the street looking for a more inviting entrance.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Literature and History in ancient Celtic culture

Woven into the fabric of the following passage from Alwyn and Brinley Rees's book, Celtic Heritage, is an idea I first explored in an earlier post (Literature and History, 26 March 2010) and will likely keep addressing in order to assay the validity and value of this distinction:  what literature does best and most distinctly among the written genres is evoke for us another world in which we can empathize with the people who inhabit it. Literature brings that world alive for us, re-creates it in us, and through that experience we enlarge our selves and enable connections between those selves and others.  Whereas history helps explain these other worlds, literature finds artistic ways to embody or enact them.

In the following passage, note the part in bold.  Ancient Celtic story-telling masters carried audiences with them into the world they were re-creating, re-inhabiting.  As an aside, I cannot help but also notice the legal status enjoyed by these master-poets.  In the West we no longer have kings as did the ancient Celts, but wouldn't it be nice, and smart, to elevate master-poets in a modern fashion.  We have made a mild start with poets at Presidential inauguration ceremonies and the naming of national Poets Laureate.  Thank you, Kay Ryan, and congratulations, W.S. Merwin.  
For a brief commentary on Merwin's path, see Drew Brachter's "Capital Comment Blog" (01 July 2010).  For fuller treatment, see the always-rich Poetry Foundation site (William Stanley Merwin).

There is evidence from the Celtic countries and from India that the poets were also the official historians and the royal genealogists.  The poet's praises confirmed and sustained the king in his kingship, while his satire could blast both the king and his kingdom.  There was a tradition that the learned poets (filid) of Ireland were once judges.  They were certainly the experts on the prerogatives and duties of the kings, and a master-poet (ollam) was himself equal to a king before the law.  Such priestly functions as divination and prophecy also came within the province of these early Irish poets who, it may be added, wore cloaks of bird-feathers as do the shamans of Siberia when, through ritual and trance, they conduct their audiences on journeys to another world.  It was the initiates with this power and authority who had the custody of the original tales, and they recited them on auspicious occasions, even as the priests of other religions recite the scriptures.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley.  Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 1961. reprinted 1991. 17.