Radical Love

love photo
Photo by duncan

My thoughts in this blog post are incomplete, as I am still trying to figure out how to articulate what I am feeling about teaching in our current climate. I finished reading both Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and James Baldwin’s  The Fire Next Time this week. Thinking about the implications for the future of education and for our country (and perhaps even the world) as a whole, I have realized that what we need in this political moment is radical love.

My AP Literature students just finished King Lear. I’m in the midst of reading papers. I actually assign them to write a “rumination paper.” I learned about these types of essays while at the Kenyon Writing Workshop for Teachers. It is part literary analysis and part personal narrative—an excellent way for students to connect with the literature they are reading. At least one of my students wrote about her admiration for Cordelia for refusing to flatter Lear in Act I, Scene 1, when she tells him she loves him “according to [her] bond, no more, no less” (1.1.102). The student sees Cordelia as speaking truth to power. She knows how her sisters feel about her father, and she is unable to lie as they do. She doesn’t see love as a business transaction. After Cordelia dies, Lear is inconsolable and can barely speak:

No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou ’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never. (5.3.369-72)

Lear does not say “I loved her.” But that is what he means. In her essay, my student connected Cordelia’s response to her father’s request to flatter him with her own response to a friend who lashed out against NFL players “disrespecting our flag.” Speaking up has cost my student her friendship, but she had to speak up, just as Cordelia did. Cordelia wavers for a moment, wondering what she will say when her father calls upon her to speak, but when he does, she stands firm, even in the face of his unfair treatment. When he gives her a chance to “mend [her] speech a little,” she refuses to retract her words (1.1.103). However, by the end of the play, Lear realizes he has wronged Cordelia and ask for her forgiveness, which she gives freely. It is an act of radical love for Cordelia to deal honestly with her father. It is an act of radical love for my student to help her friend understand why NFL players are taking a knee.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues that

The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. (50)

Later in the text, Freire says, “If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue” (90). He adds that dialogue cannot exist without humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking (91-92). Freire says that “love is an act of courage, not of fear” and “love is commitment to others” (89).

Baldwin tells his nephew in The Fire Next Time that “To be loved, baby, hard, and at once, and forever” will “strengthen [him] against the loveless world” (7). However, the problem we encounter is that “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believe as we did” (40).

I don’t understand a great deal of the hatred I have seen since the election. We have slipped into loving only those who believe as we do, and we have lost our way. If we are truly to understand one another, we have to engage in dialogue with them. And as Freire says, we cannot have dialogue without empathy and love.

This lack of love leads to oppression, as Freire and Baldwin describe in their books. However, oppression enslaves not just the oppressed but also the oppressor. As Baldwin says, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself” (83). Freire echoes this argument in claiming that in freeing themselves, the oppressed also “can free their oppressors” (56). Hating others is a way of imprisoning one’s self. One of the reasons we are seeing so much hatred and so much lack of understanding is that we as teachers we are still subscribing to what Freire describes as the “banking model” of education in which treat students like “‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher” (72) rather than asking students to “investigate their thinking” (109) and teaching them to think for themselves and to listen to others, acknowledging that they may think differently, but that we can still engage in dialogue and try to understand each other. It’s perhaps the only way forward in our current moment.

Reading these two books back to back helped me understand why we are where we are—as educators, as citizens, as fellow human beings. Fear dominates our landscape. We are afraid of a group of people—any group you might consider the “other”—moving out of their “place.” As Freire says, “For the oppressors, ‘human beings’ refers only to themselves; other people are ‘things.’ For the oppressors, there exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right, not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival” (57-58). We feel threatened by so many things at this moment: immigrants, people of other races, people of other religions, people with other political views, people of other genders, people of other sexual orientations. We find it impossible to enter into dialogue with others because we find it impossible to love them. We are so preoccupied with hating others that we are unable to view them as fellow human beings. I’m convinced that almost all the violence we perpetrate against others, whether physical or mental, is the result of not being able to view others as fully human, like ourselves. When we do not empathize with others, it’s much easier to hurt them. And in dehumanizing others, we dehumanize ourselves.

I wonder sometimes if we are in the last gasp of clinging to our fears and hatred before we embrace others in dialogue. I hope so. I’m not sure I believe it is so. Unlike Robert Frost, I’m afraid that ice might be quite a lot more dangerous than fire. As educators, then, we need to embrace radical love. Baldwin says that “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (95). We need to accept others as they are and meet them where they are. We need to love ourselves as we are. We need to talk with others so that we can understand them. We need to listen to them. We need to be open to each other. We need to love each other.

Now is not a time for teachers to be fainthearted. I know I’m afraid. It’s a difficult time to be an educator. In particular, it’s a difficult time for any educator who is taking risks that our test-driven culture does not cultivate or encourage. However, if we are to teach the next generation how to save the world, we need to be radical. As Freire says,”The pedagogy of the oppressed… is a task for radicals” (39). And we need to practice radical love.

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Learning for Life

My Students

This picture shows three special groups of students. In the frame in the upper left is my last group of advisees at the Weber School before I moved away from Georgia to Massachusetts. They took this picture of themselves at the Winter Formal and framed it for me as a going-away gift. These students graduated two years after I left—Class of 2014. They were such a good group that my colleague Nicki Brite claimed them all for advisory before my last school year had ended. They are sophomores in this picture.

On the bottom are my first group of advisees at Worcester Academy. This crew graduated in 2016, and two of them were my advisees for all four years of high school. I picked up the rest in sophomore, junior, or senior year. They were a lively group. This is their senior picture, and they are wearing their college tee-shirts. My current advisees at Worcester Academy are sophomores this year.

The students on the right are standing in front of Walden Pond. Many of these students were in my class for as many as three years, and I think most of them had my class for at least two years. They are sophomores in this particular picture. At the Weber School, American Literature was a sophomore English class, and most of these students also took my Writing Seminar class as well. We knew each other well. They made this picture because we studied Thoreau in class, and I could not be there with them to experience Walden. They graduated in 2009. I was close to these students. Many of them connect with me on Facebook or Twitter. One of them tweeted this response to my last blog post.

His comment moved me incredibly, but if I’m honest, he didn’t have the teacher I describe in that blog post. I was in a different place when I taught him and his peers, and I learned a lot in the years that followed. Issues of conscience and social justice are much more important to me now. Student agency is far more important to me now. Students have more voice and more choices in my classroom in 2017 than they did in 2007. Yet this student’s comment is evidence of one of my core beliefs. Over time, we will probably forget the mechanics of how to format a paper according to MLA guidelines, what a participle is, or what the red hunting hat symbolizes. What we don’t forget is how our teachers make us feel. If we knew they loved us and we loved them back, we remember their classes fondly. And we certainly remember how they helped us grow in the most crucial ways: becoming critical readers and thinkers, effective communicators, and lifelong learners.

As department chairs at Worcester Academy, we recently read an article called “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows” by Erik Palmer in the March 2016 issue of Educational Leadership. You need to be an ASCD member to view the article at the link. What Palmer argues in the article is that what we think about years after we graduate are the things we wish we had been taught. As Palmer reminds us in the article, we are preparing our students for their futures. It’s a moving target. However, we do know that students are going to need to be critical researchers (especially using the internet well), they will need to be media literate and make logical arguments, they will need to be able to speak and listen, and they will need to be good critical thinkers. None of this is new. As Palmer points out in his conclusion, “Argument, rhetoric, and oral communication have been important since ancient Greece” (22).

Thinking about how my approach to teaching has changed, I am curious: What do my students wish they had learned in my class?

Stay tuned. I just asked my students. I’ll let you know what they have to say.

What about you? What do you wish you’d learned in school?

Citation: Palmer, Erik. “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows.” Educational Leadership, vol. 73, no. 6, Mar. 2016, pp. 18-22.

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Slice of Life: Somewhere in America

power fist photo

I learned something really interesting about myself this week at the New England Association of Teachers of English annual conference. Sometimes we miss out on interesting educational theory tools after we’re in the classroom (which is a pity). However, I’m not sure that’s a good excuse for me because in this case, I’m pretty sure these theories have been around for a while. Developed by Michael Stephen Schiro in his book Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns, the Curriculum Ideologies Inventory is a tool you can use to determine how you approach the curriculum. There are four different ideologies he discusses:

  • The Scholar Academic believes a “teacher’s job is to transmit information deemed to be important by the academic discipline.”
  • The Learner-Centered teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to see children as individuals and provide opportunities for them to make meaning of their own experiences.”
  • The Social Efficiency teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to prepare students with skills they will need in the future to be productive members of society.”
  • The Social Reconstructionist teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to push students to interpret the past, present, and future in order to reconstruct and create a more just world.”

This tool may not be new to you, but I hadn’t seen it before. I was a little bit surprised by my results, but not entirely. I scored highest, uniformly and without a single deviation, as a Social Reconstructionist teacher, meaning issues of social justice are at the forefront of what I do in the classroom.

I found this interesting paragraph at Oregon State’s Philosophical Perspectives in Education:

Social reconstructionism is a philosophy that emphasizes the addressing of social questions and a quest to create a better society and worldwide democracy. Reconstructionist educators focus on a curriculum that highlights social reform as the aim of education. Theodore Brameld (1904-1987) was the founder of social reconstructionism, in reaction against the realities of World War II. He recognized the potential for either human annihilation through technology and human cruelty or the capacity to create a beneficent society using technology and human compassion. George Counts (1889-1974) recognized that education was the means of preparing people for creating this new social order.

You can also read more about this philosophy here.

As a beginning teacher, I can’t say I had enough models of this kind of philosophy, so it took me some time to develop my approach to teaching, but if I examine which books I read in my early education courses that spoke most to me, it’s obvious I was always thinking along these lines: Dewey’s Experience & Education, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Trillin’s An Education in Georgia.

Quite possibly anyone who has examined my American literature curriculum is unsurprised by this result. My colleagues at work certainly affirmed it sounded like me. One of the reasons I threw out chronological teaching of American literature is that I wanted to focus on social justice, and all the themes and essential questions I created for that course tied back to ideas about social justice, from starting with Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” and reading the voices of Americans to understanding the pervasiveness of the American Dream and who gets cut out of achieving it with The Great Gatsby. If I were teaching American literature this year, you can bet my students would be writing about the NFL controversy around “Taking a Knee” in connection with Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the writings of MLK and John Lewis.

Time to admit something. I haven’t actually read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Yet. I just ordered it. I feel ready to embrace my identity as a Social Reconstructionist now that I know I am one. Might also be time to dust off my Dewey. No wonder Henry David Thoreau is one of my most important teachers.

Which leads me to a final thought. If these young women were my students, I would have felt I had been a successful teacher.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Tips for Presenters at Education Conferences

advice photo
Photo by Got Credit

I’ve been doing some thinking about things I wish I had known the first time I presented at an educational conference as well as things I observe as I continue to enjoy and learn from the presentations of others at conferences. If you are presenting at an educational conference or to teachers in general, it’s worth considering the following ten tips.

  1. Share your slide deck.
    Google Slides and SlideShare make this so easy. URL shorteners make it even easier to send a quick link at the beginning of your presentation and on social media. You can try services such as Bitly, Tiny.cc, Tinyurl, and Google URL Shortener. These services are all free. In some cases, you can customize the link in the URL shortener you use. We are in 2017, and there is no longer any excuse not to share your slide deck, presentation packets, and other materials online. People who attend your presentation will be grateful, and you will make it much easier for them to implement your ideas when they go back to their schools. Many conferences offer shared folders or sites where you can upload your materials, but it’s not enough, and it’s especially not enough if you don’t do it in advance. If I can’t access your materials when I’m in your presentation, I am not likely to go back later and try. I find it frustrating when people do not share their materials, and it contributes more than anything else to a negative experience in a conference session. On the other hand, when presenters share at the beginning, I’m really happy and I engage right away because I know I will have a tangible takeaway I can look at later, and I don’t have to furiously try to capture everything in my bad handwriting that I can’t read later.
  2. Practice with your technology and equipment.
    Make sure everything works. Test the sound. Test your dongle before you leave for the conference and make sure you can project. Run through your slides and make sure everything works. Test links. Make sure you have set up proper viewing permissions in advance. Most conferences will have a few people helping with technology needs, but in all honesty, these folks are often running all over a large convention center, and there are never enough volunteers for this job. You really can’t rely on technology help when you present. It’s best if you can troubleshoot and resolve your own issues if possible.
  3. Bring any special equipment you will need.
    It’s probably safe to rely on the conference runners to provide a projector and microphone (if the room is big enough), but make sure you check that projectors and mics will be provided if you need them. If you need a dongle to connect to a VGA cable, make sure you bring it. Make sure it works. Bring a backup dongle if possible, as these cables are particularly fragile, for some reason, and even new ones can break fairly easily. If you have a newer Mac without the Thunderbolt 2 port that connects a dongle to a VGA cable, make sure you bring a dongle that connects to the new USB C ports because no one will have a backup dongle you can borrow. Trust me on this. Bring speakers if you need them, and make sure they work for the size room you are in. If you aren’t sure of the size, it might be worth it to invest in a nice Bose mini-speaker if you present (or anticipate presenting) often. Most conference rooms still don’t seem to be wired for sound. Make sure you bring materials you need. If you are displaying an iPad or other tablet, make sure you have a dongle for a projector; I have never seen an Apple TV or similar mirroring tool at any educational conference I’ve gone to, not even technology conferences. If you want a clicker to switch through slides, bring one. Most education conferences provide very little beyond a room, a projector, and a mic, so if you need anything else at all, you should plan to bring it. If you are not sure what the conference provides, and you haven’t had communication regarding what to bring, don’t hesitate to ask someone if you are at all unsure about what to bring.
  4. Make sure your slide deck is easy to see.
    If possible, test it for the person in the back of the room and make sure everything on the slide deck is visible. Avoid using dark backgrounds, which are particularly hard to see on projectors that are not bright. There are some really cool templates with dark backgrounds, but they are just hard to see in a presentation setting. Also, think about the readability of the fonts you use. Make sure they contrast well with your background and are bold, print fonts. Avoid fonts that are difficult to read. Don’t pack your slides with a lot of text. It’s better to break information down into more slides than to put too much on a single slide. Avoid putting information on the bottom of the slide, as sometimes room setups make it difficult to see the bottom of third or so the presentation.
  5. Use a professional-looking design for your slide deck.
    Templates are absolutely fine, but make sure you avoid unprofessional looking color schemes and fonts. (Comic Sans, I’m looking at you!) Use backgrounds and images that are eye-catching. There is a lot of great advice out there for design elements. Research best practices for designing presentations.
  6. Avoid relying on conference wifi for any part of your presentation.
    While it’s a good idea to make your presentation available online, conference wifi is still (in 2017!) sometimes spotty. You can download Google Slide presentations as PowerPoints, and anything you upload to SlideShare probably started as a PowerPoint, a Keynote, or another presentation tool. Download any videos you will be playing. YouTube is notorious for buffering right when you most need it to play smoothly. While you might have the capability of pairing your laptop or other device with your phone in order to have internet access, you should make sure anything you need to access online is available to use. It’s easy to get flustered when your videos won’t play or your slide deck won’t load, so save yourself some stress and make sure you have a backup plan if the wifi isn’t working well.
  7. Keep an eye on the time.
    In many cases, you have a limited amount of time, and if you go over, you may affect other speakers’ ability to share their presentations. Know how much time you have. If you are not sure, ask. Stick to the time you’ve been allotted. When you are practicing your presentation, time yourself. Adjust on the fly when you do interactive activities. Sometimes it’s hard to predict how long activities and parts of your presentation will take. If you consider time well in advance, you will be prepared to make adjustments that don’t compromise the most important things you want to share.
  8. Give people time to talk and reflect if you can.
    Sometimes time is really tight. I have learned that I really enjoy sessions when I can think about the material through writing or discussion with other participants. More and more often, conference presentations that do not include elements of interactivity or audience participation or reflection are rejected because participants are asking for opportunities to be involved and to reflect on their learning.
  9. Leave time for questions.
    People will want to ask you questions or at least share a few ideas, so make sure you give them a platform and time to do so. Sometimes, participants think of wrinkles or problems that we didn’t, and it can be helpful to brainstorm these issues with them and come up with solutions if you can.
  10. Share your contact information.
    I very rarely contact people after attending their presentations, but I have done so sometimes, and it’s so helpful if you prominently display ways to get in touch. I usually share my email, my Twitter handle, and my website link. I think I could count on one hand the number of times people have actually contacted me, but I like to leave that door open because as a participant, I would want that information. I often do follow people on Twitter after particularly enjoying their presentations.

What would you add to the list?

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Slice of Life: Visiting a Friend

On the spur of the moment Sunday, I decided to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, about 45 minutes away from where I live. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was hoping to see the leaves. This weekend will be too busy, and before long, it will be cold up here in Massachusetts. I took my son and daughter. We walked all the way around Walden Pond.

Dylan walking
My son marching to the beat of his own drummer

The trees are indeed beginning to change color, but they are still pretty green because we had a warm spell in September and early October, and I think it confused the leaves.

Walden

We visited the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood, and my kids indulged my request to pose.

Thoreau's Cabin Site

It is quite a small space, which I suppose was the point, but I think Maggie, in particular, was surprised to learn Thoreau lived in a cabin only a little larger than her bedroom.

There is a marker where Thoreau’s chimney foundation was.

Thoreau's Chimney Marker

But perhaps most striking, next to the site of the cabin is this large cairn and sign.

Cairn and Sign Near Thoreau's Cabin Site

It looks a bit more haphazard in the picture, but there were several very orderly stacks of rocks. Of course, we left stones in remembrance.

Stone Cairn

There are two main paths around the lake. You can go through the woods, or you can walk on the beach. We tried both.

Wood Path around Walden

The leaves were gathering in the shallow water near the edge of the lake. It’s hard to capture in a photo.

Leaves in Walden Pond

We made sure to visit the replica of the cabin, which is near the parking lot and gift shop. Dylan found a friend. He’s got a huckleberry-flavored lollipop, which you can buy in the gift store.

Dylan and Thoreau

My children didn’t know who Henry David Thoreau was, which did not surprise me. I wonder if I knew who he was when I was their age. So I told them about him—why he lived at Walden and what he wanted to do there, about his act of civil disobedience, about his last words to his Aunt Louisa, who asked him on his deathbed whether he’d made his peace with God, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”

He was two years younger than I am now when he died of tuberculosis.  But what an amazing mark he has left on the world. Maggie was particularly interested in Thoreau’s night in jail, as she had read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this year in her English class.

I am not teaching American literature this year. I am sad about it in some ways because I loved teaching Thoreau, especially sharing “Civil Disobedience” with my students, and I always pair it with King’s Letter when I teach it. It’s the introduction to my favorite unit, which involves nonconformists and voices of the “other.”

We grabbed some pizza at a local place, and my children once again indulged me with a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott, and of course, Henry David Thoreau are buried.

It’s quite a beautiful cemetery, and the authors’ graves are easy to find. The Thoreau family are buried in a large plot together.

Thoreau Family Marker

I was surprised by how moved I was when we saw Thoreau’s simple marker. I actually felt tears start.

Thoreau's Grave Marker

I love the fact that visitors leave him pencils. I left a stone behind, but it didn’t occur to me to bring him a pencil.

Thoreau speaks to me in some weird ways, and I’m not sure why because truthfully, I didn’t enjoy reading all of Walden. I like parts of it. Thoreau might actually frustrate the heck out of me if I really knew him. Even Emerson said, “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all American, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

Oh, Waldo. But he was engineering for all America. You all just didn’t see it at the time. I don’t know that it’s true that Thoreau had no ambition. I think what he wanted to accomplish with his life was just different from what Emerson thought he should want to accomplish.

I have been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s wisdom as captured on the sign near the site of his cabin.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Mainly because I am preparing to do something fairly big—and as much as I hate to be cagey, I can’t talk about it on my blog yet. I have been thinking a little bit lately about what I want to reflect on at the end of my life, what I hope to have done. One of the best reasons to try something you’re afraid to do is to think about how you might feel about not trying when you die. I don’t think that’s necessarily what Thoreau meant, but I do think he would approve of the sentiment that if we do not take risks and see what happens, we aren’t really living. I just realized this as I was writing, but I think I went to visit my friend Thoreau to obtain his blessing on my plans. I think I got it. There was a was a transcendent moment when the sun came out from behind a cloud and threw sparkles all over the lake, and I could have sworn I felt his presence. You can roll your eyes if you want. I know what I felt.

If Thoreau taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you really need to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” He might add, if we were in conversation for real instead of just inside my head, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” After all, “there is no other life but this.”

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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The Best Draft

rough draft photo
Photo by KimNowacki
Kelly Gallagher shared a tweet that caught my eye:

It took me many years of teaching, but I ultimately developed this philosophy a few years ago. In fact, I have been known to say the first two sentences of Kelly’s tweet, word for word, especially to parents on Back to School Night, mostly when I explain my revision policy. However, I admit that thinking of papers as “best drafts” was new language for me. I have started using it with my students this year. In fact, yesterday, I told my AP Lit students I have been wrestling with a piece of writing for months now, and I am really frustrated with it. Honestly, I knew some of the changes we had implemented in writing instruction in our department were bearing fruit when their response was to offer to workshop it for me. I nearly cried.

Maybe I will take them up on it. Meeting their writing needs is more important to me, though.

Let’s just say it’s a very important piece of writing. I worked on it today a little bit, and I am much happier with it, but I shared with my students that I was particularly bothered by too many instances of passive voice—ironically, something I just taught to my freshman students in the last couple of weeks. I found about seven examples of passive voice in my two-page essay.

Writing is hard. I really care about this piece of writing. Striking the right chord with its intended audience is critical. I typed a sentence. I erased it. I typed a new sentence. I erased it. I growled in exasperation. My husband, who is busily writing articles for Maxim online about six feet away from me asked me what was wrong. I said, “I can’t write.”

He did what husbands do—especially, I think, writer husbands—and he offered to help me. I was so angry at myself that I probably didn’t respond. I can’t recall what I said if I did. But I did something I am always telling students to do when they can’t start. I began in a different place. I rewrote a passage that came toward the middle of my third draft. Then I filled in a bit at the end. Then I went back to the beginning again. I scanned my third draft, looking for anything I might be leaving out. I thought a great deal about active voice. I researched a little bit online. I added more to my draft.

I am a lot happier with the fourth draft. I wonder how long that feeling will last? In any case, it’s important that English teachers regularly engage in this process they ask students to do. It’s difficult work, lest we forget how hard it is, and if we are to instruct others how to do it, it’s important that we do it, too.

My thinking about the topic, which happens to be assessment, has changed so much over time. I know many people don’t agree with me about this, but I don’t average grades when students revise. I replace the grade with what the student earns on the new draft. I am not even sure that Kelly Gallagher is advocating a total grade replacement when he talks about all writing being eligible for revision. My only stipulation is that students revise within a week of receiving my feedback so I don’t go crazy trying to keep up with work—it’s not fair to me to wait until the last day before a grading period ends, for example. My students revise like mad. A few elect not to do so, but they know the policy, and they are making that choice.

I care a great deal that students’ writing improves—much more so than maintaining a hard line about a grade. I don’t really even like grades, as regular visitors to this blog will know. Some students will demonstrate mastery of a concept the first time they attempt to show what they know. Others will take a few tries. If the end product is similar, why shouldn’t the grade be similar? I understand the argument that we should reward the student who does it right the first time with a higher grade. I suppose I disagree on the grounds that sometimes it took me a long time to understand a concept, but once I did, my understanding was as deep and profound as the person who got it on the first try. In fact, my determination in trying to learn it is worth something.

At some point, this piece of writing I am laboring over will be due. It will have to be a final draft, too, because of the nature of the work. I’ll work like mad to make sure it’s my best draft. One thing is certain: working on it multiple times has already yielded much better work than I did on my first draft.

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Join Me for #NEATE Chat

This Tuesday, September 26 at 8:00 PM EDT, you are invited to join the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) for a Twitter chat at the hashtag #NEATE. We’ll be talking about our upcoming conference on October 20-21 in Mansfield, MA.

Our featured keynote speakers include Gish Jen and Taylor Mali. We have a lot of great sessions lined up. The early registration deadline is October 3. Please feel free to join us for the chat even if you are not a New England English teacher. We would love to hear from a variety of voices.

We have planned to host a monthly chat on the last Tuesday of each month. If you are interested in hosting one of our Twitter chats, you can complete the Google form below. We’d love to have you.

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Overheard

 

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Photo by ky_olsen

I had weekend duty at my school on Labor Day. For those of you who might teach in other settings, weekend duty is fairly common in boarding schools. When we have students living on campus, making sure their needs are taken care of takes many hands, and the faculty living on campus cannot always meet those needs on their own. We are often given choices about which types of duty we might prefer. Sometimes we are not able to have our first choice. I was lucky, however, and was able to monitor the school library during my four-hour shift. I like working in the library, as it’s quiet, and the only real travel is checking on students who might be working downstairs.

A small group of junior and senior girls came to the library and worked for most of the four hours I was there. As I prepared to close the library and they were packing up, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One girl was finishing up their summer reading text, The Scarlet Letter. She remarked that the book was “horrible,” and that she felt like she had to “translate almost every sentence.” A senior girl remarked, “Wait until you get to Huckleberry Finn.”

I happen to love both of those books. I didn’t read either one until I was in my 20’s, and perhaps I came to them at the right time. I don’t always think we teach books when students are ready for them, when the time is right. On the other hand, I have had some success teaching both of those texts, or at least it seemed from my perspective as if students were engaged. Every single student? Honestly, no, but it’s fairly difficult to achieve 100% from any class. Enough students that I could see value in teaching the texts? Sure.

I don’t necessarily think these texts have no place in high school. I also don’t think we should do entirely away with teaching the whole-class text in favor of all student-selected books. There are a lot of reasons to read, and the whole-class text can be taught successfully. I am curious about the approaches to these two novels, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, in the girls’ classes. These are both hard-working, bright girls who are invested in their education, so I don’t think it’s the girls here. I’m sure if you polled more of our students, mine included, they might have similar stories.

I do independent reading in my classes because students need to make time to read, and they need choices about what they read. They need to learn what they actually like to read, and like anything else, the more you read, the better you are at reading. Having said that, I remain convinced that the whole-class text study also still has a place in English classes.

So what do we do? If we see value in teaching a text, how do we engage the students? What choices do we offer about studying the text?

Stay tuned. I feel a blog series manifesto coming on.

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Generous Writing

You can learn interesting things in some unlikely places. I had the great fortune to be able to see U2’s Joshua Tree concert in June, and shortly after I attended the concert, I came across the interview (embedded below) on their website. If you are a U2 fan like me, you might want to listen to the whole thing, especially because I think much of what Bono says in the interview applies to learning in general and to writing in particular. He cringes about a few word choices he has used in the past, and he also says it “wigs [him] out” to listen to his singing on the album, so he hasn’t really listened to it. Of course, he had to listen to it in order to prepare for the tour, particularly because some of the songs are rarely performed, and “Red Hill Mining Town” had never been performed live before.

One thing Bono said at about 10:20 into the video has had me thinking ever since I saw this interview for the first time over a month ago. He remarks that he feels he didn’t get to finish the songs on Joshua Tree even though the band made “finishing” the songs a priority for that album. The incredulous interviewer asks which songs Bono didn’t get to finish. Bono says “Where the Streets Have No Name.” If you are a U2 fan, or even if you can’t stand them, you know that song. It’s one of their most popular, most enduring songs. I still hear it all the time when I go out places, like restaurants. Bono’s bandmates laugh at Zane Lowe’s incredulous response to Bono’s answer. Bono explains that he feels that “lyrically, it was just a sketch.” He imagines the song is an invocation, he is asking “do you want to go to that other place,” a place of “imagination” and “soul.” Over time, he has added this invitation into the lyrics when he performs the song, and he feels the “hairs on the back of [his] neck go up,” which I interpret him to mean that he feels the lyric is more finished with this line than it was as he recorded it.

Zane Lowe asks, “But how can you ask a question of an audience with a complete thought?”

Bono’s reaction to that question is what I found most intriguing about this entire interview.

Bono: Okay. Interesting. That’s interesting that you should say that..

Zane Lowe: Aren’t you waiting for us to answer the question for you?

Bono: Yeah, but what it is, and I shouldn’t really say this, but just as a… you develop vanity as a songwriter.

The Edge: He’s very hard on himself. Very hard on himself.

Bono: No, but you’ve got vanity as a songwriter, [and] I’m sure it’s the same for drums, the same for [unintelligible]. And it’s just, I knew I could write that better… Anyway, I think what you just said something really important there, and incomplete thoughts are generous because they allow the listener to finish them.

I would argue that the fact that Bono, and really the group as a whole, are hard on themselves and on each other is what makes them a band that has endured and has remained popular with many people over the years. What I mean by that is they are critical friends and help each other get better because it will help the team get better. Part of that means being honest about what is working and what is not.

I am considering using part of this video as a mentor text for thinking about writing this year because what Bono has to say about incomplete thoughts being generous made me think about what poetry does for us that other forms of writing do not do. I also really enjoy hearing someone who has been so successful in so many ways express how he feels he could have done better. One statement I make a lot when discussing writing is that it is never done; it’s just due. If we are writing a newspaper article, a statement of purpose, an educational philosophy, or an essay for school, or any kind of writing we imagine, if it’s writing meant for an audience, at some point, it’s due. We need to let it go and say it’s ready, even if we might tweak it ad infinitum.

It’s an important message for writers to hear, I think, that good writers, successful writers, struggle with the craft and wish they could do better. Bono, for example, disparages his rhyme of “hide with inside.” Honestly, that’s one of my favorite parts of the lyric. One of the reasons this interview struck me, and particularly the parts I quoted above, is that we sometimes dismiss writing because we did it, not realizing that others might respond to it in an entirely different way. Sometimes, we might not be the best judges of what works and doesn’t work in our own writing. All the more reason to give writers an audience—to offer them our incomplete thoughts and allow others to finish them.

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Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 4

This post is the fourth and final in a series about my experiences at the NEH summer program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place. If you haven’t read the first three, you can find them here, here and here. My experiences on the fourth day may differ slightly from those of other participants as we divided into groups. Because the fifth day was a short day, this post will include my reflections for both the fourth and fifth day of the workshop.

As was the case on the previous days, we began with Bruce Penniman’s “Writing into the Day” reflections. On Thursday, we wrote in response to “What is ‘Paradise'” (Franklin 241) and our inferences about Emily Dickinson’s Amherst as she lived it. On Friday, we wrote reflections for the week in response to our choice of two poems, Franklin 930 or 1597.

After writing, my group headed to the Jones Library, Amherst’s public library, to work with artifacts in the special collection. My curriculum mentor Wendy Kohler was one of our guides for this activity. I chose to examine artifacts connected to Amherst’s history of education, as I was intrigued the previous day by Emily Dickinson’s writing instruction. My group examined an 1822 autograph book belonging to a girl, and we were struck that her classmates wrote so frequently on weighty issues such as death and often wrote poetry. It’s a long way from “have a great summer.” There was a great deal of material connected to Mt. Pleasant Classical Institution, which no longer exists. I couldn’t find any evidence any of the Dickinsons attended the school, but Henry Ward Beecher and one of the Roosevelts, James Roosevelt, attended the school. I didn’t find a lot of answers, and I am still curious about the kind of writing instruction students were given. If you read Dickinson’s letters, you can see improvement in her expression and clarity of thought in the letters she writes during her adolescence.  Clearly, Amherst citizens valued education and took great pains to make sure good schools were available to their children. I would also have had the option to explore science and religion, the Civil War,  or gender/women. There was one other option that I have forgotten—my fault for not writing it down. I wish in some ways I had chosen to explore the artifacts connected to either the Civil War or gender, but we only had so much time. I might be able to go back and see these artifacts in more detail some other time. The library also has an exhibit on Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, including several interesting Dickinson family artifacts.

Emily Dickinson’s calling card

Emily Dickinson didn’t sign her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson but slipped one of her calling cards inside. I like to think it was from the same batch of cards as the one above.

If you look closely at this notebook, you’ll see Emily Dickinson’s birth recorded on December 10 under her father’s name.

Emily Dickinson’s birth record.

Next, my group joined Christanne Miller for a discussion of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poetry. Miller encouraged us to select the poems we wanted to discuss. The Civil War was Dickinson’s most prolific period, and it was also during this time that Dickinson spent almost a year in Cambridge recovering from a problem with her eyes. We discussed how the death of Amherst native Frazar Stearns at the Battle of New Bern affected Dickinson and her family. Of course, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was in command of the 1st Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment. Dickinson’s brother Austin was drafted in 1864, but he paid for a substitute to go in his stead. There is a family story my grandmother used to tell me about having an uncle (probably a great- or even great-great-uncle) who went to war as a paid substitute several times. I need to do a little research and find out if such an individual existed. She did have at least one great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War but not as a paid substitute.

Basically, there were three reasons why someone might not serve in the war after being drafted: 1) they had enough money not to (Austin Dickinson), 2) they were the sole financial support of an extended family, or 3) they offered crucial community support (one could argue this also applied to Austin Dickinson). We can’t say for sure why Austin didn’t go, but we did discuss there was less support in general as the war dragged on. Miller pointed out the Civil War was the first war with a quick communication of the events of the war and with a highly literate, informed population. She remarked that one can find Civil War letters all over the country because so many people were writing during the war.

Near the end of our discussion, I shared the following passage from The Catcher in the Rye with my group. It’s a passage I often like to discuss when I teach the novel.

I remember Allie once asked [D. B.] wasn’t it sort of good that he was in the war because he was a writer and it gave him a lot to write about and all. He made Allie go get his baseball mitt [with Allie’s favorite poems written in green ink] and then he asked him who was the best war poet, Rupert Brooke or Emily Dickinson. Allie said Emily Dickinson.

That passage always struck me, but the experience I had this week has convinced me that Salinger was thinking on a very deep level about personal experience and writing. We don’t think of Emily Dickinson as a war poet, but she really was, and she wrote quite a number of poems that are definitely about the war and more that might be about the war, depending on interpretation. It was such a pleasure to be able to discuss poems with Miller, and if you don’t own a copy of her edition of Dickinson’s poems, definitely get it.

After lunch, we spent some time working in our curriculum groups, as our lessons or units were due by 6:00 PM. Our group was in favor of working quietly. I had about an hour before the next agenda item on our schedule, so I headed to the Frost Library on Amherst College campus to work on my lesson. I needed to consult a copy of the Variorum Edition, as my lesson deals with word choice, tone, and mood, and I wanted to compile a list of poems with variant word choices. I didn’t finish the work. In fact, I only made it through the first volume (there are three volumes in the Variorum Edition). None of my nearby Worcester libraries, including the college ones, seems to have the Variorum Edition, and I was ready to consider a pretty hefty purchase (the Variorium costs over $130), when I checked to see if I could get it through our library system, which offers free inter-library loan among all the system libraries. I was lucky. Some of the other libraries in my public library’s system have the Variorum, so I have placed a hold on it, and last I checked, it was in transit to my public library. I always forget about this great service offered by my library system. If I were a Dickinson scholar and likely to consult the Variorum regularly, I would definitely purchase it, but it’s a bit steep for creating a single unit.

The Emily Dickinson Museum typically does not allow photography as it’s too hard to control people making a profit from the photographs they take. We were offered the opportunity as NEH scholars to take photographs in the museum as long as we didn’t intend to profit from them. We were given permission to post the pictures on social media or blogs. I was really looking forward to taking photos as Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, in particular, is a really magical place, especially since the recent restoration. I have been sharing a few of the photographs from the museum in previous posts, but here a few of my favorites that I haven’t shared yet.

The writing table in the corner is a replica of Dickinson’s actual table, which is at Houghton Library at Harvard. The dress is also a replica.
Emily Dickinson’s actual bed. The shawl belonged either to Emily Dickinson or her mother.
Emily Dickinson kept a few favorite books in her room. I can’t tell what the titles are, but I’m going to do some research and find out. These are probably not her actual books but rather the same editions. The Dickinsons’ library is at the Houghton Library at Harvard.
A close-up portrait view of the replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress
A view of Mains St. from one of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom windows.

I spent some time reflecting on the incredible week over a cup of coffee downtown. One worry I expressed in my reflection is that the future of the NEH is precarious, and it’s possible that other educators will not experience the wonderful close study of Emily Dickinson in Amherst like I was able to do. Do what you can to make your feelings about programs like this clear to your representatives in Congress, especially if this series of posts has made you want to go, but even if it hasn’t because we should be helping teachers have these experiences. Trust me my NEH stipend didn’t cover all my expenses, but it made it possible for me to go, for sure.

Thursday evening, some of us attended an optional program called Dickinsons in Love in which we were able to participate in readings from Dickinson family letters, including those of her parents Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross when they were courting, Austin’s letters to Susan Gilbert before their marriage as well as letters to his mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and Dickinson’s own letters to Judge Otis Phillips Lord. I hope the Dickinson Museum will revive this program for regular guests, as it was most entertaining, and I learned a great deal.

Our final day was a shorter day, and the main event was visiting Emily Dickinson’s grave and reading our favorite poems. I shared the poem I read at my grandmother’s funeral. I was much more moved than I expected to be when one of my fellow workshop participants led us in singing one of Dickinson’s poems to “Amazing Grace.” Because Dickinson wrote in ballad meter, many of her poems can be sung to songs written in that common meter, and “Amazing Grace” is one of them.

Emily Dickinson’s grave. I left the flat stone on the far left to mark my visit.

We concluded our workshop with a picnic on the lawn at the Dickinson Homestead, complete with gingerbread, for which Emily Dickinson was famous. I bought a small Dickinson recipe book in the museum gift shop and tried out Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe this morning.

Gingerbread made from Emily Dickinson’s recipe.

It’s pretty good.

I would do this week all over again. It was an amazing experience, and should the NEH be spared and willing to offer this program again, I highly encourage you to apply. Thanks to Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst College, and all the visiting faculty from whom I learned so much.

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