When Life Imitates Reading The Scarlet Letter

You are staring at a page that is thick with words. The 20141229_105900paragraphs are page-length and there is little white space providing relief. You’ve been reading for some time now, but it nothing much, if anything, has happened. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are not enjoying it (this probably wasn’t a choice book), and you feel the pressure to keep up. You are not sure if you are up to this challenge, and even if a large part of you doesn’t care about any of it, this reading is unavoidable and there remains a nagging sense that not being up to the challenge says something about you and that falling short will somehow negatively alter your life’s path.


You are staring into the darkness of the situation. Maybe someone has died or is dying. Maybe you just failed miserably and publicly and are now questioning other parts of yourself. Maybe it’s a serious no-win decision. Maybe someone left you for good or worse, simply turned their back on you. Whatever it is, it consumes you. It dominates every thought, and makes it seem as if nothing else is happening. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are definitely not enjoying it, and you are aware, vaguely, that life is going on for others who are leaving you behind. You are fairly sure you are not up to this challenge—and while it’s clearly not your fault, or while there are reasons to explain or justify your role, there is no avoiding it and you are certain that falling short here will speak volumes about your limited worth as a human being.


The teacher has spoken of symbolism, metonymy, theme. Somewhere in this relentless outpouring of words there lies some deeper meaning (maybe a line or two of clarity?) or wisdom. There will be a test. You notice an inverse relationship: the less clear a passage, the more meaningful it seems. But this only slows you further, frustrates you more. This, this is why people hate reading. You read a line like this:

“Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life.”

You think, that may be an example of metonymy, but you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and only a slight respect for a book that has stuck around for more than a century and the fear of a library fine keeps you from throwing the book away. You despair, wishing you could go read something else, something clearer, an instruction manual perhaps, something that will just tell you what you need to know.


You’ve heard of silver linings and lights at the ends of tunnels. Things happen for a reason. You hope. This is a test; you are responsible for finding the meaning. The darker the moment, the harder you must look. Life slows more as you look for signs everywhere. You are going, hypothetically, past an animal hospital. On the sign it says, maybe, “A healthy pet is a happy pet,” and because you’re desperate for meaning (maybe an answer or simple solution?), you wonder if this could be saying something to you specifically: maybe you should be exercising more; maybe you’ve been neglecting those you love. This is just one example: you see meaning, or potential meaning, everywhere, even though you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and this relentless interpretation of all of life’s details is exhausting. You despair, wishing you could go back to a time when an animal hospital sign could be just an animal hospital sign, when there was no need for deeper meaning.


You know how to read. It isn’t the words—most of them, at least—that are giving you problems. It’s the way the words are strung together that’s giving you fits. In a perfect world, you would be sailing through this book, and the symbolic parts would glow with a holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and you’re struggling. What you need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

You need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.

If you’re just reading, take heart. This is just a book; this is just a test. Learning now to plod away, to keep your eyes moving, and training your mind to detect meaning and significance and to ignore what can be ignored. In a perfect word, these bad things wouldn’t happen, and everything would simply glow with holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and we all struggle. What we all need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

We need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.


Cracks in the Mirror

2013-03-09 08.26.11

I was reviewing expectations with students and I had this picture on the PowerPoint slide. I told them about how the mirror broke, how we didn’t fix it for months until our daughter cut her finger when she was cleaning the mirror, how it was a pain to replace and how it cost a decent amount of money for a new mirror. In short, broken mirrors suck.

Yet, every time I brushed my teeth and leaned forward over the sink, I saw my comically distorted face and I smiled. It made me happy. Simply and pathetically happy.

It’s a world of broken mirrors, I told them. It’s an imperfect and fallen world where mirrors break, where technology isn’t always available and working, where standardized tests and grades are a necessity, where life intervenes on learning—or at least on getting work done.

They are largely a group of high achievers. They care deeply about their grades. They place a lot of pressure on themselves and have high expectations and standards set before them. I want to see them reach and even surpass those goals, and to help wherever I can. Like me, they have lives that sometime interfere with schooling, lives that seem at times to not want us to learn, lives that make us wish we could just stay in bed all day.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to watch for those moments where the crack in the mirror provides a holy glimpse of hope and humor. Sometimes it’s all we can do.

dr-seuss-writer-from-there-to-here-and-here-to-there-funny-things-are

Things to Remember After the Storm

Be careful: those steps out the back door are slippery when they’re wet; the last thing you’d want right now is a nasty fall.

Take walks whenever the weather permits: sometimes that slow pace is exactly what you will need; other times the simple, miraculous act of putting one foot in front of the other will be good for your soul.

There is a difference between belief and believing: the former is a reserve to be drawn upon now and then; the latter is the act of carrying that reserve from here to there—and the bigger the load, the bigger the challenge.

Replace some of the canned goods and emergency supplies for the next time you can’t make it out to the store.

A downed power line could kill you in an instant.

People were very kind, some of them went out of their way, and others even had flat tires themselves but still showed up anyway.

You sunburn easily, and there’s some history of skin cancer in your family, so don’t think a sunny day isn’t—in a way—its own danger.

There are seasons for fruit-bearing; and then there are times when the best that can happen is that your leaves don’t wither and fall off: Hold on to your leaves.

There’s work to be done after a storm; take that work very seriously. All of it.

But there’s also no need to rush from the door to the car or to give yourself extra time on the road; stop and talk. People matter.

Lightning separates nitrogen molecules, which then become part of the plants we and the animals we eat; our bodies can’t do that alone.

Thinking metaphorically about lightning—along with just about everything else—can be exhausting, but so is a good workout.

Storms are forgotten, and while no one ever complains about a beautiful sunny day, nice weather has its own way of spoiling you, making you lazy, and lulling you into some really dark places*; if that doesn’t tell you what a weak and pathetic creature you are, nothing will.

There will be other storms; but, one day, there will be no more storms.


ancient monks recognized this and called it acedia

Writing to Understand: Kobe Bryant and Facebook Venting

In the National Writing Project, we talked about purposes for writing. As a writer, my purposes for writing are clear, varied, and plentiful. As a teacher, I know students struggle to see authentic purposes for writing or to embrace the purposes that have been standardized by school and state standards.

I’ve read essays by upperclassmen that didn’t really start until the bottom of page two: they had written for a time around the topic but only got to what they really wanted to say about the topic until they had written about it. Of course, when I pointed that out they didn’t want to get rid of that writing; doing so, in their minds, would render all that work a waste. Leaving these unnecessary words was simpler than the alternative. I call this “thinking on paper” and it isn’t bad–but it isn’t what students think it is, a finalized draft.

As an English teacher and a writer, I can claim the benefits of writing, including the personal benefits, but students (wisely) consider the source: of course I would say that. Even a genius like Flannery O’Connor can’t convince them.

“I write to discover what I know.”

-Flannery O’Connor

As writers, we reiterate the show don’t tell mantra. It is better, then, for me to show them “writing to understand,” and to do so in an authentic and engaging manner.


On April 12, 2013, this happened:

Later that night, Kobe posted this on Facebook:

Presentation1

The moment I read this, I was fascinated by what was happening here: Kobe was coming to terms with an experience by writing about it. I also knew I would usurp Kobe’s “street cred” to help me prove my point: sometimes we can write our way into a deeper, clearer understanding.

The more I read it, however, the more I saw potential in the writing. There is opportunity here for close reading, looking for transition, for claims; there is opportunity for peer review and feedback, suggesting how Kobe could revise this to fit a more traditional essay form.

I also remembered some other writings that could be drawn in for further comparison and analysis:

If Kobe's venting was a positive example, Dan Gilbert offers one that, well, could have been kept to himself.

If Kobe’s venting was a positive example, Dan Gilbert offers one that, well, could have been kept to himself.

This writing serves a different purpose, but would serve as an interesting, refined comparison.

This writing serves a different purpose, but would serve as an interesting, refined comparison.

 

 

 

Students need to accept that some words are more for ourselves, that sometimes we write for no other purpose than coming to grips with something. This past Mother’s Day, I went to a restaurant with my wife and children, my father, and my father-in-law. There is a story there, but what I wrote that morning was more about me coming to an understanding; it wasn’t to share (even though it was on Facebook), and it wasn’t to prove anything to anyone. When I sat to write, I had no idea where it was going.

If students can get to that point, they will be happier as people and more successful as students. But they need to be taught.

If you like what you read here, please let me know. Comment, share, and follow the blog. I have a short PowerPoint and some guiding questions, as well as an annotated copy and clean copy of Kobe’s Facebook post.  If you would like these resources or have any questions or suggestions, click here.

 

 


Additional Reading

College Readiness: Writing to Learn  The difference between reflexivity and reflectivity in writing.

The Loop Writing Process Activity that could be adapted for all types of writing assignments.

Capacity Building Series: Writing to Learn (PDF) Activities and suggestions for all content areas.

Low-Stakes Writing Exercises: 3 Tips to Get Started Teaching Channel article with videos demonstrating writing to learn.

 

 

 

The Two People in Every Room, Even If It Is Only You

This is my theory: There are always two types of people in the room, and each of them needs to hear the opposite message.

This is more likely to be true as the number of people in the room increases. However, it can be true when there is as few as one: because sometimes we need to hear contradictory words of wisdom to keep us sane and balanced.

Here are some examples of the two types of people who might be in the room:

The one over here needs to be reminded not to worry so much what other people think. Confidence, after all, not insecurity, is an attractive and desirable trait.

But the one over here needs to be reminded that he shouldn’t pick his nose in public or start clapping spontaneously in the grocery store.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he's taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he’s taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

There is someone who needs to hear something like, “Chin up, things are going to be okay”; then there is someone else who should be reminded that, if you don’t change something soon, you’re screwed. There’s a student writer who needs to be told, “Just keep writing, without worrying about how things sound”; but that is terrible advice to the one who has already filled several pages and could be reminded to stop and think every once in a while before turning in a “finished draft.” There is some hurting soul who needs the reminders of grace and forgiveness; and just down the row is some smug ass in need of a little verbal slapping to straighten things out.

Exercise is healthy. You’re getting obsessed.

Write more. Write less.

Clean your house. Put down that rag before you wipe down that counter for a fourteenth time today.

Think before you act. Enough already, Hamlet: be, or don’t be, but do something.

It’s not your fault. You could have done things differently.

I try to remember the two people in every room, that my wisdom may be folly for some, that my praise to one may be condemnation to another. But more often, the two people in the room are simply the two sides of myself: the one who needs encouragement, reassurance, kindness, and a mother to spoil him; and the other who needs reprimand, discipline, orders, and someone to tell him that sleeveless shirts are only, barely, okay for working out (thanks, Kristen!).

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who are the two people you find yourself talking to? What are the contradictory words of wisdom you need to hear?

When It Comes to FANBOYS, I’m More of A “But” Man

[This started off as a teaching post. But life has made it something much more.]

Of all the FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), none is more fundamental to writing, reading, listening, and simply living than “but.” In fact, the hope of humanity and the salvation of our souls might well rest on our understanding and mastering the use of this coordinating conjunction.

You might be thinking, “But surely you are overstating it.” Or you may disagree: “But,” you will say, and then state your counterargument.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

And I will respond, “Case closed. But I respect and appreciate your adding to the conversation.” #seewhatIdidthere?

But is fundamental. When we write (from brainstorming to revising), when we read or listen, and when we live—which is, I’m fairly convinced, pretty much always—we will be better off if we harness the power of but.

The fact that it also is a humorous homonym is just a little piece of grace to those of us juvenile to appreciate it.

It all starts at the but.

Without but we would have no literature because without conflict, there is no plot and therefore no story. Rick Wormelli, author and educator, offers a strategy for summarizing fiction, called “Somebody… wanted… but … so.” The but here represents the conflicts that arise and prevent characters from getting what they want or living the way they want to.

Here are a couple of summaries, revised to omit any but. Notice how these movies would never have been made, how conflict is necessary.

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wanted to avoid anyone close to her having to participate in the Hunger Games, so nobody volunteered and nobody had to participate.
  • In Jaws, the people of Amity Island wanted to enjoy some time at the ocean, so they went to the beach and had a lovely day.

Similarly, when I attend professional development and learn about something great I’m supposed to start doing, I want to hear about the challenges I will face, how things are going to go wrong. Because nothing works as well in real life as it does in a meeting room. Give me the but scenario so I can think about how I’ll be adapting it to the variables of my situation.

And when I am listening to a sermon, it usually only becomes a truly meaningful message once it gets to some kind of but. Consider the difference between the two following claims:

  • “God loves you, and…”
  • “God loves you, but…”

Which one piques your curiosity more? Which one is more likely to challenge you to grow?

I had students write argumentative essays last year. I had them practice on the issue of bullying. Not surprisingly, I got essays that sought to argue some version of the following claim: Bullying should be stopped. They wrote that it was mean, that it shouldn’t happen, that bullies should be punished. What they lacked was deeper understanding of the issue’s challenges:

  • But how can we really stop it?
  • But how do we actually define bullying?
  • But what happens to those we label as bullies?

Students who explored those questions and sought to address them would have much greater understanding, would write better essays, would be in a position to change the world. Those who didn’t simply mouthed platitudes.

But that is unfortunately understandable because we live in a world of “talking heads” who occasionally get paid to do just the same thing.

fox news

We can find depth with the but.

The students who wrote those essays struggled to write anything remotely essay-length. They complained they didn’t have anything to say, although it was more true to say they didn’t feel they had anything obvious or meaningful to say. They were merely passing on what they heard or knew to be true. As a teacher, I need to do more to help them think: to see exceptions, to anticipate the conflict of unintended consequences, to understand the need for clarification.

But this condition isn’t limited to eighth graders.

Many of our pundits and politicians need the same thing. Many of us, politically speaking, need it, too. If we as a nation ever hope to progress or solve even some of the relatively easier challenges facing us, we need more of the understanding that comes with but.

No matter how opposed to guns you are, it is at least necessary to spend some time thinking about a question like, “But how can we take guns from those who already legally own them and see them as a constitutional right to their personal protection?”

No matter how opposed to any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants you are, you should have a reasonable answer for the question, “But how do we logistically and humanely deport all those who are already here and have been for a very long time?”

Two millennia ago, Jesus created quite a stir, in part because He came with the kind of clarification and redefinition that is possible with but. He said things like, “You know you’re not supposed to murder, but if you hate somebody, it’s basically the same thing.” He was also able to address uncomfortable truth: life sucks, but I overcame this life and death.

Politically, religiously, and socially, we are comfortable before the but. We’d rather not confront what comes after the but. We prefer:

  • “I haven’t murdered anybody.”
  • “The law must be followed.”
  • “We must protect the innocent.”

But when we stop there–when we do not understand or seek to be understood–our lives write nothing but pithy, platitude-filled essays.

Please don’t let your two cents all come from your but.

We all know a contrarian, the kind of person who has an issue with every little thing, who sees problems with every possibility, who contradicts every claim. These people are often looking for excuses or maybe a way to get out of a meeting sooner rather than later; they are rarely seeking understanding or solutions.

But is not only oppositional. But is clarification. But is exception. But is truth-seeking, in that it digs deeper in the search for underlying issues and maybe even common ground.

However, but is only the transition: it is up to us what to do with what comes after.

Consider: I have a problem, but it’s not the same as your problem so you don’t know what I’m going through. Or: That’s a possible solution, but nothing is really going to change.

Compared with: I have a problem, but I can still help. I have a problem, but we all struggle and need to help each other. I have a problem, but I still have so much to be thankful for. I have a problem, but at least I understand but.

But should not stop a conversation or stall an issue; but should encourage dialogue and progress towards a more informed solution. But should not divide; but should recognize differences and address them clearly.  As readers and writers, parents and children, teachers and students, citizens and leaders, social and religious beings, we can benefit from that habit of mind.


How I plan on using “Yes But No Questions” to help students think more deeply:

The Recommendation I Would Most Like to Write (or have written about my own children)

Slide1No matter how often I tell students that grades are, at best, a secondary concern, they generally remain students’ (and parents’) primary focus. What follows is the letter of recommendation I would most like to be able to write for a student (or the letter I would be most proud to have written for one of my own children). Teachers, please share it with your students if you agree. Parents, let schools know these are the real standards you would like for students.


To Whom It May Concern:

I have had the pleasure of working with _____________ over the past year as his/her teacher. Seeing the growth that he/she made through consistent effort and persistence in the face of struggle, I am happy to recommend him/her for the volunteer opportunity/job/internship/other position he/she is seeking. The skills and character he/she demonstrated shows his/her readiness to tackle whatever challenges he/she may face. Class wasn’t only about completing the assignments to him/her. Class was about honing skills, exploring content, and developing into an even better person.

Although he/she received mostly B’s and C’s on tests, projects, and assignments, his/her effort and participation were always exemplary. These tests, projects, and assignments were a genuine challenge for him/her, and the grades—while not inherently impressive—are the result of genuine effort and are something to be proud of. Or maybe he/she got all A’s and was nearly perfect on everything he/she did in class. But an A was never enough, because those A’s were easily attained and he/she knew that real learning and effort were more important than getting a good grade. In other words, grades only begin to tell the story; ultimately, the thing that mattered most was improvement and challenging him/herself to do his/her best.

Even more important than academics were the consistent positive characteristics he/she demonstrated. He/she was prompt and prepared, involved and enthusiastic. He/she took pride in his/her work as could be seen in the careful formatting and neatness of even the most basic assignments. He/she respected the classroom by keeping it neat and orderly; respected others in the classroom by being kind, listening to others’ opinions, and helping others whenever possible; and respected the teacher by listening to instructions, following directions, and even at times challenging the teacher. Or maybe he/she struggled with one or more aspects of character; maybe he/she came in with some bad habits to overcome or a life that presented its own seemingly insurmountable challenges—but made such positive strides so as to make the new and improved student unrecognizable to the one who started the year.

For all these reasons—as well as the uniqueness of the individual, who brought his/her own interests, curiosity, and personality, who is comfortable, but not content, with the person he/she is and is secure enough to allow others to be themselves as well—I wholeheartedly recommend him/her.

Sincerely,

His/Her Teacher


 

Running, Writing, and the Thing that Keeps You A Happy Failure

I don’t run to look like this:

Running Selfie

Running Selfie

But neither do I run to feel like this (because it really doesn’t happen):

Instead, I run to see home in the distance, to know there is a shower and a couch ahead, to put one hopeful foot in front of the other if only to keep momentum going, if only because–for the time being–it is my sole purpose.


Likewise, I don’t write (in pursuit of publication) to receive something that looks like this:

Just one of many. (Most of them these days are digital.)

Just one of many. (Most of them these days are digital.)

But neither do I write to feel like this (although sometimes, pathetically, I do):

Rather, what pushes me and inspires and drives me is something like this:

BC rejection

The occasional encouraging rejection

Instead, I write to see publication in the distance, to know there is a byline and a contributor copy ahead, to put one hopeful word in front of the other if only to keep momentum going, if only because–for the time being–it is my sole purpose.


We know we love something–or maybe we know we’ve found our special purpose*–when we’ll happily fail at it, when we’ll gladly sweat and struggle and stumble and still take those sad uncertain steps toward an end that is somewhere around the corner.

Find the thing you’ll happily fail at, the thing you can botch and blunder, flop and flounder, and return to over and over as if the end is just ahead.

Not surprisingly, this is the hardest thing about writing: getting ideas onto the page, going from Notion to a Physically-Written Articulation. And there’s also no shortage of advice about what’s behind this Writerly Procrastination: lack of discipline, not enough freedom to fail, wrong kind of workspace, not enough prep writing, no identified audience, the inner critic’s too loud, [enter here the most recent article you saw about how to get yourself to sit down and f-ing write].

Tasha Golden

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Labels, Action, and Confidence