Keeping the (Poetic) Faith

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“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.”

“…a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” –Samuel Coleridge

Reading Go Set A Watchman brought me back to my childhood, when friends from the neighborhood moved away: when I would see them again, a year or two later, I was always surprised to see they had changed, and it took some time to adjust to these relatively new people. They were, at one time, both friends and strangers.

Much has been made of the characters’ changes in the novel, Atticus in particular. Along with the novel overall, these changes felt underdeveloped and rushed. I believe I would feel the same without comparison to To Kill A Mockingbird, but that is the most interesting part of the book: Watchman owes its existence to Mockingbird, yet the existence of the two books and the resulting inevitable comparisons will be troublesome, requiring at the very least, I believe, a certain suspension of disbelief.

Much of the dialogue was flat, but the most difficult parts to read were the parts from Atticus. As I read, I waited for him to redeem himself: I expected some simple, folksy wisdom regarding states’ rights, maybe some empathy for people who are slow to accept change, something that would complicate his character and help me understand him and accept the difference. Nothing came.

In the end, the book focuses on Jean Louise’s willingness to accept this new Atticus. She had, like many of us, a view of this man that was entirely contrary to this new version. Along with her, readers cringe and are left to come to their own place of acceptance. What else are we to do? This is a fictional character, a “shadow of imagination.”

In this way, Watchman turns Mockingbird on its head, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Watchman carries the emotional appeal of Mockingbird to its logical end: are we willing to see things from Atticus’s new point of view?

And this then is how the book may be an important one for this time, because of issues like same-sex marriage and the Confederate flag. The question the novel raises is interestingly paradoxical: can people be tolerant of those seen as intolerant? It might be a question we need to answer as a society if we are to continue to thrive.

“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.” –Uncle Jack

Change is inevitable. People change. Values change. Technologies change. However, change’s inevitability should not be used as a logical argument.

The novel argues neither for nor against change. It does instead argue for tolerance, but not the nice-sounding tolerance espoused by Mockingbird, but what might be called “reverse tolerance”: a tolerance of those who are viewed as intolerant.

Had Atticus focused more on states’ rights to explain his role in the citizen’s council, he would be a more interesting character; instead he just sounds simple and scared of change. Although this is a work of fiction and Atticus is fake, a “shadow of imagination,” the issues of the novel and of contemporary society are real, as is the fear, particularly when dealing with issues of culture, religion, and sexuality.

Walt Whitman, You Were No Solipsist, and Neither, I Think, Am I

whitmanOr maybe you were. Maybe the reason you wrote so relentlessly, with such repetition, was just a way of reminding yourself that you were not alone.

Maybe this is one solipsist writing to another. I would explain solipsism, but really, what would be the point?

I was introduced to the concept at a developmentally inappropriate age. I researched the idea in junior high. My brother and a friend brought me to a college library. I had never been to a library with more than one floor; this added weight to the already heavy concept.

I was reading your poem to my students, modeling the active reading and noticing I expect of them. I tell them, listen to me think as I read. I invite them into my head.

In the second class, feigning again to read as if I had not just done the same before lunch, I was stopped at this one line:

“The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”

And I was off on my solipsist rant.

How can it be that all those cars hold people going places I won’t go and coming from others I have not been? Looking out at all of them—this classroom, my mind—I tell them: I find it hard to imagine that each of you goes home at night and, unless you happen to have some work assigned from me, this home, this life, has nothing whatsoever to do with my life, that the four walls around you hold pictures of people I do not know, that the floors are dusted with dead skin cells of which none are mine.

And most of them, Walt, stare back at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

But in these stares I find relief.They don’t just nod their agreement: “We have our own minds and they are not like yours.” Their confusion confuses me; but my confusion at theirs is all the proof I need: I am not a solipsist.

And then one young lady says to the person next to her: he’s crazy, but he does make sense. And this, even now, writing, alone, makes me smile.

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.


Aye, There’s the Rubric

I am not anti-rubric.

In a perfect world they wouldn’t be needed. However, they have their benefits. And I don’t really have a choice, which means, I need to do it the best I can.

rubricBut even when we’re doing our best, when we try to do everything right, there is still sometimes the need for a little damage control. This is a story of trying to do everything right in a world of cracked mirrors.


Students had about twelve minutes to answer a question about the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter and how it relates to the following chapters. I told them their grade would not be tied to the rubric score, that this would be a chance to help us understand the criteria of the rubric better.

Before I read any of the students’ writing, I wrote a paragraph of my own, setting a timer for twelve minutes.

Then I set the stopwatch to monitor my time as I began reading and typing feedback to the roughly sixty student paragraphs. For every minute I spent on each writing, that would be an hour; my goal was to keep it to about three. I type feedback because I can type faster (and more neatly) than I write. Plus, I think students seem to value it more, and that also means I have a copy of the feedback.

The feedback starts to feels a little formulaic (after so many repetitions), but to do it in a short amount of time and to make it meaningful, I follow this general format:

  • Something positive about the writing
  • A detail from the writing that is specific and shows it is individualized
  • A question or wondering about some revision

Before I gave them my feedback or their score, I gave them my example (without telling them it was mine—many assumed, but others didn’t seem to give it a thought). They read it individually and underlined lines from the rubric. Then they discussed in groups and had to come up with a final score. Each group shared, and we discussed the differences of opinions as well as the difficulties in evaluating with a rubric.


It was generally decided upon that my writing was a six. Out of eight. I had generally fallen short on some in-depth analysis. The group scores had ranged from five to eight, but most had said either six or seven. So there seemed to be some general consensus.

I gave them their writings. They had to assign it a rubric score and provide some feedback about what they did well and what could improve. Once they did that, I took their papers back, gave them my typed comments, and wrote my score on their paper.

Several of the students had agreed with me on their score. Others were just one off, sometimes one higher and sometimes one lower. But a surprising number had scored themselves much higher than I had. When I talked with them (as many as I could in the class period), we looked at their own feedback. Some had written that they had done well and just needed to add more detail from the chapter. This was the opportunity to reinforce the point I’d made earlier: a low score on the rubric isn’t necessarily a long ways from a high score, but may just be missing key elements, such as using details and examples to justify thoughts and opinions.

I was feeling pretty good, particularly when one student said, “Your feedback made me happy. Thank you.”

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students' hands.

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students’ hands.


One student, I could tell, was upset by the rubric score.

He had agreed with my feedback and even seemed pleased by it. But when he saw my rubric score, compared with his, his demeanor changed. He is an insightful reader and a hard worker. But this particular writing didn’t score high.

Fortunately, we had a chance to talk. I went through his writing with him to point out the strengths and to discuss what could be improved. I reminded him that there had been little time to write. He was placated mostly, but still troubled.

We talked some more about writing in general and this particular assignment. The main point I tried making clear: I don’t want a rubric to stand between us. He has tremendous potential; I am a guy who can help him become an even better writer.

I don’t doubt that he will do much better. But I worry about what damage has been done. I worry that when he looks at me he will see a scarlet rubric on my chest, that he will forget the helpful feedback and not see me as someone who wants to help.


This was written, primarily, as a chance to process the experience. However, putting myself on display and sharing feedback is more unnerving for me than is sharing my writing. But teachers of writing should write–in ways that make them uncomfortable. So there it is.

Any feedback would be interesting. Rubric scores, however, are optional.

Cracks in the Mirror

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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

In the Shadow of the Cutwater

We were writers. Our identities were forged by our actions. If anyone was to ask, our response was to be: I am a writer. We could say this in part because we were with others who would respond: we are writers, too.

We sat at a small concrete park with our notebooks on our laps. Across one street, people gathered outside a homeless shelter. The sound of construction across the other street—another building in the revitalization of this downtown area—drowned out the animated conversations of those milling about the park, people who knew the place well enough to know we were not a normal part of it.

We had dedicated four weeks of our summer to reading and writing. We had our own reasons for coming and our own reactions to being there. And when the time was done, we went our separate ways.

Through the weeks there was one true constant: the river was flowing. We spent time writing each morning, some of us by the windows that overlooked the city, the river directly below us, a peaceful and pristine vignette that belied the rockiness and pollution.

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Photo by Ben Clore

In the morning, when the sun was reflecting off the water, the true nature of the river revealed itself. Thousands of glittering ripples, like clamoring paparazzi, spoke of the flow’s forceful and relentless turbulence. But there were other places where the water was smooth, where things looked still. On the lee side of the cutwaters—the rock columns that support the bridge—the river seemed to turn back on itself; it was as if this shadow would provide some escape, as if the force of the water coming back might hold us against the stone pillar.

Here perhaps, if only for a time, the river might just stop.

After the four weeks, we rejoined the flow, as all must. We became part of that river again, the river that flows not with time’s measured pace, but with swirls and eddies that disorient, over and around rocks that batter without mercy.

We lingered in the stillness of our writing community awhile; we had spent more time together than with our own families. For some of us at least, the time and quiet allowed something to find footing in a place some of us never knew existed. To those who have not discovered that place, who have not found its home, we have only three words, which we will share over the noise of construction in a concrete city park.

Real Learners, Real People, Real Responses

The vision: a book of responses from professional athletes, celebrities, musicians, and other well-known, successful individuals about the impact of education on their lives. (An example from Peyton Manning is here.)

The background: School isn’t ultimately about content, test scores, or even skills; it isn’t even about college or career readiness. Rather, it is about character, discipline, and the habits of mind that apply to all aspects of a successful and fulfilled life.

The problem: we spend so much time preoccupied with the former—because it is, after all, the stuff we are teaching—that we lose our credibility when it comes to the latter. Consequently, students don’t believe teachers when we speak about the benefits of education.

Who: responses from people who are…

  • finished with school (or could be)
  • successful and well known in their professional area
  • reasonably positive role models
  • could speak to the impact that education makes in their lives

What: explaining a message about education…

  • Not: stay in school, or you should go to college because…
  • Instead: forcing yourself to get out of bed on a cold winter morning to go somewhere you don’t really want to be… or you should work with that teacher you hate because…
  • Work and study habits that have carried on into their careers
  • The ability to get what you want from people who don’t agree with you
  • The ability to see another point-of-view
  • Conflict resolution, or how to stay out of trouble
  • How to get noticed, and when not to get noticed
  • Increased empathy
  • Instilled motivation

How you can help:

  • Suggest people to reach out to
  • Help me reach out to them
  • Re-tweet and share
  • Encourage the idea

How Education Can Help You Throw 500 Touchdowns

I’m a middle aged white guy who was always more comfortable on the golf course than the football field. I have hands that are poorly suited for palming a basketball but come in surprisingly handy when getting the last of the Pringles at the bottom of the can. I know some Kanye West lyrics but am more likely to sing Frank Sinatra. I care more about my vocabulary than I do about my wardrobe.

All that is to say, I’m not that cool.I want it now

My passion and purpose is reading and writing, so of course I’m going to say reading and writing are important. I realized several years ago that I would never be able to convince students by telling them this. I could demonstrate it over time, but I was impatient. There wasn’t time; I wanted students to know right away that reading and writing, and that education in general, held value for them–even if they were going to be a professional athlete or movie star.

Students needed to hear those words from people who were cool, from people they wouldn’t expect, from people they would assume were beyond the demands that education demands.

So I wrote some letters to actors, athletes, and musicians. The list included Kanye West, Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy), Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, and Mary J. Blige. I chose people for a few reasons:

  1. recognition factor
  2. some demonstration or involvement in charity
  3. method of contacting them (not surprisingly, their home mailing addresses weren’t listed)
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The thoughtful, kind response from Peyton Manning (back when he was still with the Colts).

To date I have received one response: from Peyton Manning. It was thoughtful; it was honest; it was exactly what I was looking for. Manning spoke of the hours of studying he still does. He credits the study habits he developed in school for helping him as an NFL quarterback: the study habits in classes like science and English. That is the message I want students to hear. And they can only hear it from me so often.

Now I want more letters. I want to hear from people who are past their education days; I want to hear what difference education makes, particularly in surprising ways: how, for example, did learning to deal with a difficult teacher help you to deal with a difficult manager, director, or coach?

I’m looking for suggestions. I’m looking for addresses. I’m looking to maybe edit a book of responses.


The Generic Form Letter I Started With:

Dear [NAME]:

I am writing to ask a small favor of you to help inspire my students. Many of them do not see the value of an education, and even those who do view it as a minimal prerequisite to their future success. Most of them see it as an obstacle to their future. This is particularly true for students who dream of being a rapper or professional athlete, which is not an uncommon dream. I am writing to you because my students respect you as [WHAT], and I know [HOW] that you respect the importance of education.

As an English and history teacher, I don’t see it as my job solely to prepare my students as future workers. Nor do I pretend to believe that the basic facts I teach will be essential to them as adults. The facts, I tell them, are an avenue to critical thinking, to a better understanding of themselves and their world. Moreover, education is about learning to interact with people; it is about disciplining yourself to accomplish tasks especially when you don’t want to; it is about developing habits of mind that will guide you in all aspects of your lives.

Of course, I am their teacher. I’m supposed to say things like that. What I am asking for is a letter from you that I can post in my classroom, encouraging them to embrace the challenge of education and recognize its value beyond the traditional workplace. I would like you to explain what difference education has made in your life, even your life as [WHATEVER]. Are there aspects of education that actually directly assist you [WHEREVER]? Looking back, what characteristics of yours were forged through education that have helped you personally? Given your present circumstances, how would you be different without the education you received? Are there any specific educational experiences that made a demonstrable difference?

Thank you in advance for any time and attention you can give to this matter. My goal is to inspire all students to see education as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.


I am looking for collaborators in this venture. I will post a follow up this week to explain.

If you would like to see a copy of the letter or hear how I shared the letter from Peyton Manning with students, feel free to email me using the contact form at the bottom of this page.

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, please contact me via the form at the bottom of this page

 

 


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?