Help for marking essays and giving feedback to students

My “Marking Key” is available for purchase here along with a free download of the Marking Key Error Log. The Marking Key is a digital-only PDF that can be shared with students. The Error Log can be printed.

The Marking Key began to take shape years ago when I was faced with large numbers of essays to mark. Tired of writing the same comments repeatedly in the margins, I began with a simple one-page handout with the most common errors and marginal comments numbered. Instead of writing out the comments, I simply put the corresponding numbers in the margins. Students could then refer to the handout to see what the numbers meant.

Gradually, the Marking Key expanded into a hyperlinked document that, including all the explanations and appendices, runs over fifty pages. Although I keep thinking it must finally be complete, I continue to make additions and corrections from time to time.

For teachers faced with stacks of essays, it can be a great time-saver.

Students can use the hyperlinked elements of the Marking Key to read further explanations that will help them to avoid making the same errors in future work. The errors are grouped into three sections: Essay Technique, Style & Expression, and Mechanics: Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, Etc. The 50+ pages of explanations and examples represent several decades’ worth of handouts covering the full range of issues that students face as they work to become fluent and competent essayists.

I usually ask students to complete the “Marking Key Error Log” when they receive their marked essays; this helps to ensure that they actually use the Marking Key and benefit from it. When deciding which errors should be given priority, students should correct the errors that are in bold face first.

The Marking Key and the Error Log are the most effective tools for teaching composition that I have discovered in more than forty years of teaching. Have a look at it here—

—share with any English teachers you know, and let me know what you think.

Casablanca American School Turns 50

Hala R. Mustafa Al Hassan
Casablanca American School
Casablanca, Morocco

Dear Hala,

I have been pondering what to say in response to your appeal for memories of CAS as part of the school’s 50-year anniversary celebrations.

My first thought was: it should not be all about me. It should be about you, Hala, and your classmates in 1986 when I arrived to teach all of the English courses, Grades 7-12. I remember the first time I asked students, “What do you think?” and seeing the looks of blank terror on their faces: having come from schools where “learning” was all about memorizing what the teacher said, they had never before been asked that question. I remember Hind arriving in Grade 10 with barely a word of English. At break one day she was sitting with her friends outside on a sunny fall day during a break. “How are you?” I asked. “Oooh,” she said, fanning herself, “C’est hot!” I remember my Indian students explaining the logic of arranged marriages to me and persuading me that arranged marriages made more sense than “love matches.” I remember Nita, Sanguita, and Meenakshi dressing me up as Krishna for “Indian Night” at the Churchill Club. Although my three years at CAS (1986-89) came near the beginning of my teaching career, I am still in touch from time to time with so many of my former students from Casa: Myriam and Kamal, Marcus and Pontus, Cat, Amal, Noura, Alia, Hind, Youness . . . . It speaks to the strength of the bonds we formed.

This little memoir should be about John Randolph, the best head of school I ever worked for across four decades and four continents and eleven schools. When I first met John, at a recruitment fair in San Francisco, I saw him sitting behind the table under the Casablanca American School sign and assumed from his looks that he was Moroccan. By now, I think he probably is! John showed me that a head of school could be fiercely principled, passionate about education, and utterly devoted to the best interests of his students. I could write a small book about John and his profound influence on me and my career. I remember him reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, “As I Grew Older,” at morning assembly in the courtyard of the old upper school. I am still teaching that poem, almost forty years later. John Randolph started out as my boss and became a dear, lifelong friend. I know that I am far from alone when I say that I could never thank him enough. 

My colleagues at CAS left lasting memories, and became lifelong friends. Mike Radow and I met on the plane returning home to Oregon from that San Francisco recruitment fair and ended up sharing a flat for the first year; or was it two? John Hall, Velma, Marcia, Orestes, Gayle, and then all the local staff who were so kind, generous, and helpful to us clueless expats. It was a vibrant, committed group of teachers. Anne Osman was a pillar of strength, along with her marvellous husband, Farid. Jack and Tricia Shepherd arrived in my second year and became essential members of the faculty. And through it all the indefatigable Marie Randolph, like a mother hen, took care of us all. We did not always agree, but we always cared about teaching and learning above all else.

In another sense, however, this little memoir should be about me, just as those of other CAS alumni should be about them, because that’s what Casablanca American School was always about: the students, teachers, staff members, and parents who made it the wonderful place it was, and is. I am sure that the 50th anniversary celebrations will provoke a tremendous response, because Casablanca American School has made a tremendous difference in the lives it has touched.

Sincerely yours,
(yes, you can call me Eric now, Hala!)

False steps: looking for the message

I wrote this piece several years ago. It covers much of the same ground as “Sending the Right Message About Literature” a bit more concisely, and with the addition of the “Little Red Riding Hood” example.

Teachers and students waste a good deal of time looking for messages in literature. I know this both because my own students almost all come to me with this idea firmly implanted in their minds, and because I have seen so much evidence of it in my work as an examiner for the International Baccalaureate.

A great work of literature, as evocative as a tree or as the world itself, invites us to respond with our minds and our hearts, but it does not prescribe those responses. It invites us to explore, to reflect, to read and re-read. It does not say to us, ‘This is life’ or ‘This is the world’ or ‘This is what people are like’. Instead it shows us life, the world, and people, from a certain angle (or, more often, from a variety of angles) and asks: what do you think? what are you feeling now?

Unfortunately, many students learn in school that stories, plays, and poems are cryptic messages meant to be deciphered. As I wrote in one of my examiner’s reports a while back,

Most students have been taught that literature is filled with hidden messages and meanings cleverly disguised with symbols, metaphors, and other ‘literary devices’. Their job is to decode the messages and file them under various standard headings such as ‘existentialist’, ‘nihilist’, and ‘archetypal’. One candidate actually made this theory of literary criticism the opening sentence of her essay: “It is important to understand the intentions of authors as most of the time they are trying to convey hidden messages.”

Finding hidden messages is difficult. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, most students simply retail ideas that their teachers or other sources have fed them. When the same interpretation of a work is repeated by student after student, it’s clear that they are simply parroting what they have been taught. Such teaching appears to be the norm, as one can infer from Billy Collins’s wonderful “Introduction to Poetry”:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

To be sure, it is perfectly possible to tell a story, or write a play or poem, with the intention of sending a message or making an argument. With rare exceptions, such works quickly fall by the wayside and are easily dismissed. Perhaps they have some historical significance, but they are not taken seriously as works of art. Equally clear is the case that certain stories are written for children and adolescents with the intention of teaching their readers to be kind to others, or to avoid illegal drugs and unwanted pregnancies. Again, these are not often serious works of art. 

Some children’s stories, of course, do achieve a standard recognizable as art, and they illustrate my argument here quite well. What is the ‘message’, for instance, of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ stories, or of Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ stories? Like all good stories, these tales for children create an imaginary world that raises questions: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing here, and what should we be doing? These are the questions raised again and again by literature and by other forms of art. But how can we tell the difference between real literature and propaganda, or moralizing tales? For one thing, the questions remain open: it is up to the readers or audience to answer them.

As an example, let’s have a look at Charles Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Perrault (1628-1703), a well-connected member of the bourgeoisie in the court of King Louis XIV, began collecting children’s stories in his old age and published them with the subtitle, “Tales of Mother Goose.” In his version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the grandmother and the girl are both eaten by the wolf, and the tale ends there. But not quite. Perrault adds this paragraph to the end of the story:

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

Apparently Perrault intends to send a message with his story, and his final paragraph makes his message very clear: young ladies are in danger of being seduced—or even raped—by nefarious men who may be “charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet.” Despite his apparent intentions, however, both his story and his “moral” raise a multitude of questions. Why is a story addressed to young women written as a fairy tale for children? Why is the main character a little girl when the “moral” is about young women? Why does the mother send the girl off alone into such a dangerous world? Why does the grandmother not have a proper lock on her door? From another angle, why is Perrault (or rather, the men of his time, society, and class) so intent on controlling young women, and preserving their virginity? And so on. What is the “message” of “Little Red Riding Hood” now?

As another example, let’s try one of the greatest novels ever written: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. From the epigraph alone (“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay”) one could infer what the historical record shows: Tolstoy began his tale with the moralistic idea of showing us that Anna was a sinful woman deservedly punished by God. But along the way, a funny thing happens: Tolstoy seems himself to fall in love with Anna, at least temporarily, and at least enough to bring his moral certitude into doubt. Indeed, his alter-ego protagonist, Levin, visits Anna when she and Vronsky are living at Vronsky’s country estate. Levin, prepared to meet an immoral woman, is surprised to find her delightful and charming. Only after he returns home to his wife is his newly-sympathetic view of Anna brought down to earth with a bump. Anna does suffer a famously terrible end, but as readers we are not at all certain that she deserves her fate. As critics have often remarked, Tolstoy the artist wins out over Tolstoy the Christian moralist. The story that Tolstoy apparently set out to write would perhaps have ‘sent a message’; but if it had finished up that way, it would not be regarded today as one of the greatest novels ever written. The novel does not leave us with a message; instead it leaves us pondering many questions.

I am not arguing, of course, that an author’s tone—his or her attitude toward characters and events—cannot be inferred. It’s clear that Tolstoy sympathizes more with certain characters than with others, but these sympathies and antipathies are not ‘messages’ that close off alternatives. On the contrary, when Tolstoy treats Oblonsky with comical delight, we wonder why he should remain beloved by all—including the author—when his sister Anna (who is guilty of the same ‘sin’) becomes a pariah doomed to a tragic death.

Shakespeare remains the supreme example in our literature of an author who does not send messages. His plays are filled with ideas, with characters and events that raise questions, but at no time can we imagine Shakespeare sitting down to write, thinking, “Ah, now I will write a play with the message, ‘if you need to take revenge, act quickly!’“

Teaching Through the Pandemic Blues

B.P. (Before the Pandemic), almost all the bus drivers were friendly and chatty.

“Good morning!” I would say as I swiped my pass. 

“How you doing?” the driver would ask, smiling.

No more. They don’t even acknowledge the greeting.

I think I know how they feel: like me, only worse. 

I ride the city bus to and from work each day, and the low-level anxiety never disappears. Why is that guy letting his mask droop down below his nose? Why are those teenagers not even wearing masks? Will this be the day some idiot gives me COVID-19, despite all my precautions?

Imagine spending your whole workday on that bus, worrying about the risk you’re taking. Not an easy time to be a bus driver.

I get off the bus, stop at the friendly coffee shop to fill my travel mug, then walk to school where I spend my day teaching, trying to feel normal.

But I don’t.

I’m lucky to live in a country with a better COVID record than most, and in a province doing better than the national average, and in a part of the province doing better than the rest. My school follows all the protocols. My students wear their masks more often than not, and quickly put them on when reminded, if they forget. But they are teenagers, and they do forget sometimes, and who knows what happens outside of school hours? So I feel that same low-level anxiety, all day, every day. 

The best protection against the virus, they say, is ventilation. I’m in my late sixties, and I have asthma, and I work with teenagers all day. I need whatever protection I can get, so I keep the door and windows open in my classroom. Lately the temperature has been dropping. It’s uncomfortably cold. When I come back to my room after someone else has taught in it, the door and windows are closed. I open them again. The choice: cold and anxious, or warm and really worried.

I live alone, in a small apartment. No pets. I haven’t visited with friends or been out to a restaurant or gone out to hear live music for . . . well, eight or nine months, but it feels much longer than that. The isolation, and the constant low-level anxiety, weighs on you. It probably helps to have a pet. It might help to have a spouse or a partner or kids, but then again that could turn into a No Exit kind of situation. Have domestic-abuse rates risen, D.P. (During the Pandemic)?

I keep telling myself that if millions of Europeans could survive five years of the Second World War, surely we can survive a few more months until the scientists rescue us with a vaccine. After all, no one is shooting at us, or dropping bombs on us. Right? I try to imagine that future, A.P. (After the Pandemic), when everyone is out together, eating, drinking, listening to music, packed into movie theatres. Will we, even then, feel comfortable without masks? Will we be able to stop imagining the aerosolized clouds surrounding us and happily, obliviously inhale the exhalations of all those strangers? Will we ever live again as we used to?

TOK Assessment (IB Diploma Programme)

I just resumed teaching TOK after a hiatus of four years, but I began teaching the course in 1987 and have taught it almost every year since then.

My two cents’ worth:

The major problem with TOK assessment is that there are only two marks—the essay and the presentation—whereas in other courses there are several. Result: one anomalous mark can really skew the final grade.

Solution: Add a short-answer TOK question to each of the exams in other subject areas.

Besides increasing the number of marks that go into the final grade for TOK, this would have the added benefit of involving all subject teachers in TOK (whereas in the overwhelming number of cases presently, DP teachers who do not teach TOK know nothing about it). This would help restore TOK to its intended role at the center of the DP curriculum.

I do not imagine that this suggestion will make it into the 2020 course update. It would take time, of course, to develop short-answer TOK questions for each subject area. But I hope that it will be seriously considered for future improvements to the programme.

The teacher’s vocation

In La gloire de mon père, Marcel Pagnol remembers one of his father’s colleagues, who graduated from teacher’s college first in his class. From there he went straight into a job in the worst neighbourhood in Marseille, a part of town where no one dared to walk at night. He stayed there, teaching in the same classroom for forty years. 

Marcel overhears his father ask this man one evening,  

“So, you never had any ambition?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “I did! And I think I have succeeded very well. Just think: in twenty years, my predecessor saw six of his former students guillotined. As for me, in forty years I have only seen two, plus one who was reprieved. That’s made it all worthwhile.”

Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy

I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:

Page 134: 

‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be. 

Page 143: 

Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible; 

Page 207: 

Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war. 

Page 229: 

Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice. 

This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.

Daniel Willingham: “When Can You Trust the Experts?”

I have been impressed with Dan Willingham’s work separating the wheat from the chaff in the world of educational psychology ever since I found his earlier book, Why Don’t Students Like School (Jossey-Bass, 2010), in which he explains what we actually know about teaching and learning, as opposed to what many people believe about teaching and learning without any scientific evidence to support those beliefs.

Only this year I have I discovered his subsequent work, When Can You Trust the Experts? (Jossey-Bass, 2012), and I am kicking myself for not reading it sooner. It would have been an outstanding book to use with students when I was teaching IB Theory of Knowledge, which poses the questions, “What do we know, and how do we know it? What do we believe, and why do we believe it?” Willingham addresses those questions in a practical way that would be especially valuable in a TOK class because educational psychology is a social science, and the social sciences deal with complex, messy human situations that make experiments, measurement, evidence, and conclusions problematic—but not always impossible.

Willingham sorts through this maze of questions with the same wit and clarity he displayed in Why Don’t Students Like School? Anyone who has read about (or taught!) the Golden Ratio, for example, will be hooked from the first page. Anyone who has sat through long committee meetings thrashing out the wording of a school mission statement will enjoy his “do-it-yourself school mission statement,” which made me laugh out loud. Anyone trying to teach the “scientific method” will find a valuable resource, filled with clear explanations and vivid examples.

Most importantly, anyone whose job involves curriculum decisions—high school department heads, school and district administrators, school board members, and state and federal officials and bureaucrats in departments of education—needs to read this book three times and consult it carefully before adopting a single new textbook or curriculum program. At a minimum, they should all photocopy Willingham’s “Exhibit 8.1: A Checklist to Be Completed Before You Adopt a Change,” distribute it to everyone in their organization, and direct them to post their copies prominently in their work areas.

In fact, every teacher should read this book, and every parent with school-age children should read it. As Willingham writes, we need “individuals who are better able to discern good science from bad, institutions that are willing to help individuals in that job, and a change of mind-set for all in how science relates to educational practice.” Amen to that!


“From Identity Politics to Academic Masturbation”

‘One of the primary creators of this unintelligible academic rhetoric, Judith Butler, is best known for her theory of gender performance central to her 1990 book “Gender Trouble.” Yet in recent years, one cannot be sure that even Butler understands her own writing . . . .’

‘How did we arrive at this moment where learning means parroting incoherent political rhetoric?’


Social Justice Conference for NW Teachers

B.C. folks, especially (but also the state of Washington), take note:

‘Dear Oregon, Washington,
and British Columbia Zinn Education Project friends,

We are excited about the upcoming “Reclaiming Common Ground: A Cross-Border Conference for British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon teachers.” Keynote speakers are Naomi Klein and Seth Klein.

Saturday, April 7, 2018
8:30 am – 4:30 pm, lunch provided
Sullivan Heights Secondary School
6248 144 St.
Surrey, British Columbia

One step at a time . . .

Unmotivated students are uninspired students. Good teachers help them find a dream that will make the perspiration worthwhile. Inspire them first; then ask them to work.

I try to challenge and inspire students by speaking to them respectfully as young adults, and by sharing with them my enthusiasm for reading, and writing, and building a better life by becoming a lifelong learner. It is much easier said than done. Moreover, as teachers we sometimes don’t see the effects of our work. Many students over the years have reached out to tell me that my teaching made a difference in their lives, and not all of them were the high achievers. I wrote about one of these, a student from my first years of teaching, here:

“Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story”

Those who are ready and willing to achieve at a higher level need work that inspires and challenges them, whatever their current skill level. Daily independent reading has been a constant component of my teaching, across multiple continents and curricula and exam systems, throughout my career. Why? Non-readers need to begin reading; readers with limited reading experiences need to be introduced to new authors and titles and genres; avid readers need to be guided to fill gaps in their reading experience and to take on ever more challenging books.

These principles apply to all of my work: find out where the students are, and help them to move one step higher in the same way that one climbs a mountain . . . looking at the distant peak one moment, and at the path ahead of one’s feet the next.

New job! or, T.S. Eliot Rides Again

I am delighted to announce that beginning in the fall of 2015 I will be teaching in the new high school program of Abiqua Academy in Salem, Oregon.

I began my teaching career in 1980 at South Salem High School, but the opportunity to return to Salem 35 years later has come as a complete surprise. Pushing the age-limit for work visas in China, I needed to find a country and a school that was senior-citizen friendly. I was worried that I would be left with few choices, so I posted an open letter to my former students, asking them to write some ‘references’ for me. The responses were both slightly embarrassing and enormously gratifying. I am not sure whether they made any difference in my job search, but I do know that such comments from former students mean infinitely more to me than any supervisor’s evaluation ever has.

When my Class of ’83 yearbook editor, Merideth Webber, heard that I was job-hunting, she mentioned it to another of my former students, Steve Thorsett. Steve returned to Salem recently to become the President of Willamette University. One of his associate deans, Norm Williams, who teaches in the WU College of Law, is the chair of Abiqua’s board of trustees, and he had mentioned to Steve that Abiqua would soon be opening a high school program and would be looking for teachers. Steve mentioned me to Norm, Norm gave my name to Jo Ann Yockey, Abiqua’s Head of School, and through this remarkable sequence of events I was offered a position this week, and happily accepted.

In “Little Gidding”, T.S. Eliot famously writes,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Ain’t it the truth.

Open letter to former students

UPDATE, October 30th: great news! Thank you, thank you, thank you.


I will be leaving China this coming summer and moving on to a new job beginning in August 2015. Under Chinese law, I cannot be issued a work visa if I would turn 65 during the upcoming year. Since I will celebrate my 63rd birthday in June, I need to find a country and a school that will hire me now and keep me on past my 65th birthday, as I have no intention of retiring.

In the past when I have searched for a new job, I have not asked students or former students for endorsements or letters of reference. This time, however, my age will make my search perhaps more difficult, as many countries and schools have age limits when it comes to hiring and issuing work visas. So if you have been a student of mine and you feel so inclined, please leave a comment here about my teaching, or what you remember of it. Please mention when and where you were my student.


Mr. MacKnight

Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story

In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.

Honestly, I remembered very little about her: the name, a face, not much more. Among 130 or 140 other students I taught in 1982-83, she had done little to stand out. Her first moves after high school, as she related them to me, were not filled with academic promise: an early marriage, and then the birth of her daughter when she would have been graduating from university had things been different. Once her daughter was a year old she began taking university classes, but a few months later she gave birth to twins with serious medical and developmental problems. For the next few years she dropped her university studies to take care of her children.

A decade passed. Kathy began working, but a “handful of years” in an office job convinced her that she wanted a different life than that. As she tells the story, “My employer was kind enough to allow me to cut back to a half-time schedule so that I could go to school full-time and qualify for financial aid, and [the university] provided sufficient resources to help me along.”

Finally, 28 years after finishing high school, Kathy earned her university degree in May 2011. Her daughter graduated in the same class at the same university. Shortly after the graduation ceremony, the university announced the hiring of its new president: one of Kathy’s high school classmates. “It has been a long, strange, and excellent trip!” she wrote.

She told me, too, about her senior thesis: an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel, Jane Eyre.

The senior seminar that was offered was on Jane Eyre and [Jean Rhys’s] Wide Sargasso Sea. Although many of my fellow students were enthusiastic about the Brontë novel, I was not. I am just not a fan of Victorian literature, I guess. Knowing I needed to produce a substantive paper to get the sheepskin, and being unwilling to write a piece that was merely a rehashing of other people’s research, meant I had to get creative. 

I followed my gut, which led me to interrogate the reasons for my dislike of the novel. I concluded that the tidy romantic ending was dissatisfying because the result was that Jane abandoned her dreams in order to spend her life with a man who was less than an ideal mate, a man who drove his first wife insane (according to Jean Rhys), imprisoned her, and denied her existence to the world. 

My paper developed into a close reading of contradictions within the novel, and an interrogation of the mechanisms that make it feel natural for young women in our culture to sucker for romantic conclusions that lead to unsatisfactory relationships and the short-changing of hopes and aspirations. Jane could have made a profound difference [as a teacher] in the lives of many boarding school students who were otherwise left to be victims of a defective system. Despite the fact that she thrice stated that her ideal was to run a school that would provide experiences opposite those she lived through at the Reeds’ and Lowood, she gave away the inheritance that would have allowed her to do so, and became dependent on a dark and brooding patriarchal master to whom she surrendered her agency and independence. 

My advisor told me that he had never seen anyone approach the novel from this angle, and that successful completion of my thesis could open up new discussions on the topic. I feel accomplished to have been able to provide a new take on an old subject for a professor who has been teaching literature since the early 60s.

Far too often, students and teachers are judged by grades and exam results. In truth, each of us is so much more than the grades we earn in high school. The grades and exam results tell us something about our recent performance on a narrow range of tasks given us by the school. But they tell us nothing about what we are, who we are, or what we may be and do in the future. “I can’t count the number of times I wished I had been a better student in your World Lit class”, Kathy wrote. Her poor performance in my class would have led unwise observers to conclude that she was not cut out for an academic future, or that if she did pursue a university degree, it should certainly not be in English literature.

Such unwise observers might also conclude that I had not done a very good job with Kathy, and that her poor results followed from my poor performance as a teacher. But grades and exams don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the results of a teacher’s efforts remain invisible for years; often the most important effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to measure.

Kathy wrote, “I am steeped with gratitude for teachers like you, who taught me that education is not about having answers, but more importantly, it is about learning how and when to develop good questions. Kudos to you for having the fortitude to stick with [teaching], especially when some students do not always give their best efforts! You have been successful in creating a ripple that spans the vastness and touches the lives of others. . . . It does make a difference, even decades later.”

Students need stories like Kathy’s to remind them of what they can accomplish, given enough determination, patience, and persistence. Parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and politicians should be reminded of Kathy every time they forget that education is about much more than grades.

NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing

From the National Council of Teachers of English, November 2004.

  • Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.
  • People learn to write by writing.
  • Writing is a process.
  • Writing is a tool for thinking.
  • Writing grows out of many different purposes
  • Conventions of finished and edited texts are important to readers and therefore to writers.
  • Writing and reading are related.
  • Writing has a complex relationship to talk.
  • Literate practices are embedded in complicated social relationships.
  • Composing occurs in different modalities and technologies.
  • Assessment of writing involves complex, informed, human judgment.

Read the full document here:

The hazards of sitting

Evidence is mounting that sitting for long stretches of time — in a car, at a desk, or on the couch — is bad for our health. A sedentary way of life and spending hours sitting down seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. . . . Research by Dr. Levine and others reveals that  sitting for more than 2 hours a day is directly linked to health problems like obesity, metabolic disorders, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol.

Schools are going to have to change the way they do business, from the furniture they buy to the classroom routines that seem engraved in stone. The days of students sitting in desks for an hour at a stretch, hour after hour, are coming to an end.

Listen to this excerpt from WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show:

Dear Google: an opportunity I hope you can’t refuse

I have a little project for you—a chance to do some real good in the world.

I teach high-school English. I know that my students need to read as much as possible, but I also know that reading alone will not give them the high-end vocabulary they will need for maximum success in school—for that, direct study of vocabulary words is required.

The best web site I know for this purpose,, is run by the United Nations’ World Food Program. It has many virtues. It repeats words that the student cannot define the first time. It automatically adjusts the level of vocabulary based on the student’s responses. For every correct answer, sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to help feed hungry people. It’s non-profit, and free to users. Brilliant!

However, the team running Freerice is small. They work on a limited budget. As a result, many more brilliant features that could be built in to the web site exist only on somebody’s list of great ideas.

This is where you could really help.

Why not temporarily release a small team of your programmers from their usual assignments and put them to work, as volunteers, to build Freerice into a really fabulous site that would attract even more students and teachers and generate more tons of food donations to the world’s poor people?

“Why me?” you might ask. Simple: your expertise in building Gmail and Google Docs puts you ahead of everyone else in this area. Not Apple, certainly not Microsoft. You are the best.

You could do this. You could make a real difference. How about it?


My Suzhou


Originally published in International Schools magazine and aimed at teachers considering a move to China.

The classical gardens, first. Master of the Nets is my favourite: small, but it has all the elements. Not gardens in the Western sense, but homes for the well-to-do, built around a central pond. In a classical garden, art and nature melt into each other. Every doorway, every latticed window, every view down a bending corridor or around a corner, frames a picture as carefully designed as any work of art. I love to imagine the owner, retired after a difficult career of public service, spending his days sitting in a pavilion overlooking the pond, gazing out at the Taihu rocks and—walled off from the surrounding city—basking in the peace of a vast imagined wilderness as he sips his tea, smokes his pipe, and writes poetry in the beautiful characters he mastered so long ago.

Once you have visited some gardens, go to the Suzhou Museum—not so much for the contents as for the buildings and grounds, which were designed by the world-famous I.M. Pei as a modernised, stylised classical garden. Pei’s uncle actually owned one of the gardens—the Lion’s Grove—and Pei played in the Taihu rock labyrinths that delighted my own children when we first arrived in Suzhou. (Taihu rocks are giant pieces of limestone, soaked for years in the waters of Lake Tai, the result a twisting, perforated greyish-white monolith that may seem to be a woman, a lion, or a distant mountain range.) Bring some fish food, offer it to the goldfish, and wonder at the swarm of colours as they compete for the morsels falling from heaven.

Suzhou’s gardens and many of its other treasures—not all—survived the Cultural Revolution thanks to the easygoing resourcefulness of the Suzhou people. To protect precious bas-relief sculptures, I am told, they plastered over them and wrote “Long Live Chairman Mao” on the dried surface. Though the Red Guards knew what was underneath, they dared not destroy those words. As a result, the old city centre retains much of its look and feel from ancient days—which is not true of many, perhaps most Chinese cities today.

Go to the Taoist temple in the middle of Guan Qian Jie, the ‘walking street’, or to the Buddhist temples at West Garden or Hanshan, and burn some incense, or have your fortune told. (The Taoist fortune tellers, in my experience, are more accurate.) If you go to Hanshan at the western edge of the old city limits, don’t miss your chance to walk over and gaze awhile at the huge barges going up and down on the Grand Canal, which stretches (at least in theory—not all of it is navigable today) from Hangzhou, two hours south of Suzhou by car, to Beijing—a public works project that vies with the Great Wall, though it is perhaps less picturesque. After that, stroll into the little shopping street where real artists have their studios, intermixed with the usual shops selling tourist curios. My favourite is the man who creates amazingly detailed paper-cut art, some of it kitschy, some jaw-droppingly beautiful, in sizes to suit any budget.

Back in the city centre, take a Sunday afternoon to see a Kunqu Opera performance at the Kunqu Museum. For 30 RMB (about US$5.00) you can sit in the tiny theatre and marvel at the art of these singing actors whose every movement—down to the last fingertip—is exquisitely precise. You won’t understand a word, but it doesn’t matter. (Even most of the Chinese members of the audience need to read the lyrics on a very untraditional LED display over the stage, because the actors’ words are in ‘Suzhou hua’, the local Suzhou dialect). Kunqu Opera delighted one of the emperors on a visit here, and he imported Kunqu performers to the capital, where they contributed importantly to the development of Peking Opera. Kunqu, to my ears, is much more pleasant than its northern cousin. I like to sit on the side near the musicians, where I can watch them play in perfect harmony with the actors: cymbals, drums, dulcimer, and several stringed instruments. Amazing, humbling talent.

Modern Suzhou is . . . modern! A brand-new 21st-century subway system just opened its first line last year. Shopping centres selling absolutely anything you could ever want are lit up at night—along with the rest of the city—like the Christmas decorations of drunken Dionysian revellers. Although prices have risen shockingly since I arrived in 2004, you can still taxi wherever you need to go on a teacher’s salary, and once you master the buses and subways—or buy an e-bike—transportation is very affordable indeed.

Suzhou lies in the vast Yangtze River delta. The weather is wet and grey, the landscape similar to Holland, canals included, windmills (usually) not. Rainy springs; hot and humid summers; glorious autumns; and cold, wet winters with an occasional sprinkle of snow. The air quality is much better than Beijing, but much worse than Vancouver. If you are asthmatic, like me, invest in a good face mask; if you suffer from depression when deprived of bright sunlight, consider other destinations.

As with most places, if you eat locally, you can live quite cheaply, but if you want to eat just as you do at home, be prepared to pay. You can buy just about everything here that you could in London or Los Angeles, but at roughly twice the price. As for all those stories about food adulteration, yes: it is a problem. But the truth is, millions of people here eat pork, fish, shrimp—and everything else—on a daily basis without ill effects. Much more dangerous is the traffic, which works on different principles than you are used to; let others do the driving until you acclimate.

Suzhou is the perfect place, I think, to experience both old China and new China. I would not trade my decade here for anything in the world.

Remembering Anne Osman

Ten years ago I heard of the passing of Anne Osman, my friend and colleague from Casablanca American School, where I worked from 1986-89. Today I came across this piece that I wrote about Anne. It was published on an earlier version of this web site but was somehow lost in the move. This seems like a good time to re-publish it. Special thoughts and best wishes for Anne’s family.

“I respond, therefore I am.” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who fled from Hitler’s Germany in 1933, adopted these words as his personal motto.

I have always understood him to mean that, whatever life threw at him, he still retained the ability to respond, and by that response he could preserve and extend his being. By responding in a certain way, he defined who he was.

I was reminded of Rosenstock-Huessy this week when I heard the news that Anne Osman had finally lost her long battle with cancer.

I was lucky to work with Anne at the Casablanca American School from 1986-1989. She was a warm and kind friend, a highly competent and supportive colleague. It was shortly after I left Morocco that Anne was diagnosed with cancer, and the initial reports suggested that she did not have long to live. I don’t think anyone expected her to survive another thirteen years.

But she did much, much more during those thirteen years than merely survive.

Anne exemplified Rosenstock-Huessy’s words better than anyone else I know: it is not our misfortunes that define us, but our response to them. Everything I heard of Anne from my old Casa friends told me that she responded to her cancer magnificently. When I knew Anne she was always modest and self-effacing, and never drew attention to herself. By all reports, she remained so. She continued to work—to serve the CAS community. Her service to others, her courage, tenacity, and dignity inspired everyone who knew her.

Anne was a teacher. Her life teaches us that we are, every one of us, capable of responding with courage, dignity, and determination to the challenges and difficulties that confront us.

She was a teacher, and a teacher’s first job is to inspire her students.

Anne, you have certainly inspired all of us, and we will never forget you.

(6 September 2003)


The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended

First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? I could offer you lots of reasons, but in the end I have no idea what impelled me to eat oatmeal.

Second: it doesn’t matter. Literary biographers are interested in a writer’s life; literary critics are interested in a writer’s work.

E.M. Forster makes this point by distinguishing ironically between the real work—reading literature—and the associated activity of “studying” literature, which he calls “only a serious form of gossip”:

  • The personality of a writer does become important after we have read his book and begin to study it. . . . We can ask ourselves questions about it such as ‘What is the author’s name?’ ‘Where did he live?’ ‘Was he married?’ and ‘Which was his favourite flower?’ Then we are no longer reading the book, we are studying it and making it subserve our desire for information. ‘Study’ has a very solemn sound. ‘I am studying Dante’ sounds much more than ‘I am reading Dante.’ It is really much less. Study is only a serious form of gossip. It teaches us everything about the book except the central thing, and between that and us it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross. The study of science, history, etc., is necessary and proper, for they are subjects that belong to the domain of information, but a creative subject like literature—to study that is excessively dangerous, and should never be attempted by the immature.
    • —E.M. Forster, ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’, from his collection, Two Cheers for Democracy.

So we can all indulge in literary gossip, and we all can enjoy it. Tolstoy the man is as interesting, in his own way, as his novels. But we should not confuse literary gossip with literary criticism.

Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. All that matters is what the author actually produced. Mark Twain may have intended nothing more than a sequel to Tom Sawyer; whatever his intentions, however, he produced Huckleberry Finn, and as readers that’s all we care about.

Toni Morrison on teaching literature

I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give them the best there is to engage them.

‘Hamlet: The Happy Ending’

Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm


Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.

But how is this possible?!

‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth and the grace of God. But sit you down, and I will lay it all out before you. Here, a bit of wine will do you good.

Horatio sits and grips his wine cup as though it were the last real thing in his universe.

I saw right away that to stay in Denmark meant certain death for me and those I most loved. I began with Ophelia, and together we wove a plan. Then came you, and the ghost. I wanted to tell you all, but feared to put you in danger should the king suspect you, and so I must beg your pardon, dear Horatio.

But I saw you die, with my own eyes. I saw Ophelia buried. I saw you kill both Laertes and the king, and I saw the Queen drink the poisoned wine. Have I gone mad?

Fie, fie! you are the sanest person I know. But eyes can deceive, good Horatio. What you saw was mostly theatre. Acting. Stage tricks I learned during my days with the players in the city.

Did no one die?

Only the king and, alas, old Polonius. That was the accident that nearly unraveled all my plans.

But my lord, you killed the king with the same rapier that only moments before you pulled out of Laertes. How can Laertes live, if the king died?

That was nicely done, eh? Laertes and I managed the rapiers very well. Of course, everyone was so alarmed by then, it was easy to beguile their senses with a sleight of hand. [Seeing Horatio’s incomprehension.] The rapier that seemed to kill Laertes was one I had from the players. The one I plunged into the guts of that villain was real.

May he roast in hell! O, my lord, you cannot know, nor I cannot say had I a thousand years, how glad I am to see you here before me, alive and well and smiling. [They embrace, both shedding glad tears.] Tell me, though, how is’t with the Queen your mother?

Still my mother, God be thanked, and no longer queen, I am glad to say. She was yet divided in her heart, though always loyal to me, but when Laertes told her of the king’s plan for the fencing match, all division ended and she became an eager player in our plot. And then, when the king did not stop her from drinking the wine that he thought was poisoned, all remaining sympathy was erased and she rejoiced in his death, though for the sake of our deception she could not show her happiness ‘til later.

And where are they now— your mother, Ophelia, and Laertes?

At home, such as it is, waiting to embrace you when I bring you there to greet them.

With all my heart will I greet them, each and every one. But what of Rosenkrantz, and Guildenstern? Do they live?

[Laughing] Aye, what a pair, those two! The king had no idea what actors they were. At moments they nearly convinced me of their villainy. They are in London, and from their latest letter it appears that they are making a name for themselves in the theatres there. Perhaps we shall go and see them, or better yet persuade them to return here and join us. We might make Wittenberg the centre of the world.

Does Fortinbras know you live?

Aye, aye, he was my back, had the fencing match not gone as I planned it. The great fool, he was just as happy to become king as I was to escape from that madness. Ambition, greed, grasping always for favours and power—what kind of life is that, Horatio?

Not the sort that I should want, my lord.

No, nor I. Shall we go to greet the ladies and Laertes? They await us.


A Slow-Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)

Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

With empathy comes self-awareness, of course. By discovering affinities between ourselves and characters we never imagined we’d be able to comprehend (like the accused murderer Dimitri Karamazov), we better understand who we are personally and politically; what we want to change; what we care about defending.


The problem with e-books for students

UPDATE, September 2014

Some e-books do now show page numbers, and when you copy a quotation from iBooks a limited bibliographical citation is included automatically. Tim Parks, writing in the New York Review of Books, adds usefully to the conversation.


How to take notes—that’s the problem.

With a Kindle book, forget it. The best you can do is select some text and then share it via Twitter or Facebook. Not useful.

With Apple’s iBooks, it’s a bit better. You can select some text, copy it, switch to ‘Notes’, paste it, and then add whatever comments you want. But this is hardly practical for serious note-taking.

Here’s what’s needed:

1. You select and copy text from the book. Along with the text itself, a bunch of meta-data is copied: author, title, date of publication, etc., everything you would need for a bibliographic entry. Since there are no page numbers in e-books, some alternative will be needed. Chapters will be useful in some cases. Beyond that, perhaps a ‘screen number’ plus a device ID (Kindle, iPhone, iPad, etc.) will be required.

2. When you copy the text, a pop-up menu offers you alternative places to paste the text. Ideally these would be mobile versions of apps like Evernote, Mendeley, EasyBib, and Zotero. You can simply paste, and then go on with your reading, or paste and switch apps, at which point you can add whatever tags and comments you want.

3. When it comes time to compile notes for review or to write an essay, your computer’s version of Evernote, Mendeley, etc., syncs automatically with your mobile version, and you’re off to the races.

Until something like that exists, I can’t imagine widespread use of e-books by students. Because, what’s the alternative? Making notes on paper? Right. Not even Steve Jobs could sell that solution.

Cringely on teaching, inspiration, and technology

This thought-provoking piece by the eclectic Robert X. Cringely caught my eye today. Here, Cringely quotes a friend who was an engineer but changed careers and became a high school math teacher:

“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in student success, which is the student’s attitude toward learning and motivation,” wrote my new friend the math teacher.  “The truth is that if students are motivated to learn, they will learn, pretty much regardless of the specific format or technology that is used in the lessons themselves.  Conversely, if a student is not interested in learning, the details of how lessons are presented, technology, etc. don’t matter very much…the student will find whatever way is available to avoid learning…they may socialize with their neighbors, or frequently ask to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, or simply try to tune out and take a nap during class.  Thus, while we focus on how teachers teach, I’m finding that the real key to student success is not so much how you teach but how you go about motivating students to want to learn, and how the systems you use in the classroom help support and encourage students to succeed even when they are not intrinsically motivated by the subject.”

Yes: inspiration comes first, as I have said before here, here, and here. Cringely goes on, however, to predict a mysterious technological solution to the problem. Cringely writes,

Motivated students succeed, but since every student is different and every student has a different way to learn best, unless we can design an individual curriculum for each kid, the system won’t be optimized. . . . The only solution I can see is one teacher per student. And the only way something close to that is going to happen is through technology.  And it’s coming.

Cringely is often on the edge, or over it, but always provocative. He’s right to focus on the problem of motivation, or inspiration, but I’m not persuaded that technology of any sort can somehow inspire every student. That takes a culture, a family, an environment, and contact with inspired and inspiring teachers.


Turn your school into Paris

The great literary critic George Steiner writes, somewhere, that just walking through the streets of Paris during his childhood was an education and an inspiration. Nearly every street and square in the city is named after someone who made a difference: scientists, poets, politicians, generals, intellectuals, labour leaders, architects, and on and on. Every intersection offers a new opportunity to remember someone notable, or to be introduced to someone notable.

What if your school were like that? What if the institutional corridors with bland descriptions like “North Wing” or even more nondescript labels like “BN300″—what if all those hallways and common areas were named after famous people, people students ought to know about but far too often don’t? What if the names and why they are notable were explained on wall plaques? What if the building itself, in other words, were enlisted in the effort to transmit a sense of history and culture to young people?

And why is such an opportunity so often missed?

Just wondering.

UPDATE 26 October 2011

I just came across this piece about “stolperstein“, brass plaques embedded in walkways all over Europe commemorating Holocaust victims. This could be used in schools, too, not to commemorate victims, but to honour great writers, thinkers, scientists, etc. There is a limited number of hallways and common rooms in any school, but a nearly unlimited amount of floor space.

Amy Winehouse and the Norway killings

The death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 connects, I think, with the terrible events in Norway. Both stories concern mental illness of a certain sort, and in both cases the social and cultural context plays a role.

For Amy Winehouse: She was clearly ill, and yet in our culture she could not be forced to receive treatment, and arguably we don’t have very effective treatment as yet for problems such as hers. We can only wait for more effective treatments to be developed, but on the first point, what are the limits of personal freedom? Do we have an obligation to intervene when someone is clearly destroying herself?

On Norway: In a culture that tolerates bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and violence, a few less stable individuals will inevitably follow these leads to their logical conclusion. Again we come up against the question of limits on personal freedom. We also confront the demons that afflict the human soul—to use a traditional way of describing them. Perhaps before too long the physical causes of such aberrations in brain structure or chemistry will have been identified: what then?

In the meantime, we in international schools have a special opportunity to take seriously the proposition that people from very different backgrounds can not just live in peace but can come to know and understand and love one another—a proposition we see supported every day in our students. We need to give this more conscious thought and attention, and examine closely the areas in our own school communities where it is not yet completely true: where groups or individuals are, subtly or obviously, segregated from the majority.

And in our national communities we need to be less complacent about pools of hatred, fear, bigotry, and violence. These sub-communities on the margins of society need attention, not neglect. And wherever we see the same trends, we need to speak out against them. Especially in political discourse, we must insist on dialogue that is respectful and non-violent. The mass media, which profit directly from sensation and scandal and controversy, must be held to account, as well.

All in all, however, we can expect more such atrocities as happened in Norway yesterday, and more personal tragedies like the early death of Amy Winehouse, because the conditions that make them possible will change only very slowly.

Steve Thorsett, President of Willamette University

Congratulations to Steve Thorsett, Willamette University’s newly-appointed President, who was a student in my ‘World Literature & Philosophy’ class at South Salem High School in 1982-83. Steve has had an impressive academic career already, including a stint teaching physics and astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, where I studied as an undergraduate.

Administration of anything—much less a university—is a huge challenge, and I wish Steve great success. He is the first of my former students to be a university president, so I am counting on him; I may not get a second chance ;^ ).

To read more about Steve and his appointment, here is part of the official announcement on Willamette University’s web site:

Questions, not answers

‎The clumsy formulations I grew up with—what is the moral of the story? what is the hero’s or heroine’s tragic flaw?—still influence and flatten the questions people often ask about literary works, as if there were one answer, and a right answer, at that. The genius of literary study comes in asking questions, not in finding answers.

—Marjorie Garber, ‘The Use and Abuse of Literature’ p. 14

Or as I always tell my students, great literature doesn’t provide answers; it raises questions.

Does reading great literature make us pessimistic?

Here’s what David Carl, a teacher at St. John’s College, answered in an email message to one of his students:

In general, our encounter with great works should tend to make us hopeful, and therefore optimistic. I have the words of several authors in mind when I assert this, such as Montaigne (“The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men”) and Wallace Stevens (“It is not what I am but what I aspire to be that comforts me”). So long as we believe that we are capable of becoming better people in the world through the work we do (whatever that work happens to be) it is difficult to have a fundamentally pessimistic view of our own existence.

If we believe that progress and development and improvement are possible for us as individuals (that it’s possible for me to become better than I currently am, whatever I mean by “better”) and we also believe that the work we do (the reading, the studying, the talking, the writing, etc.) can contribute towards that goal of “being better”, then I think it’s difficult not to be optimistic about the books and our work at the college. And if we don’t believe that we can become better than we are, then I’m not sure why any of us are here (or anywhere else) in the first place.

I would only add what Socrates says in Plato’s dialogue, ‘The Meno’ (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):

Most of the points I have made in support of my argument are not such as I can confidently assert; but that the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do not know, nor any duty of inquiring after it—this is a point for which I am determined to do battle, so far as I am able, both in word and deed.

Thanks to Mr. Carl for permission to quote him.

3 Reasons I Love Class Blogs

Reason #1: They show me what students are thinking.

Here’s a recent post from one of my Grade 9 students about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’:

Response to chapter 12

The main event in chapter 12 is that Jem and Scout follows Calpurnia to the church where Cal goes. They experienced some uniqueness in ‘blacks’ church. And by experiencing, they were able to find some unfairness of blacks. For example, author described the church in detail to show how the church for the black were different; I believe that the author described the church on purpose to show the unfairness. Hymn-book also represent for differences of black. Not from the amount of the book, but from their melancholy murmur in page 138. In chapter 12, like these factors I described, there are lots of evidences or examples that show the situation of blacks in early 1900s.

In page 135, author described churchyard. She said the clay was as hard as the cemetary beside it. I checked the definition of cemetary, and it said ‘an area of land used for burying dead people, especially one that is not beside a church.’ When I realized meaning, I wonder why did the author placed the cemetary beside the church. I believe it was to emphasis the differences between whites and blacks. I was confident that author placed the cemetary beside the church on purpose to show that how whites in early 1900s disdained blacks. Author did not have to describe the churchyard, but I strongly believe he described it on purpose and to show the situation of blacks in early 1900s.

There is other factor that shows disdainess even in certain. From present of Lula, I was confident that author was to emphasis the disdainess. I also believe author presented the Lula on purpose. Lula did not welcome childrens. She did not welcome scout and Jem because they were whites. Whites in early 1900s gave the blacks prejudice that the whites are all color racists and they are all bad. And so from present of Lula, author could benefit to show that how whites were bad racists that even made stereotype for black.

I learn so much from a post like this. The writer is generally quiet in class, so without this blog post I would likely have no idea that he has no experience of cemeteries being in churchyards. This misunderstanding is cultural, and his post alerts me to it: having discovered it in him, I can expect to find it in other members of the class, too, and can clear it up at the next convenient moment. With other sorts of misunderstandings, I might respond with a comment on the blog, or with a private message on the blog, or with a personal conversation—each possibility being appropriate in different circumstances. And of course I see, too, what sort of writing errors occur, and over time I see which ones are chronic, which others are careless, both for this writer and for the class as a whole.

Reason #2:  They give students a chance to have fun with a story.

In this recent post, one of my Grade 11 students writes about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd:

If Bathsheba were real… oh believe me, she wouldn’t be alive right now

Weekly Reflection νούμερο δύο (apparently thats Greek for Number Two… how COOL is that?! … yes, i do realize this is english class)

Can someone just kill Bathsheba already? I know that in my previous weekly reflection, I said that Bathsheba was kickass, and that she should be the next Oprah. Well, apparently I was wrong. Bathsheba is not kickass, if anything else, I would like to kick her ass. I want to complain so much about Bathsheba and criticize everything she does, but I do realize that it would be a major spoiler to people. Thus, I shall leave my ranting to another weekly reflection.

What we did in class this week, was mostly independent reading. We however, did discuss about ‘foils’ and how both Troy and Boldwood are foils of Oak’s. We also discussed the similarities and differences between Boldwood’s and Oak’s proposal to Bathsheba. Though why anyone would want to marry Bathsheba, I don’t know. Go marry Liddy instead! She is so nice, and probably the only character I don’t feel like killing, besides Oak. Let’s face it, who seriously does not feel like killing Boldwood and Bathsheba at this point? Perhaps killing is a too severe word, maybe seriously injure or put them in a hospital would be more appropriate.

Dear Boldwood. Oh man, take a hint already! The girl doesn’t want to marry you! That’s why she hesitates, that’s why she will not promise you anything! He doesn’t even really love Bathsheba, like we said in class, he would have loved whoever had sent him that ‘marry me’ valentine. Hey, who knows, maybe if Troy had decided to play a prank on him and sent him a ‘marry me’ valentine instead, Mr Boldwood might have turned gay and gone all desperate on Troy. The point is to just give up on Bathsheba already Boldwood! As if Bathsheba is any better! Stop giving the guy hope or hints! Just drop the bomb on him and make it clear that you do not want to marry him. Is she afraid that if she just outright tells him no, he would hate her or that he would not look at her again. Thus, defeating the purpose of the valentine. Or perhaps she likes the fact that there are 3 guys going after her and it’ll make her feel like she is, I don’t know, ‘popular’?  Oh gosh, and that time when she shouts at Liddy, I swear I was this close to ripping the book into pieces. How dare she shout at Liddy?! Liddy is way more awesome than Bathsheba would ever be! Despite that, I loved that whole scene in Chapter XXX where she is mainly trying to convince herself that Troy isn’t a bad person. It just gave me more reason to hate Bathsheba.

One of the best part of the book has got to be in Chapter XXI. Oak, you are so far, a genius in this story. When you indirectly told Bathsheba that ‘beggars mustn’t be choosers’… … … HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Is this the comedic part Mr Macknight?  I love how Bathsheba was the one who kicked him off the farm and now is practically begging for him to come back! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Oh, it sucks to be Bathsheba.

So far, I love this book as I am able to envision many killing sprees which mainly involves Bathsheba, Boldwood, and Troy. Oak, you are safe… for now.

This would not, of course, pass muster as a piece of formal analysis. But for energy, humour, and sheer enthusiasm I would put it against any of the essays in D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. What fun the writer is having! In class she, like the first writer, is very quiet. Without this blog post I would not have suspected Thomas Hardy was provoking such a strong reaction. Her post does more than inform me, of course: it entertains and challenges and provokes her classmates, who can then respond with comments and posts of their own. Everyone benefits, in an upward spiral of value. And once they are engaged, once they are having fun, then they are much more willing to make the effort required to analyze deeply and write carefully.

Reason #3: They give students a chance to show what they can do.

Another Grade 11 student, writing for IB Theory of Knowledge:

ToK 15 – Ethical Reasoning

Last week, we did an exercise in Ethical Reasoning, and we approached the issue of abortion from several perspectives—the utilitarian approach, the rights approach, the fairness or justice approach, the common-good approach, and the virtue approach, and we were asked what we have learnt about ethical reasoning.

So, what I’ve learnt from that exercise:

– Very often, the different schools of thought contradict each other. I saw that it was possible to explore a single issue from many different perspectives. There were entirely different schools of thought with varying—and often, contradicting—ways of reasoning when it comes to solving moral dilemmas.

– Ethical reasoning is subject to our own deeply rooted moral values. Our built-in personal prejudices and moral code make us reason differently when it comes to judging right from wrong. It seems to me that deciding what’s right or wrong relies on our own personal beliefs and is bound to vary from person to person. Even though we were asked to explore the issue from those 6 specific philosophical schools of thought, and come to 6 different conclusions, I found that very often, I simply disagreed with those conclusions. Despite the apparent reason and logical progression that we underwent to formulate these conclusions, I still found myself not persuaded. It seems that when it comes to moral values, ethical reasoning doesn’t overcome beliefs forged and strengthened over years of culture.

The exercise did little to change my own stance on the moral dilemma of abortion simply because I am strongly against it. However, the exercise did pull me out of my comfort zone, and forced me to take on perspectives different from my own. With each different way of reasoning, I realized that for just this one issue, we can go down many paths and we can go into a lot of detail, and could proverbially ‘cover more bases’, so to speak. This could help remove some of the subjectivity when it comes to making moral decisions. The problem of these different schools of thought conflicting with each other still persists, though, which makes me feel that ultimately, moral dilemmas don’t have any answers. In the end, we have to rely on our own intuition to try and extract the ‘moral’ choice from the murky mess of all these possible ‘right answers’ and try to make moral choices that best fit our moral code.

OK, I’m impressed—how about you? This student is thinking and writing at a very high level. He has understood the exercise we did in class, thought about it carefully, integrated it with his own beliefs, and has even been able to analyze his own beliefs in light of the alternative perspectives offered in the exercise. The act of writing helps him to deepen his own thinking, and his classmates benefit enormously from his example, which shows what good thinking and writing can produce in response to the same activity they all did together.

As I hear myself saying repeatedly, class blogs are the best thing to happen in education since the pencil.

We get mail . . .

I received this email message today—

I am an ESL Instructor at [redacted] and I came across your blog and website. I enjoyed reading it and want to try some of your ideas. I also believe in independent reading (I call it extensive reading). Each student reads different books to the ones we read as a class. I have taught my ESL college-bound students for about 10 years requiring them to read a certain number of pages each day depending on their proficiency level. I started this at the English Language Center at [redacted]. It works, and every semester my students thank me for it too. I like your idea of having them respond on a blog. I will try this with my next class.

This blog does not have thousands of readers, but it is gratifying enough for me to feel once in a while that someone finds my work useful. Thanks so much! As I wrote in my reply,

I can’t express what a profound change class blogs have made to writing instruction. I highly recommend them! The details are more important than one might initially think: threaded comments, ‘Like’ buttons, lists of recent comments, number of posts per author, number of comments per author, etc. That’s why I use WordPress with the ‘Atahualpa’ theme, which can be customized so easily. If you start with a free option, I would recommend—run by teachers, it uses WordPress MU (multi-user), which has many (but not all) of the features you can build into an individual WP blog.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

Another teacher wrote to me on the English Companion Ning. We had some correspondence back and forth, and in her latest reply she wrote this:

Thanks for your previous response.  The responses from your students made my day, and I’m glad you linked me to them.  I’d read some of those responses in June, and I remembered why I wanted to try this in the first place.

I’ve been making some changes to what we were doing.  I was having the students answer a question each day about their reading in their diaries, and after looking at what you do again, I realized it was too much.  You are right.  If we want them to read, we can’t heap extras onto the students that take away from getting them to get into the reading habit.  I think it’s going better now.

I was pretty discouraged.  Your message helped me, and I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done to help me in succeeding in this.

I thought I’d share a quote from one of my student’s blog entries.  She did happen to stumble on a good match for her, but her response gave me a “fuzzy” teacher moment.

Lauren in Missouri said–

My personal reaction to this book was different from all other books I have read. This book grabbed my attention from the first page. As I read this book I didn’t want to stop. I have never wanted to not put a book down. I used to hate reading, and now I hope to find more books like Sweet Hearts.


[name redacted]

These two correspondents, and others like them, have brightened my days. Teaching is hard work, and sometimes we do get discouraged—or at least tired :). So if you have learned something, been inspired, or otherwise benefitted from a colleague’s work, please do take the time to write a note of appreciation and brighten up someone’s day.

School reform: you want ideas? we got ideas

In September Tom Whitby proposed that educational bloggers counterbalance the negative press in the U.S. about schools and school reform by agreeing to post their positive suggestions for improving education. All the posts were to be published on Sunday, October 17, with links added to a Wallwisher page that Tom created. Below are almost all of those links—I omitted one from a company touting their goods—over 100 in all. If I missed a link or made some other error, please let me know so that I can make the correction. —Eric

Alfie Kohn and I disagree, for once

I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn. He’s deeply humane, unafraid to disagree with commonly accepted ideas, always on the side of students, tireless in his advocacy on their behalf—and he grounds his opinions in research. I often recommend his books—especially The Homework Myth and Punished by Rewards.

Recently, however, he posted a piece titled “How to Create Nonreaders: Reflections on Motivation, Learning, and Sharing Power” on his web site after its appearance in the Fall 2010 issue of English Journal, and concerning part of what he says in it, I must disagree.

First, a confession: I have for almost thirty years been giving students marks based on the number of pages they complete for Independent Reading. You can read about my Independent Reading program here. According to Kohn, this approach should have been discouraging and demotivating for my students, and if he is right then I have spent three decades turning students into non-readers. But I know that this is not the case. Instead, I have spent thirty years helping non-readers and reluctant readers and second-language learners discover the joys of reading and improve their skills. I have seen the pride in their faces when they have reflected on how many books they have read at the end of the school year—more, often, than ever before; more, sometimes, than in their whole lives up until then. And year after year I have had comments like these from my students as they look back on their year of reading (these are unedited, but I have put portions in bold-face type):


At the very start of the year, the first day actually, Mr. Macknight already assigned us a daily homework, the homework was reading every day fifteen minutes. For the first couple of weeks, I didn’t really take it seriously and I must admit, I barely ready anything. But when our first report cards came out, I realized that my grade could have been better if I only read more, so decided to read much more. At first, I struggled a little bit, since it was a bit hard from reading almost nothing to about a bit more than a hundred pages a week. Something else that made it harder for me is my laptop, since I always wanted to go and do something else, but by reading every day, I also started reading different types of books, different styles, like thrillers, action, puzzle, etc. Reading so many different types of books taught me to like different authors, not one I always read like ‘Anthony Horowitz’, but not only did the independent reading help with that, it also made me learn a huge amount of new vocabulary. This will help me be ahead of people of my own grade in Belgium!!

Jia Xin

I wasn’t in Mr. Macknight class in September and we did not have independent reading or blogs. I did not read much until I came to English A.

At first, I read a lot because I knew that the independent reading could make a different in my report card grade. I am not a native English speaker but I want to maintain my grade so I read novel every night after I finished my homework. Now, I did not read as much as I first came to English A because there were more and more projects and less spare time. You might think that this is an excuse, I think so as well, I became lazy, kind of. I think that I read better in the morning because my mind is clearer during morning when I woke up. I always fall asleep at night when I read novel and I don’t think I remember the events that happened. Sometimes, night gave me the mood of the character in the story and I felt scare of reading it. I read in the morning, which means I have less time for reading because I have to rush to school everyday so I read less.

I changed from a person who wanted to get a good grade in report card so I read more books to a person wanted to dip into a friction that is full of imagination and adventures that I might not even see in my entire life or into a non-friction world that tells me what the real world looks like and how people survive in it. I read at lot in the beginning of this semester and I found out that I really like non-friction stories because I wanted to see the real world outside and how people manage to live in this “world” that we are going to join soon and after. I know I shouldn’t have just read one kind of genre (what I meant for genre is friction or non-friction) but I would try to read other genre that interests me. How did I change? I don’t know the answer. I just know that I read more and found out what I like and just go for it.

I knew that I learned a lot when I read books. I learned new vocabularies, grammars used, culture of the certain country, life of other in real world, etc. I also know what genre or type of books do I like the most, which means I get to know myself better.

Yi Su

Was I ever a good reader? I never was. If I was not in Mr.Macknight’s class and had to write independent journal, I wouldn’t have read a lot. Since my first language is Korean, not English, and even though I’m in Language A, it is hard for me to read books in English. Moreover, expression is different in English. That is why sometimes I don’t get jokes from books. Every time I don’t get what they character is saying, I asked my English speaking friends. As I learn many new stuffs from books, I began to read more and more (Some books, I didn’t write Ind. Reading journals).

Li Fan

Back in 2009 September, I did not really read much book at that time. In fact reading was on my top dislike list, but now reading became one of my habits everyday. This change started from the day I entered Mr. Macknight’s classroom once again after grade 7. The course was still similar to the one before, but this time I learned a lot more from the books I read. Some of the most important reading experiences I gained this year will be to actually enjoy in reading. At first I was forced to read, as a 28 pages or more is needed to achieve a good grade, but as time goes on I started to pay a much closer attention to every vocabulary, every word, every sentence I read. Actually, what is most important to me will be to enjoy reading. Once you are in with the plot line, everything will go together naturally. For this summer, I am planning to read better quality books, as what I need now is to focus more on my use of language and grammar.

Yoo Min

Since English is not my mother tongue, and I am not that kind of person who loves challenging, I hated most of the things that related to English. When I first came to SSIS and read an english book, I almost cried, I thought I was too stupid. I took almost a month to read a book, even though my English skill became better, I still hated reading. I think I would not read even one book for this year if Mr. Macknight did not require us to read. However at the beginning of the year Mr. Macknight told us a good method which is “read what you want to read”. Even though it was pain in the neck to look for new vocabulary, I wanted to because I was curious to know next issue. And this make me spend more time on reading than before. Anyway from now I need to start reading more kinds of deep meaning book rather than entertaining books.

So now, since I usually agree with Alfie Kohn, I have to try to explain why his theory predicts results that I only rarely see in my practice.

In the opening of his English Journal article, Kohn writes, “ . . . it is impossible to motivate students”. But I don’t think of myself as motivating my students to read by giving them grades for it. I don’t even think of myself as rewarding them with grades. Instead, it seems to me that receiving grades for work done is, in the context of a school, simple fairness and justice. Grades, after all, are the currency of schools. Can I imagine a better, more humane way to offer education to young people? Absolutely. But in the meantime, we have the schools we have. And in those schools, students receive grades and credits and diplomas in return for the work they do. It’s a fairly straightforward transaction. Think of it this way: how should a student feel if she is told to do an assignment in school and then informed that she will receive no grades or credit for her work?

But the grades aren’t motivation. And I don’t try to motivate my students at all, really: I try to inspire them. I try to make them believe in themselves and the limitless possibilities of their futures, and I try to show them that if they become readers they will open up doors for themselves. And once they start reading, with the right guidance and help, they begin to discover the joys of reading, and after that my work is easy.

In other words, I see myself doing exactly what Kohn describes in this paragraph:

What a teacher can do – all a teacher can do – is work with students to create a classroom culture, a climate, a curriculum that will nourish and sustain the fundamental inclinations that everyone starts out with:  to make sense of oneself and the world, to become increasingly competent at tasks that are regarded as consequential, to connect with (and express oneself to) other people.  Motivation – at least intrinsic motivation — is something to be supported, or if necessary revived.  It’s not something we can instill in students by acting on them in a certain way.  You can tap their motivation, in other words, but you can’t “motivate them.”  And if you think this distinction is merely semantic, then I’m afraid we disagree.

A bit further on, however, this is how Kohn describes what I do:

Nothing contributes to a student’s interest in (and proficiency at) reading more than the opportunity to read books that he or she has chosen.  But it’s easy to undermine the benefits of free reading.  All you need to do is stipulate that students must read a certain number of pages, or for a certain number of minutes, each evening.  When they’re told how much to read, they tend to just “turn the pages” and “read to an assigned page number and stop,” says Christopher Ward Ellsasser, a California high school teacher.[2]  And when they’re told how long to read – a practice more common with teachers of younger students — the results are not much better.  As Julie King, a parent, reports, “Our children are now expected to read 20 minutes a night, and record such on their homework sheet.  What parents are discovering (surprise) is that those kids who used to sit down and read for pleasure — the kids who would get lost in a book and have to be told to put it down to eat/play/whatever — are now setting the timer…and stopping when the timer dings. . . . Reading has become a chore, like brushing your teeth.”

A very small minority—one to three students per year—have responded to my Independent Reading program in that way. In such cases, I am ready to throw out the system and do whatever works. But in my classes, a very large majority of students are not “those kids who used to sit down and read for pleasure — the kids who would get lost in a book and have to be told to put it down to eat/play/whatever”, and most often the simple act of crediting them for their work is enough to get them started reading.

If I found myself teaching a group of students whose inspiration to read was deflated by giving them grades for it, would I change my methods? Of course! But until then I will have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Kohn on this one point.

The Blue Pencil Online: a literary magazine for students, edited & published by students

High school writers looking for a place to publish their work should have a look at The Blue Pencil Online, a project of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Natick, Massachusetts (USA). Their standards appear to be quite high, so for a young writer of real talent and ambition, the Blue Pencil just might provide the right sort of challenge.

For a brief article about the site and the school, see this page from the National Association of Independent Schools.