The Poet

The poet has no talent.

Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Cannot play a musical instrument. Can’t juggle. Can’t paint.

The poet has only words.

And so the poet uses words to sing, to dance, to make music—and other sounds.

Juggles with words.

Paints with words.

Creates motion, odors, tastes, physical sensations of all sorts.

Unlocks our memories. Makes us aware of what we have previously sensed only dimly.

Makes us wonder . . . about so many things.

All of this with words alone.

For the poet, alas, has no talent.

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.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1888/the-art-of-fiction-no-134-toni-morrison

Bacterial Hosts

Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells?
A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.

This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising medium to which viewers are lured by the programming. Ironically, a small portion of this programming is sometimes thought to have real value and significance.

Similarly, we commonly regard human life as The Most Important Thing in the Universe, while bacteria are incidental fellow-travelers, sometimes useful, sometimes troublesome. Actually, however, bacteria dominate life on Earth, and human beings are merely hosts that provide food and shelter for bacteria. Ironically, some of these bacterial hosts occasionally write War and Peace or paint Guernica.

‘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.

HORATIO
But how is this possible?!

HAMLET
‘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.

HAMLET
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.

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?

HAMLET
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.

HORATIO
Did no one die?

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

HORATIO
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?

HAMLET
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.

HORATIO
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?

HAMLET
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.

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

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

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

HAMLET
[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.

HORATIO
Does Fortinbras know you live?

HAMLET
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?

HORATIO
Not the sort that I should want, my lord.

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

[Exeunt]

Ugly word of the day: “societal”

From DailyWritingTips.com:

 What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.

Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .

I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” that. Please, please, please: just say “social”!

People are animals, too

In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese people being napalmed daily by the U.S. military than they were about a dog being napalmed.

Comedian and anti-war activist Dick Gregory made a similar point around the same time when he proposed to end the war in Vietnam by drafting family pets instead of young men. People wouldn’t stand for that, he said; the war would end in a week.

This attitude toward animals is a form of sentimentality, i.e., the over-indulgence of easy emotions—and, inevitably, the avoidance or suppression of difficult emotions. It has been around for a long time. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, in his Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400), describes the Prioress as a nun who really would rather be a lady. Against convent rules, she wears jewelry and she owns pet dogs. She feeds her dogs with roast beef, milk, and bread, and weeps if anyone strikes one of them. She weeps similarly if she sees a trapped mouse bleeding, or dead. Her sympathies, in other words, are directed toward small, cute animals because the suffering of such animals does not require her to do much more than weep and express her sorrow. Her sympathies are decidedly not directed toward the hunger, poverty, and suffering of thousands of people all around her in medieval England, because acknowledging human suffering would require her to do something about it, and this would be difficult.

Animals are, of course, widely mistreated, especially those that are raised to be slaughtered and eaten. Notice, however, that very few people like to think about this, and even fewer decide to stop eating meat. A sentimental story about a pet rescued miraculously from some natural disaster, on the other hand, gets lots of people talking and clicking and ‘liking’.

In one respect, however, we really do treat animals better than we treat our parents and grandparents. When people are fatally injured, or terminally ill, or when they are simply too old to go on living without suffering daily, we extend their suffering for weeks, months, or even years by medicating them, by force-feeding them, by hooking them up to machines that keep their hearts pumping and their lungs inflating, and deflating.

However, when the family dog or cat is injured, or is ill beyond cure, or is simply too old to live without daily suffering, we do the humane thing: we put it painlessly to death.

Chaucer would appreciate the irony.

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.

Yes.

Ray Bradbury in the ‘Paris Review’

Anyone interested in writing, anyone interested in science fiction, anyone interested in Ray Bradbury who just died at the age of 91, anyone interested in much of anything will find lots to think about in this wonderful interview with Bradbury from the late 1970s, rediscovered and printed in the Paris Review in 2010. Among other things, you will find out who Mr. Electrico and the Illustrated Man ‘really’ were. But my favourite bit is Bradbury’s surprisingly persuasive argument that Edgar Rice Burroughs was “probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world”. Enjoy.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury

Rebirth

Everything is—not perfect, but cosy
When suddenly there’s a big lurch
That you can’t explain
Or control.

At first you think, no worries,
We’ll be back on course in a moment.
But we aren’t.

Then more lurches, some big
Some small
And long stretches in between.

Waiting.

Thinking, can’t we just go back
To where we were?
Trying to work out how this could happen
While that other voice is saying
Forget it pal; we’re done here.

And then more waiting.

Wondering where this is leading.
Somewhere new and different, of course,
But how, exactly?

No way to know.

—December 2006

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.

 

Christmas Poem 2011

Years ago I began sending out poems at Christmas time, in lieu of cards. Here’s one of the first I sent.

The View from an Attic Window

BY HOWARD NEMEROV from New Poems (1960)
for Francis and Barbara

1
Among the high-branching, leafless boughs
Above the roof-peaks of the town,
Snowflakes unnumberably come down.

I watched out of the attic window
The laced sway of family trees,
Intricate genealogies

Whose strict, reserved gentility,
Trembling, impossible to bow,
Received the appalling fall of snow.

All during Sunday afternoon,
Not storming, but befittingly,
Out of a still, grey, devout sky,

The snowflakes fell, until all shapes
Went under, and thickening, drunken lines
Cobwebbed the sleep of solemn pines.

Up in the attic, among many things
Inherited and out of style,
I cried, then fell asleep awhile,

Waking at night now, as the snow-
flakes from darkness to darkness go
Past yellow lights in the street below.

2
I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful.
And like a child I cried myself to sleep
High in the head of the house, feeling the hull
Beneath me pitch and roll among the steep
Mountains and valleys of the many years
That brought me to tears.

Down in the cellar, furnace and washing machine,
Pump, fuse-box, water heater, work their hearts
Out at my life, which narrowly runs between
Them and this cemetery of spare parts
For discontinued men, whose hats and canes
Are my rich remains.

And women, their portraits and wedding gowns
Stacked in the corners, brooding in wooden trunks;
And children’s rattles, books about lions and clowns;
And headless, hanging dresses swayed like drunks
Whenever a living footstep shakes the floor;
I mention no more;

But what I thought today, that made me cry,
Is this, that we live in two kinds of thing:
The powerful trees, thrusting into the sky
Their black patience, are one, and that branching
Relation teaches how we endure and grow;
The other is the snow,

Falling in a white chaos from the sky,
As many as the sands of all the seas,
As all the men who died or who will die,
As stars in heaven, as leaves of all the trees;
As Abraham was promised of his seed;
Generations bleed,

Till I, high in the tower of my time
Among familiar ruins, began to cry
For accident, sickness, justice, war and crime,
Because all died, because I had to die.
The snow fell, the trees stood, the promise kept,
And a child I slept.

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.

Lu Ping

On Sunday I went to meet Lu Ping, a wonderful Suzhou artist who works in Beijing but who has just built a country vacation home for himself and his wife in the nearby ‘water town’ of Luzhizhen.

You can see some of his work from the 1990s here:

http://www.chineseartnet.com/LuPing/lp10.htm

I bought several of his woodcut prints before I knew who he was. Then the man at the frame shop said, “You really like Lu Ping, don’t you?” I said, “Who is Lu Ping?” Later he said, “Well, I know Lu Ping. Next time he comes to Suzhou I will call you.” And that’s what happened.

His wife He Zhen served us tea, and a pear from the tree in their garden. He showed us some of his more recent work, and we talked about art.

What a treat!

Fake Apple Store, Fake IKEA, Fake Dairy Queen. What’s next? — Fake France!

The news about entire retail shops being copied by clever Chinese entrepreneurs leads to the obvious question: where do we go from here? Clearly, fake stores are an intermediary step in the development toward a much more ambitious project: fake countries.

Think about it: millions of Chinese people would love to visit France, for example, but it’s too far away and too expensive. Solution? Fake France! Berets, baguettes, red wine, accordions, and an entire fake Paris complete with Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, and Jim Morrison’s fake grave (Jim himself, of course, is head of a highly successful import/export joint venture headquartered in Shanghai). Given the trends of the world economy,  it will soon be cost-effective to populate Fake France with real French people, drawn to the opportunity by attractive wages and the possibility of shopping in Fake Apple Stores on their days off. I’m sure there’s a spot somewhere in the south of China with an appropriate climate that’s already been staked out by developers.

But why stop there? How about . . . Fake Egypt! Just what Xinjiang Province’s barren sands need. Other countries, of course, could be more challenging. Fake Norway, for example: we can do snow, we can do fjords, but the crystal blue water in those fjords? Hmmm.

Lest you think all of this is a bad thing, think again. The Chinese genius for making exquisitely accurate copies—an art that goes back for centuries, by the way, prompted by imperial demands for copies of ancient art works that had been lost—may end up saving all of us. We continue raping, pillaging, plundering, and polluting the planet with little thought for the consequences. The Chinese, I’m convinced, are thinking ahead for us. When the planet has finally been rendered completely uninhabitable, where will we go?

Of course: Fake Earth!

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:

http://www.willamette.edu/about/leadership/president/about/index.html

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.

Success with Independent Reading: making me smile

I just received a note from one of my “cyber-colleagues” on the English Companion Ning, and part of it was about Independent Reading:

I also want to thank you for some advice you have given me last year regarding Independent Reading – I have taken some of your ideas, changed and implemented them in my junior classes, and I have had (and am having) unexpected, and dare I say, some wonderful experiences and results. The students have really bought into the idea, and I have seen their reading skills, interpretive skills and just general involvement in class improve. I had three parents actually thank me at our recent parents evening, which is something in our school. Your answer just gave me an extra nudge to go from contemplating to doing.

Can you see my smile?

More about Independent Reading is one click away.

Reading (Again): great advice for literature students

I just came across this blog post by Barbara Kerley. Although aimed at people learning to write fiction, it matches exactly the advice I give to students in my literature classes, especially at the IB Diploma level, where they need to analyze how the authors’ choices and techniques produce the effects we see in the works.

Since Blogspot is blocked where I am, I will, with apologies to Ms. Kerley, reprint a big chunk of her post here so that my students can benefit from it:

Reading (Again)

Posted by Barbara Kerley

I got the nicest email the other day from a group of kids in Illinois who’d been reading my books in school. They sent questions. (And pictures! That was a treat for me to see all those smiling faces!) These kids are serious about wanting to write; they’re analyzing books they like and writing authors for advice.

One of the questions they asked was what writing exercises I’d recommend for young writers like them, and what kind of exercises I enjoyed doing.

I wrote back:

“I think one of the best things you can do as a writer is to REread other people’s books. When you read a book you like, read it again and look at how the author accomplished whatever it is s/he did so well. Satisfying ending? Well, how did s/he set that up? Exciting story? Well, what details or plot twists did s/he include? Characters you really care about? Well, how did s/he do that, specifically?”

I learned this tip years ago when I heard the wonderful author Nancy Farmer speak at a conference. She said when she was teaching herself how to write, she would read the same book three times. The first time she read it, she was so caught up in the story that she really couldn’t see how the author made it work so well. But by the third reading, she was able to step back, analyze what was going on, and learn from it.

Right. The first time you read a book, most of your attention is devoted to tracking who’s who and what’s happening. The second time you read it, you know who the characters are and what happens, so you can devote most of your attention to the details you missed the first time; you make connections you didn’t make before, and understand things better. The third time, you can really focus on the author’s choices and techniques and analyze how the story or play or poem is written.

At this point you might ask: what kind of book would I want to read three times?! Answer: a really good book. Supermarket thrillers can be read once, but after that? —there’s no reason to re-read them, because they are all plot, and once you know the plot, that’s it. A really good book, however, can be read multiple times, and each time it shows you something more and gives you more to think about. Or, as Susan Sontag wrote, “No book is worth reading once if it is not worth reading many times.”

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.

Do university students learn anything? It depends.

I am usually wary of stories in the U.S. media about education issues—almost always I find distortion and oversimplification.

This piece by the Associated Press is no exception, but it caught my eye, particularly these two findings from the report it cites:

_Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.

_Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system [fraternities and sororities] had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.

To which I guess one can only reply, Really? No kidding?

Chalk up another one to common sense, and write it on the wall next to your desk: If I study more, read more, write more, go to a better school, study real subjects, and don’t go out drinking every weekend, I’ll do better in school and learn more.

Might even work in high school . . . but we would need another scientific study to know for sure, eh?

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 edublogs.org—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.

Thanks,

[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

http://rodericksilva.tumblr.com/post/1332931832/can-you-spare-some-change

http://benpaddlejones.edublogs.org/2010/10/07/re-thinking_schools_-to_be_basecamps_for_our_students_futures/

http://www.drdouggreen.com/2010/10/wounded-by-school-book-summary/

http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2010/10/tom-whitbys-blogging-day-insist-on.html

http://ongoingquest.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/the-quagmire-of-education-reform/

http://talkworthy.blogspot.com/2010/10/look-deeper-listen-and-watch-more.html

http://www.metzilla.com/home/2010/10/17/focus-on-the-teacher.html

http://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/pbl-is-passion-based-learning-show-me-your-passion/

http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/1295

http://dailylifeasateacher.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/vocal-minority-vs-silent-majority/

http://esheninger.blogspot.com/2010/10/reform-is-happening.html

http://jasontbedell.com/a-key-to-education-reform-support

http://specialeducationtech.com/special-education-tech-news/does-special-education-hold-the-key-to-fixing-general-education/

http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/year-round-school/

http://mathmamawrites.blogspot.com/2010/10/today-is-day-for-rebel-education-blogs.html

http://blog.genyes.com/index.php/2010/08/09/connecting-ed-tech-to-ed-reform-2/

http://www.thanks2teachers.com/Home/MyFavorites/Inspirational/tabid/67/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/164/RANDOM-THOUGHTS-on-Educational-Reform.aspx

http://phsprincipal.blogspot.com/2010/10/one-size-fits-all.html

http://principalposts.edublogs.org/2010/10/17/a-recipe-for-change/

http://engagethelearner.net/2010/08/24/how-many-mooneys-do-you-know/

http://ecologyofeducation.net/wsite/?p=2994

http://venturepragmatist.com/2010/09/the-people-factor/

http://www.suburbanlion.com/?p=134

http://specialeducationtech.com/special-education-tech-news/the-tao-of-goals-3/

http://educationvisionleadership.edublogs.org/2010/10/17/ed-reform-critical-time-to-truly-make-change-happen/

http://www.pointatopointb.org/2010/10/17/superman-is-already-here/

http://danielespejo.com/2010/09/23/inspired-by-a-10-month-old/

http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/personal-creeds-and-philosophies-of-the-right-kind-of-education/

http://mwedwardstechnology.blogspot.com/2010/10/there-is-something-there-but-i-am-not.html

http://mlkolis.blogspot.com/2010/10/rebels-day-ideas-for-positive.html

http://www.cybraryman.com/edreform.html

http://oneub.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/la-escuela-arruina-el-pensamiento-divergente/

http://mrspripp.blogspot.com/2010/10/teacher-can-dream.html

http://www.k12mobilelearning.com/?p=674

http://specialeducationtech.com/special-education-tech-news/behaving-excellence-into-being/

http://philly-teacher.blogspot.com/2010/10/edupunks.html

http://justintarte.blogspot.com/2010/10/rebel-education-reform-blog-revistthe.html

http://educationaltechnologyguy.blogspot.com/2010/03/whos-responsible-for-failing.html

http://corriehkelly.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/who-are-we-serving/

http://monkblogs.blogspot.com/2010/10/seth-godin_17.html

http://www.onefootinreality.com/2010/10/education-reform-2010.html

http://carlanderson.blogspot.com/2010/10/waiting-for-wizard-of-oz.html

http://nblumengarten.edublogs.org/2010/10/17/reform-should-begin-in-the-classroom/

http://web20classroom.blogspot.com/2010/10/what-twisted-sister-can-teach-us-about.html

http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/challengetoact/

http://colonelb.posterous.com/when-did-america-decide-to-follow-instead-of

http://eduratireview.com/2010/10/our-only-charter-should-be-radical-invention/

http://thompsonblogs.org/altepeter/2010/10/17/what-matters-most/

http://georgetown.edublogs.org/2010/10/17/in-celebration-of-georgetown-teachers/

http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/the-hard-path-part-3/

http://who-cester.blogspot.com/2010/10/start-listening-to-those-on-ground.html

http://otra-educacion.blogspot.com/2010/10/green-blue-red-and-pink-schools.html

http://ekwip.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/students-narrating-the-world/

http://the21stcenturyprincipal.blogspot.com/2010/10/true-innovation-begins-with-school.html

http://ericmacknight.com/wordpress/?p=399

http://johnfaig.blogspot.com/2010/10/improving-education.html

http://suedensmore.net/ed-reform-blog-day

http://colintgraham.com/2010/10/17/what-could-be-better-than-eating-honey/

http://www.thenerdyteacher.com/2010/10/mentoring-and-edreform-together-at-last.html

http://transformingschoolculture.blogspot.com/2010/10/hear-this-rebel-yell-joy-joy-joy.html

http://interactivewhiteboardinsights.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-i-left-teaching-personal-example.html

http://lakinderqueen.blogspot.com/2010/10/nothings-going-to-hurt-you-not-while-im.html

http://1nbm.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/education-reform-2/

http://akevy613.posterous.com/positive-steps-for-educational-reform

http://dailylifeasateacher.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/how-waiting-for-superman-can-lead-to-education-reform/

http://teacherbootcamp.edublogs.org/2010/10/17/how-a-whisper-becomes-a-roar/

http://danielespejo.com/2010/10/16/reform-is-happening/

http://growinggoodschools.blogspot.com/2010/10/rebel-education-reform-inner-city.html

http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2010/10/no-child-left-unfed.html

http://edtechsteve.blogspot.com/2010/10/reclaiming-student-achievement.html

http://colinmaxwell.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/rebels-day/

http://21centuryedtech.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/jukebox-or-ipod-transforming-educations-best-lessons/

http://azjd.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/grassroots-school-reform-keep-it-local/

http://stayoutofschool.com/2010/09/arts-education-and-civilization/

http://angoltanaroknak.blogspot.com/2010/10/our-children-transforming-education-in.html

http://fifthbiz.blogspot.com/2010/10/george-macdonald-on-imagination-in.html

http://fifthbiz.blogspot.com/2010/04/delsartes-approval-in-defense-of-some.html

http://ortals.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/neededgoal/

http://www.njea.org/ccusearch/?vid=1209

http://tzstchr.edublogs.org/2010/07/13/challenge/

http://trice25.edublogs.org/2010/09/26/to-whom-are-we-accountable/

http://carlanderson.blogspot.com/2010/10/edreform-required-reading-list.html

http://maryannreilly.blogspot.com/2010/10/what-rests-in-our-hands-is-simply-that.html

http://mrwybrant.blogspot.com/2010/10/duty-power-and-responsibility.html

http://averyteach.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-power-of-i.html

http://afowles.blogspot.com/2010/10/rebel-post.html

http://blog.genyes.com/index.php/2010/02/20/seymour-papert-on-generation-yes-kid-power/

http://www.connectedprincipals.com/archives/1255

http://principalspov.blogspot.com/2010/10/should-we-be-testing-kids-elev8ed.html

http://21k12blog.net/2010/09/13/samuelson-in-newsweek-blaming-students-for-lacking-motivation/

http://thoughtsfromschool.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/a-new-job-idea/

http://www.computerexplorers.com/blog/205

http://educollab.blogspot.com/2010/10/waiting-for-hannibal-smith.html

http://drtimony.com/?p=282

http://gret.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/arentwedonewithwaiting/

http://www.educatoral.com/wordpress/2010/10/17/ed-reform-okay/

http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/one-inviolate-hour/

http://mrwejr.edublogs.org/recognizing-all-students-the-movement/

http://learningisgrowing.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/from-good-to-great/

School reform: Change the culture!

Nearly a month ago Tom Whitby called for educational bloggers to take back the (mostly U.S.) debate over school reform by posting reform ideas simultaneously on October 17th. Here’s my contribution to the cause.

Most problems faced by schools are not educational, but cultural. Once a positive culture of learning is in place, needed improvements can be made. On the other hand, so long as the culture—whether it’s local, regional, or national—remains toxic to education, no efforts at school reform will succeed.

How can culture be changed? For the answer, look to advertisers. They create desires and values all the time. Their techniques are not mysterious, and their success is undeniable. Let’s use the same techniques to promote education, especially in communities where it is not highly valued.

The national government could do this with an ongoing campaign of public-service advertisements. State and local governments could contribute by naming streets, bridges, and public squares after great thinkers, writers, and artists, as is done in France. School districts (with financial assistance from the feds) could do it by increasing adult education offerings, by naming schools, hallways, and other parts of school campuses after great writers, thinkers, and artists. Etc.

Such efforts would be relatively inexpensive, but if they succeed in creating a culture that values learning, their benefits would be enormous. How can we know that? Easy. Look at communities where schools are successful, and think—what do they all have in common? Answer: a culture that values learning.

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):

Sam

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.

China going to the dogs

I lived in The Netherlands for two years before moving to China. Walking down the street in The Netherlands required serious training in modern dance to avoid stepping in ubiquitous piles of dog poop. A video of ordinary pedestrians would resemble a mass outbreak of St. Vitus’ dance. (Indeed, Aachen wasn’t far away.)

In 2004 one of the many delightful surprises about China was . . . no dog poop! Ah, heaven! Some Chinese, apparently, sometimes ate dogs, but no one kept them as pets. The sidewalks were blessedly clean. Along with not having to own a car, Suzhou’s classical gardens, wonderfully friendly people, super-fast trains, amazing (and affordable!) foot- and body-massages, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, not having to dodge dog poop really made me happy.

Alas, along with other Western vices like fast food and designer labels, the rising Chinese middle classes have discovered the delights of keeping dogs as pets. Lap dogs, suited to apartment life, are most common, inevitably being cuddled by beautiful women sporting designer-brand clothing and accessories head-to-toe. But big dogs are increasingly seen as well. All of these dogs, big and small, poop. So far, all the pooping (and evidence of pooping) I have seen has been in grassy areas, not in the middle of the sidewalk. However, if I were fond of lounging on the sward in city parks I would be seriously miffed at having to carefully check for dog poop before stretching out. And if I had a toddler or two, small persons fond of touching and tasting everything in reach, I would be more than seriously miffed.

If (as my mother used to say) I had my druthers, I would ban the owning of dogs in municipal areas. Assuming this won’t happen, my fallback position is to call for a national campaign (China is really good at national campaigns) to train dog owners to pick up their little darlings’ poop. Yes. A pooper-scooper campaign.

Because although it’s still great that I don’t need a car, and I love Suzhou’s classical gardens, and the people are extremely friendly, and the trains are awe-inspiring, and the massages are life-saving, and TCM is really life-saving . . . despite all that, I have to say it: China is going to the dogs.

How to improve your English

 

Students sometimes ask, “Mr. MacKnight, how can I improve my grammar?” Here’s how.

1. Read every day!

There is no substitute for daily reading. Choose books you like: if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t read. Students who are non-readers will never become fluent writers, because only through years of reading do we develop a strong sense of what sentences should look like when they are written down. Read every day!

2. Copy good writing

If you are reading every day, but want to accelerate your improvement by doing more, it is possible. Trying to memorize a grammar book won’t help. But if you are really determined, there is a good method. It may sound stupid, but it works.

Copy good writing.

I don’t mean, “imitate good writing.” I mean copy it, word for word, comma for comma. By hand. So that it’s perfect. As I say, this may sound stupid, but it will actually force you to slow down and pay attention to the details, and it will teach your muscles to write correctly.

Where to find good writing? Any writing you admire and enjoy will do, but here are two suggestions. First, try any essay by George Orwell. He died about 60 years ago, and he was British, so there will be an occasional word or phrase that may be out of date or unfamiliar. But he remains one of the two or three greatest English-language essayists of the 20th century. Second, try some essays by Paul Graham, who writes as a hobby, mostly, and usually about computer science. But he also writes on more general-interest topics, and he is an excellent stylist.

I suggest that you copy one paragraph every couple of days—two or three a week. Don’t try to go fast; aim to copy everything perfectly, down to the last apostrophe. If you keep at it, I guarantee that your grammar will improve. You will also learn about how to write a great essay.

SSIS Garden Project nostalgia

I’ve created a new page on this wiki, here—

SSIS Garden Project

—that gives a bit of history and points to a growing collection of photographs dating from late 2005, when we began creating the Garden Project at the new SSIS campus on Zhong Nan Jie. If you were there, you will recognize some faces and if you weren’t you’ll be able to see what you missed. It’s mostly weeds now, alas, but perhaps it will be reborn.

Edublogs Challenge: great school blogs

The other day my English 9A class blog was named by Mrs. Burton and her class as one of their favourite ten school blogs, and now it’s my turn to pass on the accolades as part of the Edublogs challenge. So here’s my list of 10 great school blogs, in absolutely no order whatsoever:

1.  http://yhsjuniorcommunitybookdiscussion.wikispaces.com/

YHS Junior Community Book Discussion Wiki

2.  Larry Ferlazzo’s TOK class blog

A great resource!

3.  TOKTalk

Oliver Kim’s TOK site, with lots of audio material.

4.  http://www.theliteraturemachine.com/english10/

Greg Clinton’s Gr. 10 English class blog.

5.  Secrets of Teaching Writing Revealed

Linda Aragoni’s great writing site

6.  http://whiteswrite.ning.com/

Grace White’s Grade 6 ning.

7.  http://intrepidteacher.edublogs.org/

Jabiz Raisdana’s blog with links to his students’ work.

8.  http://www.tellraven.us/denali/

Doug Noon’s Grade 6 class blog in Alaska.

9.  http://anthonyservicelearning.edublogs.org/

Susan B. Anthony Middle School’s service learning site.

10. http://talentedtexans.blogspot.com/

Miss T’s Talented Texans (Grade 4)

I urge you to check them all out.