Learn out loud

A while back, Jabiz Raisdana tweeted,”I hate that teachers always tell students to write but very few teachers actually do it themselves. For pleasure that is.”

While I would and did argue against the idea it happens as infrequently as he contended, I do enjoy doing the work I ask my students to complete.

A few weeks ago, somewhere in my network, someone mentioned DailyLit.com. A nifty little site, DailyLit will send contiguous passages of a selected book to your e-mail account or RSS feed on a schedule you set. While some of the books require a minimal fee, many of them can be read for free.

After nosing around for a bit, I told my students to browse the “Classics” section and subscribe to books that piqued their fancies.

The assignment was simple – for each passage that popped up in a student’s inbox or feed reader, that student would then take about 5 minutes to write their thoughts on what they’d read. The responses lived as a journal on Moodle which allowed me to keep track of their thinking and comment along the way.

Now, I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I sometimes run into assignments I feel as though I’ve explained perfectly and come to find out it might not necessarily be the case.

Such was it with the journals. Students were copying and pasting key quotations, writing summaries of the passages, responding with one-sentence posts such as, “Boring.” Not the literary exploration I had planned.

This brings us back to Jabiz, that intrepid teacher.

When I first started looking around DailyLit, I’d tested out the site and signed up to receive Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

May I get real for a second?

Not to malign my qualifications as one who teaches words and letters to younger generations, but I’ve tried to read that friggin’ book 4 times and failed miserably each time. Horribly, really. I mean, these guys had a better go of it than I did when wrestling with H.D.

I created a forum in each class’s Moodle course entitled “Mr. Chase’s DailyLit.” Each day, I do what I ask my kids to do as I muddle through this classic of American literature.

Somedays, it’s not pretty:


Thoreau continues to go on and on about how he got his food. This section concerns itself mostly with bread and how he made it. One particularly grating passage reads:

Yet I find it not to be an essential ingredient, and after going without it for a year am still in the land of the living; and I am glad to escape the trivialness of carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and discharge its contents to my discomfiture. It is simpler and more respectable to omit it.

Yup, that’s all about yeast. I’ll not lie, I had to force myself to stay focused whilst reading this. It’s far from the philosophical tone Thoreau first used when beginning the book. Still, every once in a while, he’ll throw out a sentence like, “Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances,” and I’ll think, “You needed to go on about making bread for paragraph after paragraph to figure that one out?”

I still marvel at Thoreau’s use of words, but I’m increasingly frustrated by the content he’s wasting them on. If I had to guess, I’d say this is about the spot I stopped reading this book the last time I tried.

Then, though, there are days like today, when I get so excited by what I read that I have to run next door and find someone else who’s read Walden so I can have a discussion – days when my journal looks like this:


I’ve got to hand it to H.D. He’s certainly not afraid to throw down some truth. From today’s passage: Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.

I feel as though he wrote that and then stood from his desk and yelled, “There, I’ve said it, consequences be damned.”

Thoreau is arguing that by being charitable toward the poor, we are truly harming them by furthering poverty. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”


Lest his readers think he’s only interested in condemnation, he follows it up with this:

I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse.

I love that imagery, “I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse.” It takes me back to any great lecture I’ve ever attended or any conversation with people who were my intellectual superiors. There is something to be said for being in the presence of those who completely grasp the richness of their lives, who see nothing but potential and then work to achieve it. I understand what Thoreau’s saying here, though I don’t know how it fits with my own belief structure. Does this mean I don’t continue the habit of giving the money in my pocket to the guy on the street on the off chance he will use it for good? Arrrgh, damn you H.D. for making me think.

The more I read of this book, the more I think I would like to have known him.

I do enjoy learning out loud with my kids.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pablosanchez/3143055944/

One thought on “Learn out loud

  1. I am so glad that someone out in the ether, heard my call. This is the exact type of thing that I was talking about.I think that by placing ourselves in our students shoes, we either see how ridiculous some of our expections are, or we can see how fruitful it can be to simply learn as they learn.

    In other news, I agree Walden was a tough read, but there are some gems buried in that text, as you pointed.

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