We Should Embrace Confusion

The video below, from Yes to the Mess author Frank Barrett, touches on the idea of disruption of routine as a catalyst to innovation, that wimpiest of buzzwords.

Still, if your goal is to get folks – let’s say teachers and students – thinking differently and creatively about their learning, it’s an interesting line of thinking. More important than Barrett’s point about disruption, though, is the point he (mostly indirectly) makes about the role of confusion in helping people think differently.

It connected nicely with a passage from John Holt’s How Children Learn, which I’d re-visited for class this past week:

Bill Hull once said to me, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these sounds, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child-“con- fuse” is an evil word to many educators-we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach. (emphasis mine)

John Holt. How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development) (p. 84). Kindle Edition.

Perhaps we’re getting less and less out of teachers and students (and I’m not convinced that we are) because the systems in which they operate are working at top speed to make certain they avoid confusion at all levels. Teaching scripts, standardized test instructions, online learning platforms, google search – all are designed in ways that make it as difficult as possible to be confused.

If a teacher working from a pre-packaged lesson plan never has to wrestle with how to solve the problems of student engagement or differentiated instruction because the introductory set is included and the lesson’s been pre-leveled, there’s very little thinking to be done. If I’m not confused, I’m not likely be solving problems.

Similarly, if the directions to an assignment spend a few paragraphs explaining what information I should include in the heading, how many sentences constitute a paragraph, what I should include in each of said paragraphs, and the topics from which I’m allowed to choose, it’s unlikely I’ll risk the type of thinking that could perplex or confuse me as to what my exact position regarding my topic might be.

To be certain, obtuseness that renders teaching and learning inaccessible is not helpful. At the same time, clarity that renders the two unnecessary is harmful.

To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine – Video – Harvard Business Review.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, isn’t art class more valuable than reading?

A few weeks ago, some friends and I visited Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. I did there what I do each place I’m asked to view contemporary art. I looked at each piece for a few seconds, read the accompanying artist’s or curator’s statement thoroughly, and then looked back to the art thinking, “Oh, that’s what they meant to say. Of course!”

This is my way with contemporary art.

It is not, in any way, how I encounter printed words.

In middle school, reading a textbook, I skipped the graphs, the charts, and the tables. I read the words. I’m not sure why I thought those other pieces were there. Filler, maybe?

It’s worked out pretty well so far. Being able to read and manipulate text is the lingua franca of school and the wider world.

Yesterday, I found myself arguing for the opposite. In my Digital Humanities course, I tried to push and pick at people’s thinking around the necessity or sanctity of text.

My thesis is this: Information is equally imperfectly served through transmission via text as through transmission via graphics.
Images, though, don’t have equal footing when we think about reading and literacy. The two terms ellicit images of words, phrases, sentences – verbage.

But they don’t need to, and I’m starting to wonder if we’re not doing ourselves and our students a disservice by putting the premium on the ability to read text.

We lose not only the ability to create and read images, but the comfort and habits of mind that accompany this way of seeing the world as well.

Though the gallery was utterly silent on my trip to the ICA, each image was screaming with the artists’ ideas and commentary. I just had no tools for how to read and understand their language.

What I’m Doing This Year: The Resolutions

At the end of May, I’ll be doing something different with my life than I was doing in October and different still from what I was doing 365 days before that. This promises to be a year of change to rival the changes of years past.
As I was working on my resolutions for the year, I kept this in mind. I want to document the year with the same spirit as last year, and I know another daily writing project will run the risk of draining me and distracting me from experiencing what’s going on as the changes take place.
As such, I’ve arrived at the following resolutions:
1. Run every day for at least 10 minutes. This one was clearing inspired by last year’s project. I understood the why better through explaining it to someone else. I came to know myself as a writer last year by putting myself in writing each day. In the same way, when I get to know people, I think of myself as a writer and a runner. So, I’ll be running. It’s a new approach. I’ll be running for 10 minutes some days, though my mind will want to go farther. I like that. I like actively working to shift my paradigm and experience as a runner. I’m also knowledgeable enough as a runner, at this point, to know to listen to my body and be mindful of the injuries possible in such an undertaking. If this year is to include the geographic changes I anticipate it to, experiencing where I am and who I am in those places through running will be interesting.
2. Make one photo each week that represents that week of the year. I thought briefly about a photo-a-day project, but my sister, Kirstie, helped me make up my mind. Kirstie is, as I have said, a brilliant photographer with a keen eye. She completed a 365 project last year to tremendous results. When I asked her if she would be continuing it this year, she said no. The goal of a photo each day meant she wasn’t creating shots of the quality she wanted. I can appreciate that. This year, she’s surveyed 52 friends and family members for inspirations quotations and ideas. Each week, she’ll be creating a photo each week around one of those guiding ideas. My project will be less global and much more self-centered, but I hope it to be a catalog of life this year that pushes me to think more visually. The photo above was my first week’s attempt.
3. Go vegan. I’m still a little sketchy of the details on this one. I wrote last year of my month-long go at eating vegan and the cultural and personal quandaries it inspired. Since then, I’ve continued to consider my role as a citizen, the effects of what I eat on who and what I am, and the footprint of all of this. I’m starting to think of this as a biological retirement plan. More on this later.
4. Journal each day (even if it’s only a line). My mom journals every day. Leading up to the new year, she spent her mornings on the couch reading through her life in years past and remembering the connective tissue of who she is now. For a long time, I journaled alongside my students in class. It’s different than blogging, and I want to remember why.
5. Read 52 books. That’s it. Similar to running, I count myself as a reader. As much as I could easily remain among the choir who chant solemnly they “don’t have time” to read, I know I can make time for this. To be sure, grad school will continue to help push me toward this goal. The other piece is one of genuine living. In the classroom, I told students over and over of the connection between reading, writing, and thinking. I insisted they would be better writers for reading and vice versa. If I am to stand by that and improve as a writer, I must read. Fifty-two is an arbitrary goal furnished by the calendar. Still, it’s as good a number as any.
I didn’t intend 5 resolutions this year. It just shook out that way. As much as I’m excited to work at each of them, I’m excited to find how my internal understanding and logic of the rules surrounding each resolutions shifts during the year.
I’m most curious to see how they shape me.

What I Read: ‘You Are What You Speak’ by Robert Lane Greene


One of the reviews of this book faults Greene for writing about linguistics without being a linguist. I don’t find the same fault in the pages here. Certainly, this has the density one would expect from an Economist writer, but don’t let that fool you.
As an English major and English teacher who has been thinking about these things for some time, the initial introduction to prescriptivism and descriptivism did much to act as a refresher for the topics and lay the foundation of the different global perspectives of the book.
From a historical understanding of the resurrection of Hebrew to the formation of modern Turkish (an subsequent distance from pre-1930 Turkish texts), I’m walking away from this book with much richer and deeper understanding of language and it’s formation around the world.
Perhaps most helpful for me was Greene’s clear love of language. If there were any impediment created by his lack of training as a linguist, his love of language makes up for it handily.
Reading about language from the perspective of one who is so clearly curious and in love with language shapes the book as a tool for infectious love of language.
If you’re curious about language, read this. If you’re passionate about language, read this. If you are hungry for a appropriately-dense text acting as a primer to understanding linguistics, read this. It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s definitely a book for those who love and are fascinated by language.

cross-posted at http://goodreads.com/mrchase

Some Useful Words from Ted Sizer on a Common Curriculum

From Horace’s Compromise:

Some today, with earnest good intentions, urge that a common core of subjects be legislated for high school students. Depending on one’s point of view, much of this certainly is nice. Laudable or not in the abstract, however, if it is mandatory, it is an abuse of state power, an excessive reach of political authority. Again, the state is fully justified in providing it at public expense, if it wishes, and prescribing it for certain certificates and diplomas that citizens may voluntarily choose to earn.

Some others say that an adolescent should have a “high school experience,” something that is inherently a Good Thing, an experience that teaches young people to “get along with others.” Proponents of this view offer no evidence for support of their argument for mandatory “residence” at school. This is prudent on their part: there isn’t any. Most real reasons for enforced attendance actually turn on the need to preserve adults’ jobs. Compulsory attendance in an educational institution should cease when a young citizen demonstrates mastery of the minima, and most young citizens should master those minima before senior high school. As a result, schooling for most adolescents would be voluntary. Few would be compelled to attend high school, though a prudent state would vigorously encourage it. High school would be an opportunity, not an obligation.

Things I Know: 173 of 365: What books I would make me read

Laura asked last night at dinner, “What’s is a book that has impacted you?” She was looking for a book that shaped who we are. She was looking for a book that we needed to read for us to have continued on the course to who we are.

I loved the question.

I loved it even more when Christian re-imagined it.

“If you met you, what book would you make sure you read?”

The discussion deck was stacked as three of those around the table were English teachers.

The list, as much of it as I was able to copy down, is below. It’s given me much to add to the Kindle for the summer. And I will be adding as many of these books as I can.

I’m not adding them because the plots sounded interesting (though they did). I’m certainly not at a loss for additions to my reading list. I’m adding these books to the to-read list because they were the answer to a question of what thoughts and ideas people I find interesting and thoughtful consider to be formative and critical to their foundations of self.

I like understanding (or at least working toward understanding) how people come to their ideas and beliefs.

Packing to move, I’ve been sorting through the books on my shelves, the books others bought for me because they thought they were the right fit. Many of them have been a good fit. Many of them have brought me good stories. Still, I am mindful as I read these books that I want to like them because I want those who know me to be right.

The question of what you would make sure you read works better for me. Another person’s assumption of what I’ll like is not nearly as interesting to me as learning what they’ve liked. I read those books with a different eye. I read those books to get to know the person and to get to know the book.

So, here’s the list. Maybe some of these titles will make their way onto your summer reading list. If you’ve got the time, share the book that you would make sure you read.

(I’ve been expanding the list as I collect titles from those I run into at ISTE. I should probably stop before the list becomes too unwieldy. Then again, I’m still curious.)

The Gangster We’re All Looking For by Thi Diem Thuy Le (from John Spencer)

The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler (from Chris Alfano)

Losing My Virginity: How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson (from Chris Alfano

Final Rounds: A Father, A Son, The Golf Journey of a Lifetime by James Dodson (from Dean Shareski)

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss (from Bud Hunt)

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (read all four books) (from Bud Hunt)

A New Culture of Learning – by Douglas Thomas (from Vinnie Vrotny)

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century – by G. Pascal Zachary (from Vinnie Vrotny)

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (from Christian Long)

Griffith and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock (from Christian Long)

Trinity by Leon Uris (from Laura Deisley)

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Laura Deisley)

The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson (from me)

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (from me)

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins (from me)

I’ll say it again. What book would you make sure you read?

Things I Know 128 of 365: Pooh is my favorite

– A.A. Milne

In second grade, toward this time of the school year, my mom came to class for the day. We were completing our “My Book About Me,” a project I remember my mom organizing.

We were each given a Duo-Tang folder with copied pages for us to fill in blanks about our interests and favorites.

We worked to write down the superlatives of our 7-year-old lives with pencils and crayons. I vividly remember a few of the pages.

One had a box in the middle of it above the words, “This is a picture of me.” I had just started drawing necks, so I’m fairly certain I looked to be part giraffe.

I also remember writing The Dick Van Dike Show as my favorite television show. It was tough call. My other favorite show was All In the Family. Not yet old enough to understand the nuance of All In The Family, I went with Dick Van Dike because his show made me laugh the most.

The last piece I remember from my book about me was what I listed as my favorite book, The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I did and still do love that book.

I also remember my classmates mocking me for my choice.

They alerted me to its standing as a baby book and I’m sure called it stupid.

We were 7, after all. I’m not sure what was cool at the time, but it certainly had nothing to do with A.A. Milne.

It wasn’t until a few years ago while home at my mom’s that I picked up our old copy of The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and started reading.

I was immersed.

“Mom,” I would call from the couch, “This is smart and funny!”

“I know,” she would call back.

“Mom,” I called a few moments later, “This isn’t just a book for kids. Adults should read this book too.”

“I know.”

And, of course she did. She knew then as she had known when I told her about the kids in my second-grade class that Pooh was a beautifully intricate narrative full of semantic and linguistic acrobatics that could not help but invite its readers’ imaginations out to play.

When I talk about wanting my students to fall in love with reading, its the world I found in Milne’s creations that I’m hoping they will find in whatever texts capture their imaginations.

I want them to be intoxicated with story. When Pooh stops short in the story and starts conversing with the narrator, I cannot help by giggle. He’s breaking the rules and inviting his readers along.

I get that in a way I never get when reading Joyce or Faulkner. Both of them broke rules, but seemed to spite the reader, not to entice him.

Should Duo-Tang folders show up in my classroom tomorrow, Dick Van Dike might have to step to the side, but Winnie the Pooh would still hold a place of honor.

Classy: A student’s vignette

As I wrote before, my G11 students are writing their autobiographies of their reading lives as vignettes. Semaj turned in the rough draft below and said I could share it. It’s a lovely thing.

My First Love

I can remember the first time I fell in love. His cover was smooth and smelled like the words had been freshly printed onto the page, the bind was crisp and hadn’t been broken. “The Pinballs” was neatly and evenly typed across the cover in big yellow letters. I knew I had to get used to the image of those words for that would be all I would see for the next couple of days. I learned to love his flaws, the way he randomly stopped starting a new chapter breaking the flow of our connection, or the way he told me just enough to leave me hanging but not enough to give me what I wanted in that moment. But I loved him. I stayed up with him every night and held him close to me everywhere I went.

We were inseparable – me and him.

I stayed up past curfew for him, hiding my face under the blankets using the light from my phone to illuminate up the words on the page. We were only together for 3 days. Three days is all it took for him to steal my heart. Three days is all it took for me to fall in love with him. When our time together had come to an end, I shed my first and last tear in honor of him and the characters we had met and had become a part of over those 3 days.

I will never forget my first love. I will never love another the way I loved him, because he was my first. He made me realize, although I may never love another the way I loved him, there are other out there worth loving . I will always love my first book.

Things I Know 94 of 365: My reading has an epicenter

The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

– Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

Yesterday, I wrote about the first vignette I wrote in a serious to make up my reading autobiography. I’m completing my G11 students’ benchmark project along with them. I went back to the vignette today and revised and edited. It’s close to where I want it. I’m sure it will be made stronger in the soft places when we take it to writer’s workshop. For today, though, it is what I know.

Where I Started

The chair’s gone.

I’m not sure when it left us. My grandparents have never had a garage sale and my uncles were all well beyond the age when they lived in college housing collecting furniture when the chair departed.

All I know is it’s gone.

My last memories are of the shiny brown leather beginning to crack on the recliner’s arms.

Decidedly thrifty, but never one to appear the pauper, my grandmother must have decided the advent of these cracks heralded the chair’s demise.

It was a recliner stationed in the corner of the living room or family room (I’ve never learned the difference).

Though I was read to frequently and in many places as a child, this chair was the geographic center of my literacy.

Before bedtime, my grandfather would say, “How about a book, Zac ole pal?”

Footy-pajamaed, I would crawl into his lap as we read about the elephant in the bathtub, the poky little puppy or the monster at the end of the book.

I knew my grandmother would be reading to me again once I got to bed, but that didn’t stop me for pleading for “one more book.”

Grampa knew Gramma would be reading too, but acquiesced, “Alright, bud. I suppose we have time for one more.”

“Oh, Ted,” Gramma would say in that tone that let me know Grampa and I had gotten away with something.

In the echo of memory, propped up by family myth, I remember when my Grampa asked if I was following along with him as he read.

Though not new (books, like the Lincoln Logs and Light Bright were hand-me-downs from my dad and uncles), the book we were reading was one new to the chair’s regular rotation.

“Are you reading along?” he said.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Well, what’s that word?” he asked.

I read it.

“Well, I’ll be. Jean! Jean, Zachary’s reading.”

Perennially drying her hands with a dish towel, my grandmother entered the room.

“Good for him.”

I had no knowledge that that moment would signal the end of the chair and Grampa and me reading before bedtime.

Sometimes, I’ll be visiting and my Grampa will be reading with my cousins or my little brother. In those moments, I want to warn them to stay quiet, not to let on that they’re following along.

But that would be mean.

Instead, I leave them to the elephant in the bathtub, the poky little puppy and the monster at the end of the book.

Things I Know 93 of 365: I should do as I ask students to do

Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.

– Oscar Wilde

I laid across a bean bag chair in my room today trying to conjure up a memory.

My G11 students are writing reader autobiographies as their quarter three benchmark projects. The assignment calls for them to write from 7 to 15 vignettes inspired by moments of their readerly lives.

As it’s been a while since I’ve written a vignette, I committed to completing the assignment as well.

Thus, I was sprawled on a red pleather bean bag at the end of the day.

My first vignette was about the brown leather recliner in my grandparents’ living room. It was the chair where my grandfather would read to me before bedtime when I was little.

I tried to pull that memory to me through the years and carefully mold it back together on the screen. I attempted to make it something someone would want to read.

As I was typing, one of my students, Luna, was in the multi-colored bean bag opposite me. Having difficulty framing her first vignette as a single literary photograph because it took place over a stretch of time, Luna kept asking me to look over what she was writing.

Her vignette detailed a span of her middle school years and I offered suggestions and feedback a few times as she was composing.

After each piece of feedback, I returned to my writing, attempting to convey the image of footy-pajamaed me learning to sight read as my grampa read “just one more book.”

Finally, toward the end of the class period, I got it where I wanted it. Well, I got it as close to where I wanted it as I could hope of a first draft.

I had that feeling of one who has created – that need to share.

And so, I turned to Luna and handed her my laptop. I didn’t say anything or preface her reading with any comments. I handed her my laptop and asked her to read.

I’ve had students read pieces of my writing before. I’ve shared journal entries. This was different. I’d written a memory in all its first-draft roughness and turned and shared it with my student.

If I had to guess, I’d say the vulnerability in that moment is close to the vulnerability my students feel each time they submit a piece of work in class. For that reason, I’m glad I’ll be writing my remaining vignettes and submitting them to my students.

I should be doing more of that. While grading, planning and the rest of being a teacher often prevents me from completing every assignment I ask of my students, crafting these moments and embracing the vulnerability of sharing them with my students is a stiff reminder of the openness I ask of my students each time I ask them to write or share in class. It’s a reminder I’ll use next time I’m tempted to breeze through a stack of assignments for grading.

If I’m going to ask them to share their ideas with me, I need to remember (and experience) all the rawness inherent in that sharing.