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.

Can you imagine making this when you were in school?

Watch this first (and comment), then come back.

I ask the question for two reasons:

  • I can’t imagine being bold enough to tackle the topic of this documentary while I was in high school in rural Illinois. Our history curriculum rarely, if ever, stepped outside of a study of the wars. This is to say nothing of its almost total ignorance of marginalized groups and the completely blind eye it turned to LGBT history.
  • The quality is pretty wonderful. I’d use this in my classroom to intro any of the topics listed above (probably  not war), and generate class conversation and questions about marginalized and untaught histories. Max and Sam are working with a brilliant script, mined excellent primary sources, and kept a close watch on the final product. I may have had their taste in school, but I didn’t have anything that looked like their abilities. Maybe I was an underachiever.

Pretty tremendous.

Class blogs should be open spaces


The walled discussion board almost feels normal at this point. As a tool, I can understand the use of a discussion board as a community builder and idea incubator. I’m a fan of those concepts.

I’m still calling wangdoodles when discussion boards are utilized for awkward or inauthentic purposes, but I can see their usefulness as an archive of correspondences for an online community. On SLA’s MOODLE install, all community members have access to a discussion forum that’s been live since the first year – SLA Talk. New freshmen are part of the fold, and their thoughts intermingle with those of the first graduating class when they were freshmen. It’s readable, documented institutional memory. An observer is just as likely to find a thread discussing student language use in the hallways as they are to find a debate about the latest movie release. It is a simple artifact of community online.

This semester, I’ve two courses implementing blogs as assignments.

For one course, a few students are assigned each week to post their thoughts on the reading leading up to that week’s class. Each other student is required to reply to one post per week with the option of passing on one week during the semester.

The posts have yet to be mentioned in class discussion.

In the other course, each person is encouraged to post weekly. The posts’ content might be related to the readings or simply to the topic for the week. No replies are required, and the posts are weekly referenced by the professor in discussion.

If blogging is to be required for a course, the latter instance comes closest to ideal practice – not required, but preferred; not for nothing, but tied to class.

In both instances, our class blogs live within the walled garden. The thoughts with which my classmates and I play will never find footing in a feed reader or enjoy comments from those who have reading lists contrary those chosen for us on our syllabi.

They should be public. Comments from anyone around the globe should be invited and commented. Our thoughts should mingle in the cyberether.

This is true for two reasons.

One, the refinement of thinking benefits from a plurality of opinions, and the Internet offers a cacophony that would challenge us to sculpt our thinking in ways we could not imagine.

Two, an open class blog asks participants to clear their throats and use their public voices while connected to a class setting in which they can find support when their voices are challenged. More than once, I’ve felt pushback when posting in this space. Early on, it was difficult to take. Sure, I wanted people to read what I posted, but how could they disagree with me?

Opening our blogs would give my classmates and I the chance to write with the training wheels of a cohort of support while enriching the experience by exposing us to the democracy of thinking on the web.

Walling a class blog runs the definite risk of students taking their opinions into the world untested and unprepared for criticism. It also robs them of the practice microphone a class blog could become.

Know your audience


“Start with a reasonable goal, develop a plan, then record your workouts and progress,” says Martin. “If that’s not enough motivation to not skip workouts, find a coach or a training buddy who can help you keep your feet to the fire, and announce your goals to friends, family, and coworkers.” Social media is a good place to declare your running plans, too, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, dailymile.com, or runnersworld.com (Forums or The Loop). If all else fails, for every mile you run reward yourself with $1 toward a trip or something else you desire. Just don’t confuse consistency with rigidity. It’s okay to skip a run for a legit reason; it’s not okay to repeatedly skip them if your reasons are as thin as an Ethiopian marathoner.


via 2012 Running Resolutions at Runner’s World.

In the march toward defining my New Year’s Resolutions, I was reading this article today. Bob Cooper of RunnersWorld.com does something simple and brilliant that works toward the argument of knowing your audience. After building a case for each resolution and providing starting steps, he includes one other piece of information – a degree of difficulty.

It’s a perfect example of writing with your audience in mind. The folks stopping by RW are looking for a challenge. They hit the road or trail each day looking for something a little more than they found their last time out. Cooper includes no explanation for his designations, but that doesn’t matter.

When we talk about creativity and approaching problems from new angles, it’s often implied that type of thinking needs to be gigantic and disruptive at all times. Cooper manages to be fresh and creative in his writing with the addition of a three words and a number.

Now, how do you teach this kind of thinking?

Things I Know 251 of 365: Writing differently lets the words say more

Our research suggests that the lack of education related to literacy is problematic, and the situation is exacerbated in the field of education.

– Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan

My last post was a bit of an experiment.

I had an idea of what I wanted to say. When I’d written out the text, though, it didn’t say enough.

I tried adding more words, but that turned out making the text say less.

I tried changing the words, but it turned out they were working pretty hard to say what I wanted them to say.

It occurred to me that pictures might help. From time to time, images have helped communicate what I’m trying to say in a post.

I looked around Creative Commons, but couldn’t quite find what I needed.

This led me to the drawing option in Google Apps. I was able to create rudimentary versions of the images my words couldn’t stretch themselves to cover.

When I tried to embed the images, they didn’t quite fit. The post still seemed flat. I wanted it to say more.

I needed to write in video. I needed image, sound and words to work together to say more than what I was able to say in text alone.

This has me thinking about the kind of message creation called for in classrooms. The as I’ve been thinking about recently, the essay is the coin of the realm. Should it be?

In attempting to make images, texts and audio work together, I needed to pull together understandings of message and meaning well beyond putting sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into some sort of cogent narrative.

What’s more, I still needed that narrative to make it all work. I still wrote the post. Even more importantly, what I put together wasn’t very good. It did what I asked it to do, but it could be so much better. The room for revision in fifty different directions makes me want to jump back in and try. When I was in my online program last year, I couldn’t figure out why this kind of composition wasn’t a part of the courses. We were people learning together who would never be in the same physical space. The easiest thing to do would be to construct an environment that allowed us to be people with each other and build learning artifacts that actually spoke to who we were.

This is the type of writing we should be teaching. Not forsaking traditional texts, but folding them, extending them, and reconnoitering them into what they can be.

Students’ writings want to say more. We should let them.

Things I Know 205 of 365: There’s a new poet in town

The truth of poetry is not the truth of history.

– Philip Levine, United States Poet Laureate

We’ve a new poet laureate.
We had an old poet laureate.
Digest it quickly,
Move on.

No hippy, liberal elitist.
No ivory tower academic.
He’s from Detroit.
He worked the line.
He’s gotten his hands dirty.
Some of it rubbed off on his soul.

America has a poet.
This feels right.
At it’s best,
America strives to be poetry.

At our worst,
We clunk along like prose,
In a technical manual,
From when we needed stereo instructions.

I met a Poet Laureate once.
He shook my hand.
He signed my book.

Later, before sleep,
his words filled me with the capital “T”
Only poets can tell.

If we wanted School Improvement Plans
That told us where we’re going,
That reminded us where we’ve been,
That showed us the best and worst
Of who we are and what we could do,
Every budget would include

… a Poet Laureate.

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 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.

Sidenote: Published with Diana Laufenberg in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy

I suppose the title of the post says it all. Diana Laufenberg and I wrote column published in the latest issue of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy about the inherent squishiness of digital literacy. Here’s the abstract:

The thing about digital literacy is its inherent squishiness. Educators argue whether the tool or the purpose matters most. They debate whether something being “electronic” constitutes “digital.” Does it need a screen? A keyboard? More than that, teachers must decide what it means to read and write digitally and how to assess those skills. Just as teachers were working to conclusively define literacy, digital literacy arrived on the scene and the discussion started again. In fact, the most solid of ground to be found in the debate surrounding digital literacy is the agreement that, whatever it is, it is important to the success of our students. Even then, not everyone is in agreement.

Abstract from Chase, Z., & Laufenberg, D. (2011, April). Embracing the Squishiness of Digital Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(7), 535–537. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.54.7.7

Things I Know 87 of 365: Pres. Obama, Rhee, Gates and Sec. Duncan should support the NWP

So our goal as an administration, my goal as President, has been to build on these successes across America…

…We need to put outstanding teachers in every classroom, and give those teachers the pay and the support that they deserve…

…A budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that’s sacrificing our country’s future.  That would be a budget that sacrifices our children’s future.  And I will not let it happen…

…Let me make it plain:  We cannot cut education.  (Applause.)  We can’t cut the things that will make America more competitive…

– Pres. Obama 3/14/11 Kenmore Middle School, Arlington, VA

We’ll fight against ineffective instructional programs and bureaucracy so that public dollars go where they make the biggest difference: to effective instructional programs.

– Michelle Rhee 12/6/10 Newsweek

Great teachers are a precious natural resource. But we have to figure out how to make them a renewable, expandable resource. We have to figure out what makes the great teachers great and how we transfer those skills to others. These are vital questions for American education.

– Bill Gates 11/19/10 Council of Chief State School Officers

The plain fact is that — to lead in the new century — we have no choice in the matter but to invest in education. No other issue is more critical to our economy, to our future and our way of life.

– Sec. Arne Duncan 3/9/11 Senate Testimony

For 20 years, the National Writing Project has received federal funding to help teachers across the nation improve their practice and improve the learning of their students. The research bears this out.

The NWP is in danger. Twenty years of success and grass-roots professional development are in danger. Contact your congressperson – daily. After that, contact the offices of each of the people quoted above. If they truly believe what they say above, they will have no problem speaking out in support of the NWP.