A Passion for Squiggly Lines on White Paper


Day Five’s question in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project is an easy one for me to answer:

What else (besides travel) are you passionate about?

In a word: words. Words are my profession and one of my greatest passions.

I write, I blog, I teach writing. I write when I travel, I write about traveling, I write so I can afford to travel.

I write to make sense of my thoughts. I write to make sense of the world.

I write to make my readers recognize their thoughts in my words; I write so they can read and say Yes.

In the international workshops I teach, words connect American kids to their peers in far-off corners of the planet. They introduce themselves in letters, they write about their hometowns, they write about their hopes for the future, they write their good wishes for their new, distant friends. By exchanging words, they exchange knowledge about each other. They exchange understanding. Words bridge the distances; words broaden their world.

And when I’m not writing or teaching writing, I’m often reading other people’s words. Stories, plays, poetry, essays. Backs of cereal boxes. Tubes of toothpaste. If words are in front of me, I’m reading them. Right now, words are behind me, too: I’m sitting in my office with my back to an entire wall of books, filled with other people’s words.

As the playwright Tom Stoppard said:

“Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

That’s my hope, my goal, my passion. That’s why I play with words.

Image: By Juanedc from Zaragoza, España (Letras Uploaded by juanedc) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Reflecting Is Not Loafing. Really.

Eternal reflection: Rodin's "Le Penseur" (The Thinker)  [Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell's gate]

Eternal reflection: Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (The Thinker)

“The painter or draftsman must be solitary, and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.”

Thus Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, quotes our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, on the subject of contemplation and reflection. It was apparent to the master that in order to process what we have learned and to commit it to memory so that we can use it later on, we need to be still for a bit and think about the things we’ve observed, absorbed, and created.

The problem with this concept, though, is that reflection involves a distinct lack of moving about. It’s quiet and, well, reflective–so in some cases, it might resemble, to an alarming degree, sitting around and doing nothing. In education, where teaching time is brief and precious and the last thing to be valued is letting the kids sit around with nothing constructive to do, the practice of reflection can be easy to pooh-pooh. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable tool and an effective method of evaluation; reflection can help students process what they’ve just learned even as it provides insight for their teachers into what the class understands and what still remains to be mastered.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero has, over the past 37 years, been examining the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations. Their Visible Learning initiative features a set of “Thinking Routines”–mini-strategies that teachers can embed into their lessons so that students can reflect on their own work–on what they have learned, and on what they have yet to understand. Thinking Routines are like little games or challenges. They’re fun, they take up very little classroom time, they provide both the teacher and the students with a way to make learning visible, and they illuminate a path for continually adjusting and tweaking what goes on in the classroom.

The subset of Core Routines, in particular, encourages students to reflect on what they think they already know about a subject and what they’d still like to learn. For example, the routine called “What Makes You Say That?” consists of two simple yet powerful questions: “What’s going on?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

One of my favorite routines, which I often use at the end of one of the series of arts-integrated writing workshops that I teach, is “I used to think…But now I think…” I like to present this routine in the last few minutes of the last workshop, asking students to write their answers out and then calling on them to share their responses with the rest of the group. This routine can indicate progress in a much truer way than a multiple-choice test can.

Sometimes the insight I gain through this routine is deeper than I expect. Last year, I led a week-long Spring Break workshop for fourth and fifth graders from a poor neighborhood in South Florida; I centered my curriculum on a young-people’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, re-told by Gillian Cross and gorgeously illustrated by Neil Packer.  My young students spent the week hearing and discussing the episodes and then using writing, visual art, and movement to craft their own creative responses to the ancient classic. On the last day, I used the “I used to think…” routine to see what about the weeklong process had impacted them. I gave them a few minutes to think and write in their “Reflection Journals”–little handmade books that they had created during the first workshop. One boy made me grin with his answer:

“I used to think…the older times were really boring and like I was going to pass out. But now I think…they were really fun. I don’t know if the other Greek books are boring, but I know the Odyssey was super fun.”

Good to know that his knee-jerk reaction to ancient literature  had been tempered by his arts-integrated experience!

My favorite response of all time, though, came from Jakayla, a tough little fourth-grade girl and the self-appointed ringleader of my Spring Break group. After a few minutes of reflection, Jakayla concluded:

“I used to think…that this would be all about writing. But now I think…it was all about finding what you love.”

Lest this all seem too kumbaya-warm-and-fuzzy, understand that every day, in the simplest fashion, I would determine what facts and vocabulary the students were absorbing: I would fire questions at them at random moments. “What was the Cyclops’ name?” “Who turned the sailors into pigs?” “Where is Odysseus trying to get home to?” The kids would practically fall over raising and waving their hands in the air with the answers. There was no need to test those simple facts; the children were learning the story and its elements as a natural result of listening, writing, making art, and acting out the episodes.  The simple Thinking Routine, though, along with a few moments to reflect quietly on what they knew and felt, and the opportunity to write about it in full sentences rather than bubbling in a row of circles on a computer-graded test, painted a clear picture, for me and for them, of the joyful learning that took place that week.

In his introduction to John Francis Rigaud’s translation of Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting, John William Brown notes that when the great artist was painting The Last Supper on the wall of the convent of La Madonna delle Grazie,

“[T]he Prior of the Dominicans…became impatient whenever he saw Leonardo in contemplation instead of continuing his picture; he being one of those who imagine that a painter must be neglecting his work whenever his hands are not actually employed on it.”

Leonardo, of course, strongly disagreed with this view. As do I.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell’s gate

Read This Post (If You Want To)

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

“You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re laughing.” – Janet Potter

Recently, The Millions published “28 Books You Should Read If You Want To,” an essay by Janet Potter that takes on the traditional format of “must read” lists published by everyone from Amazon to The Huffington Post. Instead of coming up with an arbitrary, subjective list of books that you must read before you die, or before you can consider yourself well-read, or because you’re a woman or a man, Potter has created a list of twenty-eight books you should read “if you want to.”

Here’s the brilliant thing about her list, though: there are no book titles on it.

Instead, the list’s items read like the quotation above: they’re suggestions for finding gems of books in unlikely places, based on what other people are reading or talking about or arguing over. Read the book “that your favorite band references in their lyrics,” she suggests. Or the one “that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.”

I was struck by this list, not just because it describes a splendid and serendipitous approach to choosing what you read for pleasure, but because of how this approach might inform the way we teach children in our increasingly standardized, cookie-cutter, test-based school systems, where students are forced to spend their time memorizing rudimentary facts, and where deep, or even (heaven forbid) slightly off-topic, investigation is squashed for lack of time and “importance.”

What if educational curricula looked more like this list? What if we created guidelines, frameworks, for various subjects, and within those frameworks, made students responsible for their own deep investigation of the subject matter? Yes, yes, we need to teach them the definition of “noun” and “molecule,” but what if the learning of those definitions took place as a natural part of the inquisitiveness and joy of exploring a new subject in a way that was relevant and creative and exciting?

Think of the college model of teaching English composition: you read an assigned text, but you are asked to explore it in a personal, non-scripted way through a “reader response”–by choosing a passage or a section that you find interesting or confusing, and then writing a few paragraphs identifying the section, giving your thoughts, asking your questions, and trying to make connections between the writing that intrigued or dismayed you and some other text or experience. Connections that might help you, and the rest of the class, make sense of the text.

You are being asked, in short, to think.

And to use writing as a way to assist your thinking, to lay out your ideas and confusions and try to work your way through them. Then you bring your response to class and share it, discuss it with the instructor and your classmates, who offer their own ideas and pose their own questions. The instructor is there to facilitate the discussion rather than to run it, and in this way, the class becomes more invested in the text. It becomes more relevant to them, as they ask and answer each other’s questions, relate the writing to their own lives, and even gain a new understanding of their own literary and academic tastes.

Why not routinely apply this approach in a pre-college setting? Why not apply it to all sorts of texts, in science and history, for example? Engage students in this type of self-guided exploration of the parts of the subject that interest them the most. Use that interest to keep their attention, to get them to learn more, to encourage them to spend more time learning. They will still learn those definitions and rudimentary facts, but organically, as part of their investigations. Those little pieces that presently make up the sum total of the learning experience will recede to take on their rightful role, as the important but small building blocks that allow students to think critically and write and speak intelligently about interesting subjects.

When you take piano lessons, you memorize all sorts of musical terms–in Italian, no less. You learn that fermata is a stop, that forte means loud, that legato means smoothly. No one needs to give you a list of those terms and insist that you memorize them; you naturally learn them because they apply to what you’re doing, to your ability to play better, to understand the music that moves you.  And you don’t forget them, because you’re using them. They are tools.

So here’s to using a collegiate approach to teach younger students. To using an approach that is far more engaging and meaningful than memorizing facts in a vacuum and regurgitating them onto a bubble sheet to be scored by a computer. An approach that is ruled by choice, deep investigation, and critical thinking.

Read Janet Potter’s article, “28 Books You Should Read if You Want To” here. It’s delightful.