Thursday, June 21, 2012

the art of communicating the art of communicating

My Dad recently discovered a box in the garage full of old high school and college papers I wrote. There was even a Hamlet essay from my senior year AP English class. (I got a B-.) Then there was this one, from the master's degree program at UCLA's Teacher Education Laboratory. I didn't include the date (one of many errors-- check out the "the the" in the 2nd paragraph), but I was in that program from 1992-3, so I would have been 22 or 23 (or 4-5 years older than the average high school senior) when I wrote this. Please read it and then scroll on.

on teaching as an art

Modern learners need to be masters of both content and media. Thought and symbolic representation/communication of thought is amazing and made all the more so by technology-enabled communities. And it's important to be mindful of what we don't know. Although physiology and neurology shed more light than ever before, we have not been able to find or explain the little voice within. So we can't exactly account for consciousness or how we think, which means learning is still a lot like love: an intimately familiar mystery that each of us experiences differently. And love is one of the most popular stories in human history. How many novels, plays, movies, poems, songs...?

Learning is just as intuitive and just as abstract, and it merits just as much freedom of expression. Consider this installation art piece depicting the estimated 857 students who drop out each hour. This is far more powerful and persuasive than an op ed essay: "Presidential Candidates Should Address Education Issues." [yawn.]

So why should an inquiry-based assignment come with a predetermined outcome ('this will be a paper,' 'that will be a poster')? Last year a research team began using mind maps. They wrote all the usual MLA-style text, but they were also able to create a living document with links, pics, vids and other media, and they were able to invite communities to view and even participate.

Start looking into online tools (pick at least three to start, I'll post a list soon) that enable the user to convey an idea or tell a story. As you evaluate them, ask yourself: How do you learn? What makes you lose track of time? Do you agree with the idea of teaching as an art? (Feel free to disagree, it's a free country.) Looking forward to your comments.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

lit terms: allusion

Ah, Father's Day. When we got back from the beach I watched "Finding Nemo" with my 2-year-old daughter. We chatted the whole time, mostly about what Nemo was doing and seeing, but my daughter also started pointing out connections that weren't so obvious. For example, when Bruce the shark throws the torpedo into the mines and sets off a chain reaction of explosions,


a bubble pops on the surface next to a pelican sitting on the water next to a companion in the moonlight. When the bubble pops (right next to the pelican's butt), the companion turns, frowns in disgust, says "Nice" and flies away. My daughter looked up at me, said, "Bird tooted!" and started laughing. Now she's asleep and I'm thinking about how I can help you pass the AP Exam next May.

In addition to helping with Montaigne and providing a forum for comments/questions on all the summer texts, this blog will also feature sample AP-style quizzes and topics for writing. Try the exercises in the posts and see what you do well and what you need to work on (also, compare your answers with your colleagues'-- this is an advantage of writing online as opposed to turning in a single copy). This self-evaluation will be an important part of our first two weeks.

I will also use the blog to start you off on the literature terms you're going to need.

The first one is...

ALLUSION: an author's reference to something s/he thinks you should know.

Allusion is an inside joke or understanding between author and reader. Watch the scene in VIDEO #1 (see below), featuring the aforementioned shark named Bruce. At the very end of this clip he peers through an opening at his intended prey and says, "Heeere's Brucie!" My daughter giggles at this point because Bruce is clearly out of his mind. Besides, we've seen this before; she knows Marlin and Dory escape, and Bruce turns out to be an OK guy after all. But since all my daughter knows about "Heeere's Brucie!" is what's right in front of her, she misses out on some of the humor and most of the information contained in this scene. The allusion to 12-step recovery programs (e.g., standing up in front of a group and saying "Hi, I'm _______...") makes me reflect on the absurdity of sharks working on image problems and addictive behavior. This can also be taken as a satirical comment on the lengths some people have to go in this society just to treat themselves well. "Heeere's Brucie!" also brings to mind Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" (VIDEO #2, below) and the bizarro displacement of a homicidal maniac in a children's cartoon. And then, to add yet another layer, I find myself thinking that it's sort of weird for such an innocent line (see VIDEO #3, below) to become popular in such a different and scary way (well, it seemed scary the first time I saw it). Using allusion instead of just having a shark turn mean at the smell of blood helps make Bruce's character more "human" and also invites viewers to apply their own references to "Heeeere's Johnny!" The more viewers know, the more fun they have interpreting the mash-up of images in their heads while Brucie tosses the torpedo at the mines and Marlin and Dory escape. This will also give you something more interesting to say than "So, um, yeah..." when James Franco (once a Ph.D. candidate in literature himself) pulls you aside at the Academy Awards after party* and says:

[*You may not get to the Oscars, but you will get to the AP Exam, and questions like this await you there too. I borrowed the idea and basic structure for this one from from the 2011 AP Literature Exam.]

"Hey, I once read this novel by William Styron where a father tells his son that life 'is a search for justice.' So, you saw "Finding Nemo, right? Do you think either Marlin or Nemo understood justice? Do you think their searches for justice were successful or were they looking for something else? What do you think their struggles say about us and the world we make for ourselves?"

Knowledgeable viewers/readers who can connect the dots also understand the deeper subject, what "Finding Nemo" (and every other story) is really all about: us.



[BEFORE YOU WATCH: The original "Heeere's Johnny!" (as invented by Ed McMahon for the pre-Leno Johnny Carson-era "Tonight Show") takes approximately the first three seconds of this clip, followed by a 1:27 "stretched out" version that is guaranteed to annoy you and everyone else within earshot. For more on Ed McMahon check out the youtube link "Remembering Ed McMahon" from CBS]

The Poisonwood Bible

This posting is for any conversations about The Poisonwood Bible, including (but not limited to):
*Barbara Kingsolver's life and work
*Time period and related literature
*Allusion to cultural references and other works
*Themes: spirituality, religion, emotion and other thought influencers

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas as you read, post a comment and create a thread.

Pride & Prejudice

This posting is for any conversations about Pride & Prejudice, including (but not limited to):
*Jane Austen's life and work
*Time period and related literature
*Movies, plays, and other adaptations (zombies & vampires included)
*Themes: love, courtship, marriage, family/generational relationships

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas as you read, post a comment and create a thread.

On Education: Montaigne #2

This week's topic as you think about Montaigne is education. As a twelve-year veteran of the system (assuming you began in kindergarten) you undoubtedly have your own opinions about education. How has your education helped you think? What practices are effective and what needs to be modernized? What do you think of this article on homework, which ran on the front page of The New York Times?

Here are some thoughts from Montaigne. Does his view on education surprise you? Does it seem like what you would expect from him? Do you agree/disagree with him? As you did last week, please feel free to compare these ideas with what you read (and this time, please respond in a comment to this post). Take notes on the ideas and the writing style, and remember that we will begin the year with a series of in-class essays on these topics, so if anyone has ideas or questions please don't be shy-- start sharing your ideas in comments now.

montaigne2 education

Friday, June 15, 2012

why learning is more important than college

Sure, college is important.  It's the traditional pathway to the middle class and the professions.  But we're living in a nontraditional time with a nontraditional economy.  Have a look at these pictures/stories.

And here's an article by a high school senior that suggests college should come with a warning label.

What are your thoughts?  What do you expect college to do for you? 

{Thanks for the articles, Dave Pell!}

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

about this blog, your health & success in this course

Part of the reason I use a blog instead of a website is that a blog is more personal, more journalistic, and more likely to create opportunities for conversation. When we begin meeting in person, every day's agenda and works-in-progress will be documented here. But in-class interaction is limited in time and space, and learning happens everywhere all the time, so even though we only had something like 185 days of class last year, there were 398 posts to the course blog. I frequently create posts like this to raise issues and/or invite discussion; feel free to comment and begin a conversation thread by contributing an idea, resource/link or question.

We all get a lot of information from a lot of different sources-- and some of it is worth passing along. I'll post items about college, financial aid, study/learning strategies and resources, and occasionally random stuff like an eight-year-old girl who builds rockets or a guy playing piano for elephants in the middle of a jungle.  Just now I ran across this article about young people finding yet another substance to give them an achievement "edge." I find this terribly depressing. What is it about [products/substances/things we can buy] that make us believe they can solve our problems more effectively than we can? For the record, the only substances that will help you in this course of inquiry are: water, clean proteins, fats and carbohydrates in moderate proportions every few hours. And the super-secret bonus ingredients? SLEEP & EXERCISE!

We live in a culture that emphasizes shortcuts: don't believe the hype. Every athlete or intellectual/professional at the top of her game is a living testimony to a simple equation: [Passion] + [Diligence] = [Excellence]  If you've ever loved doing something enough to completely lose track of time, you're already familiar with the idea of flow.  If the idea is new to you, I hope you can discover something through this course that will lead you to it.  I'll give you some ideas in August to get you started.

Grantland Rice gave us the idea, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."  He also wrote a verse called "How to be a Champion" that Coach Wooden used to quote all the time:  

You wonder how they do it, 
You look to see the knack, 
You watch the foot in action,
Or the shoulder or the back. 

But when you spot the answer 
Where the glamours lurk, 
You’ll find in moving higher 
Up the laurel-covered spire, 
That most of it is practice, 
And the rest of it is work.

You're about to have a lot of work to do, and there is no way out but Through. This doesn't have to be a bad thing or a stressful burden. In the first couple of weeks we'll talk about balancing your academic and extra-curricular obligations as you prepare for life after high school. In the meantime, please feel free to comment to this post with any ideas, questions, concerns or observations about these topics.  

Sapere Aude.

Friday, June 8, 2012

why not you?

When we meet in the fall take a good look around the room and ask yourself: Who will be the inventor? Who will solve one of life's major problems? Who will make the world a better place? Who will be the entrepreneur?

 These teenagers will.

about the summer reading and stream of consciousness

This year’s summer reading is a mix of eras, styles, topics and genres. Pride & Prejudice is widely acknowledged as a classic masterpiece. As you read, think, and take notes on this book, pay close attention to how Jane Austen describes the details of marriage as a cultural custom and how she develops a conflict. What is it about her style that makes an “old” story so attractive to new audiences? (Pride & Prejudice was released as a feature film in 2005; give your imagination the chance to “see” the book first, then check out the movie’s imdb entry—does the cast look/act/speak as you imagined?)

Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998. Studying a contemporary author gives readers the chance to ask about the thinking behind the text (as they did in this BBC interview). How are the topics of gender, politics, religion, and social custom dealt with in this book? What similarities and differences do you see between Kingsolver’s writing and Austen’s?

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is in a class by himself. You can’t escape the word essay in school, but the way we use it has nothing to do with the way Montaigne meant it when he titled his book Essays. In school the word suggests three paragraphs of tightly structured sentences with appropriate transitions sandwiched by an introduction and a conclusion. In Montaigne’s French, however, essays literally means “tries” or “attempts.” Today's world of first-person musings on blogs, texts, tweets and facebook pages was preceded by a world in which hardly anyone wrote this way. Montaigne was one of the earliest Western authors to try to capture and organize his thoughts as they occurred.

In 2010 New York’s Other Press published a book by Sarah Bakewell entitled How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’ve never met Ms. Bakewell, but after finishing the book I miss her. Reading How to Live while reading Montaigne’s Essays was like walking through a dark cave with a trusted guide who’s telling you all about what you can't see. Ms. Bakewell explained Montaigne’s writing in the context of his life. I understand Montaigne's ideas and his style more clearly because of Ms. Bakewell's descriptions of the people and events that influenced his thinking and approach to writing.

Following is the first of several excerpts from How to Live that may help shed some light on your reading of Montaigne. NOTE: These excerpts aren't written for children and they may contain words, names or ideas that are unfamiliar. Lector caveo. Yes, I could have been less annoying by avoiding the Latin and simply using the English, “Reader beware.” [And don't get the impression that I know more than a few phrases in Latin; I got this one from an online translator.] However, that would have failed to illustrate the point that there will be things in nearly every text we read that you won’t recognize, and that in the end you and you alone are responsible for making sure that you understand what you read. If you don’t get it all the first time around, or if you don't recognize names like Plutarch, Heraclitus or Seneca, congratulations: you're just like everyone else, including me, who examines something closely for the first time. Don't be shy about getting answers. Look up words and literary allusions, and make sure your references are credible (we'll discuss this further in class). Crowdsource by posting questions and ideas on the blog so we can respond. Send me an email at if you get stuck.

Because Montaigne’s writing is so different from a fictional narrative, we should examine it differently. Read the next few posts for new topics to review (or focus on as you fervently read this week).  See what insights you can unearth and think about how your notes (see previous post on Active Reading Notes) help you remember and organize the information you read. Post your ideas, observations, questions and criticisms (professionally, please) to the blog.

I will read your comments and contribute to the thread. This is neither a formal assignment nor extra credit. (Question: What’s in it for me?  Answers: Getting a head start on mastering material we’ll need to accomplish our goals this year; Meeting our colleagues and creating a sense of community to give us feedback and help us when we need it; and, Experiencing immediate success and understanding instead of just sitting around wishing we didn’t have to read.)

Here is the first excerpt from How to Live (after the jump).  I look forward to your thoughts and questions on this.