Lessons By Design

I like expanding the condensed meanings in poetry, especially with the help of my students. But my students don’t always feel the same way. For some, poems  — and poetry lessons —  are like labyrinths with pathways to nowhere. Which is why, after teaching a poetry survey for nearly two months, and listening to various complaints, a colleague and I decided to put a design challenge to our high school seniors: to build a better high school poetry lesson.

The challenge we set our students to solve was actually twofold: learn Design Thinking (not easy, actually) and use it to design a better way to teach poetry (not easy, at all). In groups of 4, students had about a week to design a 10 minute lesson on a 21st century poem that would be better than or different from the traditional lessons on traditional poetry that we gave them in the fall.

I gave myself a challenge as well: to watch and monitor rather than teach or participate during this time. I saw groups that immediately got to work and others that sat in prolonged silence. There was one that, at least at first, bickered back and forth. I really wanted to intervene. I mostly didn’t.

I’m glad I held back because given a little space, they got more and more comfortable with the project. They conducted interviews of others students to learn what their experience learning poetry was like. Then they brainstormed ideas. Then they prototyped, revised, and finally delivered their lessons. Voila, Design Thinking!

Were their poetry lessons better than the gold standard method I and other teachers tend to use (assign poems for annotation, read aloud, listen to others read aloud, break things down by line and stanza, look for figurative language, consider author’s purpose, etc)? I don’t think so. All of their ideas and lessons were sound. But none of their lessons resulted in the class really understanding the poems they taught, and they all recognized that fact.

As many of them wrote in their reflection, the 10 minute time limit was, in the end, the greatest challenge of all. It wasn’t nearly enough time to teach a poem effectively, no matter how innovative they had been in the attempt.

Understanding poetry, like so many other challenges we face in our daily lives in and out of school, takes time. But what my students learned during the Design Thinking challenge transcended all of these particulars. Through working together, listening to one another, delegating tasks, meeting deadlines, and speaking publicly, they came to a better understanding — not of poetry — but of themselves and their teachers. That’s what the project was ultimately about.

Orwell’s Powerful Premonitions

As a fiction reader, I sometimes experience confusion about what is real and what is not real, and this double consciousness can be dizzying — I’m seeing things for the first time, but they don’t feel new to me. I can’t deny that fictional stories have often informed how I experience my real life. When I meet new people or listen in on conversations, read the news or travel to new places, I feel a quickening in my mind as I shuffle through images and impressions of similar people, conversations and places I have read about in fiction.

I was holding back from writing about George Orwell’s postwar novel 1984 because the parallels are so evident and are already being explored by many smarter than I (see the great piece by Adam Gopnik that came out this past week in The New Yorker). But after this week, with the closing of our borders, the proliferation of blatant dishonesty, and the reversal of policies and protections that benefit millions of people, I decided to choose a single passage from the novel to help me illustrate the power of Orwell’s story.

To be sure, Orwell’s book offers a number of resonant passages. Where he explores the internalization of guilt and shame that comes from always being watched and recorded by the Thought Police. Or the systematic way in which the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies by editing, revising, and ultimately erasing history. Or the passage describing the hypnotizing effect of the Two Minutes Hate, when citizens get riled up and furious at a made-up enemy and then slide back into servitude and submission to the nonexistent Big Brother. All feel appropriate.

But I’m going with one concerning Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. I’m choosing it because of all the things I am confounded by right now, the biggest one is this: when we close our borders, when we villify others, when we reverse laws that were put into place to protect human and civil rights, when we confuse and cajole people into questioning their own ability to discern the truth, I wonder, what are we teaching our children?

The passage goes like this: in the midst of writing his rebellious thoughts in a forbidden journal, Winston is summoned to his neighbor’s apartment to help Mrs. Parsons with her kitchen sink, which is clogged with cabbage leaves and human hair. Her husband is at work but her children are home, and they are both excitable and mean. The nine year old boy sees Winston helping his mother and says, “Up with your hands!” Holding a toy gun, he threatens Winston in a very real way: “You’re a traitor! You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”

Mrs. Parsons explains that the children are angry because she didn’t let them witness a public hanging. They are members of the Spies, a state-sponsored youth group, where they have been encouraged to verbalize, and act upon, their every violent and suspicious whim. Winston thinks, “With those children, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy… It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ‘child hero’ — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.” Indeed, these Parsons children turn in an old man for being old and later turn in their own father who, along with Winston, is tortured and reprogrammed to properly love Big Brother.

In 1984, Orwell chillingly depicts what happens when a pernicious education takes hold of society’s children, and we need to pay attention to it even though — precisely because? — it is fiction. And we need to ask ourselves, what are our children learning from us right now, in real life?

Literary Guides

I loved Nicholas Noyes’ recent NYT article with pop-up illustrations, “How to Use a Novel as a Guidebook,”  in which he describes following Oliver Twist’s footsteps in London to see the city through Oliver’s eyes.

With help from a map of 1830s London, Noyes was able to connect as a 21st century reader/traveler with a place and a time long gone, Dickensian London. “Names of roads have changed. Rivers have been redirected underground and 180 years of development and decay have changed a landmark or two,” Noyes writes. “But Dickens’s description of Oliver’s entry into London is easy to follow. And following Oliver’s journey connects London’s 19th-century geography to the modern city.”

I was thinking about this topic — what literature is good for — in light of the winter edition of Independent School magazine, titled “What’s Happened to the Humanities?” It’s a question I think about often, as an English teacher facing students who may still love to read, but don’t feel they have the time or focus they need to immerse themselves in reading. It’s a question I think about from the perspective of an administrator heeding the call to provide more STE(A)M experiences for students, which can be hard to balance with traditional ways of assigning and assessing literary texts and understandings.

The good news is I’m not at all alone. I found a lot of wisdom in Janet Alsup’s article, “Literature in the Age of Google,” in which she writes that reading fiction is still very important for learners, and the reasons are more varied and nuanced than the potential connection between a 21st century traveler and 1830s London. “Identifying with characters in fiction is a complex, reciprocal experience that leads to increased empathy and engagement with texts,” she writes, which leads to “increase[d] inference-making abilities, empathizing with others, and valuing diversity.”

Reading literature helps us to forge powerful, if imaginary, connections between people and places and, magically, encourages real-world caring. Given that, Alsup’s question, “How do we encourage reading in an age of surfing,” is an apt one. Thankfully, she provides a number of good suggestions for teachers and parents alike: expose children to literature, read with them, give them choices, ask questions that move beyond plot summary, help them to make connections between what they read and what they see/experience, and don’t assume that they will emulate the people or stories they encounter in books. 

I’m about to bring my seniors on a journey back in time to Victorian England where a little girl named Jane Eyre is tormented by a cousin in a grand house and argues her way right into a chilly school for orphan girls. With Charlotte Bronte’s novel as our guide, we will make our way through the byways of the 19th century and arrive at key understandings about Jane’s world and our own, understandings we can best gain from literature.

What I Learned in School This Year (2016)

I learned a lot this year, much of it in and around schools.

I learned to be an instructional coach, I learned a skill set for antiracist education, and I learned to be a design thinker. I took four students to our state conference to present on leadership, I wrote book reviews for different publications, and I kept my blog going while teaching AP Literature to 16 seniors and partnering with my husband to raise our daughters. I lost sleep, got a puppy, and cleaned out closets. I spread my respect for John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning to faculty by running a professional development course using his book during lunch periods this fall. I started an innovation committee and pitched a new idea for summer programs.

It was a busy and rewarding year while also a very difficult and troubling one. I stopped reading or listening to the news for a time. It felt irresponsible of me as an otherwise engaged global citizen, but I couldn’t bear to look at the violence in Aleppo, the pain on the faces of protesters in St. Louis, or even the picture of the polar bears huddled together in the dirt because their icy home has melted. I traveled to France in June, just before the attack in Nice, and I saw and felt a tension I have never experienced in my life. Someone picked my pocket on the street, just a small pebble in the well of desperation and disrespect spreading across the globe. I sat with my own students as they cried and questioned in the aftermath of a police shooting in our community. I myself cried and questioned when Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump.

Although for others the events of 2016 were immediately and truly devastating, many of those same events, for me, were like little earthquakes in the night. I woke up safe, the tremors distant enough from me to do real harm, but I woke up changed. I don’t think I have been complacent in my life, but those little earthquakes in the night have jostled me into a new level of commitment and concern in 2017 – particularly for schools, students, and the future.

Questions I am thinking about:

How will I help schools continue to adapt to an ever-changing world where technology continues to outpace our handle on its effectiveness?

How will I help students continue to develop the skills and capacities to discerningly cull through the tsunami of news, information, critiques and criticisms that flood our inboxes and search engines?

How will I continue to help answer the question of what schools will look like in 2025?

These are not necessarily new questions. But they are vital ones that seem to grow more urgent each and every day.

In a year of great highs and despairing lows, one moment of 2016 stands out for me. It was a simple thing that happened just a few weeks ago: a student sent me an email seeking advice about what novel she should read for her extra credit project. Rather than consult Google or some BuzzFeed list, she asked me. Because I am her English teacher and, I think, she believed I would know what she would like, and she respected my opinion.

I may not know what school will look like in 2025 or beyond, but I have long believed, and still believe, that no matter what they look like in a physical sense, schools will always be fueled by one steadily beating heart: the relationship between adults who want to show and children who want to know. And because of that, I’m excited for 2017.

Malaprops & More

People often ask me what my favorite book is, and I always have a lot of trouble answering. There are so many books that have imprinted my heart and mind. Right now I’m loving Ann Leary’s The Children and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, but next week I’ll be touting some other titles, I’m sure.

Easier to answer is the question I don’t usually get about my favorite bookstore, which is Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in Asheville, NC. I went there last weekend and was as excited as a kid in a candy store.

Malaprop’s is a down to earth place, just like the town it resides in — but has it all. Not just books, and interesting ones at that, but people on hand to talk to you about the books they have loved and you should read. My favorite thing there is the wall of books wrapped in brown paper with words written in Sharpie to suggest some of what lies beneath (see photo — “Blind Date With a Bookseller”).

The store’s name, taken from the word malaprop, alludes to that thing that happens when someone uses the wrong word for something and the sentence that results is highly entertaining. The most famous character to have this problem is Mrs. Malaprop from Sheriden’s 1775 play, The Rivals (Ex: “He’s the very pineapple of politeness”).

I have always loved malapropisms. I’ve certainly said a few of them in my lifetime (although never one so witty as the famous one from Yogi Berra, “Texas has a lot of electrical votes”). Students make them all the time without knowing, and it can be fun to talk through where and why we get the words wrong.

We all get things jumbled up from time to time. We hear things incorrectly, or translate what we hear to fit what we think we know (“The Sixteenth Chapel” instead of “The Sistene Chapel”). It’s part of being learners, of being human.

But even if we are not always aware that what we have said is not what we have meant, words matter. The best way to understand the words we say and know is to listen, question, and read. For ideas on what to read this holiday season, check out some of the best books of 2016.

The Play’s the Thing

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My favorite play in recent years, Hamilton, continues to grab headlines. Featuring our country’s founding fathers in their full (albeit imagined) humanity, Hamilton is worthy of continued attention, and not just because actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Vice-President Elect Mike Pence at a recent performance.

Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us” — a clear plea for the incoming Trump-Pence administration to, among other things, nurture and protect diversity, care for the earth and global relations, and remember that America is a story of immigrants. Dixon’s direct address to an audience-member was certainly dramatic. But was it unprecedented? Not at all. Actors, and through them, playwrights, have long made a habit of addressing their audiences, whether directly or indirectly, before, during, or after the show.

I have been thinking a lot about drama since the election — yes, about the dramatic events playing out on our national stage, but also about drama, the literary genre because coincidentally, my students and I have been reading and discussing plays for the last few weeks in school.

We started with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where we learned key terms like pathos, catharsis, and irony. Students worked in pairs on posters depicting Oedipus’ experience of coming to consciousness about his identity, actions, and position in the world. Their work cleverly used symbols like glasses, light bulbs, and magnifying lenses to illustrate Oedipus’ painful journey from ignorance to knowledge. We then read Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, published in 2004. Ruhl’s humorous play turns classical ideas on their heads — the Underworld is more Alice in Wonderland than land of shadows, and the chorus is made up not of esteemed elders but three grumpy stones that act like bratty children at a birthday party — to suggest that dramatic irony can be much more than one character’s realization of his worst mistakes. When Ruhl’s Eurydice chooses to dip herself in the River Styx at the end of the play — when she chooses ignorance over knowledge — my students were quick to note an ironic inversion of their own expectations given the outcome of the play we had just read, Oedipus Rex.

These plays are different in fundamental ways: Oedipus Rex is deadly serious and Eurydice provocatively humorous; Oedipus Rex conforms to conventions of classical tragedy while Eurydice breaks rules and subverts conventions. Hamilton, too, while serious and conventional in some ways, relies heavily on humor and rule-breaking. It also profoundly flips the conventional script by casting diverse actors of color into roles played exclusively in real life by white men and women.

They are the same, however, in how they perform the spectacular feat of illuminating key and timeless truths about the human experience. As importantly, they each cause audience members to sit still, observe, and reflect on meanings both ancient and new. Whether tragic or comic, theater creates and comments on community in essential ways.

Although President-elect Trump didn’t care for the unscripted moment in Hamilton, Dixon didn’t do anything so different from actors and playwrights of old when he used the stage as a platform for public commentary. And when Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us,” he continued the legacy of theater that goes back to ancient Greek times. Contrary to a tweet from President-Elect Trump, Hamilton the play is not overrated — nor is theater, in general. It’s the very thing to keep us all connected, optimistic, and engaged with timeless questions about who we were, are, and will be.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

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For many, Wednesday was a day of triumph. For more, it was a day of defeat.

Such is the nature of competition. But for me as an educator and a parent, the 2016 election was a shameful spectacle from start to finish. An experienced female candidate for president, the first our nation has ever seen, was unable to garner enough support to overshadow her (and her husband’s) mistakes. An inexperienced male candidate for president, the 45th our nation has seen, was ushered into our highest office despite failing to demonstrate preparedness, empathy, or character to this point. To get elected, he used words that stoked the flames of fear, prejudice, and phobia in neighbors and friends. And in the aftermath, it is a struggle to file those words away or write them off. They stung, and the sting lingers.

At times like these, I find myself stalking my library. I’m looking for something to make me feel better, and based on two very heartening articles, I am not alone.

Time magazine’s Sarah Begley writes in “Read a Novel: It’s Just What the Doctor Ordered” that reading fiction can be on par with other calming strategies. There is even a new profession, bibliotherapy, that has cropped up in England to offer soothing suggestions to those suffering from existential anxiety. At the School of Life in London, writes Begley, a group of bibliotherapists conducts sessions with clients that end with individualized prescriptions of six to eight books. Ella Berthoud, one of the bibliotherapists, says and I agree (although there may not be any science behind the idea), “a truly great novel gets into your subconscious and actually can change your psyche from within.”

It isn’t just fiction that can soothe what ails us — poetry, too, can be a balm.  According to poets.org, “more poems have been shared in the past two days than in any other forty-eight-hour period in the past four years. People are turning to poems seeking language, powerful and precise, to cope with this moment in our country when divisiveness has become so painfully clear.” For example, “since the election on November 8, Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” has been read on Poets.org more than 35,000 times.”

My offering to readers — my prescription for the day — is by Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet. My students know that I think this is one of her best, #314, comparing Hope to a little bird that sings courageously in the storm, and can’t be silenced, and asks for nothing in return for its efforts. If a little bird can continue to sing in chilly and strange places, then so can we.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Ode to the Passage of Time

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I’m about to teach a unit on Romantic poetry by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. There are many other noteworthy Romantic poets, but these four stand out for me as favorites, not only because I love their poems, but also because their poems remind me of some of the best moments in my life.

My mother introduced me to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was a girl. Mom was an English professor who shunned media other than the New York Times. She earned a PhD in Victorian Literature and I have her to thank for an almost intuitive connection with the words of 19th century writers. She read me the very strange “Kubla Kahn” by Coleridge and the image-laden “Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth as I fell asleep in my parents’ bed.

In contrast, I learned to love Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats not by listening but through teaching their poems to boys at Collegiate School in New York in the late 1990s. My students were surprisingly receptive to the messages in such formidable odes to autumn, to a grecian urn, to a nightingale, and to the west wind. Working closely with my English department chair Susan, who meticulously annotated each and every poem for us to use in our respective classes, I gleaned deep and lasting understandings of the Romantics that serve me to this day.

Upon realizing this past weekend that I would need to brush up on my lesson plans for class this week, I panicked for a minute before remembering that I am an almost religious keeper of notes and past learning. I pulled open the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and plucked out my folder on 19th century poetry. Inside, I found pages and pages of photocopied notes on William, Samuel, Percy and John. Interspersed among my own much neater notes from long ago were notes written in the dark black, looping letters that I will always cherish — my mother’s — followed by notes penned in precise, thin lines. These were Susan’s notes, her annotations on “Bright Star” by Keats and her rivers of questions cascading down the side of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

I took a picture Susan’s notes on “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and texted it to her in Seattle, WA, where she now lives. And I thought about how much time, space, and thought had just been covered in the ten minutes I spent looking over my nearly 20-year old notes.

In revisiting the Romantics, and in preparing to introduce them to my students in 2016, I traveled back in time to the 1800s, to my mother’s graduate work, to my childhood, and to my early years as an English teacher. The legacy that words create is the legacy that I cherish most.

 

Focus In & Let it Flow

“Stop what you’re doing,” Verena von Pfetten of The New York Times instructs us in her recent article, “Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?).”

She quickly qualifies her directive: “Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing. Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.) Just read. You are now monotasking.”

Monotasking — as in, doing one thing.

As in, not multitasking.

A great example of monotasking is, apparently, reading — what people in previous centuries used to do as a diversion from the tedium of life, but now, in the midst of a teeming 21st century life, do to reverse or assuage existential angst, exhaustion, or frenetic distraction. That something as elemental as reading is being rebranded is just further evidence of our becoming untethered from traditional ways of thinking about traditional habits.

For example, Pfetten quotes a 28-year-old writer who revels in the simple pleasure of doing one thing at a time at work: “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”

Another word for this natural and age-old phenomenon of paying attention to the thing–singular–we are doing is “flow,” defined by Bill Burnet and Dave Evans of Stanford D-School in Designing Your Life as “total engagement.”

Say Burnet and Evans, “Flow is engagement on steroids. Flow is that state of being in which time stands still, you’re totally engaged in an activity, and the challenge of that particular activity matches up with your skill — so you’re neither bored because it’s too easy nor anxious because it’s too hard.” People experiencing flow describe all manner of benefits including “ecstasy,” “euphoria,” “calm,” “peace” and “the feeling of disappearing.”

That feeling of increased dopamine that we experience when we repeatedly check our inbox or get lost in a chain of text messages can also be triggered when we focus in and let it flow. Monotasking — doing whatever we are doing in fullness with focus — is still the gold standard of really getting things done.

Instructional Coaching’s 1:1 Hinge

I was lucky to be in Kansas last week with Jim Knight, a leader of the Instructional Coaching movement in education. I heard about instructional coaching a few years ago from a forward-thinking friend in education, Matt Horvat, who had just created a new position at his school in Redmond, WA, for the express purpose of giving teachers some targeted support in their classrooms. At the time, I wondered whether teachers would want to work with an on-staff coach. Now, I am convinced that if done the way Jim Knight suggests, instructional coaching is not only a sound idea but a necessity in any school committed to constantly improving teaching and learning.

Successful instructional coaching relies on a few simple things: 1) the coach is not an administrator responsible for evaluation; 2) the teacher wants coaching and has a goal in mind; and 3) the coach and the teacher engage in an equal partnership where learning is the outcome of co-created dialogue, experience, and feedback. The hinge, though, is likely 4): the coach and the teacher work one on one. In a world where time and attention are perhaps our most valuable commodities, this one on one relationship remains the heart of learning. As I participated in Jim’s workshop, I considered how his coaching approach mirrors the ideal student-teacher relationship, where grades are not given, the student knows what he/she hopes to or needs to learn, and the student and teacher both adopt a learning stance.

During one of the seminars, my eyes began to wander around the room and landed on a dynamic but silent scene. A hearing impaired educator was sitting across from a woman dressed in black who was engaged in translating Jim’s words into sign language. The interpreter was using every element of her face, hands, and body to communicate and connect with the educator. They appeared to be locked in full communication with one another. Both parties clearly wanted to be there and to connect; their desire to learn from one another and to gain knowledge was palpable.

I thought as I watched, this is the dance of education — the sharing of information, the listening, the responding to, the feedback about, the final analysis or the decision to keep thinking — and it is sometimes the most profound when done one-on-one.

All of the content published on this blog is the original work and intellectual property of Jessica Flaxman.