Monthly Archives: January 2015

Our Warm Planet

I didn’t love Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Yes, I was struck by the dystopian aspects of life on earth – the rolling waves of dirt that blot out the sun, the futility of working an arid farm – but that was less significant to me than a single moment on the cold and distant planet that the hero, Cooper, travels to.

Cooper and his colleagues voyage on the spaceship Endurance to the outer reaches of the galaxy searching for a new home for humanity. They believe that an astronaut from a previous mission named Mann may have found a hospitable place, but – spoiler alert – they are wrong. It is a barren world of ice and wind.

When Mann is awakened from the chemically induced sleep he’s been in for years, he is so happy to see another human face that he cries.

I was reminded of countless literary heroes – Odysseus and his more modern iteration, Leopold Bloom, for example – who fall to pieces in the presence of the people or places they have been pining to see. Indeed, many of the best stories have both adventure and homecoming.

In his beautiful poem, “Birches,” Robert Frost paints a different picture of an iced-over world. For him, it is a playground for a young boy who doesn’t yet know the cares or woes of adulthood. But even so, at the end of the poem Frost says that while he’d like to climb to the top of a birch tree again, he’d want to be sure to be able to get back down.

“Earth’s the right place for love,” he concludes.

Like the boy in Frost’s poem, we want to travel and explore, but perhaps our ability to do so depends on our ability to remain connected to our warm planet, and each other.

Disruption’s Changing Face?

Educators have always struggled to define the kinds of disruption that are beneficial to a school community and the kinds that aren’t.

For example, no one would argue that schools work well when students are allowed to be distracted, rude, unruly, or constantly questioning. But likewise no one can any longer argue that schools occupy a rarefied, erudite realm or that students should be seen and not heard, passive recipients of wisdom from on high.

Gone are the days, we are repeatedly told, of the “Sage on the Stage.”

They’re gone, we’re told, because of the biggest disrupter of them all: the internet and the advent of educational technology. In a nutshell, students don’t need teachers to bring knowledge to them in the same ways that they did in the past. They need their teachers to help them organize, process, and package the knowledge that is being stored not in our minds but online.

In light of this pedagogical shift and the resulting empowerment of students through technology, the word disruption has taken on a distinctly positive connotation.

Still, I wonder if the attention paid to the novelty of disruption in education — by and through the forces of technology — are being overstated. Education has always thrived in the light of shared knowledge and questioning winds. And disruption has always been interesting and jarring to the status quo.

Notes in the Margins

I usually read with a pen in my right hand. It has to be a good pen, one with ink that doesn’t bleed through the page. A purple pen inspires me to make more marks on the page and keep them neater, but any color will do.

My marginalia are nothing to write home about. I make squiggly lines and faces with different expressions and use an ample number of exclamation and question marks. With my students, I call this active reading. In my own mind, I call this reading to remember.

And the remarkable thing is that I really do. I can flip to the right page in Bleak House, a book I read 15 years ago, because I essentially wrote notes to my future self in the interstices of Dickens’ marvelous story.

My students and I have had many conversations over the years about whether or not they should have to annotate their texts. It’s the rare teenager who fully embraces the extra work of annotation or feels that it is fair for a teacher to assess the number of marks made on a page.

But despite all of this, and a growing movement away from required annotations that may have something to do with the fact that texts have gone digital and digital tools are inferior to the simple pen or pencil, I still believe that marking up a text is the best way to process what it really says.


Start with a Single Thread

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is “The Spider Holds a Silver Ball.” I’ve had some good discussions with students over the years about the poem’s meaning, most of which stem from a disagreement about the character of the spider who creates a web, something substantial, if ephemeral, from what appears to be nothing.

Is the spider devious in his design, enlightened as to its inevitability, or neutral to his art? Does he delight in surpassing our human incapacity for such meticulous and mysterious beauty, or is he oblivious to us, even after we destroy his work?

Dickinson often used nature to get at larger issues, such as in this case the issue of authorship, and what control, if any, an author has over his or her work. Dani Shapiro captures this issue beautifully in Still Writing, when she says, “writing… is an act of faith.” Like the spider, “we writers spend our days making something out of nothing.”

My students felt this acutely over the past month as they wrote their own dystopian short stories. As is often the case, I found that the simplest advice was the most resonant. I said, choose something small that, if different, would fundamentally change life as we know it. In Shapiro’s words, “build a corner.”

Or, in Dickinson’s, start with a single thread.

The spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands –
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl – unwinds –

He plies from Nought to Nought –
In unsubstantial Trade –
Supplants our Tapestries with His –
In half the period –

An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light –
Then dangle from the Housewife’s Broom –
His Boundaries – forgot –

Common Sense

I recently received an email from Common Sense Media with a list of resolutions for 2015.

Common Sense Media is my go-to resource on all matters related to technology, education, and parenting, so I read on with interest. The truth is that although I’m evolving, absent their informed advice, my default instinct would be to worry more than may be necessary about technology’s impact on family and education.

Their first resolution was to “focus on the content quality, not the screen-time quantity.” Given the fact that we are dialed in to our devices a good amount of every day, this is good advice indeed. It was their second resolution, however, that really struck me: “Play a game with your kid.”

Such a simple directive – everyone knows that kids love to and need to play– but still, it took me off guard. Do I play enough games, computer or otherwise, with my students and my own children? And is playing a game on a computer or device the same as sitting on the floor with a board game?

When I was little, I always wanted someone to play a game with me. I am the youngest of four and both of my parents were academics, so it was rare that anyone actually said yes to my pleas. But I wasn’t completely relegated to games of Solitaire. My grandmother and I played cards after school sometimes, and to this day those memories are some of my best.

So while I still worry about technology and “screen time,” I have resolved to play more games with my kids and students – the old kind and the new.

Things That Last

I have a few life-long and very excellent friends, the kind I can call any time of day or once in three years and get exactly what I need – wise counsel, honest feedback, a riveting story.

My friend Susan is one of those friends and even though I don’t see her as much as I’d like to, I still count on her a lot. She was my department chair when I was a young teacher at Collegiate School in New York and sixteen years later, I am still turning to her for book recommendations and using her notes to teach Emily Dickinson’s “This Was a Poet.”

She recently pointed me to Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel. The main question they take up is, how can we be better learners with better recall and powers of synthesis?

First, they insist, we stop mistaking fluency with mastery. It isn’t enough for us to be familiar with the material we’re studying – we need to be able to elaborate upon it and connect it with other things, contextualize it. We need to space out our study and vary our practice, “interleaving” knowledge over time. “A little forgetting,” they say, “is crucial to learning” because in forgetting (a little) and retrieving knowledge, we build stronger memory.

Their answers are helpful to me in my work as a school administrator, as a teacher, as a parent, and as a graduate student. And they remind me of what it is that deepens both knowledge and friendship – commitment, experience, and the passage of time.

French Lessons

In my class on Dystopian Literature, we talk a lot about what I call “hallmarks of dystopia” — those aspects of an imagined society that make the individual citizen’s life feel proscribed and unfree. If Utopia is an imagined place where all is right in the world (for the one who dreams it, anyway), dystopia is its direct opposite, and comes in many forms.

In 1984, possibly the most influential dystopian novel yet written, the intrusion of the Party on people’s thoughts far surpasses any of the other nightmarish aspects of a life of deprivation. It’s worse than the miserable lack of diversity Winston Smith experiences in what he consumes, worse than the loneliness he endures.

As in other dystopias, individuals in 1984 have no freedom of written expression and no right to free speech, but beyond that, they have no freedom of thought. I was thinking about this as I read about the violence in France this week, where those at Charlie Hebdo were targeted for attaching their names to their viewpoints, controversial as they were in some cases.

Although Paris has been a place of political unrest and violence over the centuries, for me it has always been a place of beauty, a refuge, a place of dreams — a utopia of sorts. The attacks in Paris are a reminder of so many things — most of them terrible, scary, and sad — but they are also a reminder of the power of our thoughts and words.

The Enduring Centrality of the Classroom

I recently read a simple but provocative statement: “classrooms remain our most vital teaching sites.”

Given the digital revolution currently underway in and out of schools, it’s heartening to think that the classroom, that defined space where people gather with the shared mission to learn from and teach one another, is still central to education.

For almost the entirety of my education to date, going to class was synonymous with walking up a flight of stairs or down a corridor to a room with walls, tables, chairs, and other people.

Today, though, this dynamic gathering is not necessarily one that happens in three dimensions. I interviewed a prospective student today who is currently being homeschooled and takes all of his classes online. I can’t quite believe it, but I, too, am about to begin an online course — at Teachers College — on, of all subjects, online education in K-12 schools.

I know that I will learn a lot in this course because I’ve seen the syllabus and it looks extremely well laid out. But I don’t know is what it will feel like to take my instruction virtually. Will I receive the information differently, and engage with my classmates and teacher, the same as if we were together in one physical space?  Will I connect with the material the same way that I usually do without being close enough to intuit who my professor is through the little things she undoubtedly does to distinguish herself as she enters a room, collects papers, leads discussions, holds office hours, and so on?

As one who has been living for years within the four walls of myriad classrooms, I freely admit that I’d be more comfortable if every classroom looked and felt like one I’d been in before. But I know it’s crucial for me, for all of us, to open our minds to all of the possible “places” where learning can and does occur.

Something Lost, Something Found

I was reorganizing my books over the winter holiday when I suddenly remembered, for reasons unknown, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I don’t know where this book went or why I thought of it at that moment, but I was instantly bereft, wishing to see its spine wedged among other favorites.

It would be easy enough to order another copy from Amazon and have it in hand tomorrow. I might. But tonight I’m preoccupied with the mystery of how and where I lost the book that meant so much to me as a twenty-year old English major lonely for her studies over winter break of sophomore year.

Did I give it away during a purge before moving? Did I lend it to someone who fell under its spell and contrived to keep it? Did it fall behind a couch and does it sit there still?

I realize that this is a mystery that can’t be solved and isn’t a tragedy. But here’s the thing: the romance, geography and strength of character that are braided in that book – in that copy of that book – impacted in some small but certain way the person I became.

In Keith Oattey and Maja Djikic’s Dec. 21 NYT editorial, “How Reading Transforms Us,” they explain that “beyond influencing how we think or/and feel, reading helps us to be ourselves.”

In that sense, books are a lot like the people who raise and shape us, and it makes sense to want to keep them within reach.


Top Question of the Year(s)

I love to read year-in-review articles. One of the best ones I came across over the holiday break was an insert in the New York Times Magazine from the smarties at Google.

Titled, “A Little Look at a Big Year,” this thin booklet is a brief compendium of the top questions asked of the almighty search engine. Among other time-bound questions like “Is Ebola airborne” and “Who unfollowed me?” the top question asked in 2014 was an eternal one: “What is love?”

This fascinates me. How would Google, a search-engine, know that? And what does it say about us that we are asking it?

In the past, people pursued the answers to life’s big questions in different – and far less easily quantifiable – ways. They wrote letters to specific people with questions buried in the margins. They called out to the heavens, spoke to the sea, or wrote fictions about characters in search of the answers that they as individuals could not find. And while it’s true that we still do many of these things, we also regularly and casually type our questions, big and small, into a simple, blank Google box.

In some ways, the fact that search-engines most frequently field such questions as “What is love?” is reassuring. People still care the most about the things that matter the most, like love.

But as teachers and students know well, answers given is not the same thing as knowledge derived. And because people define and experience love differently, what one is likely to discover about love through Google is what one already suspects – that it is unquantifiable, that it must be experienced to be grasped.

In the end, the answers to unanswerable questions that Google, a digital curator, provides us are no more than tallies of our collective temperature, our shared beliefs. And according to Google, we are still healthily human as we seek to understand what makes us so.