I’ve had the David Bowie song “Changes” stuck in my head for several days now. It simply won’t go away.

This started out as a short writing piece I began in front of my English 10H class last week. One of my typical tricks is to turn on the LCD projector and begin writing in the same way I ask them to write their first drafts. Freely, without fear, writing from the gut, paying no attention whatsoever to the little kid inside the head that calls your work “stupid.”

I knew I wanted to write about change. And about two minutes into my freewriting, the tune popped into my head:

(Turn and face the strain)
Don’t want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

I’m not sure Bowie’s song holds the key to any new brilliant observations on life. But I do think that when my brain keeps coming back to a topic like this, there’s probably something in it. I’ve learned over the years to trust this more intuitive part of my mind.

So wherefore this song?

Bowie, I gather, was commenting at least in part on how artists have to continually reinvent themselves. This isn’t necessarily a happy thing — Bowie opens the song by alluding to “A million dead-end streets” and continuing that “Every time I thought I’d got it made/It seemed the taste was not so sweet.”

Later in the song:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same

At the best, Bowie has a benevolent indifference to change. And that’s where this song rings true to a teacher. With all the changes happening in schools today, is it reasonable to expect most teachers to feel anything else?

“Good news! This year we’re doing professional learning communities! Yippie!”

“Guess what? We’ve adopted new Common Core curriculum standards. You get to remap your curriculum!”

“Yay! We’re installing a new teacher evaluation procedure! Fun times!”

And for what it’s worth, I’m more or less in favor of each of these changes. But the fact that I support them doesn’t mean they’re not intensely disruptive.

Sometimes disruption is good. Fine. We all need to be broken out of the ruts in our personal road every now and then.

But there’s so much change.

Of course, there are other emotions teachers are feeling:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

Who’s really treated like these children in the current educational climate? Teachers these days are, as Bowie puts is, “up to their necks in it.” Currently the public whipping child for everything that is wrong with society, they are quite aware of what’s going on in their profession.

How should a teacher negotiate change? This has been a running theme in my writing and work over the past few years, as I try to learn how to use technology in teaching, rather than allow technology to use me.

I’m hoping I’ll find some answers in the book I’m currently reading: Diane Senechal’s Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Our Schools. This was a book that I knew I would eventually have to read, mainly because an exchange a few years back I had with the author over the use of blogs in education showed me I had far more in common philosophically with the writer I was criticizing than the people who came to my defense. I’m certain I’ll have more to say about it later.

But one passage from her book is in order here. Noting how one university professor defended the use of clickers in the classroom by saying that teachers “just (have) to be more interesting than YouTube,” Senechal writes,

It is a strange era where a teacher must compete with other forms of entertainment; it suggests an end not only of concentration but also of respect and wisdom.

Bowie would call this a “strange fascination, fascinating me.”


Note: This is a version of a piece I wrote for the blog at the Carnegie, a small learning community at my high school in its first year of work. I’ve adapted it here because it speaks to the challenges faced by anyone trying to build something new.

It took me about three years to build the stone patio beind my house.

What got me started wasn’t any great desire to learn the ways of the stonemason, but a cranky thriftiness I no doubt inherited from my father. We had piles and piles of rough-cut bluestone left over from construction. Why should I pay for boring manufactured pavers when I had this stone waiting to be shaped into something beautiful?

So one spring day, I cleared the space, laid a bed of 1A gravel, and began laying out stone. Not, as Thoreau did, “for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day,” but simply to create something both practical and beautiful.

Of course, I found when I started that shaping and cutting stone was a tricky job. Unlike factory-made pavers, the stones behind my house were…unique. Every one different, no two alike. Some of them worked wonderfully together, fitting perfectly. Others seemed almost completely incompatible with each other.

One can cut stones, shaping them to fit patterns. Simply score them with a hammer and chisel, breathe deeply and make the cuts. But there are limits. Stones have a funny way of breaking the way they want to break, refusing to fit any preconceived notions you might have of how they should look. In the end, I often found it best to simply leave the stones alone, looking carefully for the best ways to fit them together. Gravel helped fill in the gaps, supporting the stones and helping them work together as a group.

Had I the ability to focus exclusively on the patio, I might have finished it in a few weeks. But life, of course, interrupted as it will, with bills to pay and diapers to change. And to be honest, there was only so much schlepping of stone I could do each day before I got tired. So it took me three years to finish the work.

When I look at the patio now, I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I also see the mistakes. The areas where, because I rushed and didn’t correctly level a section, the rainwater has pooled and cracked the stone. The parts where stones have shifted. And I also see places where time and nature have had their way, leaving me with places that need to be carefully observed, taken apart and rebuilt.

Today, I’m privileged to spend much of my day working in a historic Carnegie library newly renovated for a 21st century purpose. During the renovation, one of the foreman told me the stone quarried for the building was likely cut and laid by local stoneworkers who would later go to the library to learn English. It’s hard not to wonder, as you look at the craftsmanship of the builders, if they were aware of the long-term significance of their work. Does this explain the care that went into even the smallest details of the building?

In school, we work not with stones, but with human beings. Our students are shaped not by wind and water, but by the social forces at play in their environment. And, like my patio, we’re always building something new. We learn a lot from books. But it’s in our daily work and reflection that we truly learn.

Change takes time. But with luck, we can build foundations that will support our castles in the air.

Poem of the Week: “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”

Emily Dickinson

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose there’s no better way for me to get back to my writing here than to start with this week’s Poem of the Week: Emily Dickinson‘s “Much Madness is Divinest Sense.”

Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —

Why did I pick this poem? There’s a rather convoluted story here.

  1. I wanted a short poem that I could easily fit into the schedule. We’re getting close to exam week, and we don’t have a ton of time to work with a highly complex poem.
  2. I wanted something by a woman poet. Right now my “scorecard” on women vs. men is 12 men to 6 women, and I’m not too happy about that. I can do better.
  3. I wanted something that I could use as a critical lens.

It’s the last one that’s the crazy one. I’m working up a new approach to teaching the “critical lens essay,” and I need a lens. My original plan was to have students outline an essay using the poem of the week and one other text. But then it occured to me that I culd simplify things by finding a poem I could use as the critical lens.

So then I went looking for a poem I could excerpt for a critical lens quote. And I found this one while flipping through my copy of Women’s Work. Incidentally, I was feeding the twins at the same time. Call me a modern father.

I promise that at some point I will write a piece explaining the whole “Poem of the Week” concept. For now, feel free to take a look at my class wiki, where I briefly explain the poem of the week and list the poems of the week I’ve chosen so far.

Making sense of “The Shallows”

I’ve got a problem.

On one hand, I’m passionate about technology. I’ve been an active user of computers since back in high school when I cracked open my Mac Plus to install an extra four megabytes of RAM. Let’s just say Lode Runner ran a heck of a lot faster after the upgrade.

And my academic work improved as well. I remember using Hypercard for a class project, dragging the buttons around, creating links to other cards, and basically, creating. What did I create? I wish I remembered. I’d like to say I had some sort of overall epiphany when playing with Hypercard, but if I had, I’d probably have ended up in Silicon Valley with the other dot-com folks, either retired at 38 or scrounging for work.

Technology has long been a part of me. But I’ve also long been a reader. I’ve buried myself in books for years, losing myself to the plot of everything from the Narnia Chronicles to Nicholas Carr’s most recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.

And that’s where the problem comes in. What is the Internet doing to our brains?

Carr’s book posits that the explosive growth of digital media is essentially shortening our attention span, literally changing our brains from ones able to focus on books to brains which are better designed to handle the often chaotic firehose of information that is modern media. “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind,” Carr writes, one “that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts–the faster, the better.” While paying tribute to both the inevitability of change and the benefits new technologies bring, Carr’s book is an implict warning about the future.

Admittedly, there’s a range of opinions about Carr’s book, which I find particularly frustrating since much of the criticism has come from technology and education writers I trust and consider part of my Personal Learning Network. But as a teacher of English — especially one who values the act of reading — I have to be concerned.

I’ve been concerned for a few years, especially since 2007, when the National Endowment for the Arts’ report “To Read or Not to Read” really shocked me. Coming on the heels of its 2004 report “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” the two reports painted a bleak picture of reading among teenagers. According to the reports, both reading scores and interest in reading as a pleasure activity were in a gradual but unmistakable decline — particularly among teenagers. Reading for pleasure — that is, reading for fun outside of school, steadily decreases between the ages of 13 to 17. In 2004, 54 percent of 9-year-olds reported reading “almost every day for fun.” But for 13-year-olds, that number dropped to 30 percent. By 17, the percentage was at 22 percent.

Perhaps more shocking was that the report also noted a similar decline in college graduates. Even though the report noted that educational level correlates strongly with reading habits, it still found an 18 percent drop in literary reading among college graduates. One in three college seniors reported reading nothing at all for pleasure in a particular week.

The report studiously refused to speculate on the possible causes for these numbers. So I presented this report to my fall 2007 English 9 Honors class. They had no problem telling me exactly what they thought. To paraphrase one student’s comment: the farther you go in school, the less time you have outside of school for pleasure activities. Given the choice between reading a book and playing a game or talking to their friends online, how many students would realistically choose a book?

The class nodded. And I was only a little surprised. These were the best and brightest of the entering class of 2012. And they were bluntly telling me the older they got, the less they’d read for pleasure.

“Is this a problem?” I asked. They agreed. “Well, what can we do about it?”

That year was the first time I assigned independent reading as an academic task. That year, we limited the independent reading project to the first quarter. This year, I’ve made independent reading a core component of my class. I expect my students to read independently for at least two half-hour sessions a week. I’m tracking their reading not with intrusive reading logs, but with a combination of informal check-ins, discussion groups and an end-of-quarter portfolio. Though it only counts for 10 percent of their grade, I consider their independent reading one of the most important aspects of the course.

At the same time, I’m trying to model my own reading, both by discussing it in class along with my students and using new media such as my wiki and my new academic Twitter account. Which is itself interesting, because my renewed concern about technology’s impact on our lives coincides with me launching my most technology-enabled class ever. I’m again using an online platform to communicate with students and their families outside of school. I’m playing with Twitter to explore how a limited amount of social networking can help improve communication between home and school. And in my most exciting endeavor, I’ve moved all my lesson planning to Google Calendar, enabling me to among other things push out a constantly updated class agenda. I don’t have to write things down once in my planbook and once online. I do it once.

You see, despite my concerns about technology, I’m an optimist about the future. In that regard (and perhaps as an antidote to Carr’s book), I’ve just begun reading Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus.  And it’s making me hopeful for the future. In a June 2010 talk in Cannes, France, Shirky argues that given contemporary media tools, many people choose to use them to create, rather than consume:

But now that we’ve been given media tools…that let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be. We were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to us. We still like to consume, of course. But it turns out we also like to create, and we like to share.

Carr’s book paints a picture of the Internet as a firehose constantly pumping distractions into our mind. But while we consume media, we also create it.

I don’t see the decline of the book as inevitable–at least not in my students’ lifetime. And while new media does have the potential to distract, it also has the potential to create.

Hopefully we can have the best of both worlds.

P.S. Shirky’s talk on “Cognitive Surplus” is worth watching in its entirety.

The future of the book

It’s been in the back of my mind that I need to update this blog a bit and get back to writing here. Eventually, I’ll have some more thoughtful things to say. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, check out this video on “The Future of The Book” from tech and design consulting firm Ideo.  As I play with the iPad, it certainly gives me a lot to think about.

(via Will Richardson’s

Giving teachers credit

The other week I said something in a meeting that, after further reflection, was wrong.

“Some teachers won’t do anything unless they’re getting credit,” I said.

Context, of course, is everything, and explains this statement. I was talking about formal professional development programs, the kind requiring regular work, attendance, and meetings. I was trying to encourage creative thinking about giving academic credit for online professional development.

In this case, the statement is about 90 percent true for me. If I want to keep teaching, I need formal professional development credit.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first began teaching, I did what needed to be done. There was a time when I wouldn’t think twice about signing up for a project or taking a new class.

Now, with three kids at home, I need to be a bit selfish. They need my time and attention. So if I’m going to take a class, or do a study group, I expect to get credit for it.

But the broad idea — that teachers won’t do anything unless they’re getting credit — is way off course.

Last week I was camping. Walking my dog along the side of a river, what am I thinking of? Not the river. Not the heat. I’m thinking about teaching. Specifically, I’m thinking about how to organize the classwork component of my class in order to better differentiate instruction while still keeping things manageable on my end.

I don’t suppose it will surprise any of us that teachers “work” during the summer. Summer work for teachers runs the gamut of possible activities, covering everything from summer school teaching to second jobs outside of education. Several teachers I know do “odd jobs” like painting and construction during the summer. I suspect a few may even put on a vest and punch a clock somewhere.

But there’s another kind of work teachers do. It’s the consistent low-level thinking about teaching that goes on. The thought that runs through your head. The problem you’re turning over. The nagging annoyance of trying to find a better way to do things.

It’s been this way for me for years. It’s hard for me to read a book simply for enjoyment anymore. Last week I finished reading Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s 1995 book China Wakes. It was a fascinating read, but why was I reading it? Because it had been suggested to me by another teacher as a “must read” for journalism students. And as I read it, certain sections jumped out at me, screaming their relevance to teaching. I dog-eared a few pages to ensure I’d look at them later.

Summer work isn’t limited to serendipitous thought about teaching. There are several projects on deck for the summer, all of which require more than casual attention. Organizing curriculum units, finding new material, writing lesson plans — all these are there. Once again, I’m reworking the basic concept of how I organize my class. I’ve taught for 13 years, and I swear I redo this every year.

But sometimes I think the most valuable summer work teachers do isn’t the stuff we intentionally sit down to complete. Perhaps it’s simply a professional mindset, one that requires us to view the world through a pair of teacher-colored glasses. I suspect more of us have this mindset than people think.

And we don’t always get credit for it.

A Wordle for My Blog

I put together a Wordle for this blog as part of a lesson I’m preparing for tomorrow. It looked nice, so I thought I’d post it here. You can make your own Wordle using text from any online source or text you type in. It’s a neat tool with multiple uses. I’m using it as part of a lesson on digital footprints–which I’ll have more to say about at some point in the near future.