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 weblogg-ed.com)

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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.

Balance

(Jasen Miller/Flickr/CC-A)One of my colleagues used to point to the hero Odysseus as an example of someone who was balanced. Odysseus’ greatness as a hero, the argument went, wasn’t due solely to his physical strength, his intelligence or his spirit. It was the balance between these three qualities that made him the idea hero.

Balance has been on my mind a lot these days. Mainly because it’s something I’m struggling with as a writer.

If you’ve been following this site since I started it in January, you’ve noticed I’ve been posting less during the last month. That’s because I’ve entered the category of part-time freelance writers. True, it’s only your basic service journalism—what one of my colleagues called “how to drill a hole in a bucket” articles. Nothing sexy or exciting. But I am getting paid. Not a lot, but enough that I can set myself goals for weekly earnings that, compiled together, add up to a supplementary income that can’t be ignored. Certainly it’s more than I’d make wearing a vest at any of the local retail stores.

And this is where I run into the problem of balance. How do I balance the need to earn money writing with the need to flourish as a writer?

Eventually I’d like to get to a place where I can be paid for creating the sort of writing I enjoy, not just the sort of writing I can get paid for. Right now the two are separate categories.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy what I’m doing. I do. It challenges me on several levels. My writing has always suffered from a certain wordiness, which doesn’t fly in the journalists’ world. Furthermore, I’ve never really written with my eye on the clock—at least not in the way I do now. When you’re getting paid in one or two-digit increments, you don’t have time to write at a leisurely pace.

But I also need to find the time to work on my own writing. To write about literature, food, travel, teaching—in short, all the things I write about here on this site.

So my writing here has obviously suffered of late. From hitting a high of four posts a week, I’m down to one. And I do want to keep it there.

Several months ago, I posed a question about why I write. At the time, I wrote I didn’t truly know what my purpose was as a writer. But the website had a purpose. Its job was to help me develop the discipline needed to write for a paycheck. This was necessary. I’ve never been truly balanced as a writer. Historically, I’m the writer who creates in flourishes of inspiration, then shuts down. And I know there are a lot of us out there.

Kurt Vonnegut said once that what separates the good writers from the average ones was patience:

Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.

That’s never been me. But I am getting there. And for that, I can pat myself on the back a bit. Considering everything else I have going on in my life, I’ve managed to carve out a place in my world for a second job. Well and good.

But can I keep it up?

I can. But only if I can find that elusive balance.

I need to find balance between the writing I’m paid for and the writing that truly pays me.

I need to find balance between the time I spend writing and the time I spend with my family.

I need to find balance between being “real” as a writer and revealing too much of my personal life. My life isn’t so exciting that a ton of people would want to know about it, but if I can’t bring my personal experiences and views to bear on my writing, I’m not sure I can produce the sort of writing that people would enjoy.

I need to find balance between my day job and my night job. I don’t bring my home job to my day job. But being a teacher means you take your day job home with you. I can get things done—but that’s not the point. It’s never enough as a teacher to simply “get things done.” Success as a teacher means my students are thriving. Are they? Are they doing as well as they possibly could? Is there anything else I could or should be doing as a teacher outside of school to ensure they thrive?

These are some of the things I need to balance.

So far, I’m doing okay. Nothing in either my personal life or my professional life has come apart at the wheels.

But the challenges posed by the writer’s life are obvious. And I need to do a better job handling them.

Getting that balance is my new goal. Wish me luck.

Philip Hoare’s “The Whale”: Review

Every now and then you read a book that really inspires you as a writer. A book that makes you think, “I could write that!” because its style is so close to what you want to do as a writer.

But the more you read, the more intimidated you get. The more you see the intricacy of the work. You read as a writer, and recognize the legwork done in libraries, the time spent in the field. And, when you finish the book and see the writer’s saved his best stuff for last… you wonder what you could do that would have a similar impact.

For me, that book was Philip Hoare’s The Whale. I finished it in less than a week, carving out time between writing, teaching and parenting to devour it. It lived in my briefcase many days.

The WhaleIn the book, Hoare traces the cultural history of whales. But he does it by blending science, history, literary analysis and memoir in a way that Alex Ross writes “inspires awe and shame.”

Ross meant awe and shame about whales. Me, I’m feeling awe and shame about the book. Awe in how good it is. Shame because I’m not sure I have the arrogant confidence to do something like it.

Literature drives this book. Even before writing a word of his own text, Hoare quotes Paradise Lost and the Bible (Jonah). Stuff like this is a puppy treat to the literary snob who picked up the book for its main course: Hoare’s discussion of Moby Dick. Both inspiration for his book and enabler of its analysis, Hoare breaks down the story of the book’s creation, applying a new-historicist-style lens to Melville’s book.There’s probably not enough here for the rabid literary scholar or the true fan of the book; Hoare doesn’t break any new critical ground here. But he effectively integrates literature with his explanation of whaling. This is of course completely appropriate, since Melville has Ishmael explain so much about whaling to the reader. So it makes sense for Hoare to quote Ishmael as a reference:

At one end, a sixty-ton animal. At the other, six men. Through the line they could feel the whale; an intimate connection between man and prey. The crew fought hard to haul the creature out of the depths as an angler tussles with a fish; an effort of resistance and power; a tug of war, or a tug of love. Suddenly, their enraged quarry surfaced with an almighty blow. Its very breath was fearful: sailors believed the spout to be acrid, able to burn skin or even, warns Ishmael, cause blindness, ‘if the jet is fairly spouted into your eyes.’ (147)

Hoare weaves literature in and out of his story. He also dips into the world history of whaling, scientific study of whales, popular culture and the economics of whaling. Foes of commercial whaling today will recognize the usual suspects, though they may be annoyed at Hoare’s non-judgmental explanation of the post-war context of Japanese whaling and the role the United States played in jump-starting the industry.

But it’s when Hoare dips into memoir that he’s at his most powerful. “Perhaps it is because I was nearly born underwater,” Hoare opens, making the powerful connection between his own life story and that of whales. There are moments when the connection is forced; moments when it seems the events requiring the personal “I” are used simply to drive the book’s structure, rather than offer any new insight. But the book’s ending—powerful, personal and lovingly written—excuses any conceit. Plus it will make any lover of whales insanely jealous.

It’s a wonderful book—precisely the sort of book I’d like to write. And it’s given me a few ideas about topics I might explore in a similar fashion.

But imagining a book like this and creating it are two very different things. Still, if you’re going to write a book, you might as well start with a good model.

I recommend The Whale for anyone interested in whaling and anyone who appreciates a well-written and wide-ranging narrative.