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.


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.

Judgement-free teaching in “Lord of the Flies”

There’s a gym in my town that markets itself as a “judgment free zone.” The idea, I guess, is to attract customers by creating a zone where they can feel comfortable exercising, without being judged on their physical appearance or fitness.

In school, we try very hard to create safe classrooms, where students can feel comfortable learning, sharing their ideas with other people.

Book cover lord of the fliesBut I wonder sometimes if making the classroom a “judgment free zone” has an odd side effect. Maybe it undercuts the importance of whatever issues we discuss.

Think about this for a moment. If I’ve learned my ideas will be respected and heard, no matter how “wrong” they might be, do I take them as seriously?

I think that sometimes we as teachers may be a bit too concerned about respecting people’s rights to an opinion. I know this may be something I do. Sometimes I’m so happy to get students to actually have an idea I’m perhaps unconsciously hesitant to challenge their idea, lest they shut down, retreat and never again venture an opinion on anything.

But the problem here is that it’s not enough simply to have an opinion. If I simply validate everyone’s right to an opinion, then I send the message that all opinions are equal. Perhaps this is where the simplistic “relativism” of kids shows up. There are several sides to every story. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

This issue is a timely one in my own classes right now, as we’re studying William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. The novel, which describes the descent into chaos of a group of polite English schoolboys, suggests as its theme that human beings are inherently prone to evil.


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). According to Hobbes, human life in a state of nature is "nasty, brutish and short"

I prep students for this by giving them a brief overview of two writers whose work provides a good context for the novel: John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.  The quick summary of their beliefs is that Locke saw human nature as a “blank slate,” while Hobbes saw human nature as tending towards evil. After introducing these two and presenting their ideas, I invite students to write about their thoughts. Almost without exception, students write they agree with Locke. They vehemently disagree with Hobbes.

I suspect that what many of them are really saying when they disagree with Hobbes is that they’re not bad people. Of course, they may not know what happens at the end of the novel just yet. But they may suspect it. And when they do encounter it, they probably won’t like it.

So at that point I need to get them to confront their own perhaps idealistic beliefs about human nature. I need to create cognitive dissonance that will force them to analyze the novel’s theme in light of their earlier writing. It’s okay if they disagree with the theme—I’d be thrilled if they did. But I want them to support their ideas—not just have them. The trick then is to not simply hold students accountable for having an opinion, but for investigating it, defending it and perhaps changing it in the face of evidence.

But of course we have to be careful how we challenge our students’ opinions, especially when it comes to class discussions. Otherwise we risk having our classes resemble the chaos of the kids down on the beach:

Someone shouted.
“A squid couldn’t come out of the water!”
In a moment the platform was full of arguing, gesticulating shadows. To Ralph, seated, this seemed the breakup of sanity… He could see a whiteness in the gloom near him so he grabbed it from Maurice and blew it as loudly as he could. The assembly was shocked into silence. (88)

The pedagogue’s version of the conch might be something simple like flipping the lights on and off, a repetitive clap or any other thing that gets the group’s attention. These work, but they’re all authority moves that lack the subtlety I strive for in my teaching. I don’t always want them to know I’ve redirected them.

Nor do we want our class discussions to look like the savages’ meetings in Lord of the Flies:

The chief was sitting there, naked to the waist, his face blocked out in white and red. The tribe lay in a semicircle before him. The newly beaten Wilfred was sniffling noisily in the background. Roger squatted with the rest.

“Tomorrow,” went on the chief, “we shall hunt again.”

He pointed at this savage and that with his spear. (160)

This isn’t discussion. This is directive. And it may keep order in a class—but it’s not what we want in a democratic classroom. We need to find a way to allow people to share their ideas without inappropriate judgment. Put another way, kids need to learn how to appropriately question each other and demand ideas be supported.

One way of supporting this is through writing, which can help create the “judgment free zone” we need. I’ve become a big fan of using informal writing notebooks to catch writings like this in a systematic way. Allowing students to explore ideas like this in writing supports them while they deal with problematic issues.

But at some point we need to get the ideas out of their notebooks and out to the whole class. One way to do this is to ask them to underline a single sentence from their writing and read it aloud. I set everyone up for this in the fall by making it clear that while I will never force anyone to share any one particular thing, I do expect them to share their writing as the general rule. By having them underline a key sentence and then read it aloud, we get ideas out.

Finally, we need to model the strategies educated adults use to disagree with each other. Finding the right models for this can be a challenge. It helps to role-play a bit, using a simple rubric to help students evaluate their own participation in discussion:

  • Excellent The student is actively involved for the overwhelming majority of class discussions.  He or she poses thoughtful questions, clearly summarizes other people’s comments, contributes specific and relevant information, and seeks to involve other students in class discussions.
  • Proficient The student is actively involved in class discussions.  He or she poses questions, summarizes other people’s comments, and contributes relevant information.
  • Developing The student is minimally involved in class discussions.  He or she pays attention to the discussions, making supportive comments such as “I agree” or “Yes”, but rarely if ever poses questions, summarizes other people’s comments or contributes relevant information.
  • Beginning The student is uninvolved in class discussions, perhaps even failing to pay attention much of the time.

Notice the directive to question, summarize and add information. It’s these three things that mark a class discussion where students hold each other accountable for their ideas.

This isn’t easy. Nothing worthwhile in school is. But helping students learn to respectfully disagree with each other in class is a critically important part of any democratic education.

Congratulations. Your tweet’s in the Library of Congress.

As if there was any doubt what you post on the Internet doesn’t ever go away.  The Library of Congress announced today they will be archiving every tweet ever sent since Twitter’s start in March 2006.

And it’s not just tweets about your ex the LOC wants:

So if you think the Library of Congress is “just books,” think of this: The Library has been collecting materials from the web since it began harvesting congressional and presidential campaign websites in 2000. Today we hold more than 167 terabytes of web-based information, including legal blogs, websites of candidates for national office, and websites of Members of Congress.

Creepy?  No more so than the Internet Archive, which has been doing the same thing since 1996.

So boys and girls, think twice before you hit that send button.  It’s going to the Library.

Thanks to BoingBoing

Blogging in Cuba: A reality check for U.S. teachers

Last week a few of us had a very thoughtful discussion prompted by Diana Senechal’s article in American Educator “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.”  Our disagreements with the author are primarily over the use of technology in schools.  Feeling as we do somewhat passionate about the possibilities of technology, Carl Anderson and I had a lot to say to the author when she kindly stopped by.  The conversation is still going on, if you want to jump in.

But I want to provide a bit of a reality check for us today.  Hopefully it will go beyond the cliché and frankly jingoistic theme of “look at how good we have it in America.”

Abandon CompSci classroom in Cuba

A former computer science classroom in an abandoned boarding school in Las Tunas, Cuba. The inscription on the wall translates as "Computing is the science of the future." (Paul Keller/Flickr/CC-A)

Nick Miroff had an excellent article last week on the website GlobalPost on a “Blogger Academy” in Cuba.  The article “Teaching Twitter in Havana” profiles Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez.  In addition to writing her own blog Generación Y (Generation Y), she teaches other Cubans how to use the technology of Web 2.0.  Twitter; WordPress; the ethics of journalism.  Sanchez has 30 or more students who come to her apartment to learn these skills.

And, as the author points out, “Given the Castro government’s record of infiltrating opposition groups, (it’s) also likely a few of the students (come) to take notes on their classmates.”

Restrictions on the use of the Internet in U.S. schools are nothing compared to Cuba.  Most Cubans aren’t allowed to have Internet connections in their homes.  They get online by going to cyber cafes and hotels — where their use of the net is automatically monitored for ‘subversive’ key words.  It’s possible to earn a five-year trip to prison simply by “connecting to the Internet in an illegal manner.”  Sanchez herself was roughed up last year by a group of presumably government agents.

And we’re going to complain about having Facebook blocked from our schools?

Why, yes I am.

Here’s why.  What message does Internet filtering send our kids?  In a country that has enshrined the rights of free expression and access to information in our constitution, what message does it send that we don’t allow our students to exercise them in our schools?  More to the point, what message does the impersonal electronic blocking of sites send?

Overt censorship such as that practiced in Cuba and less obvious types of censorship such as filtering may be extremes on either end of the scale, but they’re in the same category.  Both work to restrict the open exchange of ideas necessary for effective academic inquiry.  This happens in U.S. schools as well as in totalitarian countries.

Of course, there’s a practical issue at work here.  If we stop filtering the Internet in schools, how do we prevent students from a) misusing the network; b) accessing inappropriate information?

This is a reasonable question, and one that I’ll attempt to reasonably answer at some point.  For the moment, I think we need to acknowledge that since students in schools can find ways around filtering, we must educate students on responsible internet use as part of the solution.  And the message sent by the use of filtering software may be incompatible with that education.

In the end, Cubans and U.S. students alike will find ways to get around any online restrictions placed in their way.  And what they do there will have important implications for the political health of both nations.

That’s the reality check.

Blog is not a bad word: A response to Diana Senechal’s essay “The most daring education reform of all”

Kids on a computer


Around 1436, a German goldsmith with the multi-syllabic name of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg came up with a crazy idea.  That crazy idea – movable type – was responsible for a revolution.

Almost immediately, people in powerful positions started looking for ways to control the spread of information.

They failed.

Five centuries later, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina developed Mosaic at the university of Illinois Urbana- Champaign.  Mosaic made the World Wide Web accessible for the first time to a general audience.

Shortly after that, the United States Congress attempted to regulate content on the Internet by passing the Communications Decency Act.

They failed.

Throughout the world, repressive regimes attempt to control the spread of information.  North Korea, named by the group Reporters Without Borders as “the world’s worst Internet black hole,” does not permit any access whatsoever to the internet for its general population.

Yet even in North Korea, people find ways to get information.  Cell phones are purchased in China and smuggled across the border, raising the possibility of increasing access to the web.

Advances in communication technology throughout history have been met by scorn, outright hostility, and attempts at censorship.  In the end, they’ve all failed.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t growing pains in the process.

And that’s one of several reasons why Diana Senechal’s article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All” in the spring 2010 edition of American Educator is so problematic.

In a well-meaning attempt to encourage thoughtful use of technology in education, Senechal picks on the most superficial aspects of online communication and the worst examples of curriculum design.  She then uses this stereotype to argue for a curriculum that “preserve(s) the best of traditional teaching [and] the best of traditional content.”   And while she pays lip service to the possibilities of technology, it’s clear her view of an excellent school is one that is largely offline.

Senechal’s call for a focus on content is laudable.  Her criticisms of the worst excesses of education reform is reasonable.  Her argument that technology should “serve rather than hinder us” (5) is sound.

However, the conclusion many of her readers will draw from her article is that use of technology is somehow incompatible with a renewed focus on a meaningful core curriculum.  Her overall argument rests on three flawed premises:

  • a dated conception of teachers as gatekeepers of knowledge rather than guides;
  • an assumption students will learn to effectively use technology without expert guidance;
  • a failure to acknowledge the rich possibilities for using technology to pursue the very curricular ends she proposes.

Put together, Senechal’s argument gives credence to those people who do not believe in the free and open exchange of ideas; the people who do not believe that students either have anything significant to say nor should have any right to say it; the people who want to turn back the clock on everything we’ve been able to achieve in education since the first school was connected to the web.

And in the end, they’ll lose.  But meanwhile, they can cause some serious damage.

For the rest of this article, click here.