Thursday, November 30, 2006
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
It's been raining a lot where I grew up in Washington State. The rains and the current essay topic in my composition class, a meditation on nature from a new perspective, prompted me to clip the following Tom Robbins piece:
Back before the earth became a couch potato, content to sit around and watch the action in other galaxies, it displayed a talent for energetic geophysical innovation. Among the lesser known products of our planet’s creative period is a scattering of landlocked “islands,” dramatic humps of preglacial sandstone (covered nowadays with fir and madrona) rising out of the alluvial plain on which I live in northwest Washington State.
Although rugged and almost rudely abrupt, there’s a feminine swell to these outcroppings that reminds me of Valkyrie breasts or, on those frequently drizzly days when they are kimonoed in mist, of scoops of Sung Dynasty puddings.
One of the larger outcroppings—called simply The Rock by its admirers—can be partially negotiated by a four-wheel-drive vehicle. I hike the last one hundred yards through tall, dark trees, and at the summit find that the hump goddesses, as usual, have rolled out the green carpet for me. There’s spongy moss underfoot, a variety of grasses and ferns and more wildflowers than Heidi’s goats could chew up in a fortnight.
In a few more yards, however, I find myself standing on virtually bare sandstone, and that sandstone is falling away away away in a plunge so steep it would be terrifying were it not so beautiful. Perched like Pan on a damp and dizzy precipice, I can look down on gliding eagles, into the privacy of osprey nests, across a verdant luminescence of leaf life and a hidden, lily-padded pond, where in spring a trillion frogs gossip about Kermit’s residuals.
To visit The Rock is to visit a natural frontier both dangerous and comforting, hard and soft, familiar and mysterious. And like Thoreau’s Walden, The Rock defines the boundary between civilization and wilderness, existing as it does twenty minutes via jeep from a bustling town, two seconds via daydream from the beginning of time.
Does anybody out there have interesting nature writing to share?
Posted by C. Watson at 2:48 PM
Sunday, November 26, 2006
The dust motes float
and swerve in the sunbeam,
as lively as worlds,
and I remember my brother
when we were boys:
"We may be living on an atom
in somebody's wallpaper."
How To Be A Poet
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill - more of each
than you have - inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away form anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
Wendell Berry, Given
Posted by C. Watson at 2:07 PM
Thursday, November 23, 2006
One of the themes that my freshman English classes explore is the power of stories. I feel like stories are our humanity. The ability to share details with eachother, the way they intersect, connect, and reflect our collective experience. In Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping, she illustrates the communal quality of storytelling:
A long time ago, in 1802 or 1892, you name your date, there's most sailors could not read nor write. Their officers read the navy charts, but the sailors had their own way. When they came past Tarbert Ness or Cape Wrath or Bell Rock, they never thought of such places as positions on the map, they knew them as stories. Every lighthouse has a story to it - more than one, and if you sail from here to Amerca, there'll not be a light you pass where the keeper didn't have a story for the seamen.
Empowering the sailors while the officers deal with the esoteric rings of what the internet and technology provide for our students. A chance to share stories, text-based, visual, interactive, with other 'sailors.' Now we can all have our own 'lighthouses.'
In the next paragraph, Winterson points to the love we have for stories and how the penultimate experience in life is to accumulate the most stories. Sharing of stories being the idiomatic icing. How many nights have you had like this?
In those days the seamen came ashore as often as they could, and when they put up at the inn, and they had eaten their chops and lit their pipes and passed the rum, they wanted a story, and it was always the lighthousekeeper who told it, while his Second or his wife stayed with the light. These stories went from man to man, generation to generation, hooped the seabound world and sailed back again, different decked maybe, but the same story. And when the lightkeeper had told his story, the sailors would tell their own, from other lights. A good keeper was one who knew more stories than the sailors. Sometimes there'd be a competition, and a salty dog would shout out 'Lundy' or 'Calf of Man' and you'd have to answer, 'The Flying Dutchman' or 'Twenty Bars of Gold'.
What strikes me most about this passage is that the sailors don't know each other. It's only the stories that create familiarity, such that their consonant love of these stories bonds them instantly and authentically. Last summer I had an experience on a river in Costa Rica like the one Winterson describes. After a typical Tico breakfast of tortillas, eggs, rice, and coffee, My wife and I were loaded into a Toyota van by our river kayak tour guide for the day. Born and raised in the Arenal high-country, he knew how to live symbiotically with his home river and the mosquitoes, crocodiles, and monkeys that also made it their home. Being the only people on the river, we all began exchanging stories, first, about our lives in Hawaii and Costa Rica, then, about the intricacies of family and growing older (he was the same age as us). Having established some of that familiarity that Winterson shows amongst the sailors, he suggested that - he later asked us not to tell anybody associated with the tour company - we accompany him to see his family farm and ailing grandfather. The farm is only reachable by river, surrounded on all sides by water, slowly eroding away the acreage. On the farm, English was not spoken. Still, we spent almost an hour exchanging the stories of Odysseus, Romeo and Juliet, and Don Quixote with a 90-year old Tico (his family thought these stories were the imagination of an old man).
For the rest of the trip down the river, we learned about our tour guide's conflict.
His brother refused to live the farming life, but our tour guide had to work 7 days a week to keep the property, while being schooled by his impoverished poet/biologist friend in an attempt to work his way up the tourguiding hierarchy. The tuition's a cup of coffee.
Costa Rica is not a place for us, it's a light with stories, familiar and new.
Posted by C. Watson at 2:17 PM
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
For my part, though, I think there's something deeper, and scarier, that keeps my hope one step ahead of past experience as I make my way to the bookstore's register. It remains very hard for me to reconcile the vapidity of Austin's narrative mind, on the one hand, with the extraordinary mental powers that are required by world-class tennis, on the other. Anyone who buys the idea that great athletes are dim should have a close look at an NFL playbook, or at a basketball coach's diagram of a 3-2 zone trap...or at an archival film of Ms. Tracy Austin repeatedly putting a ball in a court's corner at high speed from seventy-eight feet away, with huge sums of money at stake and enormous crowds of people watching her do it. Ever try to concentrate on doing something difficult with a crowd of people watching?...worse, with a crowd of spectators maybe all vocally hoping you fail so that their favorite will beat you? In my own comparatively low-level junior matches, before audiences that rarely hit three digits, it used to be all I could do to manage my sphincter. I would drive myself crazy: "...but what if I double-fault here and go down a break with all these folks watching?...don't think about it...yeah but except if I'm consciously not thinking about it then doesn't part of me have to think about it in order for me to remember what I'm not supposed to think about?...shut up, quit thinking about it and serve the goddamn ball...except how can I even be talking to myself about not thinking about it unless I'm still aware of what it is I'm talking about not thinking about?" and so on. I'd get divided, paralyzed. As most ungreat athletes do. Freeze up, choke. Lose our focus. Become self-conscious. Cease to be wholly present in our wills and choices and movements.
It is not an accident that great athletes are often called "naturals," because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even -- and, for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially -- under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.
The real secret behind top athletes' genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.
How can great athletes shut off the Iago-like voice of the self? How can they bypass the head and simply and superbly act? How, at the critical moment, can they invoke for themselves a cliche as trite as "One ball at a time" or "Gotta concentrate here," and mean it, and then do it? Maybe it's because, for top athletes, cliches present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that's all there is to it.
Posted by C. Watson at 9:50 AM
Monday, November 20, 2006
From "Prairie Fire" by Eric Konigsberg:
Patti told me that she thought Brandenn might have been an 'Indigo Child,' a concept that she learned about after his death, and that was described in a book by the New Age authors Lee Carroll and Jan Tober. 'The Indigo Children: The New Kids Have Arrived' includes essays by psychologists and doctors, and suggests that a new breed of children born in recent decades possess not only great cognitive ability but supernatural insight. While these children are often misdiagnosed as having attention-deficit or hyperactivity disorder, they may actually be old souls re-incarnated. Linda Silverman told Patti she believed that Brandenn was spiritually gifted, and that his mission to assist others in this lifetime may have been fulfilled by his death.
This excerpt is full of buzz words that are not related to what I'm thinking about or why I clipped the paragraph. Words like: "supernatural...attention-deficit...hyperactivity...re-incarnated." Instead, I see a connection to current issues of technology and schools, especially as my school, Punahou, starts a high school one-to-one laptop program next school year. Technology has made virtually any piece of information available in an instant. In schools, delivering information is obsolete. It's on the internet somewhere. Curriculum design has adapted to focus on the discernment of information.
A few steps back first. When a person, student or not, makes a discovery/learns some new set of information, there's emotion, which used to be shared with another person, peer, teacher. More and more--this happens to me with this blog, for example--our discoveries and emotions are shared with the screen that helps us make them, less and less with the people. There's an emotional connection not being made.
The other issue of emotion goes back to the access of information. All of a sudden, anybody can get any information. As a teacher, I closely monitor the emotional and intellectual "readiness" of my students, putting together, according to their needs, readings and information as appropriate. Afterall, I was a major source of their information. Now, not so. It reminds of the time I watched Halloween without my parents' permission. I had debilitating nightmares for two weeks and still remember their effects today.
Digital natives will have human emotions. What can schools do to improve the interface? I'm reminded of what Roger Taylor said at a BER conference a few years back, something like: there's nothing worse than a highly-gifted student with no ethics. Although I think "emotion" is somewhat interchangeable with "ethics."
Posted by C. Watson at 2:48 PM
Friday, November 17, 2006
Recently, my department head gave me an essay by Sven Birkerts entitled "Teaching In A Video Age." In the essay, Sven articulates a universal frustration of writing teachers, students (in)ability to sustain in-depth thought in their writing. He wonders if, since he's been teaching for many years, the change he's seeing is due to the digital age. Although the essay was published in 1992, it's applicable to the world of text messaging, iPods, PSPs, blogs, wikis, YouTube, etc. For this reason alone, the essay is a thought-provoking, reflection-inducing read. But what I took from it, specifically from the following excerpt is a close reading activity that I tried (or actually as Sven did, went back to) in my composition class this week with great results.
First, he establishes some perspective in the following quote, which also goes well with one of my other postings, "An Introduction to Poetry."
"...the close-reading process [should] never be allowed to overwhelm everything else"(97).
"'Take out a sheet of paper. I want you to find a way to characterize your morning thus far. Give us a story, an episode, a dialogue, whatever you like. But it has to be interesting, and it has to win us over. You have fifteen minutes.' Or else: "You are a book reviewer for a nationally syndicated radio program, something on the order of All Things Considered. You have a two-minute slot in which to render your verdict of [say] Eudora Welty's 'Why I Live at the P.O.' You have to convey something of what the story is like, and you have to keep your easily bored listeners from switching the dial."
At the end of fifteen minutes, I collect the papers. I have asked them to work anonymously. I tell them, further, that if they absolutely hate what they have produced, they should write NO on top of the page. Some do. but most are eager to hear their words read aloud.
I then go through the pieces in sequence, reading them and soliciting responses. 'Do you want to hear more? Does this work? Is the attention needle moving, twitching, or is it at rest? Why?' Then, working from memory, they have to specify their reactions. Why is it dull? The words, the cadences? Why did you laugh there? Can you remember a sentence, an image? How would you change it to make it better?"
I used the activity alongside the writing of a mental model essay about a person whose thinking and/or behavior is not understood by the writer. They had to characterize the person and/or advertise the essay.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Commonplacing has been described in many ways. But in the following excerpt from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005 I think Beck says it in a Gen-X way that resonates with me.
"Someday I plan to read the classics. Someday I plan to traverse their pages and see for myself what raw weight they wield.
...writers seemed to be able to tap into the profundities of daily existence.
Works sometimes speak to a moment in time or fill a need at the time. And the classics still stand unmoved. There are always those bits from some article--a weird fact, an anecdote, an image even--you pick up somewhere that become lodged in your brain, just as deeply as anything would from a great novel or film. Sometimes those things crop up outside the great canon of literature and only breathe into our awareness for a minute. If literature moves slow and we live in dog years, this book may come in handy. I've found the mix-tape aesthetic works for me. The humor and the humane, the hugeness and the miniature. It coheres into some other kind of implied story or novel that we're still living out."
I came across this poem in Poetry 180 and found it explanatory of the problems that I've always had reading and teaching poetry. Along with Barbara Helfgott Hyett's weeklong residency at Punahou School, the poem sparked in me a refreshed interest and approach to poetry.
Introduction To Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Besides having to explain what a color slide is, students seem to really respond to the poem (although in the spirit of the poem, I don't ask them to).
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
I started my exploration of blogging ethics with a simple Google search for "blogging ethics." Not expecting much because of previous frustration at Borders bookstore, I was pleasantly suprised to find myriad resources for a new blogger. My first stop was CyberJournalist where the editors had modified the journlism code of ethics as it applies to blogging. I'm not sure that it speaks to what I'm trying to do or what my students will be trying to do, nevertheless, it's a great start. Basically, they cover universal intellectual standards of which students should be cognizant already.
Next, I read an article on washingtontpost.com from 2003 on plagiarism in blogging. I was reminded of a Malcolm Gladwell essay called "Something Borrowed" published in the New Yorker in which Gladwell discuss the fact that every writer starts with something from somebody else, and it's this literary/intellectual networking-telephone-game that makes reading and writing (and blogging) such a rich experience.
The most concise of what I've read so far has been from Rebecca Blood in her handbook for blogging. She describes amateur blogging's lack of ethics as its hamartia and lists several straightforward guidelines.
I think I get it, but The Cost of Ethics, Blogging Ethics,and Blogging Ethics II are also worth clicks.
Finally,and most relevant to students and probably to me as a non-journalist is an article by David Parry I linked to from Will Richardson's blog.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
I started this blog as an experiment, a way to figure out if a blog is an appropriate tool for my Sophomore English students to use to post an ongoing assignment called a Commonplace Book. The idea behind the assignment is that there is so much information and external stimuli in our world that confusion sets in if we don't have some way to log and file the information most relevant to us as individuals. Seems appropriate especially for the digital age, but this is not a new concept, it's been around since the eighteenth century. I was introduced to it by my department head Bruce Schauble whose parameters include:
1. Copy out passages from readings which interest you or strike you as being noteworthy
2. Record other pieces of incoming data fromthe world at large: bits of conversation, turns of phrase, song lyrics
3. Make note of questions that occur during the course of the day
4. Write down brief ideas or reflections as they occur
5. Include visual data: pictures, charts, ads, drawings
To pay such attention to what's around us creates a certain kind of attention to life that otherwise couldn't be cultivated. So that's what I'm going to try to do here. As a thematic guide, I'll try to use essential questions, which will become blog categories or tags. And I've decided that a good place to start, since an analog CP book is easy to grasp, but to go digital is something different, would be to explore what it means to blog. What are the ethics? What about copyrighted material? How can we benefit by being able to see others' commonplaces? Will sharing generate some new kind of awareness?