Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Juan Carlos

Last night I was reading my students' blogs and ran across some graffiti artwork around which one student is developing a "This I Believe" essay. The art reminded me of two paintings that hang above my bed and the story of how I met the artist.

Last summer in Costa Rica, my wife and I drove from the Nicoya Peninsula where I'd been surfing for ten days to the cloud forests of Vulcan Arenal. On the way, we circumnavigated Lake Arenal. Rounding the southern end of the lake, we saw several increasingly bright, painted signs saying "Espresso." We hadn't seen that word since flying out of LAX, so we decided to make a stop (at this point, we'd been driving nearly 6 hours straight). With an uninterrupted view of the lake and countryside, a small concrete building stood and housed a restaurant, espresso bar, and art studio and gallery. Nobody else was there, so the artist and proprietor Juan Carlos, sat with us and talked; he practiced English; we practiced Spanish. We learned about his dream of starting an artists' retreat where students and artists could come from around the world and study. He also showed us his project for university. In Limon, he brought together hundreds in the community to paint a mural that stretched for miles. As teachers, we felt akin to Juan Carlos. We hope to see him again someday.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Voices from the New American Schoolhouse

My wife showed me this video as it appeared on Beyond School. Here is the link to the New American Schoolhouse.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Another Prose/Krauss Connection

Prose quotes many great writers in her book, one of which being Isaac Babel. He also happens to be a character in The History of Love. I was familiar with him in the I-heard-of-him-at-some-point-during-my-undergraduate program sense. So I decided to look for more.

The History of Love

I've been reading Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, but this weekend my wife coerced me into putting Prose down and starting The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. She read the book for her book club blog and finished it in three days. Ever since, she's been telling everyone she knows to read it. She's been describing it as a puzzle that sort of fits together by the end. I'm only on page 15 so I can't really weigh in yet. But I can say that I'm going to use the following description in my freshman class for an exercise in description as well as a self-portrait assignment. Here, Leo Gursky is describing what he sees as he rehearses disrobing to model for an art class:

The night before I was scheduled to model for the art class I was nervous and excited. I unbuttoned my shirt and took that off. Then I unbuckled my pants and took off those. My undershirt. The underpants. I stood in front of the hall mirror in my socks. I could hear the cries of children in the playground across the street. The string for the bulb was overhead, but I didn't pull it. I stood looking at myself in what light was left. I've never thought of myself as handsome.

The passage is economical and precise and walks the reader through the process. But the choices Krauss makes here really give insight into Leo's self-image. And for my class, it raises questions about how we see ourselves. First, Leo rehearses by himself, no one can see him, there are no consequences. Yet, once the clothes are off, an act described with few words and sentence fragments, mirroring the clothes' inability to cover Leo in any indelible way, even though Leo is out of sight and light, Krauss brings the outside world into Leo's room to stare at him, and maybe laugh. Here's some more:
As a child my mother and my aunts used to tell me that I would grow up to become handsome. It was clear to me that I wasn't anything to look at then, but I believed that some measure of beauty might come to me eventually. I don't know what I thought: that my ears, which stuck out at an undignified angle, would recede, that my head would somehow grow to fit them? That my hair, not unlike a toilet brush in texture, would, with time, unkink itself and reflect light? That my face, which held so little promise--eyelids as heavy as a frog's, lips on the thin side--would somehow transform itself into something not regrettable?

In this section, Krauss shows how parents influence the development of self but also how eventually Leo realizes that his parents were wrong. And she uses an interesting series of questions to put a twist on a physical description, at the same time empowering superficiality. In freshman English, we've been talking about what makes us who we are and to what extent we have a choice about these factors.
For years I would wake up in the morning and go to the mirror, hoping. Even when I was too old to continue hoping, I still did. I grew older and there was no improvement. If anything, things went downhill when I entered adolescence and was abandoned by the pleasant attractiveness that all children have. The year of my Bar Mitzvah I was visited by a plague of acne that stayed four years. But still I continued to hope. As soon as the acne cleared my hairline began to recede, as if it wanted to disassociate itself from the embarrassment of my face. My ears, please with the new attention they now enjoyed, seemed to strain farther into the spotlight. My eyelids dropped--some muscle tension had to give to support the struggle of the ears--and my eyebrows took on a life of their own, for a brief period achieving all anyone could have hoped for them, and then surpassing those hopes and approaching Neanderthal. For years I continued to hope that things would turn out differently, but I never looked in the mirror and confused what I saw for anything but what it was.

In the last section of this passage, Leo is completely at the mercy of his looks. But we get the sense that the real Leo is not all of these things. He has no choice. He is not what he looks like. And Krauss has switched from questions to personification of Leo's physical aspects.
I'm not sure where this story will go. But I have to say that it had me from the first sentence. And the juxtaposition of Reading as a Writer with other great writing has made for a new, rich reading experience.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Where I've Been Lately

Lately, I've only been averaging a blog post every four or five days. The reason is a blog page that I've been maintaining for my sophomore English class. I've been so excited about the quality of thought happening in our online learning environment that I've been spending most of my time helping the 39 of them get set up and blogging. But all the time I've been spending reading their blogs and maintaining our class page has brought to my attention several questions: What kind of writing is blogging? Is it the same as an essay? Should there be a rubric? Should it be different than for other (on paper) writing? Do we still need to write essays and other kinds of pieces on paper? If so, how do I make the connection, especially considering audience and purpose? Does it then get posted on the blogs?
Then, I went home and read Throughlines and Borderland where Bruce and Doug were writing about what I considered pretty close to the same subject, but from a reading perspective. What I think I'm going to do is to debrief with my sophomores, after a week and a half of blogging, about this question of reading/writing experiences. Results to follow...

Friday, January 19, 2007

I commented on a post of Bruce's about Francine Prose's new book about a month ago. We both got it as a Christmas gift. I've been making my way through it very slowly as I think Francine would want. This week I copied the following passage (the opening paragraph) into my commonplace book:

Can creative writing be taught?
It's a reasonable enough question, but no matter how often I've been asked it, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or like the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can't be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don't believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he's a giant bug (1).

I originally copied this paragraph because it says clearly and accurately what I think about teaching writing, although maybe the paragraph could sound a little bleak, I think it actually speaks to the art of the writing, and in that way the necessity of teaching how to read closely and appreciate good writing. But while I was copying phrase by phrase, I started to juxtapose Prose's ideas with what I've been thinking about today (a couple days ago at the time I was drafting): finishing my first semester grades and planning for second semester. At about the line with "multiplication tables and principles of auto mechanics" I started recalling the two meetings I was in today where we're trying to pick texts, essays, short stories, and poems that fit with themes, balance authorial voices by gender and culture, and have books that are both accessible and challenging and likeable. The other image from today that is recurring is the last thing I did before I walked out of my office to hit the gym, I looked over my officemate's shoulder as he was calculating his first semester grades and asked about his formula. All of this while copying the passage made me think, or really cement for me, how hard it is to work with numbers and grades in an English class (not considering the behavioral elements of turning in work on time, being prepared, etc.) I also thought about, and sometime I feel guilty about it, sometimes I feel good about it, how no matter what level, what texts, what thematic focus, all English classes are pretty much the same in design and scope: Read great writing, write a lot, think about how the stories connect you to the human experience.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Web 2.0 Defined

A colleague sent this link to Discover. I'm thinking about using it as I introduce weblogs to my classes.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Keep Your Enemies Closer

I started to learn about technology with a keep-your-enemies-closer mentality but realized yesterday that my mindset has changed. I was in my department head's office showing him diigo when another colleague remarked, "you guys are geeks." I guess he's right. Thanks Mark. In that spirit, I'm passing on this great blog entry about the best of Web 2.0, found in a new post from Will Richardson.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Related Links

While thinking about my last post, I ran across a really cool site about Leonardo da Vinci on another cool academic blog. Take a look.

Tony Soprano and Quantum Thinking

When I moved to Hawaii almost two years ago, my neighbors turned me on to The Sopranos. Once I'd caught up to them, which meant watching three seasons in two weeks or so, we'd spend evenings putting down two or three episodes until we had exhausted every one. This year season six began. Neither of us has HBO, so I turned to Netflix for my Soprano fix. This past weekend, I made my way through the sixth episode. Up to this point, one of the more obvious themes of the show has been the line between good and evil. One minute Tony is in his psychiatrist's office talking about his issues with his mother or his troubles with his kids, real life scenarios that most of us can empathize with. Soon after, he's ordering a murder from the back office of a stripclub. And then he makes decisions that blur the line, like when he orders a hit on one of his own men after the senseless abuse and murder of an innocent stripper.

But this season, Tony spent two episodes in a coma after being shot by his borderline senile uncle. Waking up, he finds himself in a room next to a rocket scientist (Tony's epithet), really, a quantum physicist. Tony, after the obligatory white light, is already searching for something, leaving him receptive to his new neighbor's ideas. This is where the good vs. evil conflict of which Tony himself seems to contemplate often, if indirectly, in his psychiatrist's office and his dreams/nightmares, gets examined directly. Tony is surprised and maybe impressed with the stoic reaction of his neighbor after a prognosis of a short, futile fight against an aggressive, long-undetected cancer. He learns that it's the physicist's view of the world that keeps perspective for him. He explains that he doesn't see good-bad, good-evil, he just recognizes the world as a collection of particles swirling around, bumping into each other, reacting, and that the forms (people, places) we perceive are our own interpretation of the dance of these particles. In other words, everything is interconnected. I'm not sure yet how Tony will use this information...

So I decided to get back to a text that I read and taught in my Identity and Culture course last year: The Dancing Wu Li Master by Gary Zukav. Here's an excerpt explaining what Tony learns in season six:

According to this philosophy [Newtonian (old) Physics], we may seem to have a will of our own and the ability to alter the course of events in our lives, but we do not. Everything, from the beginning of time, has been predetermined, including our illusion of having a free will. The universe is a prerecorded tape playing itself out in the only way that it can. The status of men is immeasurably more dismal than it was before the advent of science. The Great Machine runs blindly on, and all things in it are but cogs.
According to quantum mechanics, however, it is not possible, even in principle, to know enough about the present to make a complete prediction about the future. Even if we have the best possible measuring devices, it is not possible. It is not a matter of the size of the task or the inefficiency of detectors. The very nature of things is such that we must choose which aspect of them we wish to know best, for we can know only one of them with precision (28).

Tony's new friend uses the analogy of winds and other weather systems moving around the globe to illustrate the basic principles of interconnectedness. In Dancing Wu Li Masters, the definition is expounded and the previous excerpt speaks to what the interconnectedness implies, that we can only know or estimate a little information. We don't see how it connects with everything else, therefore, we can't ever predict anything with any certainty. Zukav explains further:

There is another fundamental difference between the old physics and the new physics. The old physics assumes that there is an external world which exists apart from us. It further assumes that we can observe, measure, and speculate about the external world without changing it. According to the old physics, the external world is indifferent to us and to our needs (31).

According to quantum mechanics there is no such thing as objectivity. We cannot eliminate ourselves from the picture. We are a part of nature, and when we study nature there is no way around the fact that nature is studying itself. Physics has become a branch of psychology, or perhaps the other way round (33).

I'm not really sure what all this has to do with being a teacher, but I have some suspicions. A lot of what we ask students to do is done within an academic bubble-world. There's an omnipresent echo of "in the real world..." Although there's not as much of that here at Punahou, I think it's still a student perception. And I also think that blogs are an access point for quantum thinking, where the act of thinking and writing changes thinking and writing. Thoughts?

Thursday, January 4, 2007


I haven't posted since last year because I decided to avoid glowing screens during my trip to Seattle over winter break. Everything was cold-crisp there and with only six or seven hours of daylight, I was provided the opportunity to think and look for some clarity for the new year, new semester, new group of students, and new use of blogs in my curriculum.

Originally, I started this blog as an experiment to figure out how to use blogging tools, where they might fit in an English class, and what it feels like to participate in a collective, ongoing dialogue about education. Now I find myself re-focusing and redirecting. This time of year and semester, I always find myself doing this, and usually there's a feeling of solitude that goes along with the questioning of practice. So I was relieved to read my colleague Bruce's recent post about his own next-semester-reflection and the link to Borderland where Doug Noon asks similar questions of his practice, specifically his blogging. Both posts helped me get some perspective on what I've been doing and motivated me to get back in the game today.