Today will be the final day of the wonderful Clarice Smith Institute at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where I have spent all day every day for the past week. I hate to see it end since the experience has been so rewarding, so challenging, and so fun. That said, I am exhausted! I need some rest before school starts in a week.

I have learned much. Obviously, I have picked up information about American Art. I have learned how to look at a Art differently, to the point that I now have a growing interest in more contemporary Art that used to leave me cold. I think it is always good for a teacher to be reacquainted with grasping some concept they have avoided. Our students do it all the time!

I have learned that Art can be used in myriad ways– in and out of the classroom. The emphasis here has been on linking Art with reading, but I so see connections with writing — multiple connections that I hope to start using in my classroom this Fall. And my belief that Art and Literature of any period are linked inextricably has bee supported. That will also find a home in my curriculum.

I saw once again the rising importance of technology. Perhaps not even rising but here. One particular benefit of technology comes with access to the Art I want to use. I can bring my students to SAAM any time now. All we have to do is log on.

And once again, I have been shown, as with the NWP, that my profession is in good hands. I have been spending the week with an amazing bunch of educators, people who care deeply about their students, their schools, their communities, and their discipline. Where are the legislators and news media this week? Why aren’t all the teachers like the thirty plus here being touted for all they do for our collective future?

So I am off for the final day and the final presentation, where I have to live up to the standards set by my colleagues here and at home, where I have to show the amazing instructors I have had here at SAAM that I honestly learned far more than this final presentation will show.

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Yesterday,after a full and interesting day, I took some time to look through the galleries here at the American Art Museum. Interestingly enough, we have spent more time in our classroom at this workshop than we have with the real works. Much like the UIWP,this workshop is quite technology oriented,which is good. But I wanted to see the art,and the time was well spent. The reproductions,the versions even on the Smithsonian’s site itself,do not do justice to the paintings and other works. I wish I had a week after this is over simply to see and think about these works and how I might use them. Alas, I don’t have that luxury!

So I am on the edge of being overwhelmed. The technology we are using is something I feel I can handle. I love working with the Art,and the ideas being generated are rich and promising. All I lack is time. In the next two daysI have to perfect a podcast AND put together a presentation of my selected piece and how I will use it in my curriculum. I am in process overdrive.

Wish me luck!

After four years of working with the NWP, I am extremely demanding about my professional development, so I came to the Clarice Smith American Art Education Initiative at the Smithsonian with some trepidation. I am pleased to say I have not been disappointed after the first day.

The morning started off a bit rocky since the caterer’s truck was lost, so the breakfast was not served on time. Given the propensity of the UIWP to eat and eat often, this initial set back could have been a deal breaker. The Art people obviously don’t eat as much — or as often — as the writing people, but I hardly starved to death. Apart from the food issue, though, the rest of the day was a suitable challenge.

On this first day, we learned about our cohort, got a good background to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, heard a keynote address from a Harvard professor, and learned about Visual Thinking Strategies. Although that technique, as the name indicates, deals with visual arts, the possibilities for carryover into other types of learning seem obvious. The questions are simple but are amazingly adept at getting students to move beyond the easy and obvious. Then we moved out into the museum to practice the technique, which was much harder than it looked. One important point of the technique is for the teacher to keep quiet and simply move students to carry the discussion. Even though I advocate this technique in any class, I found it difficult to keep from jumping in and pointing my group to aspects of the painting I noticed.

The day came to a close at the Renwick Gallery, another building with a long history and beautiful architecture. This time allowed all of us in the cohort a chance to look at more Art and also eat again. The food was good, the wine was free, and the conversation was engaging. The rest of the week promises to be even more busy but also full of practical ways to expand my students.

The highlight of the day for me was the tour of the building where the American Art Museum is housed, the third oldest Federal building in Washington. It has survived fires and near-demolition at a time when the building was in great disrepair. What thrilled me the most, though, was the fact this building served as a hospital during the Civil War and was the place where Walt Whitman worked as a nurse. Not the type of Art the workshop aims at, but certainly the best fact I learned today!

In the movie Little Big Man, the adopted grandfather of Dustin Hoffman’s character creates a running joke with his line “It is a good day to die.” Whenever the situation looks bleak, this old man pulls out his pat phrase. The laugh comes when the situation never turns out to be as dire as all that.

The State of Illinois, in its infinite educational wisdom, has decided to do away with the writing portion of the state’s standardized test. While one would wish this decision came as a result of clear thinking on the part of the state’s educational leaders, the bottom line for the decision was the bottom line. The State saves money by not having to grade that section of the test. Still, it was a good day to die.

As I have noted, I think, in earlier posts of this blog, I came to seriously thinking about the teaching of writing late in my career. I changed my major to English because I loved literature and all that went with it. Graduate school put only a minor thorn in that side when my assistantship called for teaching entry-level writing courses. My performance in front of those classes was perfunctory at best. The course I was required to take as part of my assistantship did introduce me to important names — Elbow, Kinneavy, and others — but I took little of that to heart. Even when I was teaching composition for eleven years at a community college I dealt with writing in the same old-fashioned, tired way I had as an undergraduate.

That all changed when I took my current teaching job. Suddenly I had a class full of informed, motivated, academically-gifted students. The old warhorse five paragraph theme did not work for them in the least, just as it had long since ceased to work for me as a writer. I needed to take this writing stuff more seriously. Along came the National Writing Project. I applied, was accepted, and my approach to writing has never been the same. I now not only recognize how important writing is — which I like to think I always realized, I am invested in making the student the focus, invested in growing writers, not simply “papers.”

Now those gifted students I have become extremely adept at knowing when to actually write and when to spit out a pre-fabricated, mechanical, test-oriented essay. My students would never consider using the same style essay for a Shakespeare class or a college application that they would write for a standardized test. They know enough to understand the test writing is graded on the most superficial of levels. Format is paramount. I am blessed to have students who can not only recognize the difference, they can negotiate it.

Not all teachers are so lucky, and not all students have learned to master these different situations. Standardized tests are, in huge part, responsible for this lack. Teachers feel pressured to obtain test results. The test grades depend on meeting the basic requirements looked for by over-worked, brain-fogged readers. The standardized test dictates ineffective writing.

Perhaps, then, the withdrawal of at least that section of the test coupled with a growing willingness from schools to defy the test mentality will lead to invigorated teaching of writing. Without the test blade hanging over their heads, teachers will be able to take real writing more seriously, to lead students into examining rhetorical situations and adjust accordingly, to build writers rather than automatons.

For writers, it was a good day for the test to die.

I have been lucky enough to be a part of the UIWP for four years, first as a part of the first Summer Institute cohort then three years as a minor part of the Leadership Team. In these years I have read a number of books and articles. Most had something to offer, a few had little new to tell me, many were mired in the abstract or theoretical. Now, as I end my tenure on the Leadership Team, I have read what may be the dingle most useful book I have found for what I envision doing.

The book is The Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks (Heinemann Press). Hicks teaches at Central Michigan University and is a director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. He has crafted a work that speaks to almost any element of digital writing a teacher might want to use, and unlike so many in the field, Hicks does not insult the intelligence of the reader, belabor the obvious, or dwell in the purely abstract. Rather, he accepts that the reader has a working knowledge of digital media and its growing importance in the classroom, directs the reader to sites where more basic knowledge may be gained if needed, and offers the teacher practical suggestions of how to use digital media more effectively.

The book is readable. Hicks sports a clear, direct style. He documents his sources so those wanting more information can seek it. He refers the reader to websites that explain or expand on ideas he presents. And the practicality. In each chapter, Hicks presents examples — without dictating classroom format —  of how these media may be used in a classroom. He stresses the important basics of writing currently seen as crucial in developing good writers while showing how those basics can be incorporated into current formats. He cautions against making digital media a new tool for old pedagogy, then pushes ways to change not only the medium but the pedagogy.

Hicks includes chapters on setting up a digital writing workshop format, encouraging writer choice and research skills, using digital conferencing, exploring multimedia composition, and publishing digital writing. Most exciting for me, though, was a chapter on assessing digital writing. Hicks deftly negotiates the old dichotomy of process vs product, noting how both are a necessary part of assessing. He even suggests various rubrics a teacher may use to help in the assessment. Of all the insight to digital writing Hicks offers, this chapter proves the most valuable in my opinion.

In short, of all the books on writing and the use of 21st century literacies I have read in the last four years, this work stands as the most practical. Hicks gives something of value to the experienced writing teacher as well as the novice. The Digital Writing Workshop will now be my go-to book for teaching ideas.

 

Dear former teachers,

Thank you.

I am tempted to stop there. A simple “thank you” seems enough. But let me expand.

I was amazingly blessed to have had years of wonderful teachers before I ever sat in front of you in a Lambuth classroom. Those inspired and inspiring teachers prepared me well, so I was able to take advantage of all you had to offer. And you offered much.

You opened my eyes to new ways of seeing things I already new. You taught me how to express myself more clearly and deeply (although this letter may not reflect that teaching!) You challenged me to engage with new ideas, new ways of seeing the world, new material, and you pushed me to engage in those things more deeply than I had thought to do before. You showed me that simply learning the facts was not enough; I had to make those facts mean something. You led me to connections, to realize that what was happening in history or science dovetailed with what was happening in literature and art and music. You forced me to stop taking things at face value. My education was truly liberal.

I learned to appreciate all manner of things: the human body, art history, aesthetics, French humor, movies, simple math, contemporary choral music, classical choral music, British history, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats, Hawthorne, James, Faulkner, Whitman, social issues, theological issues . . . .

Perhaps, though, I learned more from you outside of the classroom. You taught me compassion by being there at one in the morning when a roommate had left a suicide note and disappeared. You showed me understanding by accepting an assignment late because my personal life had suffered a big hit. You led me to laugh at foibles — my own, my friends’, yours. You encouraged me to look again — at books I had shunned, at people I had dismissed, at issues I had resolved. You allowed me to sing and act and lead — and to make mistakes. You fed me and housed me and employed me whether I deserved it or not.

I graduated and moved on. I had other teachers who shaped what you hewed in me. Occasionally I have had contact with some of you in these intervening years, but not often. But you have never left me. You have never moved on. In all that I do, you are here. For that, I thank you.

In early September 1972, I stood on the steps of West Hall on the campus of Lambuth College and watched my parents drive off. I thought I was going to throw up. I was in a new place, about to live with someone I had just met. I was so far out of my comfort zone, the schools and the people I had known all my life, that I felt totally lost and alone.

In May 1976, I walked across the make-shift stage in front of South Hall and accepted my diploma awarding me a B.A. in English from Lambuth College. In the audience were some people who were then, and are now, as close and special to me as anyone in my life. People with whom I had sung, studied, laughed, played, cried, worshiped, loved. I left Lambuth with an education that went so beyond anything that happened in the classrooms of Jones Hall or the Science Building.

I was blessed with good schools growing up. I chose a college that seemed familiar, one that I had heard of most of my life because it was supported by the Methodist church, and I grew up Methodist. I knew little about the school, though, other than it was Methodist, they were offering me a scholarship, and the campus was beautiful in the spring, like some stereotypical movie school. I had no idea how my four years there would secure and shape my life. How lucky I turned out to be.

Now that school that in large part made me who I am today is to be no more. As of June 30, 2011, the school that began in 1843 as the Memphis Conference Female Institute, the college that became coed in the 1920s and took the name of a famous early Methodist bishop, will close its doors. If the campus sells as one unit — a possibility that seems close to happening since the University of Memphis is in negotiations to buy the campus for a satelite facility — all debts can be settled. The church will be off the hook. The only one hurt will be hundreds of people.

Among those hurt will be faculty. Suzie Hudecek (whose actual given name is Vivian) graduated from Lambuth in 1972. She went to Memphis State University and earned her M.A. in two years, then returned to the English Department at Lambuth, teaching remedial classes and working in the Learning Center. After thirty-five years at The Big L, she is not ready yet to retire, but she is old enough finding a comparable teaching position will be virtually impossible. Two of her younger colleagues in the English Department are also Lambuth grads who returned to the school after earning their PhDs. Too young to retire, they are too old to find a tenure track job elsewhere. What becomes of these three — and the many others like them at the college?

People like me, graduates who are older, established in their profession and their positions, suffer little with the demise of the school. Sure, it seems odd to say to people I graduated from a college that no longer exists. That statement suggests I attended some second-rate, shade tree school. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. My professors in my major all had PhDs from top-name schools. My biology prof left to become the chair of the physiology department of a major university. My philosophy professor is now the head of the Honors Program at Vanderbilt University. I was instructed by excellent, sometimes well-known, teachers. Odd as it may sound to say my college is dead, I will continue to rest on the strong foundation those teachers gave me. But more recent grads, ones who may be entering the job market or shifting to a new profession. What of them? How, for example, do you get a prospective employer a transcript of your grades when there is no longer a Registrar’s office to contact?

The college held a last homecoming of sorts — more a wake for a dying institution. The chapel that centers the school was packed, standing room only. Hymns were sung. Tears were shed. There was a roll call of the decades. As the service ended, the crowd sang the Alma Mater, even though many there, me included, graduated before the song was written in 1980. Then the mourners filed out of the chapel into a pending storm. What was planned as a time for picnicking on the picturesque campus turned into a huge crowd in the cafeteria and student union ballroom. Perhaps it was most fitting, since so many of the friendships being rekindled and remembered had been cemented in those spaces.

And as the crowd eventually thinned, a truth became evident: Cliches and trite platitudes are based on a reality. The institution of Lambuth University (perhaps the college died years ago) would soon be no more. But Lambuth, in its essence, would not be gone. When those people winding their way to the cars parked around the quadrangle gathered again — in homes, at celebrations, for what will surely be inevitable reunions — Lambuth will live. When teachers enter a classroom or a businessman transacts some deal or a minister reaches out to sooth a hurting soul — when those shaped by their education there do what they were called to do,  the essence of what Lambuth was, what Lambuth is, will resurrect, will live, will continue.

The school motto was “Whatsoever things are true.” Lambuth was, and will continue to be, true.

So here I am blogging about readings from the UIWP Summer Institute again. What a familiar position to be in this time of summer, having spent the last three summers involved in this wonderful group. In fact, I have been involved so long I have read the Yancey article multiple times. I suspected I had a previous blog entry on it, but if I do, I can’t seem to find it. Since I have not re-read it this summer, I can speak to it only vaguely at this point. I know that my first reading of it convinced me that what I did in a classroom had to change. I found her article powerful enough that I have, for the last few years, made copies to put outside my office during parent/teacher conferences so those parents waiting might pick it up and read it. I find her argument convincing — and a bit frightening. I am an old dog to have to learn these new tricks.

Likewise, I got the impression I had read Teaching the New Writing (Herrington, et. al.) before, although it may simply be a case of having looked through a chapter or hearing someone else talk about it in a previous book group. I must admit to not being as enthusiastic about this one. I am usually quite enthusiastic about books that give practical applications to all the theoretical, change-is-gonna-come talk, and this book does that with the numerous chapters on various classrooms. Perhaps the lack of a single voice is the issue. Deborah Dean manages so adeptly, I think, to talk theory then ground it in real classroom experience. Her works I find more engaging. Voice may be the issue.

And admittedly, I skipped the first chapters about elementary school since that is not my area. I approached the chapter “Be a Blogger: Social Networking in the Classroom” eagerly. I am always looking for ways to link my students. Something about Allison’s work, though, put me off. Too involved, I think. Too much “get hooked up to that so you can get connected to this so you can write whatnot” for my needs. Still, I think maybe some underlying pieces of what he discussed might be molded into something I could find more useable.

As I try to put into writing my thoughts on this book, I find myself with a vague dissatisfaction that I have trouble nailing down. I did not find the book so tedious I put it aside, but I did not find it particularly engaging, either. One particular I can point to, though, was my disappointment with the last chapter and assessment. Assessment is the constant thorn in my side. How do we incorporate the technology and all it means into the firmly-established “process” mold and come out with some viable way to assess the results? I did not find an answer in this book.

Would I recommend it? With reservations. For someone just engaging with technology and the teaching of writing, yes. For someone deeper into that pedagogy, maybe not.

I have been reading the book Why School by Mike Rose. I admit that I found the early part rather slow going, but as I have persevered, I have begun to find rewards.

Of particular note, I think, is Rose’s even-handed approach to NCLB. Most of what I read or hear either lauds it unceasingly or offers unmitigated criticism. Rose takes a bit of a middle ground, although obviously he is no true fan of the program. He does note, however, aspects of the policy that he feels are beneficial, particularly the need to be accountable for the educational progress of minorities, both racial and economic. The method, he contends, at least as it is manifested in NCLB, leaves much to be desired. I thought his contention that in many ways NCLB negates a democratic education particularly thought-provoking.

Of what I have read so far — and I am not  quite half way through the book — I am intrigued by his criticism of business’ role in the educational debate. He points to “photo op” situations, like “Principal for a day,” that allow important business people or politicians to come into the classroom and conduct a lesson in front of the cameras. Rose criticizes the practice as propagating the idea that teaching is no important deal, that anyone can “teach.” His point here resonates with me. I see our society continually calling for teacher accountability yet consistently denigrating the role of teacher. Anyone can do it. Those who can do. Those who can’t teach. Those who can’t teach, teach PE. Ha Ha! Most people imbue this old joke with far too much truth. Society want teachers to be accountable for near-impossible tasks, yet society assumes any moron can “teach.”

Not only does NCLB feed into this idea, but I find it more manifest in the “Teach for America” program. While I am sure some solid teachers have come out of this program, the underlying assumption seems to be if you can’t find a “real” job, you can go to TfA. As a result, we are sending underprepared and non-dedicated “teachers” to our most at-risk schools. And to what end? Our son’s friend decided to do TfA for many good reasons, but she was sent to a rural elementary school in southern Louisiana where she was met with resentment by her students, the community in general, and, most tragically, the administration of the school. While she cared deeply about improving her students’ lives, she ended up leaving in the middle of her second year because of what had become open hostility on the part of the school administration, making her working conditions ultimately untenable.

Rose is raising some interesting if not ground-breaking issues. In the end, what I believe he best provides us is a call to step back and re-define not only the issues of public education but also the language we use to couch the arguments.

I try to take the car as little as possible in town. Until this year, I usually cycled places, particularly to my job at school. Then the City of Champaign, in their corporate wisdom, blocked the safe-bike route I used. Since CU drivers are far from bike friendly and I would be forced to use busy city streets, I have abandoned my bike for my feet. Although I have been threatened, physically and verbally, by drivers while a pedestrian, all in all I feel safer.

Walking offers me even more opportunities to observe my surroundings than cycling does. This morning, for instance, I saw a ziplock sandwich bag lying on the sidewalk with what appeared to be a sandwich — at least it was two slices of bread — with a chunk of yellow cheese (colby? cheddar?) sitting on top. Someone, apparently, had lost their lunch — always better to do, though, before it is eaten. Seeing this lost lunch reminded me of some of my more favorite sightings while walking through CU.

One day I came across a floor lamp, placed seemingly carefully on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street. This was early Spring, so the sky was cloudless but the sun was just appearing over the nearby houses, the light slanting onto the brass pole of the lamp glistening the pole. The cord was stretched toward the nearby apartment, as if waiting to be plugged in. A light bulb nestled in the lamp. I personified the lamp as I walked by. It waited there for a chair and reader to return, wondering all the while where its people had gone. Perhaps, I invented, this lamp is developing Alzhiemer’s and is no longer sure what it is supposed to do or where it goes. It wandered away from its living room during the night and stood unsure of how to get back, like our neighbor who stopped at our house to ask which house was hers. She knew where we lived, but she did not recognize her house two houses away.

One foggy day in late winter, as I walked along I heard the sound of a goose calling. Now I was used to hearing the sound of geese through the fog. For some reason, my route to work must take me on the path local geese use on their way to work as well. Often had I looked up to see a V formation emerge from the low clouds then disappear from sight, leaving only its calling card. But this day was different. I could hear a goose calling but no response. I started scanning the fog for some glimpse of the bird, for the sound was growing louder. Suddenly I spotted the lone bird, sitting atop an apartment building roof in the dense morning, calling out, looking around for others. He seemed to be hailing a cab, waiting there for a ride to take him out of the fog to some grain-filled field.

One morning I found an assortment of breads scattered on the sidewalk near some apartments. The puzzle here stemmed from the unusual assortment. This was no abandoned loaf of Wonder Bread, although there were a few slices of that particular kind of fluff strewn about. Mixed together were bagels, rye, what appeared to be some whole-grain homemade sandwich bread, a baguette, and a few other types. I pondered whether someone’s cold-cut buffet had exploded. Maybe the Squirrel Gods were particularly pleased with some activity and answered the rodent’s prayer. Interestingly, remnants of this bakery debacle remained on that stretch for several days. I was never sure whether the animals had cleaned it up or someone from the nearby apartments chose to cart the remainder away.

My wife always touts the benefits of biking, saying only on a bike do you slow down enough to see what is around you on the road. I maintain, however, that strolling by at a steady pace allows me not only to see what’s around me but the leisure to contemplate what I see before some other interesting object pulls me into a different reverie. Maybe I will sell my town bike and invest in a good pair of Wallabies.

November 2017
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