Minor Thoughts

I remember the epiphany well—the look in their faces, a mix of ennui, exhaustion. Exasperation. That class of seniors, the first time I had taught that level in six years, when I was student teaching, staring back at me, beat. We had read through Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth. I dutifully doled out worksheets, carefully crafted questions to help them understand these ancient texts. I quizzed them, tested them, to ensure they remembered what was important to remember: diction, tone, theme—those universal truths that have stood true for hundreds, thousands! of years.

I don’t remember who said it, or what piece of classwork or homework the student was referring to, but their question matched their bleary-eyed look, and it woke me up.

“Can you just tell me what to do to get an A on this?”

At the semester I shook things up. I dismantled the rows of desks and gathered them into groups. I gave them a reading schedule for our next novel, 1984, along with the standards, and a blank calendar that lasted through the reading dates. Their charge? Show me what you know about 1984 over the next four weeks.

In their groups they had to prepare for discussion days by coming up with two kinds of questions: questions to help them understand the novel and questions to move a class discussion forward. We discussed the novel two or three days a week—on the other days they had to plan and carry out self-generated projects that demonstrated proficiency of self-selected standards. I told them they could use any activity they’d used in the past 12 years to help them learn, or they could create their own.

A handful of students launched into the novel with giddy abandon—thrilled at the chance to do school their way. Most fell back on education’s tropes, tried and true: quizzes, tests, worksheets, essays. A few others struggled to guide themselves through the novel.

Then a third of the way through 1984 a student came up to me and said, “You’re not even teaching us anything.”

This particular jab was especially jarring since it fell from the lips of a student in my video broadcast class, a class in which students are active participants and leaders in the structure and day-to-day flow of the course. I had assumed this student was accustomed to a more collaborative, do-it-yourself learning environment. I was wrong.

Twelve years of public education had shaped most of these students into baby birds, little seagulls, taught to sit cozy in their nests until mama or papa seagull come sailing in to regurgitate their meals, their knowledge, into the youngsters’ gullets. In “The Student and Society” Jerry Farber accuses the educational system of creating “authority addicts.”

I knew I had to keep doing something different. The status quo wasn’t preparing students for much more than taking class-based multiple choice, or standardized tests. And for all the talk of gearing students up for college AND a career such tests weren’t going to cut it.

One of my first pedagogical shifts was to give my students permission, permission to question the whys and hows of their education. If we’re gonna saddle them with tens of thousands of dollars (more!) of student debt, they should know why they’re sitting in our classrooms waiting to be netted up by all those big, fancy colleges they dream of attending. So before my students open up The Catcher in the Rye, I lead them through a question brainstorming session in which they crank out a list of questions based on this statement: school is the best place to learn. They pare down their list of questions to just a couple and then explore that question as they read Salinger, Prose, Emerson, Baldwin.

The next shift was to axe cumulative finals. Instead, students write, and publish to the web, reflections on what they learned and thought during the semester. In their reflections I hope students discover what Claes Oldenburg calls a “kernel of infinite expansion.” I read about this idea in Geoffrey Sirc’s English Composition as a Happening in which he suggests we teach “writing as growing, changing, maybe even culturally transforming” (166).

Sirc’s book, a 300-page riff on Charles Deemer’s 1967 essay of the same name, supercharged my classroom practice. In the chapter titled “The American Action Writers,” Sirc argues Jackson Pollock “became a real compositionist only when he began to follow his heart: discovering he had a vision and voice worth sharing.”

Then Sirc asks this question: “Are our students searching for a way to make the world see the world their way, or, rather, do we insist they be made to show the world the way we think it’s supposed to be seen?”

I want to see the world their way. I want to teach my students to write like Joan Didion who calls writing “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” I hope you will, like I do, listen to these student statements that follow, pulled from their year-end reflections, and change your mind in some small way. Listen. They’re just minor thoughts…

Don’t Say I, OK?

IMG_8905The other day a student asked me if it was okay to write an argument essay using the first person point of view. I’m used to the question at the beginning of the year when I first meet students in my AP Language and Composition class. For years they’re trained to avoid the first person in their writing, especially argumentative writing, and to follow very prescriptive grammar rules and formulaic organization strategies like the five-paragraph essay in which they number paragraphs two through four as firstly, secondly, and finally. It’s writing that Scott Korb recently described as “dispiriting and soul crushing.”

“I am not writing. I hold no position. I have nothing at all to do with discovery, communication, or persuasion. I care nothing about the truth. What I am is an essay. I announce my beginning, my parts, my ending, and the links between them. I announce myself as sentences correctly punctuated and words correctly spelled.”

Jasper Neel

The timing of the question surprised me because it was just a few weeks ago, just before the AP Language exam and after months of writing instruction and practice where I try to give students their voices back, one of my first orders of business every new school year.

I realized how deeply the will to wash themselves out of their writing is ingrained in them, an impulse beat into them year after year.

I imagine the indoctrination sounds something like this: Don’t say I OK? Don’t say I OK? Don’t say I OK?

(I know that’s not what he’s singing. Call it a lyrical malapropism—the intentional misuse of song for an amusing effect.)

That night I asked my own son, an 8th grader, what his English teachers have taught him about writing in the first person. He told me that they can write narratives in the first person, but not expository writing or argument writing, because, he said they say, “it makes your argument weak.”

Hmm.

Coincidently I had ordered a recent issue of PMLA, the Publications of the Modern Language Association, whose formatting style English teachers from Harlem to Hollywood teach to their students. It is the holy grail of formal style, those one-inch margins, parenthetical citations, double-spacings, and works cited pages.

It seems we English teachers are so busy docking points from assignments that don’t follow MLA format, that we don’t have time to actually read the PMLA. If we did, we’d see it is LITTERED with first-person points of view.

YES, MLA members, writing in MLA style, do use first-person point of view—in all sorts of writing: expository, narrative, and (GASP!) analysis.

Here are a few, very brief excerpts that demonstrate the kind of first-person writing that’s found in the January 2018 issue of PMLA:

Poetry analysis by Joe Moshenska
“I happen to find reading Spenser’s poem, and thinking and talking about it, to be a delight, but my pleasure is informed, even heightened, by the awareness that trying to read or know The Faerie Queene can also be an exhausting struggle, a recurring encounter with the boem’s own violence and limitations.”

Poetry analysis by Benjamin A. Saltzman
“I suggest that this tension reveals another important distinction between Anglo-Saxon ideas about secrecy and our own.”

Drama analysis by Daniel Keegan
“I call this earlier statement Hamlet’s blurb to acknowledge its resemblance to the promotional copy on book jackets and to distinguish it from his later, more famous monologue known as his “advice to players.”

In fact, during a quick rifling through the articles I found that only three of 19 articles and book excerpts in this issue were not written in first-person point of view—the vast majority of the articles included some first-person writing. 

So why do we teach students to avoid the first-person point of view? A couple legitimate reasons come to mind immediately.

The construction can get repetitive: I went to the store. I bought a candy bar. I thought the candy bar was delicious…

It can lead to weak arguments if students don’t follow up constructions such as I think and I believe with solid evidence rather than personal opinion.

And such training continues even at the high school level as students prepare for standardized tests.

But students taking the AP Language and Composition test, a test that, upon passing, can provide students actual college credit, instead of proof of college readiness, are not penalized for using the first-person point of view. Not even for their argumentative essay. In fact, the course description lists model texts for argumentative writing that are all written in the first-person.

Regardless, year after year teachers keep hammering away. Don’t say I, OK? Don’t say I, OK? Don’t say I, OK?

The results of such training, I believe, are insidious. It literally strips away students’ selves as writers. Korb says that these young writers “can’t see themselves as peculiar” and leads to them “writing so passively and with what they’ve been taught is appropriate and ‘objective’ distance from topics they often seem disinterested in, these young people signal..that they’re still waiting for something important or real to happen to them.”


“A writer is obviously at his most natural and relaxed when he writes in the first person. Writing is, after all, a personal transaction between two people, even if it is conducted on paper, and the transaction will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.” 

—William Zinsser

Rather than such an inflexible rule, why not teach and practice principles like: know your audience, know the assignment, vary your writing?

With less than a month left in this school year I’ve already started planning and readying for the next. After the epiphany of how hesitant my students are to write themselves into their work, I’m more excited than ever to reteach them to do just that. Here are a few things we’ll typically read and write early in the year. Sometimes I’ll do one or two but not the others. Next year I’m going to make sure my students get a heavy dose first-person point of view writings, maybe I’ll even construct a whole unit around point of view.

We read Joan Didion’s Why I Write in which she argues that “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying, listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” Sometimes I’ll ask students to write an essay describing why they write, or why they do something that they enjoy doing—Why I ___________.

Sometimes we’ll read Terry Tempest William’s Why I Write and they I’ll ask students to brainstorm a list of reasons why they write, to riff on Williams’ anaphora, “I write…” Then students select one reason why they write and I walk around the class recording them.

And for the past six years, ever since I came across it, we read Daniel Coffeen’s essay called Essay which begins, “Sometimes, I have thoughts about something.” Coffeen connects the act of writing to the act of thinking: “As I string words, sentences, paragraphs together I am forced to find connections — causal, affective, complementary — between and amongst my otherwise scattered thoughts.” 

If, as Didion says, writing is the act of imposing ourselves maybe that’s why we teach students to avoid first person—god forbid they impose themselves on us. We barricade ourselves behind the doors of the teachers’ lounge. Forcing them to write in the third-person keeps them quiet, keeps them on the other side of our desks, keeps their ideas penned in so we don’t have to actually confront them. Like Ken Macrorie reminds us in Telling Writing, “most English teachers have been trained to correct students’ writing, not to read it.”

How to Read More

I love Austin Kleon’s advice on how to read more (although teachers work really hard at communicating to students how to avoid #4). Students in my 11th grade English class and I created photo illustrations for each piece of advice because we love to read!

kleon1Dylan loves to read about tacos! Who doesn’t?

kleon2Lizzie is always prepared!

 

kleon3Iman takes advantage of the class library.

kleon4Erika’s ready to chuck that book! Students aren’t used to this luxury. It gets better!

Teachers struggle to help students enjoy the books they read in class. It’s a tough gig and unfortunately our efforts sometimes have the opposite effect.

kleon6Jonathan tracks his reading. Many of my students blog about what they’re reading and thinking. Check out their blogs here.

What Are You Doing About It?

image.jpg

After seeing the above sketch in her Twitter feed a couple months back, my good friend and teacher-neighbor across the field, Seena Rich, sent me this response:

While she did so gracefully, Seena was calling me out, challenging me, asking me to put my money where my mouth is.

What she wanted to know was: Ziebarth, I’ve been watching you tweet out all your little doodles about that book you read over the summer, so what?!? What are you doing about it?

Up to that point I hadn’t committed to doing anything about my reading other than tweet out the sketches of it. Probably because my head was spinning with ideas, but a book like English Composition as a Happening needs some time to settle, digest, sink in.

I’m grateful for friends and colleagues who push and challenge my thinking, my practice, who get a little antsy when I’m just tossing bread crumbs to the world. Seena’s tweet started me thinking … What have I learned? What is my big takeaway from Sirc’s book?

Respect.

Respect for what my students have to say.

Respect for their voices.

Respect for my students as writers.

Respect for the journey my students are on as writers.

Respect for my students as human beings.

image.jpg

What’s curious is that I’ve been changing my composition course every year, bit by bit, as my students teach me every year that they deserve and are worthy of my respect.

What this respect looks like in my classroom (and the changes Sirc inspired) is ongoing, and like Deemer says, there is no blueprint. Happenings happen. Teachers must inspire their own. Regardless, I hope to explore mine here in the near future. Stay tuned.

 

Word of the year

When you read this bit of news I’m about to share with you, you’re either going to wonder: What took them so long? or What’s the world coming to?

So what’s the news?

Oxford Dictionaries announced their word of the year for 2015. All the dictionaries do it— choose a word that’s relatively new that captures the essence of a particular year. This year Oxford’s word is:

tears-of-joy-emoji

You read that right! There’s nothing to read. Just look. Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is not a word, it’s an emoji. The name of the emoji is Tears of Joy. But you could see that couldn’t you?

I could see this coming. I knew it was a matter of time before emojis enjoyed a wider cultural relevance. I got a good sense of that earlier this year when students and friends bombarded me with texts and tweets, out-of-their-mind thrilled that Apple had, in their iOS 9.1 update for the iPhone, added this emoji:

taco
(To know me is to know that I love tacos)

If you find yourself wondering what the world is coming to, consider what Brad Ovenell-Carter always says, “The ancients stole all our ideas.” We’re just cycling back to our past, back to hieroglyphs and cave paintings. And remember that language itself is made up of images, visual jots and tittles that correspond arbitrarily to things and ideas. And images themselves have their own grammar. We gotta learn to read it all. And write with it all, as my friend Amy Burvall has been emphatically evangelizing for.

So before I fall too far behind this curve, here is my first emoji composition:

emojiquiz-9478   basket.jpg

So just:   

Scarlet Letter Soundtrack

scarletnote

First came the music. It comprised a variety of instruments, perhaps imperfectly adapted to one another, and played with no great skill, but yet attaining the great object for which the harmony of drum and clarion addresses itself to the multitude,—that of imparting a higher and more heroic air to the scene of life that passes before the eye.

This passage from the Scarlet Letter is the earliest description of music as a soundtrack to life that I know of. Obviously people understood the effect of music on the soul way before Hawthorne penned this in 1850, but for over 100 years we’ve associated this “higher and more heroic air” with movie scores. A good tune adds a cinematic quality to even the most mundane tasks. That’s probably why I get a lot more dishes washed and papers graded when I put the ol’ needle to groove (still the best way to enjoy an album in my opinion). And anytime I wash the dishes, my wife thinks I’m a superhero!

Years ago when I was in New York City a couple songs in particular turned an interesting moment into pure magic. As I was ascending a staircase, exiting the 57th Street subway station, my iPod (this was pre-iPhone days), shuffling away, served up this Howard Hello song:

How perfectly cinematic, right? Especially for this suburban kid. Even though I’d been to New York City a dozen or so times before, I’d never felt its majesty like I did on that day stepping out of the subway. I was still working in the music industry at the time, so I had access to vast quantities of music and had jammed my iPod full. I was in love with hearing new music. On that day on 6th Avenue in Manhattan was the first time I had heard this Howard Hello song. I didn’t know who it was, so I checked the greyscale screen and promptly started listening to the whole album, starting again with “Intro.” That played as I crossed 59th Street and entered Central Park. The second song, “Giving Up” hit as as I drew near to Christo’s gates that lined the park’s pathways:

©2005 sssnole [CC-by-nc-nd 2.0]
©2005 sssnole [CC-by-nc-nd 2.0]
The guitarist’s staccato picking of the strings matched the mood of the moment as the bright orange curtains, in an explosion of technicolor contrast to the sad-colored trees, billowed in the breeze. In a beautiful confluence of sights and sounds and smells and sensations I was transported to another realm, a particular moment in time and space that I would never experience again.

Or so I thought.

It all comes back whenever I hear the swelling synthesized strings of “Intro.” It all comes back whenever I’m struck by big, bold batches of orange, whether at the Golden Gate Bridge or at my local pumpkin patch. I can finally say that I’ve experienced synesthesia as it all swirls back through my body.

Listening to music during the doldrums of the day has the same effect as the scarlet letter has on Hester—

…the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.

And so I cannot blame anyone for moving through their day with earbuds afixed. Not even that student who tries to smuggle an earbud in under their shirt, over their collar, or beneath a hoodie. Sometimes I can’t even stand being in my own sphere.

That’s when my earbuds go in.

Postscript: I know the title of this post begs a playlist for the Scarlet Letter. So here goes. I’ll continue to add to this as inspiration strikes:

Shriekback “Hand on My Heart”
This is Dimmesdale’s theme song!