All posts by sz

About sz

I learn with my students in my English and journalism (print and broadcast) classes at FVHS in Southern California. I bike or Bug to school.

SQUIDD: an origin story in 10 facts

FACT 1: When I was a kid and I needed help with my homework, I’d often ask my father who would sit next to me at the table and begin fumbling for paper and a pencil. I need a pencil, he’d say. I can’t think without a pencil.

It rubbed off. I like taking notes. I love taking notes. And doodling. My father can’t think without a pencil, but whenever I’m sitting down listening to someone talk at me, I can’t focus without doodling. I mix thinking and playing, notes and doodles. Sometimes the two coincide. Sometimes not.

Definitely more doodles than notes here. An artifact from my previous career.

FACT 2: At the beginning of the year I warn my English students with an adage I heard from Marilyn Elkins during the AP training course I took before teaching the class: AP English Language is just good readin’, writin’, and thinkin’.  I don’t transmit a lot of data, facts, and information to my students. It’s a skills-based writing class and what we do is write and read. And write about what we read and read as examples of how to write. We practice those skills all year long. 

FACT 3: About five years ago one of my former students stopped by to say hello and she was eager to tell me about her first college English paper she had to write. Her class had just finished a poetry unit and she had read about 100 poems. Her assignment? Write a 15-page paper on poetry. What was the prompt? I asked. Write a 15-page paper on poetry. There was no prompt. I had spent so much time giving students writing prompts, prepping them for a prompt-based test, but I hadn’t prepared them for this: no prompt.

FACT 4: Up to a couple years ago I’d get frustrated seeing my students simply sit and watch the front of the room during lectures or discussions. I’d see very few of them write anything down, and after reminding myself that they can’t all be doodlers like me, and that there’s not ONE vocab or factual question on the AP test I’m preparing them for, I knew I had to do something. Worksheets were not an option. 

FACT 5: Thoughts and ideas are elusive creatures.

FACT 6: The Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou. Bill Murray’s character, oceanographer Steve Zissou, travels everywhere with a rag-tag film crew documenting just about every move he makes as he searches for a creature he calls a jaguar shark that ate (“swallowed whole? Klaus asks. “No, chewed,” Zissou says) his partner.

“Klaus, why aren’t you rolling? Why aren’t you getting this?”

FACT 7: Probably over tacos, my friend David Theriault and I were picking each other’s brains, looking for ideas to improve our classes. He had his struggles. I had mine—I needed some way for students to keep track of their thinking, something beyond taking notes. Something simple. Something that would provide fodder for their writing now, and something that would serve their learning well into the future.

FACT 8: David Theriault LOVES acronyms (more precisely, he hates crappy acronyms. KWHLAQ gives him hives while something like SCUBA warms his soul), and so we cobbled together S.Q.U.I.D.D., a low-fi, extremely malleable, life-long learning tool. In a nutshell, after we read, listen to, or watch something in class I ask my students to put down some S.Q.U.I.D.D. ink, a quickwrite where they focus on one S.Q.U.I.D.D. element, either in composition notebooks, or on a 3×5 card. In just a few minutes all students have thought about and responded to the work in question and they’re ready for a discussion. Then on a regular basis I’ll have them do a deep dive where they expand on one or more of their S.Q.U.I.D.D. inks.

FACT 9: David and I do A LOT more with S.Q.U.I.D.D. (did I mention S.Q.U.I.D.D. is extremely malleable and easy to use in lots of ways?), but that will have to wait for another post or twelve.

FACT 10: The bare bones of S.Q.U.I.D.D.—

COVIDucation

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Photo by Calvin Tran

We all fled to our homes, with little warning, and certainly without a clue that we’d never be gathered as a class, this class, ever again.

We spent the first few days with our families, figuring out what this new normal looks like and scouring stores for toilet paper.

Then I reached out to my students, by email, by video conference, and planned out enrichment activities while my school district figured out what schooling while sheltering at home looks like.

No one knows.

But I knew where to start trying to figure it all out—A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. I’d read the book years ago and it’s been infecting my craft in all the time since. Infecting, because it burrowed itself deep into how I teach, how I motivate my students to learn.

I worked backwards in my re-reading, starting with the last two paragraphs:

“That moment of fusion between unlimited resources (referring to the internet) and a bounded environment creates a space that does not simply allow for imagination, it requires it. Only when we care about experimentation, play, and questions more than efficiency, outcomes, and answers do we have a space that is truly open to the imagination.

And where imaginations play, learning happens.”

Right now, world, state, and local political leaders, public health officials, and the medical community should be concerned with “efficiency, outcomes, and answers,” but teachers, thrust into remote education without a bit of training, have a responsibility to the students we serve to lead them to learning by creating a flexible space where “experimentation, play, and questions” reign. 

A space where students can continue learning while living in a world upside down, radically different than any of us have ever experienced.

What might this look like?

Different for every teacher, every subject, as they respond to the needs of their students. For me, a writing and journalism teacher, I stripped down my syllabus to four lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

I would hope all teachers, no matter the subject, would be able to make that subject applicable to students’ lives as they’re lived, right now.

So what might be the results of my four-lined syllabus, one that prioritizes questions? Well, I just revised it, so it will take some time to see what students come up with, but I do have a few early examples.

Camelia let herself be astonished by the sound of falling rain.

Sandra tweeted how she has “really found some courage in myself,” hoping she “can confidently express [herself] without any worthy.”

Anna wants to break out her old analog, film-based, SLR Minolta camera to “document how the world has changed during COVID-19.” You see, she’s astonished by how people have changed, how their relationship to each other and their environments have changed, and she’s going to use that camera to pay attention. I can’t wait for her to tell about her findings.

Then there’s Justin, who, upon listening to an episode of John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed podcast, was left “grappl[ing] with the nature of luck, merit, and fairness.” And so the 10 minutes of writing I asked students to do after listening to the podcast turned into 14 pages and 10 graphs, “pseudosystematic visuals that helped give shape to [his] ideas.”

Had I been concerned with trying to re-create an exact (and efficient) virtual replica of my brick and mortar classroom, expecting exact outcomes and answers from students, dangling a reward (points, a grade) over their head, they would’ve checked the box and moved on to what was more pressing in their life.

infinite expansion

But because I gave them, hopefully, a purpose to their learning, to live a life, their life, they experimented, they played, they learned. Learning “not as some verifiable end-form, but [learning] as growing, changing, maybe even culturally transforming” (Geoffrey Sirc).

There’s no way every student will be moved to write for hours like Justin did, and I don’t expect them to. But I hope to lead them to discover for themselves “kernels of infinite expansion” that will “flourish later in interesting ways” (Sirc) and motivate their learning for years.

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?

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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.

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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.