Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Double-Goer in the Digital World

     Elvis Presley believed he had an alter ego. That is probably no surprise, given the many times he altered his image from a Bluegrass crooner to a Rockabilly gyrator to a sequined, karate-kicking predecessor to Disco. He had a stage presence, and he had his private side, but he also believed that he had a spiritual companion in his deceased twin brother, Jesse Garon. Elvis once said, "Ya know, I can remember when I was just a little guy, couldn’t have been more’n four or five years old, I heard a voice talkin’ to me, like it was in my head. I just figured it was my twin brother Jesse Garon. But I never told anyone – not even my mom. It was like a special secret between Jesse and me.”

     One of my favorite things to think about is the concept of the doppelgänger, or living ghost. The word itself, German in origin, is funny to say and hear. I first heard it in an American Literature course, while we studied Henry James's “The Jolly Corner” from 1908. Spencer Brydon, the protagonist in the story, moves back into his childhood home in New York before it is to be demolished. At a frightening point in the story, he confronts his doppelgänger, his living ghost. This ghost turns out to be the creation of his girlfriend! The being represents the person he might have been had the course of his life taken a different turn. While Spencer was off having a good time, his alter ego was toiling away and even lost a couple of fingers in the process.

     The doppelgänger idea, of course, has generated interactive web applications competing for your use. At, for example, you can use the application to find out who your celebrity doppelgänger might be. To believe that doppelgängers exist, one might think that this manifestation has to be another “real” person. Since this whole thing is a theory, why not? I prefer, however, to believe that a doppelgänger is a presence in a different sense. I’ll get to that, but I want to first throw in one more story. It’s the story of Spiderman’s New Suit.

     I used to love to read comic books. I do not know why I quit, but while I did, I particularly loved Spiderman comic books. Spiderman stands tall as one of the ultimate doppelgänger stories. I don’t know whether Stan Lee studied this theory, but his biggest hits are all versions of the alter ego tale: Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and so on. The story of Peter Parker and Spiderman probably appealed to me because as an introverted and more or less shy young man, I was engaged with the idea that a magical accident could transform the same kind of person into a superhero. Several versions of the Spiderman saga have flourished over the years, but I mainly read and collected Amazing Spiderman and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spiderman.

     Spiderman is Peter Parker’s alter ego, no doubt, and the symbol of his other self is his costume. During the first two decades of the Spiderman story, Peter wore his own, homemade suit. It is iconic, yet during the 1980’s, Marvel Comics publishers became bored with it. During an intergalactic adventure, Spiderman tears his suit and is granted a new one. It’s a long story, but he is enthralled with the properties of the new uniform. For one thing, it has built in web-slingers. Peter Parker had to make his own for the red and blue costume to enhance his spider-like superpowers.

     The suit seemed to read his mind for quick changes from street clothes, and it even repaired itself when damaged. As a teenager, I have to admit, that I preferred this costume to the classic, but the writers never failed to embed a sense of foreboding in its regard. After several stories with the black and white costume, a new storyline developed. Peter discovered that while he thought he was asleep at night, the suit was wearing him! He would wake up exhausted and eventually realized that the suit was taking him on nighttime adventures, and behaving badly in the process.

     Unfortunately, Spidey's new constume turned out to be a symbiotic alien, later renamed “Venom.” In an epic battle to gain freedom from the alien, Spiderman climbs into a church belfry and nearly dies as he exposes himself and the suit to the vibrations of the ringing bell until the suit gives up and leaves to find another host, and another story.

     The story of the doppelgänger (English translation: double-goer) is a fictional goldmine, because I think we all understand that there can be multiple versions of ourselves. It is in that sense, that I believe that it is more about presence than about having a “real” person who looks like me somewhere else. In cultural mythology, whether it is Egyptian, Norse, Chinese, Greek, Finnish, or even Marvel, it has always been difficult to see a doppelgänger other than in the periphery of vision. In the 21st century, however, our “double-goer” is not only plainly visible to each of us; he or she is just a mouse-click away from plain view and understanding to anyone who has Internet access.

     At no other time in our history have we had a more evident and present doppelgänger. Whether I call it my digital footprint, my avatar, my blog, my Facebook, my Twitter, or even my e-mail address, I am really saying, “my presence.” While I am on-line, I am working with this presence to communicate, create, and collaborate. It is my suit that I put on to walk into another dimension of double-goers. And when I am not online, this other presence is out there, swinging from edifice to precipice, like Spiderman’s costume, interacting  and perhaps even learning for me – maybe sometimes against me – in a symbiotic fashion. I keep him alive when I write a blog or send out a tweet or check my Facebook page. He keeps me alive and multiplies me on the web when other double-goers read what I write or retweet what I tweet.
     Occasionally, I catch him on the periphery when my cell phone makes a funny noise to say that something is happening in that other, digital realm. If I want to see him in full view, however, I can. If I want to change what he looks like, I can do that too. But there is a hitch. Like the black and white alien suit Spiderman adored, my web presence can take on a life of its own and the web has a long memory. I believe that participation and presence on the web is an essential part of 21st century life in which our children need to learn to thrive. I also believe that the suit we put on to thrive in that world is better if it is “homemade” like Spiderman’s. The suit should represent the real person. Teaching children to embrace this concept is not about digital literacy; it is about teaching them to believe in themselves and their presence, what they can really make, what they can really be at their best.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

True Grit: A Virtuous Habit

     One of my favorite film scenes is Rooster Cogburn’s charge. I don’t care if it’s John Wayne or Jeff Bridges acting the part, the scene is a lot of fun to watch unfold. Of course, I also highly recommend the 1968 novel, True Grit by Charles Portis. The scene is described by the narrator and heroin, Mattie Ross:
     “It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshal whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!

     Now, if you followed the link above, you saw a movie scene where Rooster, the “one-eyed fat man,” makes the charge against Ned Peppers and his band of outlaws. If you’ve read the book, you also know that a legend circulated that Rooster had done a similar deed with Quantrill's Raiders during the Civil War. Is his courage built on that experience? If so, where did it come from when he first jousted with his enemies? Is this deed even possible in real life? It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that it’s been researched: Shootout on Horseback.

     Grit is quickly turning into an educational buzzword, and why not? As Cogburn discovers, the quality can be overdone like anything else, yet there is reason to suggest that grit is a quality that deserves greater attention when it comes to understanding how we learn. Angela Duckworth is currently the leading researcher in the field of studying grit and self-control as predictors of success. I encourage you to visit her website at The Duckworth Lab and, if you dare, you may take the 12-item grit scale to find out how "gritty" you are. It includes items like, “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” You read the statement and then indicate how closely it associates with your mindset.
     To boil down some of Duckworth’s research, she has observed something very powerful in two parts:

     1. Grit, or the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals is related to  
     success with consequential life outcomes. It is a greater  predictor than talent!
     2. Grittier teachers are better teachers.

     So, let’s say you have taken the “Grit Scale,” and you are disappointed with your score. First of all, don’t be. Life requires balance, and too much grit can lead to the kind of “foolish consistency” that Thoreau disdains. Having said that, how does one become grittier?

     There is a wonderful synopsis of Duckworth’s work, along with that of Gabriele Oettingen in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed (2012). In the section entitled Good Habits, psychologist William James is credited with the concept that what we call virtues – grit for example – are nothing more than habits of mind. They are scripts we say to ourselves over and over again. Habits of mind form one of our often-cited higher order thinking skills: metacognition. They play out in terms of optimism, pessimism, and realism.
    An optimist sees a goal, becomes overwhelmed with the joy of setting the  goal, and then fails because the virtuous script of sustained interest is lost. A pessimist identifies a goal and runs the script of challenges and obstacles –dwelling – until the goal seems impossible. The third alternative is “mental contrasting.” In this case, the realist simultaneously concentrates on the positive outcome and the obstacles that will get in the way.

     The lesson in all this for me is that when I think about my own thought process, especially when I am facing a challenge, I am building grit. Just the act of metacognition, the act of thinking about the way I am dwelling, indulging, or contrasting my way through a goal or problem, builds mental toughness because I am taking an honest look in the mirror and evaluating what  I see. I believe that when we engage students with questions about how they start, finish, or process a task, and wait for and insist on thoughtful answers, we are fostering metacognition and, consequently, the habit of grit. In other words, it is not enough for a child to succeed with a task, it is paramount that as teachers and parents, we often ask the child “how” she planned to succeed and carried out the plan to fruition. It is important to help the child make connections between what she did and the outcome.
     Grit is a fun and serious word. Whenever I hear it, I can’t help but think of Portis’s novel and Rooster Cogburn. He makes me smile. He’s so cocky that he articulates his exploits – whether positive or negative – as a matter of fact: “No brag, just fact.” It’s beautiful, and there are people like that. They know what they can do, and they state their dreams with confidence while understanding that nothing worth doing is easy. It is a virtuous habit that can be learned.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

You Cannot Cross the Finish Line Twice!

              “Do you want to come and run in the race tomorrow, sweety?” I asked my daughter before she went to bed Friday night.

                “Is Mark?” she asked, referring to her big brother.
                “Yes, he is. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” I wanted to be sure that Lainey really wanted to participate.
                “I want to.”
                “Okay, I’ll wake you up in plenty of time,” and off she went to sleep.
                The Bruce Barnes Memorial Mile is a downhill footrace that starts at the Post Office in Greenwood in the western part of Albemarle County. It is the perfect race for children and middle-agers like me, who want to get a confidence boost by running a fast mile. Mark, twelve, and Lainey, ten, have recently run the mile for their physical fitness tests at school, so I knew they could complete the distance. Mark has run a few races. A couple of years ago, he and I ran a 2-mile cross country race at Panorama Farms in Earlysville, Virginia, the Kelly Watt Memorial Race, named for a lovable and fast cross country runner from Albemarle High School.
                This would be Lainey’s longest race, and it is run in linear fashion, from point A to point B. Afterward, everyone walks back to the start. Lainey has run the mile around the soccer field at her elementary school, and I have run a ½ mile race with her a couple of times. I wanted to see what I could do for a time, since the local Men’s Four-Miler is coming up on Father’s Day, and I have cut back on my running in trade for other types of exercise in the past year or so. When I told Mark and Lainey we were all going for our own times, they ignored the comment and asked if I would buy them Slurpee’s after the race.
                We toed the line at 9:15 AM and took off. After crossing the finish, I immediately looped back to cheer Mark and Lainey in. I could see Mark about a quarter mile back. He was headed for a personal record and just chugging along. When he was seven or eight, he and I ran and walked this race together. Now seeing his confident and lanky frame and grim expression as he dashed forward, I was very proud.
                “You’re doing great, Mark!”
                I passed him, clapping my hands and searched the distance for Lainey. It was overcast and neither of my children is hard to spot with their copper colored hair. Only around 80 runners were in the race. I could see Lainey passing the same quarter mile sign that Mark had crossed a minute earlier. She seemed to be struggling. I ran to her and came alongside, patting her back. Breathing hard, she appeared close to quitting or wanting permission to do so. I cheered her.
                “Come on Lainey! When we get up this little hill, you’ll see the finish line downhill and very close!”
                Sure enough, as soon as we saw the electric light clock, Lainey picked up the pace, and I went with her. And I broke a rule I have never broken in 34 years of running all kinds of races from track events to cross-country meets to marathons. I crossed the line a second time.
                As I did so, I was immediately scolded by Mark Lorenzoni, one of the race directors and legendary local running guru.
                “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Matt, you know you can’t finish twice! Step back and go around the shoot. You’re lucky we recognized you coming through the first time, or you would have disqualified yourself and your daughter!” He was serious. I apologized and stepped back. Later, I apologized again. He was less severe. “I know she’s your child, but don’t let your emotions get the best of you, and you forget she has to finish alone.”
                It’s one of the oldest footrace rules in the book. You cannot finish twice. In fact, it’s a truism for life. Once you finish a course – a race, a course of action suited to its time, anything that starts and ends – you are finished. As a Generation X parent, I am part of a generation of highly protective parents. At one time, we were called “helicopter parents,” because we hover over our children far worse than any other generation before us. Lately, we have been renamed “tank parents” because we simply run ahead and destroy obstacles.
                After years of teaching and administrative work  at the school and school division levels, I have found my own generation to be the most challenging in terms of satisfying the desire to live vicariously through children. Knowing this, my wife and I fight our urge to intervene, knowing it is best for Mark and Lainey to solve their own problems. Every once in a while, though, the temptation is too great. We can see our children’s grades on-line. Teachers are just an e-mail away, and all of the bureaucracy that once separated educators from parents has flattened.
                Nevertheless, I was reminded yesterday morning as my strong little red-headed girl surged ahead of me across the line I could not cross twice, our children are the masters of their own learning destiny. We cannot learn for them or deal with their pain for them. We can and should challenge them and comfort them. We should encourage and  unleash them to own their futures and let them thrive. And they will.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

essayer: to try

     For some reason I cannot explain, I am about to read Finnegans Wake, published in 1939. Several people have tried to dissuade me from doing so. The book is apparently impossible to read. The only James Joyce (1882-1941) I have read is a short story entitled "Araby" from his collection, The Dubliners. I enjoyed it several years ago, and after having seen a movie about Joyce recently, I am curious about Finnegans Wake, a piece of fiction over which he labored for seventeen years.

     Another prompt for me was a notation I read when exploring some web pages devoted to The Book of Kells. A piece describing the illuminations on the 1,200-year-old book's pages asserted that James Joyce had been inspired to write Finnegans Wake by the dream-like artistic renderings of St. Columba and the monks of the Monastery at Kells. The Penguin edition of Finnegans Wake  is adorned with artwork from the Kells version of the Bible.

     John Bishop introduces this edition of the Wake as "perhaps the single most intentionally crafted literary artifact that our culture has produced." It evolved under the title Work in Progress and apparently began with Joyce "jotting down and compiling discrete phrases and sketches without fully knowing where they would lead him." Indeed, this attempt to find a way lead Joyce to coalesce his writing into a masterpiece.
     It may be a stretch to say that James Joyce engaged in a superhuman exercise in what educators call writing to learn, but I will make that stretch.  Writing begets learning. This process begins with what the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) described as an attempt to put thoughts into writing. De Montaigne coined the term "essay" from the French word "essayer" to describe these trials to find meaning in the commonplace. Writing promotes critical thinking, as the author purposefully addresses an audience with the appropriate tone and point of view. The author attempts to convey a topic and engage the reader.
     Creativity is essential if not unavoidable  in this effort. Consider the monks at the Kells Monastery, perhaps as Joyce did. The physical act of writing, even if it meant simply copying text from a Viking-ravaged Bible to a new page, must have triggered the same desire to try to create and explain as is enjoined when freely writing one's ideas. Overwhelming creativity produced illustrations so enriching and fascinating that they are called "illuminations." How writing stirs cognition is not known. Perhaps the same divine influence enabling the monks is at work in the commonplace writing our students endeavor. If not, the learning derived from writing to learn is no less marvelous and worth a try.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

One Brain isn't Enough? Collaborate!

     Ask anyone on the street how much of the human brain we use, and I'll bet that the person cites less than 100%. In 1908, William James asserted that "we are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources" in his notes for the work The Energies of Men. This may be the source of the myth that we only use a small percentage - often cited as 10% - of our brain. The fact is that we use 100% of our brain, all the time. Frankly, I'm sad to understand this truth. For a long time, I have believed that there is an untapped reserve, a percentage of cognitive power that goes unused.

     I'm not sure how this notion survives so far into the 21st Century, since scientists have found ways to map human brain activities through magnetic resonance imaging. Nevertheless, based on this false assumption, we have credited savants and mediums alike with perhaps tapping into some extra percentage of their minds. So it turns out that we are maxing out our noggins. Our three-pound brains became what they are roughly 10,000 years ago. Imagine a Neanderthal driving an automobile, talking on a cell-phone, or playing an X-Box, and you are imagining a "modern" human as well. Prehistoric people tapped into 100% of their brainpower, and so do we. We have more tools and more advanced communication, but I would submit that these resources neither detract from nor add to our brain usage. We are at our individual limit. That is why it is essential to collaborate, and to provide opportunities for students to collaborate effectively.

     True collaboration is synergistic and produces a different result - different questions, ideas, and plans - than isolated work. Note that I didn't say "a better result;" I said "different." Three people using 100% of their intellect do not make 300%, but with diverse memories, experiences, attitudes, and skills, they can develop a fourth and better idea that each of the three may not have turned out. With the right measure of respect, willingness to help, and productive brainstorming, a balanced team is a powerful way to get more out of our collective brains.
      In many ways, our schools emphasize individual and competitive effort over collaboration. Both learning tactics have their places, and as with most pedagogies there is an equilibrium to consider. For example, when divergent thinking - brainstorming perhaps -  is required, a collaborative process makes sense. A group project, however, can turn into a true mess if roles are not assigned or selected and performed individually. Further, I wish that we would teach and facilitate cooperation along with collaboration. Students should learn they can rely on one another and get along well as they find their way to doing so. It is human nature to socialize, and the adult role model can effectively inspire and facilitate this nature toward cooperative learning. Finally, if we want students to work collaboratively, we must model this behavior. It has been said that teaching is an isolating profession. A recent move toward collaboration, the Professional Learning Community model, is a way for teachers to increase their effectiveness while learning together.

     I'm compelled to say again that I am mildly depressed to finally accept the fact that I am using more than 10% of my brain. I'm sure my family, friends, and coworkers are disappointed that I cannot have more, as well. My dreams of one day levitating, seeing the future, or simply remembering to wash whites separately from colored clothes with five, ten, or fifteen percent more brain power are just that, delusions. We are doing the best we can with all of what we have. If we want more, we can always teach, model, and learn collaboration. Why not?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Cardinal is a Metaphor

     One of my favorite short stories to teach ninth-graders is The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. They are quite engaged in the novelette, perhaps because birds of all kinds are all around us all the time. Upon reading the story, we can't help but take a second look at our feathered companions that often make up familiar wallpaper in our surroundings, whether rural or urban. Of course, no study of the story is complete without experiencing selected scenes from Hitchcock's 1963 classic by the same name. The two are similar and different enough to provoke analysis.

     We have a bird feeder in our backyard. The feeder is a sturdy metal triangle built so that birds can roost in a center portal and nip seeds from within it, or they can grasp at the screening on the sides and peck through it for bites of seeds. Hanging from a metal shepherds hook, the feeder is frequented largely by male and female Northern Cardinals.

   Recent stories of the Pope's retirement have made me curious about the familiar birds. The new Pope will be elected by Cardinals in Rome. Reading the plan to elect a new Pope alerted me in the same way that viewing The Birds will anthropomorphize birds and attribute human motivations to them, including cardinals. As I watched and listened to the sweet whistles of my cardinals at the feeder, I began to wonder whether the bird is a metaphor for the priest or the priest for the bird. I sincerely began to think about the traits of these brilliantly red birds and guess at which behaviors caused clergy to be named for them.

     With very little research, of course, I was able to determine that the bird is named for the clergy and not the other way around. What fascinated me the most, however, was finding out that the Northern Cardinal, the handsome bird in my back yard, had his name changed as recently as 1983! Reflecting on the various names of all the birds in  du Maurier's work, jackdaw, gull, starling, finch, lark, oystercatcher, redshank, sanderling, and curlew (to name just a few), I am curious about the origins of these names and the recency with which they were coined.

   Understanding a metaphor develops problem solving analysis skills in our students. Making one is a wonderful way to use critical thinking and reasoning in a creative task. And to think that a bird as distinct as the Northern Cardinal has a relatively new name! This is so promising; it gives me hope that there are opportunities for our young scientists and artists to label birds themselves. I think the next time I observe a bird with a student, maybe even my own child, I will ask, "If you were to call that creature any name besides bird, what would it be?Why?" There is a metaphor in that question.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

New Knowledge is Irresistable

     I recently heard someone ask, "How do we create new knowledge?" It seems like everything we want to know is known. Beyond that, how does a child create new knowledge? Can we hope for more than synthesis of what he or she reads, views, or hears?

     Creation is at the peak of the Newer Bloom's Taxonomy. When we work our way up the hierarchy, the learning experience leads to creation of knowledge that is new to us. I interpret the taxonomy as a broad base to support creativity, and the power of creation contains a moral and ethical component that is irresistible when it is tapped. Creation is a flash of genius that prompts action, and I think it is personal before it is public and leads to an understanding that it may not be a first but a replication. Even so, replication adds to the body of knowledge for all of us.

     It is imperative that our students be given opportunities to create!

     I was awed by the creativity displayed by Jonathon, the high school basketball player at the end of this clip from Sunday Morning this morning: Sportsmanship & a Shot at Glory. Jonathon says, "I was raised to treat other people the way you want to be treated." He learned it, recalled it, and mastered the rules of the game to the extent that he would create his own rule of empathy above all else. It was his new knowledge, and he clearly found it irresistible.