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.