Monday, February 27, 2017

Transcendentalist Theme: Moral Agency

I will post a series of lessons for breaking down the Transcendentalists' ideas into real-world concepts.  "Civil Disobedience" is the piece we read after finishing The Crucible. I believe it is a natural progression; students remember this line from Elizabeth explaining John Proctor: "The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you." We come to understand John has a strong conscience, and by the end of the play ripping up his confession could be seen as an act of civil disobedience. We talk about this. I ask for real world examples; students struggle coming up with them. So, we watch this recreation of Stanley Milgram's experiment to test obedience to authority, and moral agency.

After watching, students are usually horrified that 9 of the 12 "teachers" go through with the entire experiment, delivering 450 volts to the "learner." We talk about who is at fault: the teacher who flips the switch or the professor who tells the teacher to flip the switch. Most students by now see where this is going and recognize that the little judge that sits in your heart takes precedent over the big judge that sits in one of those leather-clad chairs with buttons... who might enforce something like, oh, say, segregation laws. If you're brave you could bring up travel bans... There is usually one student that thinks the professor should be at fault, because the teacher was just doing what they were told to do. Sometimes, from here, we go on to talk about war crimes, Nazism, and just to keep it light, Bug's Life. Why Bug's Life? Well, Hopper has some words of advice for Princess Atta (who, next to Vanellope, is one of the only Disney Princesses I like):

First rule of leadership: "everything is your fault." We go on to reason that we all want to be in charge of our own lives; those of us in positions of power, in charge of the lives of others, should take responsibility for our actions. "We learned this in kindergarten," someone might say. Indeed. So, why is it hard?

For some it may be hard to admit fault; for others maybe they feel like they don't deserve their success. After a bit of speculation we narrow the big scary concept of civil disobedience down to "taking responsibility for your own actions." From there I ask students to find three (rationale: once is random, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern) quotes from "Civil Disobedience" that relate back to moral agency, or as we said, taking responsibility for your actions.

From there we read MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and attempt to pair three more direct quotes with those taken from civil disobedience. Once we do this, I teach students how to write a synthesis/analysis paragraph. Because this can be challenging, I use the following graphic to coach them on how to structure it.

It is important to emphasize that students should choose the pairing of quotes they feel they will be able to explain the best. Here's one we did in class:

Postscript: perhaps the most compelling lines from MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" are "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority... An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."

Modern implications? 

That's up to you. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Walden and Climate Change

A byproduct of writing a nature journal along with Thoreau's Walden is that my students and I now have a record of when plants bloomed, etc. According to scholars, one of Walden's many benefits is that it chronicles the onset of spring in 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. Some have used this record to highlight factors that could be interpreted as indicative of climate change. This NPR article shows just what I mean. There have also been books written about how Walden provides evidence for climate change.  Which, say what you want about climate change, I tend to side with the scientists. On Friday I took this picture, the first leaf of spring in Northeast Ohio (or at least, the first one I have found), outside the school. It was 75 degrees on February 25, 2017.

At the time I was thinking it was just a neat picture I could use in a nature journal... then I thought maybe, culturally, we should really start paying attention to this kind of stuff. I decided to go back into my nature journal and compare dates. For instance here is the first green shoots coming out of the ground at our house two years ago:

I took this picture on February 19, 2017:

Now, I've never claimed to be good with numbers, but I believe this same plant is blooming significantly earlier in 2017 than in 2015. Apparently Thoreau noted that the first open flower of highbush blueberry opened May 1, 1853 in Massachusetts. According to the NPR article, the same plant is blooming in the first week of April. At the Skarl house, the first flower of spring in 2015 opened March 24:

Well, based on the picture I just took roughly ten minutes ago, and the fat buds that are already forming, the first flower of spring at the Skarl house in 2017 will probably be about a month earlier than that of 2015:

I suppose I could get all political. Instead, I think I'll just drop a link and call it a day.  Eh, maybe just one more... okay, last one...

Update: photo taken March 8, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

NCTE Recognizes

I got this in the mail today at school. It appears that NCTE recognizes me as a High School English Professor! Hahahahahaha! To my knowledge I invented this title for an article about my teaching called "Double Play: Notes from a High School English Professor." The article appeared in the inaugural issue of Crosspol, which is a really great journal for and about writing teachers. Check out Colin and Andrew on Facebook and see what they're up to now. They're doing some great work for education. Word y'all!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

1. I am not a dog.

So, my new favorite YouTuber is Zach Anner.  Well, saying new favorite implies I had an old favorite, which I suppose is misleading... in fact, the only YouTuber I have ever watched more than once is James Rolfe as the Angry Video Game Nerd, who, if you've never seen his videos, is magical and entertaining, and also highly crude. But CLEVERLY crude... I owned two YouTuber books for a hot minute: Shane Dawson's I Hate My Selfie, and Jenn McCalister's Very Professional Internet Person. I used excerpts from Jenn McCalister's book to add to our models of literacy narrative; her chapters on how she came to make YouTube films and how she slowly cultivated an audience acts as a really nice piece of digital literacy narrative. It also inspired some of the best digital literacy narratives I've ever read from students. Shane Dawson's book, on the other hand, (WARNING >>> GIANT RANT) I saw as fairly well written, but too gratuitously crude (note, not CLEVERLY crude) to take seriously... or to really allow students to read. It actually kind of pissed me off that here was a person with some charisma and storytelling ability making dick and fart jokes just because it was probably the kind of thing he said to mask extreme self-loathing.... I suppose it pissed me off ever more that he admits this is why he does it. Anyway, now a student is reading it because she has watched several of his YouTube videos, also crude, and I suppose that I'd rather her be reading than on YouTube, so I gave her the book. As a general rule, I suppose, I don't spend much time on YouTube unless it is to stream highly intelligent videos in class, such as this video featuring Cookie Monster singing death metal.  See previous post featuring Cookie Monster...  ANYWHO (END OF RANT >>>)... I really enjoy Zach's sense of humor and openness about Cerebral Palsy. I wrote a story once narrated by a young man with CP. The story was partly inspired by a family friend with CP. Anyway, I hope, if a guy like Zach were to ever read the story, he would think I did an okay job depicting CP. That's something I worry about a lot. I'm writing something much longer that depicts several different people with exceptionalities. I just hope I don't royally screw it up. Also, I ordered Zach's book today.  Really looking forward to it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Driftwood Press

Thanks to James McNulty and the editorial team at Driftwood Press for working with me on "Porcelain." If you're looking for a market for your writing, these folks exemplify what an editorial board of a literary magazine should be. Also excited for an excerpt of my interview to be featured in The Review Review. Thanks guys!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Argumentation: Rickrolling Toulmin

Now, while tEaching the toulmin model of argumentation, I haVe found a dEarth of inteResting examples online.  See the example below:

Geesh!  Only, calm dowN frieNds....we All know, Rick.

Rick is Going to be okay... he Is wearing sunglasses and Vibrant dEnim armor stop wasting our time.

Innovative teachers of rhetoric and argumentation strategies everYwhere strive tO really bring real, lively, relevant claims into their classrooms, don't yoU think? Here is one that I've grown fond of over the years.

Do yoU see how relevant this is to daily life? I strive to make those connections for my students... clearly joking People, but, at least my students are engaged. It's better than talking about some dude's pasty skin, I think.

In the beginning stages of learning, it's important to keep it simple, no?

That's right.


To read more about this important difference, click here.

I've had some really boring teachers before. This teacher is Never Gonna Let You Down.

*Postscript... I was reading some old posts ... I used to blog a lot about Muppets. That is all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow

This book reads like a first draft with promise. The most compelling parts of the novel are flashbacks due largely to the fact that the plot is a bit of a mess and not engaging; the most engaging bit was a flashback explaining the relationship between the main character, Julius, and a woman named Zoya, or Zed, which would have been a nice short story.  It’s the moment, for me, in which I am able to feel empathy for any of the characters; the character are, by and large, flat and lifeless…. Probably a by-product of a novel in which people live forever- in the event of sickness or death their minds are downloaded from the most recent save-point into a new body- so they behave disgracefully (casually smoking crack, for instance), and therefore, despite the author’s attempts to make them deserving of our empathy, are kind of despicable. This would be totally excusable if the novel were pure satire, but the author’s nostalgic sentimentality for the pop culture he should be using to eviscerate us is what ultimately binds his hands and makes the book flat (for instance a major plot twist foreshadowed… or completely given away if you’re familiar with the song “Rocky Raccoon”... by the narrator’s love interest being named Lil who cheats on him with, you guessed it, his “friend” Dan). This is perhaps the most frustrating part for me; I expected a dystopian novel set in Disney World to offer some really scathing satire, really roasting our cultural attachments to inane, overly-cute nonsense, but the author seems not be able to make up his mind on this point: the characters truly love Disney, more specifically, The Haunted Mansion, and spend most of their time geeking about it, working to make it better, and saving it from the forces of evil. Now, the mansion is probably the least despicable thing about the Magic Kingdom, because it is at least a nod to the original folk and fairy-tales Walt Disney used to built his glittery kingdom off of: namely a hard stare at where horror (even if the horror of the Mansion is somehow, frustratingly, made cute by the end with campy songs and pesky poltergeists that just want to hitchhike a ride home with you… gawsh) intersects with beauty; this is my main beef with Disney: the emphasis is on the glitter, the cuteness, the virtue, while the ugly, the horrific has had all its fangs knocked out, talons filed down, and the most menace it can muster is skulking in a long line sucking down a Capri-Sun, masking a longing look at the air conditioned waiting room four bends distant as a malevolent stare (sorry Mel, if you’re reading this. I love you). See here my youngest son’s face just before we forced him to go inside said mansion. That alone was almost worth the utter miasma that is Disney.

I can’t decide if the characters’ love and loyalty to the park is intended to be satirical! It feels like they, and the author, might really be into it. The Hall of Presidents is lambasted as being trite and dull (yup), but even IT is used as a meaningful platform to introduce presidential style satirical narrative into the sorry state of humanity as it’s portrayed in the book: Lincoln intones: “if destruction be our lot, then we ourselves must be its author-- and its finisher.” So the line is blurred here in a way that doesn’t serve the novel. It seems as if the book is trying to say humanity is destroying itself by becoming tritely beautiful, namely the glitter-crack, pleasure-fest that it has become in the book... Heck, the main character is murdered for Christ’s Sake, and the reader really doesn’t care, because nothing was at stake… he’s just uploaded into a new body and viola. So, ultimately his need to find out who killed him is just as inane as the killer’s reveal at the “climax” of the book. So as I reflect, I think this book could really pop as satire if the author figured out how he wants us to view his characters, and Disney. Sort out your priorities, mate... do you want to eviscerate us or inspire us to visit the Magic Kingdom?

I feel like I've just taken a hard swing at a writer I really like, so on the zero percent chance you ever read this, Cory Doctorow, I’m sorry. I really like you when you’re on, but for me this book was rough.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Winning Reading Workshop

So I mentioned in the previous post that reading workshop was going well this year. I believe it has something to do with this updated format. Instead of assigning a recall-style journal every session, I have made a more in-depth, student centered journal that aims to encourage and assess critical engagement with a self-selected text. I modeled each of these strategies earlier in the year when we read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian out loud, as a class. Below is the version I use in the college credit plus class. I use something very similar with the juniors, too, actually.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Superhero Bulletin Board

So... after using Spider-Man in a synthesis project for the composition classes, I was discussing the need for a reading-initiative bulletin board and sort of whining about materials for my old one that were ruined when my room flooded a few years back. It was essentially a bowling alley and the pins were books students finished.

I thought it was clever... anyway... but nearly everything was ruined and we needed to start over. After brainstorming with some of my first period students, we came up with this idea: Spidey is shooting webs at the classic villains in a cityscape. Each web constitutes a book that a student was able to finish... so therefore, reading saves the world!  With some help from my students we made it happen:

The kids seem to dig it.
Update... The Green Goblin has fallen. A dastardly new villain has taken his place.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

So what attracted me to this book was hearing the author discuss the banning of his book from a school reading program in Florida on CSPAN's Book Talk.  I think the fact that he sent the students copies sealed the deal for me... I really needed to read this book, because anyone that would aggressively defend their writing like that deserved the book revenue... and for anyone to see the book as a legitimate challenge to authority, well, it had to be... good. And it is.

Doctorow's novel does something books like MT Anderson's Feed and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One does not: in short, it offers meaningful commentary on the war on terror as well as questioning how technology can both bind and liberate us.

The narrative forces the reader into the passenger seat and has a way of saying, "Relax, I got this." For me, this feeling came after being PWND by technical jargon, and since I am constantly negotiating with the books I read like any pretentious, MFA toting, fiction-writing know-it-all, being PWND by Doctorow's narrative is seriously refreshing. And fun.

Lame ass teachers' pets are bound to protest any of the following: the criticism of standardized testing, the criticism of the department of homeland security, the ugly and critical depiction of water-boarding, the intimate relationship between the teenage protagonists, and the directive to hack whatever moves.

I'd like to address each of these in order. Standardized testing is first...

So it's revealed that the protagonist's girlfriend once swiped and published a standardized text costing the department of education a considerable sum of money to write and distribute new tests. While this is a bold move on Ange's part, and not something I would necessarily be proud of my own kids doing, it creates an interesting discussion: to what extent should tests rule what we do in education? In this teacher's opinion, not much. Too much emphasis on standardized testing undermines the classroom teacher's expertise, authority and ability to impact lives in meaningful ways. Standardized tests, especially the multiple choice ones, often raise recall and skill/conceptual knowledge (the two most basic expressions of learning according to Webb's Depth of Knowledge and Bloom's Taxonomy, see below figure) to the Glow of Divine Authority that limns (see Words Both Curious and Valuable) standardized tests in this country to the extent that they decide collegiate placement, scholarships, teacher evaluation, and teacher pay (some would argue)... and as a good friend of mine once said, these tests inform a kind of educational caste system. It also creates a phony learning environment; my favorite example of this comes from one of George Orwell's essays titled "Such, Such Were the Joys...":

"... the supply of possible questions was not inexhaustible. They were the kind of stupid question that is answered by rapping out a name of quotation. Who plundered the Begams? Who was beheaded in an open boat? Who caught the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? Almost all our historical teaching ran on this level. History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. Disraeli brought peace with honour. Clive was astonished at his moderation. Pitt called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. And the dates, and the mnemonic devices. (Did you know, for example, that the initial letters of ‘A black Negress was my aunt: there's her house behind the barn’ are also the initial letters of the battles in the Wars of the Roses?) Flip, who ‘took’ the higher forms in history, reveled in this kind of thing. I recall positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming."

These tests should be written to encourage creativity, as well as a student's ability to evaluate, synthesize and analyze sources... otherwise stop wasting our time and your resources.

The criticism of the US Department of Homeland Security, specifically their efforts to prevent terrorism, is spot on, and I believe the following passage from the book as quoted by Wikipedia outlining the paradox of the false positive speaks for itself:

The main protagonist of the book is subjected to water-boarding by the US Department of Homeland Security.  In case you're unfamiliar, waterboarding is when a prisoner undergoes a simulated execution in which water is used to essentially trick the prisoner's body into believing it's drowning, and therefore dying. Here's a graphic:

This is certainly effective means of hurting a person; you're basically killing them without actually killing them. So win-win, right? I suppose the counter-argument, and the one in the book simply relies on pathos. It's inhumane. Logos might suggest that using torture to get information is bound to do only one thing: get the victim to admit to and/or say anything to get the torture to stop. Under an administration that promises to reinstate waterboarding "and much stronger" techniques, it's at least a worthy topic of discussion. Is this who we are? Maybe instead of re-hashing last night's rerun of Grey's Anatomy in the break room, we should be asking these questions of one another. Just a thought.

The intimate relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend is.... okay, they have sex. The description is minimalistic, and actually kind of sweet and tender while remaining true to the feelings of the experience. So what? Well, I suppose some groups would say this encourages teen sex, which we're okay with having graphic depictions of (many that are not sweet and tender) all over the Internet, and in our product ads, but a realistic portrayal of a deeply human moment is probably inappropriate... isn't that just a little bit hypocritical? Will a scene like this inspire teens to have sex who otherwise would not... ?  First of all, we have to acknowledge that the CDC states that in 2015, 41% of all graduating American teenagers have reported that they have had sexual intercourse... some other sources are as high as 62% Secondly, I suppose your feelings on this would relate to the age-old debate that surrounds discussions on censorship: monkey-see- monkey-do. In other words, would a book that portrays (in a very human way) an experience that more than half of America's teens have already experienced, be likely to sway kids who haven't? Those in favor of censorship say "probably," which is an opinion censors are entitled to. I guess we'll never know. I will say this, however, at age 17 my brain was already being waterboarded on a regular basis by a culture that worships sex: I mean music, ads, movies, TV, "locker-room-talk..."magazines, and this was "pre-Internet" BUT it was omnipresent, and if I wasn't listening to a song about it, or looking at an ad that used an undercurrent of sexual imagery to appeal to the consumer in me, I found I couldn't go very long without thinking about it despite the deluge of imagery, etc. Many of these portrayals of a sexual encounter emphasized the act itself and, more importantly, the bodies involved in the act. I'd say very little onus was paid to the humanity involved in the act. My argument is this: if we're going to live in a society and culture that bombards kids with sexual imagery, I'm not going to balk at the portrayals that reveal that physical love is about tender, human emotion. Also, they were being safe. 

Finally, in the afterward, Bruce Schneirer, security technologist, literally tells young hackers to try and hack security systems. Some people might argue that this encourages bad, maybe even criminal, behavior. Well, that's not how he frames it. This analogy occurred to me the other day: hackers are critics, and say what you will about critics, their purpose is to inspire practitioners of whatever (cooking, writing, moviemaking, teaching, etc.) to raise the bar. In his argument hackers form a kind of symbiotic relationship with code writers; one sets the bar while the other helps to raise it. It's maybe counter-intuitive to the square community, but nevertheless logical reasoning. 

The Internet is Stupid

This is not an alternative fact. It is good, old-fashioned truth; like a brass door knocker. Let me clarify… the Internet is not only stupid, it is woefully inadequate and potentially dangerous.

During a class discussion of happiness in which we were debating whether happiness was real or a social construct cleverly designed to dupe us into doing many, many silly things, we decided to define the word “happy.” Possessing the soul of an 90 year-old, pedantic logophile (as well as a compact, Oxford English Dictionary), I thought it would be an opportune time to illustrate said stupidity of the Internet. So, we Googled the word “happy”

Of course this took .75 seconds and yielded over a hundred million results. We looked at the definitions. To be fair there were three (not shown: inclined to use a specific thing excessively or at random).  

To contrast this exercise, I lugged out my compact Oxford English Dictionary. Don’t let the word “compact” fool you. The book weighs 15 pounds. No joke. The students call it “Big Papi,” which I’m sure I’ll need to look up in the Urban Dictionary before I continue to use that handle. Anyway, looking the word up took roughly seven minutes and five seconds because I had to use the magnifying eyepiece to first find the word and then to read the text.

Here’s what we discovered:

As defined by The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition


1.  Coming or happening by chance; fortuitous; chance.  Obs. Rare.

2.  a.  Having good ‘hap’ or fortune; lucky, fortunate; favored by lot, position, or other
external circumstances.
b.  Blessed, beatified.  Obs.  Of happy memory, a phrase conventionally applied to the deceased.
    c.  happy land, a prosperous, favorable, etc. land; spec., heaven.

3.  Characterized by or involving good fortune; fortunate, lucky; prosperous;
    favorable, propitious.

4.  a.  Having a feeling of great pleasure or content of mind, arising from satisfaction
with one’s circumstances or condition; also in weakened sense: Glad, pleased.
b.  Freq. with neg. as not (at all), not entirely, not quite happy about (or with), usually indicating substantial dissatisfaction.  
c.  happy family: (a) a conventional description of a harmonious family (b) (see Family sb. 2b); (c) Austral., a popular name of the grey-crowned babbler (Struthidea cinerea); also called happy jack.
d.  happy families: a game played with a pack of special cards, each card depicting on its face a member of the tradesman’s family of four; it is the aim of each player to make as many complete families as he can.

5.  a.  Successful in performing what the circumstances require; apt, dexterous; felicitous.
b.  Of actions, etc.: Characterized by fitness for the circumstances or occasion; appropriate, fitting, felicitous.  
c.  happy medium = golden mean
d.  exhibiting harmony or co-operation, esp. happy ship, a ship on which the crew work together harmoniously; also transf. of the conduct of any organization.
e.  Of drugs: in certain colloquial phrases with the sense ‘intended to produce or induce happiness,’ e.g. happy dust, cocaine; happy pill, a tranquilizer.

6.  a.  colloq. humorous.  Slightly drunk; ‘elevated.’
    b.  happy hour (orig. U.S.), a period of time(usu. In the early evening) during which
    drinks are served in a bar, etc., at reduced prices, or when free hors-d’oeuvres are    

7.  Comb. As happy-hearted, -making, -natured, -seeming, -tempered.
b.  Used in certain hyperbolic phrases, e.g. (as) happy as the day is long.  Also, with reference to the happy endings of fairy tales, novels, etc., happy (also happily) ever after (wards).

So the primary Google definition of the word sits roughly 4th on the list of usage according to the OED, and there are more than twice as many definitions, which, we noted, deal mostly with chance, cocaine, and booze. This did very little to soften our cynicism of the concept. SATISFACTION, however, we discovered, was the key word for us to adequately define “happiness,” which the Google definition neglects entirely. Why satisfaction? Satisfaction is deeper than pleasure and connotes that the recipient of said happiness actually needed to work a bit… pursue that happiness. Happiness is not “instant,” despite what the Internet teaches and tells us. I don’t know about you, but I want my kids to connote happiness with satisfaction, not pleasure; to have the discipline to engage in activities in which there is a delay in gratification. The distinction could come down to the difference between becoming another opioid statistic, versus, say, reading a damned book.... or learning how to love and let love in. One is a gateway to instant pleasure, the others are challenging paths toward satisfaction and meaningful self-discovery.

May your days be filled with satisfaction, friends.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Thanks for the reminder Bukowski...

Sorry for the obvious post, folks...

It's just you and the keyboard. If you know this, you don't need me to tell you.... or Bukowski. If you don't, well...

Start by forgetting your Facebook likes, your Instagram followers... and who gives a damn if no one favorites your Tweets? You sure shouldn't. In fact if you're putting the best of yourself on social media, you didn't have much to give in the first place. Forget your greed... forget your childish need for constant validation... forget your stupid, selfish, fragile ego.

Get used to rejection. Get used to silence. Get used to zero acknowledgment. If it matters enough to you, you'll do it anyway.