Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q: Quiet #AtoZChallenge

I cherish the quiet moments in my life, although those who know me don't often see that side of my personality. 

Students are quite surprised to learn I was shy and suffered severe stage fright as a child. 

Still, I prefer solitude when I write and when I study. I think the quiet alone times taught me perseverance. In high school I spent hours sprawled across my bed studying and reading and rereading difficult books. I learned to read slowly and quietly without distraction. 

This school year I have worked closely with my Better Lesson mentor, Debra Block, PhD, in the NEA Master Teacher Project. During the Jewish Sabbath and holy seasons, quiet has characterized our relationship. 

Tomorrow is Easter, and many will attend quiet sunrise Easter services as they celebrate Christ's resurrection. I'll spend a quiet day at home with my husband and our dogs, Puck and Snug. 

Of course, Sunday is a day off for A to Z Challenge bloggers. Silence will greet our little corner of the blogosphere. 

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a moving poem to honor quietness. It seems fitting given the holiday. 

"Keeping Quiet"

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

This one time upon the earth,
let's not speak any language,
let's stop for one second, 
and not move our arms so much. 

It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt 
would look at his torn hands. 

Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire, 
victories without survivors, 
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing. 

What I want shouldn't be confused 
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters, 
I want nothing to do with death. 

If we weren't unanimous 
about keeping our lives so much in motion, 

if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would 
interrupt this sadness, 
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve 
and you keep quiet and I'll go. 

--from Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Quiet Places:
The Oregon Coast
Yellowstone National Park
Yosemite National Park
Lake Tahoe, California
This weekend, take a moment to enjoy a little quietness. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

P: Perception

As I've been teaching Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, our class discussions have often centered around the question: "What makes a monster?" At one point in the unit I asked students to identify their personal monsters. A Native American student replied, "White people." 

My student's response represents a common perception among Native American students. They have reasons--very legitimate ones--for their perceptions. 

What shapes perception? That's a question I ponder often. Take a look at the image below. What do you see? 
Depending on your perception, you will see either a vase or the profiles of two people facing one another. Change your viewpoint--literally--just a little, and what you see will change. 

In Frankenstein the creature's perception evolves, and as his perception changes, so do the perceptions of my students. At first, the creature just wants his creator, Victor Frankenstein, to accept him. Then he seeks companionship and a family, but only the blind cottager accepts him--at first. In Frankenstein blindness functions as a corrective to warped social perception, which Mary Shelley represents in the cottager's reaction to the creature. The creature shares his desires:

Once I falsely hoped to meet the beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.

Realizing he'll never have a "beautiful" companion, the creature (He has no name and is often characterized as species.) asks Frankenstein to make him a mate like himself, as he perceives this is the only way he'll be accepted. The creature learns early that society's perception defines his fate, his destiny.

Hateful day when I received life!' I exclaimed in agony. 'Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.'

I am alone and miserable. Only someone as ugly as I am could love me.

Through our discussions, which often take the Open Mic format, students begin to perceive the relevance of Mary Shelley's classic to their lives. We talk about feeling like we're alone. We discuss the desire for a friend, a companion. I ask rhetorical questions: Have you ever felt rejected by a parent? Who in our school society is admired? Who is abhorred? 

Students understand the social structure and their perceived place in it. They often enter a class assuming teachers have knowledge of the social order we may not possess, and they sometimes construct a self-fulfilling prophecy based on their perceptions. 

The psychologist Jacques Lacon's mirror stage offers insight into why literature speaks to identity formation. Lacan proposes that passing through the mirror stage leads to identity formation. Thus, the mirror tells us who we are by showing us how we are perceived. That is, ego depends on the external. Knowing this helps me understand my Native American student's response to my question about monsters. 

When students experience themselves or social structures in works of literature, they begin understanding how perception shapes both self and social identity. Lacon explains that the baby's first image of himself in the mirror is vital to identity (ego) formation because afterwards the person's identity is shaped from social perceptions, social constructs. That is, language acquisition and social interaction constructs images of the self as other.

Frankenstein's creature only has social constructs of himself on which to form his identity. He literally becomes what society perceives he is, and that perception ultimately shapes his self-perception. 

Really, we often see only what we're told to perceive, as the "Awareness Test" illustrates: 

"All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."--Edgar Allan Poe

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O: Opportunities #AtoZChallenge

Each summer SYNC: Sync YA Literature into Your Earphones offers two free audiobooks a week. Let me say that again: The books are free! 

Beginning May 15, 2014 those aware of and willing to seize the opportunity can download two free books onto their personal devices or laptops or desktop computers and listen to them at their leisure. One book each week is a YA selection, and one is a classic, theoretically paired because they have something in common, such as a theme. 

Don't miss this opportunity for two free audio books. I'm excited to read Code Name Verity and revisit one of my favorite books from my teen years, The Hiding Place

SYNC's program is a great way for a family to take the opportunity to read together. My husband, granddaughter, and I enjoyed SYNC's offerings last summer on a road trip. Audio books are a wonderful way to share time and conversation. 

On our way home from spring break in Las Vegas, I read the first half of Oliver Twist, which I downloaded last summer from SYNC but had not yet read. The timing of both my reading and the books offering couldn't be better as Dickens has rarely been more relevant than he is now. 

Oliver's story is both a cautionary tale of the dangers of greed and our social responsibility to children, especially the poor children whom opportunists seek to exploit. It's also a story of hope, given its happy ending. 

Oliver has few opportunities in life. His story makes me think about my students and those who take the opportunities afforded them and those who squander them. 

It's in that spirit I share SYNC's free audio book opportunity. Each book pairing is available to download for one week, so don't miss your chance. 

Don't do what Mark Twain claims to have done: "I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one." 

Carpe diem---beginning May 15!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N: Narcissistic-- #AtoZChallenge

When I saw a Facebook post recently about Selfie Addiction, I thought
  • you gotta be kidding me!
  • is this a satirical publication like The Onion?
Then I shared the post and commented: "I think I have my letter "N" post" as Narcissus and his fixation with his mirror image immediately popped into my mind. 
When I decided to write about selfies and narcissistic behavior, I expected to suggest that taking selfies repeatedly is akin to Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the pool until he eventually starved to death, having failed to capture his illusive reflection. 

Admittedly, I laughed at the idea that one can actually suffer from a mental disorder associated with taking too many selfies. 

Then I decided to do some research. What I found surprised me: 

This makes me ponder: Are those students in my classroom who always have their cell phones out trying to sneak in a selfie actually suffering from a psychotic lapse for which I should refer them for counseling? I have actually had students who have hidden their cell phones in their crotches in an effort to go undetected when using them. Yes, I do catch them. 

Psychiatrists call the actual disease associated with selfie-obsession Body Dysmorphic Disorder. "Taking selfies is not an addiction" but a symptom of BDD, says Dr. David Veale. Rather than narcissism, compulsive selfie snappers suffer from an obsession with taking that perfect selfie. 

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is the same mental illness associated with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. 

As though a simple selfie isn't enough, with the right app, those with BDD can sculpt the perfect selfie: CreamCam promises "flawless skin" and the "perfect selfie every time." Selfie Photo Editor--Cosmetic Editor offers users a way to "slim and trim to selfie perfection."

Some mental health professionals contend that these apps could "contribute toward a young adult developing an eating disorder." Of course developers of these apps say this isn't their intention, as though intention justifies effect. 

The media constructs--literally--ideas about body image that represent fictions young people see as realities they need to attain. Like Echo chasing Narcissus, the selfie-obsessed seek to capture the unattainable. They, like Narcissus, fall in love with an image of themselves that exists only in the mirror of a cell phone, and no matter how hard they try, they just can't grasp it. 

There really is no app for that.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M: Milestones AtoZChallenge

There's a verse in Proverbs that I think about often as it reminds me that each of us, whatever our circumstances, need the ability to look forward. That is, we need goals. We need purpose. 

Where there is no vision, the people parish. (Proverbs 29:18). 

When I first read it as a kid, I didn't think about the context. The literal text spoke to me, and the verse has propelled me forward for many years. A question in my mind has remained: What is my vision for my life?

This year as part of the National Education Association Master Teacher Project, I have had milestones set for me by Better Lesson, the company NEA has contracted with to host the courses of those in the project. For each milestone, I contract to complete a certain number of lessons. 

When I began my journey with BL and the MTP, I was told I'd be responsible for submitting a lesson every day I teach English 12. At first, I consulted the district calendar and submitted the number of lessons I'd write based on student contact time. In time I discovered not all interpreted the "a lesson a day" mandate as literally as I did. Still, I needed a vision that empowered me to manage my contractual obligations. Otherwise, I would not, I realized, be able to complete the project requirements. 

I've been involved in many other endeavors that necessitate my creating milestones that lead to completion of a task, including earning my B.S. in four years, finishing National Board Certification and recertification, earning my M.A. 

Life in a western world revolves around milestones. To set milestones (goals) we need a vision. 

One of my favorite RSA Animate videos suggests that people operate in one of six different time constructs and that schools need to understand that both culture and technology affect the way students perceive and react to time:

This year has been particularly frustrating to me when dealing with students and time management. I worry about those who seemingly take a cavalier attitude about deadlines, all the while telling me they plan to attend college. 

The first week of school a student from last year visited me and apologized for ignoring my advice about time management and deadlines. He quickly learned that five minutes late in submitting a paper resulted in a 50% grade reduction. 

Finding a way to respect cultural mores while instilling the Western ideal that meeting milestones is key to their academic and job success presents an increasingly complicated challenge for teachers. 

As I look forward to the end of the school year and begin planning for next year, I'm thinking about ways to incorporate lessons on time and milestones and developing a vision into the required curriculum. 

Right now, I feel a bit like the speaker in the Hootie and the Blowfish song "Time." 

Time, why you punish me? 
Like a wave bashing into the shore 
You wash away my dreams. 
Time, why you walk away? 
Like a friend with somewhere to go 
You left me crying 
Can you teach me about tommorrow 
And all the pain and sorrow 
Running free? 
Cause tomorrow's just another day 
And I don't believe in time 
Time, I don't understand 
Children killing in the street 
Dying for the color of red 
Time, hey there red and blue 
Wash them in the ocean, make them clean, 
Maybe their mothers won't cry tonight 
Can you teach me about tomorrow 
All the pain and sorrow 
Running free? 
But tomorrow's just another day 
And I don't believe in... 
Time is wasting 
Time is walking 
You ain't no friend of mine 
I don't know where i'm goin' 
I think I'm out of my mind 
Thinking about time 
And if I die tomorrow, yeah 
Just lay me down in sleep 
Time, you left me standing there 
Like a tree growing all alone 
The wind just stripped me bare, stripped me bare 
Time, the past has come and gone 
The future's far away 
Now only lasts for one second, one second 
Can you teach me about tomorrow 
And all the pain and sorrow 
Running free? 
'Cause tomorrow's just another day 
And I don't believe in time 
Time, why you punish me?

Monday, April 14, 2014

L: Listen to Learn and Learn to Listen #AtoZChallenge

Hearing is physiological.
Listening is intentional.

Often we fail to understand this distinction. Through a biological process, our ears conduct sound through our brains. In contrast, we choose whether or not we will listen. 

Often, we resist listening. We think we won't be interested in what the speaker has to say. We think we know what the speaker--or in the case of teachers, the student--will say. We think we already know the information, so we have no need to listen. We rely on technology to listen for us, either through recording the speaker's words or as my students often do, by taking a picture of the notes on the board. 

Standard 6 of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the Speaking and Listening standard, yet not once will you find the word listen in the ELA.SL.11-12 standard, and the word listeners only appears once. Perhaps this is because those who wrote the standards aren't too adept at listening themselves. It's easy to tell someone to listen but teaching listening requires much greater skill. This standard troubles me because if focuses on evaluating a speaker's or text's message, as though that's the primary focus and purpose of listening. In Standard 6, the sole purpose of listening seems to be to formulate a response. 

I contend that one of the main reasons students and teachers don't listen as well as we should is because we're too busy anticipating what we'll say next rather than working to listen and to develop empathy for the speaker and/or text. 

One of my favorite resources for teaching listening in my speech classes is Julian Treasure's TED Talk "Five Ways to Listen Better." In this talk, Treasure identifies why "we are losing our listening" and five strategies for developing intentional listening. 

Our survival depends on our ability to and willingness to listen. Remember, listening is intentional. 

"Attentive listening helps us develop empathy," says Leon Berg. In the following 2013 TEDx talk,  in which he describes the Council model as a way to learn to listen. 

We live in a world of talkers, as the Sunday morning talk shows and AM radio illustrate. Talking heads are literally paid to talk--not listen. But Berg asks us to "imagine a world where listening is highly valued." How would our personal relationships, our schools, our governments, our world change if we took a little more time to listen to one another? 

I know the challenges I face when listening, and I worry that I don't always convey a sense that I am listening. As Kate Di'Camillo says in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, it's in listening that our hearts open wide and wider still. How can they not when we not only hear but intentionally listen, too. 

*For a list of other posts on listening, including lesson plans and links to Google docs w/ resources form two conference presentations, click here