Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894).  A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods.  1913.
17. The Land of Counterpane
WHEN I was sick and lay a-bed, 
I had two pillows at my head, 
And all my toys beside me lay 
To keep me happy all the day. 
And sometimes for an hour or so         5
I watched my leaden soldiers go, 
With different uniforms and drills, 
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills; 
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets 
All up and down among the sheets;  10
Or brought my trees and houses out, 
And planted cities all about. 
I was the giant great and still 
That sits upon the pillow-hill, 
And sees before him, dale and plain,  15
The pleasant land of counterpane. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Death of the CST

Praise Jerry Brown from whom all blessings flow: the CST is dead

Apparently the feds aren't happy, but who can take them seriously anymore anyway?

Tom Torlakson (I love this man. Antioch, represent!) said it beautifully: "Faced with the choice of preparing California’s children for the future or continuing to cling to outdated policies of the past, our state’s leaders worked together and made the right choice for our students . . . These new assessments represent a challenge for our education system—but a lifetime of opportunity for students. As a teacher, I’m thrilled to see our state and our schools once again leading the way.” 

Right on!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mastery Grading: Year 2. Some thoughts as the year gets started and cautious optimism.

Last year, my first year of teaching, I took on the ridiculously complicated task of attempting to implement mastery grading in my classroom. As I noted in my MA Thesis (yes, I'm about to quote myself--so sorry), despite the difficulties I had, "mastery grading is ultimately a promising system, one that I truly believe will provide students with a greater sense of control over their learning."

Building on Year 1
At the beginning of this year, I narrowed down the number of mastery targets I'm using for grading, tried to make them parallel in scope*, and was able to take on weighting with greater confidence that the percentages more accurately reflected relative importance within my curriculum.

I worked out a system where assignments ("practice toward mastery") as a category are weighted zero but are entered in School Loop (online gradebook) as either "Complete" (100%) or "Incomplete" (50%). Certain assessments are counted toward mastery of various targets (categories) and can be marked as "EE" (Exceeds Expectations: 95%), "P" (Proficient, Meets Expectations: 85%), "AE" (Approaching Expectations: 75%), "FBE" (Far Below Expectations: 65%), or "I" (Incomplete: 50%, as noted above).

I can't totally get away from percentages, unfortunately, but there is at least a level of interpretation required to make students think about what the grades mean. Additionally, I can use the comments section to provide individual feedback about every mastery assessment that I enter, so that there is more showing up on the report card than just a number.

Questioning the System (mine, the man's)
We had a chaotic start to the year with more students than we were staffed for and crazy, untenable class sizes until budgets could be sorted out and hiring could be done. So, for a time, mastery grading took a back seat to classroom management and crowd control.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. Hiring: accomplished. Class sizes: shrunk. Students: checking School Loop as the end of the first marking period approached. Most, as I expected, focused on the assignments that were marked "Incomplete" and didn't even seem to notice that they weren't being calculated into their current grade for the class. One student, however, we'll call her E, noticed. She not only noticed, she was mad.

She came to me after class one day to discuss her grade. Although I'm just getting to know her well, she very obviously knows how to "do school" and is clearly in the habit of getting good grades. She turns in all assignments on time, and her work is strong. The summaries she had turned in, however, were not yet proficient. I wasn't concerned about this as learning is really just getting going, but she was not happy.

She first asked, very politely, for clarification about how her grade was being calculated. She then posited that it was perhaps not fair for her grade to be based solely on a single assignment. Why, she asked, were the other assignments she turned in worth nothing? What, she wondered, was the point of doing them? All fair questions. All asked in a delightfully mature and thoughtful manner. I was thrilled and crazy anxious.

I explained my thinking about wanting to move students away from the idea that they should get good grades for checking boxes and completing assignments. I explained that I wanted to encourage them to see homework and classwork as practice toward demonstrating mastery. I explained about the mastery targets. I explained that I wanted their grade to reflect how close they were to achieving mastery.

E was skeptical, still seemed unhappy, but said she'd be willing to check the rubric and revise the summary she'd turned in to try to make it better.

After she left, I tried to breathe and calm down, but I had some serious doubts. Here was this good student, one of the few I had hoped would understand the system early on, not getting it. Not only not getting it, but mad about it. What would her parents think? What would the school think? ACK!

My anxiety got worse when I checked in with my coach, S. A panic attack about all the things I'm NOT doing to support ELs in my classes led to a stressful discussion about how this whole grading system business fits into the systems in place in the district.

I have to give grades every six weeks. Sure, they can just be check-ins on a running total for the semester, but they should be as meaningful as possible, right? Oh damn. Right. What am I communicating to parents and students, who are used to a very different system, when students like E (who I think are right on track) come home with a 75% on their report card? How am I going to communicate that this normally A student is right on track with what amounts to a C? How am I going to communicate something like that to parents whose English and/or literacy levels are low? Will this affect students' ability to get scholarships, jobs, honor roll recognitions, places on sports teams?

The marking-period system is inherently contrary to the ideas of mastery grading, but I'm not going to take it down alone, at least not any time soon. And what do I do in the meantime? Every possibility I came up with seemed either too daunting or too much of a compromise on my underlying philosophy or both. Giving up and moving to a standard completion-based system (20% Homework, 40% quizzes, etc.) certainly crossed my mind more than once.

A Break in the Clouds
Things got better quickly, though. As a stop-gap, and with the help of S, I made a decision about what to do for the first marking period (which ended Friday). Grades would be based on the two mastery targets we had covered most deeply: summary and narrative writing. Period. I would stick with it and try to make a year-long progression of mastery over the weekend.

I communicated this to students and encouraged them to revise the assignments that would serve as the basis for their grades. Many of them came for additional help in improving their summaries and narratives. I referred them to rubrics and checklists, made some scaffolds for those that were in most need, and began to feel really good about the work that was happening in and out of class.

E came back to me the following week with a revised summary that was improved but still not perfect. We talked some more about what made it better and what was still lacking. Both of us clarified our understanding more than we could have otherwise. She left with ideas about how to improve even more and the intention to do another draft.

I got caught up on my grading and students continued to turn in revised drafts of summaries and to improve their narratives.

In the middle of last week, E came in with another draft (her third or fourth at this point). It was fantastic. She had "Exceeded Expectations" and earned an A on that assignment. She expressed satisfaction not only at the increase in the grade-book grade she would receive, but at the work she had put in(!!!), at the way her brain hurt(!!!).

At the same time, growth mindset is being reinforced in their math class and in AVID (possibly in other places, as well, but I've talked to the teacher of those classes about it specifically).

Students are being taught to help one another with questions in math, rather than by giving the answer. I saw this spill over onto the feedback they gave one another about their narratives: "How might you add more imagery here?" "How could you make the conflict clearer?" scrawled on the side without ANY prompting by me!

And I've heard stories of students helping one another understand imagery in AVID: "How could you show you feel cold without using the word 'feel'?" It's brilliant! And their narratives are getting better!

Next Steps
All this has left me optimistic that mastery grading can work, even within the marking-period system. But cautiously so. For there are still a lot of questions and uncertainties.

This weekend, I'm working on charting out how student learning outcomes progress and build on one another over the year. I'm writing rubrics, some of which I've been able to break down by semester targets (e.g., these pieces are not expected until the second semester, these are expectations in the first).

I'm stuck, though, with how to treat marking period grades. Mastery grading is supposed to tie grading to an assessment of where a student is on the road to proficiency. It's supposed to make that journey more transparent and understandable. But if that's the case then students cannot be expected to get As in the first six weeks of school. They are still developing at that point. Nor can they be expected to grow at a steady or one-size-fits-all rate. Learning happens differently for everyone, and for many it happens in fits and starts.

One of the important ideas behind a mastery grading system is that I am measuring what I say I'm measuring. If I say I'm measuring mastery, I can't base grades on whether students are using good work habits (i.e., moving consistently and steadily towards mastery at a pre-determined rate).

But students and parents are used to grades being tied to other things: completion, attendance . . . sometimes it feels like, self-worth. And so for a hardworking student who is on track to mastery to come home with a C is devastating. And probably confusing.

Another problem is averages. Averages are great for determining the rate of steady climbs (or descensions). They are not great for assessing mastery when there has been a big jump at the end or when students produce inconsistent bi-modally distributed work (sometimes awesome, sometimes terrible). What am I really measuring with an averaged score in those cases?

So, I'm working these things out. Or trying to. And I'm happy with the work I'm put in and with home much my brain works. Your thoughts are welcome, desired, NEEDED.

*I'm still working on a definition for this, but, basically, one of my concerns last year was that the mastery targets I articulated were not equal in the level of learning they assessed. That is, some focused on a product outcome, some were more closely tied to a way of thinking, some were steps toward completion of a product, etc.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Difference "as determining meaning or as being safely excludable from the determination of meaning"

No repetition is exact, but the meaning of a sign depends on taking it as the exact repetition of some other sign. Nonetheless, the meaning of a sign, as linguists have told us, lies not in its exact contours but in the possibility of differentiating it from other signs, adjacent or nearby, in the possibility of recognizing that an "a," however mad, is an "a" and not a "b" or a "z." In any sign something is always left over that is not sublimated in its meaning but remains stubbornly heterogeneous, unique, material. . . . At the same time this exigency makes all texts undecidable in meaning. They are undecidable because the role of that physical substratum either as determining meaning or as being safely excludable from the determination of meaning, as trivial or accidental, can never finally be decided or sure. Does it matter, for example, that blue, black, or red ink is used to inscribe a given written document? It might or it might not. No convention or code can ever fully circumscribe these alternatives. Each letter mark, or sign, as Jacques Derrida has more than once said, must have an ideal iterability in order to be identifiable and have meaning. At the same time each mark is divisible, marked by the possibility of being used, in whole or in part, in different contexts and therefore with different meanings. Derrida names this propensity to wander away from itself, intrinsic to any sign, "destinerrance."
Miller, J. Hillis. Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines. New Haven: Yale U.P., 1992. print. 8-9, emphasis added.

"A deification of string"

String is my foible. My pockets get so full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come. I am seriously annoyed if anyone cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold. How people can bring themselves to use india-rubber rings, which are a sort of deification of string, as lightly as they do, I cannot imagine. To me an india-rubber ring is a precious treasure. I have one which is not new--one that I picked up off the floor, nearly six years ago. I have really tried to use it, but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance.
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford. quoted in J. Hillis Miller, Ariadne's Thread

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Some thoughts on Bakhtin and Education-ology

I just read a great article from 2007 (cited below) and wanted to get my thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Basically, the article is an interrogation (a Bakhtinian dialogue, really!) of whether Bakhtin has been misapplied or inappropriately applied to education theory.  Matusov's conclusion is no, with some reservations, and I generally agree, though not totally.

First, I learned some fun new terms:
1) problematics (217): the things that constitute the problems addressed in a given field
2) silence-response (silence in the second person) vs silence-address (silence in the third person) (225)
3) voice: "includes height, range, timbre, aesthetic category (lyric, dramatic, etc.). It also includes a person's worldview and fate. A person enters into dialogue as an integral voice. He participates in it not only with his thoughts, but with his fate and with his entire individuality." (227, quoting Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics)
4) internally persuasive discourse (see below)
5) "cursed perpetual questions": those big, unanswerable (maybe "essential"?) questions that are fun to hash out and that Dostoevsky has his characters discuss (and plays with through the interactions of his characters) (I need to try again to read Dostoevsky)

Second, I loved this: 
Attacks on educational scholarship by Bakhtinian philologists might reflect some interdisciplinary struggle over  who "owns" Bakhtin scholarship. But putting aside possible interdisciplinary rivalry, gatekeeping, and jealousy, putting aside the unproductive question of whether philology or education has a monopoly on the Bakhtinian scholarly legacy, I think that Shepherd and Emerson have raised some important points worth considering within the field of education. (217)
This, for me, gets at the heart of scholarship and working with ideas and dialogism. Basically, he is taking the criticism of certain scholars outside his domain (the "Bakhtinian philologists" Shepherd and Emerson) and, rather than dismissing them out of hand as outside the field and therefore incapable of offering insight, he digs in and engages with their ideas. Hell yes!

Third, he mentions "a long history of defining the educational process by its goals." (217) Some of those proposed have been "identity development, transformation of participation in a community of practice, raising critical consciousness[,]" etc. Some Bakhtinian educational theorists (Freedman and Ball) proposed instead "ideological becoming," (218) that is, the movement from an "authoritative discourse" to an "internally persuasive discourse."  An authoritative discourse is one in which meaning is upheld by an outside authority (whether through persuasive violence, trust, tradition, etc.), while an internally persuasive discourse is one in which the self imbues part of the meaning in dialogue with outside others--it is capable of change, enhancement.

There were some bits about whether some in education have misinterpreted these terms, which I was less excited about.  What was more exciting for me is that (1) I love this goal of "ideological becoming," (2) it is inextricably bound up with identity for me (though I wonder if I am, like some of the educational theorists he describes, inappropriately "psychologizing the notion of discourse" (229)), (3) there is an exciting ongoing question (one of Bakhtin's "cursed perpetual questions") of whether this is possible in education.

This last point is explored in detail in this article. Matusov looks into instances in which the classroom (contextual) discourse is too "monologized," i.e., despite the fact that lip service is paid to equality, interrogation, and critical pedagogy, the teacher's authoritarianism is paramount. This type of education
assumes that the analytical tools that the instructor wants to teach his or her students will be useful in tackling the students' problems, even though the instructor does not know what these problems are in advance. It further assumes that the fuctionality of the tools can be understood and appreciated by the students outside of the particular contexts of problems and goals for which these tools were originally invented. Finally it assumes that the teacher can unilaterally decide what the students need to learn. (222)
"Critical pedagogy," he reminds us, "is not just a curriculum for students, but it has to be practiced by instructors with the support of their institutions." (222) 

Additionally, Matusov looks into instances in which the classroom discourse is too "dialogized." In order to fully understand this section, I think I'm going to have to read more Bakhtin directly (which I want to anyway). BUT . . . the problem here seems to be a lack of real outside voices to contend with. Matsuov draws a distinction between cognitive doubling (which as far as I can tell is an internal dialogue between self-as-embodied-thing-in-the-world and the conscious-mind-taking-on-other-orientations, i.e., self and self-as-other) and "relation with actual others." (224) The latter is necessary to avoid "paralysis of action, relativism or cynicism, and even rationalization of oppression among educators." (224) 

"Excessive dialogism [can also] create[] minefields, in which any step is criticized by the educator." (224) I didn't understand this at first and was going to leave it out of this discussion, but I had an idea suddenly that seems important. Too much dialogism occurs when there is not enough authority.  Ideally, you have a balance that creates an internally persuasive classroom discourse that facilitates students taking on internally persuasive discourses. They need outside others (real others) to converse with or they end up with artificial dialogues going on in their heads. 

It's what happens when you ask a semi-open ended question that you want a specific type of answer for. You fail to take into account all of the possible directions student thought could take--you fail to sufficiently map the minefield. Brave students unsuspectingly wander in and *blammo* are told they are asking the wrong questions, that they are walking the wrong way. But they are essentially walking blind.

We as educators have contended with the Other (whatever, in our field, it may be) and have internalized the struggle. We know where to look for mines, how to identify them. An inauthentic struggle against the consciousness's unlimited potential for conflicting orientation leaves one directionless. 

For example, there were times in undergrad when I would read a challenging book and know that I was supposed to find SOMETHING in it. But I had no idea where to start looking. 

Left to my own devices, I may have pooped out looking for the authentic Other or failing to recognize him when I saw him (I'm going with him as my other since I'm a her*). Luckily, I took classes that showed me to look for things like patterns of desire in narrative or power dynamics or voice.  Luckily, I learned to search for theoretical articles.  I gained authentic authoritative Others to battle with, in person and in written form. By tackling them, I engaged in the educational struggle that led to my ability to take on an internally persuasive discourse.

So then, this balance must be reached: students must be given authoritative Others to contend with, they must be privileged to assert the authoritative discourses they've taken on (to be Others for others) AND they must be allowed real authority to question and contend with authoritative discourses. Matusov sees the teacher's role in this as one of creating a space for recursive learning and allowing for gradual release of responsibility in terms of providing authoritative-ness.  He does not think that a teacher can authentically engage as an equal (albeit more knowledgable) participant in the internally persuasive discourse of the classroom but must rather stay outside.  The reasons he gives for this are that, one, the questions in a classroom are not of the "cursed perpetual question" quality, and, two, the problem of the need to reproduce curriculum.

He gives as the example of a inappropriate question the need to teach 2 + 2 = 4 in first grade. Ok, maybe. I'd have to ask my math colleagues if there are good authentic questions to be asked in the higher grades (or even lower) (I tend to think so). And, just, shenanigans on all other disciplines. 

Authentic, good, struggly questions exist and should be taught. Maybe this is what project-based curriculum is for? Maybe that would also solve the problem of repetition? If we are allowing students to come up with authentic problems to solve and engaging with them in really solving them, it seems to me that there are countless iterations that even experts could be involved in hashing out with students, engaging as partners in the struggle and maintaining our own internally persuasive discourse through the struggle to make meaning that defines such a discourse. 

This is just the beginning of my thoughts on this. But, damn, I'm excited.

Matusov, Eugene. "Applying Bakhtin Scholarship on Discourse in Education: A Critical Review Essay." Educational Theory 57.2 (2007): 215-237. web.

*but maybe that is a false dichotomy--i'm still developing my internally persuasive discourse on this

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The pull of narrative

Stories, however perfectly conceived and powerfully written, however moving, do not accomplish successfully their allotted function. Each story and each repetition or variation of it leaves some uncertainty or contains some loose end unraveling its effect, according to an implacable law that is not so much psychological or social as linguistic. This necessary incompletion means that no story fulfills perfectly, once and for all, its functions of ordering and confirming. And so we need another story, and then another, and yet another, without ever coming to the end of our need for stories or without ever assuaging the hunger they are meant to satisfy.
Miller, J. Hillis. "Narrative." Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2nd ed. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1995. 66-79. Print.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Good news from Ed Week (June 5, 2013 issue)

"Student Vehicle Search Negated by Neb. Court": Student's car parked off campus during school day is not a sufficient nexus to school activities to support a reasonable search.  No sh**.

"AERA Set to Launch Open-Access Journal": Yay! Also, there's a directory of open access journals. How cool is that?!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ahh, those halcyon days . . .

In which I talked about po-mo nonstop.

Man, this is fun.  I frickin' LOVE Idea Channel.

MUSE: Social-Emotional Learning and Classroom Management

I love this video about incorporating social-emotional learning into classroom management strategies.  Self-regulation is something I'd like to be able to teach my students, and so I'll be thinking about how to incorporate similar strategies into a secondary classroom (or school setting!!).

Also posted here.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Twerking and Feminism

On Friday, some of my female students showed me videos of twerking (about 3:30s in will give you an idea if you're unfamiliar) and this under-18 dance-thing they go to called Freakquency.  It was . . . disturbing.  

I talked to them about objectifying themselves, and how twerking is basically a lap dance, and how just . . . ewww!!!  They assured me it's not like that, that only trashy girls actually make contact with the guys and that it's just all about the dancing (really, they were just more excited about showing me weird stuff on YouTube to do much arguing).

Anyway, I was thinking about it this morning and looking for whether there had been any feminist comment (I'm old, whaddya want) on the dance, and I came across this piece (copied below), which was not what I was looking for, but it's interesting. 

First, I don't like the bit at the end in which the male author claims to not be imposing a patriarchal or post-colonial gaze and yet casts the women as powerful goddesses breaking off his penis.  I mean, it seems to me that by casting them as something far-off and inhuman, he might be flipping gender power roles but certainly not an "unraveling" gender power as he claims.  Casting them as goddesses, although arguably empowering, still seems objectifying to me.  It's not taking them on their own terms as fully fleshed out humans.  And him "bow[ing] to them sexually" and being reduced to a "weak lump of ligaments" seems fetishistic.

On the other hand, his discussion about the empowering nature of the display of the girls' sexuality and their power to keep if from men made me rethink my initial evaluation of the dance as totally objectifying.  I'm still working through it, but I'm happy to be forced to work through it rather than just reacting.

I'm not generally down with the whole stripping, etc. as empowerment argument.  I think too much of the sexuality that is being "embraced" and "controlled" in fact arises out of media-determined (and male-determined) notions of femininity and sexuality, that there is not a lot of control when you've been brainwashed to believe that this is what sexy is.  Sexuality becomes about being desired rather than desiring.

On the other hand, where do our notions of beauty come from if not from culture? Is there some point at which we can say that we're no longer being "brainwashed," it's just the current state of our culture's notions of beauty?

I keep trying to go further with that argument and getting stuck.  I find it pretty flimsy when interrogated, but I want to give that side a thorough analysis before I just dismiss it.  Any ideas?

"Review On Twerking," Thought Catalog
JAN. 2, 2013 By JIMMY CHEN  
To “twerk” — etymologically a contraction of twist and jerk — is to rapidly jiggle one’s buttocks using forceful pelvic grinding motions in a sexually provocative manner. This is most often accompanied by rap music, with which said movements are in precise time, whose patronizing authors solicit such behavior with predictable misogynist entitlement. If feminism is cordoned off by class, i.e. in seminar rooms and ponderous books, twerking seems to find some kind of post-feminist resolve in the self-objectification of its performers, perhaps now formidably empowered. 
The twerker’s hands leaning on a wall, as she bends over at a 45° angle, an easy allusion to sexual availability; other times, her hands are on the ground (similar, however culturally disparate, to the “downward dog” in yoga) and she twerks her buttocks into the air. Other times she stands upright, her buttocks naturally more tensed, and continues to twerk. Most impressive is the hand-stand. In short, the twerking is not contingent on one’s posture. The twerking, once began, does not stop. Part of twerking’s conceit is the unconditional excessiveness of its very employment. It is very important that the twerking be ceaseless.
The ultimate move is the sudden split, followed by a twerking which seems impossible. 
The woman will jump in the air and land in a perfect gymnast’s split (some of the statelier ones making a loud “thump”). The viewer is somewhat stunned, and before fully acclimating to what he saw, she starts twerking, at times even more intensely, somehow able to control and heave her buttocks in such a difficult position. It’s mind-blowing and divine. One less fortunate move, however, is when they grab their shorts out of the creases of their ass which have inevitably gotten bunched up by all the twerking. This is not an elegant moment for the twerker. 
The mean range of a twerking video is around 3:00 minutes, generally well-received with a like-to-dislike ratio of 10:1, anywhere ranging from ~20,000 to +2,000,000 views. In short, the public has gladly accepted twerking into their lives. The videos are all amateur clips made with either Mac’s Photo Booth or a standard digital camera. The twerker will place the laptop or camera on a chair or table approximately 10-15 ft. from the intended area of twerking. Short of a steady tripod, twerking has caused some shaky footage. Despite the urban demographic — or at least subconscious aesthetic — of twerking, most recordings are done in suburban homes with soft white carpet, often performed in empty rooms apparently designated for such accounts. 
A twerker, as mentioned, is likely an African-American female between the ages of 18 – 24 with a very toned build. She sometimes performs next to a friend, or they take turns in front of the camera. The implication is that they are either single and attempting to hypnotize potential mates, or in steady relationships and flaunting inaccessible goods. The twerking ass, essentially, is a hardened mound of utter superiority. The hydraulics seem inhuman; and yet, we catch a glimpse of tender earnestness in the concentrated eyes of the twerker. I have never seen anybody do anything with their bodies as impressive as twerking. And should the reader think I am sexualizing them, or imposing some patriarchal (or worst, post-colonial) gaze, let me assert that my inclinations are completely asexual and of aesthetic devotion. 
When I see the ongoing pelvic explosion of a twerking fit, I briefly imagine my penis (this is a tic — imposing it on various worldly situations which have little to do with me) snapping off inside them, which I suppose a physiologist or mechanical engineer could choose to clarify. I bow to them, sexually unworthy, a lump of weak ligaments. Twerking is more than a courting dance; it is an assertion of complete physical and metaphorical power, one which unravels gender power at its shaky base. These misogynist rappers, should they be so presumptive to brave the darkened nebula of these goddesses, would find their shafts likewise snapped off, or at least fractured inside them. Of imminent castration, they are left with merely rhetoric, unrealistic lyrics describing what they’d do to them. Yeah, right. We all know their dicks would break, and that’s a good thing. 

A tree to climb and a river to ford

I'm sick abed and reading blogs to try to get my mind back on track for thesis writing.  It's not working super well, but what little it is working is all thanks to Arts and Letters Daily, and to L for sharing her library password, since mine is defunct now that I'm on filing fee only (and getting a renewal involves actually going in to school).  I'm rambling.  Anyway.  Nature.

I'm reading this article on nature and sublimity and modernity and urbanity, (will I lose my right to use these -ity words when I leave academia in May?) "Splendid Visions" by William Giraldi.  It's in Orion Magazine and requires a subscription, but if you really want more than the excerpts here, I'll share my pdf with you.

In it, Giraldi asks whether we are missing out on something essential, and whether our children will be missing something essential in their beings, by living in cities.  He cites Wordsworth and Thoreau and Emerson and his own childhood in a town on the edge of wilderness.

An ecstatic and engaged individuality defined my childhood in suburban New Jersey. While my single father labored ten-hour days, my pals and I biked all across town, cussing and spitting, each of us a veritable Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. We concocted waterproof forts by the river and then prayed for rain, raked mountainous piles of leaves to grapple in, buried Star Wars figures in narrow graves in a field, donned camouflage and faded into the woods with BB guns and bows and arrows. . . . For most of the day, my father and grandmother didn’t know my whereabouts, and nobody between the ages of six and thirteen ever lingered indoors longer than necessary. 
And this: 

In the opening pages of his book-length poem The Prelude, Wordsworth knows the value of the child’s communion with nature: 
’twas my joy/To wander half the night among the Cliffs/ And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran/ Along the open turf. 
This boyhood dedication to nature—this joy—will evolve by the end of the poem into the grandest moment of humanism in all of English-language literature: the poet’s encounter on Mount Snowdon, where human imagination is deified. In the childhood scenes of The Prelude, the boy’s mind and spirit are fostered by nature, but by the time the poet has reached the peak of Snowdon, a reversal has occurred—the mind is now molding nature, and has indeed become more eminent than any aspect of the natural world: “a thousand times more beautiful than the earth” and “of substance and of fabric more divine.” Sublime reciprocity: nature enhances the mind so that the mind can enhance nature, endowing it with an influence to enhance the mind even further. Decades later and an ocean away, Thoreau would come to a similar conclusion in the woods of Walden, writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “This world is but canvas to our imaginations.” In other words: I’m worried about Ethan[his three year-old son]'s mind, about the canvas he will or will not be capable of creating from that mind. What will be his Snowdon? A taxicab? A traffic circle? The subway system?

Let's put aside for a second the fact that poets have had divine and soaring visions about the human-ness of cities that are 
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job 
proud of the fact 
that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,                   Laughing! 
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud[.]
(Or maybe that's the resilience of humanity despite cities?)

We're putting that aside, because I've also been concerned about what living in a city means for me and any future children I have.  I felt that sublimity, that communion with nature as a girl.  We had gardens and fruit trees and redwoods that I climbed away-way up, and our house backed up to field and a big old pepper tree (whose berries became Christmas wreaths), and our street ended up in the hills: endless, rolling pasture land that we would hike in and that, at 16, I would flee into and write pastoral poetry about.  

My grandmother's garden was wilderness in itself, as I've previously described.  

We spent weeks in Tahoe each year with forests on all sides and a river a five-minute walk away and, of course, the mountains.  Until embarrassingly recently, my sister and I thought Desolation Wilderness was a term for a type of geography that occurred all over the world, a descriptive term, rather than an isolated location, a hope, perhaps, that everyone experienced the same sense of immensity and awe that one feels looking out from atop the Tahoe Rim Trail.

And when not in Tahoe, we were elsewhere in the wildernesses of California, reliving my father's boy scout trips, tramping through and up rivers, learning how to cool our bodies by submerging our wrists and where it was safest to drink, hopping rocks, and hiking in great, old, quiet forests, feeling connected by a primaeval thread to the moss and the trees and the massive, curling ferns.

I still feel that connection when we vacation, though, as Giraldi notes, it is no longer so easy 

to believe in lasting transcendence by hiking to the peaks of Snowdon or Greylock. Modernity’s mess is in our pores, and belief in anything but the immediacy of our tactile lives grows more difficult by the generation.
I had my Snowdon in Shasta, walking up a stream that poured out into the Lake we had been floating on, finding a naiad in the shimmering rocks of a small outcropping that was cut into the grassy and sun-dappled bank.  I wrote about it in high school, in a persuasive essay of all things, arguing that faeries do exist.  My mind, shaped by nature, had created the reality of it, and was in turn shaped further by this new reality.

I feel I got something important out of this, something that is currently buried rather a bit too deep, the absence of which aches when it is too far off.  But is it necessarily something that must be cultivated in exactly the same way in my children? Is that idea too eminently narcissistic or narrow minded? Too, what? provincial, luddite, blindly privileged?

I have finished the article now, and Giraldi wraps up in a hopeful sort of way.  He implies that it is not necessarily the removal from nature that takes from us our sense of communion with nature but rather our adulthood.

Wordsworth’s idealizing of childhood is not Lewis Carroll’s retreat into innocence and wonder but rather an integral component of his nature worship. There’s always a sense in Wordsworth—especially in “Intimations of Immortality,” “The World Is Too Much With Us,” and the later books of The Prelude—that adulthood is a disappointment after the “delight and liberty” of childhood. The girl or boy receives nature by mainline, by intuition alone, whereas the man or woman communes with nature only by reflection, by cognitive processes that can cause static in reception. The child has no word for the sublime; he simply experiences it. The adult, on the other hand: his word gets in the way of his experience. Ethan’s time atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder was purer and more joyous than his mother’s or mine not only because his phone wasn’t buzzing—although that certainly helped—but because the child “still is Nature’s priest” capable of “the vision splendid.” A newborn arrives hardwired for communion: 
Along his infant veins are interfus’d/ The gravitation and the filial bond/ Of nature, that connect him with the world.
We sorry adults have lost that gravitation; we’re far too busy, too wrapped up in society’s strings: 
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/ Little we see in Nature that is ours;/ We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 
Here’s the good news for us adults who frolicked in the forest as children but are now too besieged by civilization to give a damn: We can recollect those “beauteous forms” of nature when locked in the offices we work in, and feel once more “sensations sweet.” Wordsworth can will himself into a “serene and blessed mood” because he has nature pulsing at his hub, informing his thoughts and emotions. That childhood engagement with nature becomes ever after “a master-light of all our seeing,” and it’s precisely the master light I want for Ethan. In his essay “The Method of Nature,” Emerson believes that the natural world has the potential to inspire “ecstasy.” That’s a lofty goal for my boy; I’ll settle for contentment, for well-roundedness and appreciation of the wooded playground that made us.
Rachel Carson maintained: “Only as a child’s awareness and reverence for the wholeness of life are developed can his humanity to his own kind reach its full development.” No American of the last century did more than Carson to emphasize the importance of a child’s immersion in nature, of how love for nature equals love for humankind. 
The problem is that "full development" contains elements of both city and country life.  And most of us, Phil and I certainly amongst them (at least until those lottery numbers come up--and I'm tempted to say even then), have to choose between those two. Giraldi notes:
My pastoral idealism and viridity have convinced me that humans are happier, less aggrieved creatures among bucolic splendor, awash in Wordsworth’s “vital feelings of delight” inspired by the interconnectedness of nature. Or, as Thoreau has it in Walden, “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.” For anyone who has anguished beneath the black dog of melancholy, that seems an irresistible promise. Concrete, steel, car alarms, and computers are not soothing, not even a smidgen religious. The human spectacle lacks tranquility. We are so ensconced in artificiality, is it any wonder many of us are miserable and almost mad? In Thoreau’s celebrated Journal (for a personal record of the nineteenth-century American mind at work it is second only to Emerson’s magisterialJournals), he argues that you can’t have it both ways, that you must decide between nature and society: “You cannot have a deep sympathy with both man & nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.” 
That’s the rub: You can’t have it both ways. Certainly not if you earn an average income and don’t own a weekend and summer house in Vermont or New Hampshire. Even so, do you honestly want to spend half of the weekend in your earth-killing car, stymied on a highway with a million other Bostonians trying to give their children a weekend’s worth of rustic bliss? There’s no constancy in that, and aggravation enough to age you. And so once you accept Thoreau’s formulation, the line is drawn: on this side is city life, on that side nature. You must choose
And Giraldi ultimately decides that his "idealism" is just that: an idealized vision of life in the wilderness.
I have a family member who was reared in the woods of Maine, in the sanctified wild where I found the sublime. The last I saw her, she was two hundred pounds overweight, tattooed from neck to feet, and had a slightly off child from a nowhere-to-be-found father and not even the dimmest possibility of employment. Many of the Mainers I’ve met have become immune to the grandeur just outside their doors. They don’t even look. As I continue to contemplate a monumental uprooting from Boston into a backwoods, that cousin of mine towers like a reprimand or warning. You can’t just drop a child into the woods, clap your hands, and expect him or her to turn into Wordsworth or Carson. 
. . . 
It was easy for Thoreau; he was a bachelor without a job or children to feed. He could sit in the Concord woods and whistle with the wind (he also accidently burned down more than three hundred acres of those woods in 1844). I have to go to work every morning, and I’m not about to switch professions and become a lumberjack so my boy can daily chase after chipmunks and maybe become a bard. In a certain mood you could very quickly come to the conclusion that Thoreau is full of shit. 
Now, I feel like his warning is perhaps a false dichotomy.  His implication that one must choose the city to escape bumpkin-hood feels a bit like the urban-provincial mindset of some San Franciscans that can't imagine culture existing anywhere between our 7-by-7 paradise and the forytish square miles of New York (plus Austin and Minneapolis if you are into Indie music and particularly nuanced in your thinking).  But, weirdly (or maybe not), that warning has led to an anti-dichotomous message:  moving to the country won't save you from your shallow city life; it is far more complicated than that.
Our want of full development for our children is our own reminder, our own summons to restore the primordial nexus we have to the natural world, regardless of whether or not that nexus has been weakened by society’s sharp sting. Establishing that vital connection to nature for our kids is one way we redeem ourselves after forgetting ourselves—it’s one way we become children again.
. . .
At the Boston MFA or at Walden Pond in Concord, we must cultivate our children’s sense of the sublime, must nudge them always toward what is beautiful, toward bliss, toward a deeper-seeing into the things of earth, wherever on earth we might be.
This is a good reminder for me to parent myself. The "black dog of melancholy" often tunes me into the "irresistible promise" of nature's pipings. I long to run away "to the woods . . . to live deliberately."  But running away would leave me lonely and where would I teach?--that other thing that tunes me into the oneness of all things.  So, screw you, Thoreau, I'm determined to have it both ways.  And to fend off that melancholy, revel in nature, and still live connected to people in a more efficient and close-knit and sustainable way. And to not be a privileged little brat about it.  This is possible, right?  I mean, land is expensive and right now nature a thing for those with money and means to travel to it or the leisure (means) to take the time to appreciate it around them.  But it shouldn't be.  And.  It doesn't have to be.  

. . .


(God, I need a tree to climb and a river to ford.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"For what you do,/ somehow, .../ to my mind with just your voice, so that/ everything I once was sure of seems wrong"

from “No Word, No Sign” by Aaron Kunin

There’s no word for you. There’s no word
for what you do to me. For what you do,
somehow, and you don’t know you do it,
to my mind with just your voice, so that

everything I once was sure of seems wrong;
for what you do to my way of seeing,
so that I start to doubt my own eyes if
what my eyes report isn’t just like what

I hear you say; and for what you do to
my voice to keep it from talking, to keep down
every word somewhere where I can’t remember
it: for this, there’s no word. To me

you’re like a machine without a purpose,
whose purpose is to cast doubt on every
idea that my mind is thinking, and
the end of every idea is you.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Living a Better Story

Some thoughts on writing from Nick Hornby and Kid President whoisawesomeandijustdiscoveredhimomg!

Monday, January 21, 2013

The importance of the wandering mind: "How can one know where reading books ends and dreaming in books begins?"

New research continues to emphasize the importance of mind wandering for learning. It turns out that not paying attention is one of the best ways of discovering new ideas. Reading books, whether silently or aloud, remains one of the most efficient means of enabling such errant thinking. As our bodies rest, our minds begin to work in a different way. New connections, new pathways, and sharp turns are being made as we meander our way through the book, but also away from it. There is no way to tell if anyone is actually paying attention anymore as I read, including myself. This seems to be one of the great benefits of reading aloud, that you can think of something else while you do it. We may be holding the book together, but our minds are no doubt far apart by now. The fairy tale is the first story of childhood because it tells of such leaving behind (parents and home), of entering the dreamscape of the woods - and the mind. It tells of the crooked path of change. How can one know where reading books ends and dreaming in books begins? - Andrew Piper
 from lit-hum.org