Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."


Levels of storytelling, Part 2
     Pursuing intentional purposes

The second level of storytelling includes the planned and structured stories we use to organize our lives. Politicians call stories at this level of narration “campaigns.� Scientists call them “experiments.� Teachers usually call them “unit plans.� They are scripts we intend to live, aiming at goals we consciously choose. They are the larger stories we want our lives to follow. They are the stories of our intentional purposes and of what happens as we pursue those purposes.

Because schools are ritual centers cut off from the real living places where we love and hate, we burden them with all the elaborate aspirations that our love and labor are too meager and narrow to bear.
Madeline Grumet

Let us answer this book of ink with a book of flesh and blood.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Organizing around purpose

The second level of storytelling includes the planned and structured stories we use to organize our lives. Politicians call stories at this level of narration “campaigns.� Scientists call them “experiments.� Teachers usually call them “unit plans.� They are scripts we intentionally create, aiming at goals we consciously choose. They are the larger stories we want our lives to follow. They are the stories of our purposes and of what happens as we pursue those purposes.

What intentionally planned stories schools tell is a subject that every faculty should be able to discuss fluently. We know from experience that the most powerful learning occurs when we become protagonists in our own learning: pursuing desires, facing obstacles, meeting opportunities, making decisions, and arriving at conclusions. In many workshops, I’ve asked people to tell me the most significant thing they remember learning. The answer is always a story. Because we are made to live and learn through story, turning schoolinlg into a story requires neither pedagogical brilliance nor a complicated theory.

It mostly requires that we attempt something. A couple of years ago I visited with an unusually intelligent young man who had dropped out of school after ninth grade. “They never did anything,” he explained. Not doing anything, or not seeming to do anything, is a fatal mistake for schools. Getting ready for a test doesn’t count, unless the test itself means something.


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Teaching and writing
     Better teachers are active readers

Over on Pedablogue Michael Arnzen discusses the relationship between reading and teaching.

Reading non-fiction can enhance teaching, even in ways we don’t realize. . . They outline a “process,” usually following the steps in chronological order one must take to put something together, or to go from point A to point B, or to simply arrive at some understanding of an abstract idea. Obviously. But the strategies the writers take teach us along the way about teaching. Whether it’s sharing a personal experience as an example, coaching us to do a little exercise in the margins, offering us insider secrets and tricky’s all teaching strategy as much as it is information. . .

A good deal of what I’ve learned about consciously planning a sequence of experiences for learners, I’ve learned from writers. Arnzen also mentions the relationship between teaching and writing, suggesting that writing is essential for teachers:

Of course, writing—the active organization of knowledge—really does the work to make such knowledge about the teaching process conscious, and this partially explains why educators must write theses and dissertations. If you can write a book, you can probably teach a course (and not just in the subject of the book itself), though obviously there’s more to teaching than just organizing ideas.

The nexus of being a learner and being a teacher and being a reader and being a writer can be a vital center: trying to organize our minds in response to the riches around and within us.

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Beyond Hollywood
     Let's make a movie

Left: Richard and Catherine Saltz watch a multimedia production at the Bigfork Veterans Assembly about their son, Matthew, who was killed in Iraq. The production focused on the beauty of Matthew’s life. Through creating and watching productions drawn from the real lives of our communities, we clarify the common core of feelings and ideas that bind us together. We now have the tools to create powerful public art born of our social life, revolving around celebrations, rituals, and recurring community events such as marriages and deaths.

The Montana Heritage Project is celebrating its tenth year this year. After a decade of paying attention to work done by high school students across the state, I realize that what sticks in my mind–that is, what really matters--are the moments of beauty.

In Bigfork this year I attended a school-wide Veterans Day Assembly put on by juniors in Mary Sullivan’s classes. Part of the program included a multimedia presentation using photographs and music to pay tribute to Bigfork High School graduate Matthew Saltz, Montana’s first casualty in the Iraq War.

The format was simple--images of Matt accompanied by music. But the production transmitted a powerful message about what matters to one group of people in a small Montana town, simply because the photos were ones that Matt’s family and friends had chosen to record and save. People document what matters to them.

Quite a few values were celebrated, and thus taught. Work hard. Take care of family. Learn to be good at things. Set goals. Take life seriously. Have fun. Have friends, and remember them. The production was a powerful event in the community’s history–the sort of art by which cultures are created and transmitted.

The entire assembly, which was carefully staged, got me thinking about the role of beauty in teaching. We are drawn to beauty. This is important for communities to remember as they think about how to educate their youth. Teachers today compete for the attention of kids who live in a world that is noisy with seductive and sophisticated claims on our consciousness.

It’s a hard world to grow up in. Many kids have questions about what really is important. If we want our youth to stay with us, caring for what we care for, we need to invite them into the beauty we know, teaching them to see it, to feel it, and to create it.

I like what I see happening in the Heritage Project. A student in Phil Leonardi’s class in Corvallis made a movie based on newspaper research into an eighty-year-old unsolved crime. Students in Darlene Beck’s classes in Townsend used images and recorded voices to explore the local culture of quilters. Students in Dorothea Susag’s classes in Simms did a documentary production that brought to life the Sun River Valley as it was in 1910. Students in Nancy Widdicombe’s classes created a documentary video about three families who have ranched near the Snowy Mountains for more than a hundred years.

Digital tools for making movies and music have made this possible in ways that didn’t exist a few years ago. Kids today have at their command the power of a symphony orchestra. They have in their computers access to movie wizardry unavailable even to Hollywood producers in the recent past. They have the tools. What they need are good ideas about what these tools are for.

Already, the power and sophistication of local productions is limited less by our tools or budgets than by what we haven’t yet learned. The learning could be a joy. Students today need to be critical viewers of the media that surrounds them. The best way to learn how perceptions are shaped by camera angle, framing, juxtaposition, and editing is to create their own videos. The work of researching, scripting, shooting, and editing a video can be a collaborative process, a series of conversations about appearances and realities, about possibilities and results, about what matters and what does not.

Over the past ten years, the world has become noisier. Learning to focus our attention is getting to be a survival skill. We can help young people, and ourselves, by ignoring many of the distractions and making space to have important conversations, to do research, to reflect, and then to do something beautiful. Let’s make a slide show about the history of this river. Let’s make a documentary about the building of this school. Let’s make a movie about your grandfather’s life.

If we pass on our cultural heritage by using our new technology to find and celebrate the beauties of life in Montana, we will be thinking about and teaching what matters.

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Beyond Textbooks
     Ravitch tries to figure out why they're so bad

In The Language Police, Dianne Ravitch documents the way sensitivity guidelines have led to textbooks that interfere with students’ chances to learn critical thinking. Whereas in the past students were kept from liberal education by theories of vocational education, today’s students are kept in the dark by those with theories of a moral order that pretends much of the past was different than it was.

One of her observations gets near to my main complaint about some textbooks: that “voice of God” presenting information as though it simply exists, rather than as a point of view constructed by a human being:

Ravitch notes that one of the major problems in history textbooks is the absence of an author. A name at the end of a chapter would make clear that the account is the product of an individual with distinct interests, tastes, and, even, God forbid, prejudices. And why should students be protected from knowing that “he” once was, and sometimes still is, used as a generic pronoun, or that “negro” was once the commonly endorsed term for African American? To make these issues the subject of discussion in the classroom is to acknowledge the inequities of the past without necessarily condemning the past for not being as enlightened as the present. The contemporary world also needs to be represented as it actually exists. Textbooks that whitewash this world provoke only contempt from students, who know when they are getting a snow job.

One solution to bad texts is primary documents, Ravitch says. But her reviewer deems this impractical.

Of course, if nothing about schooling changes except the text, using primary documents is impractical. But when a stronger emphasis is placed upon local studies, and when schools and libraries make a concerted effort to organize good collections, including materials appropriate for younger students, and when teachers become more familiar with what is already on the internet and of what else might be put there. . .

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The View from I-90
     Helping students construct a point of view


I drove back to St. Ignatius from Helena yesterday though a gorgeous Montana autumn. The brilliant light flaming in the cottonwoods along the river made it hard to keep driving. I wanted to stop and explore.

Not that I disliked the reality of gliding through an almost timeless landscape at more than a mile a minute, feeling the grip of steel-belted radials on the exquisitely engineered curves and rises of I-90, listening to an audio recording about Alexander the Great written by first century C.E. biographer Arrian on my Subaru’s stereo.

It was great fun, hurtling through space encased in an elaborately contrived point of view sustained by layers and layers of engineering and design. I was seeing the river from a point of view unavailable to earlier travelers. A fur trader wet to the hips trudging the river bank with forty-odd pounds of traps or a Salish hunter returning cautiously from Three Forks leading game-laden ponies could imagine my swift and comfortable journey only as something supernatural.

Though watching the world through a window seems quite natural, it is actually the product of layer upon layer of artifice and construction. And it was only one of the points of view available to me. I also had easy access to information that would help me see the river as part of a vast hydrological cycle, or as a constantly changing habitat for fish, or as a potential real estate development, or as a likely site for a heap-leach gold mine.

Depending on what information I chose to pay attention to, my view of the river might be radically different.

It is the very richness of the information available today that creates the most daunting challenge for educators. A young person has before him or her endless points of view constructed of arguments and facts, and endless choices about what points of view to inhabit, all supported by web sites, music, brochures, pamphlets, videos, and reports.

In this noisy and contentious world, young people need help constructing points of view that are honest and reasonable. Much of the help they need they can get from teachers who guide them into science and history, providing a good grounding in reason and evidence, learning to see things as they really are. This is the basis of a liberal education, and it remains as important now as it ever was.

But by itself, it is not enough. This is because the most profound disagreements among those who would enlist the young in their causes are not about things as they are. They are about things as they will be, and things as they ought to be.

Our best guides in these dimensions are often those people in the community, especially the elderly, who have worked for years to accomplish good work. Every town has them: people who build museums, organize food pantries, develop management plans for rivers or forests, run 4-H programs, establish gardens, or operate successful businesses. They often understand things worth hearing.

In the simple act of gathering and telling their stories, students learn much of what they need to know. They learn how to sort through information, how to select facts that are useful, and how to combine data into coherent narratives that move the work forward. In representing others’ points of view, they find their own. Along the way they discover astonishing uses for the digital cameras and recorders and multimedia programs that we now have, creating cultural artifacts that will be of great worth to other people.

And they also learn a fundamental secret of life: learning is a joy. It goes beyond whatever information highway we find ourselves upon. We can pull out of the traffic and park, climbing down the bank to make our own photographs along the river bottom with mountains beyond mountains all around.

We can see the world anew, getting to the water’s edge with the smell of leaf fall in our nostrils and the cool of unsettled breezes tickling our skin.

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