Amazon.com 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."

America’s future depends on us
     Feeling young in eastern Montana

Ed Marston makes a point I’ve talked about before. The Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states are related to the eastern states in somewhat the way the American colonies were related to England in, say, 1770. Those who feel they are at the center of power feel we are rustic provincials. Marston suggests that nonetheless it might be up to us to decide America’s future:

. . .in the end, of course, the scorned, cultureless colonies triumphed and came to dominate the English-speaking world. They succeeded because the colonists had, in addition to several million square miles of land at their backs, aggression, pride and a genius for politics.

A couple summers ago I put on an institute for teachers, and all our speakers from out of state commented on the sense of desolation they got driving through the eastern part of the state. If you judge Harlowton or Chester by the standards of a Portland strip mall, it might seem to be lacking. But when I’m out there, my overwhelming sense is of a young world, full of possibililty.

When I visit Portland or Seattle, my overwhelming sense is, “My goodness. It’s too late.”


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Building education communities with weblogs
     Staying in touch, thinking together

Craig Nansen’s report on weblogs in education includes links to the most often citied blogs that deal with schools.

Blogs are more than just personal journals. They can provide news information a lot easier than trying to create and update web sites. Political and War blogs allow people to publish information to those that are interested, often several times per day. Just imagine if Lewis and Clark had been able to publish their journals to the web on a daily basis…


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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 methods...it’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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Attending to the Narrative Environment
     The importance of story in the Heritage Project

School comes alive when the work students are doing makes sense to them--in other words, when the story of school
fits the the personal story of their lives. Heritage projects at their best help young people become self-consciously part of that local history, adding their stories and their work to its legacy. Their presentations can become a permanent part of the town’s archives, saved forever in the local museum, where it can be added to presentations done by students in earlier years, and where other student research will be added in future years. 

Quests sometimes fail, are abandoned or dissipated into distractions; and human lives may in all these ways also fail. But the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or to-be-narrated quest.
Alasdair MacIntyre

Reality is a story–not just a tale that is told but a story that is really so.

Robert P. Roth


Connecting with students means inviting them into a story

School comes alive when the work students are doing makes sense to them--in other words, when the story of school
fits the the personal story of their lives.

It helps when teachers remember--in spite of directives from afar--that students are particular people living in a particular place, and that the history of that place has everything to do with who they are and what their prospects are.

Heritage projects at their best help young people become self-consciously part of that local history, adding their stories and their work to its legacy. Their presentations can become a permanent part of the town’s archives, saved forever in the local museum, where it can be added to presentations done by students in earlier years, and where other student research will be added in future years.

Marsha, a blond girl from Libby with interested eyes, once told me that what she liked most about the Heritage Project was the team research and the friendships that were formed. Their research involved visiting libraries, interviewing people, and going to archives. While I ate a BLT she told me things she had learned, her stories of searching and finding.

Our lives have a narrative structure, and we not only learn in narrative, but, as Barbara Olsen said, we also dream, plan, hate, love, fear, flirt, teach, gossip, regret, recover, taunt and woo in narrative. 

MORE...


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Writing for the Web
     Getting to the real stuff

When writing for the web, it’s good to keep in mind that the complex interplay between decisions individual persons make about their voices and the decisions others make about what to pay attention to, and the sort of places that result. Each of us is reponsible for what we say--the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content--and each of us is also responsible for what we listen to. On the internet, sites that get traffic grow and are imitated, while those that get no traffic dwindle away.

Mark Bernstein gives advice on writing for the web that goes beyond the usual details about correctness and brevity to touch on the deeper reasons people write:

Bad personal sites bore us by telling us about trivial events and casual encounters about which we have no reason to care. Don’t tell us what happened: tell us why it matters. Don’t tell us your opinion: tell us why the question is important.

If you don’t really care, don’t write. If you are a student and everybody is talking about exams and papers and you simply don’t care, let it be. If your job bores you, it will bore us. (If you despise your job with a rich, enduring passion, that’s another thing entirely!) Write for yourself; you are, in the end, your most important reader.

He talks about friends, enemies, courage and honesty. He gets into the real terrain of writing, an exhilarating place where sentence by sentence we decide how we relate to other people and who we are. He does this by offering some good and simple insights into what sort of person is worth becoming. These are the issues writing teachers have in mind when they talk about voice.

Each of us is responsible for what we say--the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content--and each of us is also responsible for what we listen to. The internet makes vivid the complex interplay between decisions individual persons make about their voices and the decisions others make about what to pay attention to, and the sort of places that result. On the internet, sites that get traffic grow and are imitated, while those that get no traffic dwindle away.

The world has always worked that way. Different communities practice different virtues, have different characters, and move toward different destinies. These differences are created by the things people think and say, and the actions that follow. At the same time, what people think and say are influenced by what the community around them seems to approve or disapprove.

I think it would be good if writing teachers kept pointing out to young people that through what we write about (and talk about and think about) we are constantly participating in a process of self-creation, that the outcome of this process is not predetermined (we are free), and that the outcome matters (things could turn out very good, but they could also turn out very, very bad).

These are guidelines that lead to the sorts of places I prefer:

1. Be honest (rather than merely fashionable).
2. Be accurate (reality is fabulous).
3. Be nice (people are tender and most mistakes they make can safely be ignored).
4. Be cautious about revealing intimate details (there are bad people out there). 


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Thinking about Montana’s future
     Where do we go from here?

There are many ways we can get students to adopt the role of teacher. In the Heritage Project, high school students have written books, conducted programs, and made videos for younger students. They have also done many programs aimed at the larger community--publication parties, heritage evenings and fairs, and community forums, where students report back to the community information they have garnered from interviews with community members and organizations. One such forum focused on water and reported findings from local irrigators, state agencies, and tribes.
The future of Montana and of particular communities has also been the subject of important work, notably in Chester and Libby. 

Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in action; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny. Tryon Edwards

The main failure of education is that it has not prepared people to comprehend matters concerning human destiny. Norman Cousins

Every people should be originators of their own destiny. Martin Delany


Several things seem notable about the present state of education in Montana.

First, we have lots of information. The challenge for teachers does not consist of getting information in front of students. The challenge is getting them involved in ways of living that make using this information important.

Second, the simplest way to do this is to invite students to speak. We all want to be heard, by somebody.  Once we think we have an audience, it’s natural to want to look and sound good. A young person who knows she’s going to present before an audience of fellow students or of interested community adults or of both will want to do a good job. Science fairs have been demonstrating this for decades. Having your work on display before the public, and having the chance to stand beside it and explain what you did, regularly leads to a tremendous amount of learning that wouldn’t have occurred if you had only been getting ready for a test.

Asking people to teach is far and away the most powerful teaching strategy and it should be used more than it is. When we need to organize a body of knowledge and communicate it to others, we think about it much more deeply than we do for most other purposes. This is why “teach” is the culminating process in the ALERT approach to organizing instruction.

There are many ways we can get students to adopt the role of teacher. In the Heritage Project, high school students have written books, conducted programs, and made videos for younger students. They have also done many programs aimed at the larger community--publication parties, heritage evenings and fairs, and community forums where students report back to the community information they have garnered from interviews with community members and organizations. One such forum focused on water and reported findings from local irrigators, state agencies, and tribes.

The future of Montana and of particular communities has also been the subject of important work, notably in Chester and Libby.

We all think about the future, and the younger we are the more we think about it. Young people have to be concerned about the future because that’s where they’re going to live most of their lives. For all of us, what we anticipate about the future powerfully affects the choices we make. Though much of the future is unpredictable (who knew a tsumani was going to occur in the Indian Ocean), much of it is very predictable (who did not know natural disasters would continue to occur, as they always have). Wisdom has much to do with seeing what things are always true, so that we aren’t duped by change.

This is the thing that seems most notable about education in Montana today: our future depends upon citizens taking advantage of emerging possibilities without losing sight of the unchanging principles that govern change. We are not in position to coast. The things we value are threatened by economic, cultural and political changes. We can close our eyes and hope for the best, or we can examine our situation critically, talking with our young people about our prospects.

If we invite many people whose work doesn’t normally include teaching to join us in teaching young Montanans about this place and how we live here, we will give them an opportunity to learn and to think more deeply by giving them the chance to teach. And by devoting time to discussing Montana’s future, teachers can direct some of their students’ natural interest in the future toward an interest in research and presentation at the same time they help students think more powerfully about the state’s future and their own, and of the ways thieir own destiny are linked to Montana’s.

One place to start is to see what others have said about the topic:

Here’s something I wrote on that topic.

John Baden believes that a good future for Montana depends on three strategies: “First, protect wildlife habitat, our scenery, and amenities. Second, stress education and infrastructure. Third, enact policies that foster entrepreneurship.”

Economist Larry Swanson says Montana’s future lies mostly in its urban areas. “Montana’s cities are sized right to capture the job and income growth in medical, professional and service-related fields that have fueled the economy throughout the Intermountain West.”

Ranch manager Ray Marxer believes that “Fisheries and ranchlands are both important to Montana’s future,” he explains. “It’s beyond argument that ranches provide significant undeveloped areas that define the landscapes under the Big Sky. And now, whereas fishing was once looked on as a frivolous thing people did when their real work was done, both the economy that fishing provides and the role it plays in the life of many of us are being realized for the true assets they are.”

Karl N. Stauber begins thinking about the future of rural places by examining the historical and economic reasons they now face trouble. He believes the keys to the future of rural America are ensuring a robust middle class, reducing concentrated poverty, and maintaining a healthy natural environment. His recommendations for the future go beyond the usual rural development plans which, he says, “are designed for the past, not the future.” Among his suggestions: (1) replace land grant colleges with information grant colleges, (2) focus on value-added agriculture and technology that create rural competitive advantage, and (3) encourage entrepreneurial immigrants from Central and South America and Asia to relocate to sparsely populated areas.

Readers: Please use the “comments” link below to post additional resources dealing with Montana’s future.


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Why should students blog?
     Becoming editors in the information age

Blogging may be a powerful way to teach students to organize information and construct a coherent point of view. Valuable skills in an information age. But they also have potential to waste time through idle chatter and careless writing.

In the last couple days one of you--I’ve forgotten who (it was said in voice so I can’t check the archives)--said you wanted to hear more about why blogging might be good for students.

I tend to judge these things by the effects on myself. I pay attention to what happens to me when I work on a blog. What I find is that I start organizing the information that floods in, and that the organization is my own, based on my sense of what matters and what’s interesting. Blogging has more to do with critical thinking--with evaluating information and seeing how various things might fit--than it does with writing. This is what I mean by “constructing a point of view.” This seems an important thing for kids in this information- and media-saturated world to do.

Will Richardson has a post along these lines:

I’m a big proponent for using blogs in the classroom for a variety of purposes, from class portal to online filing cabinet. But I’m most passionate about getting kids to blog, the verb. It’s a process that teaches them how to think critically about the information they consume. If they become better writers for it, that’s great. But it’s becoming a better editor that, in the long run, is going to be even more important to most students.

That said, I can see plenty of ways to use blogging in the classroom that would not be nearly as useful as other things that could be done with the time. An article in Teacher Magazine discusses both the promise and the pitfalls of student blogging. A teacher who has worked with student bloggers said:

“A blog is so spontaneous, and student posts are typically full of errors of syntax and grammar,â€? Hamilton says. “If an entire class revolves around this, where will students get the instruction they need in conventions of the language? That’s especially true in alternative schools such as ours, where most kids arrive not adequately trained in English.”

If carefulness and thoughtfulness can’t be taught, blogs will be far more trouble than they’re worth. Idle chatter, whether done live or online, doesn’t seem of great importance.


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Information activist?
     Or just a Hobbit

Knowledge activist? Not me, probably. “Activist” isn’t one of those words that moves me much. My experience with activists is that they tend to see me as something to be improved. They have a plan, and we all need to get involved. Too often, the plan is to get us involved in making a plan. Because, after all, change.  I’m rather fond of doing what I think makes sense and offering invitations to anyone who would like to help, or accepting invitations from people asking for help. Something more neighborly than activism.

David Wilcox proposes a term for whatever it is some of us are doing: “Others may call you variously a blogger, online journalist, community manager, information worker, editor, researcher, even hacker. Perhaps we’ll find some shared interests wearing the badge of knowledge activist.”

Knowledge activist? Not me, probably. “Activist” isn’t one of those words that moves me much. My experience with activists is that they tend to see me as something to be improved. They have a plan, and we all need to get involved. Too often, the plan is to get us involved in making a plan. Because, after all, change.

I’m rather fond of doing what I think makes sense and offering invitations to anyone who would like to help, or accepting invitations from people asking for help. Something more neighborly than activism.

But quibbling aside, I think I have some of the same sense he does of old boundaries dissolving. I’ve been a newspaper editor, a teacher, and a school administrator, but most of my work now is done with conceptual and technological tools no one taught at the schools I went to, and my goals have little to do with advancement within the old institutions that dominate the cultural landscape like towers in a Tolkien tale.

Was Frodo an activist? Maybe.


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Montana Blogs
     Developing regional culture

Who knows where blogging will lead. My own hopes are that it will support a flourishing of regional culture, as more people realize they can write for families and local communities about things unlikely to draw audiences of the size needed for traditional publishing.

Right now there’s a lot of experimentation and learning going on. The technology is new and often strange, and many readers haven’t migrated from the morning paper or other forms of old media.

But it’s a form worth thinking about, and maybe taking a stab at yourself. My favorite website in the world is a family photo blog that our family does. Several of us post photos with brief captions. Recently, my seven-year-old grandson posted a poem he wrote about his great-grandmother a couple days after she died. It’s a place where we express (and in the expression develop) our notions of what our family is about. It’s important to us now, and I imagine it will be priceless a generation or two down the line.

My view is that every family needs its writers, photographers--its own literature and art--and we now have the tools to do this.

And not just families. Neighborhoods, towns, clubs and organizations. As I said, we are just at the beginning. Who knows what might be coming. It’s worth watching. Here are some of the blogs from Montana that made me feel good, for various reasons.

A Montana cattle rancher’s opinions and facts: I sometimes wonder if my cattle can read my mind. The cows were still out in the hills scrounging for feed and later in the week I was going to let them come down towards home. You will note the “wereâ€? in the statement. They decided to break the fence down and come home without any help. Luckily the next fence held long enough to move some other cattle around to let them the rest of the way down. I hate when I have to do things unplanned and in a hurry but we managed. We spent a while fixing everything and I am back under control for now. “Ifâ€? there are any cattle left in the hills I will let them work in if they want. The ones that came home will start getting a cake supplement now and I will hold off haying them. The hired man wanted to know if I was rewarding them for breaking the fence down and coming home. I told him “weâ€? were rewarding them for not breaking any more fence down than they did and patiently waiting while we moved some other cattle around before they came down. Got to look on the bright side.

Thoughts from the Middle of Nowhere



An anonymous blog about life in Montana, from the Livingston area: I love the hard-working, honest and friendly people of Montana. In gas stations here in the morning, you’ll find men standing around sipping coffee and talking. I love that when you sit and chat with the boys here in Montana, you don’t speak of geeky subjects like routers and USB cables and Perl code, we speak of manly things like cattle and fences and horses and hunting. And I love it that no matter who you talk to - you end up finding a link - it will turn out you know someone they know either through family, work, or school. I love being able to walk into a bar and know everyone in there and be greeted as a friend and a neighbor. Montanans have accepted me and my family here - they know that I’m “not from around here� but they accept me as a local and as a friend and I’ve been made to feel welcome here. I’ve lived in other states where you’re made to feel if you’re not a native, you’re trespassing - not so here, I’m made to feel welcome here.

Big Sky Blog



A Billings blog about politics, school board, and general topics: Once again the voters of Billings have shown that they want little (if anything) to do with funding SD2’s projects!
All of the funding requests were voted down and probably for good reason. The real reason? MISTRUST I’d say. That said, it is a sad day for the children who are going to suffer in the long run.
I am not against funding education but last night I had the opportunity to attend a focus group conducted by MSUB. Not only was it educational, but after two hours of round table discussion it is clear that the members of the SD2 could well learn a few things that would help them in actually getting peoples input rather than the shotgun approach that they have used in the past.
The Dean of the College of Technology (COT) along with the staff at MSUB are studying the “Community College� idea to expand the education process that more closely fits the NEEDS of both our young children coming out of High School as well as the non-traditional students who are either trying to make career changes or move up the economic ladder in a state the now ranks 44th in the nation…up from 45.
Until the School Board can come up with VALID and concrete PLANS I doubt whether they will ever be successful in getting any requests for money approved by the voters of Billings.

Views from the Rim



A photo blog of weekend outings around Great Falls: About three miles from the top I came on a car pulled off to the side of the road and the driver looking over the side into a steep ravine. I looked down and there was one of the trucks that had passed me dangerously on a curve. It was on its top. Luckily, none of the four guys in the car were hurt and they were able to climb out through one of the windows.

Out There with Tom



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Getting to know place
     The cosmos at the scale of home

I turn off the lights, open the window in my study, lean on the sill a little into the night, gazing for a long moment out at snow falling through cottonwoods along Mission Creek, and snow falling on my winter garden, now gone. Snowflakes on my cheek feel like pricks of life.

A knowledge has been handed down to me through American culture from Puritans who saw the material world related to the spiritual world in such a way that any moment correctly observed and understood contains all moments.

When, as Puritans, they encountered the New England coast, they did not see stones shaped by geologic forces over millions of years or waves rising and falling according to laws of physics that stretched backward and forward through infinity without change. They saw a stage upon which a cosmic drama of sin and redemption was enacted in every moment. They saw in all of it a provident God whose Plan of Salvation included the story of time from beginning to end, moment by moment, in unimaginably vast reaches of self-similarity.

In learning to see their own lives as types of the unfolding plan, they became skilled metaphorical thinkers, adept at seeing different points in history as revelatory of the underlying truth from which existence unfolded, so their own grand errand to the wilderness was also the Israelites’ journey through wilderness toward freedom. Every event and aspect of nature was at once itself and a remembrancer of more. History was not chronology but an intelligible order in which prophets had discerned and described both past and future. We can see only what we can see, but all of it is before us.

Later, such ones as Thoreau, Emerson, Melville and Hawthorne separated the Puritan’s metaphorical facility from faith in the God of the Bible, but the transcendence lasted for a while. Every time and place remained an instance of every other time and place.

But then, in a moment, it vanished. The cosmos was empty and dead. In “The Snow Manâ€? Wallace Stevens said that to face the meaningless arrangements and rearrangements of patterns that make up modernity, “one must have a mind of winter.” Only then can one behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

But few have minds of winter. Many would rather find sacred paths into dialogue with the universe as living mind. The covers of best sellers are graced with images of Egyptian pyramids or South American temples or Stonehenge. People look beyond cold nothing.

They associate a sense of nothing with the meaninglessness of the spaces they have come to. What does it matter which building in which edge city reached by which highway one goes to through morning gridlock to ride the same elevator to the same hallway to the same room filled with purplish gray fabric-covered cubicles, personalized with photocopied jokes?

I think that the longing for a sense of place we hear so much about has grown from a longing for meaning. A longing for family, as a way of being understood and loved, as a way of being together, among all our grandmothers and grandfathers and all our children and grandchildren, some not yet born. A longing for a sense that all we have been and seen and known does not melt and shatter into vibrating bits.

The longing for a sense of place is, I think, a longing for the cosmos at the scale of home.

Just before I opened the window to look out through silences of falling snow, I had been reading an argument by a theoretical physicist that time is an illusion, as I watched the night, a thick swirl of heavy snowflakes catching the yellow light of the streetlights across the creek, where in the near distance I saw two cars moving, slowly as it seemed to me, through whatever night they were to encounter.

I knew that the empty spaces between protons and electrons were a million billion times larger than the particles themselves, I knew that the solidity of the birch window sill was an illusion created in part by force fields within which electrons and protons danced, and I knew that nobody knew what the forces fields were, and that the electrons themselves were made of even smaller particles, emerging from waves of a not-nothing that was prior to energy and flooding the universe with being.

My grandson toddles to my knee and tugs on my trousers. “Can I see?�

I lift him. Yes. Here a little and there a little. Yes.


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