Writing



Words that last

Excerpt from Proving Up

Words that last

I think it’s important that teachers talk with students about digital writing, including email. Though we toss this off as the most ephemeral of writing, in fact it may be more durable than anything we have written before. Much of what we write will surface years or decades or perhaps centuries from now.

So it’s imortant to think about decorum. There are always people out there who will use what we say against us, and words lifted from their context can seem quite different than we meant them. It’s a good discipline never to be unkind, never to be unjust even in a flippant way, and never to spin deceptions. We should think about these things anyway, but our new technologies give us fresh reasons to think about the wisdom of old platitudes.

And beyond not making ourselves seem churlish or a cad, we can think about what we are creating. Over a lifetime, many of us will create through our texts a very definite persona. Students who have read letters and journals written by great-grandparents have an inkling of what this means. What we have chosen to write will become, for someone in the future, quite likely family relatives, all that we ever were.

Good writers have always known that through writing they are creating a persona. A blog is likely to survive long beyond the blog writer, and thinking about what it is, exactly, that survives can bring us into the enchanted inner chamber of the writer’s life.

Here are the first two paragraphs of George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Pay attention to the persona, the voice:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Here’s what Vivian Gornick says about this:

“The man who speaks these sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in. We believe this about him because the writing makes us believe it. Paragraph upon paragraph--composed in almost equal part of narration, commentary, and analysis--attests to a reflective nature now regarding its own angry passions with a visceral but contained distaste. The narrator records his rage, yet the writing is not enraged; the narrator hates Empire, yet his hate is not out of control; the narrator shrinks from the natives, yet his repulsion is tinged with compassion. . .”

Gornick goes on to make the point that the persona Orwell created in this and other writings varied from reports of what Orwell the actual man was like--the persona was better. The persona was, as she said, “an essence of democratic decency.” She notes that creating the persona was the only way to tell the story, figuring out the voice was figuring out how to tell the story.

Writing for the Ages, Part 1
Writing for the Ages, Part 2
Family History Resources


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/16 at 05:39 AM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project


Heritage Project featured in Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory publication

The Montana Heritage Project is the lead example in Writing to Learn: Revisiting Writing Across the Curriculum in Northwest Secondary Schools, published by Northwest Regional Lab in Portland as part of their By Request booklet series. We just got a bundle of these this morning, and we will give each HP teacher a copy at the WSF in Helena, February 7.

These reports briefly address current educational concerns and issues as indicated by requests for information that come to the Laboratory from the Northwest region and beyond. Each booklet contains a discussion of research and literature pertinent to the issue, a sampling of how Northwest schools are addressing the issue, suggestions for adapting these ideas to schools, selected references, and contact information.

One objective of the series is to foster a sense of community and connection among educators. Another is to increase awareness of current education-related themes and concerns. Each booklet will give practitioners a glimpse of how fellow educators are addressing issues, overcoming obstacles, and attaining success in certain areas. The series’ goal is to give educators current, reliable, and useful information on topics that are important to them.

The new booklet will be available online soon.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/03 at 12:30 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project


Reflection as critical thinking

Reflection is one of the major processes teachers invite and support during a learning expedition.

Another name for reflection is critical thinking. We are being reflective when we think about our thinking. Does what we are saying or thinking make sense? Is it reasonable? Do we have enough evidence to support what we think? Are we being logical? Are we being honest? Are we being fair?

In Habits of Thought, Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking says that the basic building blocks of thinking are

(1) Beginning with clearly stated goals and purposes for study and inquiry;
(2) Formulating and framing problems and questions;
(3) Developing a defensible perspective and point of view;
(4) Assessing resource materials and texts for honesty and fairness;
(5) Questioning assumptions and biases;
(6) Making valid inferences; and
(7) Evaluating consequences of judgments and reasoning.

How often do classroom discussion focus on such issue? Classroom discussions can prepare the way for critical thinking when students are invited to:

(1) Summarize what others have stated;
(2) Elaborate on concepts and ideas;
(3) Relate topics to their own knowledge and experience;
(4) Give examples to clarify and support ideas; and
(5) Make connections between related concepts.

Too often students don’t reason well in the classroom and yet their sloppy reasoning is accepted or praised by teachers because it offers socially fashionable positions. According to Paul, teachers too often let students get by with “random and undisciplined” thought:

Most people . . .do not have “evidence? — other than the stuff of their subjective reactions — to justify their preferences. They prefer because of the way they feel not because of the way they reason. To choose because of these subjective states of feeling is precisely to lack criteria of evaluation or evidence that bears upon objective assessment. When challenged to support subjective preferences, people usually can do little more than repeat their subjective reactions (“I find it boring, amusing, exciting, dull, interesting, etc.?) or rationalize them (“I find it exciting because it has a lot of action in it.?)

The traditional way to teach critical thinking more rigorously than through discussions is through teaching writing. Students can be invited or assigned to tackle topics that require analysis. In such writing, they should be clear about the purpose of their argument, and then teachers can work with them to see if the evidence and reasoning they put on the page is sufficient to accomplish that purpose:

The fundamental criterion to use in analyzing and evaluating reasoning comes from an analysis of the purpose of the reasoner and the logic of the question or questions raised. For example, if a person raises the question, say, as to whether democracy is failing in the USA (in the light of the dwindling number of people who vote and the growing power of vested interest groups with significant money to expend on campaign contributions), we can establish general criteria for assessing the reasoning by spelling out what in general one would have to do to settle the question.

Heritage Projects provide a powerful way to help students “reason their way” into school subjects, “instead of being spoon-fed information that they memorize and then forget.”

Books, posters and videos for critical thinking


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/23 at 10:19 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project
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