Archive for December, 2016

So, I’ve been thinking about the looking, seeing, and interpreting skills of my students. I’ve been talking with a few colleagues about a potential broad interdisciplinary, humanities course.

After a long, involved chain of events, I found myself in possession of both a new copy of  Ways of Seeing by Jon Berger and Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry. I purchased them both at the same very small bookstore on a lovely afternoon of wandering about with my husband. Ah, winter break. Picking them both up at the same store was a happy coincidence that made me think about them together.

Anyway, I read Ways of Seeing decades ago and was reminded of it again last school year by a colleague. When I tried to find my copy at home, I couldn’t. So, it’s been on my mind recently as I’ve continued looking for it. Another colleague has been suggesting Syllabus, but her copy is also missing (as in she lent it to someone who keeps forgetting to return it). The two titles were already linked in their lostness, but I did not notice.

Well, now I have put them together as a new twisted pair. (Old twisted pair blogging challenge description)

I am part way through Syllabus and have begun rereading Ways of Seeing. They are certainly VERY different reading experiences; in fact, I really cannot overstate how different. Syllabus‘ pages are combinations of drawings, doodles, and handwritten text. The pages are colorful and lively. There is a lot of space to think and a lot of need to think about what is not being said. Ways of Seeing has images as well, but there is no shortage of words. As a reader, there is a lot of information coming at you in the words, rather than in the spaces.

However, I am also struck by their similarities. Although they are approaching the task from wildly different angles, both Barry and Berger are thinking about the interplay between words and images, seeing and drawing.

As I continue reading and rereading this twisted pair of books, I am getting so many ideas for ways to incorporate these ideas and habits into my English class. . .

Back to reading.


Public domain image. This is my idea of a reasonable serving of ginger snaps.

CCO Public domain image.
This is my idea of a reasonable serving of ginger snaps.

So, I’ve been thinking about winter break. What will I read, write, see, make? Students were finished school on Friday 16th, but I was in on Monday and Tuesday for some catch up type things.

In the lead up to the break, I was scoping out the library at school, making mental lists of what books I was going to check out. It turns out I am not the only one who had her eye on a few titles, but I am the one who waited too long. No problem, my list is long. I have at least half a dozen books (some young adult, some not) in my reading pile; I signed up for 2 Coursera courses through MoMA, and have plans to work on a few in-process art/craft projects. This seems like a lot for a break that also includes a major family heavy holiday and a set of papers to grade. To date I have read 3 books–2 young adult (Bone Gap and No Laughter Here) 1 graphic novel (Creature Tech)– and finished a week or so in each Coursera course (turns out there is significant overlap in the classes, so a lot less work than 2 unique courses). I do not think I have ignored my family either; we have done family stuff together, but you would have to ask them.

My point is not to list books read, courses taken etc. I am interested in 2 things here. First, what is it about a break from work that makes me think I have 36 hours in my days that I should fill? Second, what is it about doing all these things that is rejuvenating for me?

First of all, I think it’s the temporary freedom from a scheduled work time that makes me think I am superwoman. If I had an unending number of free days ahead of me, I would not feel the same urgency to read, make, etc. And, let’s be honest, I also excel at sitting on the couch and eating cookies. I am not actually going to do all that, but I like thinking about the options. This is connected to my second question. Just the thought of planning what to read and do is exciting to me. It’s really just another form of brainstorming, WHICH I LOVE. Brainstorming combines so many things that appeal to me–collecting ideas, connecting pieces of information, making odd leaps of ideas, taking notes, more planning. I feel more energized just writing this down (note: I am on still on the couch).

I think that if a break is to enable one to return to something feeling more rested and ready, then making my clearly unrealistic lists does the job almost by itself, as long as I can eat some cookies at the same time. However, just in case I need to do more than just imagine doing all this, I’m planning some art time later today.

So, I’ve been thinking about excellence. The book my class is reading has meant that we have been talking a lot about greatness–what it is, what it isn’t, what we want it to be, what we don’t want it to be, what it’s like to have it or to witness it. As we were talking about it the other day, I was reminded of Ron Berger’s book The Ethic of Excellence that I read many years ago. The sentence (idea really) that I took away from the book is this: excellence is transformative. At 5th grade back to school night, I told my students’ parents and guardians that I wanted that experience of excellence being transformative for each of their students–that I could not hand it out for free, but that I wanted each child to see that potential in him or herself. Then there was dramatic music.I decided this was one of my goals for the year.

I mentioned Ron Berger’s idea that recognizing the potential for excellence in oneself is transformative to my group of seniors this year as we discussed characters struggling with their potential or lack of potential for greatness. They were less than wowed. There was no dramatic music. We moved on.

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on

Then, I corrected tests and decided to read some good answers aloud to the class when I returned the tests. I gave some general comments and mentioned how one of the common challenges was not getting to that big idea, not moving beyond retelling, when answering the more complex questions. I read a few short answers from one student who did in fact get to a big idea every time and a passage analysis by another student who also got to the thematic issues. The class could tell that these were good answers– that they went somewhere and had something to say. The two students puffed up. They were smiling big on the inside, even if they were playing it cool; they weren’t so cool that I was fooled. They felt that power of being recognized by others as excellent. I have to say that I was reminded again that these big, almost-grown people sitting in front of me are not so different from my old 5th graders (in fact sometimes they are those exact 5th graders).

When we broke up into small groups later that period, one of the students whose work I read took a much more active role in the group that usual, leading discussion, engaging with the group. Of course I know that there is no proof of causation here. And, I know both those students left feeling like this is a class where they can be excellent. Same student a few days later mentioned paying extra close attention to a particular grammatical error that I have pointed out too many times. And a few days after that the other student that I had recognized also made a point to break, at least for one quiz, another problematic habit that I have mentioned over and over.




All of this has me thinking about my responsibilities. I am responsible for this experience for as many students as possible, not just these two. Why don’t I read more good work aloud? I have some reasons (they are not necessarily acceptable excuses, just reasons):

  • The 48 minute class period. Where does the time go?!
  • In high school there is just less little stuff that gets turned in.
    • When I taught 5th grade, I had students doing short writing on our blog all the time. And, I could share (or the students could see without me) little examples of good work frequently. Plus, I had control over so much of the day in 5th grade. “My classes” with the students amounted to almost all of the “big stuff”. Now I’m just one of the classes, and I don’t get to say what is most important. (What? This continues to be difficult for me to come to grips with.)
  • How hard am I looking for opportunities to do this? (Probably not hard enough.)
  • I have not valued this enough, and therefore I have not given it time.

So, here’s my plan going forward. As I think about it, there are a bunch of times when I have said things like, “lots of people did a really nice job” or this particular part of the assignment” was really successful for a lot of people.” Why not just read some examples? It’s much more specific feedback and gives those who were not as successful information as well. Between writing the first draft of this post and publishing, I had some old examples all set to read in class. What happened? Well, I was going to do the sharing at the end of class. Then, we ran out of time. Sigh.

There’s not too much time left before exams. However, if I come in with something to share each day (maybe two things), and I manage to get to the sharing half the time, I can make some in roads.