Writing


(I asked the juniors to come up with one word they would like to define them for this academic year. We brainstormed words and then ideas, trying to get a sense of the words we chose, what they meant to us and what we hoped they would mean to us. We challenged ourselves to write descriptively, fleshing out the details of the images we create. I chose the word flow. This is my “One Little Word” essay on it. I’ll share it with them and talk about why I chose to construct it as I did.)

I am a rock. I am hard, stubborn, recalcitrant. I push past what is difficult, survive periods of drought and batter down what stands in my way.

In the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, I am a rock, I am an island.

There are no bridges off this island, no tunnels into this rock. My natural, impenetrable defenses keep me safe. I withstand the ravages of time. Humanity flows around me, skimming my shores, barely altering my landscape.

I stand alone.

I am alone.

The current moves past me, taking in my jagged edges, wondering at my solidity. Continuing downstream, other obstacles place themselves in its path, and the current examines them with similar curiosity and detachment. It passes no judgment. It flows on.

I wonder at this current, lapping my shores and retreating out sea, returning later in another guise, forceful waves that batter against the stony fortress that girds me, flinging themselves across my shore, waking me. Beckoning me. Inviting me.

I accept. I leave. I flow.

I am not longer the island, but the current that surrounds the rock. I move in a stream continuously changing places with the objects and structures that share my path. Momentarily I am the rugged exterior of the island. I taste its permanence, its earthy shores, its wind-sculpted coast. I flow past, taking the memory of its piney scent with me.

I meld to my environment, blend in, share space, embrace difference, soften rough edges of rocks and islands. Invite them out to sea. I lose myself in the faint line of the horizon, that liminal space between ocean and sky. I become part of the amorphous molecular structure that is world, distinguishing not between subject and object. I flow. I am and I do.

This is a variation on Nancy Atwell’s Writing Territories. Writing Territories are just that, a list of territories or areas one might write about. However, instead of just listing writing topics, Heather Fowler, Justin DiLoro and I are encouraging our students to think outside of themselves and begin to make connections between their interests and the larger dialogue on those topics. Therefore, this writing territories list includes not only my interests, but those places (print or digital) where I might find additional information about those topics. The purpose of this list is to act not only as a writing prompt, but one that encourages me to deliberately include and acknowledge the ideas of others in my reflection and writing.

Triathlons

http://www.buffalotriathlonclub.com/

Training Plans for Multisport Athletes: Your Essential Guide to Triathlon, Dualthlon, XTERRA, Ironman, and Endurance Racing by Gail Bernhardt

Politics & Current Events

http://www.nytimes.com/

Blogs I read

Well: Tara Parker-Pope on Health

Think Again: Stanley Fish

Domestic Disturbances: Judith Warner

Swimming

http://www.usms.org/

http://www.usaswimming.org/usasweb/DesktopDefault.aspx

Newspapers I read

The New York Times

Literature & Fiction

The New York Times: Books

http://www.salon.com/

The New York Times Book Review

Whatever I’m currently reading.

Backpacking

http://www.backpacker.com/

Outside Magazine

The Adirondacks

Climbing Mount Marcy

Walking Treks in the UK

http://www.hightrek.co.uk/snowdonia/walking.htm

http://www.lakeswalks.co.uk/walks/

http://www.walkingbritain.co.uk/walks/walks/walk_a/1169/

http://www.walking-routes.co.uk/

http://www.ramblers.org.uk/

Education

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Blog

Dana Huff’s Blog

The New York Times: Education

English Companion ning

Technology

2cents Worth

Film

http://www.imdb.com/

The New York Times: Movies

Films I’ve watched

Music

Buffalo Summer Concert Series

Ron Hawkins

Wilco

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Janis Joplin: Buried Alive by Myra Friedman

Scar Tissue: Anthony Kiedis

American Literature

Romanticism: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott

Realism: Elizabeth Phelps, Mark Twain

Naturalism: Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser

Modernism: Virgina Woolf, Willa Cather

Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac

Postmodernism: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace

Feminism: Marilynne Robinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Multicultural: Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Bharati Mukherjee, Zora Neale Hurston

World Literature

Slavenka Drakulic, Manju Kapur

Non-Fiction

Jon Krakauer

Favorite Contemporary Writers

Louise Erdrich

Barbara Kingsolver

Making jewelry

http://www.firemountaingems.com/

http://www.artbeads.com/

BeadStyle Magazine

Reflecting on this process, I think this list is interesting in that it’s a snapshot of me today. I’m reading The New York Times a lot. I’m actively preparing to compete in a triathlon. I’m planning a vacation to the UK. I’m trying to extend my breadth in American Literature to include postmodern writers. I am learning to make jewelry. If I were to repeat this process in two years, I’m sure the list would look completely different.

Updating this list was a good idea. (You rock, Heather.) Apparently I’ve unleashed a monster.

1. Summer blockbusters. This summer it was what I’m going to call the big three: Ironman, The Dark Knight, and Hancock. I’ll save the meat for the actual post, but suffice to say that one of the reasons I’m a fan of blockbusters is because I think they reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Interesting viewing this time around.

2. Thursday in the Square. I’ve written about this awesome, free concert series before, but this summer my stupid muscle tear kept me from most of the shows. No more!

3. New vacation plans. A bear sanctuary in West Virginia, or maybe the Adirondacks, weather depending.

4. Chronic back pain. Actually, I’m not going to write about this because I don’t want to give it any more space in my life.

5. Truth and writing. How much of me do you actually know from reading these posts? I think the absences in any work say as much as what’s included. What’s truth anyways?

6. Stuff White People Like. Why was this blog so popular? I won’t deny its accuracy, but seriously, who reads this stuff?

7. The Dark Side by Jane Mayer. I know, this is a repeat, but this book is so important, especially on the eve of a presidential election. Do we want four more years of people aligned with this adminstration? More than that, can our we survive four more years?

8. Politics of fear mongering and racism. This is America! We are so much better than this! I’m disgusted with both Bill Clinton and Karl Rove.

9. Yuppy privilege. Thank you HST for sparking this one. The Hell’s Angels and the California college leftist movement came to blows in the 1970s and not much has changed since. Blue collar America and the liberal elite are still miles apart. Maybe they always have been; during the nineteenth century, Louisa May Alcott wrote a Utopian novel, Work: A Story of Experience, envisioning a better future for women of all backgrounds. The heroine, Christie Devon, could bridge the gap between women from different walks of life. Who are the real-life Christies? Oh, we’ve come a long way baby, but how far truly?

Happy thoughts.

I’ve been really remiss about posting on regular basis lately. It’s not that I didn’t think about the blog, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Thanks to a whole lot of English education and a brief stint in the field of journalism I can pretty much write on demand, but my thought process went somewhere along these lines: it’s summer and there are no looming deadlines, so why force myself?

I have been reading a lot this summer, however, thanks to a muscle tear in my calf that occurred the day before school ended. This meant shelving our plans to hike the the John Muir Trail and left me in a foul mood for most of July. Thankfully in that regard, summer is winding down and I’m starting to look ahead to a new school year (one where I’m not doing double duty as technology facilitator either, yay!) and after meeting with Heather and Justin to hash out some new additions to the English 4 curriculum, I’m inspired to write again. Thank you both!

I’m starting off easy, which as any good writing instruction will say is the place to begin. What follows are some new additions to my Writing Territories list, an assignment we ask the seniors to complete as they are setting up their blogs. The list is intended to give them a place to go when they come up empty-handed for ideas.

So, here are my additions:

1. The Dark Side by Jane Mayer. I’m about halfway through this book about how the Bush administration’s war on terror lead to the erosion of the civil liberties we’ve championed at home and abroad since our inception. Even though I knew this was happening, I’m nonetheless appalled by the details I’m reading. If you want to check what compelled me to read it, check out Alan Brinkley’s review for the Times’ Sunday Book Review, Bob Herbert’s mention of it in his Op-Ed column, and Jennifer Schuessler’s review for Books of The Times.

2. Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. I read three works by Thompson this summer and became slightly addicted to his out there brand of writing and reporting. I was especially intrigued with Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 and what I learned about the inner workings of a national election.

3. Mountain biking and big bruises. I’ll let you guess on this one, but the bruise was so impressive I had Stanley take a picture.

4. Home improvements. Since we didn’t get to hike the John Muir Trail this summer, we worked on our house. Joy and happiness. I did get to use a nail gun though.

5. Interdisciplinary instruction. This is my latest foray into the world of professional development. I’m looking forward to working with five English and Social Studies teachers to explore the pros and cons of this approach.

6. Gender specific instruction. The Boys’ Literacies study team will consider whether the changes we’ve implemented have been effective and whether gender-specific classes are advisable.

7. All of the other books I read this summer. You can check out my Shelfari page if you want a sneak preview.

8. What I am going to do next summer…especially considering how academic this list is. I mean, good grief, I need to get a life!

Until next time.

I feel a little funny broaching the topic of the war in Iraq because I’m not sure that I’ve done anything to earn the right to weigh in substantively. It’s easy to approach such topics from an academic standpoint (and I’ve done so myself in a previous post on The Bourne Supremacy): issues are cut and dry, not confused by emotion, personal opinion or those sticky moral questions of right and wrong. Even when someone on the outside has the foresight to acknowledge things in shades of gray, theirs is still only a two-dimensional view. The following article about the U.S. death toll in Iraq published in the New York Times reminded me of the distance that always exists between writer and subject.

Only this time, things are a little different. Reporters Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren didn’t take the usual route to mark the new U.S. death toll high in Iraq. Instead, the authors chose to focus upon four U.S. servicemen who died while on duty in Iraq. And rather than tell their stories for them, Alvarez and Lehren integrated the words of these men right into the body of their own report. This had two impacts: first, it was a painful and effective way of reminding the reader that although these guys were in some way speaking, their words were all that remained of them. And second, the integration of the men’s voices into the piece communicated the significance of the number 4000 in way that resonated so much more clearly than a traditional straight news story ever could.

I’m going to include an excerpt here, but I would really encourage you to read the story in its entirety. It’s incredibly powerful. The first paragraph is written by the reporters, the second is taken directly from Myspace and incorporated into the body of the news story.

For the soldiers in Iraq, reconciling Adhamiya with America was not always easy. One place was buried in garbage and gore and hopelessness. The other seemed unmoored from the war, fixated on the minutia of daily life and the hiccups of the famous. The media was content to indulge. …

I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low. To all Americans I have but one phrase that helps me throughout my day of constant dangers and ever present death around the corner, “WHO THE [expletive] CARES!” Wow America, we have truly become a nation of self-absorbed retards. … This world has serious problems and it’s time for America to start addressing them.

Ryan Wood, Myspace blog, May 26, 2007

The other reason I’m struck by this particular story is that it reminded me again of the ways that our social, cultural, and educational landscape is rapidly changing. I have spent the past couple of weeks preparing for a presentation on integrating blogs into the language arts classroom. As far as my content area goes, this is kind-of a no-brainer: I teach writing, blogs are a vehicle for just that. But they would hardly be worth going to all the trouble of using if they were little more than journals. What makes blogs blogs, so to speak, is the ease with which they allow the writer to synthesize ideas from various sources and provide a digital record of that thought process through links.

What does any of this have to do with a news story on U.S. death toll caused by the Iraq War? The reporters supplemented their story with excerpts taken from texts written by the soldiers themselves, including letters, emails, and Myspace. The Myspace accounts written by the soldiers are particularly interesting because they mark a dramatic shift in the way we communicate and receive information. Previously a soldier’s personal thoughts on the war would have been known only to those people close to him, but with the advent of Myspace, those opinions are accessible to anyone with a computer. In this particular instance, they have been transcribed from Myspace into the body of news article published on the New York Times.

Before Myspace, could this have been accomplished in another way? Certainly. The reporters might have interviewed Specialist Wood and then integrated his comments into their news story. However, Woods’s words are especially poignant this time because he can no longer share his thoughts with the reporters personally.

Besides the tremendous emotion and power that the soldiers’s words carry, what strikes me most about Alvarez and Lehren’s choice to include block quotes from the soldiers themselves is the way that they are mimicking the way that Web 2.0 has revolutionized the web in their print news story. I applaud their choice because I think it makes for interesting reading, and as an educator I must also take note of the way that the digital revolution is changing the way information is exchanged, even in print.

I’m in favor of keeping my soapbox, even if it means I’m contributing to the “vitriolic” national political discourse. And against all odds, Karl Rove and I apparently see eye to eye on this issue, though for very different reasons. He believes blogging helps the Republican cause; I believe blogging gives voice to the individual voter regardless of her political persuasion. Last week the writers of “The Opinionator,” a blog co-authored by Tobin Harshaw and Chris Suellentrop, staff editors of the NY Times Op-Ed pages, made mention of Rove’s recent comments on the accessibility of a pulpit to every angry citizen with internet access. Well, hallelujah. It is high time we leveled the playing between those with a voice and Washington and everyone else.* Because it’s short, I’ve included the text of the entire post directly below.

 

“The Web has given angry and vitriolic people more of a voice in public discourse,” former top Bush aide Karl Rove told an audience yesterday, according to The Washington Times’s Fishwrap blog. Rove observes: “People in the past who have been on the nutty fringe of political life, who were more or less voiceless, have now been given an inexpensive and easily accessible soapbox, a blog.”

Wait, is there supposed to be something wrong with that?

“The [Internet] is not the reason hyperpartisan politics have been elevated; people like Karl Rove are,” writes Amanda Terkel at Think Progress:
“Rove admitted that despite the coarseness of the political debate, he hopes the netroots ‘keep at it’ because it helps Republicans. If only the blogosphere were as civil as Karl Rove.”

Sometimes, perhaps, the pot deserves to call the kettle black.

In my relatively short lifetime, I have seen the influence of the individual voter, ostensibly the one who holds a member of Congress accountable to his or her votes, eroded by the influence of those with a voice in Washington, insiders and special interest groups. As an insider, Rove naturally enjoyed such privilege. By default a blogger (especially one with a devoted fan base) makes insiders nervous because he or she erodes away some of the power bestowed upon him by his insider status. I teach English. I live for free speech. So, I can’t imagine myself feeling anything but support for another voice, but seven years ago I might have voiced caution when reading unreviewed material, much in the same way that I caution my high school seniors about considering their sources before subscribing to their arguments. However, during the past seven years we have been fed so many disingenuous “truths” by the Bush administration that I cannot, with any honesty, say that Rove’s word is any more reliable than Joe Blogger’s, though they may warrant close scrutiny for different reasons. It is within that close scrutiny that lies the most valuable message I can impart to any student–read skeptically. Long live free speech and perhaps just as importantly, readily available free publishing (thank you, WordPress).

As an addendum to this piece, I might also add that the formal publishing world is making way for this medium in unprecendented ways. I remember back when Andrew Sullivan left his position as editor at The New Republic to devote himself fully to his own blog. Not being a reporter, I did not yet realize how heavily regular reporters relied upon the efforts of bloggers, who had much greater freedom to go and say whatever they pleased. That process is only becoming more transparent. That bastion of old school news itself, The New York Times, has done two things of late that are worth our note. First, they dissolved their online pay-per-view program, Times Select, explaining that the current trend of the internet news sources rendered such a system obsolete. Second, they have continued to expand the blog section of the Times online, inviting renowned bloggers such as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner to post their blog, Freakonomics, under the auspices of the Times banner.

*Do not misinterpret my sentiments as some foolhardy desire to dismiss Congress. That’s not my point at all. While I find our voting system problematic and the electoral college outdated and unfair, I by no means wish to do away with the structure of our government. The House and Senate are essential and must remain so. That being said, historians have argued that our founding fathers really had no desire to blindly hand over power to the populus, hence the unusual institution known as the electoral college, but this only makes individual voice more important.

Writing does not receive the credit it deserves. (I mean, it’s not like it’s rocket science. You’ve been doing it since you first put crayon to paper in kindergarten, right?) But in my experience, the words rarely seem to lay themselves out on the page in a way that’s coherent–read, lots of backspacing, cutting and pasting, and rewriting–but writing is easy breezy, right? I’ve come to recognize this awkward struggle to find a way to say something is writing. The stuff that finally makes its way into being, well that’s the finished product. Writing is the struggle.

HF and I conceived the blogging writing assignment at the end of the’06-’07 school year. I’ve been teaching Senior English for three years and had yet to find a satisfactory method of preparing students for their final exam–an eight-page senior thesis. No matter how much hands-on assistance I provided or how carefully I staged the assignment, the overall results were lacking. Naturally there were exceptions, but by an large I always came away disappointed. Another person might have walked away conceding that it was unrealistic to expect much from students on their first major research paper, but I concluded that the disorganized, poorly executed, sometimes just plain awful writing was the result of my failure to adequately prepare them for this task. Which brings us to today. Blogging is writing, but with a twist. In a blog it is easy to connect your ideas to someone else’s, because rather than relying on an antiquated system of creating a Works Cited page that would have the reader scurrying off to the library to find your source–don’t worry we’ll get to do one this Spring anyways–the writer simply provides a hotlink that takes the reader immediately to the text in question. Guess what? This (without the fun hotlinks) is what writing a research paper is all about.

I know what you are thinking: Yippee skippy. Who gives a hoot (or something less savory) that I can provide some stinkin’ digital link to some other page on the world wide web? However, as far as educational theory is concerned, by reading, understanding and analyzing or evaluating what someone else wrote and then incorporating their ideas into your own to form something new and original, you have reached thought processing nirvana. In 1956 an education researcher, Benjamin Bloom, devised a schema (pictured below) to describe the types of intellectual behavior important in learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Here’s the scary part. He also discovered that over 95% of the questions students encounter prompt them to think only at the lowest (easiest) level of the spectrum. I don’t know if he speculated why, but here’s my take. It’s easy on the everyone involved. If the students can spit back the information the teacher, they are happy (good grades and that nice warm feeling of getting the answer right) and the teacher is happy (she must be good at her job, the students know all the answers = more warm and fuzzy feelings). Unfortunately warm and fuzzy doesn’t equal education that’s worth anything; after all, a parrot can repeat back information it hears.

So, what’s my point? Blogging is a challenge because to do it well you must engage at least three of Bloom’s levels of understanding: comprehension, analysis and /or evaluation, and synthesis. Notice how you’re not spending much time at the bottom of the pyramid? That’s good news for your brain, not so good news if decided to loaf through this year. But if I were you, I’d be pissed at anyone who didn’t challenge me to stay at the top because they’d be wasting my time.

Sources: The image of the Bloom’s pyramid came from this website. And if you want to read more about Bloom’s theories, see the following paper by Mary Forehand from the University of Georgia.

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