Kodak Moments

Like many children who grew up before the advent of digital photography, I inherited numerous, neatly labeled shoeboxes full of what pop culture used to call “Kodak Moments”—real, tangible photographs, snapshots of my family processed and printed on photographic paper via the local Fotomat.  These artifacts, talismans of light and time captured by kodachrome and chemically fixed on paper represent an archive of my life. Now 47, I’ve taken to going back to these snapshots to search for proof of my existence, to relive old stories, and to hold, if only metaphorically, a moment in time when I was younger, and full of wonder at the newness of the world.

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As a child, I would watch my grandmother spend her afternoons similarly searching for her own histories in piles of black and white photos from her childhood in Germany and her early adult years in Brewerytown, Philadelphia.  Showered by sunlight filtered through a high window and the leaves of a tall maple, she would sit, half-on, half-off her bed, photos spread out like an extra-blanket, reading, sorting, and resorting the photographs until she ran out of the stories to retell herself.  

Tracing an arc from my grandmother, through my childhood and now to my own family, I have grown into and out of so many shoebox archives that I’ve lost count.  Their size and number shifted with deaths and births until one day we stopped keeping them.

That day coincided with my purchase of a digital camera.  

I’ve since replaced the shoeboxes with virtual folders full of more pictures than I can count in a day.  Instead of spreading our photos out on a bed and moving them physically from one configuration to the next, we project them onto a large HD TV and praise the quality of the colors, the sharpness of the pixels.

And for all the convenience of the form, all the ease of printing and digital burning and dodging, for all that, I’m still drawn to the warmth and limitations of the physical snapshots over the flawless manipulations of digital photography.   Life is not perfect, at least not as perfect as it appears in digital photographs where the press of a button increases the “saturation” or the simple shift of a slider can alter the contrast or add more “warmth.” Rather, I believe life is full of fuzzily-focused thoughts, dimly lit understandings, awkward smiles, clumsy postures and poorly framed ideas. It is these errors and mistakes we laugh at and learn from which populate so many of our shoebox snapshots.

While I understand that all photos are mere pieces of larger stories and that most public photos from the pre-digital age underwent manipulations of their own, I believe the photos of the small cameras of our yesteryears, like the Brownie of my grandmother’s age or my own “Kodak Hawkeye 110” with its slim build and clunky flashbulbs, are a truer representation of who we were.  I believe in the photo-chemical marvel that was the old-school photograph and the errant, erratic beauty of lives captured in Kodak Moments.

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Touching the Sturgeon

(The following essay, a meditation on why I believe we/I read, was first published by the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College in the 2011 issue of their annual publication, Writing from the Inside Out.)

Last night I traveled.  Buoyed on the words of author Susan Rogers as she read from a recent essay, I swam from the hardwood paneled room with its ornate plaster ceiling on the campus of Bard College to the vast, watery plane of the Hudson River sliding past the college barely half a mile away.  In an instant, I was floating beside Susan as she paddled south on the wide, rain-swollen river heading towards a New York Department of Environmental Conservation boat that had clearly caught something large. One of the men on board acknowledged her presence as she glided up to the boat, and floating to the back, she could see that what they had was a 6-foot Atlantic sturgeon hauled up from the river’s depths that they were tagging for study.  

In itself a scene like this is, perhaps, memorable.  Most people will never be that close to an Atlantic sturgeon.  However, Susan’s description of the fish made it unforgettable:  “It is a dinosaur fish–it hasn’t changed in over 62 million years.”   She continued, describing it’s blue-black belly, it’s flat gaping mouth for filtering “dynamic mud”, how when touched or struck gently on its body its solidity, like a piece of wood, surprised her.  There on the river beside her, I saw this animal, belly up, mouth agape, all out of sorts. I know now, too, of it’s prized caviar, of the fishermen with names like stories who used to pull them out of the Hudson and sell them as “Albany Beef.”

But I learned something else that night, something beyond the fish, beyond myself.

Susan’s language, the rhythm of the sentences, the placement of this recollection immediately after she described the death of her mother, the way she reached out to touch the fish, gently, with a curiosity and compassion…all this made me realize why we read.

 

In his work I and Thou, Martin Buber presents his relational philosophy of dialogue.  At its heart are two distinct modes of engaging with the world. The first, the I – it mode, is mere experience of an object of observation or utility (the “it”) by a subject (the “I”). This mode is clinical and scientific, detached and observant–think of a virologist watching a petri dish. But in the second, the I-you mode, both objects enter into a transformative relationship.  The “I” engages the “you” as an entirety, the universe in and of itself.  Jane Goddall’s game-changing relationships/studies with chimps are a good example.  Buber classifies such a relationship through three elements, the third of which is the fact that “this one person [the I], without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other” (Buber, Education, p.96 f., in Friedman). Buber calls this engagement an “encounter” and grants that such encounters can happen between the I and any object, person … fish.

 

This sturgeon, this ancient, alien fish hauled up through the spell of language, all glassy-eyed, mouth gulping air. . . it was real to me.  Its solid, scaled, bony body, its position of helplessness… I was there, on that river, touching that sturgeon. But the room was not gone, my classmates seated around me remained, Susan’s voice was clear.  I existed in two places at once.

What should I say? That I felt compassion for this fish?  That I sensed its fear? That though a silent and strange species, I felt a connection?  None of this gets to the totality I felt, to the way my mind reached out and the world rushed in, numinous, swirling around me as the Hudson swirled around this fish.

Why do we read?  Because the ability of stories to transport the reader compels us.  Because the incantatory power of language sings us out of our slumbers and into the circle.  And perhaps, as for me, reading stories and encountering characters makes us better people, and holds a religious power over us.  Maybe it is all these things at once. I read because an ancient fish connects me to the world. I read because authors preach a universal gospel in a church that requires no faith but what I have in mankind.

“Only Connect”: On using dialogical methods to reform the toxic culture of communication

Adobe Spark (1)Today was Sunday, December 30,2018.  As is their wont at the end of a year, the Sunday morning news programs ran their “year in review” discussions.  Face the Nation ended their broadcast with several of the pundits lamenting the loss of common experiences.  Locked behind doors, our screens as portals to personal experiences, or to siloed experiences, we lack the kind of publicly shared, common wonderings that used to create, if not unity, at least a sense of community.  Where once we couldn’t walk down a street and look in windows to see 90% of people watching their radios as FDR delivered a fireside chat, we now sit behind LCD screens in gated communities, blithely unaware of our own privilege and prejudices.

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This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been on this path since the 80s when Newt Gingrich leveraged the power of dissent and gamesmanship to rise to power and, according to Atlantic journalist McKay Coppins, “turned national politics and congressional politics into team sport” (NPR, 2018)  But perhaps 2018 made us understand just how far we’ve gone and forced us to decide whether we want to return to the sort of caring community that listens more than it talks; or whether we want to continue building walls that shelter our fragile opinions, blocking the voices of those who think differently from us and echoing back the words of those with whom we agree.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Waterson

I’ve already made that decision.  Students in my classroom are engaged in dialogical learning throughout the year.  Weekly discussions using the Touchstone Discussion Project, regular Socratic Seminars (I don’t recall where this came from, but whoever did it, I thank you), dialectical notebooks, novel chats, pinwheel discussions (and this example), Literary 3x3s (pages 35–44…Thanks to Dan Ryder @wickeddecent) and the occasional creative dialog  (example here) complete the repertoire. (I leave out here my over 25 years experience as a coach of speech and debate, though surely it is foundational in my use of these methods.)

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Example of an extended, group Literary 3×3 as a reflection on my English Class, 2016

When students learn to listen deeply to their peers (or the works of the authors we study), when they come to class prepared to discuss the texts and issues at hand in a culture of cooperative communication, when they learn that disagreements are chances to understand rather than chances to dig their heels in deeper, when they practice the difficult but necessary task of listening to all ideas, to bearing the silences that naturally populate such conversations as everyone contemplates new and challenging ideas…when all this happens, we learn to open ourselves to new ideas.  This openness develops into a wide and diverse marketplace of ideas where we do not throw rotten tomatoes or nasty tweets at each other.  We toss our opinions into this marketplace so that others can engage, play with, and further develop or respectfully refute our ideas.  Learning, then, is not simply a give and take, not merely the “Chalk and Talk” (though there is a place for that).  Instead, it is a dialogue, an iterative, developmental process in which we all grow and benefit, including the teacher.

(To see this culture far more developed than my own, visit the work of Monte Syrie at https://www.letschangeeducation.com/ )

And while I am an English teacher, such methods are not the sole purview of my discipline.  Courteous, kind, constructive dialogue is at the heart of all learning.  Socrates surely demonstrated this, but the best of our parents or relatives do this as well.  There must be compassionate ears and hearts behind the work we do as students and teachers if we are to reform the toxic culture of our current national dialogue…if we are to (re)learn that we must talk, listen, and seek to “only connect” lest we “surely . . .  hang separately.”

 

If We’re Not Teaching the Self, What’s the Use?

I recently attended a conference at The Perkiomen School in East Greenville, PA on “Disrupting Education.”  Sure, it’s almost a cliché by now, this disruption thing.  However, when we’re disrupting the thing I do for a living, I’m listening.  I’m not one to sit on my laurels, trot out yesteryear’s lessons and hit replay.  If I’m not making my students uncomfortable in what they think they know, if I’m not “disrupting” their weltanschauung, I’m not doing my job correctly.

The conference attracted me not only because of the title.  Their keynote speaker was Ted Dintersmith, and I’ve been eager to see him since viewing Most Likely to Succeed and reading his latest book, What School Could Be.  Schools around the nation and world have looked to MLTS as an example of what’s possible in reimagining education, and countless educational leaders are using What School Could Be to help them identify models for redefining their own districts or schools.

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Dintersmith’s vision is not without its critics.  The more Marxist among them point to his history as a venture capitalist, to his links with big money and corporate big-wigs.  And then there are the more generic arguments that simply identify his vision as naive and too far outside the vision of the “Public School.”

After hearing Mr. Dintersmith last week, I don’t believe his critics.  He is as concerned about the state of public education as the best parents I’ve ever heard, and he is quite aware of the pressures and limitations put on schools.  His book is overwhelmingly focused on innovative public schools, and his vision is solidly founded upon his recognition that perhaps the most valuable courses he ever took (he has advanced degrees in physics even though he went into venture capitalism) were those in his BA–English.

But aside from the STEAM focus and the Project Based Learning methodology that Mr. Dintersmith points to over and over in his work, it is quite clear when you hear him speak that what really matters to him is relevant, real work that meets, in a very “Glasserian sense,” the needs of the learner.  (See my notes from his Keynote Q&A below.)

Dintersmith Notes

Furthermore, Dintersmith’s insistence on a learner-centered experience adds more energy to the tidal wave of articles and ideas hitting my newsfeeds in the past month on the importance of helping students develop a deep sense of identity and purpose in their work.  In fact, I attempted to capture, in a prominent way, this very notion in my notes when, in the upper right I posit the importance of a curriculum of self-knowledge surrounding the questions of “Who am I? What will I do? and Why does it matter?”

For most English teachers, such a focus is nothing new.  My own students have journeyed through a unit addressing the question of “Who am I?” with texts from Aristotle, Hume, Descartes, Edgar Allan Poe,  Jack Bowen, the existentials, Prof. William Cronon, even The Matrix.  While at first confused by the deep and often skeptical look at the nature of their being, students come to understand the way in which their choices and actions help define who they are and why living a life of intention matters.

And even at a systemic level, such a focus on the philosophical is not new to American public education.  Almost since its inception, our system of education has counted among its other goals (the Civic and Economic) a weak devotion to the development of a child’s highest personal talents.  What is new, however, is the preponderance of work currently being done to focus us far more on helping students develop a clearer answer to the question of “Who am I?”  See, for example: Prof. Yuval Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyChristian Talbot’s recent post referencing Harari’s work.  Will Richardson and the Modern Learners: “The Most Important Skill for the Future: Being Human.  And Scott Barry Kaufman’s recent Scientific American Article on Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence

Kaufman’s article is particularly interesting in that he is updating and reconsidering the work of Abraham Maslow.  Not just Maslow’s hierarchy/pyramid (a mischaracterization of Maslow’s work, Kaufman argues) but all his work on self-actualization.  The resulting article ought to be read by every adult concerned with the health, education, and well-being of our children.

The upshot here is not that we are entering a new “me” generation where it’s all about the self.  Rather, what does matter is that in a world that is ever more connected, ever more intrusive into our time and our lives; and in schools where status and ranking continue to rule over learning as the goal of education…in such a state we are recognizing the psychic fallout of such pressures and concerns.

In the end, all of us involved in education need to take a good long look at ourselves and what our systems of testing, ranking, ordering, filing, and grading have done to the humanity we (ought to) bring to our work, and the humanity we seek to engender in our children.  Such concerns are not mutually exclusive of deep, focused, academic work.  Indeed, they are the very precursors and foundations that allow for such work to happen in the first place. Univ. of Pennsylvania professor and proponent of positive psychology Dr. Martin Seligman put it best:

Those who regularly read my irregular posts are familiar with my take on the three main goals of American Public Education.  We educate for economic reasons: A secure economy is the foundation of a capitalist democracy, and when the economy goes south, our democracy suffers.  (Yes, I realize it’s a rather sanguine view.)  We educate for civic reasons:  to create a populous capable of continuing this, the world’s longest running experiment in self-rule.  But the third goal, the personal ends of education, is often overlooked.  And it is this goal, especially in a world as uncertain, shifting, and “disruptive” as ours, that commands us to know ourselves better, and in doing so, to better adapt to the systems we create, and how they create us.

Thus, I’ll be exploring the importance of ontology and self-knowledge as fields of study further over the coming months.

How to be Astounded: Volume 1

There are days in the classroom when the experiences my students and I have designed are simply magical, days when the lessons melt from hard, crystallized structures into liquid understandings and we all just float along with the learning.  These are the days where my hard work and planning pay off.  They are rewarding.

howard-zeidermanAnd then there are days where the structures of the class, the routines, and the community are so synergistic that the results are far greater than the sum of their parts…even if it is just for one of the students in the class.

Below I recount, via a series of e-mails, one such day where the class community and the individual, through the method, taught us all more than we ever thought we’d learn.
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(Just a bit of context:  I’ve been using the Touchstones Discussion Project for over 20 years.  I am a member of the board of directors, and I have countless such stories of how it fosters meaningful, thoughtful, dialogue and of how students of any age discover the power they hold in themselves to use their own voices as pathways to powerful learning.  But this story…this is special.)
The E-mail Thread

11/2
Stef, Howard,  [Stef Takacs, Howard Zeiderman:  Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project]

Last year in my HS English classes I began the process of converting from a grading system (which I’ve used for the entirety of my career) to a “grade-less” system in which students are provided ample feedback on substantive work, are asked to reflect on their work and their learning at least once / week, and are then asked to conduct a “grading” conference with me at the end of the MP, because no matter how much I agree with Alfie Kohn, Dylan Wiliam, and others in the “gradeless/scoreless” camp, I still have to put some letter on a grade report.
I’ve outlined what students should include in their conferences, but I’ve not created a recipe for them to follow in terms of how the conference should be conducted.  They are simply told to use the documents I provided regarding how the system works to choose a grade and provide support for that grade in the form of hard evidence and warrants for the validity and applicability of that evidence.  So some students will sit with me and an outline and take me through their documents, others will create a video in which they discuss their progress, and still others find more creative ways to go about it (eg., an “application for a grade”).
To the point, I had a face-to-face conference with a student who has a speech impediment (stuttering).  He had written out a document and moved through it with minimal problem.  When he came to a discussion of Touchstones and the growth he felt (and really, learning that is felt…I know it’s subjective, but learning is a lived experience, and as I do not keep (would not know how to keep) a data driven record of all student’s definite improvement in Touchstones that didn’t in some way alter the dynamics of the discussion, I’ll simply go along with “I felt…” statements for Touchstones)…anyway, he felt that he had grown immensely.  What he wrote is below, but let me preface it with this:  T___ came to me at the beginning of the year because he was worried about Touchstones discussions and participation, given his speech impediment.  I told him  I do not grade these discussions and only look for growth over time at the personal and group level.  So here’s what he wrote:
“Out of all the things we have done so far, I am most happy with the results of Touchstones.  I expected to not participate much, if even at all.  But I felt drawn to the discussions and thought it might be a good way to initiate some self-improvement.  To my own surprise, I really enjoy the Touchstones system.  I have been a talkative member of the group and my input has always been of meaning to the discussion.  As well I help keep the discussion active and moving forward.  I think I am at my best when participating in Touchstones Discussions.”
I know, from years of speech and debate coaching, that students with speech impediments are often some of the most determined when it comes to the work they do in public speaking, but I never had a student with an impediment like T___’s take part in Touchstones.  His reaction above is a testament to his own drive, something I obviously wouldn’t have known were I simply tallying points on quizzes and tests and “averaging” them out for a grade.  But moreover, it is a testament to the “system,” as T___ calls it, of Touchstones and system’s ability  to promote a space in which all members of all abilities are welcome, in which all ideas are considered, and in which all members can realize growth in ways the “system” of school generally ignores.
Thank you again,

 

Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_________________________________________________________
(Reply from Howard Zeiderman, Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project)
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Howard Zeiderman, CoFounder of Touchstones Discussion Project

Dear T___,
I am very grateful for your thoughts about Touchstones. At 6 I developed a terrible stutter which continued until high school. Even as a grad student at Princeton I could still have great difficulty saying my name. And that still persists. In confronting stuttering you must master many synonyms but the one phrase that is unique is one’s name. And of course, when you are desperate to speak, as when you are asked or expected to share your name, you frequently bite your tongue which makes it even worse.
My stutter was not the reason I created Touchstones but it certainly made me aware how hard it is to speak in general even without a stutter and how one crosses an abyss whenever one tries. I applaud your courage in trying and your trust in others to have made that very vulnerable attempt. It is far greater than I ever undertook.
You are a beacon for others as in this new world that is emerging in which each of us must insist on having a voice coupled with ears that strive to listen and make room for others.
I look forward to our paths intersecting,
Best,
Howard
_________________________________________________________
My forwarding of Howard Zeiderman’s letter to T___’s Mom and Dad:

Mr. and Mrs. E___:

Mr. Heidt here…T___’s Gifted Honors English teacher.  I wanted to make you aware of something that arose this past week.
On Thursday, T___ and I sat down for an end-of-the-marking-period conference.  As you may be aware through my initial e-mail in late August, Meet the Teacher Night, or through T___ himself, my class is largely “gradeless.”  Thus, these MP-end conferences are like annual reviews in the work world.  They carry a huge impact.  T___ was prepared and presented in a professional manner.
During his conference, he referenced his work in our weekly Touchstones discussions.  What he wrote was moving, and I asked if I could send it to one of the founders of the project and the board of directors (I’m a member of the board as well).  He permitted such.
I know T___ is quite capable and that he has learned ways to cope with his impediment; it does not define him.  I didn’t send his testimony because I was amazed by him.  I sent it because of his honesty.
What you’ll find above is my letter to the board and above that a reply from Howard Zeiderman, one of the co-founders and the man who has led the project over the past 30 years.   I have known Howard Zeiderman for almost a decade.  I did not know what he recounts below.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_______________________________________
The Reply from T___’s Mother

Dear Mr. Heidt,

Thank you so very much for sharing this. T____ has talked with me recently about having this discussion with you, about the gradeless system, and about how proud he was of his work and progress.
That’s some amazing feedback from the Touchstones founder and I’m so grateful you shared it with us. I’m very proud of T___ and the person he’s growing up to be. He’s insightful and had a great deal of both empathy and introspection. Here you’ve provided an example of how he’s applied those things to himself and his own learning.
Thank you so much for creating a safe and positive learning environment for T__.  I believe that vulnerability is the key to a fulfilling and happy life and you’ve given him a chance to safely try and succeed.
With gratitude, Barbara E___

 

Astounded Every Day.

In 1999, after just a year of using Touchstones, I wrote the company via e-mail to tell them how much I appreciate their product.  I tried to couch my wonder at the project into as small a space as possible.

What resulted is a statement of my teaching philosophy.  Where it came from, I cannot recall.  But then that is the magic of words–we often know they came from us, and yet we do not know where they came from.

I’ve never been hesitant to utter these words, and I thank the Touchstones Discussion Project for helping me to find them and set them free into the world.  I think more teachers should have such succinct statements of philosophy:

“Touchstones is a perfect match with my philosophy of education:  When we trust our students, empower them to take charge of their learning, and offer them the necessary guidance, they will astound us.”

This story I’ve recounted…this is just one of years’ worth of astounding words, acts, and learning that I’ve witnessed in Touchstones Discussions.  More children deserve classrooms where they can and can be astonished.  Touchstones is one huge step in that direction.