Ambition, Discovery: Writing, and Teaching, and Learning


I’ve recently read more than my share of blog posts and articles on “Writing as Discovery.”  The sense is not new, of course, but the renewed (if that’s what it is) interest in writing towards these ends is refreshing.

As a teacher for almost 25 years, and an attendant at numerous conferences or workshops at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, my pedagogical quiver contains scores of methods for engaging students in writing to learn or writing as discovery.  This is informal writing, and primary among the methods I use is freewriting as a means for writing to think, and writing to learn.  It’s all about writing as discovery and the methods all rely on a mindset of “just getting it down.”

I’ve read Paul Thomas’s post about the dangers of “writing recipes,” and I appreciate the description of his process.  I suppose one thing to admit if we’re going to dive into writing and discovery with our students is that we as teachers must also be writers and see ourselves in that light. Further, we need to immerse ourselves in the scholarship surrounding creativity and creative production.  Doing so will give us a familiarity with the creative act (and writing of all types is, certainly, creative) and, more important, the vocabulary with which to discuss the act.

My goal as a teacher is not to create writers.  By the time students get to me they have enough facility with language for me to call them writers (ie., people capable of writing).  But if I’m going to get them to see themselves as more than writers in a utilitarian sense, if I want them to believe they can use writing to affect deep thought and emotion in their audience, then I have to teach them how to think in “writerly ways.” (With this term I’m riffing off of Nigel Cross’s work in the UK and his promotion of Design as a discipline for study and the creation of “designerly minded” learners.)   That is, I have to help them develop the mindset and questioning techniques of writers.  Any teacher who seeks to accomplish such must see herself as a writer in that sense as well.  In that, she must be one of the “teachers of ambition” (a great article from Ed Week 2004 who not only “teach English” but who live the lives of writers:  watching, observing, and questioning the world in intensely curious ways…in  manners similar to scientists, but who report on their findings in ways utterly different than scientists.  (Though seriously, it’s freakishly frightening that our theories of the end of the universe are that it will expand into a cold, whimpering “emptiness” and T.S. Eliot writes more or less the same (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”).

So if it’s teaching writing as discovery, then I’m making sure I’m constantly doing PD (BARD!!!!!) in writing pedagogy. I’m reading books like Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing (a personal favorite by Ray Bradbury); any books on writing Pedagogy like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, A Community of Writers; books on the creative process like A Whack on the Side of the Head, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (both by Roger von Oech), Thinkertoys, Five Star Mind, A Whole New Mind, and countless others.  And, of course, countless articles, etc.

To my teacher friends, perhaps it isn’t all that helpful, to say, go read all these things, go shift your weltanschauung.  But seriously, regardless of what you teach, if you’re not intensely curious about it, then you ought not teach it.  And students know this.  They know that the best teachers of a subject, the ones who go beyond the content and who craft a compelling story about why living a life that reads and writes the world through a mindset of science, math, words, etc…those are the teachers who transfer the sparks of passion, who offer learning as a gift and not a mere duty.  And that gift grows in the student, for they begin to discover their world expanding through mathematical patterns, scientific processes, musical harmonies, or words…”mere words.”

But maybe the best way to teach writing as discovery is to just share our own writing with students, to show them where we discovered things and how that happened.  To turn the classroom into a congregation worshiping at the miracle of creation, whatever form that creation may take.  For me, it is words, and not merely their consumption through reading books.  My classroom is a place to marvel at the utterly unique pairings, juxtapositions, and random wonders of words in all the varied forms and structures we have created.  It is a place to linger over those forms and structures, and to revel in the joy of new forms of expression we discover along the way towards a better understanding of who we are as human beings.


Education as a Gift Economy

The Gift
I originally posted this piece in 2012 to the group blog “Cooperative Catalyst” (a wonderful site where I first met David Loitz, John Spencer, Paul Freedman (of the Salmonberry School) and other amazing educators.  Having just read another amazing article by Arthur Chiaravalli on his journey to gradelessness, I was reminded of the notion of teaching and learning as a type of economy.  I’m reviving this article here as I’d like to think it might spark some discussion regarding the “economies” of education, especially given all the recent and growing criticisms of the “neoliberal agenda” in the realm of education.  (See here, here, and, most importantly in our Trumpian world, here for more on this interesting critique.)

Merry Christmas…

Einstein Teaching

In a monthly meeting at my middle school, we were discussing the issue of grades and homework.  I thought this bit from Prof. Einstein might offer some way of illuminating part of the discussion we were having, but it has led me even further down a wondrous rabbit hole, so far it demanded a blog post of me.

I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore.  We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grown into good people.  Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”

As regards Einstein’s observation, the assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.”  Too often students do see study as a duty and only that.  It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light:  light for ourselves, but also light for the community.  Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world.

You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing teaching as a gift.  Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?”  Which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing.  The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  

The GiftHyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy.  Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation):  For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the “paradox of the gift”: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.

“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….”  Tell me that’s not teaching.  I don’t impart knowledge.  No.  It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.”  Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience.  Teaching is a strange gift, though, in that I feel no sense of loss, nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing.  I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening the genius, if you will.  And it is that sense of genius that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.

Back to Einstein, then:  “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….”  It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.”  When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity.  But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”

I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy–that one need not ever accept a gift.  Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model where a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift.  But oh!  How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.


Design Thinking For College Admissions

FullerI received the letter below from one of the counselors at my HS today.  As a recap, I piloted a Design Thinking and Open Source Learning class last year for 13 students.  For several reasons it didn’t fill up enough this year, but with the endorsement below, I’m hoping to be off and running like nobody’s business next year.

The course referenced in the student letter below was a hybrid between a course based in design thinking and one that was based on the work of Don Wettrick and his Innovation and Open-Source learning course at Noblesville HS.

The upshot of the letter?  The student gets into a select class in design thinking for engineers at Syracuse BECAUSE she had a class in Design Thinking in HS.  img_3055

Dear Mrs.___,

HELLO THERE!!! How are you? I’m so sorry I didn’t email you sooner, college has been so extremely busy, and I have way less time than I thought I would. Classes just started yesterday, and it’s overwhelming, but I am so ready for the next four years, and honestly, that’s thanks to PVHS for preparing me. 🙂

I remember coming into your office all the time last year panicking, but I can honestly say I made the right choice. I live in the engineering dorm at Syracuse, and my whole hall became really good friends right away (which for some reason hasn’t happened in other halls). As I spend more time with these kids and get to know them, I’m realizing how similar we all are, and all my doubts about whether I picked the best school for me and very quickly fading away. I wish I could have told myself last year to just CALM DOWN, because everything truly does work out in the end. XD

In addition to the residence halls, the college itself is really really cool too. It’s much more progressive than I imagined it, and for the most part, they’re really good at addressing certain situations appropriately and with grace. Everyone feels really safe here, and I’m so grateful for that.
And I’m not sure if you remember, but I was freaking out last year because my design thinking class dropped my GPA (it was prep) and I didn’t think I’d get a lot of scholarships. I want to tell you this because I feel like a lot of incoming seniors NEED to hear this, so if you could please please please tell them about my experience, I honestly think it might help them decide what electives to take.
I am majoring in chemical engineering. The scholarship that I got at Syracuse is called the Engineering and Computer Science Leadership Scholars Program. When I got into the program, I was required to take this class called ECS 100 Seminar…I had no clue what it was, but when I showed up for the class I found out that it’s a new program they’re trying out, and it is COMPLETELY DESIGN THINKING BASED. We all need to find a problem in society, and as future engineers, design some sort of solution. We go through the entire design process and constantly revise. At the end of the semester, we present a prototype and a presentation to the class. We don’t get homework, and class time is devoted to working on the project. The class isn’t graded on a grade level…you basically get an A based on how well you work as a group, attendance, and participation. They want us to utilize all our resources and come up with creative and innovative solutions on our own, and without a real template. In addition to this kind of exposure, we get a lot of money, a paid research position, and invitation to the honors program, and priority consideration for study abroad, among other benefits. It is SUPER cool, and I will definitely let you know how it goes. It’s amazing to me that a college is trying this hard to change with the times, and I’m really glad to go to a school that does this.
HOWEVER, I honestly think part of the reason I got into this program is because I took design thinking. I was talking to the admissions director because they handpicked the recipients, and they told me that the fact that I had experience taking this type of class really stood out because although engineering students need to know about the design process, a lot of them just take math and science classes and aren’t well-rounded. I REALLY wish someone had told me this, but if someone ever asks about it, here’s a first-hand experience 😉
Thank you for everything you’ve helped me with for the last four years, and I REALLY look forward to college and keeping in touch with you!

“Doing School Different”

Our new superintendent has initiated her tenure through this post’s titular phrase.  While I’m not enamored of the phrase “doing school,” I’m all for “thinking different”  and I hope my fellow teachers don’t, as is to often the case, approach this invitation from our superintendent with the perennial “change fatigue.”   However, we’re two days into the student year, and five days into the teacher year and the #(hashtag) we have on twitter for doing school different in my district is populated by a mere 15 tweets.

If we’re “doing school different,” then the royal “we” on #pvsddoschooldifferent represents a population of four.  And sure…it’s early in the year.  But what better time to try to alter the approach to education than now, the beginning, the point at which we set the culture, set the expectations, set the course, and steel ourselves for the journey ahead?  If we expect to wait and see, if we expect that we’ll be ready at some later point to “do school different” we are sorely mistaken and ignore the vast experience we have of how school years move into our lives, dominate our time, and leave us exhausted, treasuring the growth and binding the wounds the journey brings.

There is no better time than now to “do school different.”  (Again, I’m going to apologize for the phrasing.  It sits poorly with me.  It’s not that I mind it’s echoing of the famous Apple ad campaign for the iMac. It’s just the “doing school” part.  But I can live with it, I can make it work, I CAN do school different, because I believe that if I don’t, I assure myself of irrelevancy.  Over a decade ago the vice president of Microsoft’s Education division opened a talk to an auditorium full of teachers with the words, “Your students are learning without you.”  It’s more true now than ever.)

My distric has a superintendent who is inviting us to take risks, to take risks, and to turn the failures that will inevitably derive from those risks into positive learning experiences rather than marks against our person and profession.  The invitation is a clean, fresh, airy elixir that blows away the stagnant, hanging fog of “the way we’ve always done things because we’re good enough.”

I don’t know how many of my fellow teachers are on social media like twitter in order to build professional learning networks. I’d venture from the quick poll our Superintendent took at our opening day convocation that it’s a small percentage.  I also don’t know how many of us are blogging about our experiences in the classroom.  Given the time that takes, I’d imagine it’s a similarly small percentage.

Maybe that’s where we start…we start with “transparency.”  We start by breaking down the walls of the classroom and inviting the world inside.  That takes courage, it takes a willingness to hang one’s professional self in the open air and to potentially suffer the “slings and arrows” of whatever the blogosphere/twitterverse will launch at it.  From my own experience, these places are far more helpful than harmful.  In fact, they represent the most intense and informative Prof. Learning I’ve done in almost a decade.

Change and IrrelevanceAt the top of this paragraph I offer the words of General Eric Shinseki.  I offer them not to motivate through fear but rather to remind us that teachers are responsible for the future.  The future is not a place and it is not a time, it is the minds we help grow through learning each day in our classrooms.  The future is not an abstract concept, it is real, and it is human, and it is changing.  It will change without us, in spite of us, and regardless of us, for we, through our invention and innovation, have given it that power.  If we do not change ourselves, we develop little in our class but mediocrity and the increasing urge for our students to go elsewhere to find culture in which they can cultivate their genius.

(For many, the question is, I believe, not “Why should I change?” but rather, “How do I change?”  For a good start on this, I suggest the book whose cover appears in the featured image of this blog post (AJ Juliani and John Spencer’s Empower).  I also suggest reading this blog post from AJ Juliani:  Poking Holes in Pockets of Innovation. )

“What’s that Type of Learning Look Like?”

4be46c84fe8fed255075caec5ad84cc3-literacyLike many other teachers, I use my summer to reset, refresh, and recharge for the coming year.  For me, that means I finally get the time to engage with the words and the voices of people who are interested in shifting the way we–I hate this term–“do school.”  However, for the past three years (more or less ever since I moved from 21 years as a middle-school teacher to my current high-school position) my head has been swimming in the voices and words of these people.  You see, I’ve not been able to smoothly negotiate the tremendous chasm between the culture of learning in a middle school and the culture of learning at a high school.

And the differences are as vast as I suggest.  The pressure for grades, the pressure for academic standing, the pressure for students’ and teachers’ time, the pressure for (insert your own observation here)–it all just adds up to one big ball of stress for students and staff alike.

Of course, given what we know about learning at the level of biology, a little stress is a good thing.  Raising student’s level of concern, putting tasks just out of reach of their present capabilities but providing the scaffolding and assistance to make the stretch–these are good uses of minimal stressors.  They help attach emotional tags to the content we want students to retain.  But the stress I’ve sensed in my own students?  No.  That’s different.  Flat out different.  And it isn’t healthy.

Not only isn’t it healthy at the biological level for students, it isn’t healthy for the system.  These stressors, at least as I’ve observed them in my own district, have had the effect of pushing the act of teaching at the high-school level back into the “sit and get” methods I’d thought we’d moved out of decades ago.

So the culture shock for me?  It lingers.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we know what works and doesn’t work best for learners, and yet we continue to create classrooms that lock students into rows of hard plastic desks, ask them to pay attention for 45 minutes, and then send them off with homework for another few hours.  Add it all up, and it is easy to see how some of my students are up until midnight or later.

If, as someone has said (apparently not William Butler Yeats), “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” then the majority of my students were all wet.  And sure, students need to fill their pail.  There’s a joy in finding things out, whether on your own or from the brilliant and engaging lecture of a scholar on Chinese history post-WWII.  But that’s substantively different than filling a pail for the better part of 7-hour sedentary days in rigid desks in rigid rows inside a rigid system.

All of which is to say, essentially…

I’ve had it!

I’ve had it with a system that knows what works best, or at very least, knows what doesn’t work very well and what is not healthy for students, and yet we perpetually roll out the same unhealthy, non-pedagogically-sound methods.  My own district is an excellent example, if only because we have a list of goals (see image below) created in 1994 that were, and largely remain, forward-thinking goals. And yet we’ve lost our way. Where once we forged ahead, driven by a community-created vision and mission, we now find ourselves wandering back into the future, our students once again little more than pails hoping to tip over into the lottery of Advanced Placement classes and colleges of choice.

You see, we’re good.  By any standard measure–SAT scores, APs taken and passed, State Standardized Tests–we’re good.  But good isn’t good enough for the future our students are facing.  “Good” doesn’t help us help students learn how to become self-directed learners capable of finding and solving real and relevant problems in their community or the world.

And if scholars like Tony Wagner, Young Zhao, Sir Ken Robinson, Grant Lichtman, Thomas Armstrong, George Couros and countless others are correct, it is that final skill set, the skill set of the innovator and entrepreneur (perhaps), that is clearly what we need to develop with our students.

But look at that last goal:  “Self-directed learners who accept responsibility for their own physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being, make decisions independently, develop life skills, adapt to an ever-changing world, and are accountable for their actions.”  We wrote that in 1994!  (Yeah, I know, Postman and Weingartner wrote about it in the 1970s…and Dewey wrote about it in the 1920s…are you sensing something here?) I can tell you, neither my district, in all our prescience, nor most districts I know, especially at the HS level, have achieved this.

So it is this frustration that guided my discussion with my superintendent.  (And this meeting was just one of many, both in person and online, I’ve had with my administrators to seek means for change in the district.)

IMG-9054 copy

Mindmap of the discussion with my superintendent.

My superintendent and I have a strong relationship.  Several years ago, at her insistence, I left my self-created middle-school humanities class and developed our 9th and 10th grade gifted English program (a work still very much in progress).  Her encouragement and belief in me, as well as the monetary support for attending numerous conferences, was invaluable in my (somewhat successful) transition.

Thus, the conversation I had with her was frank, lengthy, and filled with a lot of affirmation.  And at first I was feeling rather positive about the possibilities this fall. I’ve asked us to host a community viewing of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed and/or a community gathering to watch the XQ Superschools Live Network Takeover on September 8th.  That’ll start the ball of change rolling and hopefully help us build some of the innovator’s mindset in the staff and community.

But we can’t/don’t stop there because in November my high school is hosting George Couros for the day.  He’ll be speaking about his ideas and his book and helping the high-school teachers work through ideas as to how those concepts can be realized within their own classrooms.

And then we…um…well, actually, that’s it.  All that build up and drive and then…we stop. Strangely(?) that’s sort of where our conversation stopped because my superintendent said, “Ok,  So what does that type of learning look like?”

“What does that type of learning look like?”

Yes, I responded.  Yes I talked about self-directed learners (pointing, OF COURSE, to our sixth goal from 1994!), Deeper Learning20time projects, Don Wettrick’s Innovation and Open Source Learning class, project- and design-based learning, XQ Superschools, Geniconsulting. I even spoke copiously about the full-time work I’m doing this summer at the educational design consultancy, PlusUs.

Yes, I made the case that we need a systemic change, not just change in certain classrooms, because the grounding philosophy of schools is so “off.”   (Larry Geni makes this argument far more eloquently than I am doing here.  These are his words below.)

The purpose of school as we currently practice it…

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 11.53.43 AM

The purpose of school as we ought to understand it…

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 11.54.51 AM


And, yes, I spoke about the Maker movement, and I nailed the reference to

AJ Juliani and John Spencer’s Empower: What Happens When Students Own their Learning (especially the last 30 pages or so) and so much else. I’d venture a guess that I’d left very few rocks of progressive education unturned.  And, given that one of the final comments I received was:  “I’d love to see your type of learning, this type of learning become more contagious,” I have to say that we have some common ground.  Perhaps things are looking up.  Perhaps empowerment, true learner empowerment is in play for this year.


So what does this learning look like? It looks like the future.  It looks like a juggernaut.  It looks inevitable, unstoppable, and, yes, to those who are just sitting around waiting, it’s frightening.  All change is frightening, not because change itself is frightening, but because it is always associated with loss.  Loss of space, loss of comfort, loss of the story we (teachers) have been telling ourselves and the country for so many years.

But there’s certainly one thing more frightening than change.  Irrelevancy.  I don’t want my district to find itself there.  I don’t want any district to find itself there.  But if we don’t change something fundamental about how we view the purpose of school and about what we do in and how we “do school,” we’ll rapidly discover what irrelevancy looks like.

(Post Script)

Grant Lichtman recently responded to my query about what to do in the face of the “What’s that type of learning look like?” question.  He noted that it seems like the district is in a perfect place for a design thinking challenge:  “How might we learn what deeper learning looks like in practice?”  I like this far more than the ominous image of the future looming over us.  As a design thinker, I should have seen this opportunity.  (They are everywhere, right Don Wettrick?)