Monthly Archives: June 2012

Gearing Up for Calderwood Fellowship: Reviewing Berthoff – Part 2

This summer, I have the great fortune of participating in the Calderwood Fellowship for the Teaching of Writing at UMass Boston. It is an exciting opportunity to conduct some funded action research over the course of a year. It starts with a week-long, intensive seminar in July which is just around the corner. In preparation for the seminar, we were asked to read a handful of texts.

The first one I opted to read  was the short article “Learning the Uses of Chaos” by Professor Ann Berthoff. This is the second of a two-part reflection on my reading.

While I have long been an advocate of asking students to engage in meta-cognitive writing. More recently, I have been playing around with the idea of narrating the work or process, as explained by writer and software developer John Udell, author of Practical Internet Groupware. It is not necessarily all that new or radical an idea. In fact, it seems that Udell even picked up a thread from biologist Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience. By demonstrating the process in an open, confessional way, access to the creator’s mind is established. That is not only what teachers must do for students but ask students to do it too. By laying the process bare, in all of its chaotic mess, almost like a journalist, we clarify it for others and ourselves. It is a great kind of writing, albeit not composing, that provides a window into the head of the thinker. That window is what all learners need more than anything.

When Berthoff begins to engage the idea of context most directly, I kept returning to the Robert Frost piece “Education by Metaphor.” As challenging as that text can be, it holds great wisdom, providing an anchor for how we see the world. As Berthoff, writes on page 3, “We know reality not directly but by means of the meanings we make,” all I could think of was changing the word “meanings” to “metaphors.” I also kept feeling that in her discussion of contexts that it was really more about reading than anything. Yet reading and writing are also so intimately commingled that they too are nearly one.

Still, a key concept to making meaning from chaos for Berthoff returns to ambiguity. Possibly my second favorite sentence in the article is a partially borrowed one from page 4, “We must realize ourselves and make dramatically evident to our students is what I.A. Richards means when he calls ambiguities the “hinges of thought (1959, p. 24).” What great phrase, “hinges of thought.” Moreover, I found Berthoff’s challenge to teachers to ask better questions particularly resonant. In that last few years, I have migrated to making the vast majority of my comments on student papers simply questions. While I may fall victim to “What do you mean hear?” I am definitely trying to compel students to answer the questions I pose, as well as clarify. Additionally, I am hoping to reignite the thinking that may have sparked their idea in the first place. Always considering how to reframe questions is a good takeaway for me.

I have been chasing methods of helping students to ask themselves better questions for some time now. The goal has always been helping them to develop quality questions in such a way that their answers will ultimately help them construct their compositions. I often comment, “Writing essays in school is often about asking yourself really good questions and arranging the answers into a cohesive whole.” Adding to the question development kitbag is ongoing.

A small surprise for me was Berthoff’s transition into “interpretive paraphrase,” which I believe to be a great insight into how to guide student revision. By “continually asking ‘How does it change the meaning if I put it this way?’ — is of course a principle method of enquiry, but its importance for us in the composition classroom is that it teaches students to see relationships and to discover that that is what they do with their minds,” from page 4. Here Berthoff champions the idea that “Language is an exchange” and the importance of dialogue, also on page 4. It reminds me of how much of the benefit from taking any course is the social context. Similar to Vygotsky, Murray, and others, I am reminded of just how much it is in the conversations where the real meaning begins to emerge in thinking.

This left me quite fond of her page 4 ending, “Dialogue, that is to say, is essential to the making of meaning and thus to the learning to write. The chief use of chaos is that it creates the need for that dialogue.” Therefore, a teacher’s job is to help students spot ambiguity, like truffles in the forest, and help them learn to grow comfortable with a certain degree of chaos. I wonder if it is a concept that they may actually be more familiar with outside of school than in it, considering our modern lives. Perhaps getting students to see that idea as neither “isolated” or “absurd” is a key in reframing their relationship to the classroom, wherein the classroom becomes a context for not only making meaning but training for using writing as a means for navigating through the chaos that life presents. It is a lesson many modern adults could serve to learn as well.


Gearing Up for Calderwood Fellowship: Reviewing Berthoff – Part 1

This summer, I have the great fortune of participating in the Calderwood Fellowship for the Teaching of Writing at UMass Boston. It is an exciting opportunity to conduct some funded action research over the course of a year. It starts with a week-long, intensive seminar in July which is just around the corner. In preparation for the seminar, we were asked to read a handful of texts.

The first one I opted to read  was the short article “Learning the Uses of Chaos” by Professor Ann Berthoff. This is the first of a two-part reflection on my reading.

While the piece was written and delivered as an address in the 1979, there is something deeply prescient about our current context in Berthoff’s notion of  making use chaos. Contemporary life has forced all of us to grow a bit more comfortable with chaos than we might like.

She begins by poking at the concept of writing as a process and what that means. The writing process mantra was a pedagogical staple by the 1970s, yet Berthoff poses a valuable challenge to dig deeper into what the writing process actually means and what its value is.

Presenting the chart of Prewriting-Drafting-Revising-Editing-Publishing with some kind of clever graphic isn’t really enough for anyone. I have worked in schools where there seemed to be this assumption and expectation that hanging the poster on the wall  would somehow teach the students about writing. Perhaps it was only meant to be a reminder but to even think it all that  meaningful is a bit ridiculous.

Much of what Berthoff advocates is the need for teachers to constantly give students a sense of geography for the context in which writing is situated in their particular course, as well as how it might fit within a grander context of their lives. She spends a lot of time discussing contexts and their importance in how we all go about making meaning. I like the idea that composing is the process of making meaning. In fact, I like the idea of teaching writing as composition, the wrangling of an array of disparate elements into a newly synthesized thing. This appeals to the existential part of me.

On page two she explains, “Thinking, perceiving, writing are all acts of composing: any composition course should ensure that students learn the truth of this principle, that making meanings is the work of the active mind and is thus within their natural capacity.”

Writing and thinking are both recursive and discursive as many theorists suggest. They inform one another in such a symbiotic way that it can be impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. Yet distinguishing between writing and composing might actually be a helpful paradigm for students to understand. It is something that I have been considering for some time now.

I also love the aphorism, “Ex nihlo nihil fit: out of nothing, nothing can be made” she includes on the same page. She also explains how instructors must assist students to “reseeing the ways out of chaos.”

I often explain and model for my students that writing is a messy process. In fact, I tend to do a lot of guided prewriting with classes as a communal activity, where the group shouts out various ideas and answers to prompted questions while I capture them on the board at the front of the room. From there, we start to discuss how to classify, group, and construct some meaning out of the mess. It is usually after that point that I release them to begin writing independently.

Being a huge fan of the late Francis Christensen’s work, the generative nature of language and writing as Berthoff invokes it  appeals to me greatly. When Berthoff starts winding through some of the philosophical underpinnings of her claim, I was pleased to recognize other familiar names, particularly Sylvia Ashton-Warner‘s “key vocabulary,” which is a fascinating example of teaching young children how to own their language and use it with authority. I can’t help but think that Ashton-Warner and Berthoff were influential to much of David Bartholomae‘s Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts.

More interesting some of my most recent thinking was her comments on page 3, “Beginnings, for instance, should never be graded: identifying mistakes is irrelevant when we are teaching making a start at the process of making meanings.”

This idea is strong support for my recent thoughts on grading. I have been grading less student writing, but commenting and guiding development a lot more. In fact, it has inspired perhaps a better way for me to state my position on what I have been doing is to say, “Compositions are what is to be graded, not writing,” although I am not sure if that quite captures the idea completely yet.

“Learning to write means learning to tolerate ambiguity,” on page 3, might be my favorite statement in the whole article. I love that concept. It gets at another idea that I try to continually impress upon students. I encourage them to go hunting for uncertainty, because that is where they have the most work to do. It demands thinking. It is where the juice is for a writer. Too often students only see writing as the result. the product. That is in fact what we read, generally. This is a false idol of the classroom and a notion that teachers can implicitly endorse without realizing it. When writing s inadvertently presented as a product, it obscures the mess and chaos Berthoff is trying to capture regarding the process with the sophisticated polish of the finished piece.

DS106 Week 4 – Design: A Sansing Sprint

Inspired by my Slaughterhouse IV bunkmate Chad Sansing, I composed a Design Assignment Sprint. I spent a lot of time in tinkering in Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, which always leaves me wishing I could do more than I actually can.

Originally, I was eager to do the Minimalist Travel Poster Based on a Movie. The samples were so good. I was inspired. As I was thinking of places, I grew a little ironic and thought I would use the TARDIS from Doctor Who. While not exactly a travel destination, in and of itself, it is definitely a means to travel anywhere. That put me on a bit of a Doctor Who kick as I began playing around with different images.

I started working in Illustrator on the Minimalist Television/Movie Poster idea, working in simple block colors and trying to get essentially silhouette like blocks. To do this I snagged an full front image of the TARDIS from the web and used it to trace a series of rectangular shapes on another layer. Most of the work was using shapes occasionally switching to the pen tool for the mullions in the windows. Once I got the top third of it looking good, I was happy since I already had a layout idea.

Doctor Who Television Poster

For this piece, I wanted to keep things limited to as few colors as I could. The obvious color was the TARDIS blue, which required a little trial and error, because I wanted something a little greener with a distinctly unmistakable quality. Then I opted for a dark grey, not absolute black for the background, mostly because I thought it softened the contrast nicely.

It was at this point that I thought it would be kind of slick to have the light atop blazing. That just required some quick work with the one tool. Then I screened the opacity to make it actually look more like light projecting.

I considered adding some clever text, like “It’s bigger on the inside” or “Will take you anywhere in time and space,” but then scrapped the idea, liking the stark look like the example. Plus, I wanted it to be instantly obvious what the show was, but present in an interesting way.

From there, I completed my partial TARDIS in Illustrator so that I had a good block image of the whole thing from the front. I considered using a slightly turned view, with two visible sides, for the Travel Poster. However, that was going to be a whole lot more work, considering all multiplicity of angles that would be involved. I am sure that if I had more skills it would have been a lot faster and easier, but I am still working at that.

As you can see, I actually built a simplified Illustrator version of the poster, almost like a sketch. It also gave me a lot of the raw material that I would need to use in Photoshop. So, I kind of completed this assignment twice, as seems to be a habit of mine. It’s good practice, so I don’t mind so much.

TARDIS Travel Poster (sketch)

Once I had the completed Illustrator version, I started porting items over into Photoshop. For the Travel Poster, I wanted to have a much richer, textured quality than the stark version of the Television Poster look. To achieve the look, I started playing around with spray brush settings to splatter and dirty up the TARDIS image, which I dropped in as a primary layer. I also wanted there to be a sort of thematic visual continuity that echoed the stars.

TARDIS Travel Poster

For the background, I actually did a quick Google search for “cosmos,” grabbing a simple star-filled image. I imported it into Photoshop, stripped it of color, and tiled the image across the entire background layer. Once I had the starry look, I went back to the TARDIS and touched it up a little so that it didn’t disappear into the background. These two layers served as the primary components of the image.

This piece was definitely going to incorporate text, and I definitely took my inspiration from the Star Wars example. I tried to keep the font as clean and simple as I could, going with a sans serif like the Police Box lettering. The Police Box font was just Myriad Pro, which looked near perfect. Yet for the poster lettering at the bottom I chose Franklin Gothic Medium. It has a bolder and beefier look for the larger size I needed. I made sure that the spacing for both lines of text matched up in terms of length and used a simple horizontal line to break the text up clearly.

After pasting them from Illustrator into Photoshop, I used the wand tool to select all the letters by color so that I could use the same brush technique to splatter the letter fill. I switched between an orange and red, warmer colors to compliment the TARDIS blue I used. The coloring is even inspired by the recent show logo that was used for the newer series. The logo got a TARDIS-like makeover since Matt Smith took over the role.

One minor issue I toyed with was messing about with the background behind the lettering a little. I am not sure that it made that much difference, but I was trying to diffuse the starts and lettering some.

The last thing I did was throw off the symmetry, tilt the TARDIS to the right and arbitrary amount. I thought it was funny, in a supremely nerdy way to set the arbitrary amount at pi, 3.14.

If I count the two versions of the travel poster, that left me in need of another assignment. So I opted for more minimalism with an attempt at Iconic You.

Icon of Me

Although I have recently shaved at my daughter’s request, I generally have a beard or goatee. The goatee made for a better iconic look. Again, I used Illustrator, just some basic oval shapes and the pen tool. At this point I was getting a bit better using them. This ended up being a little more Homer-ish than I intended, but it got laughs from both my wife and daughter. My wife was the one who suggested I throw in the frown lines that are deep and seemingly permanent in my fivehead.