Tag Archives: Harold and the Purple Crayon

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.

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Diving into the DS106 Pool and Camping Magic Macguffin Style – Part 2

Watching Michael Wesch‘s lecture “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able” (part 1 and part 2) was a great return to some thought provoking material for me. I had the fortune of meeting Wesch briefly and seeing an earlier version of this lecture a couple of years a go at Alan November’s Building Learning Communities Conference in Boston.

It was the first time I got to go to the conference and Wesch was the whole reason that I fought for my district to send me. I had seen all his videos, read a lot of his work on his blog, and couldn’t wait to see what he would present. He presented what must have been an early version of this talk.

There is something heartrendingly beautiful about his story of spending time in Papua New Guinea and it being the harbinger of everything he knows about the Internet. In watching the video, the irony of his experience is what I continue to find so amazing. I sometimes believe that we live in a time of enormous paradoxes. AT&T used to have an ad campaign with the catchphrase, “In a world full of technology, people make the difference.” And they do. Wesch poignantly highlights this, as he explains how he was curled up on the floor of a remote hut coming to grips with his own identity crisis.

Yet, in true classical story form, it was only in a completely distant, foreign context that he could make the necessary discoveries to return with insight. Much that is old is indeed new again, or perhaps, paradoxically continues to remain new.

Image: Harold and the Purple CrayonOur mediated existences help form and refine our identities. For many of us, the medias we choose to engage are the contexts in which we find ourselves always, perpetually emerging. We can take up the challenge of reading and writing our world into existence, in true Harold fashion with crayon in hand, or we can allow our choices to be dictated to us without even knowing, like the fish who is unaware he lives in water.

To me these are some of the themes at the core of what Wesch describes in the pursuit of Knowledge-ability. The most heartbreaking aspect is that without mindful awareness of our choices and reconciliation of their impact on our identity, we all run the risk of looking back on what we have wrought and hating it, much like some of those individual that “reformed” that small village in Papua New Guinea that Wesch observed.

Discussing Participatory Culture on Teachers Teaching Teachers

During the summer I attended the Boston Writing Project’s Summer Institute which made me a part of the network of education professionals that is the National Writing Project. As a representative from the Boston site, I also travelled to my first NWP Annual Meeting, in San Antonio this year.

While there I made it to a host of presentations and workshops, which will likely provide material for some time to come. All of them were fantastic. One specific session I attended,  Reading the Research: Media Education and Literacy in the 21st Century, was focused on on a white paper published by the New Media Literacies Project at MIT titled Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. It proved to be fascinating conversation with teachers of all different levels from around the country, encompassing media, technology, and 21st century literacies. There are even some photos from the session.

When asked to create a visual representation of our table’s thoughts on the article, we engaged in much metaphorical deliberation. Eventually, we settled on a rather creative synthesis that I sketched out in a hurry. It involved Harold, purple crayon in hand, creating a world where a king that had no clothes weighed scales of judgement, while his fool, Socrates, lectured on the unworthiness of living the unexamined life. As pretentious as it might sound out of context, it really was a rather nifty fusion of the table’s wide variety of viewpoints, which was no easy task.

The white paper that inspired all this semiotic silliness, although fairly lengthy, is definitely worth the read. In it are an array of interesting observations about challenges that education faces in addressing some of the emergent needs of living and working in the world today, with the ever-evolving new media developments. As a follow-up event, I was part of a panel discussion on a webcast episode of Teachers Teaching Teachers. Considering the fact that my listening to TTT on EdTechTalkis one of the primary reasons for my becoming involved with the National Writing Project in the first place it was a real treat. The podcast of the episode is now available for everyone to hear. Have a listen and let me know what you think.