12.15.17

The other day I mentioned Rebecca Solnit in a post about finding the motivation to take action when it may not seem to make a difference. My mention of her was somewhat peripheral (preliminary?) to the point of the post, so I had a good laugh at myself yesterday when this happened: I was listening to an old interview with her from On Being and was reminded that I’d been very moved and affected the first time I heard her talk about the thing that was the point of the post – the slippery business of what does and doesn’t make an impact. It’s very likely that it was her work that gave me the idea to write about the topic in the way I did; I just didn’t remember that it had. Which further proves the point itself, leaving me with the feeling (which I have no doubt passed on to you reading this paragraph) of going ’round in circles, which again proves the point. (Assuming that at least one of the circles moves something forward, as opposed to keeping us in place.)

As it turns out, none of this business of difference-making and idea-forming is linear or traceable.

So, now, back to the more lucid words of Rebecca Solnit herself. From a piece she wrote in December of 2013, The Arc of Justice and the Long Run: “Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve…”

In other words (I trust she would not mind my saying), we should keep at it.

12.5.17

I got a piece of mail today from the school where my dad went to college. It was a colorful tri-fold request for donations to support the campus library. On the outside was a drawing of a darkened library and the words “No one would die if the library didn’t exist.”

On the inside was a drawing of the same library lit up and bustling with activity and the words “but we wouldn’t truly live.”

I get the point and I agree with the second part – even though libraries don’t save lives the way, say, hospitals do, they’re essential to our vitality.

But I took the first part as sort of a query. Is it true that no one would die if libraries didn’t exist? And I don’t just mean in that colloquial “I would die if I couldn’t go to the library ” kind of way.  I certainly can’t imagine my life without the library, but that isn’t what I’m getting at.

I think it’s probably easier than we might think to trace the actual survival of actual people to their own or others’ access to libraries. Some of the connections may be distant – a person who will one day hold the power to start or stop wars begins by finding a book in a library that inspires him to read or to learn more about something that in turn inspires further learning or inquiry and investigation or just plain empowers him to believe that he has the ability and resources to make an important contribution. Other connections may be more direct. People in tremendous despair have been saved by specific particular books that let them know they are not alone in their plight or that map a way out they wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. And then there’s that libraries are often used by those who are homeless to keep warm during the day. By itself that’s probably not enough to keep a person alive, but it may go a long way toward it.

This may be an especially sore subject for me this week, as a faithful listener to The Writer’s Almanac, which ended last Wednesday and whose archives were removed from the web when Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media severed its ties with Garrison Keillor’s media companies after allegations of sexual misconduct. Along with the obvious importance of taking such allegations seriously, there are  legal and financial reasons that under the circumstances the show could not continue to be broadcast and had its archive removed. I mention it here not to comment on that situation but because the archive of the show is a library of its own, of history, poetry, and connection among writers and thinkers. As with the libraries, we could say that no one will die because it’s gone, but we don’t know that. We don’t know what strength and power a handful of words or a well-timed resonant historical note or a library or a book from that library can have. We just don’t know.

I have moved on to (back to?) Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s earlier book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and am enchanted by a section she called “What my friends were confused by as children.” (This section is preceded by an account of the things she, Amy, was confused by as a child.) Here’s one: I thought the basement of department stores would fill up with steps from the escalator pushing them down all day. And another: I thought that when my parents were little the world was in black and white because all the pictures of them were black and white.

The anecdotes are funny and cute, but I also want to believe that Amy was pointing out that being a child requires a flexibility of thinking that being an adult doesn’t really. When existence demands of you that you go around figuring things out all the time, just in order to make some initial semblance of sense of it all, it keeps you in better contemplative and creative shape than when existence doesn’t require it (ie in adulthood when you’ve got reality All Figured Out).

lexical visualization

The other day I talked with an 11 year-old who wishes he were better at spelling.  He told me (as many do) that when he writes a word he can tell if it’s not the right spelling but he often can’t figure out how to fix what’s not right.  We talked about how this is a funny thing about the brain – if you know something when you see it, and you know not something when you see that, how could you be unable to generate the something itself? The answer, of course, is some version of this fact: receptive language (what you hear and process) and productive language (what you say) are not one process.  We don’t have the same access to brain files when it comes to receiving and producing.

Later the same day I was reading more of Dan Roam and trying a drawing exercise in which I had to represent, in simple sketches, a few different popular cities.  For Paris, of course, I attempted to draw the Eiffel Tower. I realized I was having the same trouble with the drawing as my young friend has with spelling.  I know the Eiffel Tower when I see it, and I can draw all the shapes it would require to represent it adequately for someone else to be able to recognize it, but I couldn’t quite manage to pull together well enough the knowledge that makes it recognizable to me and my ability to assemble shapes into drawings to get it right enough.

Dan Roam has me convinced that it’s not too late for me to learn to do it, and my young spelling friend and I have been talking about how to use his extensive lexicon of recognized words when he’s trying to spell one.  It, like the drawing, seems to benefit from involving the eye.  The teaching of spelling has traditionally relied heavily upon the ear – “sounding out” – but for many young people who have become competent readers (and thus have an extensive collection of recognized words in their brains), the eye and the visual memory offer a steadier more reliable sensory  assist.

 

writing and drawing

I’m working my way through all of Dan Roam’s books about how simple drawings, alongside a few words, can bring ideas to life. I’ve finished  The Back of the Napkin and Blah Blah Blah, and now I’m reading Unfolding the Napkin.

Dan points out that in school we are trained to communicate almost exclusively in words – drawing is relegated to art or free time.  Yet pictures are much closer relatives to experience than words, and as young children are attempting to make sense of and assimilate what’s happening and what they’re being told, their first impulse is often to draw.  We’ll grant them that, but not for long before we want them to focus their attention on reading and writing, shoving the drawing to the periphery (at best).  I’ve been wondering what would happen if we let them draw as much as and for as long as they are compelled to.  How would it influence their development?  What effect would it have on how they communicate?  Would some processes speed up and some slow down?

It’s been interesting, in the course of my exploration of Dan’s visual thinking work, for me to try to train myself to expand the way I think about communicating, to try to incorporate images into the way I share something I’m trying to say.  It feels very difficult, but also as though if I figure it out, it’ll be a relief not to be quite so dependent on one mode.

ambidextr-ish

This week I have developed a new appreciation for those who are learning to write or draw for the first time, thanks to a foray into ambidextrosity.  As I have mentioned here recently, my right shoulder has been giving me trouble, and so I was distressed to think that I couldn’t participate in a 100-day art-making challenge I heard about.  I realized that while my right hand works considerably better than my left, I do have two hands, and if I really wanted to participate without over-straining my right shoulder, I could use my left hand. It might even make an interesting creative challenge/constraint/improvisational score.

It is hard.  I often want to switch back to my right hand for things I know it can do that the left cannot.  Straight lines, for example.  So many things my right hand does without any intentional thinking require planning and troubleshooting, if they can be done at all (and many can’t).  Then there’s the challenge of writing against the flow of traffic, as it were.  My father and brother are both left-handed and so I have watched plenty of left-handed writing-utensil-wielding but not ever given thought to the degree of difficulty involved.

I’ve also been thinking about what it’s like for kids to sort these things out, and how much practice they need, and how much easier it would be without someone breathing down your neck about how neat it is, or how to do it “right.”

While we’re on the subject, here’s a little thing I posted on the subject a few years back:

I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.

I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day.  The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice.  For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.

Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom.  Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important.  The writers.

I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once.  The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting.  It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me.  I could do better.

Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell.  I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind.  I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.

We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not.  The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters.  But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us.  The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.

But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.

Here’s the thing.  The word is penmanship.  As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word.  Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that.  We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen.  What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing?  What might it lead to?  Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up?  Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?

If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration.  And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.

words, numbers, and the culture of offering

This is sort of another plug for Ed Zaccaro, but also an observation about language and dignity in the context of math.

I posted a while back about Ed Zaccaro’s Challenge Math series, which I think was written for kids who needed more than the classroom could provide, but also seems to work well with kids with all sorts of different relationships with math.

This week I was surprised when one of the eight year-olds I work with asked specifically if we could work in the Zaccaro book.  I’d done a quick bit of one page with her once before, and she was OK with it, but tends to balk at anything she has to stop and think about, anything that requires reading as the Zaccaro problems do.  This is not because she doesn’t like to read or isn’t a good reader. She is.  But as a math student, she tends to balk at reading. We’d mostly been working on quick little problems I’d chosen for the purpose of letting her see that she is more capable when it comes to math than she has learned to believe.

She leaned right in as soon as I opened the book in front of her.  She remarked on the illustration of the large sweating ants and then started reading the first problem on the page.  She sped through three in a row, understanding exactly what the problems were asking for and doing much of the computation in her head.  This is exactly what she doesn’t do when she’s interacting with her Pearson pages from school (which, as far as I can tell, were written and issued very quickly after the Common Core standards went into effect).  She’s constantly choosing operations that don’t fit the situations in the word problems.

I’ve been frustrated with the language of many of these problems ever since the materials were issued, but in watching this child with the Zaccaro problems, I realized something new about how they are tripping kids up.  The Pearson word problem language is often ambiguous, which is terribly troublesome in the context of math, but it’s also just plain dull.  For kids who are readers, accustomed to sentences written with care and intention, poorly written problems are not just potentially confusing.  They’re an insult to the sensibilities of the literate child.  The literate person.

I realized that what this student has been doing with her classroom math work is to scan each word problem and attempt to match it with a procedure.  If it looks like the kind of problem for which one should divide, she’ll divide.  If it looks like you have to trace your finger across the table shown and fill in a number according to a pattern, she’ll do that.  No matter that often the problem is asking for something slightly different.  In order to notice that, she’d have to subject herself to the agony of reading the dull text slowly. As a result, her actual ability and number sense is obscured. In a situation in which the reading is in and of itself engaging, she is freed up to think fluidly and flexibly about what there is to do with the numbers.

What the Zaccaro book does for her (that the Pearson book does not) is offer something.  That sounds too simple to matter, but I don’t think it is. An offering concerns itself with presentation and connection, free of attachment to result. It is the fundamental unit of authentic human exchange. It says “Here.  This is for you to have and use if you choose.” It grants dignity, agency, autonomy. In the course of our deep but desperate commitment to educate, we’ve moved away from offering toward mandate and decree, often undermining our ability to pass on what there is of useful knowledge and skill to our young.
The good news is we can resume a culture of offering any time we want.

touchscreen typing and the struggling writer

A few years ago, several of the local school departments bought iPads for all students in some grades.  Some schools considered buying laptop computers instead, but decided on iPads.  Now in several of the schools, students are doing all their writing on touch screens.

There are things that tablets can do that laptops can’t, and vice versa. This post is not an anti-tablet rant.  It’s just a heads-up that the tablet can slow down and discourage a struggling writer.  Among other things, the mental task of typing on a screen is bigger than the mental task of writing on a keyboard. Additional mental effort is the last thing many kids need when it comes to writing. It takes more thought and concentration to hit a spot on a screen (or avoiding hitting one) than it does a discrete key. Maybe it sounds like a small thing, but if you’ve ever struggled with anything, you know that with something that’s already difficult, small things add up and discourage.

If you know a child for whom writing is already a challenge, and she or he is attending a school that asks for all writing via a tablet, please consider finding him or her a keyboard to use in conjunction with the tablet, if not an actual laptop. (And it doesn’t need to be a fancy laptop; for writing, a very simple and/or very old laptop will do.)

If the writing itself is what’s important, removing obstacles that are not necessary can make a huge difference.  Not to mention that if a young person hopes to go to college and will need to write extensively there (or anywhere else for that matter), it could be helpful for him or her to become accustomed to writing on a device that will allow the most efficiency and fluency, rather than trying to retrain his or her mind and muscles after several years of one process in order to replace it with another.