“The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time”

IMG_0884

There’s a common assumption in American society, and to varying degrees around the world, that if you are not frantically busy, then you are not working hard enough. A leisurely life, in the view of many, is nothing but a frivolous luxury. Especially if you are a woman, you should be running around doing this and that; many people prove themselves by rattling off their schedule to those around.

It is acknowledged, now and then, that some men need to go off into their studies to ponder, or to the river to fish. But for women, this kind of leisurely solitude has little or no place in the public imagination; a woman who goes off on her own to work on something may even arouse pity. “Poor thing!” they think, if they think about the matter at all. “She doesn’t go out, she doesn’t socialize, she must be so lonely and bored.” Or: “Why isn’t she an activist?

Why shouldn’t leisure (of various kinds) be treated as a good–not only for the wealthy, but for everyone who needs and wants it? “I just can’t afford it,” some will reply. But there are also those who can’t afford to go without it. What’s more, it needs, like other things, to be learned and passed on. This can be done almost anywhere; tt’s possible to create leisure even on a low income. This is an old idea; liberal education, in its earliest conception, was education within leisure, for leisure; while this idea has been contested over time, part of it holds up as strongly as ever, if not more so.

First of all, leisure allows a person to think. It isn’t the same thing as sloth–lying around, dilly-dallying, munching on chips while watching TV (though all of that can have a place). It’s a matter of slowing down enough to carry a thought from beginning to end–to test out possibilities, consider meanings, and so on.

Second, leisure can be profoundly productive. There are things you can’t work on in a rush. For my translation work, and for any serious writing, I need stretches of time, so that I can work without worrying that I will suddenly have to stop. Interruptions are part of life, but too many get in the way of your thinking and condition what you are able to do in the first place.

Leisure also changes your attitudes about life, often for the better. If you recognize that you don’t always have to rush, then you can take time with things that need time. This allows you to actually accomplish them. For example, writers often make the mistake of submitting pieces for publication before they’re really ready, or submitting them to the wrong place. It takes a lot of time to bring the writing to its ideal state and seek out appropriate publications. If you rush any of this, you will probably do something wrong. But if you take the time to persist, something will work out.

Leisure is good for the health, too. On weekends like this, when I don’t have to rush anywhere, I feel rested and clear-headed. I can piece together the events of the past week, month, and year; I can look ahead and ask myself questions; I can have fun and laugh.

It can take place in company; leisure doesn’t have to be solitary (in the most obvious sense, the sense of physical aloneness). Whether with others or alone, you can take time to enjoy something, discuss something, or just be together or by yourself.

But leisurely solitude is a great thing for those who want or need it. It isn’t for everyone. Some people get anxious when alone for too long; others get bored when they don’t have enough to do. Such boredom or anxiety isn’t fixed, though; a person can lose it over time.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “leisure” derives from the Old French “leisir,” “capacity, ability, freedom (to do something); permission; spare time; free will; idleness, inactivity,” from the Latin from Latin licere “to be allowed”; it has the same root as “license.” Interesting that it contains both the sense of “capacity to do something” and “idleness.” That is its paradox: to do certain things, you need idleness as your foundation.

Leisure also allows you to do nothing, or seemingly nothing. To look out at the frost on the trees, to listen to music, to read a book, to take a long bike ride, to sit and think, to sit with your cat (who understands leisure very well), to laugh over something funny that happened, to make up a story in your mind, to sense the changing of the light.

I close with “Leisure” by Amy Lowell:

Leisure, thou goddess of a bygone age,
When hours were long and days sufficed to hold
Wide-eyed delights and pleasures uncontrolled
By shortening moments, when no gaunt presage
Of undone duties, modern heritage,
Haunted our happy minds; must thou withhold
Thy presence from this over-busy world,
And bearing silence with thee disengage
Our twined fortunes? Deeps of unhewn woods
Alone can cherish thee, alone possess
Thy quiet, teeming vigor. This our crime:
Not to have worshipped, marred by alien moods
That sole condition of all loveliness,
The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time.

“Such Things Do Happen in the World”: The Story of a Nose

the nose

An extraordinarily strange thing happened in St. Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Avenue (his surname has got lost and all that his shop-front signboard shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the inscription ‘We alse let blood’), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread. As he sat up in bed he saw his wife, who was a quite respectable lady and a great coffee-drinker, taking some freshly baked rolls out of the oven.

–Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” tr. Ronald Wilks

Long ago, in September 1992, I got myself a bass and joined a band, the Dogsmen. I was studying Russian literature in grad school at Yale, but this particular year I was on leave, since I had received a fellowship to teach Russian part-time at Trinity College in Hartford. I had written some songs previously for guitar and voice, but my newer songs began with a bass line. The first of these was “The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s story, one of my favorite stories in the world. I wrote the song one afternoon, recorded it with a boombox, and sent the tape to the Breeders, a band I loved and still love. I explained in my letter that the song was a tribute to them.

What was it about the Breeders? I was thinking today about how rock bands tend toward one of two attitudes: “Rock is God” and “Rock is all of us.” Most have a mixture of the two, but you can usually sense a leaning. The “Rock is God” musicians create music that is larger than life–big, dramatic, overpowering. They wear makeup, have stage effects, jump from heights. The “Rock is all of us” musicians may also believe that rock is God, but they understate the matter. They perform in everyday clothes, sing about everyday things (with a twist or two), and hint that you could do this too–after all, they themselves just learned to play last week.

All of this requires illusion. Rock isn’t God; rock musicians are not priests of God. They’re extremely fallible and often messed up. Nor is rock all of us; the understated musicians are still doing something that few others could do. So it was with the Breeders. There was something tantalizingly close about their music, dangling there just barely out of reach. It touched my soul in a down-to-earth and just-over-the-buildings way. Also, while their music seems technically simple, it’s ridiculously hard to emulate. Kim Deal and her bandmates know what sound they are going for and how to achieve it. It is not easy to create that sound. That, and their songs have a wonderful mix of sarcasm and sweetness, sanity and weirdness, tune and distortion, tightness and mess, all-out joy and pain.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of this when I wrote “The Nose.” I thought of it as a tribute not because it sounded like them, not because the lyrics were at all like theirs, but because it expressed in some way how I understood them. I also thought they’d appreciate Gogol’s story; at one point I gave them the book.

The song translates Gogol’s story into a few frames, and the frames into simple, silly music. The lyrics go (I have omitted most of the repetitions here),

Verse 1
“You’re my nose, you belong right on my face, so don’t be such a such a such a fake!”

Verse 2
“You’ve got it wrong”–he said right back to me. “I’m not your nose”–he said it so smugly. “I’m on my own, and in good company, so get out of this church and let me pray!”

Verse 3 (the Nose speaking)
“I can’t go on in this hostile city, I need a home, your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on, and live there comfortably, and shake and shake and shake and shake all day….”

Coda (the Narrator speaking)
“Who knows who knows you might be someone’s nose….”

One of the song’s greatest glories came when my band performed a full show at my mom and Stan’s place, during a family reunion (in November 1992, I think). For this song, my sister, Jenna, my aunts Norma (R.I.P.) and Jeanne, and my cousins Ruth and Ben joined as backup singers and dancers. Thanks to my uncle Dan for the video. The Dogsmen were Jon Holland (vocals, guitar), Fabian Esponda (drums), and me (vocals, bass).

Some months later (in December 1993, I think), I was visiting my mother and Stan. I checked my New Haven messages remotely (we used answering machines back then) and heard, to my astonishment, a message from Kelley Deal of the Breeders. She said she had a very important question for me. I didn’t have her number, so I rerecorded my answering machine message with the number where I could be reached, hoping she would try again. She heard the message and called me at my mom’s.

It turned out that they had really liked my song; their bassist, Josephine Wiggs, especially liked it and wanted to use some of the lyrics in a song of her own (that they would record and perform). Kelley wanted to know if I gave permission for this; if so, the record company’s legal representative would send me forms to sign. They would credit me and everything. (They were true to their word; I received and signed the forms, the EP has the credit, and they announced it at lots of shows as well.)

How Nose-like is that? In Gogol’s story, a nose appears in Ivan Yakovlevich’s breakfast roll (and disappears from Major Kovalev’s face); here, a few lyrics migrated from “The Nose” to the Breeders’ song “Head to Toe.” Specifically, some of the words from the third verse, “Your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on [and live there] comfortably” became the refrain of “Head to Toe.” And what a song!

Josephine Wiggs’s own version is hauntingly lovely.

Gogol’s story ends (in Ronald Wilks’s translation):

But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It’s just…no, no, I don’t understand it at all! Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever; secondly, it’s no use…I simply don’t know what one can make of it…However, when all is said and done, one can concede this point or the other and perhaps you can even find…well then you won’t find much that isn’t on the absurd side, will you?

And yet, if you stop to think for a moment, there’s a grain of truth in it. Whatever you may say, these things do happen—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.

I would translate the last sentence as “Whatever anyone may say, such things do happen in the world–rarely, but they happen.”

Yes, they happen! They’re staggeringly unlikely, yet they makes sense. The worlds of a Russian lit grad student and a rock band came together through a song, a story, and a few words that hit home. And the nose ran off and turned up again. And I reread the story many, many times, and eventually finished my Ph.D. dissertation, which was on Gogol.

But if you think this was the end of it, no, the nose keeps coming back. Years later, Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” was performed at the Met, and my mom gave me a ticket for my birthday. I loved the performance and bought a little souvenir, a nose pencil sharpener. This was my favorite desk adornment when I taught at Columbia Secondary School.

But one day that nose went missing, along with an “art eraser.” A fitting occurrence–another nose-flight–but I determined, like Kovalev, to track my nose down. I sent out an email to students, asking whether they had seen these valuable items. I got a reply from a parent. I didn’t save it, but it read approximately, “Incredibly, we happen to have a nose pencil sharpener. Will you accept it from us?” This nose (unlike mine) was slightly caked with some gunky stuff; I decided to keep it that way, for the memory. I even brought it to Hungary. In case it has any plans to run away again, I reminded it sternly just now, “You’re my nose!”

IMG_0840

The quotes from Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” are courtesy of Gogol, Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks (New York: Penguin, 1987).

I made a few edits and corrections to this piece after posting it.

“And he said….” (pause)

IMG_0802

Jewish life in Budapest is evolving in exciting ways. The two Reform congregations, Szim Salom and Bét Orim, are working out a schedule of joint services, which officially began this Shabbat. It isn’t clear exactly what shape this will take in the future, but it’s off to a good start. Because of this change, at least for now I will no longer lead services on Friday evenings; instead, I will focus on Saturday mornings (on alternate Shabbatot). That means I don’t stay overnight in Budapest on Friday night; instead, I take the train in on Saturday morning. It worked well; I like this new arrangement because it gives me just a little more time to practice my leyning, and because I can sleep at home. Also, it reminds me of the BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) days in some ways; in New York City I was a Saturday morning regular, but I only occasionally went to services on Friday evenings. It was important to me to have some quiet time at home. For me, Saturday was when it all came together: the beautiful liturgy, the Torah reading, the Haftarah, and everything else. Yesterday was like that. In addition, Szim Salom has a shiur, a Torah study, after the Shacharit service on Saturday; I always stay for that and enjoy being part of it.

As I discussed in a recent post, the Mazsihisz’s (Federation of Jewish Communities) has deliberated over the possibility of recognizing the Reform communities. So far, the Mazsihisz has voted against this, but the discussions are ongoing.

But I came here to bring up something interesting from the Torah reading and leyning. Israel (Jacob) is on his deathbed, and he tells Jacob that he wishes to be buried not in Egypt, but where his forefathers are buried. And Joseph answers that he will do as his father has said. This is in the second half of Genesis 47:30: וַיֹּאמַר, אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ. “And he said: ‘I will do as thou hast said.'”

The word “vayomar” (“and he said”) is in pausal form (the regular form is “vayomer”). The cantillation phrase is a zakef gadol, which typically accompanies a word that constitutes a phrase on its own. It is a medium-level disjunctive; there is a slight pause after it.

Just a few verses later, in Genesis 48:2, there’s another zakef gadol, but this time with “vayomer” instead of “vayomar.” וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב–וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. “And one told Jacob, and said: ‘Behold, thy son Joseph cometh unto thee.’ And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” Why is “vayomer” in the non-pausal form here, when it seems to have an equivalent place grammatically to the previous one?

Then, a few verses later, in Genesis 48:9, there’s a zakef gadol again, this time with “vayomar” again! וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-אָבִיו, בָּנַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה; וַיֹּאמַר, קָחֶם-נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרְכֵם. “And Joseph said unto his father: ‘They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.’ And he said: ‘Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.'”

What is the difference between the two instances of “vayomar” and the one instance of “vayomer,” given that they have the same cantillation phrase and therefore (more or less) the same grammatical and syntactic function? I looked all over for answers but found nothing specific. I see two possibilities here. First, both instances of “vayomar” indicate a response to another person: Joseph responding to Jacob, and Jacob responding to Joseph. The word is separated from what precedes it as well as what follows it. In both cases, the cantillation phrase that precedes it is an etnachta, which separates the two halves of the verse.  “Vayomer,” in contrast, continues the idea of “vayaged,” “told.” It isn’t separated as strongly from what precedes it (melodically, a zakef katon).

Another (related) possibility is that both instances of “vayomar” are moments of great emotion: Joseph promising to bury Jacob with his forefathers, and Joseph asking to see his grandsons. The instance of “vayomer” is not as emotionally charged. This is connected with the previous points in that the emotion is a response to what was said before. I can imagine a pause both before and after “vayomar”–slightly longer than the pause before and after “vayomer.” Pauses in cantillation can be extremely subtle; only the most advanced readers know just how long to pause.

The difference in sound between “vayomar” and “vayomer” is not just that of one vowel; in “vayomar,” the last syllable is stressed, whereas in “vayomer,” it’s the second syllable. I don’t know how often “vayomar” occurs in Torah with a zakef gadol, but there’s something arresting about it. For these verses, you can hear the first “vayomar” here, the “vayomer” here, and the second “vayomar” here. (These recordings are by Hazzan Robert Menes, former cantor of Beth Shalom in Kansas City.)

These fine distinctions–who notices them? Some people spot them right away; when I was in New York City last summer and read Torah at B’nai Jeshurun, Sharon Anstey, a fellow congregant and Torah reader (and an extraordinarily dedicated BJ member) noticed the special trop (cantillation melody), the karne parah, which occurs only once in the Torah. She even mentioned it in a beautiful piece she wrote.

But people at other levels of knowledge pick up on the trop as well. I remember when I first heard a shalshelet and had no idea what it was. After the service, I ran up to Shoshi, then the cantorial intern, and asked, “What was that I heard?” She told me, and added that the young woman who had read that Torah portion loved the shalshelet so much that she had a pendant in its shape (it looks like a zigzag, a lightning bolt). Later I wrote to a cantor about this experience, and he sent me an article about the shalshelet.

And even without that kind of awareness, even without knowledge of Hebrew or cantillation, we pick up on the phrasings and cadences that we hear. It is possible to be moved by a text without even understanding the words–not because the reader chanted it with emotion, though that might also be true, but because the very rhythms and cadences of the words convey something. Over time, meanings start to come through, then more, then more.

 

The photo shows a kiosk with a video advertisement for an upcoming one-woman operatic production of Anne Frank naplója (Anne Frank’s Diary), to be performed at the Budapesti Operettszínház in February.

 

 

How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What?” Experience

how the other half learnsA few days ago I wrote a response to Robert Pondiscio’s terrific book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Here are some more thoughts, this time about the “so what?” question.

Before reading the book (but after reading many reviews, summaries, and excerpts), I wondered if I would be left nonplussed, even if I enjoyed and learned from the book. If part of the book’s message is, “The Success Academy is not for everyone–students, parents, or teachers–but insofar as it serves some students and families extremely well, it should be recognized and supported,” doesn’t a similar message apply to all students, parents, and teachers? That is, shouldn’t all of us seek out a place that works for us, leaving the rest alone except to acknowledge its value for others? If I, as a teacher, do not like the Success Academy model, then isn’t it my right (and responsibility) to seek out a place that does suit me, as have done over time? And if this is so, if it is on us to find the place that suits us, then who cares about a larger picture, except insofar as it offers each of us a place? Why should I care what’s going on at another school, if it’s not my type of place to begin with? But this conclusion dissatisfied me; there are reasons to care what is going on in other schools, and as it turned out, Pondiscio’s book brought them to light.

I found myself rooting for the students as I read about them–from Adama, whose parents were continually pressured by Success Academy to transfer him to another school (and finally gave in), to Darren, who shot up the waiting list and was finally admitted, to  Luis, who passes an informal reading test and blurts out to his class, “I’m Level L!” Even when I disagree with the admissions procedures, teaching methods, and more, I want things to go well with these kids–and I want to keep up some kind of discussion about what is important in education. Even if different approaches work for different students, even if different kinds of schools can, do, and should exist (not only among charters, but within the public school system itself), there are some universal goods and ills worth considering.

Take the instance of Luis becoming a “Level L.” Setting aside the business of calling oneself an L or a P or a 2 or a 3, I see at least two sides to the issue. On the one hand, despite my many criticisms of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (which Pondiscio gives a good shaking), I recognize that moving up the levels represents some kind of progress in reading, especially if the instruction is good, the texts are worthwhile, and the student practices continually at school and at home. And when a little boy reacts with such joy and pride to his progress, I want to join in. I want him to get to level Z and beyond–into good literature and other texts worth reading for their own merits.

On the other side, the Fountas and Pinnell system has even more problems than Pondiscio discusses (particularly on pp. 230-236). In addition to its misleading measures of text complexity, in addition to its flimsy basis in research, Fountas and Pinnell has given rise to some terrible writing. There is an industry devoted to writing children’s books and texts to match the F&P rubric exactly. If you read these texts (the ones written to match a particular level), you find something canned about them, and for good reason: they are canned. There isn’t a Curious George or Winnie-the-Pooh among them. In fact, many classic children’s books have been rewritten (i.e. simplified, distorted, and re-fonted) to match this or that reading level. In some cases they don’t even make sense.

Beyond that, the insistence on precise levels is inherently limiting. Any books worth their salt, including children’s books, contain a mixture of levels. In school, students can learn phonics systematically while also being exposed to texts, many texts, that they can’t read entirely on their own yet. They can learn background information that will help them understand texts on specific topics. They can learn to read a book several times, with more understanding each time. That way, they will not only progress gradually but amass concepts, words, and structures that allow their understanding to take off.

I didn’t learn how to read at school; according to my parents, I taught myself, at ages 4 and 5, and began writing before reading. But that had to do with having a lot of literature in the air. I can’t describe how I learned, since I don’t remember any more. But when it comes to learning languages, I have benefited from struggling with difficult works, works well above my level, works that I would want to reread many times. I persist with the first reading, and before I know it, I understand much than when I began, as a result of noticing roots, grammatical structures, syntax, and more. It has consistently helped me, rather than hurt me, to go beyond my level.

Not everyone benefits from the same approaches. Nor is mine foolproof, even for me; one weakness is that I have missed or sidestepped some systematic instruction along the way. For instance, I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary by the end of our year in Moscow, when I was fifteen, but I didn’t really learn how the Russian verbs of motion worked until late in college. I used them correctly enough to make myself understood, but my speech and writing must have been filled with mistakes.

All this said, it’s worth bringing up the weaknesses of Fountas and Pinnell, even while recognizing that it has done some good. At the same time, I can appreciate teachers who wholeheartedly encourage students in their progress (as did Luis’s teacher), even if the content and measures of said progress are flawed.

So, yes, the book affirms that it does matter what’s going on at other schools–because the fads and other weaknesses are worth criticizing, the strengths are worth learning from, and kids (at any school) deserve support and guidance. They want to learn, they want to make progress, they want to know what this means and why it matters. It is possible to hold two sides of the truth at once: that we’re all different, with different needs, and yet that we have something to do with each other, even if our paths never visibly meet.

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Why I Like Robert Pondiscio’s Book (and Why “Main Idea” Is Duke, Not King)

how the other half learnsAfter reading many reviews and summaries of Robert Pondiscio’s outstanding book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, I worried that I already knew too much of the gist and wouldn’t have much left to enjoy or think about. The worry was unfounded. I read it this weekend in several sittings, unable to stop for long. I was drawn into the descriptions, the characters, the daily life of Bronx 1 classrooms, the pedagogical and curricular details, and Pondiscio’s subtle, surprising observations along the way. That very experience–of enjoying the content of the book–points to what I see as its main blind spot. In the book itself, the “Main Idea” is not king–so I am wary of pedagogical approaches that insist that yes, it is.

Granted, I am writing from a high school and college perspective, as I usually do. Elementary school and high school differ profoundly; when people do not acknowledge this, they often end up talking past each other. Some of the greatest misunderstandings in education discussion come from failures to specify what we are talking about. Pondiscio’s book comes to life, and to meaning, through its specificity. He is talking about elementary school–and not elementary school in general, but elementary school for very poor kids whose parents are determined to give them a foothold. Elementary school is where students should be learning certain basics–and the “main idea” is surely one of them.

The refrain “Main Idea is king” rings throughout the book. It’s what the teachers tell the students over and over, and exemplify in their classrooms, at Bronx 1 Elementary School, which Pondiscio visited for a year. Bronx 1 belongs to the Success Academy, a network of charter schools, founded by Eva Moskowitz, that has won both fame for its test score success and rebuke for perceived creaming and overhype. Pondiscio argues that the Success Academy schools don’t cream students; they cream parents. Is this fair? It depends on how you look at it. But for now, back to the Main Idea.

Revering the main idea will help you, up to a point, with reading comprehension. (For instance, if there is a main idea in a text, and if you can identify it, you can then figure out how the different parts of the text support it.) Such regal treatment will also help you with ELA standardized tests, which almost always include questions about the main idea. It will not help you with the kind of discussion that you find at private high schools and in college. In many texts (Pondiscio’s book included), the main idea is only the foundation, if even that; the really interesting stuff is to be found in the subordinate clauses, the observations, the connections, the hesitations, the contradictions. This is especially true with poetry and fiction, but it applies to nonfiction as well.

The main idea of How the Other Half Learns might run as follows: “While controversial in its approaches to admissions, instruction, and discipline, and perhaps impossible to scale, the Success Academy charter schools bring their students to academic success–in terms of test scores, college admissions, and more–and therefore deserve recognition and support.” I don’t need to read a whole book to get that point–but the book did much more than argue it. I was drawn into the description of specific lessons, walkthroughs, leaders’ and teachers’ meetings, hallway activity, Pondiscio’s meetings with families, and characters so vivid that I saw and heard them in my mind.

The Success Academy’s emphasis on the main idea–and other concepts important to the standardized tests–goes hand in hand, I think, with its avoidance of “teacher talk.” For if students are supposed to be doing most of the work, and teachers are to limit their talking, then students must have specific, recognizable tasks to perform.

Third-grade teacher Steven Madan has the children continually involved in tasks, continually (in Pondiscio’s words) “engaged and on their toes.” From p. 46:

“The best learning we get in the classroom comes from other scholars, because we learn from each other,” Madan tells his students, a notion that Success drills into teachers during the network’s summer Teacher School, or T School. The feedback new staffers hear most often is “too much teacher talk.” The standard remedy is to “put the lift on the scholars”: Don’t do the work for the kids. Don’t be afraid to let them struggle. That’s how they learn.

I have heard this many times before, in public schools: that if the teacher talks, she is “doing the work” for the kids. This does not have to be so. Students should have opportunities to work out some problems and puzzles on their own. But listening to the teacher is a demanding challenge in its own right: you must focus closely, figuring out what makes sense to you and what does not, formulating questions, and finding words for disagreements, hesitations, or extensions.

Yes, I am thinking in terms of high school and college, but elementary school students can do this too, and if they can’t, they should begin learning it gradually. This does not mean that teachers should talk all the time, talk needlessly, or strain their students’ attention beyond what they can handle. But “teacher talk” should not be deplored; not only does it have an important place in lessons, but students unused to it will have great difficulty later, not only in lectures, but also in seminars, where they also need to sustain their listening and deal with complex ideas.

I will come back to the “Main Idea” shortly–but want to comment on the “Math Lesson” chapter, if too briefly. Pondiscio states that the teacher’s (Kerri Lynch’s) math lesson, “with its push to get students, not teachers, to do the thinking, and its almost complete lack of direct instruction, bears the hallmark of Success Academy’s approach and a focus–nearly an obsession–of its teacher training” (p. 142). The actual lesson is lively and productive; students figure out, among other things, that 7/8 is greater than 3/4, and arrive at a clear explanation. But what happens with a student who understands, right off the bat, that this is so, and can explain why? What challenge is left? One way to challenge such a student–and others as well–is for the teacher to present an extended solution to a problem, ask the students to pay close attention to it, and then question them to see whether they understand it, can explain it, and can take it in new directions.

For instance, in a geometry class, you might ask students how they would bisect a segment, without using any numerical measurements. They may use the length of the segment itself and the lengths and angles on a right-triangle ruler. But they may not actually measure the lengths and angles.

If they can’t figure it out, give them a helping start: Create an isosceles triangle with the segment as the base. From there they can probably figure out that all they need to do is drop a line from the vertex opposite the base down to the base, at a perpendicular to the base. If they can’t, there are ways to offer hints without giving the solution away. When they finally get it, have a student explain it from start to finish; if he or she gets stuck, others may help out.

Once they have explained it, ask: So, how do you trisect a segment, using the same tools? Let them puzzle over it for homework, part of homework, or extra credit; welcome them to work on it together if they wish. The next day, see who has figured it out; if someone has, ask for a presentation, and ask questions along the way about the steps. If no one has figured it out, give a helping start again, and see whether they can take it from there.

This example still has the students doing the majority of the work–but it is possible for the teacher to present something without turning the lesson into a sequence of procedures or robbing the students of insight. To the contrary: they must learn how to make sense of what they see on the board–not only make sense of it, but take it farther.

Or take poetry. So many poems have been ruined by lessons that insisted on a main idea or relied entirely on student discovery. What do you do with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“? On the surface, the poem is about taking a few minutes of quiet–but in each stanza, the quiet is subtly disturbed. Even the title, “Stopping by Woods…” suggests a temporary stopping, not a permanent one. You do not have to summarize all of this in a single statement; you can instead look at and listen to the different pulls in the poem.

I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that the Success Academy high school’s initial difficulties had to do with the elementary and middle schools’ extreme focus on reading strategies and their stance against “teacher talk.” (Pondiscio states bluntly, when describing the high school’s beginnings, that it was “a disaster.”) Students’ difficulties with seminar may have stemmed, in part, from not knowing how to listen to others at length or how to explore a text or topic on its own terms. This might not have been a matter of classroom discipline alone. It might have had to do with intellectual practices.

This does not mean that teachers should abandon group work or paired discussion (I include both in my lessons). But there is a case for teaching something directly to the students. First, they may not know it; second, it can give them some ideas of how to think about the topic; and third, it can open up discussion at a higher level than would otherwise be possible. The main idea comes up in such instruction and discussion, but it is rarely the goal.  Rather, teacher and students focus on the text’s motion, details, digressions, and uncertainties. The students come to see more than they saw before. The main idea still matters, but it does not merit a crown. Let it be duke.

Pondiscio’s book demonstrates this unwittingly. It is a bracing pleasure; it raises memories, ideas, questions. It holds much more than a main idea. What’s more, it comes from an author with experience, insight, and a gift for writing. It could not have been achieved through turn-and-talk alone.

Note: Robert Pondiscio is a good acquaintance/friend (whom I have not seen in person for some time). I have been reading and enjoying his writing for years–and contributed many guest posts to the Core Knowledge Blog when he was its editor and lead author. 

Also, after posting this piece I realized I should refer to him, after first mention, by his last name rather than his first–since this is a review, not an informal comment–so I made the change.

A Great Tuesday Evening

IMG_0204
I had planned to spend most of the afternoon reading Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, from which Grecsó will read on Thursday when he visits our school and the library. Before today, I was about thirty pages into it. I figured I would read for five hours or so. But I got home only to realize that I had left the book at school–and I was planning to see the movie Seveled at 8:15 at the Tisza Mozi. It seemed best to go back to school, pick up the book, bike on down to the Tisza Mozi, and read for a few hours at the cinema’s café. I read up to page 109, without a dictionary, and expect to reach at least the halfway point tomorrow. It’s a wonderful novel and–assuming I keep this up at a reasonable pace–the first novel I will have read in Hungarian.

Seveled (directed by Dénes Orosz) was bittersweet and funny, with some intense beauty. I read about it on blogSzolnok and decided to see it. And I understood it! That was a happy surprise, since it was the first Hungarian comedy film I had seen. In some ways, comedy is easy to understand–a comic situation is often recognizable–but in other ways, it’s more difficult than the weightier genres. So it was really rewarding to get the jokes and laugh along with others. There were many good things about this film, but I especially loved the mother character (played by Juli Básti).

And then there was the bike ride home. To return from the Tisza Mozi, I just have to go north on Szapáry (which has a generous bike lane) and then make a few short turns. It’s a five- or ten-minute ride–and where the path is clear, I pedal full speed.

Here is a photo from earlier in the day, on Batthyány Street, where the pet supply store is located (but this isn’t a photo of the shop). I got a few things for my cat Minnaloushe and then walked home in the rain, enjoying this street (I had not brought my bike to school, knowing that I would have some big things to carry home). So, come to think of it, it was a pretty good day–and I haven’t even brought up the teaching, which went well too.

IMG_0202

CONTRARIWISE Continues!

contrariwisebanner

Way back in the spring of 2014, the first boxes of CONTRARIWISE arrived at Columbia Secondary School. I was on alert for the shipment–but when it came, I would not open a box; I wanted to wait until the editors in chief were available, so that they could do the honors. I remember standing nearby as they cut the box open (with a key, I think, or maybe with scissors) and took out a volume–elegant, crisp, and colorful. All the work that had gone into this journal was now in their hands. The rest of the day was filled with signings, distribution of gift copies, sales, congratulations, exclamations.

Soon they received their first review: “NYC Techie Kids Buck Trend, Take On Humanities,” by Cynthia Haven. In May 2014, we had our first CONTRARIWISE celebration, at Word Up Books in Washington Heights. I have a short video of the part where I sang the “Contrariwise song“–based on the Major General’s Song–which I had written just for the event. (Thanks to Mr. Gerald Pape, who shot the video.) After the song, the editors in chief close out the ceremony, and a member of the audience–then in sixth grade–reminds them, “You were supposed to answer my question about time.”

That audience member is now in twelfth grade and—for the second consecutive year–one of the editors-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE. I just received a message from him that the sixth volume is at the printer–to be released very soon–and that the contest and writing prompts for Volume 7 are now available. I will copy the prompts below in just a moment. Right now I am contemplating what it took, from many people, to keep the journal going and lively all this time. I initiated it and was the faculty advisor for its first three years. Then Kim Terranova advised it for two years, and then John Beletsky stepped into the role. There have been four pairs of editors in chief: Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, Kelly Clevenson and Alan Rice, Zosia Caes and Melany Garcia, and the current editors, Amogh Dimri and Theo Frye Yanos. In addition, CONTRARIWISE has had an editorial board throughout its history–students who read, discuss, and select submissions, judge the contests, help with sales, and plan events. Beyond that, CONTRARIWISE has been enlivened by its readers–people who buy copies, read them, enjoy them, and maybe even submit an Infrequently Asked Question or two (or five or ten).

Here are the new prompts and submission information, courtesy of the editors-in-chief. Everything except for the first one (the National Contest) is open to high school students around the world. Submissions must be in English. The new deadline is January 20. The information will soon be up on the CONTRARIWISE website (which will be restructured as well as updated, according to my sources).

National Writing Contest (select one) — for students in the U.S.

  • How should crimes be punished in the ideal society, and should they be at all? What is the purpose of “punishment” — an act of enforcing individual justice, or of maintaining the cohesion of the broader society? You may relate your argument to history or current legal systems as well if you would like. (Below is a scenario that might inspire you along this line of thinking.)

    • You have been accused of a high-profile crime, but you have no memory whatsoever of the time you supposedly committed it. Moreover, none of your friends or family believe it is possible that you could have done it because they know you to be a very good person. Supposing that you did actually do the crime, should your punishment be any less?

  • Write about an idea that is impossible for humans to understand or a problem that is impossible for us to solve.

International Writing Contest (select one) — for students outside the US

  • Why do we laugh? Can all the causes of laughter, varying from dark humor, to simple gags, to tickling, all be explained by one theory? In whatever sense you take it, what is the purpose of laughter?

  • Can violence be justified to achieve political ends? If so, why, and to what extent can it be used?

Writing Open Call — for all students

  • Write whatever you want!

Remember, your submissions for the writing contests or open call can be in whatever form you want: reflection, short story, poem, dialogue, letter, or whatever else you can think of! Feel free to take the prompts in whatever way you are inspired to!

Art Contest — for all students

  • Many artists use abstract or surreal art forms in order to express philosophical ideas, purposefully subverting the confines of the real. Make a piece of art that does this. (Below are two ideas that might inspire you on the ideas of surrealism and abstraction.)

    • Surrealism — French writer André Breton: “The purpose of surrealism is to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, or super-reality.”

    • Abstraction — Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh: “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”

Art Open Call — for all students

  • Make whatever you want!

Cover Contest — for all students

  • For this year’s cover contest, draw two abstract representations of non-mammal animals. Other than this guideline, be as creative as you want. Preferred width-to-height ratio is 2 : 3.

All submissions are due on January 20, 2020.

  • For writing, please share a Google Doc with editors@columbiasecondary.org. Do not forget to put a title and write out your full name as you want it to appear (or say that you would like it to be published anonymously).

  • For art, if it is digital please send an email with the file to editors@columbiasecondary.org, or for CSS students you can also give physical art to Prof. Beletsky, Theo Frye Yanos, or Amogh Dimri in person, or put it in Prof. Beletsky’s mailbox.

Don’t forget to credit any inspirations or inclusions of other works in your submission! (That is, cite sources and quotes, and credit any works that inspired or contributed to your own work.) An added comment from Diana Senechal: Borrowed/adapted art and photographs can lead to tricky copyright problems (and, in some cases, hefty fees). It’s better if your art is entirely original–that is, created from scratch, not a digital adaptation or direct copy of someone else’s work. But if you do adapt someone else’s work in some way, please provide the source, so that the editors can look into the copyright issues. As for writing, cite your sources accurately and thoroughly.

I hope many students in Hungary–and Turkey and around the world–submit their work!

eb meeting october 2015

Image credits: The photo at the top was taken by Shirley Reynozo at the inaugural CONTRARIWISE celebration on May 18, 2014. The video was recorded at the same celebration by Gerald Pape. I took the second photo at a CONTRARIWISE editorial board meeting (in October 2015).

The SzolnokTV Interview

SzolnokTV

SzolnokTV interviewed Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and me about the Dallas Institute events. You can see the video here: http://www.szolnoktv.hu/hirek/?article_hid=56533. Today Gyula had a second interview, which I will add here as soon as I can.

Thanks to Judit Kassainé Mrena, the librarian at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, for the interview location (the beautiful new library)! And thanks to SzolnokTV.

Packed Days, Words, and (Now) Bags Too

tuesday event 9

How do you pack a few days like these into a blog post? For the past week, my colleagues Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I were guests of the Dallas Institute and Cowan Center; these days keep opening into more.  The Education Forum on Monday and Tuesday evening, the various introductions and conversations, the visits to various places in the city, the assembly yesterday morning at the Terrell Academy, the luncheon, the sightseeing in Fort Worth yesterday–all of this was so full, warm, and brimming that we will be thinking about them for a long time. Not only that, but new projects and ideas are coming out of them; I have a lot to do over the coming months and years.

On Sunday we visited the Dallas Museum of Art, and on Monday during the day we walked around a lot and visited the Aquarium and Sixth Floor Museum.

Both evening events were terrific; the audience took genuine interest, and we enjoyed the readings and discussions. On Monday, Gyula Jenei read seven of his poems, and I read my translations of them; afterward, he, Marianna Fekete, and I held a panel discussion and took a few questions from the audience.

On Tuesday, I read aloud my translation of Marianna’s essay about the haiku poetry of Béla Markó; then Gyula, Marianna, and I had a panel discussion, followed by a Haiku haiku workshop, in which Marianna taught the audience how to pronounce several of the haiku poems, and I explained the individual words. You can see the Flickr album of the Tuesday night event here; I have included just a few below (and at the top of this post).

Things kept getting better and better. On Wednesday morning we gave an assembly at the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA, which is one of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Academies. We spoke in a huge, elegant auditorium to several hundred students, who listened attentively and asked sharp questions at the end. Then we went on a tour of the school and saw (for instance) the music room and several classes in progress. We were moved and impressed.

Then we returned to the Dallas Institute for a luncheon with special guests, including the poet Frederick Turner–who, with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, has translated many Hungarian and other poets–and the publisher Will Evans. (Dr. Ozsváth was unable to be in town for the event, but I felt her presence anyway.) The conversations and readings brought us together not only around the table, but for something ongoing too. Nothing I say right now will do it justice; I can only thank everyone who was there. Much more will come of it, visibly and invisibly.

I am in a rush now, so I will finish with a few pictures from yesterday (at the steakhouse–Larry Allums is wearing a bib, one of two that I brought for him and Claudia MacMillan, from our faculty trip to Serbia last August), on the golf cart at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens, where Claudia took us for a long and lovely walk, and in South Dallas last night). I am grateful for all of this. More thoughts and photos soon.

Photo credits:
Monday night event: Marshall Surratt;
Tuesday night event: James Edward (Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture);
Halloween photo: Marianna Fekete;
Terrell assembly photos: Jerrett Lyday;
Group photo outside Terrell Academy: Claudia MacMillan;
All other photos: Diana Senechal.

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

If Only

IMG_9544

Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.