A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Most software applications don’t foster learning and engagement

In schools, the best instructional programs help students master a subject by encouraging attentiveness, demanding hard work, and reinforcing learned skills through repetition. Their design reflects the latest discoveries about how our brains store memories and weave them into conceptual knowledge and practical know-how. But most software applications don’t foster learning and engagement. In fact, they have the opposite effect. That’s because taking the steps necessary to promote the development and maintenance of expertise almost always entails a sacrifice of speed and productivity. Learning requires inefficiency. Businesses, which seek to maximize productivity and profit, would rarely accept such a trade-off. Individuals, too, almost always seek efficiency and convenience. We pick the program that lightens our load, not the one that makes us work harder and longer. Abstract concerns about the fate of human talent can’t compete with the allure of saving time and money.

Part of Nicholas Carr’s article, “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines.” Carr explores these ideas in full in his book, The Glass Cage, which I am reading now and find highly interesting.

Is there an industrial model of education?

Phrases like “the industrial model of education,” “the factory model of education,” and “the Prussian model of education” are used as a “rhetorical foil” in order make a particular political point – not so much to explain the history of education, as to try to shape its future.

It’s tempting to say that those who argue that today’s schools are fashioned on nineteenth century factories have never read much about the Industrial Revolution. (Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 is in the public domain and available via Project Gutenberg, for what it’s worth.) Schools might feel highly de-personalized institutions; they might routinely demand compliance and frequently squelch creativity. But they don’t really look like and they really don’t work like factories.

This is an interesting essay from Audrey Waters that addresses a myth–the myth of the industrial model of education–that needs to be examined closely, since educational gurus and Federal agencies are making decisions based upon it.

Rand Paul answers an abortion question by asking an abortion question

“Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts,” said Paul, waving his hands to the left. “Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.”

 – Rand Paul, giving a Presidential candidate’s version of “Clown question, Bro

Experiencing the Revision for Publication Process

Recently The Curator published an essay of mine (have you read it yet?) and I continue to find the process a of writing for others challenging and thrilling. Derek Rishmawy nailed part of this process in this tweet recently:

editors at Gospel Coalition

Meaghan Ritchey, Adam Joyce, and, Laura Tokie helped me rework my essay from a mess to a presentable coherence, and it took me only five months to do so . . . In the process I’ve learned much more about writing than any teachers’ class could have taught me, and I look forward to revealing to students what I went through.

My first draft was long but lost. I had conceived of an idea that Meaghan liked, but when I wrote it I found it difficult to achieve what I’d pitched. She suggested I rework it, gave me some ideas about directions to take, and waited to hear from me again. This is a view of that draft with a few highlights of what I ultimately kept. The yellow highlights are ideas that, in their essence, made it into the final draft of the article. The blue highlight indicates material I kept for the next draft but eventually cut. Everything not highlighted is material I dumped for the next draft.

version 1 articleI did nothing with that draft for months, completely befuddled about how to fix it. Then I heard an old interview with David Foster Wallace that brought me an ah-ha moment. His comments led me out of the cave and lent me an angle from which to view the idea I’d originally pitched to Meaghan. I rewrote the article and sent it to her, and since her duties at The Curator have changed, she also involved Adam. Adam sent the draft to Laura. This next image is that draft, where the green represents lines that made it into the final draft in basically the same form in which they appear here.The yellow are areas where the ideas made it to the final in a different form.

version 2 articleWith this draft, Laura asked me two questions:

1) What do you believe this essay is about?
2) What do you see as the payoff of this essay for the reader?

The first question I was able to answer fairly succinctly and I found it helpful to be forced to answer it. The second question scared me, because it is why I have not written much in the last 15 years. I’ll go to write something and think, “People don’t care about what I have to say. Their existence will be wonderful and maybe even more wonderful if I just keep quiet and read a good book instead of writing something.” But this time I had committed to the process, so I answered the question. Based on my answers, Laura suggested an overall famework for organizing the article. She then, on Friday, asked me to send her a new draft by Monday.

I worked on the article for six hours over the weekend and sent her a new draft, significantly expanding the sections that appear in yellow in that previous image, cutting out an entire section, and admittedly leaving the overall piece too long. What I sent her reached 1,700 words, and though I knew The Curator aims to keep articles under 1,500 words, I hoped that Laura could help me judge what to cut. This next shot is what I sent her, with the green indicating the parts that stayed in for the final copy and the blue showing what I’d added that stayed in for the final.

version 3 articleJust like the other images, everything not highlighted did not appear in the final version. Laura cut most of that and I cut a few additional sentences, but the final version reached 1034 words. Each cut, I am convinced, helped focus the piece on the heart of what I wanted to communicate, and the final version is something I am happy to call my own.

But now I realize why writers thank their editors so profusely. I get the byline on this essay, but without Laura, Adam, and Meaghan, how could I have changed this article like I did?

Like I said, I learned a ton from this, and I look forward to doing it again. Hopefully the next piece will not need quite so much reworking, but if it does, at least I now know it’s possible to work it into something…

Alex Miller Jr. observes: Poetry will survive, in part because it is useless

The Swedish poet Thomas Tranströmer likened poetry to the notes kids pass back and forth in the classroom while that teacher History drones away at the podium. Robert Hass noted that now they are texting each other instead, but the intimacy and irreverence of poetry is captured well by either metaphor. It may be that under the pressure exerted by the Internet’s swelling hegemony, the value distinctions between print and aural cultures still so thoroughly propped up in educated minds will begin to crumble. If so, poetry only stands to benefit, because its relegation to the page of the academic journal is a tiny span on its lurid and decidedly unacademic timeline. It is not absorption into lowbrow culture that endangers poetry, but imprisonment in the highbrow. In any case, despite the loud and worried voices of its advocates, poetry is in no danger of extinction, because nothing so fine and so useless will ever be abandoned by young students once they’ve gotten a taste for it. Nothing is as essential as the inessential.

I’ve emphasized my favorite sentence from Alex Miller Jr.’s essay about poetry at The Curator. As a teacher I’ll continue to test ways to help students develop that taste, and I’m convinced it is not an impossible task.

Matthew Crawford sees that the space for sociability in public spaces is disappearing

BD: What you mean by a political economy of attention?

MC: A few years ago I was in a supermarket and swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I then watched the little screen intently, waiting for its prompts. During those intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount, and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. Clearly some genius realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience. The intervals themselves, which I had previously assumed were a mere artifact of the communication technology, now seemed to be something more deliberately calibrated. These haltings now served somebody’s interest.

Over the last ten years a new frontier of capitalism has been opened up by our self-appointed disrupters, one where it is okay to dig up and monetize every bit of private mindshare. And very often this proceeds by the auctioning off of public space; it is made available to private interests who then install means for appropriating our attention. When you go through airport security, there are advertisements on the bottoms of the bins that you place your belongings in. Who decided to pimp them out like that? If my attention is a resource, and it is, then the only sensible way to understand this is as a transfer of wealth. It is an invisible one, but the cumulative effects are very real, and a proper topic for political reflection. Maybe for political action too.

BD: And people who want to guard their inner life are forced into themselves. It forces you to put a book in front of your face.

MC: Right, that’s one of the hidden costs. What’s lost is the space for sociability in our public spaces. Like you say, we’re driven into ourselves with sort of an arms race between private attention technologies versus the public ones.

Of course there’s another solution. If you have the means you can go to the business class lounge which in some countries like France is silent, there’s just nothing. That’s what makes it so incredibly luxurious. When you think about the fact that it’s the marketing executives in the business lounge who are using that silence to think — to come up with their brilliant schemes which will then determine the character of the peon lounge — you begin to see this in a political light. When some people treat the minds of other people as a resource, to be harvested by mechanized means, this is not “creating wealth,” as its apologists like to say. It is a transfer of wealth.

Matthew Crawford in an interview with Brian Dijkema for Comment Magazine. I find that idea about the loss of space for sociability fascinating. So often when folks rage about manners and the change in what is polite, particularly regarding phones, I find myself thinking there must be something more–that this will all move in a vastly different direction than we anticipate. Crawford’s insight, I am convinced, captures something that is crucial but difficult to recognize–the nature of the public space we’re used to experiencing is changing. In much of my experience, for example, I have to spend some good money to find a restaurant without a TV hanging in the corner. So if I want to live as one who prays constantly, or one who stops to converse with others, or one who simply sees more than what is thrust before me, I am facing a difficult obstacle–the very nature of the space around me–and as I am finding, choosing not to own a cell phone has not exempted me from these challenges.

David Gushee observes why Christians might be suspicious of the death penalty

I urge my fellow Christians to contemplate the unjust use of the death penalty to kill the great majority of the leading figures we meet in the New Testament, including John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, Stephen and, yes, Jesus himself. Closely studying these abuses of state power recorded in the New Testament might incline my fellow Christians to be much more suspicious of state claims that it is time, once again, for the state to kill one of its own.

David Gushee in a letter to fellow Christians concerning the execution of Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia. As it concerns our society, I really hate the death penalty, though, I might add, that Gushee’s letter doesn’t really address many of the reasons I dislike it.

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