Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Accounting for Harriet

I last read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh in 1980. The experience is bringing me flashbacks of Mr. Jordan's 6th grade English class and my grey stone Catholic grade school.

Mr. Jordan had an abandoned wasps nest hanging over one of his doors. He was the only male teacher I had from Kindergarten through 8th grade. From the last row, I could look through the windows across the black asphalt of the school yard, over I-95, and at Veteran's Stadium. I used stare at the stadium and wonder if the Phillies or Eagles were on the field practicing. I haven't thought about that in 35 years.

I'm finding, as I read certain scenes, that I can recall the experience of reading them as a child--I remember liking the old Mrs. Golly and I can remember the line about "her big ham hands dangling helplessly at her sides."

And I remember the squiggly-lined sketches. I drew a lot as a child. I noticed drawings in books. I liked them.

But rereading it now in 2016, I am struck by something very different: Harriet not feeling any accountability for what she wrote in her notebook. Even when she dropped her notebook in public and her classmates read all of the horrible things Harriet wrote--she felt no sense of accountability. No one was supposed to read it in Harriet's mind. Harriet says to her mother, "...they shouldn't have looked. It's private. It even says PRIVATE all over the front of it."

And I thought, aren't we having these same conversations about kids and writing online today? Aren't we figuring out that nothing is really, truly private online? Yet, some might blame the device for online bullying or kids making poor decisions, but it isn't a device problem at all.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964 and presents an issue which causes much anxiety today.  I am wondering if anyone was blaming the notebook back then?

Harriet carrying her notebook everywhere reminds of Donald Graves carrying his writer's notebook with him everyday--everywhere he went. Anyone who saw Don speak at conferences probably saw his notebook. I am falling into the habit of carrying a notebook as well. Notebooks are portable. It can be pulled out anywhere.

And so is my iPhone...which is an extension of my notebook.

Imagine someone writing an updated Harriet the Spy but instead of a marble-backed notebook, Harriet spied on people with her iPhone. She'd write in it, of course. But Harriet could take pictures. She could record video and audio. She could use apps to manipulate the images of people--write horrible things on their photos. She could blog her thoughts as she spied and then accidentally "click" PUBLIC or PUBLISH.

And none of it would be the device's fault.

It all still comes down to human beings learning about a very important life skill: accountability.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Device By My Side

As I read M.T. Anderson’s nonfiction for teenagers, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shoshtakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad over Christmas break, I pulled out my iPhone to search “Shoshtakovitch 7th Symphony” on YouTube. Over one hundred renditions of the 7th Symphony appeared--including a short clip of Shostakovich playing a fragment of it himself.

I settled on the BBC National Galles rendition conducted by Thierry Fischer.

Before reading Anderson’s book, I couldn’t have said much about Shostakovitch other than he was Russian. Additionally, I knew nothing about the Siege of Leningrad or the city of Leningrad itself. My lack of background knowledge neither stopped me from being a reader nor stopped me from being a writer. My personal device--an iPhone--brought the sounds of the 7th Symphony along with images of war-torn Leningrad into my den.

Technology helps patch the gaps in our background knowledge in that it quilts together raw information, pictures, archival footage, music, et al. at our fingertips. This immediate access to information helps all of us to become more effective creators--because the same device which allows me to pull up a blog also invites me to record my thoughts, take a picture, or write. We can discover our meaning.

Technology allowed me to pause my reading and listen to the 7th Symphony, search images of the Siege of Leningrad, and share my process on this blog. 

I dipped in and out of the hardback book and my iPhone. I jotted down some thoughts for this blog post on a notes app. I used the voice-to-text feature to speak my thoughts aloud as I listened to the performance. I sorted out my feelings and thoughts in a Google Doc...and then I copy and pasted what I wanted into this blog post.

And then I revised it on Blogger...both on my phone and on my laptop.

And I thought...why can't students also prewrite by talking into a device if they wanted to? Of course they can. This thought only came to me because I was using the device by my side as a reader and writer.

For long stretches I reclined back into the comfort of my sofa and listened. I moved closer to understanding Shostakovich’s impact on his country just by listening to the music and by letting Anderson’s text settle deeper inside of me.

The music made me go back and reread page 344:

A soldier in the Red Army wrote in his journal, ‘On the night of 9 August 1942, my artillery squadron and the people of the great frontline city were listening to the Shostakovitch symphony with closed eyes. It seemed  that the cloudless sky had suddenly become a storm bursting with music as the city listened to the symphony of heroes and forgot about the war, but not the meaning of the war.

Starving and weak, survivors endured daily bombings, cannibalism, and cruel taunts from the Nazis surrounding Leningrad--they air-dropped pamphlets reminding the Russians that they would all starve to death soon. And these physically frail, emotionally brittle, human beings found the will to perform this brand new symphony composed during the Nazi invasion.

Anderson writes about that performance:

It was not only the Russians who reacted. The Germans listened too, too, as the music rose up through leafy streets and above the gilt barrage balloons. It barked out of radios in the Wehrmacht barracks. Years later, a German soldier told Eliasberg, “It had a slow but powerful effect on us. The realization began to dawn that we would never take Leningrad.” That was enough in itself. “But something else started to happen. We began to see that there was something stronger than starvation, fear and death--the will to stay human (345).

Riveted, hunched over my iPhone, I watched and listened and thought. I was so moved by the story and it was enhanced--my experience so much more emotional--because of the device by my side. 

I resolved that I would share this segment of the symphony and the story behind it with my students next week because just minutes earlier I knew nothing about Shostakovich. I knew nothing about Leningrad. Yet technology and a hardback book together left an impression on me that I will never forget.

While I hope my students are moved by the content, I hope they are even more struck by my example--the model of using technology with my reading and with my writing. It is not a must have. Of course, we can still write with pencil paper; however, technology, often bears the weight of being seen as an either/or proposition. It is not either/ is an and/with reality. 

Reading and writing with technology at our side is the reality of the world of our students. It is my responsibility to keep up.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Joy & Value of Choice

In 1977, my mother and aunt trundled me off to art classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia. My mother, single and working, paid for the classes even though money was tight.

Recently she reminded me, “You didn’t like going to classes. You just liked doing things on your own at home. You used to paint and draw all the time. But then you took the class and you just moped around about it. You finished all the classes but you didn’t want to go back. ”

A painting of mine from college. Using oils.
I painted a portrait of Eugene O'Neill on
a canvas of egg shells and cardboard. I did it
for me, on my own time, and not for a class.
Even though I was nine-years-old, I can still vividly remember the blinding white light bulbs throughout the studio. I remember the bright lights forced my eyes low towards the floor. 

The staff, friendly and encouraging, set me up at an easel with pastels. They clamped a pad of white paper to the frame of the easel. The paper gleamed like fresh, smooth ice. Every place I looked--at their faces, at the paper, at the artists next to me--it was clean, white, light.

I remember feeling the weight of never having worked upright on an easel or on paper so perfect. I had never held a pastel. 

Used to drawing at home, sprawled across the floor with cheap pencils and wax crayons, I was now afraid to make a mistake.

Wedged in between other students and a maze of easels, I peered at the other sheets of paper to see what others did with pastels--large circles and half arcs, haphazard lines. This didn't look like the drawing I was used to. I smudged a bit of red on the paper.

We were to draw the still life of bright round oranges by a pink-flowered tea set. 

I remember not liking the idea of being told what to draw. And I remember not liking how the soft pastels mashed against the paper and smeared onto my fingertips like stage makeup.

My mother laughs when she remembers, “No, you didn’t save anything from those classes.”

Not long afterward, I tried guitar lessons. A nice man owned a small music shop right around the corner from us on Percy Street. I remember banjos hanging on the wall and I remember thinking about my Uncle Joe teaching himself to play the banjo. At the time, I was amazed that someone could teach himself how to play an instrument. 

When I recently asked my cousin whether my memory of his father is accurate, he replied:
To my knowledge, yes, my Dad was self-taught on the banjo and guitar. I remember the guitar more. He like to play the acoustic as it was easier to keep handy than an electric guitar. He also played the mandolin. My brother Joe took some lessons when we were younger but he didn't stick with for more than a few years. I do recall my Dad hearing Stairway to Heaven and saying what crap it was. He picked up the guitar and started to play it after hearing it the first time, and playing it well.
The adolescent me reacted the same way to the guitar lessons and the art classes: turned off! And I loved art.

These memories make me wonder today--as a teacher and writer--in what ways do we move students away from being writers? In spite of all of our good intentions, what conditions make our kids feel less like writers? So many of my young writers tell me stories about how much they used to love writing...before school entered their lives.

What conditions can we be mindful of which actually move kids closer to not only feeling like writers, but these conditions actually move students closer to being writers?

In the case of the guitar lessons I remember I sat on a stool in a cramped space, curtained-in on four sides with my instructor. I remember that he demonstrated the notes, and that I imitated him. 

The best way I can describe the feeling is that I felt like a caged gorilla because of the conditions of the physical space. 

It was confining. It did not feel like home. It did not feel like a place where I could explore. It did not feel like a place where I could play.

And I felt like a caged gorilla because of the rules. So, I did not practice the guitar. The rules caused me misery. Actually, I resented having to practice the chords. It required effort. It felt hard. And, more importantly, the rules and the chords suddenly meant I could be wrong.

I found no joy in the rules.

I found no joy in the still life.

I found no joy in the possibility of being wrong...or being corrected.

I can still remember the joy, however, in drawing what I wanted. I can still remember the joy and the value of choice.