Finding Inspiration

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I  was having a difficult time finding inspiration for writing my blog today. I’ve been enjoying doing this task five days a week for almost five years now, and there really are very few days when I search desperately for a topic. When that happens I usually serf the Internet hoping to find something that sends a sudden burst of ideas to my brain. Today was one of those times when nothing was coming to mind, so I spent some time reading posts on my Facebook wall hoping desperately that something would jump from the page to tickle my fancy.

I read about a friend who had run a half marathon and ended up exhausted and hurting. I was intrigued by what she had done, but since it would never even cross my mind to think of doing such a thing I didn’t exactly come up with fertile ideas for writing when I read about her adventure. How far would I get reiterating the idea that my knees no longer allow me to run, and that I have little or no desire to push myself into a state of pain doing anything. It became obvious to me that I would have to keep reading if I was to find any kind of material for creating an essay. That’s when I saw  a post from a high school friend that sent me into gales of laughter.

He was asking if anyone had an extra set of feet for an artificial Christmas tree because he was unable to locate his. He had searched closets and attics and all sort of places all to no avail. Friends in his age group razzed him about getting old and the inevitability of becoming forgetful. I identified completely because I had decided on a great blog topic only an hour or so before, but couldn’t recall what it had been for the life of me. Lately I’ve had to learn to write things down as soon as they come to mind or the slightest interruption may erase them forever. My husband had asked me a question and in the short space of time that it took me to respond I literally forgot what I had intended to write about for today. So there I was wondering what to put on a page.

That’s when I saw yet another post from a former teacher friend who was asking for advice on what to do to find inspiration when it eludes us. There were some great ideas like gazing up at the sky, but it was very dark and rainy where I was, so that didn’t seem to be an option. I’d already tried looking for interesting quotes and perusing the news, none of which jostled even an iota of creativity. That’s when I thought of the many times when I had a deadline for an essay, and I drew a blank regarding what to compose.

Writer’s block is the stuff of legend. After creating the masterpiece The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled to regain his footing. Somehow he was not able to repeat his performance as a writer and it lead to depression and alcoholism, so I know I shouldn’t feel too bad if I find myself without ideas now and again. Still it is so frustrating, and I remember one occasion in particular when I stared at a page with the same painful realization that I was as stumped as Jack in The Shining. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to write the same sentence over and over again. I was unable to even string together a nonsensical group of words, and it threw me into a panic because I was taking a class at the time, and my assignment was due the following day.

I was willing to admit that procrastination had created my dilemma, but that was little comfort as the clock ticked away. It seemed that the harder I tried, the more locked up my brain seemed to be. Taking a walk did little to help. Lying down and attempting to quiet my mind did not work. Screaming my frustration only felt worse, because I knew that I must have sounded ridiculous. I was on the verge of panic and tears when my husband brought me a cold beer.

I looked at him as though he had two heads. I argued that drinking a brew might only make me sleepy and then I would really be in a pickle. I thought of poor Fitzgerald and how not even a prolonged bender alleviated his problems. I failed to see how pausing for a sip of suds was going to change the situation, but I had almost reached a breaking point, so I surrendered to the idea.

I relaxed a bit while enjoying the amber liquid, and as I did I became quite mellow, so much so that I wondered if I would just drift off into slumber and end up having to attend class without completing the assignment. I was certain that I was totally in trouble, when I slowly found myself considering a number of out of the box ideas. The more gulps I took of the beer, the more fertile my thoughts became, and before long I was banging out a paper that in that moment made me feel as though I was writing the next great educational document. My fingers were barely able to keep up with the flood of ideas that filled the once blank paper with a sea of characters forming words, sentences, paragraphs and entire pages. Not more than an hour later I was proof reading my manuscript and creating the final copy for submission.

I went to bed that night feeling relaxed and accomplished. My alcohol soothed brain was bristling with greatness, or at least it felt that way. Sadly by morning I wasn’t as sure of myself, but I had to work all day and understood that I was stuck with the essay that I had written with a muddled mind and no time to change it in any way. Rather than torture myself I decided not to even read it again, and I began to feel a dark sense of foreboding. Somehow I believed that any chance of getting a decent grade was doomed. I chastised myself for allowing such a situation to exist in the first place, but it was too late.

As it happened, I had somehow unlocked the creative juices of my brain with my drinking binge and my paper proved to be more than satisfactory. When I saw the grade I was amused that I had pulled off my smoke and mirrors magic trick. The professor wrote dazzling comments about my brilliance, but I could only laugh at the fact that I was unable to remember what I had written. (Bear in mind that it takes very little for me to become the victim of a drunken state, so that beer had rendered me rather incoherent, but apparently still somehow in control of my faculties. I now fully understood why so many writers turn to drink as a muse.)

My latest episode of writer’s block and the search for inspiration lead me into a discussion of over imbibing with a group of relatives. My brother who is almost a tee totaler spoke of a time when he enjoyed himself a bit too much and engaged in a match of chess with a graduate of MIT after running a foot race with his buddies. Surprisingly he recalls the incident as the best game that he has ever played, and he was so relaxed that he won handily in both the race and the chess game. Others told of amazing feats like being able to do pushups on a countertop, or dancing like Fred Astaire. It seems that rather than inspiration, what we all found was a way to eliminate our inhibitions.

I certainly would never recommend my inebriated writing method as a regular means of expressing my thoughts. It might have ended quite badly, but for a bit of luck. I suspect that the secret was that I was able to relax, and I might have accomplished the same thing with a brisk walk or a few minutes of meditation. It may well have been my brother’s exercise before the chess match that was the source of his winning ways, and not the vodka. It didn’t seem to work for F. Scott Fitzgerald, so it may be a mistake to think that it worked for us.

Anyway, I’ve somehow managed to fill a blog with a bit of nostalgia and nonsense and maybe even some hidden ideas for finding inspiration. In the future, however it is no doubt best to write down the ideas that I have before I lose those thoughts. It is a lot less frustrating than tackling an empty page.

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Summer Reading

LordOfTheFliesBookCoverMany students will be receiving summer reading assignments in the coming weeks. The ingenuity of their teachers will play a large role in determining whether this is a pleasant experience for them or not. Sadly it too often becomes a dreaded task that young people avoid until the last possible moment instead of being a source of pleasure. In our quest for accountability those of us who are teachers all too often concentrate more on how to ascertain if our pupils have actually learned certain things from the experience and less on how much they enjoyed it.

Kylene Beers is a well known reading specialist who strongly believes that children should have much more say regarding what they will read in their leisure time than most teachers are willing to grant them. She insists that our students should have many book choices and that they be the ones to ultimately decide which ones to tackle. She also cautions teachers from creating assignments and tests that erase the satisfaction that should come from digesting a truly interesting novel or nonfiction text. She notes that much of the joy of reading is extinguished each summer by well meaning teachers who lack the trust that their students will actually choose worthy volumes and then critically read them.

Dr. Beers suggests that teachers provide students with a long list of acceptable titles and then allow them to pick the ones that are most appealing. She feels that proof of reading should be checked in creative ways of the students’ own design. Otherwise, she points out, it becomes an odious task and the act of reading is associated with very negative feelings.

I find myself agreeing somewhat with Dr. Beers. I had to read several books each summer. Some of them were quite delightful and I am happy to this very day that I discovered them. I read others grudgingly and shutter even now at the thought of how uninterested in them I was. While Kon Tiki was a bestseller and a great adventure for some, for me it was a nightmare. I had a difficult time remembering what had happened from one paragraph to another. I simply had no desire to read such books back then. I eventually became enthralled with Into Thin Air and other similar titles but being exposed to such nonfiction in my youth did little to change my attitude. Thankfully there were enough titles on my teacher’s list that I mostly enjoyed my summer reading.

Today the favored tactic is to assign a single book to the entire class. Usually it is a classic with appeal to most students. I often wonder, however, how terrible it must be for someone who just can’t get into the story. We’ve all had that problem with one book or another. We aren’t the same and sometimes a story simply doesn’t speak to us. Maybe we need to be sure that students have a number of titles from which to choose rather than assuming that we have found one that will be acceptable to all.

One summer my grandson had a reading requirement for an American History class. There were four or five titles from which to choose. He enjoyed the first one that he read so much that he later tackled some of the others. When he had the freedom to decide his interest was piqued more than ever. Because I wanted to be able to discuss the books with him I bought copies of all of them. Like him when I discovered how great his first choice was I realized that his teacher had excellent taste and that I would probably like the others as well, which I did.

How to assess the students on reading assignments is another issue. Dr. Beers believes that many teachers find books that their student like, but then kill the appreciation with tests that ask questions about minute details that few of us would recall. Instead she recommends that the teacher should attempt to determine the student’s reactions to themes and characters. She suggests that asking students to discuss their feelings about the book is far more beneficial than having them tell what color a certain character was wearing at a particular juncture. She wants students to create questions that they may have and to list aspects that they had difficulty understanding. Just as members of a book club get together to critique a selection, so too should students be able to comment rather than being tied to an assessment that destroys their exuberance. The summer reading experience should never be a “gottcha” moment.

I am not naive enough to think that none of the students will take advantage of a teacher’s largesse if such changes are made, but there are ways to determine how much a student derived from reading without making it a laborious task. First, everyone should have a choice of titles. Assignments should be variable as well. Students can use their creativity to demonstrate what they learned. For some an essay will suffice. For others the creation of some type of object representing what they lessons they drew may be preferable. I suspect that allowing students to demonstrate their appreciation in various modes and then present their ideas to the rest of the class will result in far more interest. 

Think of how you usually decide to read a particular book. Quite often you see someone you know engaged in it. You ask him/her about it. Something about the response intrigues you. You find a copy and become enthralled. The next time you see your acquaintance you mention the text. The two of you begin a lively discussion. You share ideas. It is a pleasurable experience. Nobody is forcing you to do this. Reading becomes something that makes you happy and so you read even more.

I love the idea of having students spend time reading during their summer vacation. I like that they are often introduced to new authors and topics that they might not have otherwise discovered, but I also believe like Kylene Beers that they should have some freedom in deciding what sounds interesting enough to pursue. When the assessment is creative enough to keep that spark of enjoyment growing the experience is pleasurable and remembered forever.

I still tell people to try Things Fall Apart, The Kite Runner, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies and so many other titles because they touched my heart. I will talk about them with anyone willing to listen, not because I had to read them, but because I wanted to. Reading should be a joyful experience. Let’s keep that in mind when we ask our children to spend some of their summer inside the pages of a book.   

Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water!

153679054-620x4131Last school year one of my grandson’s called me using Skype so that I might help him with his seventh grade math homework. It was an unusual request from him because he is generally quite mathematically inclined and is even taking Algebra I this year in the eighth grade. I learned that he had a long term substitute teacher who wasn’t especially equipped to teach math and so he was not grasping concepts during class the way he normally does. In addition the homework assignment didn’t appear to match the information that he had been given during regular school hours. Even worse was the fact that it was over four pages long with a total of about eighty problems. He caught on quickly and managed to complete the assignment with little help from me but it took well over two hours and he was almost falling asleep as we worked to beat the clock. I suspected that perhaps he had been given the worksheets earlier in the week and simply chose to get them completed just before they were due but he insisted that it was a one night deal. Since he is generally quite honest I had to believe that the situation was one of those travesties that students must sometimes endure.

There is a great deal of discussion regarding homework these days. There are pros and cons regarding its impact on learning but virtually everyone agrees that in some cases there is way too much of it, particularly for younger children. I have a feeling that much of the homework trend is being driven by the tightly packed curriculum that literally does not allow for any breathing room in the teaching cycle. Educators today are pressured to introduce an impossible number of concepts during the school year, sometimes more than one new idea during a single hour. It is a race to get everything done and often assigning homework is the only way to provide the practice that students need. The problem of homework is brutally complex and needs to be addressed but not in isolation. Unless the entire issue of scope and sequence, skills and knowledge and testing is addressed the fixes may be quick but inadequate.

I taught math. I knew for certain that the vast majority of my students needed infinite amounts of practice before they mastered concepts. I tried to direct teach and then provide lots of in-class time to try out the new ideas while I walked around guiding those who were struggling. I managed to cleverly work in short periods of practice when students had to demonstrate understanding without assistance from anyone. I gave homework Monday through Thursday with regularity. I learned that ten problems worked as well as fifty for reinforcing learning so I tried to keep my intrusion on my students’ home life as short as possible. I generally found that I needed to work the problems myself before giving them to my kids because I had to see how much time they actually took to solve. I also checked regularly with those of varying skill levels to find out how long it took them to do my homework. I adjusted whenever I learned that they were having to work for more than forty five minutes. I tried my best not to give assignments on the weekend or before holidays. I wanted my students to have family time and to come back rested.

Some teachers and parents are suggesting that there should be no homework at all. I find that such ideas are akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Instead of attempting to adjust the situations that worry us we tend to use one size fits all strategies and as an educator I am certain that it is never a good idea to do so. When I was a student I needed homework because I was always too distracted inside a classroom full of other people to adequately absorb the information that my teachers were presenting. I needed the quiet of my home to go over my notes and study examples. I tend to die in group settings. Even in college I had to avoid the library because I was constantly losing my attention because of the distractions of the sounds of people walking, turning pages, shifting in their seats and so forth. Teamwork projects were just an extra burden for me because I always had to later go into my quiet little lair and study in my own way to master concepts.

Educators need to bear in mind the many different learning styles that make their students tick. One of the best ideas I have ever seen is giving students choices regarding how to reinforce their learning. Allowing them to select activities that correspond more closely with their innate learning styles just might be a great way to reduce the stress that universal homework assignments create in so many kids. They might for example have the opportunity to stay a bit longer once school is out so that they can participate in group study settings, especially if that is a better way for them to learn. For those like me who lose all focus in a crowd a private room might work or even the chance to just go home to do the work in solitude and familiar surroundings. Until we begin to assist each student in building on the strengths that they already have we will almost always find problems.

Another way of dealing with the homework problem is to have teachers from the different curriculum areas communicate with one another. I wanted to know when science fair projects or research papers were due so that I might shorten my own assignments or even eliminate them entirely. When every teacher is piling on huge amounts of work students become overly stressed and little learning is actually occurring. By working together to consider their needs it is far more likely that they will actually take care in meeting the demands from each class.

I think that high school students have to have homework or they will be totally unprepared for the rigors of college. They must learn how to manage their time but teachers should also bear in mind that few university students are held captive in classrooms for seven or eight hours. They instead have many extra moments during the day to complete their reading, papers, labs and studying. When high school students don’t even arrive home until five or six at night they have a very narrow window of time in which to get everything done. Sometimes they struggle to complete their work before midnight and then have to arise with only five or six hours of sleep to begin again. Little wonder that so many of them become unduly anxious and burnt out.

I advocate for continuing to assign homework beginning about third grade and slowly increasing its intensity as the student progresses through up the line. Perhaps first year homework assignments should be as little as  five or ten minutes in the main subject areas total while a senior in high school might handle as much as three hours total in a single night. All grades from the fifth grade on should have a summer reading assignment as well to encourage a lifelong habit of learning. Students can prove that they actually read the text in different ways such as writing a critique, analyzing characters, giving a speech or presentation, and so forth but not with a “gotcha” test over small details. Let’s face it nobody recalls such things and the literary experience should be as enjoyable as possible.

I’m glad that people are thinking about homework. We’ve gone way overboard of late and it’s well past time to begin a more creative way of insuring that everybody learns.