Monday, April 24, 2017

Worship & testify

Things I believe in: serendipity, coincidence, the brain's ability to create connections where they may or may not exist.

That's why, when I happened to pluck a dusty Bruce Hornsby CD off the shelf on Sunday and noticed a track called "Sneaking Up on Boo Radley," my students and I gave the track a spin 48 hours later as part of studying To Kill a Mockingbird. That's also why after two online interactions connected me to this text and this one in the past week, I'm slicing about them now.

Six days ago, math educator Dan Meyer reminded me (and anybody else reading his blog) to "testify." The context for this exhortation was advice to educators who present formally, but I took the charge to apply to any interactions with learners. Each time in front of students, for example, to what truths must I testify? This bar feels high and essential and worthy.

"Testify!" was still pinging around my skull almost a week later when a #BFC530 Twitter chat pointed me to author David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. It's called "This is Water." Near the speech's end, Wallace tells the imminent graduates: "You get to decide what to worship... There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." (7) Of course, there's religious worship, but that's one type among many. The challenge, Wallace warns, is that outside religion, "pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive." (7) Worshiping, it turns out, tends to elevate absurdly lofty ideals.

Cue, the connecting brain, which concludes: In worshiping, I aspire, knowing I must inevitably fall short; in testifying, I tell stories of the journey, so that others may learn and progress farther down the road.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Towards a definition of innovation

About 140 sixth graders pinballed into an auditorium two days before Earth Day. They staked out tables to showcase potential solutions they had developed for problems facing our planet. In the wake of this inaugural Innovation Fair at my school, I've been wondering. Students certainly displayed curiosity and enthusiasm yet, to tap into prevailing buzz, how innovative were they?

Circulating among tri-fold cardboard panels and glowing Chromebooks, I found myself bucketing most projects in one of two ways:
  • Imaginative - such as the picture-book story about dwindling bee populations and what people can do to help
  • Informative - like the well-researched display about burning trash for energy and recycling subsequent ash byproducts for road resurfacing
These categories obviously blur. Imagined stories can be inspired by research, and research projects can involve making something imaginative to showcase findings.

To varying extents, the projects that I grouped this way recapitulated existing know-how. Then, I came across what felt like a quirky outlier. It was a simple paper-and-pencil cartoon that might've been, at first glance, a robot whale. More lay below this surface. The drawing's creator envisioned a new bio-engineered organism that could miraculously and naturally clean the oceans by feasting on waste as it swam about. Compared to the lion's share of fair projects, this one felt more dream-like than feasible. It also felt more innovative: the moonshot what-if touted by many breathless web videos. By pushing his ideas past envelopes containing what he already knew, this student sparked new, unexpected questions.

Given how widely the term 'innovation' is being tossed around nowadays, including in the title of our recent school fair, I've started picking at its use as a label. That's led to this conclusion: To qualify as innovation, three conditions must be met -- newness, difference, and creativity.

Newness by itself is just the latest loaf of sliced bread; difference, the latest bread-flavor sensation; creativity inspires slice shapes we haven't seen before. While these qualities can appear in pairs, too, it's not until all three synergize that innovation emerges.

Schools can tend fruitful ground for such synergy, though this often requires changing systemic, student, and familial habits and cultivating new ones. Otherwise, our learning fairs will look like they have before, no matter what we call them.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your thoughts to make my first-draft musing better: What's your take on the increasing innovation buzz?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence, #2

Just cracking -- today, for the first time -- David Elliott's clever verse novel Bull, with its mashed up mythology and rap rhythms, I'm tickled by the word play, the story spinning, picturing legions of Rick Riordan-crazed mythomaniacs in middle school to whom I might make an ecstatic book recommendation until I abruptly confront (on page 6) the first eff bomb dropped, and I find myself needing to re-calibrate the giddy expectations from a moment ago; or do I?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Season's greetings

Sundown Monday night signaled the beginning of Passover, so my wife and I gathered a group of friends for our first seder in years. We truncated the traditions, focusing mostly on food ones; meanwhile, our friends delivered, potluck-style. Besides good fun and the breaking of (unleavened) bread, the night treated me to one vivid memory of my grandfather.

Growing up, I sat around numerous dinner tables where he occupied the head. I remember how he would slowly look around the gathering, before the meal was served, making eye contact with each person there. (This proved easy when it was just my brother, me, and our grandmother for a casual Friday-night dinner; more challenging at, say, a bar mitzvah with a roomful of a hundred people.) Then he would say the same seven words. "I'm glad everyone who's here," he'd proclaim, pausing once more to sweep the room with his eyes and a small smile, "could come."

Looking around our table last night, those words felt apt -- as they always have. I kvelled (my grandfather's word) that his memory could come, too.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

April showers quickly sour

Snowplows in April
grate like the brutal scraping
of nails down chalkboard.

Tuesday morning's wake-up view