Storytelling Recommendations for my Students.

Other than having someone read to me when I was young, my favorite memories of listening to a good story go back to hearing Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game.  With the exception of the night the Tigers lost the pennant to the Twins on the last game of the season – shut down by former Tiger hero Jack Morris on a night when I had been called in to work a double dishwashing shift and we all, the cooks, waitstaff, managers, and busboy crowded in the noisy restaurant kitchen to hear our hopes go down the drain in those last innings of that year -– there’s no particular game that I remember.  Having a game on was a weekend afternoon distraction for my dad while he did yard work, cleaned the garage or fiddled with the cars, and I suspect as much as anything that the work he did got done because it gave him the excuse to be outside and listen to the radio away from the stresses and hassles that might have consumed his thoughts throughout the week.

Clearly a ballgame and a story are two different things. Harwell’s play call blurred the difference.  His pacing and his familiar folksy tone of voice imbued games with a literary sense of tension, conflict, and resolution.  Ballgames have this anyhow, of course. And of course the players themselves, the characters.   Working in that “It isn’t over ‘til it’s over,” structure that suits itself to the feeling of an endless summer day or a long novel, Harwell knew how to leverage all these elements with his voice.

That was years ago, and I haven’t listened to a ball game on the radio for a long time.  But I thought about it one warm afternoon late in this summer when I was out in the garage working on my bike.  My habit has been to do that sort of thing with my ipad by my side and a podcast playing.  This particular day, the battery was dead.  It was quiet, and I missed the sound of someone’s voice telling a story.  The way that I listen to stories has changed.  The types of stories that I listen to have changed.  I would like to say that my appreciation for hearing a good story told well has stayed the same, but it hasn’t.  If anything, it’s grown.

If there is a point to my thoughts on this topic, it’s that there is a lot of good storytelling out there in the world today.  And where a ballgame might make me feel connected to my city, my team, my fellow fans, listening to these stories makes me feel connected to my past, my fellow human beings, and myself.  This past winter, a colleague I met at a conference recommended that I listen to an episode of 99% Invisible.  Listening to this brought me back to Serial for season 3, and then to The Memory Palace.  I feel like these only scratch the surface of what’s out there, but I love them so much it’s hard to branch off into more.  I don’t have that much work to do in the garage, and I’m already addicted to books.

Today in my classroom we were going over the rubric for argument we will be using throughout the year.  It was, coincidently, a rubric I learned about that the conference where I met that colleague.    At one point, as we discussed the upcoming project, I asked students to describe what might constitute ‘evidence’ in an argument based on personal experience.  The first response was ‘stories.’

I can give no better reason for why we should surround ourselves with stories than the fact that they are evidence the things that make us human. If you haven’t yet, check out these podcasts.  If you have other good storytelling to recommend, please do so in a comment.


School Is Starting !!! Yes !!!

At the start of the school year it always feels good to ask myself why I teach English.  Since I was in school, technology has completed changed the way we read and write.  These changes have also transformed not only how I teach, but the content of it as well.  I often wonder how these changes affect the reasons why I teach.

My brother in law runs a machine shop.  In practical terms in the context of this current industrial economy, the job of a skilled machinist is all but obsolete compared to what that title would have meant when he and I were high school students.  With a foundation as a machinist, and with a Masters of Fine Arts, my brother in law employs himself in a niche of the economy in which machining and mass production are not necessarily synonymous.  He creates and restores works of art that require machine parts for museums and science centers, and he does precision work for the kinds of machines that are not necessarily mass market products that would be profitably built by a large factory, such as large devices used in hospitals.  With few exceptions, the machines he runs in his shop would be recognizable to a machinist 100 years ago.  The exceptions are how the story of his shop relates to my reasons for teaching.

When I visited him at work last spring, he was running parts on one of his automated milling machines.  This machine has multiple stations, and the working arms at each station can be fitted with multiple tools.  On this particular day, the first station was performing three tasks on the parts he was producing, and the second station, three more tasks.  The machine is not fully automated.  My brother in law stood by, placing the parts, moving the parts completed from the first station to the second, and checking the quality of the parts to ensure that the pieces were being cut to the parameters for the work.

Once upon a time, the parts he was making would have been made by six men at six machines, or one man at one machine reworking the same part six different ways with different tools at different times, or some other equivalent of the time and space of these combinations.  For a machinist to perform each task would require knowledge of machine, tool, and part.   Additionally, to perform each task with precision would require skill, experience, a muscle memory gained from years of work.  Even with all these attributes, the opportunities for error would no doubt be greater, not to mention inefficiencies of exhaustion, pace, and floor space that are solved by automation.  What the printing press did to the scribe, the automated milling machine did to the skilled millwright.  In large scale industrial production, the change is even greater.  Fully automated machines move parts from station to station, could likely be programmed to retool themselves, and most probably can perform routine quality control checks.  Do machine operators today even learn to perform by hand the operations they program their machines to run?

One reason my brother in law is able to do the kind of unique museum work he does is because he has the skill, experience, and patience to do the kind of distinctive precise piece work a machinist would have had to be able to do by hand in past centuries.  He knows how to run automated machines, and he is also capable of running the same functions by hand as a machinist.  His understanding and experience inform the tasks he programs his machines to perform.

It is tempting to want to be drawn into analogies between manufacturing technology and the media, from the scribe to the printing press to film, TV, the internet, and social media, but I am not a historian, researcher, or linguist, and I do not think this helps me answer my original question of why I teach.

The analogy that I prefer is much more broad in scope.  While language might change as media develops, media and language are not the same technology.  Language itself is a machine.  As human beings, we invented it, we produce it, transform and update it, and we make it work for us.  We are the ones who have invested words with meaning.  The machine of language gives individuals control over the ideas and values they choose to believe and follow.  Language brings individuals together in sharing and understanding these ideas and values.  It is the machine that makes the bonds that hold us to ourselves and to each other.  We have little else that performs these tasks so effectively or well.  And yet — look at the news — we can always improve.

That’s why I teach.  Because language is a tool, and the product is humanity, and I want the people who follow me to know how to use this tool as skillfully and as precisely as they possibly can, so that even in a world where technology has quickly automated the efficiency with which we spread our words and may continue to do so even more, my students know through experience and understanding the exact functions they are asking the machines of their words — our language — to perform.

Summer Reading — For AP Lang. 2017 – 18

During the school year I find it easy to find the time to pick up a book and read.  Between going to school and taking care of family responsibilities, grabbing a half an hour in the morning when I wake up or at night before I go to sleep to enter into the world of a book is practically a necessity, and it’s a rare day when I don’t do it.  The paradox is that during the summer, where my days are structured more or less around my own choices, figuring out when I’m going to read becomes another task, and if I don’t make a priority out of it, I can easily find the day slipping away and I have missed out on the chance to open up a book.  I’m not saying it’s a hard task.  I love to read.  But there are lots of things I love to do, and it’s easy to get caught up in those things, too.

Travel helped.  Between airplane and train rides, as well as settling in at night after busy days, I was able to read four books in the last 3 weeks.  Harum Scarum, by Keith Abbott, is an interesting collection of short stories in which characters grapple with conflicts about identity and pressures created by perceptions of others vs. perceptions of themselves.  The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, is a nonfiction science thriller about Ebola.  It’s somewhat dated, since the last crisis two years ago, but still very interesting.  The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansen, is an interesting story about characters negotiating their own places in the world through manufacturing a relationship in which they both take advantage of each other.  Camino Island, by John Grisham, was a fun crime story and literary mystery.

As far as your blogs go, I’m looking forward to catching up on reading what you’ve been writing about.  Now that I’m home, that’s part of my summer reading plan. I’ve got a stack of books lined up, but I’m sure which I’ll dig into next.  As far as your summer reading goes, please feel free to post a comment here about what you’re enjoying, or blog about it.  Also, on Twitter or Instagram, post to #roreads.    And just a reminder, as part of your AP Language summer work, go to the Student Blog ELA 11 and AP Language tab at the top of this page and pick an issue to join the conversation about.  I will look foward as the school year starts to seeing the different viewpoints that you added.

Happy reading!

Dog Year

July 11, 2016 marks the day we brought home Finnegan.  I was not really a dog person at that point in my life.  Needless to say, this has changed.  Over the course of the past year, my life has adjusted to a routine built around companionship.  In the morning while I eat breakfast, eyes follow my every move.  There is no sitting down without the expectation of play time. Walks are mandatory, the longer the better.  Being away from home the past few weeks has been all the more of a reminder of how much I have grown to enjoy my dog.  German dog owners commonly train their dogs to the point where they can take them anywhere.  It is perfectly normal to see a dog under a table in a restaurant or waiting, on its own — not tied up, just sitting — for its owner to come out of a store.  I have learned to ask,  “Kann ich dein Hund streichen?”  Can I pet your dog? Finnegan isn’t yet well trained enough that he would rest at my feet in a restaurant, but I hope he will be some day.  Watching people with their dogs, and being away from mine the past few weeks has given me a fresh appreciation for the furry friend who came into my life this past year.  About a week into being here I did a google hangout with my family back home.  As soon as he heard my voice over the computer, Finnegan jumped up and ran to the door.  It was awful to hear his bark change from excitement to confusion as he listened but could not see or smell me there.  I didn’t know that having a dog could be like that.  When I see him again, I think my tail will wag as well.

There’s Probably a German Word For This

I like to think this trip started eight years ago.  That puts the ending so far off in the future it’s impossible to imagine.  Maybe one day Laith or Owen will come to Freiburg to study, or Felix, who had just been born when we were here four years ago, could come to stay with us.  When you open your home to a guest, or stay in the home of a family who welcomes you in, these people’s lives become a part of yours. The day I arrived here my host had just found out his father would need major surgery.  A few nights later we were at his parents house for dinner.  His father and mother showed me around the garden they had spent their lives building,  a landscape they had modeled after the Alhambra in Spain, which they had visited early on their marriage.  They had brought trees and flowers from all over the world to a hillside at the end of a valley in the Black Forest where their grandparents had been farmers.  Above their house they flew the flag of the European Union.  The world does not need to be a divided place.  On Sunday, I visited Manuel.  His son, Felix, wanted to show me his bedroom.  Being four, Felix speaks much better German than I, but we had a conversation about his toys in which I felt like I was pretty much holding my own.  My host’s father’s surgery went well on Monday.  He’s recovering well, much to everyone’s relief.  My bags are packed, and I would prefer to think of myself not so much as leaving as moving on to the next stage of this trip.  It started eight years ago with a conversation in the hallway when one of my colleagues mentioned that two teachers from Germany who were guests at our school might enjoy visiting different people’s homes for dinner, and I thought to myself, “I don’t know if my family and I will ever have the chance to visit Europe, but at least we have a chance to have Europe visit us.” What it’s come to now is that I feel like I have neighbors on two continents.

Looking for Words

For those who may not know, I’m beginning the summer in Waldkirch, Germany with the GAPP students from ROHS.  Like them I am staying with a host family.  My German goes back to high school, so I understand it somewhat well,  but I have had very little experience with speaking it for the past thirty years.  For the past week, though, I’ve noticed some funny things happening with the way I think and speak.  My hosts and most of the people I deal with speak English well.  When I need to be understood or if we’re having a conversation that is moving quickly,  English seems to work fine.  At the same time, however, I am constantly thinking of how to say things in a way that will be clear to them, so I’m not exactly speaking the way I would normally.  I am also at the same time constantly surrounded by people speaking German.  On goal I had for this trip was to improve my own German, so I’m also always trying to think of how to say what I’m saying in German.  I find myself switching between languages between sentences, or between words, or translating myself while I speak in ways that I don’t expect. When I start to think and talk,  I’m never quite sure what will come out.  This is probably how we normally go through the day, but between two languages I’m very conscious of this uncontrollable tossed word salad of my thoughts.  Yesterday I was at a music concert and it was about a minute before I realized I could understand what the musician on stage was saying because he was speaking English.  Anyhow,  keep blogging and check out these AP Lang sites from last year under the tab at the top of this page.  Comment on them.

Father’s Day Poem for My Dad

You took me down a narrow path.  It was my first

awareness of both shade and forest, strapped

in a seat on the back of your bike. 

We fell, but if it hurt I don’t remember.  It’s the joy

of being with you that stays in my mind.

I know we teach our sons the things we love, the invisible

paths of golf balls through the air, cue balls on a field

of orange felt, or long, high, home run balls flying

through warm summer air as we sat watching from the

upper deck overhang.

I don’t remember when you took me down the driveway

for the first time, or the trails our skis left in the snow

the day you did that.  I remember trailing you

much later, down snowy slopes.

This is the path that I followed, the path you

started even when it took me places

you would not go.  My sons have walked through

rain, mosquitoes, dust, and mud on islands

and in forests, sleeping on the ground  The path I followed

driving in the winter morning darkness

with two quiet boys holding sleepy conversations

in the back seat on the way to soccer games.  The things

we love are almost never things.

The path I follow now, not knowing where it goes

but knowing always that the best part is who we are with.

Ahead of me, you showed me how to be a father

and when you lead the way, you brought my sons along.

AP Lang 2017 Summer Begins!!!

My summer blog reflects who I am during the months when my teacher self goes into hibernation. This year it will probably focus on reading, travel, and projects around my house.  If you’re in my class next year, write about what you want. Definitely follow and post to #roreads on Twitter (you should read a lot during the summer).  Also, check out the sites on the ELA 11 and AP Language Blog tab at the top.  Read about the topics students researched in the spring and join the conversations they invite you to join by posting to their hashtags or using their sites’ comments threads.  Have fun. Start your summer reading and writing.

More Conversations

Here are some more sites to visit to read and think about the topics and issues that matter right now to us here at Royal Oak High School.  Join the conversation.

For a complete list of these sites, go to the Student Blog ELA 11 and AP Language page.

An Invitation — Please Respond

My students and I were inspired by KQED’s Do Now project to create sites that invite conversations on topics that matter to them.  We understand that these topics connect to a variety of issues in communities today, and we want these sites to provide space for students at Royal Oak High School – or anywhere else – to share their perspectives and discuss their ideas about these issues in a civic-minded manner as a way of moving our communities forward through the challenges we face.

How can you use these sites?

Visit them.  If you see one that sparks your interest or that you feel strongly about, read about the issue.  Take a look at the hashtag for the site on Twitter, or read the comment thread, or both, and see what others have said about the topic.  Then add your voice to the conversation.

Here are a few to get you started.  More on the way soon. — About changes to education policies under President Trump. — About testing of products on animals. — About activism and social media. — About social media and body image. — Fun with memes. — Pressures of recreational activity on nature. — About sign language and culture.