Common Ground

This week as we launched our writing workshop, I wrote with my students about riding my bike, about New York, and about the idea of finding common ground with others.  My bike has been a constant in my life since I was about 5 years old.  Not the same bike, of course.  Living in New York is a part of my past that keeps feeling farther and farther away and yet that distance reminds me of how connected I am to the ideas that mattered to me then in my  life.  The idea of finding common ground with others is one of those constants that mattered then, and matters now.

I hope that the four days my students and I have had together with our writing has given us some common ground.  My ambition was for us to have a template, or a framework for the concept of layered inquiry through writing.  If it isn’t yet evident to everyone, at least I feel as if I see it clearly enough to think about a number of other ways I can get people to look at their own thinking and translate that into things they write, explore, and turn into texts that have meaning for themselves and their readers.

What do you think you’ll write?

How might you approach that topic?

Taking that approach, what might you do?

What are some other ways of seeing this?

The answer to each question opens up a world of options, a whole new set of layers into which we could dig down.  The common ground I hope we are exploring is that our thinking and our writing is complex, and that most things can be seen more clearly when we look at them a lot of different ways.


Owls and Dogs

The first owl that I saw here actually

Was dead. A small Brown on its back

In the grass wings splayed next to the

Street. Killed by crows, I guessed, or

West Nile.

The thing about a dog is how I spend

A lot of time more time outside at dawn

And dusk. He takes these matters seriously.

I had already learned to look

For owls at these times at these times,

To listen for the the trilling of

The Browns before they took flight,

Or in the morning on returning from

Their hunts.

The sky, no matter what the alterations

Humans have imposed on it, is always

Just so good to look at in the morning.

The end of the universe is out there.

On the morning of Election Day 2008

Anxious to go vote, I saw a Great Horned

Owl spring out of a tree as I passed under it

And swoop off into darkness. I took it

For a good sign.

Today I listened to the trilling of the Browns,

And take it as a good sign

That a Great Horned Owl flew

Out of the dark sky to perch

Above our heads. Even if

It was only an owl, that alone

Is a good sign.

Write About a TV Show

Because words make magic happen

They should not be trusted. With your eyes

Closed I could say, “a shining light,” and

You might see yourself as if from across

A sunlit field, like you were a running dog,

Or beside a lake, or at a desk in front

Of a computer.

Or I could use the words, “Korean

barbecue and French fries.” Your mind

would be so happy, all your senses

Wrapped up in the zest and sizzle of

The smells and flavors of the roasted

Meats and spices.

The sounds of words you would mistake

For satisfaction. No field would have been

Raced, no fish reeled in, the tingle of a hot

French fry might be savored as a memory,

But your body would be empty and unfed.

Nothing would have been accomplished.

So when I watch TV, I keep the sound

Down so I can’t hear the words. A fall

Is funny. Or if something breaks. Guns

Can be funny when the people in the bar

All duck and nobody gets hurt. A trap

Is funny if your hand is stuck but nothing

Else. A drunken man is funny, or a man

Who cannot find his chair, his car, his

Words. But you can’t tell sometimes about that.

In my last dream I saw the words, “Cow/

Vow,” on a page in a book. There was more

That made some sense, but I could not

Remember by the time I woke up.

Even when you are not dreaming, words

Can make reality very difficult to understand.

Snow Again

This morning when I woke up

The sky was dark and the ground

Formless and glowing as if parts of it

Might rise and float away like clouds

Or pale ghosts, but quietly.

I had been running a race

On a track that stretched off

Into distance without end. Time

Mattered not at all. Leaders stood

By confident the winner would have

Already been decided from among

Those present. Or who would soon,

Or had already left.

The only thing that will not change

Is being haunted by the past. Summer

Nights spent shivering in blankets marking

Time until the sky grew light enough to rise

And start a fire, watching smoke curl up

Between the leafy branches of the trees.

Feeling warmth begin to grow.

1328 Maxwell

In this house the child knew

What it was to sleep next to an

Open window breathing in the

Clean sheets and the scent of

Lilies of The Valley which were

Blooming in the shade this

One warm day that would last.

On her dresser pictures and a pincushion

Drew his eyes and opened questions he

Would never ask. In this house he would

Know little, but know it well. Motes of dust

That floated between sun and shadow,

Reading by the hot air register behind

Her chair. They spoke little. He would

Arrive early in the morning. She would

Bake and clean, then sit for coffee

And a game show.

In this she lived after they had

Left the farm, but just a couple years

Before her husband died after his

His stroke. This house they moved

Her from when so much else was gone

She could no longer stay. I only

Know part of the story. This house

Now fenced for a construction site

And marked for demolition.

Poetry Month Poem-a-Day 3

I owned a shirt like that

Back when we had a garden with

Tomatoes every shape and color.

Yellow, green, and red. Like the moon,

Like roses, globes, or shaped like rain.

On hot nights the vines would pull

Themselves from deep beneath the soil,

As if they ached for whatever they imagined

Would be possible, had imagined

On the day when I had placed them

In the ground. There was no fruit

Shaped like a star.

Mornings I would stand

Outside at dawn. The fruit would

Sing the sun into the sky.

My shirt, that red one, hung

Off of me like memories of a rivalry

That I would never win.

That was what I had to leave behind.


These dreamers sat at the window

Sipping coffee staring at the line of

Dogs from the neighborhood who had

Slipped their collars dancing on their

Hind legs, spinning like the colored strands

Of streamers in the cold wind.

Plumes of music and exhaust fumes belched

From the motors of the barrel organs. The

Streets were closed, crowds of people

Waiting their turn to eat, to spill

A drink, to throw darts at a balloon,

An axe at an apple on the head of

Their youngest son, shoot skeletons

In a saloon, pitch baseballs at ancient

Monuments for prizes.

The real prize, thought one,

Is in a tent that holds the sky

And it is so large no one pays

Attention. Admission, thought one.

There is a show, thought one,

Inside that tent. Thought

One, it’s time.


It began as a color, like

the unicorn, almost too beloved to be a part

Of anything the world might have

To offer. In daylight, starlight, in

The rain or total darkness it would race

Among the trees, across the dancing

Tall grass, twinkle on the surface of the water, and no living creature, no sighted

Creature was immune from being struck with awe.

Some say the world

Was a better place then. Silence

Was everywhere and every living

Creature, seeing creature, knew and

Recognized its beauty.

Look at how things are today.

Machines at all times everywhere

And not just in the cities, under ground and

In the sky and under water

Making sounds nobody can escape.

Some wonder why the change?

Nobody knows for sure. After

It happened there was nothing

Anyone could ask and get an answer.

They say though that silence at the

Time was tired of being seen, that it

Decided that it wanted its voice

Heard as well.

That’s how it goes, and this

Is what we have today.

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.