Strong, Light, or Cheap?

I read this about bike parts a few years ago.  The author suggested that when you’re selecting parts for a bike, you can only have two.  You can have strong and light, but it’s not going to be cheap.  You have strong and cheap, but it’s going to be heavy.

I was thinking about this on the walk home yesterday.  Are there things in teaching, especially preparing to teach, that will drop out given the time constraints of systems, emergencies, district stuff and the kid thing that will immediately consume all of your time?  (And that doesn’t even consider real life stuff like dead cats, teen drama, and sprained knees, all of which I’ve dealt with this week…)

Traits of a good unit, off the top of my head at 6:15AM:

  • Real-world application
  • Engaging to the students
  • Academically rigorous
  • Contextualized within a year’s worth of goals
  • True to the school model
  • Co-planned
  • Creative formative and final assessments

    How many can you get each time?  And how do you look at a year’s worth of projects and figure out a balance? I know there are some teachers whose projects hit it every time — that’s good for them, yo — but for me, can I get a balance where I get most of them, most of the time?

  • First song from our wedding


    • See the Billy Preston quote at the end of this profile.
    • Longreads collected many of the recent articles here.
    • Today’s appreciation from the Wesley Morris/NYT, with this paragraph:

      Because lots of major pop stars now have great, big voices, maybe it’s easy to forget that most Americans had never heard anything quite as dependably great and shockingly big as Ms. Franklin’s. The reason we have watched “Showtime at the Apollo” or “American Idol” or “The Voice” is out of some desperate hope that somebody walks out there and sounds like Aretha. She established a standard for artistic vocal excellence, and it will outlast us all.

    Talk about teachable moments

    One poem in a magazine. The internet explodes.

    Here’s the original, which now has an editor’s note/apology.

    The twitter apology from the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee.

    Long, thoughtful response from linguist John McWhorter.

    Former poetry editor at The Nation writing in the New York Times.

    There’s twitter back and forth between Stephen King and Roxane Gay I don’t feel like screenshotting.

    Times Literary Supplement here.

    Two pieces from the National Review. One and two.

    I would like to read this poem with a diverse group of thoughtful students.

    Starting Inquiries

    I would like them to respond directly to Mr. Anders-Wee. Does the poem give offense or does it poke all of us to think about homelessness? How do the different people in our room read the poem? How do we simultaneously listen to perspectives offered by our peers and formulate our own?

    I would like to think about the politics behind a work of art. How do we manage representation of others in our work? Can a man write as a woman? As an old guy, may I write as a teenager?

    I would like to think about when and how do we separate the author from their work. One of my favorite books for teaching about social class and race was authored by a now-disgraced writer. Should we stop reading that book altogether? Is it up to the reader to deliberate over the identity of the author?

    (All of these are long-running debates in American literary criticism and politics. Amazing how one short poem can poke so many…)

    Possible Activities
    Read the poem once. Read the poem again with a picture of Mr. Carlson-Wee on screen. Read poem with a picture of a youngish black man on the screen. Read poem with picture of youngish Asian woman on screen. Read poem with picture of youngish Hispanic woman on screen.

    How did the poem change as the picture of the author changed? Did it change? Should it change?

    In small groups have students write biographies of a young poet who just got a huge break by having poem published in major magazine. Mix them up. Read three of them plus biography of Mr. Carlson-Wee but don’t let on which is which. How did hearing the biographies change things?

    Risky but might do anyway. Most of my city kids have had interactions with homeless, mentally-ill and/or addicted individuals. Living in Philly since 1990, I have stories myself.

    In small groups, how would you capture those stories artistically? You can describe a poem, a play, a work of art, but you must be able to explain:

  • why you choose this form of art?
  • why this is the most respectful way to capture this situation?

    As a group, we would talk about why you might want to make this art and what traps you might face in doing so…

    How do assumptions we make about people shape how we read their work? What would a checklist look like for someone trying to figure out their assumptions or biases? Is it different, the ways in which we read art versus other interactions?

    Taking these three days, what would you like to say to the poet? What would our group like to say? Maybe as a group poem to be sent to him?

    More to come…

  • TJ and SH

    One of the great parts of getting ready to open a year is getting read lots of Annette Gordon-Reed’s work. Along with the books, there’s this piece about Charottesville that concludes with this paragraph:

    American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities. We saw that clash on the grounds of UVA. But how do we continue in the face of depressing realities to allow ourselves to hold fast to the importance of having aspirations, and recognize that the pursuit of high ideals—even if carried out imperfectly—offers the only real chance of bringing forth good in the world? In many ways, grappling with that question is what being a scholar of Jefferson is all about. Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about.

    Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

    I think I’ll use the opening piece as part of a “personal essay” unit. I think students will like and recognize the opening anecdote. I hope they’ll see how you can take one story from your own life and work it into a larger reflection. And if it makes a few young men uncomfortable, so much the better.

    The essay I really loved, though, was Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable. I could teach with this one, too — how do you weave together an interpretation of multiple books — but it would be just as helpful thinking about language, how to use it, when it needs to be concrete and when it can’t be.

    “We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretenses at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation.”


    We could argue about this quote for days. I thought about how often I urge students to be bold in their claims and I felt a flash of guilt. But I think what Solnit is urging us to consider is that we need to be bold in our ambiguity, in laying out both sides, in understanding that you make your best effort to understand through careful assessment of a situation and sources, but that you may fall short.

    Several pages later, Solnit quotes Susan Sontag about war and what’s knowable:

    “We’ — this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through–don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying, war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine.”

    She follows by saying, “Sontag, too, calls on us to embrace the darkness, the unknowability, not to let the torrent of images that proud down on us convince us that we understand or make us numb to suffering.” (p.84)

    I read this as a way of helping students understand that ambiguity is different than relativism. There are lots of ideas and experiences out there that need to be constantly interrogated and contextualized. They can’t just be set aside or neatly labeled. That’s our work as students, scholars, and human beings.

    Finally, in talking of the role of criticism, Solnit writes:

    “This (an essay of Virginia Woolf’s) is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens an exchange that need never end.”

    I love this framing and will use this quote with students. How do your write in a way that invites exchange around ideas? How do you write something that leaves someone scrambling to write back, to want to respond?

    Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Updated edition. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2015.