I Reflect on Reflecting

Today I’m sitting in that tunnel of mirrors, the barbershop trap, where you’re supposed to be looking at how the back of your haircut looks, but instead your eye gets distracted by the fact that you can see the mirror in front of you inside the mirror behind you, and the mirror behind you inside that…and so on…and so…you nod and say, “It looks good,” but really you haven’t even looked at your hair.  You’re too distracted by the myriad reflections.

That’s me.  Reflecting in so many scattered ways that my reflections don’t always yield the results that people imagine when they describe a “reflective person.”

This year, as I’ve read the entries on the Two Writing Teachers blog, I’ve seen how much thought some teachers put into choosing a word that will be their “One little word” (OLW) for the year.  I took part last year, and I chose the word “citizen.”  Most people chose verbs.  I chose a noun.  I thought, though, that it was a noun that implied action.  I don’t know how successful I was as a citizen last year.  I voted; I marched; I rallied; I wrote.  Was that really enough?  I probably could have done more.  I’ll reflect on that later.  

At the beginning of this school year I chose the word “yet” as the touchword for my year.  Again, avoiding the verb, this time I chose a conjunction. Odd, I know.  I chose it for its ability to revise and reframe a sentence. In the world of a fifth grader, things are often black or white.  Kids say, “I’m good at art,” or, of more concern, they state the negative, “I’m not good at writing.”  It can be hard to counter that concreteness, the certainty or finality of their assertion.  I tried to focus our first weeks on adding the word “yet” to any negative proclamation.  That quality of temporariness made it seem like there were still possibilities.  “I’m not good at math…yet.” (Wait, I’m wondering now if that really is a conjunction when you use it that way. This is how I’ll find out if my sister reads these entries.  She will know).  Whatever the part of speech, I’ll continue to push that powerful word as a tool this year. But now it’s January, named for Janus, the two-headed one who looks backward and forward in Roman mythology, so I’m choosing a new word for this year:  reflect  (a verb, finally).

I’m determined, though, to be more conscious of how I reflect.  I do it naturally, but almost obsessively, at times.  As a result, I sometimes don’t use my reflection for more than a chance at admonition.  “Well, that sucked.  I won’t do that again.”  Or, “That didn’t work so well.  I should remember to do it a different way next year.”  Those reflections, though honest, don’t do much good.  Neither do the reflections that keep me from sleeping at night.  Those often mix with projections, the things that worry me about tomorrow.  This year, I’d like to be more constructively reflective. I think that means I need to leave space to look back more regularly, to look back in a more focused and analytical way, and then to look forward, based on my reflection.

Reflecting is on my mind right now, since I’ve recently spent time reading a memoir that my father is writing.  His purpose, of course, is different from mine.  Partly, he’s trying to figure out his old self, wondering why he emigrated from Sweden at age 17, wondering why he wandered so much in those years from 17 to 23.  Partly he’s doing it so that future generations will know who he was and hear his voice.  

Now that I think of it, I probably should be thinking along those same lines.  Rather than waiting till I’m 87,  with memory failing and energy flagging, it might be wise to figure out myself and make myself known to that generation that hasn’t arrived yet. I could begin a memoir project now, and…

See? This how my flawed and unfocused reflections lead me off track. Now I’ve just given myself a new project.  Reflection should clarify and direct, not just add to my to-do list.  Here’s my reflection resolution:  In school, I will leave time before the end of each day for all of us to reflect on one part of the day.  In my reflection, I’ll try to find something interesting or positive upon which I could build, and I’ll try to make note of one specific thing I could do as a follow-up or correction tomorrow.  That’s Janus-like, purposeful, and focused.  My one little word for 2018 is reflect.

I can do this, even if I’m not good at reflecting…yet.  

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The River that Divides

I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my sister-in-law, Ann Marie.  We’re at her house in McLean, Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac River from my parents who live in Bethesda, Maryland.   We’re chatting about the news of the year, since it’s the next-to-last day of 2017.  The subject of all  the fallen giants bubbles up.  I don’t recall  which of us raised it.  We run through the list of transgressors,  Harvey, Matt, Kevin, Louis, Al, Garrison, knowing that we’re leaving some out.  Wouldn’t they be relieved?

I sigh.  “It’s weird with some of them.  They just seem like good guys.  I guess it just shows something about people  in the public eye.  You really don’t know them.”

“I don’t think you really know anyone,” says Ann Marie.  “I mean, really.  We have all these friends and relatives that we think we know, but some of them we see a few times a year. Sure, it’s more than that if you count Facebook, but we don’t really know them.”

So true, I thought.  I could take a deeper dive into this pool, but I’m slicing, here, so I’ll hold off.  It occurs to me that we had many examples of this during the holiday, but I’ll focus on one.

The evening before, we were sitting in my parents’ apartment.  It’s four miles from Ann Marie’s house as the crow flies, only about 15 minutes as the car drives, for that matter, but for some reason this is the first time in thirty years that we’ve seen both families on the same trip.  Odd how wide that river can seem.

We’re talking about breakfasts, because Ann Marie has been serving us feasts each morning, as though we’re at a bed and breakfast.  Nancy, my wife, is mentioning how she and Sarah are not really breakfast people, while I’m saying, for the benefit of no one, since everyone in the room knows this, that I happen to be a big breakfast person.

“He always has been,” says my mother.  “So, ever since he was very little, we said, ‘Okay, here’s how you make scrambled eggs, and here’s how you make french toast, and here’s how you make an omelet.’  Ever since then, he’s been able to make his own big breakfasts.”

This amuses Nancy.  It seems almost sneaky on the part of my mom, tricking me into doing the cooking.  But then again, it appeals to her, this idea that I was a willing student, with an appetite for learning.  “He’s pretty good with the eggs,” she concedes, conspicuously omitting all of the things I’m not “pretty good with.”

“Yeah, and don’t forget the egg nog,” I add.

“You made egg nog?”  My daughter Sarah is not a fan of eggs.

“You made egg nog?”  My wife is not a fan of egg nog, but she’s also dubious because of the effort that involves.

“Yeah, but not always for breakfast.  Sometimes I had it as like a fourth meal at night?”

“A fourth meal?  Geez, how often did you make this stuff?”  Sarah is getting more disgusted by the moment.

“I don’t know.  Once or twice a week for a few years.”

“What?!”  Now Nancy is alarmed.  “Wasn’t that a bit of a chore?”

“Not really.”  I proceed to explain my process.  “You know, you just get about three eggs, drop ’em in the blender, add some milk, a little sugar, and a drop or two of vanilla.  I never bothered with the nutmeg (yuck) or the alcohol (underage).”

“Wait, you didn’t heat the eggs?”  Nancy is both alarmed and grossed out.

“Wait, three raw eggs?”  Sarah is nearly gagging.  “Didn’t it taste awfully…eggy?” This is accompanied by the face of distaste that daughters are so good at making towards their parents.

“It tasted kind of like vanilla ice cream,” I say.

“Why did you do that?”  Sarah can not get her mind around this idea of voluntarily consuming something so blatantly egg-ish.

“I was a skinny teenager.  I wanted to gain weight.  It was much more tame than Rocky’s routine.”

Nancy is sure that is neither the correct nor the safe way to make egg nog.  She is sure there should be cooking involved.  She even tosses out the word “tempering” to show that there is a proper verb for what I was supposed to have done with those three eggs.  I offer to  Google it.  The first recipe is almost identical to what I had said.  No cooking or tempering involved.  Nancy is dubious.  “What’s that, the ‘cooking hacks for lazy people’ web site?”

“No, it’s Ask.com.  It has nine thousand likes.”

“Yeah, well, try something that has some cooking cred.  Is there an Alton Brown recipe? He  does things the right way.”  I look up Alton Brown, and sure enough he has a recipe.  Sure enough, he also has his own, more meticulous method.  It involves separating the eggs, whipping the whites, and folding them into the mixture.  BUT, there is no cooking or tempering.

“HA!” I shout, vindicated.  “Oh wait.”  At the bottom of the recipe, he has an alternate method, for those who don’t like the idea of uncooked egg.   It uses the word “tempering,” too. “Rats.  Well, it’s not his first method.  It’s just his alternate.”

“Wait, you used THREE raw eggs?”  Sarah again.  I believe this is called perseverating.

The argument is settled, sort of, but Nancy is still looking at me in an odd way.  “You  know, what’s weird is that I’ve known you for 36 years.  I think I know pretty much every story about you.  How is it that I never knew you loved to guzzle raw-egg egg nog as a kid?”

I shrug.

Now I can say, “You know, Nancy, a wise person from the other side of the river once said to me, ‘I don’t think you ever REALLY know anyone.'”

 

Updating My Status

It’s Tuesday afternoon and time for writers’ workshop.  This is the writers’ workshop that my kids have come to call, “Free writing time,”  a day I’d reserved for more joyful, less academic writing.  I’m still looking for other names that don’t sound quite so lax: “Open choice,”  “Greenbelt,” “Joy Writing.”  None has either the right ring or meaning.   I vow to continue  my search.

Meanwhile, in an effort to maintain some semblance of order, I’ve taken to sharing a poem at the opening or “invitations” (read: suggestions) to get things started.  Today, I decide to begin with a routine I used to follow in the early days of writers’ workshop, a Nancie Atwell ritual that she called, “Status of the Class.”  It was a routine I liked a lot.  Why did I stop?  I would read down my list of students, asking each one to give a quick update on what he or she intended to work on during the session.  

Brief detour:  I can never forget the time in my second year of teaching, when I called out Randy’s name.  “Shut up,” he blurted.

Silence.  I don’t think they had invented the expression “awkward silence” in 1987, but without a doubt, an awkward silence fell over the classroom.  “Excuse me?” I asked, in that voice that we use when we want someone else to give a really good excuse for why they just did or said something outrageous.

“Shut up,” he repeated.

“Randy,  I just called your name to ask what you were working on today.  Why would you say, ‘Shut up’?”

“Because, Mr. v.” he replied, “that’s the name of my story.  It’s about a kid whose sister talks too much, so I’m calling it, ‘Shut up.’”  I detected a slight twinkle in his eye.  He knew he had shocked the class…and his teacher.  Comedy writing is all about surprise, he taught me.

That wasn’t the reason I stopped the “Status of the Class” routine.  In fact, I rather liked calling Randy’s name each day for the next several sessions.

“Randy?”

“Shut up.”

“Right.”

Or the day after that.  “Randy?  Oh yeah right, I know, ‘Shut up.’”  

I felt I had a right to turn it back on him.

No, the reason I stopped was probably because it could eat up a lot of time.  I liked the fact that everyone heard what the other writers planned to do that day.  Sometimes ideas spread that way.  I also liked that everyone needed to have a goal for the day’s session and that I knew everyone’s status.  That’s not as tricky anymore, now that we’re all usually working on a common unit. And we’re pressed for time.

But back to Tuesday.  I start down the list.  It isn’t a familiar routine, so we have to do a bit of waiting, as well as a few repeats of the directions.  “When I call your name, give me a few words explaining what you plan to work on today, okay?”

“Michael?”

“What?”

“I’m calling your name for Status of the Class.”

“What’s that?”

Sigh.  “It’s when I call your name and you give me a few words explaining what you plan to work on today, okay?”

“Can  you come back to me?”

“Mack?”

“I’m continuing my grim story.”

“Right.”  Mack is a reader and a thinker.  He also has a gloomy side.  In this piece he seems intent on bringing his readers as low as possible.  “First the mom leaves,” he informs me.  “Then the dad says he can’t stand seeing his kids because they remind him of their mother, so he sends them to an orphanage.”  

“Sounds like fun, Mack.”  To balance this picture of Mack, I should add that on the first day of school he refused to give me a Hi Five at the end of the day.  “I have to tell you, Mr. v.  I’m not really into Hi Fives.  I’m a hugger.”  He proceeded to wrap his arms around my waist as I stood with my right arm still waving in the air.  Fifth graders are complicated. But back to the Status.

“Nick?”

“I’m working on the story with Sam, about Kracken, this kid who is the son of Zeus.”

“Right, the one you shared last week.”

“Josh?”  

“I’m working with Sam and Nick on the story about Kracken…”

“OOOO-kay.”

“Max?”

“I’m working with Nick and Sam and Josh on the story about Kracken…”

“Adam?”

“I’m working with Nick and Sam and Josh and Max on the story about Kracken…”

At this point, I’m dying for someone to just say, “Shut up.”  It would break the pattern.

“Sam?”

“Well…me and Nick…”

“Oh yeah, right, and Josh and Max and Adam.”

At this point, I have to stop.  This is not seeming like a workable plan.  I make a brief speech about how you can’t find a single book on our shelf that’s written by six authors. Writing just doesn’t work that way.

“Umm.  How ‘bout that Guys Read book that you just showed us?” says Michael, sensing an argument, and suddenly paying attention.  “That has like 50 authors.”  He doesn’t mind challenging a teacher.

“Umm, that’s a collection of separate stories, each written by a different author.  That would be a great thing for us to imitate,” I say, thinking this just might end up working out.  I suggest that maybe that’s the way we should proceed.  We can work on a theme, as the Guys Read collections often do, but we could work independently.  To my surprise, the Gang of Six actually likes this idea.  They agree to work independently.  

I’m despairing a bit, though, about the similarity of the choices.  There’s the grim tale, the comic books, the Percy Jackson knock-offs, and the Warriors knock-offs.  I push on.

“Katherine?”  

“I’m writing a story about my family decorating our tree last weekend?”

“Did your brother find out that he was actually a son of Zeus?”

“Um, no.”

“Is anyone getting sent to an orphanage?”

“Um, no.  It’s just about us decorating the tree.”

“Oh.  Well, good. I’m looking forward to reading it.”

She proceeds to write the Slice of Life that I can never seem to write:  A small moment that captures her family in 500 words.  In this case it’s a moment that shows what it’s like to be the youngest kid struggling to hold onto traditions, while her teenage siblings lose interest.  I’m including the ending of Katherine’s slice here.

We were almost done with decorating the tree, but there was still one more very important thing to do. Which was to put the star on top of the tree. My dad would usually stand on a stool and pick me up. Since he is too short to just stand on a stool and put the star on, he had picked me up and I put the star on the tree. We hadn’t done this in two years, since my dad was away on a business  trip the last two times we had decorated the tree.

My dad holds me under my arms, and it’s kind of an uncomfortable position, but that’s okay. I hold the star tight, then let it go on the last stem. Perfect, I think to myself. The magic touch of the star seems to bring all of us closer together.

Thank you, Katherine.  I feel much better.  And next week I’m definitely taking “Status of the Class” again.  You never know what people will say.

Lunch Times

    Today was a significant day for the fifth graders at our school.  Kids normally sit in our cafeteria organized by classroom.  My class has three tables from which to choose.  The same goes for the other three fifth grade classrooms.  I’m sure many other schools do it differently.  Maybe it seems like this doesn’t give kids much freedom of choice.  I know it seems that way to some of our parents.  In recent years,  we’ve decided that somewhere around Thanksgiving, we’d give the fifth graders a chance to sit wherever they want.  We recognized that in middle school they would have that freedom. The risk, we’ve always felt, was that kids would cluster in cliques, and some kids would be left out.  We didn’t want the lunch period to be a time of stress.  

     We had class discussions and some role playing in preparation.  Finally, the day arrived. No upcoming holidays, no shortened days for conferences, no teacher meetings, no full moon.  All of these had been our excuses for delaying the grand opening.  I was glad it hadn’t rained.  The kids had been outdoors and had been able to run around.  Indoor recess might have given us another excuse.

     As the classes filed in, we watched, hopeful but a bit apprehensive.  This was a cohort with some big personalities and some kids who struggled with self control.  The students seemed a bit nervous.  They knew they weren’t supposed to sprint to tables or elbow people to the side. No Black Friday moments permitted. Still, there were some coveted seats.  

One of my students (let’s call him Tommy), a leader, who occasionally leans toward the impulsive side of the hallway, walked in with another of my students.  That other student (we can call him Al), has struggled recently.  He desperately wants friends, but he’s not sure how to make them.  He’s been “off” for the past week or so, finding it hard to keep himself from making inappropriate “shock” comments, from getting in the face of kids he wants to befriend and ones he wants to defriend.  Today these two had spent recess together talking with our school psychologist as she tried to help them mend fences. Now, as  they entered the cafeteria together, they scanned the scene.  They headed for the corner table that was fast filling up.  As they arrived, there was one seat open.  This was one of those moments we’d wondered about.  How would they handle it?  The boys already at the table beckoned Tommy to sit with them.  I knew he had been hoping to sit with this group. He paused.  He sized up the situation. He took a deep breath, and then turned to Al, motioning toward another table.  The two of them headed off to what Tommy probably saw as Siberia, and took their seats.  

I know it’s only one day.  I know it may go very differently when less attention is focused on the process.  I know that we can’t always protect students from isolation or rejection.  But today, at least, I saw some bravery, and selflessness served in the cafeteria.

Hope

 

My class has been doing a lot of reading about Native Americans over the past few weeks.  It’s a challenging topic to explore with fifth graders.  Some of the kids came to fifth grade aware of the “trail of tears” experience.   They learned about it as part of their Westward Expansion unit in fourth grade.  For me, it’s hard to read some of the “All About the Cherokee” books without thinking that we’re teaching a cleaned-up version of our history.  At the same time, I struggle with when to bring up the fact that it was our government that legislated (perpetrated) this injustice.  Fifth graders are very young in one sense.  Many still see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys.  How then, do I expose them to this harsh reality, that we (our countrymen) were more “bad guy”  than “good guy” in this story?  It’s like being that guy who pulls the curtain back on the wizard or the tooth fairy or Santa.  At the same time, I really don’t want to be the person who spreads a myth, especially when it’s a harmful myth (as opposed to the ones mentioned above).   I’ve decided we can read the sanitized books for a while, learn about the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the songs they sang, and the way they prayed.  At a certain point, though, we have to learn where they went, why they went, and what happened to their culture.

 

So yesterday in class we read an essay by a Navajo poet.  In it she describes how her relatives, so devoted to their families and the ground where they were rooted, were ripped from their families, sent to government or missionary boarding schools, and forbidden to speak their native language, wear their traditional clothing, or learn their own history.  It was an ugly story.

 

The author, though, found glimmers of hope.  She read books, in English, yes, but stories that gave her strength.  She spoke of how, in her lifetime, lights shined on dark injustices, minds opened to new perspective, and lawmakers changed some of the rules.  It couldn’t undo all of the damage, but at least it showed that spirit that I like to think our country aspired to, the one in America the Beautiful, where it says, “God mend thy every flaw.”  To me that’s the sentiment of hope for an imperfect nation:  we may have flaws, but we are determined to work toward a mending.

 

The writer is now a professor of English.  She writes poetry that she conceives first in her native language, then translates to English.  She ends her essay on this note:

My daughter, an educator herself, not long ago moved into my parents’ old house, in Shiprock, New Mexico, when she got a job at nearby Diné College. Our children, once taken from Dinétah, have returned home.

My classroom story, has a hopeful ending, as well.  Sober, but hopeful.  As we finish reading the essay, I ask my class to write.  The room goes silent, and I wonder what effect this story will have.  After a few minutes I ask if anyone would like to share a thought.  Ryan raises his hand and reads:

 

I want to remember how horrible they were to  [the] Navajo, and how when it got exposed it changed, for example they wouldn’t let kids speak Navajo, and they were forced to learn Christianity, but then they made rules in 1997 that they were allowed to speak their language and believe in their religious beliefs…but I also have a question.  Are there other horrible things like this that we do not know about?

 

There was silence in the room.  Then Ryan added, “I mean, cause I want us to do something about it.”  I had noted, when he first read, that Ryan had said “they” when he referred to the U.S. government.  In his final comment, he said “us.”  To me, that pronoun matters.

 

If the result of learning these stories is that we understand our imperfections and we’re determined to try to “mend [our] every flaw,” then I think we’re at least on the right track.  That gives me hope.

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Freedom on Tuesdays

My class had some freedom this morning when I found out at 8:20 that there wouldn’t be a gym class at 8:30.  

Oops, Time for the teacher to make some last-minute plans.  “Study your vocabulary words for a few minutes,” I suggest.  I start scurrying to adjust the schedule, trying to remember the things I had said I needed to do while the class was at gym. It’s actually a good thing in some ways.  We normally have a very chopped-up and hectic Tuesday morning.  Now we might actually have time to do things at a normal pace…as long as I can pull some things together.   Meanwhile, a few would-be studiers in the corner are setting up a sort of game show.  I see them writing “buzzer” on two pieces of paper.  “That’s a tame way of chiming in,” I think.  I look back at my computer screen.  “Oh, right, I was going to fix that lame image from the book, the one I took with my phone last night.”  Well, that’s not happening.   

Now the game show crowd has swelled to seven or eight.  This could become an issue.  I finish tweaking a file and submit the attendance. I shuffle through a file folder looking for an article I wanted to share with the class.  I guess I can show it under the document camera.   I glance toward the corner. The quaint paper buzzers lie discarded on the floor.  They’ve given way to shouts of “Buzz!” and “Hey, I was first.” I reach for the book I was going to share, wondering if I have time to do a quick scan.  It’s starting to get pretty rowdy in the corner.   At this point one of my more earnest students strolls by my desk.  “Wow, they’re actually learning in Mrs. Price’s class,” he says.  

“Davi, what’s that supposed to mean?  Are you saying we don’t learn in here?”  I always feel a little defensive when someone compares my class to the neighbor’s, but I’m especially self-conscious when I’ve been sitting at my desk making last-minute plans, while Mortal Kombat Vocab Wars has broken out in the back corner.

“No, I didn’t mean it that way,” Davi protests.  “I just meant I was over in that corner, and I could hear through the doorway that Mrs. Price was trying to teach her class something.”

Ah, now I understand.  He is concerned that their right to learn is being usurped by our right to shriek.  Point taken, Davi.  I hear my Call of Duty. I stand, signal the class to order, and commence a lecture about freedom and consideration.  

“This is not exactly a free country, you know.”  My attention-grabbing lead.  “The problem is that whatever we want with our freedom might be something that’s not good for someone else.  I believe it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said something like, “My freedom to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.”  (Note: I’ve since discovered that the source of the quote is under debate, though not the concept). “He meant that we don’t really live in a completely free country.  There are limits to our liberty.  We don’t have the freedom to take away someone else’s rights or to do things that hurt other people.” The class listens earnestly, though undoubtedly puzzled by references to fists and some guy named Holmes.   I realize I’m not really talking to them. I’m reminding myself of an issue I’m struggling with.  

  What I’m wondering these days is how to manage having and giving freedom without letting it morph into chaos.  Or worse, inactivity.  The thing about freedom is that it gives people a sense of wildness. In some ways that’s great.  Wildness leads to big discoveries and leaps of imagination.  But sometimes wildness leads us to focus on ourselves and neglect the needs of others.  We think there aren’t any rules, and that allows us to do whatever we want.    

    Today I gave some freedom in writers’ workshop.  I wanted to unleash the wild writing that writers do when they are on their own, not completing someone else’s assignment, but working on what excites them.  We’ve been calling them “Free Write Tuesdays,” since the start of the year. The problem is that if you just fling open the cage door, the wild creature bolts free, but doesn’t necessarily know where to go or how to act.  That can happen in a classroom.  Instead of seeing the time as an opportunity to write something that didn’t fit a school assignment, some writers could take the opportunity to do nothing or to do something that prevents other people from doing what they want to do.  It doesn’t seem smart for me to carve out time for that result.  Other wiser teachers in my school have taken this on more gradually.  They’ve maintained some structure.  Me, not so much.  Now I’m wondering how I can cultivate that ideal workshop atmosphere on our “Free Writing Tuesdays,” the atmosphere that leads people to do things that allow them to grow and thrive without infringing on other people’s rights in that process.

Because it’s a free country…sort of, I’ll choose to highlight two images from today’s workshop.  Maybe they’ll lead us in a positive direction.

I spied on Ryan, perched alone on the window sill writing his story.  After a few moments I decided to interrupt.  He told me he was working on a story about three kids who discover a data stick with information about an alien crime.  “They weren’t setting out to be heroes,” Ryan said, “but when they found this information, they knew they had to do something.”  Ryan seemed to know, without being taught, that the main characters in fantasy stories are often ordinary people, reluctant heroes, free to ignore the information perhaps, but somehow compelled to act.

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I also loved the image of Emerson, her back to the classroom, standing at the blue counter, paintbrush in hand, copying a Georgia O’Keeffe desert painting.  She told me she planned to keep the red-orange desert background (“It’s pretty.”), but she had her own ideas about the foreground.  “I want it to be a cactus instead.”  Right, Emerson, instead of that ugly old tree that O’Keeffe had painted.  I loved the youthful audacity.  So American.  She could, if she wanted, tweak an O’Keeffe and maybe make it a little better.  

Well, it’s a free country…at least on Tuesdays.

We Need to Argue

I was presenting at a staff development meeting today, when a fellow teacher recommended an article from the New York Times.  We had been working on essay writing, and with it, we’d been doing some debating.  We were talking about how debates are really oral essays, with claims, reasons and evidence, but we were also talking about how we need to frame our arguments, not so much as contests, where the only goal is winning, but as exchanges of ideas (or sparring matches, if you’re more competitive), where the goal is to develop stronger arguments or new understandings.  

 

The article, by Adam Grant, uses the example of Orville and Wilbur Wright to make the case for constructive arguing.  The famous brothers sparred frequently, but those debates often led to big breakthroughs.  Among the many good points Grant made in the piece, this one hit home for me:  

Children need to learn the value of thoughtful disagreement. Sadly, many parents teach kids that if they disagree with someone, it’s polite to hold their tongues. Rubbish. We can also help by having disagreements openly in front of our kids.

The article reminded me of my family’s mealtimes when I was a kid. Visitors often found us a bit odd.  Breakfasts during my childhood were nearly always silent, even on weekends.  We ate together, we just didn’t usually speak.  Each of us, my parents, my sister, and I grabbed our  preferred section of the Washington Post, opened the paper, and dove in.  At breakfast we read, pausing occasionally to nibble.  It was the time for gathering information.  

We were a family of introverts, but that didn’t mean that all meals were silent.  As a matter of fact, dinner was far from quiet.  Many a meal began with “How was your day?” or “What did you learn today?” but those questions generally served as pregame warm-ups or the under card.  The main event generally grew out of some issue at one of my parents’ jobs or something from the morning newspaper.  My parents liked to spar.  Once in awhile, like the Wright Brothers’ discussions, the conversations got “kind of hot,” but they rarely devolved to a fight.  I found the discussions fascinating, even though I didn’t always understand the subtleties of the disagreements.  I think my older sister found them pretty entertaining, too.  Sometimes, just for fun, she’d inject a question about affirmative action (one of our parents’ favorite bones of contention), just to watch the sparks fly.

“Mary, it’s demeaning.  Isn’t it like a charity?”

“Nonsense, Leo, it’s recognition of a debt.  It’s righting a wrong.”

“But isn’t it replacing one wrong with another?”

My mom was often the more passionate debater.  She responded to issues with both emotion and reason.  My father, on the other hand, enjoyed playing devil’s advocate or challenging a generalization. He maintained a dispassionate stance throughout. Never did these disagreements make me worry about the stability of our family or question the love between my parents.  In fact, my parents’ ability to argue without storming out of the room or throwing tantrums probably made me more sure of their bond.  

When my cousin brought her new husband to visit our house one December in the late 70’s, he told her we were perhaps the oddest of families.  The silence at breakfast unnerved him, and the contentious dinners unsettled him.  He had been brought up in a family that kept politics  (and anything that resembled discord) out of meal conversations.   He found us inharmonious.  

I’m with Adam Grant, though.  I think the “wobbly” nature of our family, the frequent debates and unsettled arguments were  signs of respect for each other’s ideas and individuality. I wish our country could engage in some of those conversations now.  Grant concludes his piece with some great guidelines for civil disagreement:

Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modeling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements.

We can start with four rules:

  • Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict.
  • Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.
  • Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
  • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.

Good arguments are wobbly: a team or family might rock back and forth but it never tips over. If kids don’t learn to wobble, they never learn to walk; they end up standing still.

I’m bringing those words to my classroom tomorrow.

Here’s a link to the full article:  https://nyti.ms/2hGS46x