Thursday, March 13, 2014

Writers' Notebooks - An Old Skool Way of Thinking Through Words and Memories

Yesterday, Reynaldo Santiago (right), a sophomore English teacher at Bassick High School, and his student teacher, Ms. P, invited me to their classroom to do several workshops about writers' notebooks, planting seeds, and tapping into passion. The good writer is a passionate writer.

I dressed Reynaldo up as what some of my friends think I am: a whacky and creative guy with multiple perspectives about his world (aka, a goofball). The kids were asked to think about what writing means in their world and I pulled several notebooks off my shelf as models (a few rest behind Mr. Santiago). I admitted, too, that I've moved to online thinking ever since 2008 - mostly digitally composing online with six years of blogging. Yes, I still hoard ideas and thoughts, but writer's notebooks from my shelves are now collected in cyber locations (in fact, they can all be found at the links to the left with a wider audience that just me).

Today, the teachers and I merely asked sophomores to make lists of what they could write about - in short, what are the items that make up their world. This listing was not easy for the Bassick sophomores, however. In fact, they struggled to come up with a list of ten things that mattered to them. At first I wondered if they were being shy or if they saw my visit as yet another teacher-invasion from a nerdy professor type. Then, class after class struggled and I realized some of them really couldn't think of ten things to write about, even when prompted with questions.

Still, the teachers and I chiseled at the ocean - using the metaphor of a madman emptying it with a spoon. Many said it was an impossible task, but one young man, Tyson (great hair), shouted out, "If I was asked to do empty the ocean, I would work hard and at least try to accomplish the task." Tyson named the EXACT THING I wanted to emphasize. Very few of us like school (including teachers). Sometime's school is alright, but a lot of time it is rather annoying, invasive, useless, and frustrating. Still, learning is THE pathway to success and knowledge IS everything. I agree it's impossible to know everything (very much like emptying an ocean with a spoon), but we at least have to 'work hard and try to accomplish the task.' Dap to Tyson (Santiago, give him some credit, will ya?)

10,000 hours of working hard, suggests Gladwell, is what it takes to be successful at anything. If a high school student commits to graduation over four years, though, they will still be one year away from making it. That is, they will have enough hours of playing the student game well (the academic game) only after they make it through their freshmen year of college. Of course, time is invested in middle and elementary school, too, but that only prepares young people to be good at being middle school kids and/or primary school children. High school, however, leads to post-high school life and that is where the investment for learning really pays off. What happens when students don't work hard during the 10,000 hours they're expected to invest as teenagers?

The young people at Bassick were awesome on Wednesday as I expected, but I wondered why they found it so difficult to come up with lists (1 of the 10,000 hours they need to be successful as students). After all, the lists were about them. Mr. Santiago hypothesized that this generation has more distractions than any other before. Mr. Jones, a colleague down the hall, agreed with Santiago and said, "Each year I teach, the kids are less likely to be able to create ideas on their own. They are more and more reliant on being entertained and they come to school as passive consumers rather than active thinkers." Is this true?

I began thinking bout the "Television" poem I shared with them. "Look at me. Look at me. Look at me." Mr. Santiago commented, "Television is outdated now. This generation has cellphones to distract them." Are their cellphones teaching them? Are they helping them to become better people, smarter thinkers, and more engaged learners? If they aren't, are they wasting their time?

I don't these challenges are an urban school issue, alone. I find it true of suburban and rural youth, as well. You people experience images, music, and other stimulation at all hours of their life. They grew up with YouTube, Xbox, the Internet, cellphones, and Smartboards as normal things. Being required to imagine or think for themselves has been unnecessary because their machines do it for them. Is this a good or bad thing?

Even a math problem....17 x 60 caused panic with the kids. They had to use their phones to solve a multiplication problem.

Still, asking a kid to write a list of ten interests and/or passions - that should of been a no-brainer, no? They struggled with this.

So, I'm asking: What are we doing in schools if kids don't even know what they care about? How do we open up a dialogue with them, K-12, to encourage their imaginations, innovations, and active participation in an ever-changing society? How do we engage them to create, compose, write, draw, think, and do? How can they be leaders if they can't even make a list?

Perhaps schools are numbing the brains of students and teachers more during this century than ever before. Thinking is replaced by robotic instruction that serves test-only purposes. Read the following like a robot (The better readers will also perform as a robot): "We know this. We teach this. We test this. Now, students, tell us what we want you to know. Repeat. Get a grade."

But where are the kids? Where is their creativity? What do they think is going on? What do they have to say about what I'm writing here? I really want to know. I ask these questions, because I want to read what they actually thinking. I want them to write!

But, will they?

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