CLMOOC Postcards: An Invitation to Write Out

CLMOOC WriteOut Postcards

In our CLMOOC community, we periodically send postcards to each other as a way to stay connected on paper, with a stamp, and mailbox delivery. Some of us do it more frequently than others, and I have lapsed a bit on getting postcards out the door.  (See a post I wrote about why we do this postcard exchange) There are more than 60 people on the mailing list right now, which is pretty neat. Not everyone is active, of course, which is to be expected.

I figured my work with the upcoming Write Out initiative — an offshoot of CLMOOC, in a way — gave me an opening, or inspiration, to use some artistic National Park postcards as a invitation for folks to consider joining us for place-based writing and the National Day on Writing in October with Write Out. Write Out is a two-week place-based writing initiative.

Yesterday, I mailed out nearly 40 postcards to the CLMOOC folks who are on the list and live in the US, and then I sent a handful more to folks outside the US because I didn’t want those friends who regularly send me postcards to feel left out. Write Out certainly does not have to be US-centered, but most of the focused outreach will be between National Writing Project sites and the National Park Service.

If you were on the postcard list and live in the US, keep an eye out for a park postcard.

Peace (in writing and invitations),
Kevin

 

Poem: The Piano Keys

My friend, Sheri, wrote about public art sculptures in city blocks, and referenced a piano for playing on the sidewalk. I’ve been seeing more and more of these (although not yet in my city, which is interesting, since it is so heavily tilted to the arts). She shared a few images, and something stirred about a memory of my great-grandmother whistling a song as she made us tea in her home.

Sheri gave me permission to use her photo and I composed a few lines on piano. This song is not the melody of my grandmother, necessarily, but there are faint echoes of memory.

Notice, now, the keys,
the colors of the box, the way your eyes get drawn
to sound

You sit down,
curious – a muse of the streets –
a single note played,
speaks volumes

time rewinded,
your grandmother’s room,
the tune she whistled while making you tea,
you see

the piano
on the street corner
believes

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Cartooning (Philosophy and Practice)

There’s a boatload of good suggestions in Cartooning by Ivan Brunetti on the art of comics/cartoons (terms which he uses interchangeable but which in my mind are different — I think of comics as Calvin and Hobbes and cartoons as The Jetsons — this is no doubt influenced by a childhood of Sunday Comics followed by Sunday Morning television). Brunetti has put a semester-long graduate level course into this small book, with chapters of overview and activities replacing actual desk time at a university.

It’s a fair trade-off.

I had been reading this book earlier this summer because some other friends in a splinter of DS106 and CLMOOC were also reading the book, and we were all doing some of the activities.

I love the concept of comics for the way visuals can help tell a story or make a point or create a joke, but my patience with making the art necessary on paper is thin, and my drawing talents, slim. I’m more apt to use apps or online comic makers, a move that would raise Brunetti’s ire.

I’m not sure Brunetti helped me on this weakness as an artist, but the blame is not with him. It’s all on me. Still, his professorial and rather authoritative tone — do this, don’t do this, in a way in which I could almost see his finger pointing at me — sort of put me off on him as a teacher in the early going. He name-drops comic artist Chris Ware a bit too much for me, too, but then redeems himself in my eyes with a lovely dedication of the book to Charles Schultz.

Since I wasn’t in the actual classroom, I began to skip around a bit (one of his earliest “no no no” in the book, where he nearly demands the reader follow him in sequence or risk injury. Ok. I exaggerate. But he does make it clear, following him in sequence is important). Yeah. No. That’s not how I learn. I’m affiliated with DS106, for goodness sake. I skip around. Liberally.

But, given all that resistance to his teaching style, I recognized early on that Brunetti definitely knows the field, and his advice on the art of making comics and writing visual stories, and of the ways one must consider the placement of lines and characters and dialogue, and more, is all very valuable and intriguing. It’s clear early on that he has thought through a lot of this on his own and in college courses that he has taught, and his own mentor comics in the book are interesting as examples to consider.

Cartooning

I proceeded to do a handful of his assignments, to explore his ideas, and I found the ones I did to be valuable and fun. Maybe if I had spent the hours necessary, as he demands, on the lessons, things would have come out more polished and clean and thoughtful. But I took some valuable ideas from Cartooning, and what more could you ask for?

Cartooning

Peace (in frames),
Kevin

Book Review: Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern in Narrative)

I have not read Jane Alison’s work before, but her latest — Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern In Narrative) — has me curious what kind of experimentation she might do in her own fiction. Here, she leads us on an inquiry into patterns and design of stories that reach beyond the traditional narrative arc.

You know, very linear. This one:

Instead, she explores the other ways that stories might develop, and in doing so, Alison surfaces not just experimentation in fiction, but insightful ways to think about character and plot, and writing. She focuses mainly on the three aspects of her title: Meandering, Spiraling, Exploding and adds in Networking and Fractals, too.

This is a short, simplified explanation of my take-away of her ideas:

  • Stories meander when the narrative zigs and zags, from different perspectives or different points of view, when the writer has a place to get to, but is content to take their time. In fact, time is a key element here, and Alison’s deconstruction of how a writer can use time was fascinating.
  • Stories spiral when a writer uses repeating phrases and themes, and circles back on ideas repeatedly, sometimes slightly hidden and sometimes not. A story that spirals either moves towards its core or center, or it begins there and then shifts outward, giving the reader a different way of seeing what is happening.
  • Stories explode (or are radials) when they move from a central point, but move away at different speeds of time and direction, so that there is something keeping the story solid, but the anchor is faint. The radial points of the narrative connect, if only slightly.
  • Networking, or cells, are designs in which the frame of the story’s parts are nearly identical in design – one echoes another — and each part builds with the others to create the larger narrative arc.
  • Fractal stories start at a single place — an idea or theme — and then slowly and then suddenly expand out with near mathematical certainly, so that the first piece was merely a seed for what comes next, and so on.

The book is packed with fiction excerpts that Alison uses as examples of her thinking, and these small pieces of writing were interesting to read and think about, particularly in context of her insights. As a writer, I am now thinking about a story I have been working on — and how I might reframe its design — and as a teacher of young writers, I wonder how I might introduce different story arc techniques beyond the traditional plot design we often use (the one above).

Peace (in text and beyond),
Kevin

PS — At a point in her book, Alison notes that a friend sometimes takes her writing and transforms it into pieces of music. I was curious. Then, I found this musical adaption of Meander Spiral Explode on Youtube, and it fascinates me to no end.

This is what the composer — Christopher Cerrone — wrote as text with the video:

In April 2019, my friend Tim Horvath, a novelist, texted me, “Do you know Jane Alison’s ‘Meander, Spiral, Explode’? It’s a book that focuses on unusual structural elements in novels.” I always trust Tim’s suggestions, and I tore through the book over the next few days, finding it unique and deeply insightful. I experienced what Melville called “the shock of recognition”—seeing someone describe your own efforts (in this case, an in-progress percussion concerto) without ever having seen a note of it.The three words of the title seemed to pertain specifically to each movement of my concerto. The first movement—while dramatic and intense—seems to meander through different landscapes, where the gunshot-like sound of four wooden slats morphs into marimbas and bowed vibraphones while changing volume, key, and context. The second movement (played without pause after the first) is structured like a double helix. A rising scale on two vibraphones slowly expands, speeds up, and finally blossoms into a sea of polyrhythms. As for the last movement (again played without pause): the explosion seems fairly self-evident. A single exclamation point ejects lines of 16th-notes into the ether which return, again and again, to a white-hot core. The propulsive patterns in this movement constantly shift emphasis but always maintain energy. The end of the work brings us back to the first three notes of the piece, suggesting one more shape that Jane Alison discusses in her book: a fractal. The simple shape of the opening turns out to have contained the entire form of the work to come.

MusicMaking: The River Rides the Beat Beneath Us

This is a Loop Composition, inspired by a recent trip to the Delaware River Gap, where I tried to pay attention to the rhythm of a river that cut through the section where we were staying and working.

Along with the various waterfalls, where the sound came crashing down, there were calm sections, places where the water bubbled over rocks, narrowed gaps where the stream zigged and zagged.

Each of those sections of the river informed sections of this composition, as I worked to layer sounds and loops and beats together to capture my remembering of the riverway.

Peace (sounds like),
Kevin

Book Review: Song For A Whale

Wow. I was really blown away by Song for A Whale by Lynn Kelly. I bought this book on a whim, because I liked the gorgeous cover art and I am interested in any books with “songs” and music. I’m glad it caught my attention and that I read it. It’s lovely.

Song for A Whale is a beautifully-told story that centers on Iris, a 12 year old deaf girl struggling to make her way in a world of the hearing, and becoming more and more frustrated by the walls between those worlds. At school and at home. With a knack for fixing anything electrical — she can disassemble things faster than you can turn on the power and spends her hours at the junkyard looking for parts — Iris loves old radios, in particular, as she finds connections between the vibrations of sound – the way the waves of frequency move through the wires, which she senses through touch — and her own soundless world.

When Iris learns about a whale whom scientists reason to be either lost or not part of any pod due to its off-beat song (and maybe its designation as a mixed breed of whale), Iris is hooked on helping this whale know it is cared about. She decides first to write a song for Blue 55 (as the whale is known) in the frequency of his own song. Then she becomes determined to let Blue 55 hear the song she has written for him, even though it means heading out on an unexpected journey to Alaska with her mourning grandmother, without knowledge of Iris’ parents.

There’s so much to love here — from Iris as a complicated adolescent character overcoming odds through perseverance, to her passion for ocean science and mechanical engineering, to the need to connect to nature’s oddballs like Blue 55, to how sound and music might emerge as connecting points between people and the natural world.

This book is perfect for the middle school classroom, and the story gives thoughtful and emotional insights into the difficulty of fitting in, and of deaf students in a spoken world. You’ll root for Iris, and for Blue 55, and for the power of making a difference in the world. You may even sing their song.

Peace (in seas and beyond),
Kevin

PS — the story of Blue 55 is based on a real whale, sometimes called “the loneliest whale in the world” because it, too, had no pod. Lynn Kelly has a whole page of resources about whales and whale songs.

I liked this visualization, which comes from converting whale songs into manuscript music:

 

Book Review: Notes from a Public Typewriter

Now this is public writing. And a story of how an independent bookstore can be a hub of literary wonder. In Notes from a Public Typewriter, Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti tell the story of how Gustafson and his wife opened up a new bookstore in Anne Arbor, Michigan (against the advice of many) and put an old typewriter out for anyone to write on. They didn’t know if anyone would take them up on the offer.

Boy, did they.

This book is mostly filled with the typed notes, stories, poems, and snippets left by the anonymous writers who sat down at a typewriter and hit the keys on a typewriter. I loved the variety of the messages that the writers curate here, and the short narratives of Gustafson about his book store and about the typewriter project give just enough context (Uberti is an design artist who took many of the writings and created a visual wall display at the bookstore site, painting the words of the writers in the font of the typewriter).

The short pieces hint at larger stories, leaving gaps to try to fill in. There’s also appreciation in the lines here — a mix of humor and insight — and recognition of the power of the words we leave behind us.

After reading this book, you’ll want to either dust of your old typewriter (do you still have one?) or find a typewriter somewhere to remember the aesthetic feel of “before word processing.”  Hit the keys. Return. Start again. And then go support your local independent bookstore.

Peace (in keystrokes),
Kevin

NYTimes: The 1619 Project

We subscribe to the Sunday edition of The New York Times for features just like this. The 1619 Project is the entire special focus of yesterday’s NYT Magazine, and it is an amazing example of reporting, commentary, writing and exploration of a difficult topic. The premise of the entire project is that the roots of America are not traced back to 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but instead reaches back to 1619 — the year the first African slave ship hit the shores of this country and so began the horrible and disgraceful act of using people as chattel and goods.

And if 1619 represents the true start of America’s origins, the newspaper project argues, then slavery has become the key and elemental engine of all that is both bad and good in the country, as the magazine makes clear through an entire collection of essays, reporting, poetry, stories, art — all tracking the impact that slavery and African-Americans have had on culture, politics, freedom and more. Topics include Democracy, patriotism, health care, redlining housing districts, and more.

I’m not far enough along yet with my own reading to give a full review but the scope of the project is breathtaking. A collection of prominent African American writers are here, taking moments from timelines and then building off the events in creative, insightful pieces. And apparently, the newspaper will be continuing the 1619 Project into the year with more pieces unfolding.

You can access the project online and the New York Times has worked with the Pulitzer Center to create an entire website devoted to teaching and learning resources, with lessons and guiding questions and more. For example, this document has quotes from the pieces, with references and vocabulary, and inquiry questions, with an invitation for students to write their own commentary or poetry or create art.

Peace (reading it deep),
Kevin

 

Originality Reports Sounds Rather Orwellian


blank dossier flickr photo by theilr shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I don’t blame Google for adding a plagiarism detector into its Google Classroom suite. I suspect teachers have been asking for such a tool, given the ease of cut/paste from outside sources and from each other, and the cost of other service that do the same job.

In fact, last year, a colleague of mine in an earlier grade was worried about some students with the exact same language in an essay for a public safety project. One had shared with the other, via a Google Doc, and some text lifting had occurred, apparently. Perhaps it was an act of friendship more than theft.

I have mixed feelings about the use of plagiarism tools, from an educational standpoint, even though I use Google Classroom regularly with my sixth grade students (but not exclusively Google Classroom … it’s good not to have everything run through Google, for privacy reasons and for experiential reasons). I also realize that high school teachers might have a different approach than I have, given the grade level I teach.

First, the Originality Reports function that Google will be rolling out with Google Classroom in the near future (see Google’s info page) has this Orwellian vibe to the language of its name, doesn’t it? But it’s catchy, too. I give them that. Originality Report.

According to the company, students will be able to check their own work three times against the search database, before submitting a piece of writing, and then teachers can do a check, too. There apparently will be also be a future option to create an internal database of student writing, to be used as a database.

Student work that has been scanned with the tool is not retained or owned by Google. We search for what’s publicly available on the web. In the future, we plan to add an option for schools to have a private repository of student submissions – that they own – so instructors can see peer-to-peer matches. — https://edu.google.com/products/originality/?modal_active=none

Despite Google’s public statement of who owns the student work in the database, I worry about this gathering up of student writing and wonder (again) who owns the words that young people write in a school-sponsored online space like Google Classroom. This issue of ownership of material surfaced with Turnitin, right? And it just sold for $1.75 billion dollars. Plagiarism detection and gathering student work is big business.

As a teacher, I often thoughtlessly assume that whatever my students write, the writing is theirs. They own it. Perhaps I am naive. In fact, I know I am. Anything a student writes for me in a school online space is, in fact, now part of the school’s technology infrastructure, and I suspect those words written, either for assignments or for pleasure, are now owned by the school district. It’s probably in the terms of service. And, well, there’s something unsettling about that, even though I don’t worry about my specific school district. At least, I don’t worry right now, under this school/technology administration.

Is that good enough? Or is that just convenient for me, the teacher?

This also reminds us, as teachers, that we need to be explicitly teaching our students about the use of text, of original ideas and borrowed work, of plagiarism in a Digital Age. We can’t let a technology tool replace the actual teaching, and in this age of accessible text, it’s never been more important to advocate for originality of ideas and writing.

Google’s move towards Originality Report project has surfaced some questions that I have probably avoided with myself in adopting Google Classroom, in terms of student ownership of their writing, and I’ll continue to grapple with it.

I suspect students, living as they do in the Age of Everyday Privacy Invasion, don’t even give this kind of thing a second thought. Which is sad and frustrating. And this reality makes me even more aware of my role as the adult teacher in the room of children, the educator bringing them into an online space for school. I have an obligation to be vigilant in protecting their privacy.

What do you think? Am I making too much of this?

Peace (thinking),
Kevin