Short Bits: Nuance

For now, in order to get in the habit of blogging, I’m going with pieces I am calling “short bits.” Basically, what I am thinking about it. Sheri Edwards, the blogging mentor to us all, calls them blog shorts and has a wonderful introduction here.  So, my short bits are blog shorts.

This one is simply about the seeming lack of nuance in all sorts of places, due I think, in large part to our continued distraction with media. We want quick answers and memes to share, diving into the ever flowing stream of stuff, generating quick comments but never really digging deeper than the surface. We label things good and bad, and certainly there are examples of both of those in the world, but there are also nuances of good and bad. Events are often more complicated than they seem. Zero tolerance policies almost never work. And, teachers and students and content and pedagogy overlap in complex ways that do not always lend themselves to easy charts or frameworks or continuums or, for that matter, 280 characters on Twitter.  Whenever someone says you should ALWAYS or NEVER, I want to shout, “It depends!”

But, in the interest of seeing nuances myself,  there ARE good conversations going on within communities, including Twitter. The #clmooc has made long term use of the web to connect around creativity and collaboration. I am sorry I missed the #clmooc book discussion about affinity communities online. Participation in these kinds of groups allows users to access  the power behind the tools when wielded with a mission of authentic connection.

 

Stories of Books: Instructions by Neil Gaiman

I am in the middle the 7 Book Cover Challenge: posting covers of books I love without comment. I think my postings may be a little eclectic: I took the word LOVE to heart and looked across my getting-close-to six decades of reading.

But, I find it frustrating not to be able to tell the stories of these books: how I found them, why I love them, what makes them unique. I read a lot–100 books last year–but these stood out as books I might return to again and again, something I rarely do, or books that helped me understand other people, or just books that make me smile or remind me of a simpler time.

For today, I want you to go read the poem that inspired the children’s book Instructions. Neil Gaiman partnered with illustrator Charles Vess to create the manual for life’s adventures. You can read the poem at the now archived Journal of Mythic Arts. It is just lovely with lessons of empathy woven through its words. Vess’s illustrations in the book play on the fairy tale theme of the hero’s journey.

You can also listen the Gaiman reading the poem with images from the book:

If you aren’t familiar with Gaiman, you should be! He ranks right up there as one of my favorite authors. After I watched the video above, the next one was the link to Gaiman reading The Graveyard Book, a scary ghost story where the ghosts are friendly and the living are evil. I do love that book, but I don’t want to just post books from one author.

Teaching To Learn

In The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality, author Paul Halpern paints a mostly loving portrait of two leaders in the development and exploration of quantum physics. My scientist father loaned me the book, and it took several tries to get through it. I finally convinced myself that I could appreciate the story of two incredible thinkers without completely understanding the science.

Both men were passionate teachers and used teaching as a way to learn themselves. When John Wheeler, for example, realized that, in order to solve a particular problem, he would need to better understand general relativity:

The best way to learn a field was to teach it, Wheeler had found. he had acquired the habit of assembling meticulous lecture notes for each course, which could double as an excellent resource whenever he continued to research a subject. Often in his notebooks, he scattered speculation among his course notes. He might ask those questions of his students, consider them himself, or both. Learning begets teaching, which begets more learning, in a marvelous spiral of rising knowledge. (p. 173).

In fact, Halpern writes, because physics is “built from the ground up, based on fundamental principles that might be stated or interpreted in many ways…Even concepts typically addressed in the first weeks of an introductory physics course, such as force and inertia, are nuanced” (p. 22). According to Halpern, working together on Wheeler’s classical mechanics course at Princeton led to conversations about Mach’s principle of distant stars causing inertia and how it might still be relevant when we know the universe is expanding. These conversations spilled over into the classroom as they challenged their students to think hard about the concepts.

Feynman, of course, became known as the great explainer. Here he is at the Esalen Institute in 1983, just five years before he died. The video opens with bongo drums, Feynman’s instrument of choice:

 

Inspiration from the Feed

I am inspired by Austin Kleon on a daily basis and eagerly awaiting my copy of his new book. The first chapter grew from this post about doing the work every day even if it is small steps.

So, today, instead of starting with Twitter, I started with Feedly, and the writers and thinkers I have assembled to challenge me with their ideas. Here’s my brief reaction to two items in this morning’s feed. I would encourage you to explore both these writers in more depth.

Jose Vilson, in his piece Writing as Threat, points to the challenges faced by writers of color who must operate in space controlled predominantly by white people and cheers those who are meeting that challenge:

My favorite writing happens when the margins throw pinchos at the hot-air balloon that is the zeitgeist

But, his description of the insecurity of writing is universal. Jose and I share a love of language and reverence for the writers who can wield words like swords or solace. It makes us hesitate to call ourselves writers but, I agree with Jose, his own words have called him out. He is a writer.

Tim Stahmer, in his post No, They Are Not Skills?, reflects on a question I used to ask during leadership workshops: can we teach creativity? We would do a needs assessment around those “soft” skills like creativity and curiosity and then ponder how we get them into an already packed curriculum. Often, the participants came to a similar conclusion as Tim: creativity is a mindset rather than a skill and one that needs space and time to develop, something that may simply not be possible to do in our current iteration of “school.” At some point in the workshop, someone might ask how we define creativity, and that is a whole other discussion but just consider your answer to this: am I “creative” when I build a Lego model from the directions provided?