Special Announcement

by Matthew Koslowski on May 28, 2010
in Announcements

I am now a licensed educator in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!

Yesterday morning, I received an email notification that my application for a Preliminary Teacher License for Grades 5-8 and for Grades 9-12 has been approved.

I will be seeking a classroom for the fall. In the meantime, I will be seeking students to tutor this summer. If you have would like me to tutor your child, or if you know people seeking a tutor for their children, please contact me.

Shaking the Tent

His voice fell at the end of each sentence. At first he had placed the microphone on his shirt pocket, which only picked up the occasional bit of phrase or word. Sitting in the front, I could hear him without the aid of the microphone.

Yet Alex Green, owner of Back Pages Books, kept me rapt as he talked about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

When we think of thinkers and poets, we think of them at the end of their lives when we are able to see their work as a whole. We look at Emerson as the Concord intellectual, perhaps as the surly man who wrote disparagingly of how others misconstrued his work. We read “Nature” and “Self-Reliance” and see them as works of little moment.

Mr. Green took a different tack. He spoke about the first two sermons that Emerson delivered after his ordination, as a young man of twenty-three, the man with a family history of great ministers. “This is where it all started,” Mr. Green said. “You can see the seeds of his later works in these sermons. No, these works are uneven, he was still a young man and not in full control of his powers. But you can see so much in these two sermons.”

When we think of industrialization, of the Industrial Revolution, we often think of Lowell, Massachusetts. Mr. Green argued that we should look at Waltham, Massachusetts, first. “Studying the Industrial Revolution starting in Lowell is like studying the Civil War starting with the first battle that the Union Army won.” Rather than building a mill town from the ground as they did in Lowell, the first mills were built in Waltham, a farming community that some of the wealthy Bostonians used as their summer home.

And, when thinking of these sermons, it is important to remember that these wealthy citizens would have gone back to Boston in the fall. Emerson gave a bright burning speech. My memory cannot do it justice. But I shivered as I listened to Mr. Green read Emerson’s words.

During the question and answer period, I asked about the influences of Eastern thought and mysticism on Emerson, if he could see them in these early sermons. He said that he thought he sensed something there. In Emerson’s notebooks and journals, Mr. Green said, there are references to Byron and Shelley. “Although their works were caricatures or cartoons of Eastern thought, I think some of what filters down to Emerson comes straight from the English Romantic poets, particularly Byron.” The Romantics were fascinated with the East and some of the first translations of Eastern literature was becoming available.

Talking with him after his lecture, Mr. Green admitted he didn’t know as much about the roots of Emerson’s interest in Eastern thought. I reminded him of the reference in Walden about Thoreau sitting in contemplation, what we would now call meditation. We both wondered when, specifically, they began studying, what they read, and what they knew.

I think Mr. Green has found the topic of his next lecture on Emerson.

And when he presents, I will be there.

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Assessing Whole Students

by Matthew Koslowski on May 19, 2010
in Essays

“When I become a teacher, my students are going to look at my syllabus and say, ‘You expect us to do what now?’” my friend D. said. “I believe in the multiple-intelligences theory.”

We talk about the freedom that the Digital Age has given us for self-expression.

But has it really? The Internet is, largely, a text-based medium. Yes, we do have websites that are visual galleries but, for example, the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — and even the galleries themselves — are filled with text.

Writing is becoming an ever more important skill. Kara Miller wrote an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe, “Failure to communicate“, in which she discusses how weak are the writing skills of incoming college students.

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

–Kara Miller

I have thought about this problem myself as I pursue becoming a teacher. Robyn Jackson in her book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching suggested if students are weak on developing opening paragraphs for essays, give them assignments just on opening paragraphs; if they are weak on topic sentences, give them assignments on topic sentences; if they are weak on the structure of an entire essay, give them assignments to write entire essays. I think of the hundreds of students I will have and how long it will take just those shorter assignments.

I admire D. She’s very passionate about challenging her future students and encouraging them to think for themselves. I admire that she wants to use a portfolio system — requiring tests, essays, presentations, and class participation — rather relying solely on one channel. In fact, that is the kind of assessment system that I want to use. But I wonder how much of our time employing that is going to require.

I have thought about giving students two grades per paper. The first for their grammar and the second for their arguments. Reading Kara Miller’s op-ed article, I wonder if I can really separate the two. If the student does not clearly spell out what he or she meant to say, then the teacher is just guessing at the meaning.

D., by her own admission, did not get the best grades in high school. She was not interested in the history she was taught and only rarely in the books. Her interests were more attuned to what she’s now studying, philosophy and psychology. She did not feel engaged with the work and as such did not care about the assessments she was given.

“Middle and high schools do not teach critical thinking,” she asserts.

I remember feeling that way as well. Disagreeing with the teacher in an essay was often a recipe for a bad grade, even in honors and advanced placement classes. And this was before the institution of high stakes testing in Massachussetts.

How can the MCAS assess critical thinking?

It cannot, and we should not expect it to measure that. The MCAS presents the items as if everything can be categorized as right or wrong. We can agree that Shakespeare wrote sonnets and plays, that his works were written in iambic pentameter, often rhyming; we can agree that Thomas Hardy wrote novels and poetry, perhaps we can even agree that it was the poor reviews of critics of his poetry that pushed him to writing novels; and we can call facts forms in which authors wrote, works that are attributed to them.

But on the meaning of the work, on the interpretation of the works, there is plenty of room for disagreement. You may think this passage was parody, was an ironic comment on something; I may think the author meant it as stated. The author cannot tell us and, in truth, I wouldn’t want him or her to clarify.

Ambiguity is good for thought.

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Who, if I sung out, would hear?

Echo Bridge, Waban, Massachusetts

Echo Bridge, Waban, Massachusetts

The rock looked inviting.

Rocks, as I am sure you know, do not often look inviting. But this one did. Its cold, rough, mossy surface jutted out over the Charles River. It was bathed in sunlight.

I had not been exploring Hemlock Gorge very long, but I wanted to sit. And I wanted to read in the sunlight. What did it matter that I was wearing a business suit and a light trench coat, and had a laptop bag with two books slung across my shoulders? The river spirits wouldn’t care how I was dressed.

The soles of my shoes slipped and I was afraid of falling in. But, settling myself on the rock, I looked out at the river. I felt like child again, in a world of unlimited possibilities.

Read more..

Congratulations, Simon Brown!

by Matthew Koslowski on May 6, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

So Much Things to Say: 100 Poets from the First Ten Years of the Calabash International Literary Festival edited by Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer.

My friend, Simon Brown, has a poem included in the anthology, So Much Things to Say!

I’ve mentioned Simon before, in one of my first essays The Prestige in Poetry. I called him “a poet of great promise” and I am glad to see his work starting to get the recognition that I expect from him.

This is the start of great things for Simon and his work.

Check out Simon’s blog, The Written Word. And read an article about the Calabash International Literary Festival on The Jamaica Gleaner.