Opting In

by Matthew Koslowski on June 30, 2010
in Anecdotes

I have an imperfect memory from the beginning of a middle school — was it sixth grade? Seventh? — science class. But it stands out singularly in my memory of my schooling.

It was the beginning of the year, perhaps even the first day of school. He called on me. I don’t remember what the question was. But I do remember how I felt.

I sat there, uncomfortable, searching. I felt my body growing tense. I felt first embarassed and then afraid.

“I don’t know,” I said, little more than a whisper.

He smiled. “That’s the correct answer — for now. You don’t know, but you will learn. Why else are you in school?” He turned to the rest of the class, “Does anyone else know?” And then he continued with the lesson.

Until that point in school, things came naturally to me and I remember feeling dread and panic that I didn’t already know something. How can I not know this thing? I felt relief and gratitude.

I don’t know that the teacher knows what a gift he gave me that day. I hope that he knows — that he intentionally asked something we unlikely to know, to remind us why we are in school — but I continue to wish that I could tell him. But I think the greatest gift I can give is to learn from his example and give that gift to my students.

Although I still dislike being wrong, I have carried this lesson with me. I know now that being wrong and being ignorant is not a permanent state.

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.

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Giving Poets a Bad Name

by Matthew Koslowski on April 30, 2010
in Anecdotes, Essays

We sat in the small square of chairs set before a microphone and two tables, one with two books on little stands and the other piled with books. Three women walked from the escalator over to the table and one of them, our poet, sat down at the table between the two books.

The time was not yet 3:30pm, the appointed time.

I chatted with my girlfriend. She asked me what I knew of Louise Glück’s work. I admitted I knew little besides her The First Four Books of Poems, which sat on my lap waiting to be signed.

I had bought the book largely for the silver sticker that read, “U.S. Poet Laureate.” While I lived in Chicago, I wanted to get acquainted with contemporary English-language poetry and would regularly peruse the book shelves there. When I saw that sticker, I figured there were worse poets with whom to get acquainted. A few times I thumbed through her work but it did not much resonate with me.

“What will you be reading today?” a member of the small audience asked.

Louise looked startled. “Reading? Why did you think this was a reading? I am not reading today. If you’ve got a questions, I’d be happy to have a conversation with you all. And, of course, I’ll sign.”

On the little table, just beside her with her books, a sign said, “Reading & Signing.” There was a collective sigh of disappointment.

She looked at our blank faces. “Please understand, that I hate to read my work. I think the performance cheapens my poetry. My poems, when spoken, get transformed into a linear progression of words that only happens once. I apologize if there was a misunderstanding, but I clearly told Barnes&Noble that this was to be a signing event.”

When Homer, and the singing minstrels who sang his epics, gave voice to his poetry, did that cheapen the work? When Shakespeare’s actors gave voice to the grand poetry in his plays, did that cheapen the work? I thought these questions but did not dare give them voice.

She added, “I only read if my publisher demands it. Or if there is a huge financial incentive.”

No, Ms. Glück. It is not the performance of your work that cheapens it: it is your attitude.

Motivation and Incentives

by Matthew Koslowski on April 23, 2010
in Anecdotes

In This Essay

“Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” by Amanda Ripley, TIME Magazine, Volume 175, Number 15 (April 19, 2010)
On the Surprising Science of Motivation by Dan Pink, TED
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn
 

I stopped dead as I looked at the magazine racks in my local Barnes&Noble about two weeks ago. On the cover, a little girl was sitting at a desk in front of stacks of cash, with bills falling from the desktop to the floor. The title asked: Should Schools Bribe Kids?

I felt revulsion.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards was one of the first books on education that I read. Although Kohn’s book focuses strongly on the effect of rewards and incentives in the rearing of children, he also discusses incentives in the workplace. His arguments were compelling and I could see their relevance in my own life. As I wrote in “Racing to the Test”, my pay-for-performance incentive plan doesn’t motivate me.

After reading Alfie Kohn’s work, I saw Dan Pink’s TED Lecture On the Surprising Science of Motivation. His work was congruent with the work of Kohn, though I didn’t see the nuances at first. I’ve watched the video perhaps four or five times now. At first, I focused on his arguments that incentives inhibit creative thinking. Pink also talks about how incentives actually boost performance for production of unit-driven tasks, such as Adam Smith’s example of creating pins or in the reading of a number of books.

Even with these two works in mind, I bought the TIME Magazine. I hoped to find that the work of the economist was one more piece of evidence supporting my conclusions.

The article describes four experiments designed by Roland Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist who wanted to test market forces in learning. The experiments were:

  • in New York City, paying fourth- and seventh-graders for earning higher test scores;
  • in Washington, D.C., paying sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for certain behaviors, such as attendance;
  • in Chicago, paying ninth-graders for earning As, Bs, and Cs;
  • and, in Dallas, paying second-graders for each book they read.

And my predictions were mostly right. I thought they would all be failures, but one surprised me.

The schools with pay for performance did boost some test scores but not consistently. And the improved performance on specific tests did not translate to improved performance on the national tests that determine America’s international standing in education. If I were to pay you — well, most of you — right now to solve a second order differential equation, most of you could not do it because most of you have never learned to solve second order differential equations. Paying a student to get a better grade without teaching the student the techniques of how to get a better grade is much the same.

But the one program that seemed to have the most effect was paying second-graders for each book they read. The students earned their money after taking a short quiz on the book. I balked, thinking that such a program would kill a child’s natural inclination to read. Alfie Kohn makes a strong argument for incentives killing internal motivation. He describes a reading incentive program they had when I was a kid. After reading so many books, a child can earn a pizza from Pizza Hut.

And then I remembered something. Something very important that I had forgotten while reading Alfie Kohn’s book. I participated in that Pizza Hut program. I studied literature in high school and college; I love to read for pleasure; and I am well on my way to becoming an English teacher.

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is something to these program after all.

* * *

PS: You would think Dan Pink was paying me, considering how often I have mentioned him on Literature&Literacy. He’s not, but I like his areas of interest and research. Though I wouldn’t mind if he were to pay me.

Are Stars Fixed?

He grimaced after he realized what I had asked. He thought of how to phrase what he had to say. He was not happy that I had asked the question. He took sip of his drink. While he was fidgeting, I figured out what he was thinking. He tossed around for what else he could do to avoid answering the question.

“You don’t think my writing has much potential,” I answered for him. I had heard it before, though before it had been about my poetry and not about my fiction.

“Well, here’s the thing, Matthew, you’re a friend and I like you.”

“That is true, but that doesn’t change the quality of my writing.”

I thought about what he had said about the piece I shared with him. At first he had thought it was a thinly veiled diary entry. When I told him I’d never experienced anything as painful as my character had, he complimented my imagination.

“I think you may well be published and you will well get some good reviews. But is it enduring? When I think of a novel, I think of a piece that is art for art’s sake. I don’t see the art there.”

I thought about Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which I’ve been reading. He writes that he think it is possible for a competent writer to become a good writer, but it’s never possible for a good writer to leap the chasm, becoming a great writer. Since reading that I have been wrestling with the idea.

If, for example, there is a limit to how quickly an individual can run — only a limited number of people can run at Olympic speeds — does it follow that there is a limit to how well one can write? Perhaps writing talent is like singing talent: everyone is born able to sing in a specific range, with some training someone can reach some notes higher or lower, but a bass will never be a tenor.

As I sipped my own drink, I thought about how just the other night after reading a friend’s work, I told her that I wasn’t sure if there was any there there. And now I was hearing the same thing. I thought about what he said.

What I had shared were five and a half double-spaced pages of my first foray into writing after a long absence. Could Faulkner’s friends see the art in his first attempts? Didn’t Shakespeare’s genius develop through his first plays before he had fully mastered his craft? Some critics say that Shakespeare’s first plays show strong attempts to emulate the more established playwrights of his day.

My friend smiled. “What the hell do I know? Every genius was underestimated in his day. Here’s to your writing!”

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