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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Olbrich Garden - Madison Trip August 2005


Last week Colleen and I spent a few days in Madison. One of the places we went to was Olbrich Gardens. More pictures on the pictures page. Posted by Picasa

The Use of Beauty: A Reading of Ani DiFranco's "Fierce Flawless" as a Poem

Fierce Flawless
by Ani DiFranco

she was cuffed to the truth like the truth was a chair 1
bright interrogation light in her eyes 2
her conscience lit a cigarette and just stood there 3
waiting for her to crack 4
waiting for her to cry 5
his face scampered through her mind 6
like a roach across a wall 7
it made her heart soar 8
it made her skin crawl 9
they said, we got this confession we just need for you to sign 10
why don't you just cooperate and make this easier on us all 11

there was light and then there was darkness 12
but there was no line between 13
and asking her heart for guidance 14
was like pleading with a machine 15
cuz joy, it has its own justice 16
and dreams are languid and lawless 17
and everything bows to beauty 18
when it is fierce 19
and when it is flawless 20

on the table were two ziploc baggies 21
containing her eyes and her smile 22
they said, we're keeping these as evidence 23
'til this thing goes to trial 24
meanwhile anguish was fingering solace 25
in another room down the hall 26
both were love's accomplices 27
but solace took the fall 28

now look at her book of days 29
it's the same on every page 30
and she's got a little tin cup with her heart in it 31
to bang along the bars on her rib cage 32
bang along the bars of her rib cage 33

I believe that there comes a point in a person's live, or maybe there are several points, in which he or she must decide to either be part of the world as it is or try to change it in some way. Even in America where we have an ongoing fascination with the outlaw and the outsider a person who tries to change things is at a disadvantage. Being different is rewarded as long as it isn't too different. At a very early age Ani DiFranco decided to try to change the world. And she certainly is different.

I had heard of Ani DiFranco over a year ago and I am certain that I have heard her music before but it is only in the last few months that I really began listening to her music. I am now continuing to explore her music because I realize that not only is it good music, it is good poetry. The recent release of Reckoning/Reveling, DiFranco's most recent work, coincided with the assignment of this paper. So I am using this paper to examine one of the songs from this CD. This paper is a little different for me because I first analyze the song as a poem. I then listened to the song and compare my interpretation to the song interpretation.

DiFranco was born in Buffalo, NY in 1970. She grew up surrounded by music and at the age of nine she was playing in bars. By 15 she was writing her own songs. By 1998 she had produced 11 records on her own under her label Righteous Babe Records. She turned down several offers at record contracts with major and independent labels. She is still turning out her own records and has also produced records for other musicians under her label.

DiFranco's work takes in a lot of the landscape of contemporary America. She comments on relationships, mainly, but there is also a strong commentary on government, big business, and the American personality. "Fierce Flawless" is on the Revelling CD in DiFranco's most recent collection. By analyzing it first as a poem and then listening to the song I found that DiFranco's interpretation of the poem is different or she is trying to make a broader social comment. My expectation (based on my reading of the poem) was for the song to be low key and melancholy. It is anything except that.

As a poem "Fierce Flawless" consists of 33 lines in four stanzas. The form is free verse but there are occasionally points in which a line or line fragment is repeated. The poem tells a story from the third person omniscient perspective. The poem begins with the image of a woman handcuffed to a chair in police interrogation style. The poem then ventures inside this woman's thoughts. She thinks about the way joy works. The police interrogation theme continues with the description of the woman's eyes and smile in bags on the table as "evidence." The woman winds up in prison with "a little tin cup with her heart in it."

Lines one through three set the scene. An unidentified woman is described as "cuffed to the truth like the truth was a chair." And the interrogator is her conscience. The description of the truth is complicated. It is a chair so it supports the woman but she is also tied to it so it restricts her. What is "the truth?" A very beneficial way to read this poem is to define the truth as the statements in lines 18-20. The truth is that beauty is power. Reading this poem with that definition of "truth" allows the rest of the poem to be read as a meditation on how people use and hurt each other with beauty.

The interrogator (her conscience) waits for her to "crack" and "cry" as she sees "his" face crawl across the wall in the form of a roach that makes her "heart soar" and her "skin crawl" (lines 4-9). These lines demonstrate how the woman has been hurt by beauty. When she remembers a man that can easily be assumed to be an ex-boyfriend his face is like a roach. But this memory doesn't simply repulse her it makes her heart soar. She is drawn to his beauty. But her skin still crawls because he is, after all, a roach

And "they said, we got this confession we just need for you to sign / why don't you just cooperate and make this easier on us all" (lines 10-11). Her conscience and the memory of this man want her to admit to being used by beauty. The next stanza (lines 12-20) is an interior monologue of the woman while she reads the confession. Lines 12-13 are a corruption of the Biblical description of the creation. In the Bible God creates light and dark and separates them into night and day. Here there is light and dark but there is no separation. These lines are probably a reference to a belief that it is difficult to determine right from wrong. Is it right to be so tied to beauty? The woman asks her heart and finds that it is only a "machine" (lines 14-15).
It is at this point that we are given the "truth." Lines 16-20 present the truth indicated above about beauty as well as some truths about joy and dreams.

Cuz joy, it has its own justice
and dreams are languid and lawless
and everything bows to beauty
when it is fierce
and when it is flawless

These lines present truth in what they say about joy, dreams and beauty. And they also work on some fundamental free verse truths. The repetition of words and letters (alliteration) are important elements. And as a confession these lines are powerful. If the woman signs the confession, she can have no dreams, she can have no joy and she will be the puppet of beauty.
This also isn't DiFranco's only song in which she discusses the importance of beauty and joy. Often beauty is presented as a dichotomy.

but then what kind of scale
compares the weight of two beauties
the gravity of duties
or the ground speed of joy (from "School Night")

In these lines the conclusion is that it is impossible to measure beauty. This adds to the current reading of "Fierce Flawless" because it shows that DiFranco's view of beauty isn't flat. She understands the complexity behind physical beauty. And these lines also further our understanding of the way DiFranco understands joy.

Indeed, the accusation is that she has already been used by beauty just as she has used beauty. "On the table were two ziploc baggies / containing her eyes and her smile" (lines 21-22). Her eyes and her smile are being kept as evidence "till this thing goes to trial." The initial reaction to this image is one of disgust. It is important to remember that this whole poem is going on in the mind of the speaker. What is important is the symbolic significance of her eyes and smile being used as evidence. The eyes and smile would be symbols of her beauty as well as her reaction to beauty. But the case is really out of her hands anyway.

Lines 25-28 develop the relationship between anguish, solace and love. Anguish and solace are described as "love's accomplices." But anguish "was fingering solace" and "solace took the fall." Anguish "fingering" solace is a reference again to the interrogation scene. Anguish said that solace was guilty. I don't think that the sexual definition of "fingering" (i.e. pleasing sexually with the finger) is relevant but perhaps it does. Another way to view these lines is that anguish and love cancel each other out; this leaves behind only solace.

The last stanza (lines 29-33) ends with the woman in jail. She was judged and found guilty. "Now look at her book of days / its the same on every page" (lines 29-30). As each person dies and enters heaven, according to Christian myth, the "book of days" is consulted to see how each person lived his or her life in order to determine if he or she should be admitted to heaven. But this woman's pages are all the same. They are all covered with the downfall of beauty. But her heart protests by banging against her rib cage. The implication is that the "machine," as the heart was described earlier, cannot do anything about this prison.

DiFranco does a lot with her heart. In this song it winds up in a tin cup. In another song it winds up on a raft.

and my little pink heart
is on its little brown raft
floating out to sea (from "Grey")

This song is much more of an emotional song than "Fierce Flawless." Yet the ideas really relate. The description of her heart at sea is made early in the song. So when the song continues to say:

I've got everything i want and still i want more
maybe some tiny shiny key
will wash up on the shore

The only thing we know to be at sea is her heart. It can be supposed that the key is her heart. The heart then takes on increased significance than just being "a machine" in "Fierce Flawless." Her heart in a tin cup begging for release is really her way out. Continuing with the idea of beauty as a cage the heart seems to represent the opposite of beauty. TRUTH. That is being true to your emotions and your feelings.

This idea of truth works equally well in the first lines of "Fierce Flawless." The woman cannot get away from the fact that she has the choice of either worshipping beauty or being true to herself. Either way some part of herself will be lost. The prison in the end of this song then is being unable to decide.

"Fierce Flawless" as a song is presented with a steady wood block beat (like a heart) and an upbeat repeated guitar picking. At the line "make this easier on us all" the music becomes louder and a trumpet joins in. The song seems very festive. There are even upbeat oboe and bass guitar solos. This suggests that I've read this poem in a very different way from DiFranco. One thing that really stands out while listening to this song is the repetition of the words "fierce" and "flawless" to the point of annoyance.

I realized at this that in my explication of this song I didn't go into the significance of these two words. Again beauty is presented as a dichotomy. What does it mean for beauty to be fierce and flawless? Well, flawless is an easy enough state for us to understand even though we have no examples of perfect physical beauty. But what is truly flawless beauty comes from ideas. Fierce is defined as having a violent or cruel nature as of an animal. So it makes much more sense to talk about the physical aspects of beauty as being fierce.

With these ideas about beauty there is a slightly different way to read the poem. A person has two sides: animal and spiritual. Animal beauty can be fierce but only spiritual beauty can be flawless. Both are powerful. And the woman in the song is "tied to the truth" that she is only physically beautiful as evidenced in her eyes and smile.

By reading Ani DiFranco's "Fierce Flawless" first as a poem and then viewing it as a song it is possible to understand it in two very different ways. The conclusions are similar but distinct. As a poem beauty can be seen as a tool used by and on people. While the emphasis on the ideas of "fierce beauty" and "flawless beauty" help us to understand the song as a discussion of the types of beauty a person can achieve. Either way the woman is stuck in a prison in the end of the song. But in one she can never get out while in the later she must grow to get out.

Wisconsin Place Names: Hometowns and History

Wisconsin was made a state of the union in 1848. One of the requirements of becoming a state is a certain population/land area ratio. Helping Wisconsin to reach its population was a huge growth in population during 1840-1850. The population went from 30,749-304,756; a drastic increase but it is easily understood when it is also shown that only 17.82 percent of the 1850 population were born in Wisconsin (Smith 287). Wisconsin was a frontier with a lot of opportunities for people willing to work for them. Wisconsin was flooded by many different cultures wising to take advantage of those opportunities during this time. Russians, French, Swedes, Finns, Croats, Czechs, Lithuanians, Italians, Icelanders, Lettish, Irish, Slovaks, Belgians, Swiss, Slovenes, Doles, Welch, Germans, Hollanders, Norwegians, Moravians, Cornish, and Serbians are some of the groups that came to Wisconsin (Holmes 8). These different cultures and where they settled is shown on the first map at the end of this paper.

But before any of those people came here there were the Many different tribes of Native Americans (see map 2). The influence of the Native American culture on the map of Wisconsin is undeniable. Wisconsin place names from Native American words are as, if not more, abundant than names from other cultures. A humorous example is the town of Mishicot, WI. The most accepted explanation for this name is that it is from the Ottawa Chief of the same name. The word translates as "hairy legs" (Mishicot). Other names with Native American roots are Suamico, an ancient Menomonee word meaning "sand bar" or "yellow sand" from the word sumakosa; Oconto, another Menomonee word that means "pike place," "boat paddle," "red ground," "river full of fish," or "black bass" from the word okato; and Pensaukee, a corruption of a Chippewa word meaning "inside the mouth of a river" (Oconto).

The topic of this paper, Wisconsin place names, was picked with little thought as to how to approach the topic. It quickly became clear that the topic was too broad to cover in a 300-page book and wouldn’t even be scratched by a five-page paper. To limit the size of this paper it has been "localized." That is, it has been made applicable to the members of the History of the English Language class (Eng. 396-01, spring semester 1999) by focusing on their hometowns or places of interest to them. The first town to look at is Oxford, WI, my hometown.

Oxford, Wisconsin—Carney Lentz
Oxford is in the lower middle part of Wisconsin in Marquette County. The county was formed in 1836. Before the European settlers came to the area, it was inhabited by the Winnebago, Menomonee, and Mascoutin Indian tribes (Marquette). Oxford was built on the Neenah creek. This creek is why Oxford exists. The oxen used to pull wagons and transport people had to cross or "ford" the river at its narrowest point. This narrowest point became known as Oxford (where the oxen ford the creek) and a town grew up around that spot.

Marquette County (named after Father Marquette) is one of 14 counties with French names. The counties are: Calumet, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Juneau, La Crosse, Lafayette, Langlade, Marinette, Marquette, Pepin, Portage, Racine, St. Croix, and Trempleau (Kellogg 441). There are many cities with French names: Racine, Superior, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Marinette, Fond du Lac, Baraboo, De Pere, Juneau, Prarie du Sac, St. Croix Falls, Tomah, and Trempleau are some (Kellogg 441). There are also many rivers with French names. One of these rivers is the St. Croix in the far north of Wisconsin. There are two theories as to how the St. Croix got its name. One, is that the first explorers through the river-way had a crewmember named St. Croix; the other possibility is that LaSueur, the explorer, saw a rock formation that looked like a cross so he named the river "Croix" after the French word for "cross" (Lickel).

Ripon, Wisconsin—Eric Whittaker
There is a story behind every place name in Wisconsin. Here we are lucky to have it directly from one of the founders of the city. "In 1849, the present town of Ripon, the post office and what is now the First Ward of the city, was called Cresco….Cresco was the name given to the entire town by the Wisconsin Phalanx, an association that had settled in the valley in 1844 and who had control of all town matters in its earliest days….Ripon was at first the name of what is not only part of the city. It originated in this way: At the time I purchase of Gov. Horner, he asked the privilege of giving the name to our village. This I granted with these restrictions: First, that is should not be a personal name; second, that is should not be like any other name in the United States; third, that it should not be an Indian name: and lastly, that the name should be short. Horner’s ancestors came from Ripon, England. That name he selected; and as it was not open to any of the objections I had mentioned, it was adopted" (Mapes).

The most interesting thing in this story is the limitation on Indian names. This is interesting because ten years later Ripon produced the Republican Party. On March 20, 1854 the Republican Party was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin (Byrne 188). The party was formed to help the disadvantaged farmers win political battles in the unfair one-party system. Such a contribution to democracy from a town that didn’t want and Indian name is surprising. One redeeming fact is that there is no reason given for this restriction; so, maybe it was for a legitimate reason.

Menomonie, Wisconsin—Peter Klitzke
Menomonie is from an Algonquin word meaning "wild rice people." It was spelled Menomonee when the village was established in 1857 and platted in 1859. Then in the mid 1880’s the post office pushed to have an alternate spelling used to avoid confusion; the spelling they pushed for was "Menomonie" (which was used on British Explorer Jonathan Carver’s 1767 map), this spelling was adopted by city officials to avoid confusion with other towns. (Dunn)
Menomonie grew up from the lumber industry. The town was originally settled by the Irish but as early as 1844 Germans began to purchase land in the area (McDonald 58). In 1860 there were 300 mill laborers; 55 of those were Irish-born and the remainder were Norwegian, German, and French (McDonald 116-117). The Irish made up about 20 percent of the population, which is a considerable number. And even though the Irish in Menomonie didn’t affect the name of the city there are many other places that do owe their names to an Irish heritage. Some of the towns are: McFarland, Dancy, Sullivan, Downing, O’Conomowoc and Wild (Irish) Rose (MJSS).

Rhinelander, Wisconsin—Tony DePalo, Dr. Grant Smith
Rhinelander is another Wisconsin town that grew up out of the lumbering industry. First called Pelican Rapids, Rhinelander was settled in 1880. The name was changed to Rhinelander when F.W. Rhinelander of New York, then president of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railroad, decided to bring the railroad to the town (Rhinelander). Rhinelander is also the home of the Hodag. The Hodag is like a hairy alligator and it was part of a photograph hoax carried out by Gene Shepard, a pioneer to Rhinelander and a timber worker (Rhinelander). The Hodag is still associated with the town and they even have an annual Hodag Country Music Festival that draws many stars and thousands of fans.

"Rhinelander" demonstrates the importance of the story behind the name. The Rhinelander area was settled by Finns and Lithuanians (Holmes 8). The name implies though that it was settled by Germans. The Rhine is a river in Germany and according to Webster’s Dictionary on-line Rhineland is "a picturesque region of Germany around the Rhine River." But the town is not of German ancestry only the person the town is named after.

Onalaska, Wisconsin—Sue Fisher
Onalaska, Wisconsin is situated along the bank of the Mississippi River between La Crosse, WI and Holmen, WI. Onalaska was founded in 1851 by Thomas G. Rowe of New York. Onalaska is another lumbering town. The name comes from a poem titled "The Pleasures of Hope" by Thomas Campbell. "The wolf’s long howl from Oonalaska’s shore" was one of Rowe’s favorite lines so he took the name and dropped one of the O’s to name his town. A later resident, William A. Carlisle, took the name with him when he moved to Texas and then again when he moved to Washington state. The word "oonalaska" is an Aleut word meaning "dwelling together harmoniously." (Onalaska)

Wisconsin has a rich heritage of pioneers and explorers. This is easily seen by looking at the names that are on Wisconsin’s map. From Native Americans to Germans everyone has left a mark. But what is most interesting is the stories behind the names. This is because they are about people making decisions and working to form a life for their families. Every one must make decisions but very few get to make decisions that will have consequences that reach 100’s of years into the future and affect so many people. The histories and hometowns of Wisconsin are special because that is where we are from. And to those not from Wisconsin the names and stories are still intriguing because they are human stories of exploration and growth.

Bibliography

Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce. "History of the Area."
http://www.ashlandchamber.org/history.htm (22 Apr. 1999)

Bieder, Robert E. Native American Communities in Wisconsin, 1600-1960. Madison: U
of W p, 1995.

Byrne, Frank L. "Republicans and Prohibition." The Badger State: A Documentary
History of Wisconsin. Eds. Barbara & Justus Paul. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979. 183-192.

Dunn County Historical Society. "Dunn County Place Names."
http://discover-net.net/~dchs/mstory/explaces.html (12 Feb. 1999).
"History and background of Mishicot." http://www.jints.com/~jimbo/mishicot_history.html (12
Feb. 1999).

Holmes, Fred L. Old World Wisconsin. Eau Claire: E.M. Hale and Co., 1944.

Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest. Madison:
State Historical Society of WI, 1925.

Lickel Robin. "French Place Names in Wisconsin."
http://gbms01.uwgb.edu/~wifrench/photos/lickel/lickel2.htm (12 Apr. 1999).

Mapes, D.P. "Account of Early Ripon, 1870." 7 Mar. 1999.
http://www.usgennet.org/~ahwifdgl/fon_du_lac/towns/ripon_mapes.htm (22 Apr. 1999).

"Marquette County Wisconsin: History."
http://www.palacenet.net/COUNTY/MARQUETTE/history.html (27 Apr. 1999).

McDonald, M. Justille. History of the Irish in Wisconsin in the Nineteenth Century.
Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Staff (MJSS). "St. Patrik must be fond of Wisconsin." 15
March 1998. http://www.jsonline.com/news/sunday/travel/0315ride.stm (12 Feb. 1999).

Onalaska Tourism Commission. "Discover Onalaska Wisconsin."
http://www.tourism.onalaska.wi.us/history.html (22 Apr. 1999).

Paul, Barbara & Justus. Eds. The Badger State: A Documentary History of Wisconsin. Grand
Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979.

Rhinelander Area Chamber of commerce. "Rhinelander Area History."
http://www.rhinelanderchamber.com/history/history.htm (22 Apr. 1999).

Smith, Guy-Harold. "The German Immigrant." The Badger State: A Documentary
History of Wisconsin. Eds. Barbara & Justus Paul. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979. 286-89.

"The Towns & Villages of Oconto County." http://www.rootsweb.com/~wioconto/towns.htm (12 Feb. 1999).

Webster’s Dictionary, on-line. http://work.ucsd.edu:5141/cgi-bin/http_webster (5 May 1999).

Whyte, Bertha Kitchell. Wisconsin Heritage. Boston: Charles T. Branford Co., 1954.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

“I’m On My Own Now”: Causes of Apathy, Its Affect on Learning, and Ways to Counteract It

My father often speaks about the one-room school he attended. Dad took me to where the Stafford School once stood; now just the stairs remain. I could picture the building sitting at its odd angle from the road on the flat top of a rise. The trees and undergrowth disappeared and the white schoolhouse came to life; children were playing red rover and relaxing in the grass, enjoying their break from the reader and slate.

Sitting on those abandoned stairs Dad told me about inkwells, and the old recess bell. The boys in the school had to cut wood and keep the fire going in winter. The students walked to school or enjoyed the luxury of a horse drawn "bus." Spring "vacation" was the time for planting; when they were done in the fields, while the seeds were sprouting and needed little attention, they would finish out school year for the summer. Not that many years ago but it seems like another world when I compare it to school as I knew it at the K-12 level.

"Big, better, best" is the mentality that governed the world and influenced schools during the mid-1980 through the 1990’s. We always knew that we were supposed to be competing as though our lives depended on it. The tests we took seemed to be a big part of this competition. Everyone in my generation has filled in enough little circles and ovals for ten lifetimes. I can’t say I ever understood what we were supposed to be working so hard for or what those tests really meant. When I scored a 12.5 grade equivalency did that mean that I should already be done with school? There was possibly a mention of the Japanese and occasionally we were informed of the Chinese doppelganger who was preparing to come to the United States to take our rightful place in the world.

So when Dad talked about school as a place where you weren’t constantly on the offense in some imaginary war, I was intrigued. Dad explained how the older children helped the younger children. Yes, Johnny was a little "slow" but they all pitched in to help him understand. My Dad’s eyes twinkled as he told the stories, a few happy memories from an otherwise difficult and hard childhood. I could only imagine being able to work with my classmates in an environment that was anything other than competitive.

Teaching at the high school level, there is no way to avoid the consequences of this misguided practice. Students enter my classroom having been thoroughly measured, weighed, and labeled. The "C" student expects to get an average grade and he resents having to work very hard for it; oddly enough the "A" student has the same attitude. The "F" student has already decided that he is a "loser for life." When he does show up you have no idea what to do with him.

At some point, students quit competing. This is where the competition, reward, punishment system breaks down. They no longer run the race; it takes less effort to just let the long established order stand. The kids take to heart the messages about individuality that are so common today. However, they see a prescribed intellectual level as part of that individuality. "I’m just stupid. Why should I try?" "I’m a straight A student. Don’t ruin my record with a B!"

We might call this particular phenomenon "apathy." Some might add this to the list of examples of "irresponsible" behavior that today’s adolescents demonstrate. The children we are talking about are apathetic about the world and do not take responsibility for their role in the world; this expectation of mediocrity hurts students at all levels. Undeserved contentment has been incorporated into the collective self-concept (to adapt a term from David Sousa). Wiggins and McTighe summarize the problem well: "many students come to school somewhat unwilling (and not expecting) to work very hard" (118). The causes and effects of this attitude are just as important to be aware of as the possible solutions. Like many of the problems the world faces today, there is no single cause, effect, or solution.

A complete list of all of the causes of student apathy would be impossible to compile. It is possible, however, to briefly explore some of the most relevant and most immediate of those causes. It is also important to remember that we exist in a hierarchical world. We are world citizens, citizens of a country, members of a community, part of a family unit, and individuals; we are either trying to balance our obligations to these various groups or being influence by them consciously or unconsciously. American culture, for example is a powerful influence on all of our lives. Contemporary American culture is affected by many different inputs. As I present these issues and concerns remember that these are all generalizations; there are many parents, schools, and students that do not, thankfully, fit into these descriptions. However, for me, I need to have some understanding of where these problems start from before I can make the connections between appropriate actions and desired outcomes. One of the most troubling and pervasive concerns is that of the psychological health of our society.

Fear is now used by many facets of our culture. News media keeps us afraid of everything from killer bees to the ever-present anonymous, black, male, perpetrator (Bowling…). The current administration keeps us in a state of constant paranoia because of the "potential" for terrorist attacks; changes in the color-coded terror alert levels are almost daily occurrences. Popular media feeds us a constant diet of "beauty" as they define it; so, we are afraid that we will not measure up and therefore lose out. Large corporations convince us that we need the latest fashion, the latest prescription, and the latest gadget or we will fall behind the rest of the pack.

Students experience these same pressures and are ultimately more vulnerable to them. David Sousa gives us the key to understanding the impact this has: "before students will turn their attention to cognitive learning (the curriculum), they must feel physically safe and emotionally secure" (43). Sousa is not making a generalization based on observation or hyperbole. Studies of the brain’s ability to process data under various circumstances have proven that emotionally or physically stressful situations greatly reduce the brain’s ability to learn. Anyone even paying half attention to the media would find it difficult to have a mind functioning at its best. Sousa also points out (citing a study by Sowell, et al.) that students are particularly affected by emotional states because they do not have a fully developed ability to regulate emotion (20). This emotional interference with cognitive function is not a phenomenon limited to students.

Teachers come to school after watching the same morning news. For example, anyone who witnessed the media’s handling of the attack at Columbine High School certainly has been deeply and permanently affected. In the narration of his documentary Michael Moore reminds us of this day and also touches on the emotions teenagers deal with on a daily basis. "I guess we’ll never know why they did it. But one thing adults should never forget, it still sucks being a teenager and it really sucks going to school" (Bowling…). Many teachers’ attitudes about school after that day quickly became just as grim. An unidentified school official sums up that attitude best, "There’re little time bombs out there ticking, waiting to go off, and there are many of them in every community" (Bowling…). Certainly, today we have gotten past some of these feelings. But we will never get rid of them entirely. This event and the way the media handled it has reinforced the us-versus-them (teachers versus students) mentality that probably goes back to when the first school bell rang. One of the earliest expressions of this idea in the popular media was the film Blackboard Jungle (1955).

Maintaining a state of constant fear is possible cause of the American tendency to quantify quality of life and measure success externally. During and after times of extreme stress it is not uncommon for people to focus on acquiring both the necessities and comforts of life; think about the food hoarding that occurred after World War II. Now these attitudes and actions are pervasive and constant. Americans "pursue human salvation through science and technology. We find redemption through consumerism, through things that are wondrous, useful, ingenious, and economically profitable, but which do nothing to satisfy the needs of the inner life" (Lear). Not only is it taboo in many settings to discuss our feelings, emotions, beliefs, and spirit life, it is also very difficult to get students to participate in such discussions.
I have a deep concern about an unhealthy reticence—in our culture generally, and in education in particular—to discuss what may be our most distinctive trait—our mysterious inner life, and the fertile, invisible realm that is the wellspring for the creativity and morality of our species. It is that portion of ourselves that impels us to create art and literature, and study ethics, philosophy, and history…This is the spiritual life of our species. (Lear)
If we really want to affect the thinking process and long term learning of our students, we need to have access to the internal world of our students. As Lear points out, it is the spirit that gives us "our sense of awe and wonder and longing for truth beauty and a higher order of meaning." This is especially true since we now know that the emotional system plays such an important part in long-term remembering (Sousa 19). The difficulty in cracking into this repository of the spirit is caused by some deeply rooted cultural beliefs.

So many students come to school with very few tools for managing and understanding their emotions, fears, and beliefs. Teachers can be part of the solution.
Human problems, especially those of children and adolescents, are best dealt with through intense and continuous one-on-one communication and through healthy interactions that enable adults to become positive role models and guides. (Martin-Kniep 7)
I envision this process being a natural part of the classroom activities; journaling and class discussion for example can be valuable diagnostic tools for other skills in they classroom as well as key tools for encouraging student exploration of what they really believe and feel. Of course, the only way students will share these discoveries and learn from them is if you can maintain a safe environment for this type of exploration; establishing this open communication is often very difficult with students who already have their defenses in place at school.

The second aspect of American culture that causes increased concerns for schools is a disvaluing of discipline and dedication. "Much of American society glamorizes easy success and the fast life. This cultural fashion has reached such a dangerous point that American children readily challenge authority and disdain intellectual development and achievement" (Hwang 486). Many students have little ability to look into the future, see a goal, and plan appropriate steps for getting there. If the reward is not immediate, it is not real. Far from simply repeating a complaint all too often stated, bringing up this behavior ties together the above ideas. If we are afraid there won’t be a tomorrow, why should we plan for it? Moreover, the lack of ability and opportunity to communicate with adults about feelings and beliefs tells students that those aspects of their person are unimportant.

Lack of discipline and emotional pressure also relate to students’ unrealistic attitudes about cheating. Howard Gardner found that 75% of students admitted to cheating at least once on a test while 84% agree that cheating harms a person’s character (Bracey 412). The obvious question then is if they believe it to be harmful why do they do it? Some of this discrepancy might be explained by the responses Gardner received when he interviewed students for this study on cheating. He heard many of them say, "When I get to be famous, I’ll set a wonderful moral example. But for now reality precludes that" (Bracey 412). I have seen many students buy into this "fame" myth. The culture around students shows them that the only people who have any impact on the world are people who have gained a certain amount of fame. A gruesome example of this is the death of Princess Diana. The whole world wept and rightfully so; she was a very good person who tried to do many good things. However, we barely even pause when a "normal" person is killed in a drunk driving incident. Death and effort only count when they are backed by fame.

Current brain research provides another possible explanation for our current obsession with short term rewards. Sousa discusses the brain’s preexisting preference for novelty. The brain filters information by its uniqueness and potential impact on the person. In everyday life this affects everything from learning styles to safely driving a car. This pursuit of unique and memorable experiences can also be a detriment:
Some adolescents who perceive little novelty in their environment may turn to mind-altering drugs, such as ecstasy and amphetamines for stimulation. This drug dependence can further enhance the brain’s demand for novelty to the point that it becomes unbalanced and resorts to extremes-oriented behavior. (Sousa 29 citing Laviola et al.)
Certainly it is easy to see how students with drug addictions and who use mind altering drugs are affected in a school setting. This phenomenon also has an impact on students without drug problems. When novelty seeking and our current culture (which is essentially a novelty buffet) get together, schools suffer. In the past "there were few other distractions, school was an important influence in a child’s life and the primary source of information" (Sousa 28). This is of course not true anymore. So teachers need to consciously work to increase the amount of novel experiences for students.

All of these factors become condensed when we focus on families and schools. Family is the first group most people belong to. These early experiences with attitudes, emotions, and learning affect children for a lifetime. Today we have a wonderfully diverse collection of family types and constructions. Many point to this diversity as a source of problems. However, I don’t believe that anyone type of family structure holds any intrinsic superiority. Both the benefits and problems of the family are universal.

One of the major issues with families today is that the adults in the family who traditionally supported children in their growth and learning no longer take as active of a role. Educational systems were founded on the belief that "parents are an extension of the school and vice versa. This is not a valid assumption in modern day America." (Hwang 487). For various reasons parents no longer have the same impact on their children’s lives. "Parents are so busy divorcing, working ,feeding their own addictions, and searching for personal fulfillment that there is no time left to make children’s education priority" (Hwang 487). This lack of support for children is particularly troubling when it is taken to the extreme. After giving an assignment to a college prep writing class, I had an 11th grade student come to me and say, "Mr. Lentz I don’t know when I’ll get this assignment done. I had to move out of my mom’s home because her new boyfriend wouldn’t leave me alone. Mom chose him over me. I’m on my own now." I almost called it quits right there; I said to myself, "That’s it, no more teaching; I can’t afford the emotional turmoil." I couldn’t fathom how I could compete with such a trying emotional situation. I am happy to say that I didn’t give up. And that particular student wound up growing in her writing ability. I encouraged the students to write about their real lives. She took that opportunity. But not all students take those opportunities to grow and heal when presented.

When things go wrong and a student fails we sometimes see another particularly troubling aspect of the modern family. Parents who have not taken responsibility or given their children the guidance to be responsible look for someone to blame. Yong Hwan summarizes the situation very well; he says that American parents:
have invented a very peculiar form of logic in dealing with low student achievement. If a child fails, society is at fault, poverty is at fault, teachers are at fault. Everybody responsible except the student who failed and parents themselves who failed to motivate the learner. It is the age of the all purpose victim: the individual or group whose plight, condition or even academic achievement is not a matter that needs to be solved by individual effort but constitutes a social problem in itself. (488)Certainly there are many cases where "individual effort" is not enough to solve the problem. It is, however, a very common attitude among students that the teacher and the school are supposed to "make" them learn. This is related to the incorrect thinking of students who ask, "What grade are you going to give me?" When you reply with, "The grade that you earn," they become confused and defiant. Their attitude suggests (and sometimes they even say): "I cannot earn anything; this means I will fail."

The structure and methods in many schools and classrooms certainly affect students in a negative way as well. First and foremost is the continued and increasing focus on norm referenced testing. It is easy to see that "the school’s evaluation system is more brutal than the real world. Few in the work force are subjected to the humiliation of norm-referenced evaluation" (Raffini 54). One of the problems with this system is that it expects everyone to fit within a particular pattern of expected ability. It makes no difference how skilled or knowledgeable a particular student is. "We often assume that only the dull, lazy, or unambitious are below average, in reality, it’s a fixed percentage of the population – regardless of achievement" (Raffini 53). This test produces statistical data that reports on a very narrow spectrum of ability and is then used to determine the experience all students have with school. Students "quickly discover that they must compete with each other for a limited number of rewards. During this competition, the system teaches students that effort is less important than ability" (Raffini 54). This relates back to my experience of school, competition for limited rewards with no real reason given for the competition.

The culture that this form of competition creates in schools is counter to all of the things we know about how the brain works best. As noted earlier, Sousa cautions that long-term memory is dependent on stress level. James Raffini points out that many students might simply be unwilling to accept mediocrity (53). Self protection and preservation are important traits. Richard Stiggins summarizes how this mechanism works:
Psychologists who study motivation tell us that students can fall into a classification that they call "failure acceptors" (Covington, 1992). Typically, these students have experienced sufficient failure in the classroom to infer either that they are too dumb to get it or that getting it is just not worth the effort. They took the risk of trying to learn early in their academic lives, did not succeed, were punished for it, lost confidence, and do not want to risk such pain again. (210)
I believe that as teachers we have all encountered greatly gifted students who this applies to. As an English teacher, I get more than my share of these students. When students have early encounters with English classes and find out that they are about memorizing grammar rules, and relearning (in more abstract ways) things that they already know instinctively, they are turned off to the subject.

I had a student taking an after school credit recovery class because she had failed an English class. It was evident to me that she was motivated, skilled, determined, and creative. I couldn’t fathom why she hadn’t passed the class she had been in (which is taught by one of the best teachers I know). Through conversations with this student I found out that her grade was an F for that class because she could not complete journal entries. Some encounter with that activity in her past prevented her from finishing the task.

Another common practice in schools that causes problems for students is the insistence upon rote learning. "When faced with constant repetition, we become bored—and we become unmotivated" (Silver 45). We all know this to be true. Yet, when we are in front of the class it is difficult to keep from exposing students to the same torturous situations we experienced as students. "Schoolwork is often needlessly boring, especially when composed of mind-numbing skill worksheets or excessive passive listening – all of it divorced from interesting problems and realistic performance challenges" (Wiggins 119). Silver, Wiggins, Sousa and many others all recognize the impact of this type of learning. Gardner even suggests that boring learning activities and pressure to succeed are the primary causes of cheating (Bracey 412). If along the way I hadn’t had a teacher show me that English was something other than grammar and spelling, I would never have become an English teacher. I wouldn’t have been interested enough or believed that I had the skills to do the job.

All of these problems suggest some very direct solutions. My methods, attitudes, and practices can be altered in order to reach more students. One of the first changes I can work toward is becoming aware of each student as a whole person. I have always been aware of the power of this concept. I did not, however, have a real grasp of how to conceptualize the impact of this on my classroom. Students thrive when they are under self imposed desires to succeed (good stress, a.k.a. "level of concern") (Sousa 67). Especially when they are working on something that challenges them at an appropriate level. Here I can look to popular media for some ideas. Video games are addictive and allow for a learning experience because they challenge players at their individual ability level. "Cognitive psychologists call this the ‘regime of competence’ principle…As players progress, puzzles become more complex, enemies swifter and more numerous, underlying patterns more subtle" (Johnson 40). This is an idea that was repeated in many different texts. Wiggins and McTighe write about "designing learning that confronts students with the limits of their ideas and the promise of new ones" (Wiggins 175). If you can challenge students within a familiar framework and in close proximity to their existing abilities, you increase the likelihood of student learning. In the classroom this concept can be employed many ways. One example would be giving the students writing assignments that are within in their current comfort level and then continuously pushing them to take one step at a time closer to utilizing all of the concepts of good writing. If the students are allowed to write about topics that they really care about, the likelihood of interest and success is increased as well.

Much of what I have been learning this summer about assessment and instruction relates to this concept as well. "By reinforcing a student’s understanding of what she knows and can do, it can motivate her to change and to replace vague hope with realistic goal setting" (Schmitz 21). But this is about more than simply looking at skill level. Students are also predisposed to various ways of exploring the world and various ways of being part of the world.
Teachers need to create a classroom environment that allows students to process information the way they do in the world outside of school. Outside school, children tend to rely on their natural ways of learning. In school, however, we often ask students to process in only one or two ways. (Silver 47) So I need to be more aware of both what I ask students to do and the ways I allow them to explore the material and demonstrate understanding.

A particularly important aspect of student ability is the rate at which students process information. Sousa discusses this problem and suggests a simple solution; set curricular priorities in order to allow students to have the necessary time to achieve the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (262). Certainly this creates problems when you are required cover certain material over the course of a class; the reality is (as several of the resources note), however, that covering the material does not mean learning is occurring. We need to decide if covering all of the material or promoting true learning (complex understanding that allows transfer) is more important. One of the techniques I can use is essential questions. As noted in several texts this gives the teachers and students a way to prioritize and focus instruction.

The unrealistic goal of plowing through the text book in the class time allowed negatively affects the amount of effort students are willing to put into learning. Several of the texts point out that instead of focusing on text book ordered learning it is beneficial to have a standard that relates to the subject as it is used in the professional world. "Only when grades are based on standards of absolute performance of clearly stated objectives, and differences in student ability are viewed primarily as differences in the amount of time students require to master these objectives, will it be possible for effort to result in success" (Raffini 55). This of course touches on another major area of improvement I can make. Basing my judgments of performance on clearly articulated and public criteria drawn from standards is a major way I can improve student motivation, demonstrate accountability, and provide a more focused and effective curriculum (noted in several resources).

One final area for me to address as a teacher is emotional impact. I’ve noted how Sousa describes the impact of emotions on learning. He indicates that "teachers should strive to bond positive feelings to new learnings so that students feel competent and can enjoy the process" (Sousa 145). At this point I feel that many of my lessons were not negative in the emotional realm. Mostly they were neutral. This created no benefit for the students and it made the daily classroom experience rather dull as well. I care about what I’m doing so it should be well within reason to invest some emotional energy into it. Emphasizing the positive aspects of a performance or product, and presenting improvement suggestions with a "soft" touch and with a focus on real world reasons for the suggestion should be a priority.

I have always tried to encourage student interest, motivation, and growth. I believed that this was the best source for positive feelings about a class. Of course, this was often unsuccessful. I now understand that students approach an activity and quickly decide if it is something they should be concerned about. "Self-motivation on the part of students can be expected only if students have opportunities to focus on topics and activities that interest them" (Silver 45). Wiggins and McTighe repeat the sentiment more succinctly. The "work must be purposeful from the student’s point of view" (Wiggins 117). The goal of emotional impact, student interest, and real-life relevance can be addressed in one concept, the human spirit. "Preparing the next generation for the world we live in means teaching it to look deeper into itself, to that place where humans, from the beginning of time, have shared the same sense of awe and wonder as they groped for meaning" (Lear). Too often we run rampant with our ability to analyze. We need to maintain our ability (and recognize the necessity) of stepping back and taking a look at the whole student. A very important part of that "whole" cannot be easily separated out from the whole. Classroom activities should provide outlets for spiritual/creative/emotional ideas and opportunities for exploration of this realm.

Of course there are many other changes I want to make. For example, I want to work on incorporating more appropriate humor (Sousa 63). In general, I want to improve my attitudes about school and students. In the past, the individual failures became a greater focus than multiple successes. There is potential in all students. I can do many things to encourage that potential and give students a reason to care. But I cannot make it happen for them. I can and should show them the possibility of success, provide the tools, give encouragement, and then let them decide for themselves. They need to see the wisdom of making good choices because they will never completely believe it if they only have my word to go on. If I have done my best to help and encourage the students I encounter, I should be able to accept that many students will not learn about the hardships I am warning them about unless they experience them for themselves. I found a helpful little list of reminders that I plan to hold onto for a long time. The following presents nine ways to deal with unresponsive students. It was printed in a Salt Lake City School District newsletter:
1. Avoid taking it personally. The problem has to do with the student, not you.

2. Avoid getting angry. It’s sad when a student doesn’t care. The student needs kindness and understanding, not hostility.


3. Try to determine if the indifference is only school-related. Perhaps there are problems outside of school.


4. Tell the student you’re not going to give up on her--even if she has given up on herself. Refuse to accept the student’s rejection of your efforts.


5. Avoid embarrassing the student. When he doesn’t respond to a question, provide some answers to choose from.


6. Give the student lots of opportunities for involvement.


7. Search for areas and activities that will interest her.


8. Minimize the chances for failure. Shorten assignments. Make the goal of each assignment clearer and more immediately achievable.


9. Notice and reward changes in behavior.
Some days the only thing you can do is accept the reality around you and plan for the time you have the opportunity to change that reality.

Compared to the world my father lived in with the one-room schoolhouse, students today live in a very artificial world. "Reality" is something a child is rarely exposed to until he is on his own. Like the school building that is no longer there, kids are shown the steps but they never see the purpose for climbing them. My job is to show them, tell them, and let them create their own world on top of those stairs.

Works Cited

Bowling for Columbine, Special Edition. DVD. Dir. Michael Moore. documentary. United Artists and Alliance Atlantis, 2002.

Bracey, Gerald W. "A Nation of Cheats." Phi Delta Kappan. Jan. 2005: 412-413. EBSCO Host. Kilbourn Library, Wisconsin Dells, WI. 31 July 2005. http://www.ebscohost.com.

Hwang, Yong G. "Student Apathy, Lack of Self-Responsibility and False Self-Esteem are Failing American Schools." Education 115.4 (1995): 484-490. EBSCO Host. Kilbourn Library, Wisconsin Dells, WI. 31 July 2005. .

Johnson, Steven. "Your Brain on Video Games: Could They Actually be Good for You?" Discover 26.7 (2005): 38-43.

Lear, Norman. "Education for the Human Spirit." Education Digest March 56.7 (1991): 33-35. EBSCO Host. Kilbourn Library, Wisconsin Dells, WI. 26 July 2005. .

Martin-Kniep, Aiselle O. Becoming a Better Teacher: Eight Innovations That Work. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000.

"Nine Responses to Unresponsive Students." Curriculum Review 40.3 (2000): 6. EBSCO Host. Kilbourn Library, Wisconsin Dells, WI. 31 July 2005. .

Raffini, James P. "Student Apathy: A Motivational Dilemma." Educational Leadership 44.1 (1986): 53-55. EBSCO Host. Kilbourn Library, Wisconsin Dells, WI. 31 July 2005. .

Schmitz, Jo Ann ed. and Alverno College Faculty. Student Assessment-as-Learning at Alverno College. Milwaukee: Alverno College, 1994.

Silver, Harvey F., Richard W. Strong, Matthew J. Perini. So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000.

Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns, Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2001.

Stiggins, Richard J. Student-Involved Assessment FOR Learning. Columbus, Ohio: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall, 2005.

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Prentice Hall, 1998.

Writing Study Group of the NCTE of the Executive Committee. "NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing." Nov. 2004. National Council of Teachers of English. 8 July 2005 .

Resources (Not Cited)

Brown, Waln K. "Turning Your Life Around: Tips From an Ex-Juvenile Delinquent." Reclaiming Children and Youth 13.4 (2005): 218-223. EBSCO Host. Kilbourn Library, Wisconsin Dells, WI. 8 July 2005. .

Hassel, Holly and Lourey, Jessica. "The Dea(r)th of Student Responsibility." College Teaching 53.1 (2005): 2-12. EBSCO Host. Kilbourn Library, Wisconsin Dells, WI. 8 July 2005. http://www.ebscohost.com.

The National Commission on Writing. Writing: A Powerful Message From State Government. College Board, 2005.

Schmitz, Jo Ann ed. and Alverno College Faculty. Student Assessment-as-Learning at Alverno College. Milwaukee: Alverno College, 1994.

Shepard, Lorrie A. "The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture." Educational Researcher 29.7 (2000): 4-14.

Townsend, Jane S. "Silent Voices: What Happens to Quiet Students During Classroom Discussions?" English Journal Feb. 1998: 72-80.

Wolf, Dennie, Janet Bixby, John Glenn III, Howard Gardner. "Chapter 2: To Use Their Minds Well: Investigation New Forms of Student Assessment." Review of Research in Education, 17. Ed. Gerald Grant. Washington, DC: The American Educational Research Association, 1991. 31-74.

Writing Study Group of the NCTE of the Executive Committee. "NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing." Nov. 2004. National Council of Teachers of English. 8 July 2005 http://www.ncte.org/about/over/positions/category/write/118876.htm.