Archive for April, 2013

Outlines and learning

April 30, 2013 Leave a comment

I am exploring specific uses for the new Fargo outliner. For example:

–I have an annual report that is easier to complete in January when I always have a convenient note-taking tool available on the different computers I use. But now, having a single file, updated automatically, no matter which machine I use is, is great.

–Because it lives online, this outliner works very well for research notes involving linked, online sources. And again, one file, different machines, auto-update is a real step forward for a person with less than perfect organizing skills, like me.

But the thing that made me want to jot down some ideas here in this blog post is this one, which I hadn’t imagined until today:

–As a teacher, I can use Fargo’s Reader to publish class notes that students can use as a skeleton or grid for their own in-class note-taking or out-of-class studying. I can guide their efforts with the grid of ideas or questions contained in the outline.

–As semesters go by, I can easily continue to improve the outlines for a course.

–Furthermore, students could fill out the details from an outline and share it as a learning resource for classmates in a course. [Any team of people could also do that in a workplace, building a reference or training manual for key elements of their work.]

–if I asked students to fill out the details of an outline as we work on a course topic, I will see what they understand and where they are struggling. While any course assignment does this, an outline gives structure to the content, so it might be easier to see areas of strength and weakness.

–My favorite of these last few ideas is this: School has enough wasted motion, enough going-nowhere assignments. But if students build outlines of course content, they can pass those along to the next semester’s students, who can use and refine them, then pass them on again. They make something that serves a living purpose, which feels good and is unlike the feeling one gets from too much of school anyway.

It’s fun to think about uses for a writing tool that helps to foreground (at lightning speed) the structure of content. That structural aspect seems very positive for clear thinking and efficient learning.

Bedrock values

April 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Educators, politicians, diplomats, activists, business leaders, inventors, and all the rest of us, myself included–

If your political or business or educational policy doesn’t align with these bedrock values, you are marching toward the dark side, and if you have influence or power, you are taking others there with you:

People feel a need to be part of the world they live in. Most of us feel like we’re on the sidelines, spectators, consumers, eyeballs, credit card numbers, and that’s not what we want. We want meaning. We want to make a contribution. We want to do good and have that good make a difference. If you look at what people actually do, not the stories you read in the paper or hear on CNN, this is obvious. The [Boston] bombings not only worried people, for a short time when the scope of the danger was unknown, but people also saw the opportunity to get some of the precious stuff, meaning and relevance. (Scripting News)

That’s Dave Winer. He goes on to describe the power relations common in journalism, but he might as well been talking about a wider group of industries and government functions:

Why was this a theme of my [recent] talk at the Globe? Because the news industry has the ability to offer people exactly what they want, but they won’t do it. Their view of the world is that we’re out there and they’re inside. They talk, we listen. They are relevant, their lives have meaning. The meaning of our lives is not important to them. As long as they view it that way, people will continue to be frustrated by them, as long as they pay any attention. And more and more they’re chosing to not pay attention.

The freshly learned insight that the media obscures people’s real experience could, he notes, become a visionary moment:

This week the people of Boston learned something about the press because they told a big lie not just about a handful of them, but all of them, collectively. This presents a unique opportunity for a whole city to wake up and take over. I suggested at dinner that the people of Boston buy the Boston Globe, and give it a new direction. You know a city the size of Boston could buy the Globe. And you know what, it’s actually for sale. 🙂

“This post was written quickly,” Dave Winer says at the start of the post, but he’s been working on these ideas for years and he writes with clarity and force. We know that people’s speech can matter, and that institutions often prefer not to hear from people, prefer to operate behind the scenes and, when in public, to speak to and not talk with. But there are episodes and tools that remind us of another way.

See, for example, the third segment of Little Messages That Matter, an episode where a newspaper sees its readers as partners in public life. Longtime followers of Dave Winer and Jay Rosen will recognize their influence in other parts of that audio, too.

A defense of poetry in an age of spreadsheets

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

My new radio essay in which poetry spits on the asphalt in disgust and walks off…

I remember talking once with a high-ranking person from one of our area’s universities. Her training was in psychology, the field devoted to understanding the human mind. Somehow the topic swung round to poetry, and she said, “I don’t know why the university should be spending money offering courses in creative writing.” Along those same lines, you may have heard news stories from state houses across the land, where various leaders assert that public money should be used only for programs with directly measurable benefits. You don’t get the impression that poetry impresses those folks either. They must be thinking: you can’t pay the rent buying and selling poetry. In certain households, national poetry month must be seen either as a mystery or a joke. There may be radio listeners who love their NPR station but can’t be bothered with Garrison Keillor’s daily poetry episode. If we only knew the world through our bank statement, our company ledger book, or the front page of our local paper, they’d be right. In those venues poetry doesn’t matter much and American poets aren’t pulling their weight.

But poetry is among the oldest human arts; it is found in every society. Little children love the wacky jingle-jangle of poetry; in concentration camps, when brutal guards aren’t watching, gaunt survivors eke out lines of poetry; new lovers can barely keep themselves from writing poems, maybe for the first time in their lives; when someone dies, a mourner may be tempted to write a poem celebrating the beloved’s life. All these poetry fans must not have gotten the memo from the spreadsheet crew about the fatal limitations of the arts. Under florescent lights in air-conditioned offices, their spreadsheets turn gray and brittle, and dust gathers on their binders, while outside, poetry spits on the asphalt, turns up its collar and walks into the wind, chanting the names of the living and the lost. Given a chance, most people vote at one time or another in their lives for poetry.

And not because of the checkbook or the ledger or the breaking news, for those are not the only stories we want to hear about our lives. In a love poem he wrote late in life, William Carlos Williams addressed his wife directly with these words: “We have stood from year to year before the spectacle of our lives with joined hands. The storm unfolds. Lightning plays about the edges of the clouds.” Williams was correct: one thing we need to better know is the storm and spectacle of our lives. Because we live in the solitude of our own hearts, we need the spiritual nourishment of poetry. In that same poem, Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

For in poetry we nudge ourselves awake. A couple of weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night. There were voices outside. I pushed up one slat of the window blind and looked out. Several cars were parked around the neighbor’s house. I put on my robe and walked through the dark rooms of the house toward a south window. The last snow of the season was falling past the porch light in the shape of soap flakes; it seemed as though the smallest of diamonds had been seeded haphazardly across the blanket of new snow.

The adult children of our neighbor were saying goodnight, slowly, taking their time deep in the night, then starting cars one by one and heading off. For weeks they had been coming one or two at a time to the house, morning or afternoon or evening, sitting in hospice with their beautiful, strong mother as she endured the last stages of cancer. But this time they had all come at once and all stayed long into the night. Then they were gone, and one by one the windows of the house went dark. Outside, bare trees held up fresh snow in all their branches.

It was time, I knew, to write a card to the family; time to say a prayer; to think of friends; to listen with gratitude to the peaceful breathing of my wife there in the bed. It was time to try to sleep, or as good as any of these, it was time to write a poem.