On the Meaningful, and Quantum Contexts

Nocturne: Bird on a Wire
Nocturne: Moon, Bird, Wire

I feel a need to pull back from the tools, and gravitate more toward meaning when I write.
Web Legacies Wrap-Up, 9 Aug 2008

The Jocks and Fags personal narrative was meaningful for me. In its original context1 – written for a class whose professor read it, penned a glowing comment on the bottom of the last page, and gave it back to me – it was only meaningful for one other person besides me. And since it was nothing more than enjoyable homework grading for her, it’s hard to characterize that essay’s meaning for her as anything more than a pleasant diversion.

In its changed context – published a couple of weeks ago here, after a good four years of mouldering in a box stuffed with other orphaned writings – the character of its meaningfulness changed as well. It had different readers, reading it for different purposes. Especially the readers who found it because they searched for such stories on Google.

And look at how what was once homework that did nothing became, through the power of this new medium, a story that did something. The comments to that post tell the tale:

Barry Bachenheimer wants that post to do something at his school district half a world away in New Jersey, and I can only hope it will:

Clay – Our district has set a summer administrative discussion topic on the “At Risk Student”that we don’t know about.”  I’m sharing this piece with them, as it is illustrative of a larger issue in our schools as a whole.

Thanks for sharing.

Phil seems to want something similar in his context:

We all need to try to save one child, one day at a time. I too will share this with my teaching colleagues.

But look what happens next:

I was searching for something to help me out with my son. He is going into the 7th grade at a Parochial school and having some serious problems on his football team with kids he knew back when he went to public school. They gang up on him, tease him and generally make him feel like he is worthless. The problem is, he loves football. He has to play with these kids if he wants to play, as it is the only league in our area. He has a couple of friends from his current school, but they are now starting to avoid him due to the disease the other kids are causing. His coach is also starting to pretend he doesn’t exist, because it is hard to put forth an effort when you are teased incessantly, and the coach ignores everything. The issue is, he really is a great player. Please help, if you have any ideas.

I replied to JJ the way I expect most people would:

It’s hard to help from across the Pacific, and situations like this are tough anyway, with no easy solutions.

And I’m no therapist.

Obvious options, none guaranteed, are:

1. Parents talk to school admin/coach.
2. Parents involve kid in discussion of how to solve the problem. There’s a life lesson here.
3. Kid stands up against main persecutors, and fights back.

I wish I could help more. But the point of my post is, growth can come from this stuff. It’s just not visible in the short-term.

Then meaning seemed to create change:

JJ wrote back,

Thanks so much for your advice. We have since talked to the coach and another administrator. The coach acted fairly unconcerned, but the admin. was quite helpful. We found out that others were having problems with these same kids! They are splitting the team and he assured us the “bully” kids would be on a different team. Your story really helped us out. I read it to my son. He felt like he wasn’t alone. He felt a sort of relief, I could hear it in his voice.

So anyway, they are splitting the teams in a few days. My son, after reading your story sacked the QB (main perp) at least 4 times last practice. The coaches cheered, the “bully” kids protested, and my son’s friends are all acting normal again. I don’t think it is over yet, but it is getting better. I want to thank you again. God/Goddess Bless You, Namaste’ … and a heartfelt hug across the Pacific.

What I’m about to say is another reader’s Rorschach Test. Sour types will roll their eyes and see this as self-congratulation, but types with purer eyes should understand:

Reading JJ’s story of the boy reading my “homework-cum-public-speech-act” was, in a quiet way, a high point in my writing life.

It fulfilled the hope of that essay‘s final paragraph –

And he will come to understand, late one night in Spain while writing a story about a boy, that he owes it to that boy to always watch over the new student, and the one who doesn’t fit because he is too pretty or she is too large, and the one who doesn’t fight, and the one who doesn’t know how the present shapes the future. And he will try to help them learn what he was never taught.

– but it fulfilled it in a way unimagined when that essay was written, because I didn’t self-publish then. I could only think of my very circumscribed, fourth-floor-of the-schoolhouse and only-during-teacher-hours sphere of influence when I wrote that. But now, again, due to the change of context effected by the rabbit hole of this writing revolution we demean with the vile term, “blogging,” a piece I poured my heart into years ago was now pouring into someone else who needed the reading, because he was now going through something I went through three decades ago.

Insert your graphic of space-time warps here, and color it a warm red.


It all brings me back to the power of this new medium. I tire of hearing people call it “transformative,” but I can’t find a better word.

I can find an analogy, though:  Superstitious people read everything from tea-leaves to stars to Tarot cards and whacked-out books of Revelation to try to discern their futures. I’m not superstitious, and don’t need to be to say this:  “Blogging” – which really just means daily writing2 – has, for me, often approached the level of prophecy, in very personal terms, that I have again and again self-fulfilled.  Does it make it clearer by describing it as an act, when done at a certain depth, of writing one’s own future?

No superstitious woo-woo stuff is implied here. There’s a logic and causal explanation that we can very simply label a “reflective habit” – or maybe, to put it in Buddhist terms,  a “mindfulness” – that daily writing produces. That sort of habit surely works wonders with mere pen and paper, but those wonders multiply, as the story of JJ’s son shows, when they are shared.

Key examples of “writing my  future” on this space: I wrote my quitting school-teaching six months before I did it.  I wrote of launching a global student blog six months before I did that. The writing preceded the doing.

And key examples of the effects of this “quantum” online contextWill’s snatching my off-hand paragraph about quitting teaching, and the discourse that swirled around that on both our spaces, and 500 good people around the world on Twitter lending their sinews to the Students 2.0 launch in an astonishing two hours one Seoul Saturday morning – that context, with its unpredictable and often wild instant feedback, has its own fateful force. It is the world taking notice of one small person’s words, and that notice, again, can transform.

And I am simply blown away.

To JJ’s son, I’ll just share that I wrote this other little thing, too, a few months ago, and his story connects to that piece of writing in ways I hadn’t imagined when I wrote it.  It went like this:

More and more I wonder: is school a good place for teachers who want to make a difference in the lives of their students, and to the future of the world? Is there a way to leave the daily farce of gradebooks, attendance sheets, tests, corporate and statist curriculum, homework assignments, grade-licking college careerist “students” (and parents), fear of parents and administrators, and fear of inconvenient socio-political truths – and at the same time, to make a far more meaningful impact on the lives of the young?

I’m thinking yes. I’m thinking, moreover, obviously. I’m not sure how much longer I want to work for schools. I’d so much rather teach. [Emphasis added]

So again, to JJ’s son, I hope I’m not wrong in seeing “blogging” as a way to continue teaching without working for schools, and to contribute to learning in a way other than, and more meaningful than, grades.

And I would love to hear updates from you, if you’re ever so inclined.

And to everybody else: Half of what I do, I realize, is with an expectation that when something worthwhile is modeled, others will learn that they can do it too – and will do so.  I’d hoped to see more momentum for student voice after showing that (the currently beleaguered) Students 2.0 was both possible and easy. If that momentum has happened, I’m unaware of it, and will thank anybody who chimes in with other examples of the elevation of student voice in our adult-centered discourse.

And now this personal narrative instead of edublogging thing, this pull to the meaningful instead of the technological: I’m sharing the above not only because I love the story, but also because I hope others might consider a similar pull. (Diane Cordell already does this wonderfully, by the way.)3

And now I sound preachy, so I’ll close by having a nice warm cup of shut-the-heck-up.  Thanks for reading.

(Beautiful) photo by *L*u*z*a*

  1. Will’s post, and the link to George Siemens on context, was a flywheel for this post, though I drive the idea of context in a different direction here []
  2. okay, there’s more to it than that, but the habit is the thing []
  3. And Mark, I tried to comment on your post about feeling that, but quit after three tries. []

9 thoughts on “On the Meaningful, and Quantum Contexts”

  1. Hi Clay
    Mindfulness is an apt way to describe the process. Awareness. There is something in our brains or head that is quite primordial. It seemingly kicks in when we couch or articulate a question on something that has preoccupied us and the answer becomes apparent, sometimes before we finish answering the question. I sometimes think blogging works in the same way. We articulate, we answer, we model.
    Cheers, John.

  2. Clay, I particularly enjoyed your focus on writing as (self-fulfilling) prophecy in this piece. I believe in the power of articulating personal vision – once we sketch out a path or a destination the ‘correct’ choices to reach those goals tend to become easier to identify and act upon.

    So I’m going to bounce off some of your concepts of personal narrative, and particularly of “writing one’s own future” when I meet my students this coming year. I’ll let you know how it goes, but as with some work that goes a little deeper, the most significant results won’t be assessed on a rubric, but will hopefully be burning their way into students’ personal beliefs and identities.

    Thanks for more writing to act on, Clay.

  3. A wonderful yoga teacher that I know suggests that there are two wings on which the thoughtful practice of yoga soars: rigor and surrender. To be both mindful and rigorous in practice but also to allow surrender to the winds of the day, to the energy, to the way it is.

    Since this advice came to me I see it as the secret to my teaching and writing practice as well. To respond with mindfulness and rigorous pratice but to surrender to what you call the “context, with its unpredictable and often wild instant feedback, …its own fateful force.” The classroom, the blog, the day.

    Your personal narrative assignment would be a welcome part of my Memoir class for seniors this fall. Teaching “The Time Traveler’s Wife” a colleague asked students to write the narrative of meeting their younger self. What would you say to yourself if time allowed you to do so?

    Thanks, as always.

    Kate Tabors last blog post..Writing and Revision – to Re-see

  4. Hello, Clay,

    When people talk about how blogging is different than more traditional means of publishing, I will point them to this piece.

    An amazing job of bringing these pieces together.

  5. @John, Dammit man, I’m going to replace my long-winded struggle to articulate it all with your typically terse and cogent re-statement. Dammit, man, dammit. 😉

    @Jonathan, Good luck with it. I tried something similar last year with my “visionary classroom blogging” project for my seniors, and hit a brick wall. They didn’t want to seek meaning in school and writing; they’d already learned writing was something they had to do, instead of wanted to do. There were a couple of exceptions, but not many.

    I think a creative writing or college course might have more success than an academic one. But I said all that in the “For the Roses” piece.

    I’d really love to hear any more successful approaches you discover. We know the magic. It’s the entry and door-opening that are hard.

    @Kate, I love the time-travel/dialogues w/your younger self idea. Hope you report on it if you try it.

    @Bill, Thanks for that. I almost want to take another stab at a shorter version. I get the feeling my length is typically too long for most readers’ attention spans these days. A Twitter syndrome? If so, it’s a shame, because I really think what’s seen in this post is worth reflection. I’m so tired of tool-talk.

  6. Once again you’ve challenged me to examine and redefine myself. It’s difficult to know when introspection becomes self-absorption. If we patch together all of our meanings into a crazy quilt of life and learning, what a masterpiece we’ll create!

    dianes last blog post..Kaleidoscope

  7. Yes, yes, oh, and yes.

    Blogging is transformative, mindful, even magical – much in the way you storied and John summarized.

    When we put things in writing they can become true – especially when others read it. It spreads.

    Tracy Rosens last blog post..What it takes.

  8. clay…
    although i have great difficulty just reflecting (let alone writing) about the present and past… i connect with the fact of multiple things that we as humans read… world literacy has been achieved!!

    as for writing your own future, i alluded to similar ideas in my post on my infatuation with stories other than mine… but if i master telling my own story i think i would quite enjoy it…

    and sorry for the delay in posting your comments on my blog… having spam trouble.

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