The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
– the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*
On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility
Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.
One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**
But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! – expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.
So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Continue reading →
In which this teacher sacrifices himself as “Sacrificial Poet” to warm up and launch the First Annual IASAS Forensics and Debate Poetry Slam. SAS, March 2012. (The “Sacrificial Poet,” I was told, is the teacher who is willing to submit himself to audience’s and judges’ knives before the students take the stage.)
You’ll note I stress “at 3.45″ to justify any lameness in the poem. I did write it in the two hours preceding the performance. Later, the Chinese History teacher-lover in me reflected that this comfort with writing-on-demand is very close to China’s traditional attitude toward poetry. Any educated Chinese wrote poetry, I gather, as frequently and nonchalantly as we tweet or post on Facebook today. One Song Dynasty poet produced over 10,000 poems, while the Qing emperor Qianlong has, I believe, several hundred poems, if not thousands, to his credit. (All Chinese emperors and politicians wrote poetry. You weren’t educated if you didn’t, and nor were you civilized.) That’s so worth thinking about.
Anyway, sharpen your knives and watch the performance below. Warts and all, I enjoyed the slam. I got to deliver a message I’ve wanted to send students for ages.
Hi, can you elaborate on a document based lesson? How much time do you spend working with a document?*
I’d love to hear others’ takes on this question. Me? I’m making my own DBQs, basically, to bring out the essential learnings and understandings key to the narrative frame that I’m building around the entire span of China’s recorded history. It’s a semester course, so much selection and rejection of textbook content is going on — and textbook coverage of those concepts is disappearing almost entirely. Other sources bring these things out so much better, and with so much more interest.
Since the Shang and Zhou dynasties are as seminal to China as the Hebrew and Christian traditions are to the West (Confucian ritual and ideology trace back to the Shang and Zhou), I’m spending a lot of time on those two dynasties in primary source work.
Long story short, rather than a paragraph from a textbook about the importance of Ancestor Rites, I lead students through a three-page essay from a secondary source about the role of music in Zhou ritual that (deliciously) includes two extended texts — one from the Zhou Classic of Odes (Shi Jing), another from a bronze bell inscription — that actually narrate the ritual performance from start to finish.
Since Confucian ethics revolve around ritual and music, not religion or rules, I spent about a half hour on these three pages in class. Procedure (and I myself wince at this too, but feel it’s justified since it’s so crucial to understanding the next 3,000 years of China’s history):
I read aloud once, slowly, instructing students to annotate anything that strikes them (their choice), but also to double-underline any word or phrase that I pause to read twice. (Why? There are key repetitions and motifs that sleepy or inattentive students can gloss over and miss. My reading these key passages twice, I hope, forces the discussion afterward to address these key elements.)
I occasionally pause with comprehension-checking questions (“Who is the ‘impersonator’?” “Who is the ‘revered guest’?” “Remember who King Wen and Wu are?”) along the way to keep everybody from getting lost.
Once I finish reading aloud, students get the essential questions (E.g., “These rites, and the values in them, will be central to China for the next 3,000 years. When Christian Europe arrives 2,500 years later, how do you think Christian missionaries will react to the types of ritual worship we see here? What is ‘holy’ in China that might be ‘sin’ to Europeans?” “What do we learn about how the ancient Chinese saw the afterlife? Is it similar to Christianity, or different?” On and on.)
We open it up and discuss from there.
Homework is only to write on a team blog a minimum 14-sentence post about one of the essential questions of the day. They comment on each others’ posts as a way of peer teaching and, in the best cases, simply conversing about the interesting thoughts they’re having.
I’ve been timing how long it takes me to read the texts aloud before class, and planning the length of discussion based on how many texts are included in the day’s plan.
Here’s the packet with the readings I referenced for the session above (the Shang and Zhou Ritual text on the last two pages is incredibly interesting). The entire packet is a two-lesson mini-unit on the legacies of the Shang and Western Zhou. We’re on a block schedule, so that means about 2 hours in class.
*Copied from an H-NET history teachers list-serv for my own records.
I’ve been edublog silent for a long time now, but buzz about the Flipped Classroom actually hit me human-to-human instead of via the interwebs. Teachers in my school are experimenting with it way out here in this Texan colony that is northern Singapore.
When it comes to social studies, though, I have a hard time seeing how assigning at-home readings for extension in class – a pretty traditional approach in history classrooms, in my experience – is not already “flipped.”
I did toy with the idea of flipping my classroom over the summer, though, was briefly active on the FC Ning, and played with podcasting and vodcasting content as homework during the first quarter of this school year. The experience left me with
concerns that students read even less than many already do, possibly undercutting their readiness for college and adulthood generally, which expects advanced reading skills (but I could be wrong here; when I was in high school, I never read assigned hw because I wanted to read more interesting things like sci-fi and — if you laugh at the next one, you haven’t read the research — ’70s-era Marvel Comics);
hard-won appreciation for how time-consuming the creation of quality podcasts or vodcasts is, and relatedly –
ditto for how sadistic and morale-killing, good intentions aside, a poorly made teacher podcast or video can be.
I’ll add that students have overall volunteered their appreciation for image-enhanced podcasts. Last September, walking home from school after classes all day on Chinese philosophies, enjoying a thinker’s high about Confucius and the gonzo Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (“Jesus doing stand-up comedy” is the best hook I can come up with), I sat under a tree and tried to share that high with my students in a talk into my iPhone voice recorder — the first 12 minutes on Confucianism, the last 12 on Taoism. I went home, slapped some images on top of the audio in Garageband (and took a photo from my 16th floor apartment of the very tree under which those thoughts found voice), and that was that:
Another similar “walk and talk” into that machine about “what goodness means” to a Hindu, a Hebrew monotheist, and a traditional Chinese person for my ninth-graders:
These got good feedback (“It’s interesting” is a nice review of homework, as is “it helped things make sense”). Occasionally students have emailed me special requests on topics we’ve covered in units since those efforts. I’m pretty convinced I’m more interesting talking into my iPhone than trying to deliver the same ideas live in front of the class. I’m less distracted by the clowns and corpses, more focused on the ideas, and less inhibited in letting my own impassioned interest come out.
But man, editing images in in Garageband takes a lot of time, and that time is just not available. I keep thinking I should go minimalist and do audio-only podcasts, and gauge student response. If still good, that’s much easier to pull off. Another option I’ve considered is having students collaborate with me by finding images for the audio lectures, and making them edit them into AV podcasts. Yet another possibility is to assign a crowdsourced transcript of the lecture by having each student transcribe, say, one minute of the audio lecture. 30 students could do 30 minutes and slap it all together on a Google Doc or wiki. That would provide a text that could replace the boring textbook.
But this semester my interests have changed. I want my students to have time to sit under trees too.
(Next to) No Homework: The Sweet Spot?
My current experiment involves not so much flipping homework as (almost) ending it. I’m using document-based lessons in which all readinganddiscussion is done in class, and the only homework is a reflective blog post about the day’s content on a team blog — which student team-members read and comment on with corrections, extensions, challenges, etc. I like this so far, for several reasons:
it ensures all have actually done the reading and received the input (never a certainty with homework assignments)
it ensures, moreover, that more students have actually understood the deeper implications of the readings, through the discussions clarifying the concepts and understandings following our read-alouds (we’re currently reading 3,000-year-old Western Zhou Dynasty passages from the Confucian Five Classics that bring out the teachings of Confucianism more powerfully than any textbook summary can, but that require close reading and clarification. So we read, stop, ask, and discuss; read, stop, ask, and discuss)
it eliminates the “I read it last night but forgot most of it after waking up” that is as true for many adults as it is for students. We read and annotate based on front-loaded questions/reading purposes, take a couple of minutes to gather our impressions, and launch into talks with it all fresh in memory
it makes the student peer-teaching via comments on the team blog more reliable (they read it and discussed it with the teacher’s guidance in class, so odds are at least two in a five-person team comprehended the finer points of the lesson and can reinforce them in blog comments by catching and addressing misunderstandings in their peers’ posts)
The short version: we read homework in class, discuss it in class, clarify and debate it in class — then briefly write about it at home. Hopefully this leads to less homework and deeper learning at the same time — and above all, to less aversion to school because of all that homework.