Monday, March 5, 2012

First Things First

Years ago, I attended a writing workshop with Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian. Now I don't even remember how I decided to go to this workshop, but I knew it was the right place for me when I learned that Anna Karenina (this translation) and Aristotle's Poetics were among the required reading for the week.

Now I'm reading Anna Karenina (again, I don't know how many times I have read it, though I don't think one could ever tire of it), and so I was thinking about something Tom and Carol said during the workshop, about how one's writing needs to have a big idea, that everything--everything!--in the writing should be developing and supporting this big idea.

As modest an endeavor as writing a test question is, it is still writing. Each question must have a big idea. And the item writer must know what that big idea is, and then marshal all of the everything of the item in support of that big idea.

Last November I went to that heaven on earth, home of all manner of delights, such as Frank Lloyd Wright houses and the Art Institute and French-fried green beans. I love Chicago. I love the people there--Stormy, husky, brawling/City of the Big Shoulders. (As the doorman of my hotel, whom I had come to know fairly well in the course of a few days of comings and goings, put me in a cab to travel to Oak Park late on a Friday evening, he said to the driver, "This here is my sister. You take care of her like she is my sister. You understand?" The funny part is that, indeed, we were of an age and did resemble each other closely enough to be siblings. Siblings raised apart, as we didn't share that distinctive accent.)

The reason for my visit was not just to have the best time in the world with my friend Carrie; it was to give a presentation on an assessment content development-related topic of my choosing. I rummaged around in my brain for a while before I came up with intention.

I thought of intention because of something that Kate Nash, my friend and genius dance teacher once said, probably in response to all of our awkwardly flailing limbs: that if you focus your intention, your bones will organize themselves. It reminded me of how, when I learned to ski, everyone told me not to look down, because I would fall. You cannot help but follow the direction of your gaze.

Then I found there was what seemed like an orienting magic in setting an intention. Having a laserlike focus burns off what is inessential. It builds a solid foundation. I tried intention in areas of my life other than dance. There was something about doing this simple step first that cleared away debris distractions.

Around that time, I was asked to perform triage ride in like the cavalry edit a set of questions that had been rejected by a customer. It soon became apparent that the main problem with the set was that the item writer had no firm intention. Not only was there no unifying purpose for the questions as a group, but each question could have been measuring two or more skills. Which meant that none of the questions could measure any skill accurately.

It takes time to do this, but more than time, it takes a reflective pause. Which may not sound like much--but when folks are busy and feeling overwhelmed, the reflective pause gets thrown overboard.

In the immortal words of Epictetus, First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.

(When I returned home, my daughters were so jealous of all of my Chicago adventures, especially the French-fried green beans. I found a recipe and made a big batch and we ate a million each. It is safe to say neither of them will ever look at a French-fried green bean again. In fact, there is a ban on saying the words aloud in their presence.)

UPDATE: Identified supernova Kate Nash by name.

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