Sunday, July 29, 2012


The train is rolling into the station on our big passage writing project. As my co-conspirator partner-in-crime colleague cautions, it's too soon to uncork the champagne. There is still work to do, of course, in the immortal words of the Isley Brothers.

We have two other projects we're working on, too, so one train arrives for the disembarkation while another arrives and the passengers load up. And yet, we foresee a time when we'll have completed what we're doing now. Then what? We're thinking. We're big on thinking. In order to think, I always need to go looking for raw material to chip and chop. In that search, I found some items of interest:

SchoolTube: School videos. Who knew.
National Novel Writing Month: Coming up. Sharpen your pencils. And your wits.
First Book: Providing books to children in need.
National Writing Project: Writing prompts, resources, articles about writing and teaching writing.
Best Ever Teen Novels: Vote. Though how anyone could vote for anything else with To Kill a Mockingbird on the list is beyond me.

That's all I got. I'm going back in.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Habit of Industriousness

All knowledge is of itself of some value. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable, that I would not rather know it than not. In the same manner, all power, of whatever sort, is of itself desirable. A man would not submit to learn to hem a ruffle, of his wife, or his wife's maid; but if a mere wish could attain it, he would rather wish to be able to hem a ruffle.

Thus spaketh Samuel Johnson, as quoted by James Boswell in Life of Johnson.

Ten years ago, I was late to the inline skating party, but once I was there, I threw myself into it. Once I had taught myself how to fall and how to stop, well, there was no stopping me. I trained for marathons, often skating 70 miles or more a week.

What I never did learn, though, was how to maintain my skates. Having grown up in the company of mechanical geniuses, I believed that the wielding of tools was far beyond my ken. Not to mention the learned helplessness that develops when one is in the habit of allowing others doing for one what one might be capable of doing for oneself if one only took the trouble.

Relying on the kindness of another eventually became an insurmountable obstacle. Doesn't that sound stupid? But I quit skating--something I loved--because of my combined ignorance and unwillingness to learn how to maintain the skates myself: if you don't clean the bearings and rotate the wheels, you slow down, which deceleration drastically decreases the fun and increases the risk (as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the slower you go, the less stable you are).

Last weekend, I persuaded someone to show me how to take the skates apart and clean them and put them back together. Then I did it. The process took hours and hours. I had grime under my fingernails (what was left of them) and a streak of black grease on my face and I was tired. But by the time I was done, I thoroughly knew how to do this thing. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable, that I would not rather know it than not.

So I learned how to do this task that did not come easily to me, one to which I used to have aversion, because I was highly motivated:
There are certain aspects of tasks that induce greater effort and persistence: a performer’s interest in the task and the level of difficulty of the task. These factors are relevant in creating an environment where an individual is likely to exert more effort and, in turn, become more industrious. Therefore, task interest and task difficulty may both act as moderators in the relationship between effort and industriousness.
Which effort was reinforced:
Learned industriousness theory asserts that reinforcing an individual for achieving a performance standard increases the likelihood of that individual performing those behaviors again. If the individual exerted high levels of effort during the completion of the task, the effort takes on its own reinforcing value. This is because the individual enjoys the sensation of working hard because it is associated with reinforcement. Therefore, this individual is more likely to generalize this high level of effort to other tasks because it is less aversive and is associated with positive results. 

The joy is in the doing.

You understand that this is really about how we can figure out how to help kids access that joy of exerting oneself and developing competence and confidence--in whatever realm.

What is the lever that triggers the engagement?

Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Get Good at It (Whatever It Is)

Maybe this is evidence of brainwashing from my college years, but I hold fast to the belief that the road to happiness is to become really, really good at something. How pleasant if that thing is also something at which one can earn a living. Even if not--even if that thing is carving sculptures out of butter or that strange combination of art, vocation, and drudgery of being a parent or if it is a kind of play--training one's dog, growing orchids (not my area--I'm just now trying to resurrect several that I nearly murdered from neglect followed by equally damaging obsessive attention), or building sculptures out of buttons--it's still not only a worthwhile pursuit but the highway to heaven.


1. Fun--Fun is absorbing, leads to flow, there are brain wave changes, look it up.

2. Becoming a master of something changes you deeply. You develop the confidence of the expert, which has a salutary deflating effect on the ego, thereby creating room for curiosity. You can afford to admit ignorance and to consider that you have something to learn. When I was studying Iyengar yoga and was admitted to the invitation-only level IV-V class, any pride I might have had was extinguished by the obvious truth that I was the dunce of the class. This was incredibly liberating. I felt freed of any expectations I might have had, any desire to compete (oh, people say yoga isn't competitive--baloney! If humans do it in a group, someone is going to try to dominate or show off, probably many someones) simply because I lacked the ability and experience to be able to compete at that level. Some of the people in the class had themselves been teachers for many years, others had studied in India, some had had a yoga practice for decades.

3. The joy is in the doing--not in feeling special for the doing, not in the attention one might get for the doing, but in the doing itself.

But one only learns this joy if one finds something that one really really loves to do, and then works and works and works and works at it. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.

I think about kids at school. How do they get a chance to find what they love to do and are really really good at? Some maybe just stumble across it. One of the protegees (and I desperately hope she doesn't mind I'm talking about her here) is shockingly good at content development. She's a natural. She just has this way of thinking, this combination of acuity, precision, and creativity that makes her a knockout. With only a few months experience, she's creating work of the quality I'd expect from someone with years of experience. Did she choose a career in assessment content development? No. It was sort of happenstance facilitated by a recommendation of someone who is a friend of mine and was one of my protegee's teachers. Never underestimate the power of a teacher to guide, nudge, encourage.

Maybe sometimes kids are really good at things they don't necessarily love, and maybe sometimes they love things they're terrible at. Then what? We can't all be good at everything. We can't all be suited for everything.

When I was in the sixth grade, I'd been reading all the Black Stallion books for years, and more than anything I wanted to be a jockey. I was 5' 6" and weighed 120 pounds and someone hinted to me that jockeys tend to be built more delicately. I was crushed. (I got over it.)

Last night I was making a list of things I'm not just terrible at, but monumentally and breath-takingly terrible at.

I was the world's worst secretary. When I was 21, I burst into tears at a panel job interview when I learned there would be a timed typing test (what's funny is that I'm now quite speedy on the keyboard, writing having become my life's work). I like to cook but once in a while I stop paying attention and something catches fire (generally a sleeve, although I branch out occasionally and have set fire to two wooden cutting boards and a couple of oven mitts--and I'm not even listing all the times I left a kettle on the stove and then went my way). I like to knit but the highest knitting rank I will ever achieve is that of advanced beginner, as I get confused when I see numbers and letters in the same paragraph, and so find knitting patterns impossible to read and also? Directions are boring. I am bad at sitting through anything that bores me. In fact, I am really bad at sitting still. When I'm on the phone, I have to pace or sketch or file papers or make coffee or snip dead blossoms off the rosebush. Once I did sit still long enough knit a sweater. I read the directions and then congratulated myself on my creativity in not following them. We named the sweater Moby Dick. It was of the shape and dimension of a giant hobbit--or maybe an orangutang: too short in the torso, as wide as three rather hefty people, and with arms that reached nearly to my knees. It had a fetching hood of Medieval appearance. I had to wear the sweater, at least a couple of times, because it took probably 100 hours to knit, and when I did, I looked like a deranged monk. However, the sweater was banished to the Goodwill because it endangered my life when I forgot about the billowing sleeve while making coffee. Yes, it caught fire. TWICE. You couldn't tell after I brushed off the charred yarn. I knitted a skirt, too. The skirt never caught fire, but you'd think it would have spontaneously combusted from sheer hideousness. It looked like a homemade tent fashioned from olive, orange, and purple yarn barf. I just threw it away, although it might have been a serviceable sleeping bag if I'd just sewed the hem together. I GET LOST. Getting lost is so deeply embedded in my life that I have a formula for how much getting lost time to allow depending on the distance I'm traveling: For less than an hour's drive, I allow 30 extra minutes; for more than an hour, 60 minutes; for longer trips, it's another half day. I've gotten lost going to the airport, and to the cello teacher's--where we go once a week and have done for the last two years. I've been late for planes and for job interviews (before the formula). I'm always late to doctor appointments (I've gotten lost going there, too, even though it is 15 minutes away and I think I know where the office is, but my doctor kindly tells me she never minds because it gives her a chance to catch up on her file notes.

UPDATE: Fixed typo & formatting. Same as it ever was.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Just Because

The Secret Service was formed not to protect the president, but to protect the economy. During and after the Civil War, the sun shone brightly on counterfeiters, and they made plenty of hay. The bills were so crude then and counterfeiting was easy to do and difficult to detect. The economy tottered.

Hence the Secret Service. (Maybe there should be a new branch to protect the economy from banks.)

How do I know? Reading.

A few days ago, I read one of the best and funniest short stories I've read in ages, "The Revolt of Mother," by a writer of whom I'd never heard: Mary Wilkins Freeman. (Yes, I am an ignoramus. Though I read a lot and have been so doing for many years, I never made much of a study of American literature. Except the exceptions: Flannery O'Connor. Eudora Welty. The modernists. Charles Bukowski and John Fante. Some others.)

Anyone who's ever been married for a long time will understand this: 

“I wish you'd go into the house, mother, an' 'tend to your own affairs,” the old man said then. He ran his words together, and his speech was almost as inarticulate as a growl.
But the woman understood; it was her most native tongue. “I ain't goin' into the house till you tell me what them men are doin' over there in the field,” said she.
I won't tell you what happens.

It was in a volume of great American short stories, which volume included all the usual suspects: Hawthorne, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, great storytellers all.

What else am I reading? Marianne Moore's Complete Poems and I'm rereading Stet: An Editor's Life by Diana Athill.

What I really want to be reading, too, but I loaned it out or misplaced it: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. That book is just a lovely afternoon.