Flowing Words in the Sea of Thought

Which comes first, the thought or the word? A favorite concept of mine, that I think I got from George Will, is that you can’t think something you can’t say. Argue the point if you will, but who would dispute that words can bind as well as liberate our thinking? That thought is as true in education as anywhere. The digressions that follow adhere to this theme.

Not long ago I used my USB turntable to transfer some old records, scratches and all, to iTunes. I’ve been listening to Lion In the Winter, sung by Hoyt Axton and Linda Ronstadt, more than I ever did back in ’79, when the record was new. Why not listen as you read?

Some sail rivers deep and muddy, some sail rivers clear and cold, but the river that I’m sailing goes to sea.

I can’t shake that line. Doesn’t it remind you of much of education? It does me – my district’s deep and muddy evaluation system; the clear and cold flow of a lesson well delivered; and the river that we sail as our school year goes to sea – where the salt is left behind and we return to the clouds. The line that follows is tough for a teacher with the end of his career in sight, another one I can’t shake.

Time and a river. It’s as old as the Bible:  “All rivers run into the sea, and the sea is never full.”  (Ecclesiastes, 1:7). Plenty there, too, for a teacher. Elie Wiesel used the couplet for the titles of his two memoirs.  (Here and here). The passage concludes:  “To the place where rivers flow, they will flow again.” Oh my.

You could do worse than spend a Sunday afternoon with Wiesel, Solomon, and Axton and Ronstadt, which is what I did today, plus a little Breaking Bad.

I went to an NEA event in Las Vegas. It was my first union event since, after much internal debate, I decided to join last June. I can’t help wondering, a lot, about the loss of human capital the profession and the union suffer by being softly unwelcoming to potential members who lean to the Right. I expand on this and other thoughts from the event in At the Door of the Tent.

At the conference and elsewhere I’ve been paying attention to how different thinkers juxtapose words. Here’s what I mean: In response to someone saying their district leadership wasn’t transparent, someone else said, “They’re opaque?” The first responded, “No, it’s more like they’re invisible.”

Now, invisible is pretty close to transparent. Ask the bird who just flew into your picture window. But I completely got what the person meant. You can’t look into something if it’s impenetrable any more than you can if it’s imperceptible.

Another colleague described a group as strong but not porous. Is organizational strength compromised or augmented by voids? Along those lines is a plastic organization the same as an elastic one? What about one that’s hard versus one that’s strong? Each of these pairs may be interchangeable in lay conversation, but are not the same at all to materials scientists. Learning the technical definitions of material characteristics might help us refine our understanding of the institutions we work in.

I personally avoid any group with a low modulus of rupture.

A presenter asked which best describes the relationship between opportunities and action – an hourglass or bow-tie? It’s pretty subtle – the neck of an hourglass controls flow, but is open. The knot of a bow tie is meant to stop slippage altogether.

What about writing? Do any current trends bug you? One that gets to me is using “well” parenthetically, like, well, this. Another is three consecutive one-word sentences. Drive. Me. Crazy.

And reading? I like detective fiction. In Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane, a disbarred doctor talks about how bitter it was to realize he would never be more than a mediocre practitioner. What could be worse than that moment a teacher discovers he or she is forever mediocre?

Are you more afraid of mediocrity or failure, as Sarah Brown Wessling puts it? Me? Mediocrity.

In Police, by Jo Nesbo, series detective Harry Hole (an unbelievable name) has trained his team to start looking for clues where the light is good. That reminds me of trying to teach my students to process problems by starting with what’s obvious.

Relatedly, my colleagues and I have been bemoaning our kids’ inability to process a hard question by studying the question itself. They too often prefer to shout out wild guesses or just give up. But there’s hope. My students made posters about engineering. One pair of girls wrote on their poster, well, “Process the Question!”

Made. My. Week.

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