Sunday, December 23, 2012

College of Storytellers

            Having just read Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights, I find myself wondering about making it a required text for the general education course that I teach, Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice.  In addition to its explication of “teaching story” (as noted in my previous blog), the book offers several compelling features:
  •           Modeling the desire for finding “the story in your heart”
  •       Asserting that no one else can give you that story
  •       Teaching the journey (not just the destination)
  •       Attracting by character, both cultural and personal

            Modeling the desire for finding “the story in your heart.”  To brand oneself with the term “storytelling” in an academic context pretty much says SECOND-CLASS: unworthy of merit, possible entertainment value.  It reminds us of the “fool” in the royal court.  The wisest rulers valued the role in moral advocacy (e.g., peace & justice), but most everyone just wanted a laugh.  Shah’s first pages tell his own real-life hostage crisis, proving this book is not just fun and games; and he reminds us along the way that the place of story in our world is not primarily for entertainment.  Shah’s passion for finding his own story marks most forcefully its priority for finding meaning and vitality in life.  I want my students to know that’s the way I feel about what we’re doing.  It’s so serious we have to be playful, and it’s most serious.
            Asserting that no one else can give you the story of your heart.  My students, like all of us, would like explicit directions, a recipe, the failsafe formula, capital T truth.  Just give me the answer, why don’t you!  In his search, Shah repeatedly hears from his guides that it simply doesn’t work that way.  No one else knows another person’s heart.  Presuming to do so deprives the other of his or her most precious inheritance.  Shah shows the trouble and the joy entailed with unique identity and personal freedom.
            Teaching the journey (not just the destination).  Tahir Shah tells of a treasure chest given to him by his father and of preparing an equally special box for his daughter.   The diamond inside is paper with a story inscribed.  While Shah doesn’t use the term, one classification I’d use for the treasure is “nonsense tale” because it doesn’t have a single clear moral or thesis and can easily be tossed off because it’s not easily opened.  It’s like the peach, having a seed inside that can be trashed as a stone; but when handled with respect, it bears fruit.  First there’s the planting, the waiting, and the shaping of the tree.  While Shah does reach the story in his heart, the experiences along the way are as much, if not more, exciting and illuminating.  Perhaps quantum storytelling suggests it’s both particle and wave; the journey, a wave (zigzag according to Shah); the destination, one particle.
            Attracting by character, both cultural and personal.  I’m amazed at the texture of relationship displayed In Arabian Nights.  Friendship means saying “yes” when asked for a favor without weighing out “what is it” first.  Inequities between males and females are not glossed over—that’s mostly left for other treatises, like Beneath the Veil made by Saira Shah, Tahir’s sister.  In Arabian Nights tells how friendships embody one of the essential conclusions of another if our Good Stories' required texts, On the Origin of Stories: Cognition, Evolution, & Fiction by Brian Boyd.  Our chance for peace and justice may well depend on our enactment of reciprocal altruism.  Shah elaborates how the favor system entails a reciprocal link and how the culture depends on it, along with the sense of honor and shame.  Morocco and the Arab world are not put on a pedestal, but opportunities for the West to advance toward peace can be found.

            In his closing pages, Shah writes of his destiny.  “I see the East through one eye, and the West through the other.  I understand how they both feel, but I don’t know how to tell one about the other.” 
            A friend advises him, “There’s a way to teach.  It’s so subtle that the student doesn’t realize he’s being taught anything at all. . . [It works] in the way that a teaching story seeps in and sows a grain of wisdom.  You don’t see it coming, and don’t know it’s there until it’s working for you.”
            Shah concludes, “What if I could start my own kind of College of Storytellers. . .”

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Story in Your Heart: Teaching Stories, Quantum Storytelling, HorseSense

             In Arabian Nights intersperses daily events of Tahir Shah’s home life at the Caliph’s House, his meanderings in Casablanca and around Morocco, and folks’ tales especially related to Joha/Nasrudin and the sourcebook: Alf Layla wa Layla, A Thousand and One Nights.  In this orchestration, Shah offers entrance into the deceptively enigmatic medium that his father Idries Shah brokered, the “teaching story,” while simultaneously reflecting Tahir’s pursuit for “the story in his own heart.”  I think both Shahs would agree with me in saying that a person cannot find the heart-story in any printed text, including this one; but I’m confident that In Arabian Nights offers a rare and wonderful companion for the journey because it’s enriched with Tahir’s memories of Idries and it features the rich texturing of a father’s nurturing the child, including the responsibility for tending a legacy, bridging the East and West.

   I just counted on my home library’s shelves 28 books of Idries Shah and over 20 on the Arabian Nights (more are at work), but I only recently discovered that Tahir Shah was Idries’ son and that this work illuminates the bridge between worlds and particularly the mysterious interweavings of story, most especially the lamp-trimming of teaching stories.  In Arabian Nights arrived just as I was packing up materials I’d take to the Conference on Quantum Storytelling.  It made the 3-book cut, my limit for an already stuffed computer/camera bag for that airplane carry-on.  The 4-day conference was even more packed so the book returned home scarcely opened; the timing could have been scarcely more perfect due to the way it’s engaged those post-conference musings, the inevitable let-down, and the integration of new friends--so many complexities of timespacemattering.

            Quantum Storytelling and Teaching Narrative were two of the three constituents in my conference presentation title, the third HorseSense.  Similar to the way Tahir Shah composes apparently distinct layerings In Arabian Nights, perhaps the strands are one.  Living story unites and vitalizes.  One reason, probably primary, that I committed to participate in the Conference stemmed from my desire to read the persons, vastly more important than the words or even recordings of proceedings.  Shah notes repeatedly the derision among Moroccans for written text (and for televised soap operas); personal discovery, coffee-shop conversation, full-sense perception and silence clue the discovery and incorporate matters of the heart (and soul).

          Perhaps today, Rumi might say “like every other day,” is the end of a world. Time and space and what matters have spun together yet more amazingly.  I’m more certain of the story in my heart and filled with gratitude for living story and for friends, both new and old.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Technology 's Gift to Documenting a Collaboration

Documentation for Collaboration between School and NWP Site

            Both time-intensive and quite significant, the decisions about documenting the process of collaboration merit elaboration and continued reflection.  With the support of a grant from the National Writing Project, the University of Maryland Writing Project (UMdWP) has been very fortunate to connect with an elementary school that is implementing 1-1 iPad and iPod touch technology into its instructional program.  The school is an integrated arts and technology magnet for the Washington County Public School system in Maryland.  I’m director of UMdWP, project director for this collaboration, and “production manager” for our documentary videos; in this blog, I feature two of our methods of documentation.
1. Developing “cases” of best practice.
            As UMdWP has specialized in DMAL (digital media and learning, Henry Jenkins’ term), we’ve explored the development of documentary videos that provide both an opportunity for a teacher to articulate his/her best practice and for our site to prepare resources for professional development.  We believe that the punitive policies toward teachers and schools are in part due to our being too modest about the excellence of teaching.  Identification of and broadcast-worthy documentation of best practice have potential to redress this negative PR situation.
            As part of developing cases of best practice, we intend to produce documentary videos that focus on specific instructional activities of particular teachers.  In the resultant production, a 3-5 minute video shows the teacher explaining the activity, referencing Common Core Standards and foundational theory, and illustrating with samples from classroom instruction, student process and work.
            While the “finished” video provides a resource for subsequent professional development, perhaps even more important is the process of making it.  Teachers who are often too modest even to name their excellence are supported in seeing their distinctive value and in articulating it.  This process increases transferability and adaptation appropriate for situated learning.  The documentation also pushes our collaboration to honor the variety of contributions across the staff, thereby extending recognition beyond the narrow spectrum targeted in high-stakes accountability.
            As any choice carries special considerations, documentary videos demands particular cautions related to confidentiality.  Visuals showing faces, names, and/or work samples require care that persons are protected from anyone who might harm or misuse.  Secondly, to the extent the production is published, attenton to the quality of sound, image, and other production considerations increases.  Fortunately, digital media are now available at reasonable cost and high quality, but this still depends on good technical practice (e.g., use of tripod, limitation of background noise, use of good production program) and artistic choices (e.g., shot selection, mixing, composing). Our work at UMdWP has benefited especially in this regard by bringing in a consultant from our sister site, Bonnie Kaplan of Hudson Valley WP.  A third consideration concerns the context of a “model.”  When a documentary video is published, the risks of inappropriate transfer expand, and the need increases for guidance and coaching in making good situational adaptations.
            We are still in the documentary video process with this collaboration.  Samples made from work with UMdWP’s Teacher Consultants who are working in Title 1 schools include ones I’ve made with Shana and Michelle.  Here are links to the videos:

Mentor Text with Michelle  
The image at the top of this blog shows Michelle and a frame from the video that features one of her students' drawings.  The mentor text was a promo for visiting Ocean City and Michelle's students made a "promo" for their home community with images and text.  

Digital Media with Shana.
Shana describes her work using digital media to engage 3rd graders both in an after-school club and in her classroom. She credits the University of Maryland Writing Project and National Writing Project with support of her learning to use digital media for herself and for her students. Shana's a member of UMdWP's Documentary Video Team. Production made in Camtasia.

            Our documentary video work in process includes a teacher using iPads to complement the class' work in STEM.  The teacher reflected that students in a science project often get so involved that they don’t take notes on their emergent hypothesis testing and then do not have the detail they need to write up the research, but with their iPads they eagerly took photos that were valuable in subsequently describing and analyzing their study.

Use iPad to record the height of tower
Use recorded measures to hypothesize about structure  

2. Records of teachers’ implementation and their comments. 
            A second and equally, if not more, important form of documenting is coming through our good fortune of collaborating with a school system commited to technology and with a principal having special expertise in technology.  The county system employs an online system, My Big Campus; and the principal has been very effectively using its Discussion Board feature to have faculty comment on their practices.   For example, she recently asked them: “In what ways have you used your iPads/iPod Touches to improve digital writing and collaboration?”  The teachers’ responses in the Discussion Board provide written records of their choices among apps, their uses of them, and their satisfaction.  Students’ work has also been produced in Discussion Board and is available for documentation.
            Here’s a visual of the Discussion Board and below that is some information about My Big Campus.

 “My Big Campus provides an engaging online environment to promote blended learning within a safe monitored platform that balances educational use of Web 2.0 with network and student safety.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012

About Quantum Storytelling

“Be not the first by whom . . .” 

I’m not, and even trend more toward “the last to lay the Old aside,” so those who know me might double-take when I mention I’m participating in the Second Annual Conference on Quantum Storytelling.  What’s that, they ask, quantum storytelling?  It’s as if I really slipped out of the saddle into the NewAge horse trough this time. 

I’ll admit I’m still a bit cautious about the title, but my reservations have been attended by my background check on the conveners.  David Boje is not only well published, grounded in the same theorists all the rage with our doc students, he’s also a masterful blacksmith.  Grace Ann Rosile backs up her academic credentials with the equestrian practice that carries for me about the most convincing and compelling reality check of all.

So what is Quantum Storytelling?  I don’t know.  Enough.  Boje emphasizes “datability” which looks to me like a mini-version of the richly textured phenomena that characterize the research reports I’ve come to value.  He also names “little wow moments” because a datability offers a telling bit of “timespacemattering.”  A  LWM holds clock-tick-seconds that memory, or the heart, makes as eternal as anything I’ve seen in this world.

I can’t give the date for when it happened, but I’m certain that I’ve come to trust not the publication record or the marquee billing, instead I follow the longing in the fiber of my being that keens on integrity.  The big-word dropper has to have the smell of fresh rain.  When I’ve seen David at the forge and Grace Ann riding in the arena, and when he talks of the lesson of the lent hammer and she of the tending of a spent stallion, then I’m drawn to explore the simultaneous flow of wave and particle in the living story, the antenarrative, the making of social justice in small business.

I’m going because I believe this trip, unlike the huge professional conventions, promises to enrich the experiences like the one that’s still flowing from yesterday’s ride.

I planned to arrive at the arena late, late enough to have limited counsel;
for I doubted that my performance with Leg’cy would stand scrutiny.
For several weeks, she’d been “off” when trotting left with a sort of limp,
and I knew we’re not at the top of our game going any which way.

Yet as chance would have it, my unsolicited advisors had overstayed;
such was the inviting day, warming, and a horse barn brings curiosities,
conversations.  So the three coaches soon were advising: more inside flexion,
this way, no, that.  How is she today?  Looks sound.  Push with that inside leg—
Kick if she doesn’t move over.  Give on the right rein.  Your other right!
Sit up.  Steady.  It’s not a rocking horse. Breathe, through your hands.

I wasn’t sure in the first quarter-hour if all this direction was helpful.
The work was hard.  I like the light touch; they pushed me to be stronger.
Then I began to notice that the affirmations connected with a pattern:
a contact so close as if my fingers were inside her teeth—then release—
as if the holding goes right past a tight rein until the other disappears.
Time, too.  That’s timespacemattering.  And gone, so delicate, it’s easily
neverwas.  A dance notion had flitted in much earlier, but in rhythm
unfamiliar.  More strong-strong-strong-soft, than iambs; a different pulse,
seeming inconsistent.  Could it be the hand containing us
is pressing more, demanding no more separation of particle from wave?

Since I began this with Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, it seems apt to conclude likewise, with a few less familiar lines:

            ‘Tis more to guide than spur the Muse’s Steed;
            Restrain his Fury, than provoke his Speed;
            The winged Courser, like a gen’rous Horse,
            Shows most true Mettle when you check his Course.

I’m going to the Quantum Storytelling Conference with this love of the muse, horsemanship, and I’m checking on our course.