Scholar’s Circles: Gonna Give this a Try

I read a tweet by Liz Reilly last night which led me to a blog she is writing about her adventures in a new unit she is teaching her students, and so I was inspired to post to my own blog.

I, too, am venturing into new territory with my students as we embark on what I have titled Scholar Circles.  The loose ideas is that “Scholar’s Circles” are essentially Literature Circles, but these “circles” are populated by Advanced Placement senior English students.

For years I have taught the same 5-6 texts, feeling often like I am dragging my students through each work.  I have had the hunch that many of them did not read the assigned reading and was often discouraged.   More recently, several students shared that assigned reading has, in ways, killed the joy they once had while reading books.  This is my attempt to help them and me discover what happens when I loosen up what I would call my fairly traditional approach to teaching literature.  

This coincides with my reading of Richard M. Cash’s Advancing Differentiation and George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset (as well as Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and others) which both suggest giving students more choice and more control over their learning among other things.

We have finished Heart of Darkness as a whole class with a broad unit focus of “understanding.”  Students wrote essential questions on the topic of understanding and considered to what extent Conrad’s novel answered their questions.  At the same time, we were focusing on writing analysis of Conrad’s prose and generally trying to decipher his complex, ambiguous text.

The novels Liz and I have chosen for our Scholar Circles unit match nicely with Conrad’s novel, addressing similar concerns and questions about the topics of human understanding, investigating our relationships to one another, and the role of power in human and cultural relationships.

We have a loose plan.  Novels are to be completed by early December.  There are 4 scheduled days of book discussion where students will meet in groups to discuss their reading.  They have divided up their books and agreed on a reading schedule.  We have given students a list of standards as their learning goals.  It is up to them to decide how they will evidence their “achievement” of those standards and to show their learning and growth through a choice of assignments.  

Through this unit, I am also testing the waters of moving from my role as a didactic teacher to one who functions more as a coach and encourager.

It is with many nerves but a lot of faith in my students that I begin this unit.  I know I am doing what research and clear thinking suggests is best for students, but I hope I have structured it in a way that be meaningful for students.  I have tried to make it clear that I am learning along side them, that this is a “new thing” for me, that we figure it out as we go; but this is all a little unnerving to them (they’ve said so) and to me.

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Best to reflect before blogging…

In our first week I tried to direct us to two specific things we need to know: the difference between academic writing and journalistic writing and partner profiles.

To that, I add *your very own, personal BLOG*   Over the next two weeks we’ll be setting up our own personal blogs and then writing our first posts.  Those of you who already have established blogs can continue or start a new blog.

Either way…

“Blog is short for “web log.”  They’ve grown in popularity, and you probably already know a lot about them.  But before you create your own or continue, I want you to think about what you’re really interested in writing about and to explore some other blogs.

Begin by exploring others’ blogs.  You can start by looking at blogs that past journalism students have written.  They are linked on the right hand side of my blog.  Specifically, I encourage you to visit Charlie Zach’s.  He wrote a final post over the summer.  Then I encourage you to visit several blogs from writers outside Mariemont.  You can do a Google search for “Best blogs of 2016” or go to sites like “The Webby Awards.”

Your goal should be to check out 7-10 different blogs so that you have an idea of the possibilities and to see what others are doing.

Don’t get too anxious about this.  Your blog will be your space (school-appropriate) for you to explore your ideas and writing.  It will be a fun way to interact with class, and some of you will find a passion and network with a community that is larger than our class.

Don’t worry, not everything you write has to be “golden.”  But I look forward to reading some great things this year, and I hope to write a few of my own.  Peace, Wiseman

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How we should go out…

There are reasons pipe organs are not found in night clubs.

Although, having just written that sentence, I have an idea for a post-hipster night club: no DJ’s; rather organs, a bar serving an array of drinks in cylindrical glasses (similar to organ pipes), and it would be called The Great and Swell.

Pipe organs are unwieldy and expensive. Their sound can be jarring and loud. And perhaps most importantly they come off as creepy when they are spotted or heard outside of churches (see: haunted houses or “A Whiter Shade of Pale”).

When I tell people I am a church organist, the responses vary from polite “neat,” mildly hyperbolic “cool,” to the unconvincing “oh-interesting” -silence.

During a recent 14-mile run on a Saturday, I was asked by a running acquaintance what I play at funerals.

The question struck me as odd, partly because it seemed unprovoked, partly because the acquaintance is a bit odd (and aren’t we all?), and partly because I wasn’t sure why he was asking.

I will mention that we were running uphill. Running uphill lessens the oxygen flow to my brain as well as my ability to converse using phrases over three words.

“What kind of music do you play at funerals,” he asked.

I answered, staccato a few well-known hymns (at least I think they are)—“Amazing Grace,” “It Is Well,” “In the Garden”—and laughed the question off and changed the subject.

Yesterday I played for the memorial service of Nancy, one of our congregants. The funeral was sparsely attended. Nancy was eighty-three years old. She had “moved” to our church ten years ago. I did not know her well. But I do know she was a feisty lady. While I don’t think Nancy ever complimented me on my playing, she often gave me a nod of approval when I would see her, and say hello. She knew me by name, and used it when she spoke to me.

Even though I would not consider Nancy a close friend, nor will I sentimentalize my relationship with her, I knew of her, knew her faithfulness to the church, knew she struggled with life in the last few months of her life, knew she had a best friend named Helen, knew she loved animals and cared for them, knew she had lived on this earth eighty-three years, and like any of us, I knew she had changed countless lives in small and large ways.

As I sat at the keyboard of Clifton’s 1895 Koehnken and Grimm historic organ yesterday, my odd running acquaintance’s question from several weeks ago returned to me—“What kind of music do you play for funerals?”

And in a prayerful moment before I began to play, I prepared and answered a different question: “How do I play for funerals?”

I chose to play a little J. S. Bach. I love the beautiful organ chorale on the German hymn “Alle Menschen müssen sterben.” Its melody and harmonies step-wise reach—like we do when we are at our best—toward the infinite.

I chose to play a Diane Bish arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” It starts off softly, pleadingly, uncertain, then ends with full organ and jazz rhythms as the tune seems to recognize the words it carries, and the two join saying: “This grace is real. It’s loud. Get on board!”

I accompanied the congregation’s singing of “Hymn of Promise.” And I pulled the mixture and most of the stops when we got to “In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,/ Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

And for the postlude I played a dance-like arrangement of “Hymn to Joy” that transitioned from G-major to D-major, thumping “For All the Saints.”

When I play a funeral, I play loud and sure and bold (unless the family or officiant requests otherwise). I don’t play this way because I believe in an afterlife of pearly gates, streets paved with gold, expansive mansions, or any overwrought dwelling of our own imagining. I don’t play this way because I believe that when we die “at last, we are free!” While those things may or may not be true, I do not play for those reasons.

I play loud and sure and bold, because when I play for a funeral, I consider that we are distilling a life, remembering and celebrating our essence. In God’s presence.

Our daily-basis lives—when we are living them—are mostly ordinary and sometimes muddled. Sometimes our lives are solemn and disappointing.

But if I think about distilling life—which is what I think we’re doing at funerals and memorial services—that distillation is loud, fabulous, courageous, wonderful, bold, and it is beautiful when we let ourselves experience it.

And I think that’s how we should all go out.

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What is the Nature of Justice?

After I left Aiken High School for a job in New York in 1999 (only to return to Cincinnati), I have occasionally felt like I was less needed at a school like Mariemont High School.  It’s a high achieving school in a district and community with wonderful families–mostly, if we admit it, white–who work hard ensure their children receive the best education available, and I believe most of them do.  Teaching there has its own stresses, but they are the types of stresses one might experience at a successful medical practice where everyone works long hours hoping for the best.  Most days are fairly calm.  We see each other and recognize ourselves.  And we try our best to be kind and generous.  

And ever since I started teaching at Mariemont in 2001, I have felt incredibly privileged to work at a school like this. My students are great kids who grow up to do great things, but in this greatness is a lack of an awareness of what I experienced at schools like Ohio Wesleyan University, Aiken High School in Cincinnati, and Bay Shore High School on Long Island: an awareness and understanding of those whose lives are different from ours. 

From Mariemont, where I teach, it’s fairly easy to drive or take the bus to our downtown city center, toward OTR and Vine Street.  Many of us or our families have enjoyed a night out at the theater or treated ourselves to a beautiful dinner or drinks somewhere downtown.  If you take Columbia Parkway on your way home, and you drive away from the city, you soon see the beautiful homes and neighborhoods, and our city’s skyline is visible in your rearview mirror.  Most of the drive is scenic, and you can begin to understand some of what makes this city such a wonderful place to live and work.


I wonder about a recent drive from the new Anna Louise House on Reading Road in Mt. Auburn to Mariemont.  I was not in the car, but awaited its arrival: nervous, a bit worried, but more a feeling of anticipation, excitement, and gratitude.

I assume Mark Mussman drove and Melissa Mosby sat in the the passenger’s seat with time on her hands to look as they drove away from her current home.  

Mark has a PhD and he’s the Director of Education for the of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, the one I contacted last spring to see if we could have someone to speak to our students, hoping to make abstract ideas like “homelessness” and “privilege” take a human skin.  He is unassuming, responsive, and helpful.

I wonder whether Ms. Mosby, who celebrated her 50th birthday only days before heading to Mariemont on a Friday afternoon, wondered at the houses and neighborhoods that grew out from the city, looked at the stability, logic, and beauty and cursed all of it.  I’ll never know, but that’s what I would have done if I was in her place.

When I met Melissa and Mark in the underwhelming lobby of our high school, she was listing to one side, drinking from a water bottle, wiping her face with a napkin.  Nervous.  On our way down to the assembly where students sat on the same bleachers where they scream at pep rallies, I spoke with them about the students they would be speaking to: mostly white, privileged, curious, empathetic, and in some ways under-exposed.  I hoped this list seemed honest and reassuring.  

Just before taking the last steps toward the gymnasium, Melissa asked, “How many people are going to be in there?”  

500 of them.  She grabbed the wall and laughed or prayed, “Sweet Jesus.”

I will not tell Melissa’s story because it is not mine to tell, but I will carry it with me as long as I live.  And I will add it to the story of my life.

I believe our students and many of our staff are doing the same.

After the assembly and the discussions that followed, teachers and students were grateful for a space to consider what this experience meant to them.  

That’s a side view of Melissa as I tried to get a picture of her after the assembly on my iPhone.  She was overrun by students who were moved by her story.  And Nick caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

That’s a side view of Melissa as I tried to get a picture of her after the assembly on my iPhone.  She was overrun by students who were moved by her story.  And Nick Clayton…got caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

And Nick caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

And Nick Clayton…got caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

After the assembly, I received three emails from mothers: one from our district’s curriculum director who missed the assembly but heard Melissa’s story from her sophomore daughter; one from a parent whose child had befriend Melissa on a previous visit downtown; and one parent wrote to me, our principal, and the district superintendent to express her gratitude for the assembly. I don’t get emails like that very often.

To me, justice involves action.  I have tried to quit equating “justice” with punishment.  And I really don’t believe that justice is something we can dole out in a courtroom.  My definition of justice includes the words “learning” and “stories” and “relationship.”

My definition of justice involves the understanding of ourselves in relationship to others.  When we start to think about ourselves in relationship to our friends, then we start to understand ourselves a little better.  

And so it is with others.  We come to know ourselves and, in time, them.  We become curious and interested in people because we realize we are one of them–the black mother living through and then out of generational poverty; the gay football player–it’s a year before he’ll realize there are parties he’s not invited to and boys who would like to kill him–who loves music, and the symphony, a bawdy joke, flowers,  running, and a good book; who knows this world is rich in grace and beauty even through the darkness.

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2014 Introduction to Blogs

The term “blog” is an amalgamated term that comes from “web” and “log.”  In the early 2000’s blogs emerged as individuals began to write and post their impressions of the world around them.  Since then, blogs have caught on.

Many individuals use them as online journals and diaries, or as a way to “publish” photos or thoughts.  Established media organizations like USA Today, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal have begun to use them to supplement their news articles.  And new media outlets have sprung up using blogs as their sole medium for reportage.grapefruit

You might be familiar with The Huffington Post, Gawker, and The Daily Beast.  These—and many others—have gained a reputation for serious and responsible journalism.

This year, I am going to ask that each member of the Warpath staff, create and maintain an individual blog.  You will post to your student blog at least once every other week.

I will be asking you in the next week to consider a theme or focus for your blog (it should be something you’re really interested in).

As you look at some professional and student blogs, start thinking about a focus or topic that interests you and about which you are interested in writing.   And then start thinking about a potential title or name for your blog.

My blog for school is called “Wiseman’s World.”  I use that blog to write things for you and to capture  general impressions I have about teaching and education.  My intended audience is my journalism class and other teachers.  I kept a blog while I was on a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar in London called “To Canterbury I Wende” (reference to The Canterbury Tales, which I was studying).   Three years ago, George Peck blogged about sports on his blog titled “Taking the Field”; Teddy Murphy kept a music blog where he reviewed and wrote about music on his self-name “Red at Night”; Abby Hofrichter wrote about random senior-year things in her self-titled “The Junk Drawer.”  Last year’s student blogs are listed to the right under “Blogroll.”

Before we begin actually doing any blogging, we’re going to take a week (and a little bit) to think about what blogs are and to visit some blogs.  Be intentional about noting what you like and what works (and by contrast, what you don’t like and what doesn’t work) as you begin to think about creating your very own blog.

1) Check out at least 5 “professional” blogs.  You can find a few really good professional blogs by visiting Time Magazine’s Best Blogs of 2010 and/or 2011 and/or the best bloggers of 2013.  You can also Google search particular topics and blogs you’re interested in, but I recommend starting with Time’s recommendations.   Provide the title and URL of 3 “professional” blogs you visited/read through along with a brief (1-3 sentence) review of each blog.

2) Check out at least 2 student blogs from last year.  You can find those posted on the LEFT-HAND SIDE of my blogProvide the title and URL of the 2 student blogs you visited/read through along with a brief (1-3 sentence) review of the blogs.

3) Be prepared to recommend at least one blog to class for any reason (content, design, style…).

4) You have until Wednesday 9/25 to (1) visit and investigate blogs and (2) write your answers on a comment to this post.

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Get Hyper. Get Linked.

This week (okay, and I realized I never did publish my picture/post from last week), I want us to think about the possibilities of hyperlinks in our stories.

You’ve probably noticed highlighted blue words on a news story that illuminate with a hovering mouse, and are clickable, and take you worlds beyond on the internet.

Responsible and writers deal with primary sources and direct readers sources.

This week your post should include at least one (1) hyperlink and be sure to click “Open in a New Window.”  By the end of the week you should be able to explain the significance of hyperlinks in news articles, why “Open in New Window” is important.  And name some of the possibilities of this ability to link.

And I got distracted by a video about a cat.

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Pictures tell a story…if you let them

This week, I am going to ask YOU to use your photojournalism/photography skills.  Take several photos of (an) aspects of the subject of your blog and blog about it.  

I blog about scholastic journalism, so I’m going to take pictures of papers, of students, of things I see that remind me of the topic of scholastic journalism.

For your inspiration, here is an interesting feature from the New York Times: “Looking at Our Hometowns.”  The photos here are taken by high school students and they represent aspects of their home towns.  

James Estrin's photograph from New York Times "Looking at Our Hometown" Series

James Estrin’s photograph from New York Times “Looking at Our Hometown” Series


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