Month: February 2009

Total 19 Posts

The Woman Who Didn’t Swim Across The Atlantic

This is somewhere in the neighborhood of What Can You Do With This? except I have no idea what to do with it.

Reaching a beach in Trinidad, [Jennifer Figge] became the first woman on record to swim across the Atlantic Ocean — a dream she’d had since the early 1960s, when a stormy trans-Atlantic flight got her thinking she could don a life vest and swim the rest of the way if needed. — Associated Press, 2009 February 8

Figge swam 2,100 miles from Cape Verde to Trinidad in 25 days, sleeping nights on a catamaran that drifted alongside her.

Sort of. Outside Magazine has printed a retraction.

I know this is worth our class time because a) the situation is objectively interesting, and b) the situation is inherently mathematical. I don’t know how to maximize its interest to my class or how to make the mathematics as rigorous as possible.

Here is a hazy look at how I plan this sort of activity. Please step in at any point to save me from myself.

  1. I’ll tell them that a woman has claimed a distance swimming record. I’ll ask them to guess which body of water she crossed. I will project a world map on the wall. Somebody will eventually suggest the Atlantic, a suggestion which other students will shout down as impossible, at which point I’ll confirm it.
  2. I’ll ask them what route they would choose across the Atlantic. Each of my students is a pretty quick study in contract law and will find the loophole or shortcut if one exists. I’m not sure how many of them will find Figge’s exact shortcut, however, which had her swimming between two of the closest islands on opposite sides of the Atlantic. I’ll pass out world maps on paper so that the students can draw on themduhn duhn DUHN..
  3. I’ll ask them how long they think it took Figge to cross the Atlantic. At this point I’m positive they’ll ask the right questions (how long was she swimming each day? was she swimming all day, every day?) at which point I’ll quote the relevant passages from the AP report. (She swam, at most, eight hours in a day.) I will give the distance between the islands only when they request it.
  4. I’ll challenge their guesses. “I don’t think a human can swim that fast.” They will either have to defend their answers or alter them.
  5. We’ll sample some data points for comparison — Michael Phelps’s 100m gold medal at the Beijing Olympics (4.4 miles per hour); Petar Stoychev’s record-setting swim across the English Channel in 2007 (3.02 miles per hour); then there’s Figge’s presumptive trip the Atlantic (10.5 miles per hour).

Again, we lower the mathematical framework onto this situation slowly, only as the kids give me the nod to bring it closer, only as they invest themselves into the problem in small ways like guessing the route or the duration of the trip. Bonus exercise: imagine how efficiently your textbook publisher would crush the life out of this problem.

I’m running out of ways to illustrate my frustration with curriculum design’s status quo. Time to get the jihad going, I guess.

What Can You Do With This: Becky Blessing

Becky Blessing was one of my substitute teachers last year. She re-introduced herself at the start of my UC Berkeley presentation and halfway through my WCYDWT? thesisie. “capture anything that interests you and present it to your kids in the most compelling way possible.” she called me over and showed me this gem, which she captured for Dor Abrahamson’s problem-solving class.

Download high quality here. See the pilot for instructions.

Impatience With Irresolution, pt 2: Part Of The Solution

I do my best not to worsen the problem of uncritical, impatient thought, but my best effort at a solution to the problem is What Can You Do With This? where we pull the world into our classrooms through digital media artifacts.

I have spent the last month trying to determine a framework for capturing and presenting these artifacts effectively, a framework that will differentiate effective and ineffective use, that will explain why some of these artifacts provoke lousy questioning, forcing the teacher to gesture and explain and prod, shooting blanks wildly at the target of real-world relevance, while others are sublime, provoking different routes to different, equally justifiable answers to interesting questions.

I presented my usual PowerPoint dog-and-pony show to UC Berkeley’s math/science teacher cohort on Monday. I had an extra half hour so I decided to test this framework to see if any of my ramblings here make any sense whatsoever.

The short answer is that, yes, off a brief introduction, most everyone could see why your textbook’s halfhearted stab at real-world relevance withers next to a single, compelling image, to which we gradually apply a mathematical framework, only as students request it.

I prefaced it with the Milch audio but I didn’t get around to playing what has become an extremely important piece in this puzzle, the opening shot of a French movie called Caché.

I reckon the majority of my time-strapped readership checked out of that one pretty fast. As drama, it’s kind of boring. As digital media instruction, though, it’s a road map and a full tank of gas.

You realize quickly that the camera won’t move, that there isn’t a soundtrack to establish the mood. (Should I be tense? Eager?) And then certain synapses of your brain start firing. You start constructing meaning from the scene however you can. You scan the margins. You check pedestrians for malicious intent. You notice you’re in an affluent neighborhood. You try to identify the protagonist.

The cameraman, the editor, and the composer are all on a coffee break. It’s on you to ask the difficult questions. It’s on you to find their answers within the scene and defend them. It’s on you to become patient with irresolution.

Impatience With Irresolution, pt 1: Part Of The Problem

That’s Milch’s term, coined in the first excerpt from my last post, a term he uses to describe the outcome of too much television: a society too intellectually lazy for complicated answers, fatuous thinkers who look for simple answers from their elected officials who will eagerly supply them.

I realize I see my students for a slim fraction of the time they spend elsewhere, but I am so concerned lately with my contribution to their impatience with irresolution. I want to do everything I can to make them patient with irresolution.

But I ask a lot of binary questions:

“Is the answer positive or negative?”
“Is it a function or not?”
“Is that in the first or the third quadrant?”

This is frustrating, but worse was my first three years teaching when a student would answer:

“It’s a function.”
“The first quadrant.”

And I’d congratulate correct answers more or less instantly. My output of those years is a student body that could blindly guess at a correct answer while faking total confidence.

Nowadays, I don’t much care what they answer. I’m disinterested. I want to get past their answer. My response to their answer is an automated “Why?” That’s where the action is.

I have been asking questions lately like “If the students in our class are the domain of a relationship, is their hair color a function?” which you can successfully defend from either angle.

I like the debates. I like the fights. I’m happy that we’re slowly detoxing off our addiction to easy answers, taking longer to answer questions that are worth more of our time.

Related Post — Not Automatically Generated

Television, The War In Iraq, And David Milch

I revisit David Milch’s interview at MIT on a yearly basisLast blogged here.. Milch created Deadwood, the notoriously profane Western, and John From Cincinnati, which none of us really got, right?

In spite of his wobbly track record, I’ll watch anything Milch makes. His aesthetic is perfectly defined, which isn’t to say it’s perfect, just that he knows what he loves, why he loves it, what he wants to create, and why he wants to create it. His work mesmerizes me and this interview, which glances at his history with addiction, his spirituality, his tortured family history, America’s relationship to television, and the war in Iraq, rivets me.

I’m not sure which of my regulars might be into this. Dina, maybe, who oughtta dig his condemnation of “the shaping of human experience in distorted forms.”a/k/a “TV.” Tom, maybe, who has seen Deadwood, at least. Other than that, I post this so I can revisit the best excerpts whenever I experience the need. I have linked each transcript to its audio because Milch’s gravely delivery is pretty priceless.

If you read nothing else, read the first excerpt, which has extraordinary bearing on how we teach and how we use media in our classrooms to provoke critical thought.

On the war in Iraq and television’s deforming influence on our national consciousness [audio]:

I think that the war in Iraq has ever so much more to do with the media’s abdication of its moral responsibility than with the deficiencies of our President. I think that the media have infantilized the expectations of the audience because of the lack of some sort of transcendent informing vision. I believe that the surrogate existence that is provided by television has come to supplant the genuine emotional life of the populace. I believe, therefore, that the reason that I have chosen not to do any more contemporary drama is because the assault on the collective sensibility of 9/11 was such as to give the audience so much fear that the only way that they could be placated was with a television series — a miniseries — which would be finished in three weeks and which would tell them that “you do not have to fear danger here because we are going to take the war over there.” And the rationale for that war had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and everything to do with the habituation of the viewing public to the shaping of human experience in distorted forms for which the media is responsibility. So that the first three weeks of the Iraq miniseries was received with enormous public approval because it was the series we wanted to see and it was the triumph of American weaponry and it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the disaffection with the Iraq war has nothing to do with what is going on with the Iraqi people and everything to do with the fact that that series is over. We don’t want to see that series anymore. We wanted to be narcotized in our reaction to the assault on the World Trade Center. We got what we were looking for. Don’t be bothering us anymore with the goddamn roadside bombs. Bring the boys home. Well the boys were never coming home after three weeks. War isn’t like that. It was a war undertaken for the wrong reasons and responded to for reasons that the public has absolutely no conception about and therefore the dialogue that’s going on about President Bush has nothing to do with President Bush and everything to do with the fact that he is the failed central character in an infantile drama which was being staged to narcotize the American public and, no matter who was in office, the so-called intelligentsia would be trivializing him and criticizing him now.

I am saying there is a different drama which is enacting itself in our country right now and it has to do with a failure to acknowledge the necessary moral and imaginative predicate that has become an entirely virtual existence, which is, you know, people spend more than half their waking hours watching television. Just think about that for a second. That has to shape the neural pathways. It creates an impatience, for example, with irresolution. And I’m doing what I can to tell stories which engage those issues in ways which can engage the imagination so that people don’t feel threatened by it.

On writing unlikeable characters [audio]:

[Sippowitz] is a character who had a lot of traits that my dad had and I think that one of the opportunities of my life has been the chance to discover love for complicated personalities, such as that, so he’s a guy that I have a lot of affection for.

On his relationship with the past [audio]:

Let me hurry to say that I am a very happy and grateful person and I was saying in a class a little while ago that the future is constantly in the process of interpreting the meaning of the past.

On the role of a doctor [audio]:

I think that the fundamental responsibility of medical practitioner is not curative, it’s pastoral. “I will walk with you into whatever darkness may come.”

On writing reprehensible characters [audio]:

When I started to write out there I won a lot of prizes and one of which was the Humanitas Prize, which is given by the Catholic church for the most uplifting whatever it is. Fifteen grand. Tax free. And I kept winning this thing and at that point I was a heroin addict, very bitter, so I would make it my business whenever I would come back to get the next award to tell the priest — uh Father, I can’t remember his name — I said, “I’m sure it will please you to know that I took that money and bought a racehorse with it,” which is what the church probably would have wanted me to do, trying to scandalize him. And I hated this guy. I just hated him. And I could never figure out why I hated him so much. He would look at you and he’d smile as though he knew something about you that you didn’t know about yourself. I hate people like that. Anyway, years go by and I won a few more times and finally I got sober. And I had the opportunity, finally, when I won this award again, I said, “you know, I’ve never liked Father So-and-So. I don’t like the way he looks. I don’t like his buckteeth.” And he was sitting right next to me. “And the thing I really didn’t like was that he always had this smile when I would try to offend him like he knew something about me I didn’t know about myself. And I thank God that I have lived long enough to have come to understand that the shadow in which I felt that all of my characters had to move and live, in fact, was cast by God’s sheltering hand. And that’s what the father knew about me that I didn’t know about myself.

On the past again and, particularly, his mentally ill, suicidal father [audio]:

I would urge you to understand that in the deepest part of my heart I regard those experiences with joy and gratitude and, certainly, love for my dad.

On the rhythms of speech and our connection to other people [audio]:

I feel that the metrics of speech are important and representative even in those of us who feel (mistakenly, as I believe) that we are separate from each other as individuals, it seems to me that the way God says, “I too have a hand here” is in the rhythms and metrics of speech so that even unbeknownst to themselves they honor a divine presence in certain elocutions of Deadwood.

On his creative process [audio]:

I believe that our sense of ourselves as separate from each other is an illusion and in fact that we are organs of some larger organism which knows us although we do not know it. And, if that is the case, I regard myself as a instrument of whatever that larger organism is, rather than as the source of the scenes. So a lot of what I try to do is get out of the way. That’s the way I work on my writing. That’s the way I work with the actors. That’s the way I edit. And I find that it puts me in the path of an enormous amount of energy.

On his creative process [audio]:

I am sort of a waystation for all kinds of influences that come in and out and, thankfully, Vicodin has been eliminated from that.

On creative liberties taken in the name of fiction [audio]:

The truths of reportage or history depend on — to the extent that they depend on anything — a correspondence to an externally verifiable reality and the truths of storytelling are the truths of an internal emotional coherence. And that can quickly become the refuge of charlatans but I guess I’d have to plead guilty to that possibility.