Shame Based Learning

Yesterday Anne Ursu posted this and it’s good and you should read it but I’m not going to post directly about it. It just reminds me of something that’s been on my mind lately, rarely when I’m in a position or have a context to blog about it.

It’s about shame. I used to joke, at my last job as an educational multimedia consultant, about “shame based learning,” as my favorite pedagogy. (Googling I find 13,000 uses of the expression, none by me, so I am not the only one to coin this expression). I don’t know what inspired it originally, but the truth of the joke is how often we hope shame will fix people. The book is obviously such an example, as tender as it tries to be.

I doubt many of us can recall a time when shame improved us. We remember shame with hurt and resentment. No child recalls the time they were shamed for being fat and how they then got thin and started loving themselves. More like, they find that book in their Christmas stocking and feel a throbbing mental pain and try to anesthetize themselves against it by eating all the candy in the toe.  Or they develop an eating disorder and are even less healthy and ashamed than before. As an undersized, undermuscled kid I remember the shaming of gym teachers through about eighth grade and how little motivated I was by their disgust to put down my book and lift weights.

Adulthood has it’s shame moments to — acerbic comments and judgmental looks, sometimes deserved and sometimes not — and I have gotten no better at turning them into inspiration for self improvement. Shame makes you into a wounded animal, snapping and snarling. And yet, with the faith of Saints we still hope that shame will fix other people. In any commentary about schools you’ll find the comments full of grumpsters and gremlins who want to fix the schools with shame: shame for the students, shame for the teachers, shame for the parents, shame for the administrators. Shame is seen as this all-purpose fix all. If only people felt more disgusted with themselves!

Yeah, and Twitter and whatnot kind of has the same spirit. It’s one of the few things that unites people across the vast political and cultural divide: the confidence that we can fix the other side with shame.

The transformative moments for me were when people believed the best in me. When a teachers said — contrary to the usual feedback I got from teachers — that I was “a delight” in the classroom, I vowed to remain a delight and earn the compliment. Professionally, nothing has been more motivating than a friendly email with sincere thanks. I know that the way to effect change is to tell people: I see you as strong, already. I see you as smart. I see you as beautiful. I know you are a loving and compassionate person. I see you as capable. This is especially true when rearing children, but it’s even true with adults.

I guess we regress to shame, despite our own experience, because generosity is hard. And because we’re angry. And because, in that blind and frozen moment, we  don’t want to fix someone. We want to make them feel as small and hurt as we have felt.


Upon driving southwards along the Mississippi River at sunrise while listening to “Rhiannon” the day before my 46th birthday

Grain Belt Sign

My drive to work takes me south along the Mississippi River, on a bucolic road where cyclists zip along next to you in all seasons, and sometimes people walk little dogs from the expensive townhomes to the park. Lately the sunlight has been gleaming off the dark, frozen water, like the symbol of something, both blinding and beautiful. I could do worse for a drive, because there are stately ruins that have been left that way as a kind of public art statement by the city, and the memorial bridge replacing the one that collapsed a few years ago, and an ugly sign for a lousy beer that has come to be loved simply because it is old and outlasted generations (that can be said of both the sign and the beer).

I think the ruins are there because this is, really, a young city — there are no layers to it, like in New York or Paris or London, where you can dig up another era beneath your own. And yet we have an aching to be old, and let the ruins remind us that at least we weren’t born yesterday. There has been time for industries to fall into disrepair, enough history for there to be an historic district. (You can read vivid descriptions of this area the way it used to be in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and in the Sinclair Lewis novel Babbit, though he calls his bustling metropolis Zenith.)

Yesterday the song “Rhiannon” was playing on the radio as I took this drive, and it suited my mood perfectly. Stevie Nicks, in her prime, had as good a voice as any singer, smokey and nuanced, and while I don’t know what the hell the song is about (Welsh goddess? A breakup?) she could probably sing anything at that time, to the polished and confident music of Lindsey Buckingham, and make it a hit. Remarkably, somehow, I can recall a forty-year-old song from its original radio heyday, and it feels like its been in regular rotation since. “Rhiannon,” like sunshine and prairie grass, is now a part of my landscape. Perhaps not deserving of timelessness, that pop song or that beer sign, but nevertheless permanent.

It’s been a rough year for me, in a lot of ways, though not without everyday joys, and the hardships smaller than those of other people, so it’s comforting to go down this timeless corridor — good to know that the same sun has gleamed off the same river since before humans saw it, and will continue to do so when the city has turned into dust and our descendants (lets be positive) have scattered across the galaxy, and bison have resumed their natural title as the rulers of the prairie, and (I expect) worship the beer sign, which is still there, as some kind of message placed there by Bison God, to mark a sacred watering hole, and somehow, in the background, there will be a radio blaring “Rhiannon.”


On Metrics, Success, and Making the Internet Smarter

Luis von Ahn invented a language-learning program called Duolingo that plays like a game, and is free. It doesn’t even have ads. It is wildly successful and…

Wait. I said it is wildly successful. Is it?

Well, it certainly is! You might be thinking. It gets millions of visitors a day! But if we revisit the early part of the first paragraph we will recall that the goal of the program is to teach languages, not to get site visits. Is Duolingo successful at its own purported goals? Is it living up to its own ostensible mission?

While Duolingo certainly exposes learners to a foreign language, it is also clearly deficient in many ways, particularly in the speaking and listening areas. Other problems are brought up on the discussion boards. They haven’t invested much in evaluation of their product using experimental design (e.g., one study showed that people using Duolingo did well on placement tests, but there was no control group). What Duolingo calls immersion is really translation, because the whole model is to crowd-source a translation service. Despite these problems, Luis von Ahn is now frequently cited as an expert on language learning, or as an expert on online learning.

I have no problem with the guy, and I use Duolingo myself (I have a 200+ day streak in Spanish), but this is a good example of a trend to use the wrong metrics for things. We measure success of software that teaches foreign languages by how many visitors it attracts, and the fact that it puts learners to work instead of charging money. Writers become experts on writing because of book sales, even as we acknowledge that a lot of the best-selling books are not exemplars of literary craftsmanship. Reality TV stars get $30,000 speaking fees at universities, and former models get to be experts on pediatric medicine.

I’ve been interested in the preoccupation with the idea of “success” for a long time, but it’s probably too ingrained into the culture to change anybody’s mind. We will still continue to describe thrice-divorced, occasionally arrested, drug-abusing, child-estranged millionaire celebrities as successful while ignoring the wisdom of the happiest, most centered people we know (maybe a teacher, pastor, or neighbor with a garden), at least until they have the good sense to make a viral video and get on the Today Show.

Education is certainly suffering from wrong-metric-thinking, but even more is the realm of public discourse. The “success” of an article is measured by links and comments, and links and comments are bred by outrage, not by thoughtfulness. While people active on social media certainly post the occasional “nice article” link, these seem never to get get shared on by their friends and followers the way “can you believe this nonsense?” type links do. If a piece raises the hackles, it immediately explodes on social media, gets hundreds comments, and probably millions of views. And that’s the metric the publisher of the piece values, so it is likely that instead of feeling chastened by the public response, they are doing high fives and writing congratulatory emails to the authors.

This happens about once a week for me — sometimes more. In the past week I can think of at least two ridiculous pieces in the New York Times that got all the attention, ones that have gone on to a second generation of response articles, etc., which continues to raise the links and views of the articles everybody thought was terrible to begin with.

Which means — this is my point — we should realize that we control the metrics. We decide who the experts are. We can affect the direction of public discourse. We probably can’t convince any publication with ad-based revenue that links and views are bad, but we can invite our followers and friends to read and spread something smart and insightful. Imagine a world where “viral wisdom” is a thing.

On “the way I was raised”

I generally don’t write about topical events because (a) everybody else is doing it, (b) those articles age badly, and (c) it feels like exploiting tragedy for page views. And yet the story about [famous person] who took a switch to his child has been on my mind since I first heard the news. I was a fan of [famous person] and am reeling from the details, but it affects me on a deeper level than other weekly outrages.

This is what I would tell [famous person], who asserts that he was raised this way and feels obliged to do the same, to raise his kids right.

I might as well come clean and tell you all that I once swatted my son twice on the bottom after he threw a toy monster truck at his mother’s face from point-blank range. She yelped, I swept him up and gave him two raps on the hind quarters. He cried and went to his room, and his mother went to console him. They soothed each other, the two victims of sudden violence, while I fumed outside the room in exile, feeling like a monster.

I haven’t done it since, but I’ve fancied plenty of times that a spanking would bring climax and denouement to a rough evening, that it would instill a feeling of reverential fear in my child, that it is at least worth a try after everything else had failed. I don’t follow through because I don’t want to relive that aftermath, the shame of having failed my wife and my child, to feel like a fugitive in my own family.

I didn’t get that many spankings as a kid. I remember one for playing with matches, and that wasn’t the only one, but I don’t remember what provoked the others. However, my brothers and I did live in constant fear of our father’s temper. We were like villagers in the valley beneath a volcano, treading and speaking lightly, watching for signs of a pending  eruption. When our father yelled, he yelled loud and long. We would have to stand, listening, shifting our weight from one foot to the other, and maintain a look of grim shame. I had a bad habit of realizing the absurd humor of my own predicament and smirking, which would make my father double-down in his torrent of verbal abuse.

I know I am not a better person for that experience. I did “turn out OK,” as so many advocates for spanking insist they have. Every day I try to ignore the knot of shame that experience gave me. I live with the nervous fear that people will yell at me, that I will be chastised, that I will have to stand there and take it and try not to smile.

And yet I know the ease with which we become our own fathers, the quickness to which “the way I was raised” becomes a defense for our own weak moments, when we let the shame and anger and fury control us. I have totally lost my cool, harangued my son, and been egged on to more rage when he giggled or smirked at my ludicrous behavior. I know the temptation to re-invent our weakness as strategy, to frame it as “discipline,” to summon up the wraiths of the anarchists and narcissists our children will become if we spare the rod or hard words.

Humans are storytellers, and our first stories are about ourselves. We learn to boast about our scars, make bad experiences into humorous anecdotes. We forget the hurt and replace it with sentimentality, take shame and replace it with dignity. We recast our parents as tough loving saints, who blinked back tears while they took us behind the mythic toolshed. We pretend there was no anger in their actions, and that our suffering made us into better men and women.

But it does not make us better parents, no matter how much we kid ourselves. “The way we were raised,” is not a sacred obligation to raise our own children the same way. Because we “turned out OK,” putting our broken selves back together with spit and optimism, does not mean we were raised right and need to keep up the family tradition.

We tell stories about ourselves, but we get to choose what our stories are and how they will guide us. We can romanticize the past and relive it, or reimagine the future and create it.

Homesick for Klickitat Street

When I was a kid there was no children’s writer bigger than Beverly Cleary. Everybody read her books, even the kids who didn’t read. And it was quite all right for boys to read the Ramona books because plenty of boys started with Henry Huggins and simply kept going as the series transitioned. Survey a class anywhere between second and sixth grade who their favorite writer was and half of them would say Beverly Cleary.

Yet, there was practically no merchandising. There were no toys or trapper keepers that I recall. I doubt there were midnight release parties. No movies were made from Cleary’s work until a few years ago, when Ramona and Beezus came out (reversing the names from the first book’s title, but loosely adapted from the entire series). There was a low-key Canadian TV series made of Ramona, but it was hardly a big attempt to cash in on a popular brand. Those were different days, pre-Harry-Potter and pre-Goosebumps, when children’s books were simply children’s books and not properties; readers were simply fans and didn’t comprise fandoms. Children’s books came out without much noise but had long lives. There was something dignified about writing children’s books but it was nobody’s get rich quick scheme.

I marvel that an author selling nearly a hundred million books would have left her reputation and her legacy largely in the body of her work, and that the publishers let her. Cleary says in her autobiography that she decided that she would never care about trends or money, so maybe there was pressure to do more and she declined, but the expectations of the public were also different. We let children’s books be children’s books back then.

Another thing I marvel at is that except for the whimsical Ralph S. Mouse series there is nothing high concept about Cleary’s work. They are simple books about realistic kids. The pitch, if there is one, was Cleary’s reputation for emotional honesty. Nobody needs to save the world, or even save Klickitat Street, but Cleary can make a crushed paper-bag owl feel like the end of the world. She’s funny, but she’s not off-the-wall talking burrito funny—her humor is character-centered and observational. There’s drama, but not melodrama—the cat dies, but not the mom.

Every year Beverly Cleary’s birthday is celebrated with growing reverence by the industry, partly due to her legacy and partly in wonder of her long life—she will be 99 on her next birthday—but there’s not much evidence the industry wants books like these anymore: books without a gimmick, that respect the minds of children, books that don’t do anything but get to the heart of the childhood experience. Books that are obviously for kids, and not geared to get buzzed up by bloggers and read by adults.

I meant this post be an appreciation for Cleary’s understanding of children, and how it serves me well as a father to re-read them, but the experience has made me sentimental. I keep tearing up, and I know it’s not just because of the way Cleary recalls the daily ups and downs of being a kid—which she does better than anyone, ever, I am sure—it is because I miss what children’s literature used to be. The hot market kid lit has become just isn’t the same world that welcomed me as a lonely ten year old in the child-sized shelves at the public library, and made me so happy I decided to spend the rest of my life there.

I’m homesick for Klickitat Street.

William Stafford Turns 100

If I was a better man and a better writer I would try to be William Stafford, who got all the words right and lived well and set a good example. Most people hate poetry, or don’t know anything about it — they imagine effete cloud-like wanderers among daffodils, finding new rhymes and anapests strewn about like worm dirt. They don’t know how poetry can quiet an over-busy mind, offer an image or an idea that distracts you from the distractions, reminds you what is worth thinking about, liberates you from the mundane. I can open Stafford to any page and find something wonderful. For example:

They dance before they learn
there is anything that isn’t music.

Stafford has two poems that are frequently anthologized, so if you took a literature class in college you probably listened to the blowhard at the back of the class (e.g., me) “explain” what Stafford meant by his only swerving in a poem about a dead deer, or waited through the painful silence of a class perplexed by a poem’s central question — what is the poem not doing? Those are good poems, but you need to know who Stafford is before you can understand his swerving or why matters. You have to know Stafford, and possibly be a writer, to grasp the full impact of what that poem hasn’t done.

If I had to pick one to anthologize, myself, it would be this one.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

What more can I advise young people than that: Don’t ever let go of the thread. It’s too big an idea to be kept in a poetry class. I’m going to start inscribing it in my books.

I used to live pretty close to where Stafford was from, in Western Kansas, and probably visited half the towns he lived in as his family scrabbled about during the Depression. I can visualize his poems about growing up. Just living there was a career, he said. He knew what it was like to have seasons instead of history. He knew what it was like to make hay and be hungry, how it felt to be up at dawn and hold his hands up to the sun. He knew all that, and he never forgot. 

If only my father could hold me forever, and the world/stay still—

He is anchored to the soil and his past, with his eyes to the sky and the future. He realizes profound things, but he knows that the truth is soft, that the biggest truths are hard to believe. 

[W]ell, Right has a long and intricate name./And the saying of it is a lonely thing.

He is no longer with his, but a happy one hundredth to Mr. Stafford, who thought hard for us all and held on to the thread.

Empty Bowl Moments

I don’t know how much cats  think about things, but when the resident gourmand contemplates his empty food bowl, I can not help but feel that in his eyes I see something more than mere hunger and disappointment. There is something reflective and deep going on between those pointy ears. “So it’s all come to this,” he seems to be thinking, and “what’s it all about, really?” He sees, like Stevens’ unnamed winter soul, the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is; and for a moment he is nothing himself. Shortly after this photo was taken, the un-further-fed kitty shrugged off to have a lay down and think things over. The moment of deprivation is also a moment of opportunity; gratification in the form of food would have also been an act that denied the nourishment hunger gives his soul. We all need empty bowl moments.

Torii and the empty food bowl