Life on the shoulder

roadside 022
Speeding ahead barely glancing
I was the  momentary observer
at the edge of my vision,
of a child-sized, plastic  vanity,
spurned by an overloaded car.
And a pink coat with shreds 
of wrapping paper still clinging.
Left  for the world to watch,
a yet to be marred celebration
slowly soiled by gravel spray.
Further down the freeway
lipstick tubes, cheap make-up,
spilling from cheaper plastic bins,
intended to beautify,
now unintended refuse.
Then I spied the book,
open pages, still pristine,
flapping in the draft of cars, 
I could not resist, braking hard
screeching down the shoulder.
Running back, recklessly
to rescue the words, anxious
to peer at the choice of escape.
From this too all too gritty,
world that steal our things
Things that will decay,
or may be outgrown first,
still I read the words, hoping
they would reveal more
than the unplanned exhibit
of the unmade-up face.
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What makes poetry, poetry?

earth 045As a young child I assumed poetry must rhyme.  Meter was beyond my comprehension. It was only that constant repetition of ending sounds that mattered. In fifth grade, the teacher encouraged us all to enter a poetry recitation contest.  The selection had to be memorized.  In a conscious attempt to be an over achiever, I choose a poem longer than any other student, a ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier called Barbara Fritchie.

In what seemed to be a monumental task, I spent the next week committing to memory the story of an old Quaker woman confronting Stonewall Jackson as he marched into Frederick, Maryland.  I didn’t care much about the history behind the poem, but I loved chanting the neat rhyming couplets. Each ended on a single syllable accented word so I could really punch out those rhymes.

However, I did have a bit of a quandary what to do about the couplet that read:

” All day long that free flag tost

Over the heads of the rebel host.”

Should I pronounce the end of the first line as “tossed” indicating the flag flapped in the wind, or force the rhyme?  If I said “toast” the poor listeners might think the flag was performing a ritual honor or baking in the sun.  In the end meaning won out I pronounce the Whittier’s made up word as “tossed.”

This was not a traditional competitive contest with a few winners. Rather it was a blatant attempt to foist a little culture on grader schoolers. The judges had a criteria for excellent, good and fair. Everyone received a ribbon.  On the day of the contest I managed to rattle of the entire ballad without a single error. Unfortunately for me, everyone else that participated in my class brought home a blue ribbon for excellent recitation, while I was given the lowest level, a white.

I entered the kitchen mournful, showing my feeble white ribbons and declaring I would never enter a contest that required speaking again. My mother dismissed the judge’s decision by saying, “It was a sing-song poem. Next year, choose one that doesn’t rhyme. You’ll do better.”  I hadn’t realized that reciting tightly rhymed poetry with its sometimes awkward syntax was harder that reading blank verse.

Later, in high school English class, when we were given assignments to write poetry, I asked about writing blank verse and the teachers were generally okay with it. The other students thought I was cheating, writing poetry without having the complication of making it rhyme.  In this day much of the published poetry is free verse, which has follows neither the conventions of a rhyming or regular meter. This departure from traditional poetry leaves many with the question: What makes poetry, poetry?

The basic answer is repetition.  When I write prose I search for synonyms so I am not always repeating the same words. Early on my mother pointed out that repeating the same words was the sign of a very amateurish writer. I also vary the syntax. Using both short direct sentences and longer ones with subjective clauses improves the flow.  Free verse breaks all these conventions of “good” writing by using intentional repetition. It may not be the repeated end sounds of rhyme, but the other sounds such as alliteration, assonance and consonance. Similar words, phrases and parallel construction are used over and over again. The challenge with free verse is creating a new structure, not an already established poetic form and repeating it so the new form has a recognizable pattern, a pattern with enough variation to keep it interesting.

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, said writing free verse was “‘like playing tennis without a net.'”(1) This changes the game, but it can be done. One of my students said poetry was expressing his ideas indirectly. He liked writing it because he could say things that he wanted to without letting people know precisely who and what he was discussing. That is not necessarily what makes poetry, poetry.  But it is part of what makes poetry good.

  1. Ellman, Richard and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Second Edition. New York: Norton, 1988.
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For poetry month (3)

Jupiter 040_edited-1
According to
surface politeness,
preferred by the world,
I inquire of another’s
well being,
a simple
“How are you doing?”
I am answered by
over confident
“Great, never better”
and I cringe
A strange response
to the reply of someone,
 obviously doing well
and sure of it.
how is it, that I have grown
to dread hearing it? 
It is the surety
that seems in question
as the evening rolls on.
“Never better,” means
better than before
better than one more,
who must fall beneath
the cutting words of disdain
Disdain required
in the mind of the
over confident
to make him truly “great”
to propel him towards
to the next level of 
“never better.”
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For poetry month (2)

TX_dallas b(Another poem inspired by events near home)
We’re all counting the steps. 
Employee calls -
“I’m going to stay home.
My son goes to Hotchkiss, or used to.
That child who was around  Duncan came to class
sent home for twenty one days.
I’m not taking chances.”
Five steps
Colleague at work -
Says, ” They’re at my house.
Until they find another place to live.
The Ivy  looks better since it’s been power washed
Didn’t live that close to them.
Just being cautious.”
Four steps.
College senior -
“She was so pleased
To get that job right out of school
My girlfriend that works at Presbyterian Dallas,
Did you know she’s a nurse?
A friend of Nina’s.”
Three steps.
In the baggy suit-
Sterilizing hospital rooms
And now the second apartment
And he’s been told the suit may not be the right kind
How thorough must one be
in order to be safe?
Two Steps.
Businessman -
Flew to Dallas, Monday
That very same Frontier Flight
And when he saw the photo, he recognized the nurse
Two days ago… how many people
Has he seen since?
One step.
“It’s my work”
He gently explained to them
Smiling proudly outside, terrified inside
As they saw  him off on a journey ending in Liberia
leaving them  three weeks ago
at the D/FW airport.
Door step.




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For poetry month

SC_charleston_house(a little creation inspired by the style of Robert Browning)
I’m sure you’ll like my Mother.
Call her Dr. Welsh
she’s sort of like you, she’s  a brain.
No, it’s not her maiden name.
That was Hickes.
She married Joe Welsh at twenty-two.
I’ve heard her say
she out grew him,
neither ambitious or bright,
But she had a name,
a practice in Monroe county.
and then she remarried.
Who? My father Tom Corbin
Of course, it’s confusing -
She’s Williams, I’m Corbin ,
Sis and Dad are Greene,
and then, Grandma is Hickes.
You’ll meet them one at a time -
My mother last.
Dad  will be first,
Watch out the window
for a blue Chevy pickup,
An 1950’s model
Refinished it himself, he did
He loves the old cars
Sis will be at home,
sweating on the tennis court
paying the price to break into the pros.
I’m curious to see,
who her opponent will be
she has no coach, now.
She was fond of the last one
Too fond.
Mother straightened her out.
“Don’t even look at any one
who is not from a family of standing.”
And our house?
Well, there are two houses,
You’ll meet Grandma Hickes next,
in the white one built before the Civil War,
built by Dad’s great grandfather
not large, but beautiful,
fluted pillars and curved double porch.
The other house is big
lots of bedrooms,
you’ll have your own.
It’s hard to see the whole house
because of the thick pine forest
on Dad family’s land.
It’ll be after eight
when Mother gets home
and we have a feast of a dinner, then.
I know it’s late,
I’ll introduce you to Annie,
She makes wonderful po’ boys and pies -
Kept me from starving
when I was living at home.
Mother never knew,
“Annie” she said “fix her another salad for dinner.”
“She needs to trim down some.”
Annie said I’m just big boned.
My mother works hard -
And now Dr. Barin’s gone
He went to the state hospital.
It’s a pity, he was young,
not long out of med school,
soft-spoken and freckled face.
Not as cute as Dr. Weinstein,
dreamy blue eyes and deep cleft chin.
I was so young then, only fourteen,
Of course,
he paid me no attention,
But Dr. Barin would chat with me.
She runs the county clinic.
Oh, it has regular hours,
just like most doctor’s offices.
Her patients are back country farmers
“So ignorant they flush paper towels down the toilet.”
“It’s impossible to keep another doctor there long.”
So she’s stuck with all the work,
too much to keep up with
she has to unwind at the spa
I’ve never been there,
Sis has – even had a massage,
She says it’s charming
I wish you could come back in May
for the pilgrimage
Mother has the old house
dressed with magnolia boughs and red roses
She puts on a red satin dress,
with a giant hooped skirt full
she pushes it sideways to walk through a door.
Annie’s sister made it
She sewed Sis an olive green one
I wish Mother would have her make me one, too
I wouldn’t look fat if the fabric was dark
and the skirt not as full.
I’m going to a Saint Agnes
because Mother says
It’s necessary to get into a college
with a good reputation
But not like Duke or Brown.
I’ve never been fond of school,
Studying during all my free time
There must be something better.
Mother hasn’t mentioned where I should go
and I’m a senior.
Have you applied already?
Where? Was it hard to get in?
Dad could help me – he has connections.
I’d love to have at least one friend there,
Just make it sound like a good place
a place to impress Mother.
Don’t worry, it’ll be easy.
I’m sure you’ll like my Mother.
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saturnAfter watching a fifth grader standing confident before a class full of peers and parents to deliver a poised speech on Tennessee, I got to watch my own son mumble through a presentation on Maryland. Now, his was actually more organized, including economy, geography, major cities, types of population and educational institutions that he had gleaned from the Internet, and an atlas at the local library. These comprehensive details were missing from the disconnected facts and “places I visited” presentation made by the more poised student. If the presentations had been written, his would have been considered superior and the teacher did notice.

Years later when developing a technical training program, a coworker with years of experience in leadership development confided to me that he really didn’t feel comfortable with technology. Most of the leaders he had dealt with tended towards the inspirational, big picture persona. They like to lead people, and leave the details to others. So they didn’t really comprehend how to find trends in data through crunching numbers, or the use the technology available for planning and scoping out possible courses of action.

What do these two vignettes have in common? Use of technology is changing society, education, work and who we consider to be leaders. If you paid attention, you may have noticed the rise in many tech companies was engineered by a pair, the vocal spokesman and the less noticeable creative “brain” – one to inspire people, the other to invent things that actually worked.  In the past when people shared ideas (and source codes) freely over the Internet, some vocal promoters had a wealth of new products/ideas to choose from without working with the geek who could pull all the details together. We probably never will learn the real inventor in many cases.

But leadership is changing, a lot of people tell you (or sell you) their idea in the new practice of leadership coaching. It is a rising business in which people try to teach social skill to the techies who seem to lack them, or encourage the confident speaker that he really does understand things when he doesn’t know what to do with pile of data. We may soon rethink who is good at doing what based on a whole new criteria, especially our leaders.


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What is the purpose of education?

Gaylord Texan 120What exactly is the purpose of obtaining an education? If you answer “to learn” that is obvious, but that answer also side steps the question. It says nothing about what you are going to learn or the why you are going to learn it.  About 15 years ago as I sat at a university commencement,  the keynote speaker said the purpose of education was to make students “change agents.” This was the lingo of the time to say education was given the lofty goal of changing the world to make it a better place.

Roll forward a few years and post secondary educators are challenged to figure out if their graduates are going to know what they need to get a decent job. I have seen numerous articles directing students into majors that will actually results in careers based on their studies and allow them to pay back their student loans. Recently my daughter had a discussion with a philosophy major at a medium large state university. He was one of only two philosophy majors,  and after their discussion, it seems like he is bailing out, leaving one lone philosopher. It looks like making the world a better place will have to be put on hold for a while.

I thought it might be interesting to look back at some notable people in United States history to see what they had to say about the purpose of education. Benjamin Franklin said “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”  This definitely falls into education equals earning power camp. You may protest that interpretation saying that the founding fathers were noble seekers of freedom. However, you need to realize the Thomas Jefferson had considered using pursuit of “property” rather than “happiness” in the declaration of independence.  What did our first president George Washington say about education? He said that he owed great thanks to his mother for teaching him all that she did.

Abraham Lincoln noted that “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Although this president did not provide a lot of insight into what he thought should be the philosophy taught in the school room, he did make an astute observation. Philosophy is taught in school, even if there are no more philosophy majors. Text book writers, teachers, coaches professors all present morals and values as they instruct, and these do not all agree. If we think that can teaching without teaching beliefs we leave students awash with detailed minutia of facts and no coherence. However philosophy is often presented by behavior rather than the words we say, which makes me cringe every time I see someone in education getting arrested. This does affect how the next generation of leaders will lead. (It is interesting that both Washington and Lincoln praised their mothers for teaching them.)

However, my favorite presidential quote about education has to be the words of Theodore Roosevelt. He grew up in the gilded age, when the industrial age brought opportunity for men to make more of themselves, even if it meant building big business at the expense of others. Roosevelt said “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”
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Creating a team-like atmosphere in classes

football_edited-1Imagine a group of athletes from different sport that all have a  general idea about playing positions in the other sports. However, they  have little  to no idea how their skills stack up against other in their group, whom they barely know. They have never played together, and they are told “You are now a team; you decide who plays what position. This week we will play baseball, next week we’ll mix up the teams and play football.”  Most class group assignments are actually based on this model. Much of the work required is deciding how to organize the team before anyone actually gets anything done.

Encouraging students to work as teams in class has many shades of difference from getting a group of athletes to work as a team. Sports teams are formed to wage athletic “war” and win against other teams. In classes the goal is to create a viable product rather than to win. The decision making that goes into teamwork to achieve specific goals by creating products are often removed from the athlete. They do not decide what position they play, who directs the team,  or how much practice is required.  Often even eating, sleeping and exercise habits are prescribed by others to ensure peak physical performance. Students expect coaches to be concerned with their activities outside of sports. After all, school grades and behavior are often tied to whether or not a student is allowed to compete.

However there are some commonalities. I have seen some groups in which one or two students do most of the work, just like star athletes that carry a team. Only the rest of the team gains nothing from this because the objective is to learn rather than win. However, this is also what happens in the real world on the job, and the people slacking do reap benefits.

Try setting student teams at competition with each other for a limited number of passing grades – like a strict curve in which as many students must fail as those that receive A’s. This is the academic version of tryouts for limited slots. Students who could do the work would be cut because the class had a limited size, or those would could not might remain if there were no excelling students. However, determining which students should be in a particular level class doesn’t work the same way as determining who should be playing on a team. If it was you would probably find not so much an increase in effort as a sudden rash of cheating, sort of like the rise in performance enhancing drugs in sports when athletes must do well to keep their jobs.


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Who is responsible for learning?

swimmerOne of my friends mentions the local swim team as a possible activity for my children in the summer.  For the first one it was a good fit. When younger he had taken a swim class, which due to the overlap with the beginning of school, had only two students.  He had opportunity to practice frequently at a friend’s pools with encouragement from adults.  When the second child was the same age, it was a different story. The initial swimming class had been over crowded and useless; the friend with a pool had moved away.  It was fine to put the older child on a team with coaches.  But the second one needed a swimming teacher.

How many times have you overheard  teacher discussing a class say the words “they should already know how to…”  For students who just require coaching to learn, that is probably true. They have already been exposed to the many things that students are supposed to know by the time they get to school. They are familiar with the concepts of letters and reading, numbers and math, locations and maps.  But for students who do not have easily accessible books, maps and calculators (let alone computers) these are foreign concepts.

As the number of lower socio-economic status students increase in the country, so does the challenge of teaching. This is compounded by the lengthening of years required for education. Not too long ago in the last century, teachers had lower expectations of students coming to school. The teachers themselves were not as highly educated as today. Students stayed  beyond sixth grade in if they liked learning and their parents could afford to not have them working.  Parents and the children themselves where considered the ones responsible for knowing how much education was necessary.

Be we have gotten it backwards.  Recently I read an article with the following quote. “Although teachers play the predominant role in student achievement, substantial research has confirmed that parents play an important supportive role.”

This statement reverses the relative importance of the parent and teachers in the success of the students.  Teachers resist having the quality of their instruction quantified based on student achievement, because they realize they cannot always successfully overcome the handicaps last result from a students’ background, such as poverty or unstable family life. There is no one to make sure that students learn what “they should already know how to …” unless they are taught somewhere else than at school. Be honest, and let parents know that they play the primary part in their child’s success in school, and they will become more involved.

But beyond that needs to come the realization that some students just need a lot more personalized in depth instruction and not just guidance along the way. The same class, with same teacher will not suffice for both the student receiving an abundance of enrichment and support at home, and the one that has to struggle to find food. When my child took the swimming lessons, she had individual instruction, she was the only student. As unrealistic as that kind of one on one attention seems for schools, it is exactly what the parents provide that makes the difference in student achievement.

 “Those Persistent Gaps” by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley  Educational Leadership, December 2009/January 2010 (Health and learning Issue).
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Teaching academic classes like sports?


Sometimes students wish academic classes were more like performance based sports, but how would it work? How do they respond differently to coaching versus teaching?

Practice versus instruction

With coaching the emphasis in on practice; students spend time warming up before learning and practicing new skills. Then, coaches watch students practice most of the time. When teaching, warm-ups are typically used as a classroom management technique to get students quiet and focused, or as a daily assessment to identify students that are falling behind. In an upper level academic class, warm-ups are often disposed of as a waste of time. The emphasis is on instruction to master new skills. Although, there is time to practice in class students are expected to perform newly learned skills on their own at home without the teacher present.  The teacher requires more unsupervised effort than the coach does.

Effort versus attentiveness

Coaches watch students to assess skill level and make sure they are exerting effort. They often depend on other students to police student behavior. On the other hand, teachers usually watch students to make sure they behave properly. Good academic students are attentively occupied with their own work and do not bother to watch the behavior of others. However, they are often willing to help individual struggling students.

Making more effort at running increases a student’s ability in track. Making more effort in math, may allow a student to solve problems faster, but will not result in learning how to find derivatives of an equation. After all this is a procedure uncovered by someone far older and educated than they. The student must concentrate to master academic skills and attentiveness is not always observable. Teachers cannot tell precisely what skills students have mastered until they see the assigned work. So a lot of assignments have to be made.

Obvious versus out of sight accomplishments

Instruction on coaching indicates feedback is given to show that the coach cares rather than to let students know how well they are performing because athletes already know this.[1] They constantly watch what others are doing, comparing themselves. They tend to copy those who perform the best. In a class room, students are not always sure if they have mastered new skills. Sometimes they confuse and transpose two different procedures – especially in math and foreign languages. So they need feedback to know how well they are doing.

They may know who the best student in the class is, but copying the work of this student won’t help any.  The ability to learn is basically an invisible skill, which each student must be able to do on their own or they will fail.

[1] Coaching Principles, (2012)
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