This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.
I am in the final stage of my PhD studies. My official study runs August and September, and, Lord willing, I will defend my dissertation in March or April of 2019. The central theory in my studies is what I call transactional semiotics.
Because academic writing has its own rules, I am challenged when trying to explicate my idea because I have to interrupt myself with APA citations (lest I miss one upon revisions). This post is my attempt to share my concept without adhering to the strict rules of academia. For the most part, my ideas reflect a blend of the philosophies of Louise Rosenblatt and Charles S. Peirce.
Rosenblatt developed the concept of reading as a transaction with a text. Taking her lead (and the term) from Dewey, Rosenblatt considered reading more than decoding words on pages. She taught that a readers’ background experiences, personal histories, and internal philosophies inform or affect how they understand texts. Transactionalism, as she called it, meant that readers looked at texts through the lenses of their personalities, and their interpretations of what they read came from their experiences. Additionally, Rosenblatt postulated that reading is a cyclical transaction, made complete when readers create something new based on their interpretations of a given text. The reading transaction triad was made up of three parts: the text, the reader, and the poem (or creation of a new text by the reader.) Part of her philosophy was segregated from its based and labeled the reader-response method of teaching reading. The most important element of reading, according to this view, is the reader.
Focusing intently on the reader was part of Rosenblatt’s perspective, but she didn’t believe the context of the text or the message of an author was unimportant. It was along this line that reader-response theory cracked and fell into disfavor. As a writer myself, I want readers to understand what I am trying to convey before they begin to reinterpret it according to their experiences. Rosenblatt did not intend for readers to divorce the text from the author, but rather wanted readers to expand how they understood a text by adding their voices and the voices of others to its meaning. Hers was a broad view of interpretation, one wherein the author and readers engage in a conversation through the creation and recreation of texts.
Rosenblatt looked, not only to Dewey, but also to Peirce. Peirce was an American philosopher and scientist with a broad scope of interests, but his primary focus was logic and a theory of sign that he called semiotics. (He later changed the spelling to semeiotics because his original theory was misunderstood and connected to a language theory by Saussure, but that is another conversation.) For Peirce, understanding required three elements of equal importance: an object, an interpretant, and a sign. The object is the easiest part to explain–the object is, well, an object. A person, place, thing, feeling, idea, or text. The interpretant is the person who recognizes the object. The sign is the way the person describes the object and the way he/she communicates it to others. There are a lot more elements, but in its simplest form, the essence of semiotics is the system of how a person assigns identifying symbols to an object.
Sign systems vary by context and culture. Letters are a form of signs. In Language Arts, words, particularly written words, are the most common sign for giving meaning to things. But the culture and context matter. The letters F,A,C,E means one thing to to musicians (namely the named spaces on the treble clef in a sheet of music), but more commonly put together as a reference to the part of the body containing nose, eyes, and mouth. Face also describes part of clocks and watches, along with other objects I can’t name at the moment. The object and the signs exist independently of one another; only the person (the interpretant) makes the connection between them.
As in Rosenblatt’s theory, Peircean semiotics relies on the experiences and prior knowledge to make meaning of the object. Like Rosenblatt assumes the importance of works to convey meaning, Peirce assumes a knowledge of a particular sign system. For both, a person (reader or interpretant) sees a thing (text or object) and makes meaning of it using personal experience, prior knowledge, and language/signs. The meaning is conveyed by connecting the person and the thing through a newly created assignation (text or signs).
The concept of transactional semiotics in English Language Arts (ELA) is a mix of the two ideas applied to meaning making and composition. Because I am focused on teachers in ELA classrooms, my application is specific to how transactional semiotics works in educational settings. Broadly I think it applies to any kind of study. Peirce was not an educator (although he wanted to teach at university), and he applied his semiotic theory to science and mathematics more than to the humanities. Literature and composition may fall under the auspices of the arts, but only in a world that has segregated studies into subject areas. The living world and the experiences of it are holistic, and therefore, logic matters in all realms of observation and knowing.
When students enter a classroom, they bring with them a rich diversity of prior knowledge and experiences. To require all students to read, think, and write the same way is to validate only one part of the complexity of human life. Literature is a reflection of life, and so will resonate differently with students based on their experiences and prior knowledge. Students in high schools are developing unique world views based on their experiences in their families, communities, and instruction. Transactional semiotics as a theory values burgeoning world views by offering students a platform on which to build texts that reflect both an author’s intent (and context) and their own experiences, prior knowledge, and sign systems.
The idea is to begin with a text. Using one required by the school or district is always a good place to begin. As students read, they should look for similarities to people or situations they have experienced. Let them talk about their experiences and how what they’re reading connects to it. So far, this is standard procedure for many teachers. This is the beginning of transacting with the text. The semiotic piece comes next.
Ask (assign) students to create something that represents the life experience and/or connection to the literature. I’ve used altered books, photography, painting, music, and remix as suggestions to begin, but students sometimes have their own ideas. Let them run with it. As they create, they will begin to create a semiotic system that allows them to put their creative work with the text, although they won’t likely recognized it. Teachers will recognize some of the parallels to essay writing, still part of standardized assessments. Students choose a point of view, locate their evidence (materials), consider how to assemble their creations (outlines), and put it all together (writing). When students present their creations–and presentation is important, they explain what they did, how they did it, and why they made the artistic choices they did. Their signs will have come from their experiences and past knowledge.
Now the fun part begins for the teacher. Sometimes students will be first to see the parallels between their creations and written composition. Sometimes they need a little prodding through questions. Ask other students to identify the object, interpretant,and signs. Allow for discussion about student answers. As a reflection writing project, ask each student to revisit how they constructed their creations and assigned meaning to each element. Then ask them to look at the original text again, looking for clues about how the author did the same.
At this point, students have done the thinking, creating, questioning, and journaling that makes up a transaction with a text. They have also created something, devising a semiotic system that afforded them a mode of expression that is more comfortable than the five-paragraph-essay or the free-response questions (FRQ) on mamy of the high stakes exams. The final step of ELA transactional semiotic practice is to have students take the PROCESS they used to construct their creations and repeat it using ELA semiotics: words, paragraphs, evidence.
Employing transactional semiotics in a high school ELA classroom can be challenging. It means teachers relinquish control of the learning products. It means trusting students to use their skills responsibly. It may mean learning from and with students about culture, technology, and what makes literature relevant. It also may mean convincing administrators and parents that the skills developed through the process will translate to whatever standards are expected. In my experience, it is worth the challenges. When reluctant students get enthusiastic about creating something, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes one of anticipation instead of anxiety.
This practice is the heart of my dissertation study. I’ve done this kind of teaching with good results; now to learn how it may work for other teachers. I will know more in the next nine months.
Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.
The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.” I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”
The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”
He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.
Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”
Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'” Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.
Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.
In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?
I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options. As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?
So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be? We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.
It is the question of the ages: Who am I?
Every generation struggles with its corporate identity, and within that conflict, individuals find their own places in it. Some generations are shaped by war. Others are shaped by revolution or religion. Economics shape generations, whether during a time of great want or a time of tremendous prosperity. Massive outbreaks of illness or natural disasters frame corporate identity. Generations are sometimes named for whatever shaped them: the Greatest Generation of the 1940s, the Hippies of the 1960s and 70s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and most recently, the Millenials. These group identities are usually thrust upon the generations by social forces, and not everyone fits neatly into them.
To complicate matters, we now have an entire generation of teenagers searching for multiple identities. People have always had the option to present a public identity while protecting a private one, but the internet brought with it a whole new world of identity creation. Now we not only have to determine who we are in the physical world, but we also need to decide who we will be in the virtual one.
In one sense, the web allows us to take on any persona we desire. Online groups and games allow teenagers to interact with adults as peers, disrupting the power structures of the physical world. There is danger there, as there is in any undiscovered country, but just as we all learn to look both ways when crossing the street, we can also learn to protect our vulnerabilities online.
But that’s not the point of this ramble. Here I want to explore the idea of identity and what it is. How is it constructed? What effect does community have on identity development? And how does technology, especially the affordances of social media, affect our sense of who we are and who we want to be?
In the exercise pictured above, attendees of the Digital Pedagogy Labs Prince Edward Island conference last month engaged in an ice-breaker introduction that centered on self-identity in 140 characters. Pairs introduced themselves to each other, and then wrote 140 character descriptions about each other, writing the results on the white boards without indicating who belonged to which description. And that was the end of it. Never referred to again, the descriptions were ultimately covered with notes from another session. But the exercise made a point: identity is elusive and morphs based on the community around it.
Or is identity something deep within that we parse out depending on the particular community surrounding us?
Ontologically, I believe that each person is created with a unique identity, one that develops over time, but always around a central core, a golden thread of unique essence. Always in the process of becoming, the true self finds itself in community, but also in the solitary activity of personal reflection. When we try to morph that true self into something other, we generally find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. We are at our best when our unique essence is allowed to intersect with the world and people around us without compromise. I think this may be one reason teens and young adults struggle with anxiety. Parents send mixed messages about who they should be: busy, driven, and ambitious, but at the same time, kind, obedient, and good, whatever that means. Media floods them with information about how they should look. Schools press them to think about college and career at all times. We expect teens and young adults to be malleable into whatever forms we adults think is best for them and then we tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tease them with an idea of self-determination and then tell them what they have to be, how they have to act, and what they should be doing at any given point in time. We talk about identity, but do little to give teens time and space to discover their own.
Even in education, or rather especially in education, we tell students that they can be good writers or artists or readers, but if they want to succeed in the future, they had better be good at math and science and technology. We adults complain that students can’t think for themselves, but we train them to take standardized tests and write predictable five paragraph essays that contain buzzwords, but no originality. Is it any wonder so many young adults enter the marketplace unprepared? How can they prepare for life as an adult if we don’t let them discover their own essential golden thread of identity?
In the DigPed exercise, the element of introducing ourselves to strangers was influenced by the fact that it was an education conference. How much of my essential self did I share? Very little. And I am certain most people focused on the superficial elements of life: family, job, maybe a hobby, along with a general connection to education. The context of a particular conference influenced the kind of information shared. A gathering of dog lovers or artist or musicians would likely yield a different kind of information shared. Having to limit that description to 140 characters further influenced the depth of identity revealed. In that sense, the exercise was a failure. No one knew anyone else any better at a substantive level after the exercise. Where the experience succeeded, however, was in recognizing the limits we place on ourselves when it comes to revealing our identities. Perhaps that is why we sometimes think that identity is only a social construct. We are who we need to be given a particular context. And as we engage with more and larger communities online, those limits further constrain us until we don’t recognize ourselves anymore – if we ever knew ourselves in the first place.
If this revelation of identity is complicated for adults, imagine how complex it becomes for a generation of people who were indoctrinated to information overload practically from birth. This group of individuals has always considered google a verb, can type with two thumbs as efficiently as with ten fingers, and may never set foot in a building called a library. Exploration happens without leaving home, unless, of course, Pokemon awaits capture outside. Even then, the screen dominates vision. The resources readily available to today’s young adults boggle the mind of adults who researched using microfiche and card catalogs. Young minds are filled with images of worlds once relegated to National Geographic Magazine, and people can connect across oceans in seconds. With so many opportunities to explore the wide world, are we doing enough to reflect and look inward to discover the world within ourselves? We are a pendulum swing away from Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, who eschewed popular society for inward discovery. Our Western culture reaches out and around, seeking experiences to define us. We look for our people, but how can we recognize them if we do not know ourselves? And how can anyone expect depth of young adults whose world has generally been miles wide but only inches deep? How can any of us share an identity we don’t know?
As an educator, I want to give students the tools they need to find their own unique identities but avoid telling them what those identities must be. I find, however, that goal thwarted by demands for accountability through standardized tests, writing samples, administrations looking for money, and the politics of education. These elements are part of teaching in this era, and until some massive paradigm shift tilts the education world off its axis, it is not going away anytime soon. The demand for quantitative data drives funding, and identity is not quantifiable, so it becomes unimportant in the system that wants to turn individuals into bits and bytes that can be neatly categorized into neat little boxes of success or failure, determined by whomever has the money and the power.
I think the affordances of the internet can become useful in the search for identity if students (and frankly, adults) use the tools as places of solitude now and then. Walden Pond may be a misty idea, but journaling doesn’t have to be. If identity and the golden thread of self-essence are best discovered in quietness, then we must make room for contemplation in the midst of the whirlwind of activities that make up our days. Furthermore, if we say we value independent thinking and individual identity, then we must, even in our classrooms, encourage exploration without fear of reprisal or correction. Journals and blogs can become sanctuaries for reflection, while the world we see online serves as inspiration. It is in reflection that we discover ourselves. As we then identify our own unique essences, we can then come to community, not to define us, but to teach us to see how that essence fits with the greater whole and to contribute to that whole.
Teach us to see. That is the key to both identity and community. When we see our true selves, we know what we have to share. Community cannot construct identity. Individuals who know and understand their unique identities work together to construct community. Maybe that’s where the paradigm needs to begin to shift.
O Me! O Life!
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Content is people. Context is people. Life is complicated and complex and messy.
My sweet greyhound, Dolce, went to the Rainbow Bridge while I was at Prince Edward Island. What does this have to do with #DigPed? Nothing and everything all at once.
I knew when I left Atlanta on Tuesday that my 12 year old brindle girl was not well, and I had a gut feeling that it would be a rough week for her. By Thursday, it was clear that she was done fighting and ready to be free from whatever it was that caused kidney and vascular failure. On Friday morning, my sweet husband, who had been traveling himself earlier in the week, held our girl as she breathed her last. Brian let me know that she was gone. And my heart tore into fragments.
My heart was in fragments, but I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by a community of compassion and passion and empathy — none of whom I had met in the flesh until that week. I cried in their arms, we shared stories of beloved pets, and we connected. Life at its messiest, most vulnerable, and most authentic.
Authenticity should be at the heart of learning. As educators, we need to remember that our classes, whether face to face or in online spaces, are made up of people. Our content is not the curriculum; our content is the lives of the people who inhabit our classes, and it in is the contexts of their lives that we can make the connection of relationship building that undergirds the most memorable learning experiences.
Most of us who pursue education were inspired by one teacher who stands in our memories as the one who pushed us the hardest, believed in us the most fiercely, and motivated us to reach farther than we ever thought possible. In the exhausting midst of standards and curriculum and politics, teachers sometimes forget that the curriculum in a tool, not an end unto itself. DigPed expands the notion of tools and how they can benefit the entire education community, but the real lesson is found in building relationships. The warm compassion with which I was enveloped at the loss of my sweet greyhound is essential for all of us who call ourselves teachers to offer to the students in our classes. Learning is about developing people. Education is how we discover things together in the world. Curriculum is a tool. Life is messy and complicated. This is the stuff of education. Content is not subject matter.
Content is people.
*first published on Medium
I wrote this on Medium and thought I’d share here as well.
We live in a connected world. That said, we seem to be more isolated than ever before. There are coffee shops that promote face to face conversation by eliminating wifi and informal games that require groups in restaurants to put down their mobile devices (because the handheld technologies are far more than phones these days) or foot the bill for the entire party. Ray Bradbury saw it coming and wrote about it (remember Mildred’s “seashells” from Fahrenheit 451?)
The challenge for those of us who choose to embrace the digital spaces is to create authentic connections with people across time, distance, and cultural differences. For me, it’s one of the most exciting things about #walkmyworld. Because it is designed to be a fun collaboration of identities around learning events, the stress level for perfection is reduced. Even though the learning events include content instruction that is easily augmented in particular classrooms, the tone is light and engaging, so the threat level is low. People from around the world come to play, and it becomes a true multi-cultural experience among like minded people of all ages. There are elementary and secondary students, graduate students, pre-service teachers, and professors all involved, but no one is an expert. Instead, all participants are learning and sharing together in a virtual community of equals.
Since this is my third year as part of Walk My World, I think I have a sense of what to expect: expect the unexpected. Unexpected learning, unexpected friendships, and unexpected glimpses into a digital identity still in formation and ever evolving. This is how a connected world can work: people being authentic, sharing an experience, and learning how to walk together.
It’s here! It’s time!
Walk My World begins its third iteration this week. I have helped craft the learning events and I think this will be the best year ever.
Join the fun here! The first week is all about getting set, so jump right in!
This image has been sitting in this draft for months, so long that I don’t remember the original purpose. I think it had to do with a #clmooc challenge over the summer, but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a powerful image that I can’t bring myself to delete, so it must be something to explore.
Fig.1 Drawing by Belgian artist Yslaire
I titled this post Wasteland when I put the image in place; perhaps it is the title of the piece, perhaps just my impression, but when I look at it my mind goes to the cruellest month underscored by the organ and guitars of Baba O’Riley. The image, I am certain, refers to neither of these, but in my mind they are inexorably connected.
Wasteland is a place beyond hope. A place where there is no escape from monotony and tedium. In this image, the television screen acts as hypnotist, so mesmerizing the viewer that he forgets he is a winged creature, made to soar.
|And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,|
|And the dry stone no sound of water. Only|
|There is shadow under this red rock,|
We too often allow life to put blinders on us. Even if we resist the allure of the screen (be it television, computer, or smart phone), we manage to stay in the parched shadow of the red rock, afraid to venture out into the unfamiliar until we, too, forget we have wings to fly on the fresh winds of the exodus from the wasteland to the promised land.
DiGiWriMo gave me a great excuse to try something new with my students. Because I teach three very distinct classes, I was intrigued by the idea of a collaborate project across all three. One class is all online. One is face-to-face, and the third is a hybrid of the two. I intend to write up the process and how it worked, but for now, here is the story they wrote, as they left it:
“A fish can’t whistle, and neither can I.” Sharon said that to me a million times, and now I can’t believe she’s gone. It’s funny how little things can turn into the things you remember the most. It isn’t the cases we solved together. It’s the inside stories, like her silly quotes, that nobody understands except for me. People don’t know why I’m smiling at when I look at her picture. They think I’m crazy but they don’t understand our little private jokes about pretty much everything under the sun. Like how she used to make fun of me when I ordered the Double Sumo meal at our regular Tao Min lunches. “Know your limits,” she would say. And I’d laugh and order it anyway. And take half of it home.
My reminiscent thoughts are interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. “Already miss her?” says the deep voice behind me. As I turn away from her picture, I see Lieutenant Sam Marshall, the lead detective on Sharon’s murder case. He hands me an envelope. “This is for later. Not today. But later, when you’re ready.” I peek inside and see photos, presumably from the scene where Sharon died in a bizarre head-on collision with the wall near the restaurant we spent most of our shift lunches. “Thanks,” I mutter. And I tuck the envelope in my jacket pocket.
After the funeral, I walk into my bedroom and watch my coat fall limp on the bed frame. I grudgingly gather the will to open the thin envelope and dump the contents on the bed. Pictures scatter. A car, a deployed and shriveled airbag, trunk slightly ajar, the concrete wall scarred from the drag of the driver’s side door, damage that indicated how my partner died. There are other random marks on the wall, but that’s not unusual in this part of town. Graffiti is pretty common. I’m relieved to see no pictures of Sharon’s body.
Ring. Ring. I wake up and realize I’ve slept in the clothes I wore to the memorial. “Dispatch. Code 187. Officer Castillo. Report to PB gas station on Main and Truman. Officers already on scene. Suspected homicide.” I report back, “I need a shower and my body calls for a cup of coffee before I head out. If there are officers already there, they can wait another ten minutes.”
As I pull up the yellow crime scene tape over my head, I scan the scene. I see a body hanging down from the rafters with a pool of blood on floor beneath his feet. At the moment the medical examiner’s team is preparing to take the body down. I look around. The place is a mess, there was obviously a struggle. “Eddie,” I hear a solemn voice. “Come look at this.” I walk over to Detective Marshall, who is holding a camera and pointing at a paper near the cash register. I look at the counter and see a sheet of paper with blots of red. “What in the world. What do you think this is?” I say. Marshall replies, “I don’t know. It reminds me of the blood stains on the wall where Sharon… uh…” What blood stains? I don’t remember anything but graffitti on the wall at Sharon’s crime scene. I shake my head and turn my attention back to the case at hand.
Detective Marshall snaps more pictures, so I make my way around to the corpse, now on the floor. He looks familiar – like I should know who it is. The medical team extracts an SD card from his mouth and places it in an evidence bag. “Take a look at this.” I’m handed the plastic bag and figure this needs to be brought to the station to find out what is on it.
I start the engine of my car and begin heading to the station. How did I miss the blood with the graffitti? I must have been more tired than I thought. I resolve to look again when I get home. First things first: what is on this card and why was it forced between the victim’s back molars?
The data comes back from the lab. All this information looks familiar. I remember this case. It was one that Sharon and I worked together on a few years back. The dead guy was Luis Sanchez.He had strangled one of our best coder/analysts just as we were about to break open a drug ring in town. We had Sanchez, dead to rights, until some careless idiot in the clerk’s office misfiled some pertinent paperwork. The judge had to let Sanchez off. We were furious.
As I am waiting for the pictures to come back from the PB station, another call comes in over the scanner. “Dispatch. Code 187. Officer Castillo. Report to Motel 23 on 23rd Street and Holyoke. Officers already on scene. Suspected homicide.” Again? Two homicides in one day? Our town is pretty quiet, so this is weird. Once again, I head to my car.
This hotel is old. Not exactly a place I’d want to call home, but it’s a roof and a bed if you’re desperate. The first thing I cast my eyes on is a beat up truck, resting on the chock block that’s supposed to stop a car before it does any damage to the building. Nice thought. I look in the window and see the usual mess of a laborer, complete with empty bottle of Mountain Dew…healthy.
I am greeted by Detective Marshall, camera in hand. “You might want to look at this. It’s kinda creepy.” For Marshall to call something creepy is creepy itself. It must be bad. I walk into the room and see a trail of blood drops running around the bed that leads to the contorted body of Steve Lorne. I turn to Marshall, “What the heck?” Marshall shrugs and points to the television, illuminated by static. There I see it. More blood. I take a closer look and flash back to the earlier scene with the red marked paper. The marks seem to be similar – and definitely intentional.
“Do you have any pictures from this morning?” I say. Marshall and I walk to his car and open his laptop. He loads the pictures from his camera and we both look at the images. There is no doubt. The marks are exactly the same. “The one this morning turned out to be Sanchez’s blood,” Marshall tells me. “I’m betting this one is this guy’s. I’ll let you know the minute the labs come back.” Marshall prints out copies of both blood stains and hands them to me. “See if you can figure out what these mean” he says. I nod and head back to the station, pictures in hand, and my head spinning.
This dead guy is too familiar. It hits me then. Sharon and I worked this case a year ago when Lorne killed the owner of a Japanese restaurant across town. The restaurant was famous for its Fugu – and only the most daring diners would attempt to eat it because of its reputation as a killer dish. The place never recovered from the owner’s death and closed.
I decide to take a second look at that case. Number 10020023. 23. Same number as the motel. I figure it’s a coincidence and turn back to the photos.
I’m interrupted by a call from the lab. Evidently, the Mountain Dew bottle tested positive for tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin found in Fugu. Lorne must have been feeling the burn in his mouth and the confusion and muscle weakness that precedes death when he crashed. How he made it to his room, I’m not sure, but he couldn’t have lasted long once he got there. Gruesome way to die, if you ask me.
I pull up both case files to see what could link them together besides the fact that they were our – Sharon’s and mine – cases. And both killers got off scot-free. It hits me. The way they were killed–strangulation and Fugu poison. Some weird connection to the cases in front of me. And then the blood. Something in the back of my mind tells me I’m missing something huge. The killer has to know what cases Sharon and I have worked as well as have access to those case files. The only people who would have access to that information and who have been around long enough to know what cases Sharon and I have worked are Sharon and Detective Marshall. But Sharon is dead….
Two days later, I get a call informing me of another murder. On top of the three crime scenes the station is already overwhelmed with, the death of Frank Kelly is added to the list. Kelly’s case is one we all know too well because Kelly was the reason Sharon became a cop to begin with. He killed her cousin – the whole family, actually. Kelly left the house burning, all bodies inside except for Sharon’s cousin, Barbara whose body was never found. He had stabbed the rest of the family before burning the house. I was a new cop, then, so I only know the story from the reports I read and from what Sharon told me. Sharon was always driven to get a conviction for Kelly, but he managed to keep delaying trial. Good lawyers for him, but Sharon was angry at the system for letting Kelly go on with his life while her family suffered. Her primary motivation in law enforcement was to find justice for families of victims by good police work. She may have been a jokester about my eating habits, but she was dead serious about her job.
It only takes ten minutes to get to the apartment building in this case. A quick glance tells me that this is much more violent than the other two this week. Hanging from a fifth floor window is a guy – obviously dead based on the fact that it’s only his foot keeping his body from falling to the ground. I can see from the parking lot that there is something on the window.
I run up the stairs and by the time I get there, the medics have pulled the dead guy in. Sure enough, it’s Frank Kelly. I’d recognize his ugly face anywhere – even bloodied and swollen in death. I let the medics do their thing while I look around the room. I see Marshall with his camera and he waves me over.
“It’s another one,” he says, pointing at the window. Plain as day, I see the image and I suddenly feel nauseous.
“Marshall!” I say. “When did Sharon and I take that Psych course with all the Rorschach ink blot studies? Wasn’t that just a month or so ago?”
“Yeah, why?” Marshall looks confused, but smirks at the memory of all the complaining I did about having to do the stupid course.
I pull the pictures out of my pocket – when did I put them there? I sort through until I find the two blood marks and compare them to the one painted on the window. They’re all the same. I point this out to Marshall who tells me I’m seeing too much into it and that my mind’s playing tricks on me.
I looked back at Kelly’s body which the medics weren’t finished with yet. He looked like he took a beating and he was stabbed multiple times before he was hung out to dry. I thought back to the cases from a few days ago and Sharon’s case; they all had the blood blots to connect them, so they had to have the same killer. But either Kelly fought his murderer to his death or his murderer had some grudge against him and took it out on his body. Who could know these specific cases? No witnesses. No accomplices. I look over at Marshall again. Sharon and Marshall are the only ones who could have known about these specific cases and Sharon is dead, so that just leaves…
“Marshall,” I say, “I need to clear my head. I’m headed back to the station. Let me know if…” As I’m crossing the room my eye falls on the couch which is strangely normal-looking. On it is a book, open to reveal a highlighted sentence on page 43, “A fish can’t whistle, and neither can I.” The Tao of Pooh. I pick up the book by the corner and put it into an evidence bag and put it in my pocket. I have to think.
Once I got back to the station I make my way back to my office, stopping for a cup of coffee. Jack, one of our techs comes up and says, “Weird about the missing bodies.” I just look at him.
“What missing bodies?”
“Well, isn’t this the guy who killed Sharon’s relatives? I remember that the cousin’s body was never found in that case. And then, of course, no one ever found Sharon’s body..er…um…right?” Apparently my face gave me away. They never found Sharon’s body? And never thought to mention that to me?
In my office, I take a deep breath and pull out the pictures from Sharon’s case. I glance through them looking for anything that might have been missed. When I get to the last one, I look more closely at the graffiti on the wall. And then I see it. A red Rorschach blot in the middle of the crazy mural of spray paint. How had I missed that before? Upon noticing this I pull up the case (noticing that the case ends in 43 – another weird coincidence) on my computer. There is nothing about a body in the report. “Jack was right!” I say it aloud, even though no one is in the office but me. I call Marshall and demand to know why he never told me that Sharon’s body was missing.
Marshall replies with “you never asked”. I could punch him, but know he probably wanted to keep me out of the loop because she was my partner. Evidence was one thing, but a missing body was another, I guess. In any case, now I have four Rorschach blots in blood, three cases Sharon and I worked together, and two missing bodies. Something doesn’t add up.
I keep staring at the four pictures until my eyes blur. I hear Sharon’s voice in my head laughing during the course we took. Being cops, we had a hard time taking it seriously, and we joked around a lot. The best joke was the day we were “analyzed” and Sharon came back with a “diagnosis” of “borderline psychotic with violent tendencies”. We laughed about that for days.
I shake the memory from my head and look out the window. I see a shadow passing by and I hear someone whistling, badly. I could swear it is Sharon. I know her walk and her attitude better than anyone else. And Sharon’s fish-whistle quote was partly funny because she couldn’t whistle herself out of a paper bag. But it can’t be her – I’m seeing ghosts. I figure I need to get out of the office.
I decide to walk a little. There’s a park by the restaurant where we used to have lunch. I’m not hungry enough for a Double Sumo meal, but I figure the air will do me good, even though it’s getting dark. I look in the restaurant window at our old table, wondering how all these cases intersect. It’s obviously got to be the same killer, but why are all the bodies there except Sharon’s and her cousin’s? Why are the dead killers’ murders so obviously connected to their crimes?
My phone rings, but the number is “restricted”. When I click answer, the voice on the end stops me in my tracks.
Sawyer Stromwall, Lisa Kawamura, Connor Horne, Anna Laarhoven, Hudson Stromwall, Ted Ingram, Danny Glenos, Bri McGhee, Laney Hall, and Charity Campbell.
One of the great things about the connected learning community is the vastness of subject matter about which to write and think and create and share. I know I need to be creating and thinking constantly, and sometimes I just need to break free and do something because I WANT to do it. I enjoy learning, so my PhD studies interest me and keep me busy writing. I love teaching, so my time spent creating lessons that teach composition and critical thinking is time well spent. But then I read some of my favorite blogs or tweets by some of my online colleagues and I feel like I’m missing out on something fun.
My friend, Sarah Honeychurch, wrote about a creative challenge she was participating in about twisted pairings. Following her blog to the original source, I found Steve Wheeler, the learning technology blogger behind #twistedpair challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to put together two unlikely people (real or fiction) and explain their connection to teaching and learning. It’s similar to his #blimage challenge from last summer. (My attempt at that challenge is here.)
I relish these kinds of challenges and fully intend to steal…er…borrow this concept for use in my writing classes. Making connections – between individuals, groups, and ideas – is a critical skill in a 21st century world. For this challenge, Steve shared a list of possibilities, but none really resonated with me until I saw
Doctor Who and Snoopy
An immortal Time Lord from Gallifrey and a wisecracking beagle from the USA couldn’t possibly have anything in common, could they? Nor could there be lessons to be learned from the pair, right? Well, perhaps. Deeper inspection may reveal connections that unite pop culture lovers from two distinct cultures and two very different points of view.
The most obvious connection is in the imagination of the writers. Charles Schultz gave Snoopy a character all his own, and whether he was Joe Cool or the Ace fighter Pilot, underneath he was still Snoopy the beagle. Similarly, the Doctor has undergone 11 or 12 regenerations (depending on how one counts), but underneath each unique visage and eccentricity, the Doctor is the same: finding truth, fighting evil, and making friends along the way.
Friendship is another common theme. Snoopy has Woodstock as his primary chum, but he has other friends too, including his brother, Spike, and his “owner”,Charlie Brown. The Doctor, for all his clamoring about his independence almost always has a sidekick: from Susan in 1963 to Clara in 2015. In between is a crew of men, women, and even an android dog. As Donne says, “No man is an island”, and both the Doctor and Snoopy manage to surround themselves with the companions they need to persevere. Often students, especially the introverts, try to exude a countenance of confidence when they really could use a buddy. It’s one of the reason I am so pro-technology. Twitter, Google docs, even discussion boards can give voice to the shy or struggling while giving opportunity for the more outgoing students to listen. Collaboration makes student writing and comprehension stronger.
The real connection, however, is not in Snoopy and the Doctor per se. It is in their dwellings. Snoopy’s doghouse is fighter jet or study, depending on his need. The interior must be enormous based on the sheer number of things he keeps stored there. For the Doctor, his TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space) is known for being “bigger of the inside.” This concept is the connection between Doctor Who, Snoopy, and teaching practices. So much time is spent preparing for standardized tests (and now even teacher preparation programs are moving from innovation to EdTPA standardized assessment) that the imagination is too often left behind. But the human mind is “bigger on the inside” because imagination and innovation dwell there. It may be that we are instructed to educate creativity out of our children (thank you Sir Ken), but those of us who teach from a place of passion must find ways to connect that vast space of potential to real and concrete ideas and projects.
Creating relevant scenarios is a key element to engaging imagination. Doctor Who has his conflicts thrusts upon him by Daleks, Weeping Angels, and Cybermen, among a dozen or more others. Snoopy should have a life of ease, but he creates problems for himself by engaging in flight battles or Christmas light competitions (which he inevitably wins). Teachers need to teach students to look at assignments (even the dreaded close reading multiple choice assessments)as problems or challenges or scenarios that can be outwitted with creative thinking and “smarts” rather than tolerated until over. But how do we do that when admins breathe down our necks about test scores and even universities cry out for universality? How do we prevail against a system that strives to create a generation of Nestean Autons instead of independent thinkers? These are the challenges facing educators today. The paradigm is shifting; teachers need to regenerate into a new form with the same underlying passions and take on the Red Baron of politics in education with Snoopy-esque panache.
Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? [Webcast]. TED2006. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en