Anew school year is upon us. For teachers as well as students, new school years can feel a lot like Mondays. And while it’s easy to feel overshadowed by the dark side of a Monday, in reality Mondays are both light and dark. Mondays are double-edged swords.
This week my eleven-year old son discovered on Netflix the old tv show Lost. I know that Lost was an “It” show when it aired from 2004 to 2010, and though it looks well made and I see the appeal of it I’ve only ever watched a few hours’ worth of the first season. My boy, on the other hand, modern as he is, after viewing four of seven episodes in today’s opening salvo declared that he will devour the whole series – all 121 episodes. (Given his track record, I am inclined to believe he will.)
One aspect of the show’s appeal is suggested by the title of the first season’s third episode: “Tabula Rasa.” Blank slate. The premise of Lost is that an airplane crashes on a tropical island and the survivors must work together to elucidate its many mysteries and, they hope, orchestrate their own rescue. One of the survivors, we come to learn, is a criminal. Another is a drug addict. And so on. In other words, we have a group of human beings with skeletons in their closets, with emotional baggage, with reasons to embrace the opportunity to begin a new life on this apparently deserted island. Maybe their pasts can be forgotten. Maybe they can forge new identities.
These days when teachers teach concepts and facts and skills they do so in the service of required learning standards. One of the standards particularly important to the subject of Literacy (English Language Arts) is synthesis.
According to dictionary.com, the definition of synthesis is:
the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity
The photo above might be said to demonstrate synthesis in its artful (subtle, nuanced, clever, careful, cohesive) union of the literal (the eyes) and the abstract (the blotches).
In my classroom students synthesize by, for example, writing a narrative that demonstrates an understanding and combination of several previously taught elements (such as exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution; such as the Six Traits of ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions). Or they might research a controversial issue, take notes and synthesize by demonstrating their command of the material (combining all that they’ve learned into a cohesive whole) in a debate.
Ihave been writing for twenty years, teaching for four years and running for one year. Two and a half weeks ago I ran my first marathon. It’s no accident, I think, that the marathon is regarded with a special esteem in our culture. People who despise running might still be heard to say something like, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” or “I’m watching a CSI marathon” or “I feel like I just ran a marathon.”
Marathon running is a highly useful metaphor. Every able-bodied person has run long and short and fast enough to know the thrill and the pain of running. Though these days elite runners regularly race 100 miles or more, sometimes in extreme climates like Death Valley (over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade) and Antarctica (average wind chill: -20 degrees Celsius), and some crazy folk go so far as to run across the Sahara Desert or even around the world… still, the marathon is what captures the collective imagination. It is rich with history, it is certainly long enough to provide anyone with a challenge, and yet hundreds of thousands of people run marathons every year. Even Oprah, octogenarians, and Biggest Loser contestants do it.
Now that I have done it, I can say with confidence that life is like a marathon. And so is teaching. And so is writing.
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.