May 31:  Barbaric Yawp Day

Today is the birthday of American poet Walt Whitman, born in 1819. Like many American writers, Whitman began his career as a printer and journalist, but we know him today because of his poetry. Because he was so revolutionary in his approach to verse, he had trouble finding a publisher for his poetry. He finally published his first book of poetry himself in 1855. It’s this book Leaves of Grass that Whitman edited and expanded throughout his life. Several critics lambasted Leaves of Grass, but Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated it: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed” (1).

Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpgOne of the great contributions that Whitman made to poetry was his experimentation with free verse. Without regular meter or rhyme, free verse combines rhythm, repetition, and parallelism to create music for the reader’s ears. Whitman’s verses with their optimistic, robust tones, celebrated the individual, painted images of democratic America, and reveled in the colloquial language of its common people.

Characteristic of his break with traditional verse, Whitman begins his epic Leaves of Grass with no mention or invocation of a muse; instead, he audaciously focuses on himself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Who can forget the scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), where Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, writes one of Whitman’s lines on the blackboard to inspire his students to leave their self-consciousness behind and to embrace their individual creativity?

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Whitman died in 1892, but his poetry lived on, inspiring the unique voices of American poets of the 20th century.

Today’s Challenge:   Get in Your Yawping Stance

What are key questions that you can ask to help you comprehend a poem?  In one memorable scene from the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating explains to his students that the greatness of poetry cannot be plotted on a graph by rating a poem’s perfection and its importance; instead, poetry is about a higher purpose:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Certain essential questions can be asked by any reader of any poem.  These questions don’t promise to unearth a poem’s entire meaning, but they are a good starting place for beginning your comprehension of a poem’s sound and sense:

Who is the speaker in the poem?

What is the situation or subject that the poem is addressing?

What is the speaker’s tone or attitude toward the situation or subject?

What are some universal ideas or themes that are addressed in the poem?

Read the Whitman poem below.  Before you begin asking questions, read it a number of times, and read it out loud.  Then, answer the four questions above. If you’re working with a partner or a group, discuss your answers and compare what you said to what others said.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

(Common Core Reading 1-3:  Ideas and Details)

Quotation of the Day: Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers, but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. -Walt Whitman



February 19: Metacognition Day

Today is the birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, a man who not only changed the world as we know it, but also the universe.  

Nikolaus Kopernikus.jpgBorn in Poland in 1473, Copernicus was both a polyglot and a polymath.  He spoke Latin, German, Polish, Greek, and Italian.  In addition to holding a doctorate in canon law, he was also a physician, mathematician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist.  Today, we know him best as the astronomer who challenged the orthodox belief that Earth was the center of the universe.  Fifteen-hundred years after the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy established his theory that the planets, the sun, and the stars revolved around a stationary Earth, Copernicus presented his revolutionary theory.  He claimed that not only did the Earth rotate on its axis, but also that Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun.  Copernicus’ work in astronomy was the quintessential achievement of the Renaissance, totally transforming mankind’s view of the universe and paving the way for future work by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.

A true man of science and of learning, Copernicus embodied the Renaissance ideals of searching for knowledge and challenging conventional wisdom. His opus On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was published in 1543, the same year he died (1).

One quotation that typifies Copernicus’ scientific approach is one that uses simple terms to express a profound insight:

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

Today cognitive psychologists sum up Copernicus’ insight using a single term: metacognition.  Meta is Greek for “about,” and cognition is Latin for “to know.” Metacognition, therefore, is “thinking about thinking.”  More than just being aware that we think, metacognition is the process of monitoring our own thinking.

As Copernicus reminds us, metacognition is not just what we know, it is also being aware of what we don’t know, as well as being aware of the ways we sometimes delude ourselves.  To understand the ways we think best and the ways we fall short of sound thinking, we should always keep in mind the relationship between both knowledge and ignorance.  

Notice, for example, how the following wise voices from the past express this relationship:

-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.  –Confucius

-The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. –Daniel J. Boorstin

-The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance. — Socrates

-The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. — Elbert Hubbard

-To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge. — Benjamin Disraeli

-The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand. — Frank Herbert

In the book Make It Stick, the authors discuss one specific learning strategy that employs metacognition to help learners be more productive and more efficient in their study.  The strategy is called retrieval practice, and recent studies have documented that this strategy is much more effective than rereading a text, highlighting a text, or even reviewing notes.

The key aspect of retrieval practice is self-quizzing or testing.  When reading a text or listening to a lecture, therefore, the student should generate questions for self-testing.  Once the student has finished reading or listening, he or she should use the questions to recall and recite out loud the facts, concepts, or events from memory, without using the book or notes for reference.  The basic premise of retrieval practice is that learning that sticks is learning that is effortful.  Furthermore, the effortful act of retrieving knowledge from memory strengthens the memory, increasing the likelihood that knowledge will stay in long term memory.  Like walking an unfamiliar path through the woods, the more you travel the path, the more confidence you have in remembering your way without getting lost.  Retrieval practice also decreases the likelihood that students will delude themselves into believing they know what they don’t know. Since the strategy requires that student recite answers aloud, they are able to exercise good metacognition by clearly determining what they know and what they don’t quite know yet (2).

Today’s Challenge:   What Do You Know?

How can you apply retrieval practice to increase your metacognition?  Select an article or short story that you have not read before.  As you read the passage, write down three questions based on the key ideas you’re reading.  When you finish the reading, put the passage away, and attempt to answer each of your questions by reciting the answers out loud.  As you answer each question, rate your level of confidence with your answer on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being you feel highly confident; 1 being you need to look back at the passage to answer).  Once you have finished, take a moment to reflect on the strategy.  How did it feel to answer out loud?  Do you feel like this strategy will work for you in the future? (Common Core Reading 1 – Key Ideas and Details)

Quotation of the Day:  When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge. — Confucius


2-Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.  Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2014.