Workplace Literacy: A Short Questionnaire (Under Revision)

Workplace Literacy: A Short Questionnaire (Under Revision)

My question is, is it possible to create a “fun” and short set of questions that can also offer useful glimpses into a professional’s workplace literacy experiences? The goal is to create a short, approachable list of questions that professionals, across many different fields, wouldn’t mind answering.

That is my goal here with the following list of questions that I am currently working to improve and revise. Suggestions and revisions are welcomed in the comments section. See the current draft of the questionnaire below.

The “Turkel” questionnaire: Tell us a bit about you and your workplace

Studs Turkel is well known for offering glimpses into the lives, thoughts, and beliefs of working people. In even more playful formats, Vanity Fair has the “Proust questionnaire”. And “Inside Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton is well known for asking famous actors Bernard Pivot’s list of questions. This is a list of questions asked in a similar spirit –for fun, but also to give us some insight about you and your craft.

We are, of course, not as famous as actors on the “Actor’s Studio,” nor do we have a crowd of adoring fans as fascinated with our answers; still, we want to know: Who are you? What do you do? And what, briefly, is involved in the work that you do?

With this in mind, please take a few minutes and address the following prompts in as much detail as you want.


I. Tell us a bit about you:

Briefly, who are you?

What do you do for a living and where do you work?

Of your daily responsibilities, which are the most interesting, or most regularly annoying?

What are the prominent, or interesting features of your workspace(s)?

II. Tell us a bit about your workplace:

1. What is your favorite word in your workplace (or profession)?

2. What is your least favorite word in your workplace (or profession)?

3. Are there an unusual phrases, or terms that you are likely to hear only at your workplace?

4. What are some common mistakes that others make?

5. What technology is most important for your work?

6. What does this technology help you do?

7. What are the most important sources of information at your job?

8. Do you have any “tricks” for finding, or managing information at your job?

9. What from your past prepared you most for the job you have?

10. If you had a minute to advise someone just entering your workplace, what do they need to know about writing, or the process of writing to succeed?

Thank you!


How to Acknowledge the Online in an Online Course Syllabus

When I teach online courses, I have come to value the benefits of including a relatively short, but direct statement in my course syllabi about the nature of online learning for my graduate and undergraduate students. Before enrolling, some (most?) students have considered the differences between face-to-face learning and online courses, but it is also the case that many have not. In many cases, students may be taking an online course for the first time. In other cases, even students that have taken online courses before may never have been directly prompted to consider the differences between online and face-to-face courses (let alone hybrid ones) before. In all cases, it is beneficial to remind everyone involved that the nature of a given learning environment (whether synchronous, or asynchronous) plays a primarily role in the processes of learning.

Over the last several years, I have been working on developing a statement that is simultaneously useful, but also general enough to include (without much revision necessary) in all of the online writing courses that I teach. Over time, I have moved this statement steadily up in the hierarchy of my syllabi so that now it generally sits in the first few sections. I now consider it as a key part of the introduction to the online courses that I teach and thus tend to place it immediately after my course description and course goals.

Of course there are many variables involved in drafting such statements such as the student population that you are teaching, the type of course management system involved (in my case BBlearn with some supplemental outlets), teaching styles, and the nature of distinct courses, etc. But, as of this particular blog post, here is what I have constructed and refined over time. Maybe it will be of us to you, or just as likely, you will have something similar in your own syllabi.

The relative success that I have had with versions of this particular statement stem from several characteristics:

  • It is written, ultimately, as an invitation to students prompting them not just to consider the nature of an online learning environment, but also how they must be active participants for success across the course.
  • It addresses aspects about not just being a student in an online learning environment, but also introduces the nature of my role as a professor across it.
  • The statement is short enough to include in a syllabus.
  • And the statement is general enough to include, without much revision, in any given online course that I teach.



III. About Online Learning in This Course: 

This is an online course. I have come to appreciate the value of opening online courses with a simple and direct reminder: this is an online course. The differences between face-to-face and online courses are significant. Put simply, face-to-face courses and online courses ARE NOT THE SAME and they cannot be. It is not a matter of one learning environment being better than another (opinion is often divided depending on individual student’s circumstances, learning styles, and preferences), but it is a matter of being aware and intentionally adjusting, as a student, to the learning environment (in this case online) that you have chosen. As you will have experienced, or might expect, the convenience of working through technology and from a distant location has significant benefits and real trade-offs. Interestingly, what is a trade-off and what is a benefit in an online learning environment varies sometimes significantly between students’ preferences and learning styles.

The most important thing to realize, if you haven’t already, is that “meaningful” online learning environments often require MORE time and effort for both students/teachers than face-to-face classes. It is a common misconception that online courses somehow save time and are more efficient. But consider how the online “environment” only exists in as much as you interact with it. Or, put another way, in a face-to-face class, the classroom “happens” when you attend a given class; however, in an online course, it is your responsibility (as with your classmates) to “make things happen” one person at a time, one login at a time, one response at a time. This is the primary distinction whereby a face-to-face course is synchronous (occurring at the same time) and an online course is asynchronous (not occurring at the same time). Let me say it in another way. In a face-to-face class, discussion, lectures, etc. happen collectively and naturally because, in such a learning environment, everyone is present together for all such interactions. In an online course, however, everything is experienced with a delay. This is a constant battle for everyone in all online courses –teachers and students alike. There is a “shared space” online, but no matter how an online course is structured, it requires everyone as individuals from different locations (in both place and time) to create and leave something meaningful for others to find later. It can feel like lonely work sometimes, but with some patience it won’t feel like work done alone.

This corresponds directly to the second most important thing to realize (if you haven’t already) about working on a course from a distinct location –it requires you to be a more independent and self-motivated learner than when attending a face-to-face class. For some of you, this may fit with your natural proclivity. For most of you, however, you will have to work at it. In this course, you cannot be a passive learner and I will not simply be feeding you information (as you might have experienced in the past). In order for this course to work you will need to interact and to be a “knowledge-generator”. You will need to be responsible for constructing and managing your own learning. You will be both teacher and student. The success of this course (and ultimately your valuation of it) depends upon the work you are willing to put in –not just for yourself, but with and for your classmates too. This is why reading and responding to (at least 3) classmates’ work is required each week. Given this requirement others, of course, will likewise be responding to your work. In this manner it is important to understand that interacting and discussing, etc. is as much part of completing every assignment as a specific assignment itself.

My job, as your professor, is to provide a structured series of assignments/prompts with supporting mini-lectures, content, and materials that facilitate the realization of the course goals. In this capacity, my primary role is as an expert facilitator. But keep in mind that any given assignment and content won’t take on meaning, or “come to life” until you interact with it. More so, the electronic environment does not expand, nor become more interesting and rich until you add your reflections, comments, thinking, responses, ideas, beliefs, arguments, etc. The success of this course relies upon your steady, consistent, and active involvement. The success of your own learning across it does, of course, too.

The Work Spaces and Places of Writing Teachers, Researchers, and Administrators

Our Workplace Snapshots

I was recently inspired by the discovery and playfulness of a blog: <; that invites writers to send photographs and brief descriptions of the settings and spaces in which they work. As teachers, researchers, and administrators of writing, we all spend endless hours in these spaces writing and working. Many publications in our field (like “Local Literacies” and  “Worlds Apart”) investigate the literate settings of community activists, architecture students, etc. These are, of course, in-depth, serious publications.

But what of our own? What I am inviting here are playful, fun, and short “workspace snapshots” from fellow WPA’ers, teachers, and researchers of writing.

Open Invitation: Share your work space/place:

  1. Include only one (JPG) photograph (which can be a mash-up, multi-panel photograph) of the setting/space in which you work and write.
  2. Include the following information: name, what you teach, and the university/school with which you are affiliated.
  3. And include a short description (no more than about 160 words) of what you find most interesting to describe/share about your workspace.
  4. Email to: I will collect and host these “workspace snapshots” on my professional, academic blog: <;.
  5. See current blog post to which your contribution will be added: <;.

An Archive of Snapshots


Workplace Snapshot 1: Damian C. Koshnick’s Workspace, [Teaches Professional Writing at Northern Arizona University]

Damian notes: It is a convenience to have a real home office. It is a space I share, as so many of us do, with a trusted pet who sits beside me without complaint for hours. The desk was a gift from my father, a big object and I’ve put the effort in moving it around the country as I have pursued degrees and teaching opportunities. I appreciate having “old” feeling things near me while I write -wood desk, and perhaps most particularly a vertebrae and a native rock scraping tool both of which I found while hiking. The vertebrae in particular reminds me, as the hours pass, that life is short. Ideally, this keeps me pragmatic about what I try to accomplish when I write. It doesn’t always work of course. And the rock tool reminds me that not everything happens on a computer.

An Interview with John Creger, author of the Personal Creed Project: Intuition and Enthusiasm in Teaching and Learning

John Creger -Author of the Personal Creed Project.

This interview is part of a series of JMC interviews that follow up with winners of the James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research given annually by NCTE’s CEE and the NWP. In 2001, when John Creger won that year’s Moffett Award, then CEE Chair Janet Swenson wrote that “the panel deemed Creger’s proposal ‘the most representative of the thoughts and ideas that continue to make the works of James Moffett an invaluable resource for teachers of the English language arts’” (Awards). The award was given in recognition of the Personal Creed Project, a classroom-based rite of passage Creger created and has been refining with his high school sophomores for 20 years.

Preface to Interview
This interview was originally created specifically for and by the JMC Ning It is part of what will be a series of interviews that follow up with winners of the James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research that is given annually by NCTE’s Conference on English Education (CEE) and the National Writing Project. This award has been offered since 2000. It gives grant support for “teacher research projects inspired by the scholarship of James Moffett” (see

In 2001, when John Creger won that year’s Moffett Award, then CEE Chair Janet Swenson wrote that “the panel deemed Creger’s proposal ‘the most representative of the thoughts and ideas that continue to make the works of James Moffett an invaluable resource for teachers of the English language arts’” (Awards). The award was given in recognition of the Personal Creed Project, a classroom-based rite of passage Creger created and has been refining with his high school sophomores for 20 years.

Since receiving the Moffett Award, Creger has described the Creed Project and the approach to learning that is evolving from the project in California English (February 2002) and has published a guidebook for teachers, The Personal Creed Project and a New Vision of Learning, which has won him praise. He has also created two online spaces dedicated to teacher exchange, the first a site to support his book: More recently he hosts a Ning discussion group at “dedicated to deepening students’ engagement in learning.” He has seen his Personal Creed Project taken up at other schools and colleges by teachers across the country, and is now helping teachers in Canada, the UK, and Ukraine who are likewise adopting and adapting the project.

The National Writing Project website summarizes Creger’s Personal Creed Project as follows (edited slightly):

Briefly, the project asks a student to reflect systematically over an extended period on a) what people and
forces have shaped his/her life in the past, b) what she stands for or values in the present (her personal
creed), c) what qualities she wishes to develop in herself over the next ten years and d) how she might want to
be making her life count for others at the end of that period.

The project consists of 1) a semester series of weekly reflections, and 2) a culminating two weeks of presentations in which each student shares the results of her Creed reflections: her best understanding of who and what have shaped her, what she now stands for, the kind of person she wants to become, and how she wants to enrich others’ lives. (see
This interview will be posted in three short serial installments over the course of the next week. This first serves mainly as an introduction. Please read, enjoy and offer your reactions, opinions, views and feedback.

September 1st, 2009
Interview Post #1 (of 3)
Title: Intuition and Enthusiasm in Teaching and Learning

Koshnick: Thank you for your time here and for your excellent work. First, what did winning the James Moffett Memorial Award in 2001 mean to you?

Creger: It’s my pleasure to talk with you, Damian. I’m glad you’re hosting this site, and appreciate all this effort to preserve and carry on Moffett’s work. Well, the Moffett Award was a huge surprise for me. For several years after the award came, the thought knocked the wind out of me every time it occurred to me. I’d never known Moffett personally, as had several of the people I’d been meeting over the past few summers when I attended conferences put on by NCTE’s Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, of which Moffett was the first member. I wasn’t deeply familiar with his early work, and had only recently read his final book, The Universal Schoolhouse: Spiritual Awakening Through Education. In Schoolhouse, Moffett lays out the most inspiring and comprehensive vision of education I have come across to this day. As the subtitle announces, The Universal Schoolhouse boldly links the spiritual with learning. It was a special mixture of boldness and brilliance, along with a certain mysterious familiarity I felt when reading his work, that drew me to Moffett, and still does.

Why was the award important to me? First of all it was important because my own K-12 experience as a student was an ever-increasing let-down. Elementary school was a succession of friendly classrooms. People seemed to care about each other and I was generally engaged and happy. But in junior high suddenly I felt almost an active disinterest from school for the sudden changes I was experiencing inside and out. I was never especially a loner or outcast. Still, I began to get the sense that school was not really much about me. In high school this impression became a sad certainty. School became a collection of forces I felt morally obliged to define myself in opposition to. By junior year my arms were folded in the back of most of my classrooms, and I had given up on formal education. My arms remained folded for a decade, and a piece of that anger was still with me when I rediscovered Moffett in my forties. This emotional scar tissue began to soften when in Schoolhouse I had read:

Years of not being allowed to relate humanly in class have taught apathy and alienation. Years of being
herded, prodded, goaded, ordered, and otherwise manipulated have taught passivity and fatalism. This makes
for a zombie on the outside and a terrorist inside. Whenever I tell teachers, “This is not education, this is child
molestation,” they are not offended; they know what I mean. And when I joke, “If we did with their bodies what
we do with their minds, we’d all be in jail,” they laugh ruefully in recognition of a truth that we both understand
goes with a world we never made but are now guilty accomplices to. (57)

It’s sad to think about. But this set of abuses continues on an even larger scale across our culture today. What I would have needed to prevent my disaffection, I now realize, is for school to help me connect what I was learning with who I was becoming. For this kind of learning I would have to reach beyond formal education.

Only after high school was I able to begin in this. Working close to nature in rural New England as a carpenter during that following decade, I was forced to learn respect for the elements and forced to wrestle with my own limitations—physical, emotional, intellectual for and spiritual. In the wrestling I gained the beginnings of self-knowledge, and a nascent sense that a purpose in life would find me if I kept on its trail. Disabled with a back problem that ended the independence I treasured as a tradesman, I decided to give classroom learning another chance in community college.

This sense of discovering a purpose in life made an enormous difference in my attitude toward learning. My arms unfolded as I threw myself into reading and, most of all, writing. After a year at community college I found myself at the university. At Berkeley I was hungry to learn more deeply about why I was in the world. Discovering myself as a writer was part of this learning. Writing papers became part of my journey of self-discovery. I pulled weekly all-nighters happily. Shortly after I graduated, my writing had been published in five languages on three continents. More significantly, I was coming closer to discovering a direction in life guided by a deepening sense that I was here for a reason—and my education, strange to say, was heading me toward finding it. I had broken largely free of that abused feeling of being herded by other people’s agendas. My own purposes were fueling my learning.

Koshnick: When did you first come across Moffett, as an undergraduate, or …?

Creger: I had started my teaching career with only a surface exposure to Moffett’s ideas on literacy instruction as he formulated them in Universe of Discourse. But in my credential program I saw that his influence was everywhere. Perhaps it’s fair to say—certainly for literacy educators who began in the early 90s or before— that our period is the Age of Moffett. Many of us who started our classroom careers in those days, along with those in touch with the deeper currents in our field today, continue to be guided by Moffett’s belief that students’ own lives –and not an artificially imposed curriculum– should be at the center of their learning. This belief was certainly the guiding intuition of my early teaching.

After eight years in the classroom, in 1995 I took a leave of absence to attend graduate school. And while I hadn’t immersed myself consciously in Moffett’s work at the beginning of my career, when I first read Universal Schoolhouse during my leave I saw and felt a commonality between Moffett’s ideas and the ones I’d begun developing. I had started the Personal Creed project my second year of teaching, years before I took a leave, but in graduate school I found myself reflecting on my students’ enthusiasm for the Creed experience, trying to understand the marked changes I had seen come over entire classes during the week of Creed presentations. The project has been the first thing students seem to remember about their year in my class. Moffett’s book helped me see the work I had begun in the context of a much larger vision.

What has the Moffett Award meant to me? Before the Moffett Award there was no one I could talk to about all this. My colleagues were buried in their own work, especially at the end of the year when we culminated the Creed Project at that point, and I most needed to talk about what I was seeing. My wife was busy with our young daughters. Despite the increasingly deep and evolving caliber of my Creed presentations year after year, I had a strange sense of being an imposter. Who was I to think that what was happening in my classroom could help develop an approach to learning that could be of real value to others?

The award gave me a vote of confidence. Moffett’s writing, Schoolhouse and others I’ve read since, gave me permission to trust the intuitions I was having and the thinking that followed. The award gave me permission to share my work more confidently with colleagues. On a practical level, the award also gave my work recognition that led to a contract with Heinemann for my first book. The book, along with the opportunity to offer workshops for colleagues, allowed me to share the Creed Project with colleagues with whom I can now share experiences and perspectives. But emotionally, the whole idea of an award coming to me in Moffett’s name gave me chills for years.

What kept me going through the doubts I mentioned above was my students’ enthusiasm. That enthusiasm, and the uncanny transformation of one of my all-time most unruly fourth period classes after their Creed Project presentations, convinced me I needed to start keeping a journal and documenting what was going on in the classroom. So by the time the letter came informing me that I was receiving the Moffett Award—a letter dated September 11, 2001—I was already planning to write seriously about the Creed Project. Just as I had found my attitude and motivation to learn rejuvenated by the self-knowledge I had gained in my life experiences and increasing sense of purpose after high school, I was witnessing a similar effect of age-appropriate self-discovery on the 15 and 16 year-olds in my classroom. They too, in their own ways, were writing about breaking free of that abused feeling.

For more information, check out John Creger’s ongoing work:
Personal Creed Project ning group [on English Companion]

Beginning of Installment #2

Koshnick: In my experience, many people have a hard time interpreting Moffett’s later work, but I see in your Personal Creed Project a concrete and innovative realization of some of his most critical, later publications.

Creger: I think you’re right that my work has been more influenced by Moffett’s later work, particularly by Universal Schoolhouse, in which he stepped out of the closet about the spiritual underpinnings of his thinking. One of the ideas that has influenced my thinking and teaching quite directly is his notion of the shifting foundation stones of education. Moffett sees the old “Flag and Dollar” foundations of nationalism and economics being slowly replaced during our times by two new foundation stones–culture and consciousness. For reasons I explain in my book and will probably bring up here later, I loosely translated these last two somewhat general and abstract terms into the academic and personal legs of curriculum as I now conceive them. I rely extensively in this portion of my book on ideas and quotations from Schoolhouse.

After devoting a quarter century to school reform, Moffett speaks ruefully in Schoolhouse of its limitations. Since he calls more for major reconstruction than for merely rearranging pedagogical furniture, I prefer to use the term renovation over “reform” to describe Moffett’s vision. A whole host of better connotations comes to my mind at least. [Editor’s Note: a summary of Moffett’s vision for 21st education appears at the beginning of Installment #3 of the interview with Creger.]

Koshnick: The foundational shifts that you mention from Moffett–from nationalism and economics to culture and consciousness–and your own translation of the second pair of terms, the shift, again, from nationalism and economics to academic and personal, all seem very relevant to this distinction between reform and renovation. Where do you think we are in our movement toward these grand shifts in action and consciousness?

Creger: Great question. I think we’re too close to the action to have a terribly accurate understanding of where we are in the shift Moffett describes. In general, my sense is that the late 80s and early 90s was a time of openness to new approaches and attitudes in education. This was a time of active evolution in culture and consciousness. Through the early 90s, the openness to a positive future accompanied by the sudden dissipation of the Cold War was also felt in education–the establishment by progressive educators of best practices and professional standards was an expression of this openness and confidence in the future. We can think of these trends as part of an evolution of culture as it was then expressed in education. But as the 90s went on, these initiatives from educators were co-opted by business and government, and by the late 90s, after Moffett’s death, the old Flag and Dollar forces of nationalism and economics had reasserted their dominance over education.

The late 80s and early 90s were also friendly to the development of consciousness. My first department chair and early mentors encouraged me to experiment in the classroom, which I found was a natural proclivity for me. The Personal Creed Project was born in this period–a classroom-based exploration and celebration of consciousness. During the 90s the Creed Project gestated quietly, flying under the radar as it slowly developed in my classroom, and by early in the 2000s had been recognized by NCTE and written about in California English. Fortunately, business and government have been little aware of its gradual spread in schools and colleges around the country, and the project, along with the principles and practices it has brought into the open, offers increasing numbers of students and teachers a tested, powerful way to nourish and evolve our consciousness, despite the continuing regressive influence of the high stakes period (even, it appears at this point, under the Obama administration).

The shift Moffett speaks of is an evolutionary transition that will probably require generations to show decisive fruition, and we can expect considerable backwards as well as forward movement. When I wrote about this transition in my book, I brought in perspectives from other sources–cultural historian Riane Eisler’s notion of the long shift from dominator to partnership societies, the Urantia Book’s vision of an inexorable transformation in human motivation from the profit motive to the service motive–to put Moffett’s discussion of the evolutionary shift in education in context. The flowering of culture and consciousness or, as Moffett describes it, the replacing of education’s foundation stones, is less about incremental reforming of existing paradigms, principles and practices, I think, and more about making fundamental shifts in our understanding of the nature and purposes of learning–and then renovating existing paradigms, principles and practices in accordance with our new understanding. I see the Personal Creed Project and its “offspring”–the Model of Workable 21st Century Learning, the Cross-Section of 21st Century English Curriculum, the Two-Legged approach to weaving deeper learning into our courses and programs as they exist today–as part of the theory and practice of renovation.

Workable Model 21st Century Learning -John Creger

While this is a fascinating shift to contemplate, the fact is that most educators have little wherewithal to consider what we do every day in such evolutionary terms. When I began developing these approaches what I wanted was a way to move with my students in the direction of Moffett’s vision of education. Once I felt we were making some progress in this, I wanted to be able to share it as painlessly as possible with busy colleagues. What I realized is that we were very far from ready, in education, to talk in terms of the evolution of culture, let alone consciousness.

For one thing, we really have no consensus in our larger culture that the personal development of our students is a goal worthy of building toward. Certain classrooms and schools may emphasize students’ unfolding in different ways, but we have no real vision of this aspect of education in our ongoing conversation or curriculum. So rather than use the terms culture and consciousness, I decided to start with a term already enshrined–academic. Academic skills, many of which have to do with communication, do after all help us orient ourselves with respect to culture. Using this term, I hoped, would bring pretty much all aboard. Then I could graft in a new notion–that education should also concern personal development. Hence the idea of planning courses and programs on two legs–Academic and Personal.

There is a stealth aspect to this approach. I think most intelligent English teachers can agree that school should have strong, effective, research-based plans to help students grow as human beings, and not only plans for academic development. Such teachers, I think, could work with the two-legged idea, without necessarily announcing it to administrators or less-than-friendly colleagues. I hope these principles and practices that have been evolving out of my classroom and those of colleagues working with the Creed Project ultimately will become stepping stones in the direction Moffett pointed.

Koshnick: Moffett was a proponent of eliminating false barriers between school and home life, between school and community, between school and spirit. As you put it in your book, “we should begin much more seriously allowing students to integrate their learning experiences among school, home and their community” (61). To me, this is what your book accomplishes so well. You describe tested, inventive ways to lessen what for most kids, now, certainly seems to them like a disconnect between school and life, life and school.

With your Creed Project in particular, you prompt students to think–in a prolonged manner–about who they are and what they believe. You have said that your students’ culminating Creed presentations “are the most impressive and affecting classroom experiences I have witnessed in the 20 years since I became a teacher” (NWP, updated).

As a teacher and a theorist in these matters, you have intentionally placed the focus of your curriculum on students’ creeds, on students’ beliefs. Can you give us some examples of the ways in which your deliberate focus on belief helps both you and your students eliminate, or overcome the disconnect, or the non-integration between school and life that is a familiar aspect of so many people’s experience within education?

Creger: That’s another great question. Your phrase “overcome the disconnect” is picture perfect. I think the focus on belief or creed—I actually call it discovering values—overcomes the disconnect as you say first by going deeper than our present notion of learning can helpfully explain. What precisely does it mean to engage in deeper learning? Deeper in what respect? As reckoned by what criteria? Our present notion of learning offers no clear and useful way to think about depth in learning. So that’s one benefit of the approach I’ll talk more about in a minute. But the broad focus on discovering values also overcomes the disconnect by offering a way to complete a circuit that has been historically broken in school learning–the process of how we learn in real life. For these two reasons and others, we do not have a way to think about learning that works. This is a perfect time to introduce what I’m calling the Model of Workable 21st Century Learning.

The model begins at the center, with a provisional central aim of learning. In more than 20 years of education courses, seminars, workshops and my own teaching, I’ve never been part of a conversation in which a central aim of learning itself was introduced, let alone discussed at any length. When it developed that I would be writing a book on the Creed Project I realized I could not write a book about learning without identifying at least a tentative main purpose for … well … learning! What you see in the central triangle of the model is only the most recent version: Deepening Understanding of World and Self and Increasing Mastery of Human Capacities. This is an improvement over the previous formulation, which used the term “personality,” a term with too many diverging connotations. At some point, I hope a group of colleagues can come to a broader consensus on how to word this model’s central aim. For now, I offer this provisional one.

What may be the most useful aspect of the model is represented by the blue circular shape I call the Learning Continuum. My deeper studies, life experience, and long reflection tell me that I can perceive reality on three levels—the levels of fact, meaning, and value. In order to make sense of my experience I must ascertain the facts–of my own life, the lives of others, the world and universe: I am about to begin my 21st year as an English teacher at American High School in Fremont CA, USA, on planet Earth.

I must interpret those facts, constructing or construing them into interpretations that explain the facts in various ways—their causes and effects, their chronologies, their parts and wholes, and other ways, logical, emotional, musical, intuitive, in which facts can be interpreted. This is the level of meaningTeaching English is rewarding because an English teacher gets to interact with dynamic people, read intriguing literature, and help people develop skills to understand themselves, understand the world and universe, and how they fit into these big pictures.

I also perceive reality, finally, on the level of values. Once I have ascertained a particular collection of facts and made an interpretation that follows from them, I can then decide how these facts or this meaning relates to what I stand for, or value, or what matters to me: My job matters to me because one of the things I stand for is helping young people create a safer, cleaner, more just world. An English teacher is uniquely positioned to make such an impact. I perceive my experience in life, then, as we all do in varying ways and to varying degrees, on three levels–the level of fact, the level of meaning, and the level of value.

When I share this model with students, which I’ll do only briefly, in connection with a novel or essay we’re discussing, I’ll show this graphic on the screen.

Then I’ll simply ask what the model seems to be saying. In the three years I’ve tried this, it’s never long before someone says the model is saying something about how we learn in school. “Excellent!” I’ll respond. “What point does it seem to be making?” If necessary, I’ll ask where most of what we do in school would fall in the model. Quickly, the class agrees that most of what they are asked to do in school is to master facts, the upper left hub (oval shape) in the Learning Continuum. In some classes, it develops, teachers guide them to make interpretations of those facts, the upper right hub, but not nearly as often as they’re asked to memorize and recall facts. Even more rarely, if ever, are they guided systematically to discover what they stand for, the lower hub of the Learning Continuum.

A main premise of the Workable Model is that we are intended to learn in the same manner in which we perceive reality—through mastering facts, construing meanings, and discovering values. We are meant to learn all around the continuum. Most of what we teach and learn in school, however, stays on the surface, in the region of the continuum that runs between mastering facts and construing meaning. This region, or dimension, has to do mainly with operations of our minds—ascertaining and interpreting facts and forming opinions.

The deeper parts of the continuum, centered around the Discovering Values hub, entail such issues as the formation of our identities, the education of our hearts, our relationships with others, discovering what most matters to us, which can include spiritual matters (undepicted). The region between the Construing Meanings and Discovering Values hubs, along the right side of the Learning Continuum, gets progressively deeper and personal as we move down. Somewhere toward the upper middle portion of this region we’d probably locate the cultivation of metacognition. Down toward the bottom, centered pretty much on the Discovering Values hub, we’d place the Personal Creed Project, since the project is completely about discovering our values. Somewhere in the region between Mastering Facts and Discovering Values, along the model’s left side, we might place service learning or volunteering in the community, since we choose to volunteer (or someone else chooses for us) because these factual activities are driven by values that affirm them. Educators will find much to discuss in exploring these two deeper “frontier” regions, or dimensions, of the Learning Continuum.

Getting back to your question about how a focus on our creeds or belief (discovering values) helps us overcome the disintegration between school and our real lives. One answer is that focusing learning all around the continuum requires us to learn along the two deeper dimensions as well as the shallower one. Students are hungry for self-knowledge they rarely gain in school, or even beyond school. We gain self-knowledge in the two deeper “frontier” dimensions of the learning continuum. I had to begin my journey of self-discovery outside school. Thanks to this model, I think, we can finally understand the notion of depth and apply it in teaching and learning as we design courses and programs. Now we can “go deep” solidly, staying integrated with fact and intellect without getting lost in the mere touchy-feely or esoteric. Students are hungry for this, and in fact cannot live satisfying lives without it.

Another answer to your question is that including the deeper parts of the continuum completes a broken circuit. If we are designed to learn around the continuum, but are only connecting with two of the three hubs (at best), our learning is quite literally broken. We overcome the disconnect by weaving the deeper regions of the continuum into our learning, which completes the circuit. We are intended to range widely and deeply in our learning, but have confined ourselves to a small region of that range. In addition to the rewards of learning more deeply and personally, then, completing the circuit is inherently liberating. In a portfolio reflection, Angelo, one of my sophomores last year, wrote of this liberating reconnection as it stemmed, he thought, from the Creed Project, the year’s most powerful experience of learning around the continuum:

I thought I didn’t have much to write about. After making the Creed Project write-ups, a bunch of new ideas flooded my head, and my imagination was once again let loose to run wild. . . . I feel that my writing has, since then, become a lot more fluid now that I am able to think more clearly, rapidly, and efficiently.

In recent years, as I study what I call my June “harvest” of snippets from students portfolios and course evaluations, I have seen more unsolicited comments about the appearance of voice in students’ writing. The most remarkable example so far came two years ago. My student Lorato had been coming to me asking for help in developing her own voice in writing. She was tired, she complained, of writing in the voice of an 80 year-old professor when she was only fifteen. I had been searching through the books in my office to help her, but all that seemed to help were some student models from my files. Suddenly, towards the end of the year, Lorato had a breakthrough. She wrote about it in her portfolio:

The Creed project was more than a step towards my goal of portraying voice in writing; it was a flying leap that crashed me through the wall that has been blocking me from showing personality in my writing. Overall, this project helped me to start to figure myself out and, as weird as it sounds, helped me to discover what I’m really like. This self-revelation made me much more secure and comfortable with myself; this, in turn, helped me show more tone. I think that before this project, I struggled so much with voice because I had no self-assurance, and didn’t really think I had anything meaningful or important to say. But through the Creed, step III especially, I found out that I actually have values, beliefs, experiences, and flaws that all combine to make one unique individual with a distinctive voice.

I would ascribe a significant portion of Lorato’s epiphany to the completion of a broken circuit in her acquisition of literacy—a reconnection between what she was learning and who she was becoming.

Many of the “false barriers” you cite Moffett decrying arise from our limited understanding of the nature of learning. To the extent that this workable model turns out to be a fuller understanding of how we are “wired” to learn–and I have collected an enormous body of evidence such as the two pieces above that seem to support this premise–teachers finally have a solid rationale to integrate learning on multiple levels, in three dimensions actually. We’ve discussed the integration of facts, meanings, and values in students’ learning. The integration of the deeper values regions of the continuum, of their bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits, is clearly made real by helping students also integrate home, school, and community in their learning. Does this help answer your question?

End of Installment #2

Heinemann link to John’s book:

Beginning of Installment #3

Koshnick: This might be a good time to set your work in context. We spoke earlier about where you think we are in relation to the vision of education Moffett lays out in Universal Schoolhouse. For those who haven’t read Schoolhouse, or who have wrestled with it, what would you say are the broad elements of Moffet’s vision, and how does your work fit in with it?

Creger: Moffett’s vision may be the broadest ever set out by a major figure in the mainstream of American education. In the preface to the Jossey-Bass edition he presents a preview. This is only a skeletal sketch. Through the book, Moffett explains in rich detail why he believes that these essential points will gradually come to characterize education in coming decades:

1) Personal development must be central, since all social problems can only be solved by enlightened citizens.

2) Far-flung community learning systems will replace schools as we know them, which focus too much on the needs of facilities and too little on the needs and natures of students. Schooling will become completely personalized, with few or no one-size-fits-all requirements.

3) Most social services will fall under the oversight of public education, since the wars on poverty or drugs can never be won as long as agencies depend for their survival on the continuance of the problems.

4) Education is decentralized to local communities, which receive only support from the various levels of government, with little or no oversight.

5) Control of public education will pass to private citizens, and from the control of politicians and business forces.

6) Spiritual development—the essence of personal evolution–will emerge as the prime goal of education.

In the unfolding of his narrative, Moffett’s boldness and brilliance are in full evidence, along with much that makes simple good sense. Again, without the context Moffett provides, this list will not adequately represent his vision. My work, to place it in the context of Moffett’s vision, addresses the first and last of the points in the list above.

Koshnick: How do you use this model as you plan your courses to make it real for your students–to help their learning run deeper and more connected to their whole lives?

Creger: I’m hoping to publish an article sometime soon that will deal with this question in some detail. So I’ll try to keep to the main points here. Before building on the same shaky footings which lie under too many of our assumptions about literacy—and literacy reform–the first thing I need to do is to translate the workable model into a conceptualization of a renovated English curriculum. Of course, the student’s unfolding is at the center (with another proposed wording). Literacy skills, which politics and business now force into the center of our work actually rightly belong at the edges. Reading, writing, speaking, listening, learning—the acquisition of these skills facilitate the purposeful unfolding of our students. Their fuller unfolding, in turn, is the only hope for the survival of our culture. As Moffett writes in Schoolhouse:

I argue that personal development must be central, because all solutions to public problems, no matter how collective the action, depend on mature, enlightened individuals to call for and indeed insist on these solutions. Democracy simply cannot function otherwise, and we will lose it if political leaders continue to have to pander to the selfish, childish, bigoted, and shortsighted elements of the electorate. So it is not only for the sake of self-fulfillment . . . but for the sake of the commonweal, which needs members who, in learning to think and do for themselves, can think about and take care of each other (xvi)

Skills, then, are a means to the end of our students’ personal unfolding, not an end in themselves.

[Note: Click on the Cross-Section of English attachment below.]

A key controversy in English education has always been how to conceive the place of literature in the curriculum. When I came into the profession, a literature-centered curriculum was regarded, in my district at least, as the cutting edge. While it certainly beats a skill-centered curriculum—in the high stakes sense anyway—a literature-centered curriculum seems to me built on the questionable notion that literature is the most fitting source of truth for everyone. This was questionable enough before the age of the internet. And yet few of us are ready to dismiss literature’s importance in helping our students discover themselves in their world and universe. Hence its position in the cross-section—second only to the main aim of students’ personal unfolding. The Cross-Section, then, provides the rationale for actively incorporating vibrant personal growth plans into existing courses and programs. How to actively incorporate such plans into what we now do in our classrooms? This is where Two-Legged Design comes in.

I wanted the design of the courses to facilitate their central aim: to help my students discover who they are. Thanks to the Personal Creed Project, in my classes this has come to mean helping them come to understand what forces and people in the past have shaped them as they are today, what they stand for today, and how they want to live in the future. Literature and literacy skills, as I’ve come to see them, are means to this end.

I couldn’t announce my real goal–to help students discover themselves–too loudly or widely in an era fixated on measurable results. Going back to my translation of Moffett’s culture and consciousness into academic and personal, I decided instead on a stealth approach. I would design my courses in two legs–one academic, the other personal.

[Note: Click on the Sample Two-Legged Design attachment below.]

The obligatory academic skills orientation I house on the Academic leg. Beginning in the fall with entry writing and reading diagnostics, proceeding through the year with literacy skill development and literary and language study, we close out the year on the academic leg with a portfolio intended to assess students’ development in these academic areas. Why couldn’t the Personal leg have a similar Entry-Through-the-year-Exit design–with its goal being to help students develop a viable personal philosophy of living?

I designed the Personal leg of the course to promote the development of my students’ wisdom. The study and acquirement of personal development, then, is the overarching theme of my sophomore English courses, both of which I title “Envisioning a Life.” We start the year with an Entry study of more traditional wisdom–the World Wisdom Project. We read, write, and talk about passages from the Bible, the Koran, Sufi stories and poems, Taoist anecdotes, Zen parables, Hindu tales, and short pieces of wisdom from whatever other traditions fit my students’ backgrounds, including the recent film Crash. This combined Academic and Personal project is my students’ Entry experience on the Personal leg of my courses.

As you can see at the center of the figure, we use a number of tools to weave the ongoing study of wisdom through the year’s themes, literature, and various approaches to skill-development, allowing us to periodically reinforce students’ evolving personal wisdom.

This Two-Legged design has proven an effective way to make room in an English course for real personal development. The Personal leg in my courses culminates with the classroom-based rite of passage we talked about at the beginning of our interview, the Personal Creed Project. To bring a semester-long series of written reflections to fruition, as we talked about, students stand before their classmates and teacher and “present their creeds.”

Koshnick: So what specific benefits does your approach bring to your teaching and, most importantly, to your students’ learning?

Creger: This summer I was reflecting on all this, and thought of seven “idiosyncrasies” of the courses I teach. While they may raise administrative eyebrows in many schools today, they are fully justified by the model of workable learning and cross-section of 21st century Engish curriculum. I’ll simply spell out six of these idiosyncrasies here, without much explanation. My forthcoming article will explain how each feature takes shape in our classes, and what students say and write about them.

❖ First, my students get to spend a year in a class genuinely centered on their unfolding as human beings. Adding to the district’s official “English 10cp” and “English 10honors” designations, I actually include what I see as our real course title, “Envisioning a Life,” on most handouts. The courses are rigorously academic. But when students begin to understand that working to develop reading, writing, conversing, and thinking skills helping them find out interesting things about themselves, and that robust self-discovery can make an English class more fun and interesting, they appear more willing to learn and engage in class activities. Harnessed to a developmentally and curricularly appropriate exploration of students’ greatest interest—themselves–academics play a more effective role than they can as ends in themselves. Beyond standards, these approaches to English curriculum and course design are themselves aligned with a model of learning that may help the entire enterprise of education in our culture become more satisfying and successful for all involved.

❖ The Two-Legged approach to course design also facilitates a balance for my students between academic rigor and personal development. This past year, for example, students’ course evaluations indicated general pleasure with the personal development aspects of the course, but suggested a need for more attention to analysis and language skill development on the academic side. After taking a San Jose Area Writing Project summer seminar from Jeff House, I am preparing to introduce several new types of analysis for my students, along with what may be some improved approaches to grammar and writing improvements. The Two-Legged approach allows for such tacking to maintain balance.

❖ The combined emphasis on personal and academic development justifies a series of strands in the course which, combined, I callUbiquitous Questioning. In one of these strands, students generate, update, and trace their own Big Questions through the course, considering their BQs when possible as they make choices of writing topics and reading selections. I also get to generate questions—Project Driving Questions for several projects we undertake through the year. Finally, we try to center our course on our school’sSophomore Core Question, which has been adopted by the school community. (Again, details will appear in article.)

❖ A second series of strands in the course I call Sustained Purposeful Reflection. This includes the longterm deep reflections of the Creed Project, short term in-class and at-home reflections on various topics, and reflections to prepare for class discussions like Socratic Dialogues. The intention is to keep reflection an ongoing force in students’ learning, their thinking, and their lives. Many comments in my June harvest justify the inclusion of this strand in the course.

❖ The course foundations in the workable model and the cross-section also lend themselves nicely to the ongoing emphasis on the study of wisdom. Beginning in the fall with the World Wisdom Project, students trace many of its concepts and terms through our literature and discussions through the year. The generalized study of wisdom comes home in the spring with the personal wisdom in the Creed presentations. This is another benefit to students—each is supported and guided to discover what he or she most values in life, and what kind of life he or she would like to live based on those values.

❖ Finally, the personal foundations of the course have provided ample justification for the practice of meditation, which claims seven to ten minutes of our time per week. Increasingly popular, valued first in many students’ minds as a prime timewasting opportunity, but slowly becoming an activity valued for the personal benefits it accords, our classroom “mindchilling” gives students regular practice in calming, detaching and focusing the mind, and nourishing the heart. I like to think James Moffett would have approved.

Koshnick: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Creger: Just that I invite anyone who has questions, comments, or related work to share to check us out on English Companion Ning. Students for a number of years have been telling me “the Creed” should “go national.” In the last couple of years I’ve seen pleas for it to go “global.” The ECN group has made both a reality. Great group of interesting folks from across the U.S., Canada and around the world. Thanks, Damian, for having me on and for the great work you’re doing here on the JMC.

Koshnick: Again, thank you for joining us.

John’s ECN Creed Group:
Heinemann link to John’s book:
More on how John plans his courses:…

John can be reached at:

John Creger’s Source Materials Referenced:

NCTE Link to Our Recent English Journal Article on James Moffett’s Legacy

I was proud to have been able to work with Elizabeth Spalding and Miles Myers to study James Moffett’s legacy to the English Journal. Our study was published  (January, 2012) in the Centennial edition of the English Journal.
First Paragraph Excerpt: English Journal 101.3 (2012): 26–33

Link to published article:

Copyright by the National Council of Teachers of English. All Rights Reserved.


Elizabeth Spalding, Damian C. Koshnick, and Miles Myers

James Moffett’s Legacy to English Journal

James Moffett 1929-96

“I went to grade school in Jackson, Mississippi, and a big high school in Toledo, Ohio. I had a conventional education, and I accepted it all; I never questioned anything. I just did whatever they told me.” —James Moffett, 1994 Interview (Schroeder and Boe)


Who would have predicted that this compliant young man would grow up to be a leading thinker of the English profession, who questioned everything and accepted only a little? With the 1968 publication of his companion volumes—Teaching the Universe of Discourse, which provided the theoretical underpinnings of his practice-oriented, and A Student-Centered Language Arts Curriculum —James Moffett (1929–96) became a major influence on the teaching of secondary English in the English-speaking world. We can think of no more fitting an occasion or outlet for examining his legacy to us than the 100th anniversary of English Journal, the NCTE journal dedicated to the work of secondary classroom teachers.

For full article, see:

Thoughts on: primitive mind, literacies, landscapes, and writing classrooms

My own introduction to the notion of “information literacy,” in the broadest sense, came from my appreciation of nature writers and nature writing. When reading Roderick Nash’s (1982) Wilderness and the American Mind for the first time, I was struck by his conceptual description of human cognitive development as it corresponded to the perception of moving through changing physical environments with a primitive mind. This was, of course, a description of the broad forces that shape human history, much like the ever-popular writing of Jared Diamond. The passage that struck me and has continued to fascinate me for years:

We might begin with the anthropological axiom that until roughly twenty million years ago our prehuman ancestors dwelt in an arboreal environment … At this distant point in time, as noted above, there was no dichotomy between prehumans and wild country. But about fifteen million years ago it appears that climatic changes and fire began to reduce the area of forest in central Africa and other seedbeds of man. Prehumans gradually left the shrinking arboreal habitat and began to adapt to life on the plains and grasslands. (preface, Nash)

First, the notion that at a certain point in time “there was no dichotomy between prehumans” and the wild landscape is a key notion. Certainly, we have since changed this in radical ways. We live and work now, for example, in virtual worlds and with thousands of tools assembled great distances from our immediate environment. But in inchoate forms of the earliest human histories, we were living completely in the environment, certainly solving problems like other animals do, but solving problems only within the confines of the environment near-hand, with tools derivative primarily of the surroundings in which we lived.

Shifts in landscape, shifts in perspective -photo: Damian Koshnick

Second, we do not often think that the literal changing of a landscape directly impacts our physiology and therefore our cognitive functions. Climatic changes led to a change in our immediate landscape, pushed us from the forest to the plains and, as a result, was a primary factor in changing the kinds of thinking required for survival. As Nash continued:

In the open, spacious environments vision assumed an importance it lacked in the dense, dark wilderness. Adapting, prehumans developed remarkable visual ability. In part this compensated for the superior sense of smell and hearing and the speed, size, and strength of other animals. Good vision was early man’s competitive edge. Coupled with a developing brain, it enabled humans to plan ahead. A lion a mile away across open country, for example, was a solvable problem; one hidden in dense cover (classic wilderness) often meant death. With their eyes prehumans bought time to think. Sight, height, and openness meant security. What came to be known as wilderness was scary. … It followed that for millions of years our distant ancestors preferred open environments, where the eye and the brain could function, to the dark primeval forest. Once early man left the thickets he was loath to return to an environment that neutralized his visual advantages. Indeed, when he could he burned forests in order to convert them to open grassland. Edges of clearing and heights of land became favored living and hunting locales. (preface, Nash)

New distances to a horizon, and our changing ability to perceive it fundamentally, therefore, changed our identity as nascent humans. Presumably, the visual cortex became an even stronger component of the neural circuits that guided our thinking. Planning became possible; it was the direct result of our ability to see to a horizon. Our new environment -with distances- allowed us to scan for danger and opportunities, and to plan our routes to avoid, or find them. Beyond developmental sciences which certainly tell a more intricate and complex history of this, I am always -personally- intrigued when I can consciously recognize lived moments that incorporate the most primitive aspects of my brain. This happens frequently to me when I am hiking in the woods, and I am simultaneously startled and comforted by the sharp smell of wood smoke. I know, consciously, why this must be such an energizing and pleasing experience. Wood smoke brings the awareness that there are other humans nearby with warmth and safety. It brings the assumption that they are probably preparing to cook food. The smell of wood smoke has to be one of the most direct paths to decision-making processes that have kept us alive over centuries. The same seems true, to me, of those opportunities to stand at a vantage point, to look out over the ocean, or the valley, or a great plain. Very little, in my view, biologically satisfies a person as much as those moments when we gain critical perspectives on the environments in which we stand. Sure, the Grand Canyon is pretty, but this to me is the real, primitive reason we are drawn to it by the millions every year.

What of our current situation then? With this question, I have two scenarios in mind. What of global warming and the way it will steadily change our environments? Certainly we are very good now at adapting, but there is something about storms, large storms in particular, that still surprise us. Storms narrow down our fields’-of-vision (electricity goes out for example), push us back -despite our cognitive and technological advances- back into the immediate just like heavily forested-environments required of us. Our attention shifts perceptively from planning, and anticipating, to reacting. But, more appropriate to my professional interests in the teaching of writing, I am thinking of the other constantly encroaching environments -primarily virtual- in which we now work –and plan. What sort of visual and therefore planning advantages are we afforded with technology on a daily basis?

As a teacher, I am often most interested in this question as it corresponds directly to the classroom. Conceptually, and pedagogically, the work across “information literacies,” and particularly “literacy landscapes” are currently key, motivating concepts in the teaching and learning of writing. Between them, we try to capture and take advantage of our deepest orienting perspectives biologically and socially through technology. Biology and social orientations and habits change, but change slowly. And it is important to remember that these orientations and habits often do not convincingly correspond to the technological and virtual worlds in which we now write, plan, and organize our lives.

I am struck by the idea that we are approaching the technological-interface equation from the opposite direction that we have interactions with natural settings. With the natural setting, in prehuman history, we were intractably a part of our environment. Our steady evolutionary shift was to conceptually, and physically, separate ourselves from it. With technology and virtual worlds, it is the other way around. We went from a situation where we were not an intimate part of those “platforms” to a scenario where we are increasingly a part of them (or they are us). A great reminder of this is to watch some of Steve Jobs first -now humorously clumsy- launches of the Mac from the 1980’s. The crowd was enthralled with fonts appearing on a screen and a digital voice that was able to read it aloud []. With his pioneering work, and others like him, we have come a long way. How much of our day is spent now, not looking to the horizon to plan, but looking to our ipads, our iphones, or laptops, our blackberries?

Certainly I am not the first here to wonder, or ask –what does this mean? But, set against Nash’s description, I think this takes on a thrilling, more intimate and immediate hue. Despite the fact that we are talking about virtual platforms, there is, inevitably a real-world impact both biologically and in the physical environment. No matter how virtual we become, it is always the immediate environment –physical and social– that determines the value of a technology. This, to me, explains why however brilliant a virtual platform, or technology, now matter how much personal, professional, or social advantage it gives us, we may never have the technological-degree of deep satisfaction that comes from looking out over a valley from above, or the Grand Canyon, or smelling wood smoke in the woods. Will we?

If –information visualization– is the, “the use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition” (Card, p. 7, 1999), then the visualization technology must be able to a) read the data, and b) amplify it in a manner that aids the learners’ focus and purposes. Within this human-computer interaction, there exists the “gap” –that data is lost in the “telescoping” process, between the contextualized, embodied-knowledge goals of the learner, and the data transforming  work of a visualization technology.

As a teacher, even something as basic as “brainstorming” or “concept-mapping” can be surprisingly difficult (and time-consuming) to effectively and convincingly recreate on a virtual platform for a wide-variety of students. This is especially true for classrooms with 20+ students, each with varying degrees of access to and familiarity with computer systems and software.

The problem? –how can a visualization program meet and “amplify” the complex tasks and socially embedded practices of a student? From my perspective as a teacher, and based upon my frustration as a –finder of, and reviewer of free information visualization software, I have concluded that for a virtual platform to help/work in a class, (with even something as simple as “concept mapping”) this requires:

-low-end implementation requirements; there must not be too much training involved, or the program will likely seem superfluous (an added burden)

-flexibility, since all classes enact a wide-range of tasks, the program(s) utilized must be  either numerous, or very flexible (this will reduce the acuity, but increase the conditions for usability and application)

-readily translatable data transfer, the program must be able to utilize data from applications that are common, accessible to students and faculty such as word, excel, etc. or they must be user-enhancing and user-friendly to produce (or reproduce) within the applications’ platform (Google Sketchup as one example)

I have had varied success introducing “concept mapping” options within Excel, in simple and familiar applications like Word, and with somewhat more advanced (and less familiar) programs like VUE. So much potential exists with far more complex software. If the goal of a course in writing is to amplify perception and understanding, we have to keep pushing these boundaries, but as a –teacher– we are often the realists that confront the inevitable obstacles. If we want to amplify our students’ thinking and learning, technology is one of the most promising ways to accomplish this, and yet it is never as easy as it should be, or as it may appear it should be to those working outside the classroom.

Too often, the software which appears ready to use from the language on the supporting website, is not easily manipulated, downloaded, or readily interactive. Most information visualization software that is currently available on the web is the stuff of engineers, or created specifically by and for scientists within specific research institutions. It is clear, as a teacher, that most “free” visualization software, and indeed, most all software requires considerable amount of time and energy to access and utilize. In the end, it may be just as useful to manually “re”present data and other resources to que students’ into the complexities of their “literacy landscapes” until these kinds of virtual technologies will be more context-responsive and individualizable.

My primary conclusion for the moment is that more grants must be made available to support teachers to buy, introduce, and adapt technology into classrooms in realistic and sustainable ways.

Some software under review:

1. Info Vis Wiki:

2. Google Visualization API:

This gallery lists JavaScript visualizations built on the Google Visualization API. Some of these have been written by Google, and some have been written by third parties. Links below point to instructions for and demonstrations of each visualization. Including (potentially, though less immediately applicably) Google Sketchup: which is software that you can use to create 3D models of anything you like. Most people get rolling with SketchUp in just a few minutes.

3. This Google Visualization also includes (bought in 2007) GapMinder, specifically, “Trendalyzer”:

Within GoogleMaps exists one of the most interesting visualization options particularly with respect to teaching. This tool allows anyone to chart and mark a “journey” within or along a journey. At GoogleMaps, click on “My Maps”. For a sample, type in “Chris Mccandless”. Google maps incorporates place markers, lines attaching locations, with the ability to post photos and notes at each location. Within this tool exists some fascinating options particularly for teaching.

4. There is also a Text Content Analysis Tool: Which is similar to: TagCloud: and Wordle: And a free Concordance analysis website:

5. There are other sites that function much like what can be done with Excel, such as “ManyEyes” which performs: scatterplots, bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, with the additional functionality of word trees, and what is widely known as Another problem with this site for education is that it requires that all uploaded data, results are publicly viewable.

6. This site, which is interesting, but I have not downloaded the software: which is a, “Workbench for network scientists”. This software can be used to map knowledge domains and seems to have a functionality that exceeds excel, and word clouds, tags, etc. Though I have not tested its ease of use, nor its functionality (nor the data sets it accepts) –it does have many interesting samples online that are intriguing at the outset.

7. And these sites with which I am interested, but have had less luck for the moment: visualizing data as a city:; Moose -Analysis Technology:; Leyesdorff:; the SSEC Visualization Project:

8. InfoZoom:

You can “feed” InfoZoom virtually any data, provided it is in a structured form. From ASCII, TXT, CSV and Excel files via databases up to and including complex ERP systems – as a customer once remarked, InfoZoom accesses anything that doesn‘t resist.”

9. Visualizations for Education:

This site includes a considerable list of sites that incorporates “visualization for Education”. Many of these links are “galleries” and not software for producing visual displays. But it is worth some time (depending upon intention, focus and purposes). At the end of this site is a list of visualization “Software, Hardware, and Organizations”.

10. The Science/Engineering Visualization Challenge:

Of course the variety and number of such options are nearly limitless and depend largely on the class, the goals, etc. of a given assignment and writing course. As a teacher, I am often frustrated by the seeming potential and the gap between teaching, classroom, student access, and technological realities.


Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. Yale University Press: Binghamton, N.Y., 1982.

Stuart Card, J.D. Mackinlay, and Ben Shneiderman (1999). “Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think”. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco

Literate practices: Rediscovering the value of recitation

Men on Succor Street -Photo: (c) Kate Koshnick Photography (

Our Changing Literacy Expectations:

We (as teachers and as a broader culture) critically underestimate the degree to which our expectations of literate practice change. Even more so, we fail to appreciate the extent to which what we expect of a literate person in today’s society is dramatically more ambitious than our recent past and that the these demands and expectations have changed over a very short period of time. No book makes this more apparent, nor outlines in greater detail the nature of these changing expectations than Miles Myers’ (1996) book, Changing Our Minds: Negotiating English and Literacy. In it, he gives a historical account, naming, categorizing and describing precisely how our expectations have shifted. Here is his timeline and the general terminology/classifications that he uses to organize his presentation:

1600 Oracy

1776 Signature

1864 Recitation

1916 Decoding

Translation 1983

After I first read Myer’s book, I came to appreciate the evolving generational differences in the forms of literacy education. They became apparent, for example, in my own family as I grew to recognize that my grandfather was taught a form of literacy that valued different kinds of “reading” than my own. My late grandfather, Robert Koshnick, was educated in a rural Minnesota one-room schoolhouse during the early 1900’s. Throughout his childhood, he was taught printing through tracing and replication (a significant overlap between his education and my own grade school work), but he was also taught to memorize and recite long passages of both prose and poetry. This emphasis on memorization (recitation on Myer’s chronology) was no longer valued by the time I was in grade school. Whenever he would quote Tynneson, Poe, Robert Service, Yeats, etc. I envied him because I did not share his ability to recite tens of poems by heart. 

1925 My grandfather (in back) and a neighbor friend during the first day of school

As Myers’ book argues, translation captures aspects of our current literate practice. The ability to translate, i.e. to summarize, re-symbolize, and transfer information from specific sources for use across shifting social, political, and professional contexts takes a great deal of training and practice to do well. Given the power and relatively availability of increasingly “hand-held” search engine devices, via Google, etc. we can find vast stores of information instantaneously -the primary skill that must be emphasized, given these trends, is to interpret and repurpose that information for shifting purposes and audiences. Where once we stressed honoring established works of poetry and literature as aesthetic and moral achievements -when we include such works now, we value instead the ability to: a) decode, and therefore learn from them; b) to summarize, and therefore symbolize for renewed intentions and purposes. These abilities do not require memorization, or recitation, largely outdated forms of literate practice.

My teaching practices in reading and writing have been utterly influenced by my understanding and appreciation of a translation literacy for modern, functional, goals and outcomes. And yet, inspired by the legacy of my grandfather’s (recitation) childhood literacy to memorize and recite poems, I have, and continue to, dedicate myself to such learning. I have done so on my own terms as an adult and often with the sneaking suspicion that -although outdated- my own childhood was intellectually malnourished by the loss of such practice. Sure, admiration of my grandfather has influenced my perspective, but for years I could sense, but could not adequately explain why the ability to recite poetry in particular felt so important and powerful.

When I was introduced to the concept and term “gignomai” however, I was suddenly able to both establish and explain just what happens when we hone the ability to memorize and recite specific passages. Ever since, when teaching those courses in writing that are explicitly grounded in the humanities, I have included the following assignment in my courses, with the following explanation of its value.

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This is what I expect of this assignment. You are to enter into the work – populate a poem with your own identity – bring together two realms – you and a poem – until they become each something a little more familiar.

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The Art of Poetic Memorization

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A good poem is an introduction to the world. In medieval times, a poet was called ‘a maker’. According to this understanding, a poet makes the world. And, in a way, every story, every poem is a form of making and re-making the world. Such stories, however small, are not fanciful, complete fictions – rather, they inform us about the world. They tell us how we live, often in surprising and sobering ways.

Consider for a moment the Greek word: Gignomai –born of ‘gnosis’ or “knowing” it is commonly known as the form of knowing that is ‘to become’ -a from of knowledge whereby you become that knowledge. Gignomai, or knowing, in this sense, is a happening, a becoming.

It is to take within, and a transformation occurs. Memorizing poetry – the act allows a poem to enter fully into your self both consciously and unconsciously. It transforms your views in particular instances because you can call on the relationships inherent in a poem, to evoke a feel, or felt sense, of knowing particular words, or situations more immediately and fully.

And so poetry is a happening, a making in a very sincere sense.

Poems also entertain. When you memorize a poem, like learning to play a groovy song on the guitar, you may find yourself reciting it (to the amazement of others) around a campfire, or to yourself when you are stuck in traffic waiting patiently. Many people who memorize poetry often say it can be comforting at times, to have something familiar to recite much like a secular form of praying. The act offers an immediate connection with some part of the cosmos.

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An Example: How Knowing a Poem
Can Make the World a Bit More Familiar

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What follows below is the assignment and some suggestions on memorizing. But first read this entry from Karen McCosker’s book A Poem a Day.

“In the early 1970’s I was living in Athens. After a year, I was hoping that my father would find the courage to make the trip to see me. But despite the fact that he hated flying, loathed being away from his small, self-owned business and hometown where he knew everyone and everyone recognized him, my father did accompany my mother on this visit. While making the arduous ascent towards the Acropolis, I sensed a trepidation in his steps. He had a bad heart; it was suffocatingly hot and windless; the landscape was utterly foreign to him. He had become something he had rarely been: a stranger. I feared he might lose the psychological surefootedness that being on his own terrain gave him, want to turn back, go home. Pausing, he began to recite a poem, one by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

…Euclid alone

Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they

Who, though once only and then but far away,

Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Recalling what he knew oriented my father. The poem gave him breathing space in the crowd, and time to recover from the anxiety of feeling off balance. Hearing the words he had memorized helped him make his way because they suggested an an association between the strange place and the familiar poem, gathering up the distance between Athens and his upstate New York home.

Though my father often recited (no Thanksgiving or Christmas went unmarked by verse), I hadn’t realized until that morning in Athens how a single poem, even a few lines, learned by heart can transform the person who needs to hear those words at a particular time: how they can make what otherwise might have been abandoned possible.”

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The Assignment 

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During the course of this term, you are expected to memorize 2 poems of at least 15 lines. You may also choose to memorize specific lines from a play of the same minimum length.

On the day of the quiz, you will clear your desks and write out the poem on a piece of paper. You will have roughly 8 minutes to write the poem out and hand it in to me. You must demonstrate a near perfect transcription for full credit.

Each quiz is worth 5% of your grade. This is an all or nothing assignment. Minimal word variations in several lines is acceptable such as articles omitted or substituted: ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘an’ and a couple (meaning 2 or 3) word variations will be allowed. Form, word, spelling and meaning must remain wholly intact in at least 14 our of your 15 lines for credit. This includes knowing the line breaks throughout your poem.

You must choose and hand in a typed copy of the poem (or lines of play) to me roughly 3 weeks before quiz day. Unless you are very talented, DO NOT try to memorize 15 lines in one night! This kind of exercise will take at least 4 concentrated sessions to learn fully.

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Some Suggestions on Memorization
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*begin with 2 lines and add 2 additional lines as you become moderately comfortable with each new addition

*recognize the feel and feeling that the poem evokes; tapping into the sense or feel of the poem will help you recall details you may otherwise forget

*try to imagine the poem in a specific setting

*visually imagine the words on the page, then compare your mind’s image with the printed words; repeat as necessary

*pay attention to rhythm, rhyme, the overall music of the poem

*read the poem aloud

*use a pneumonic device  -the 1st letter of each line to form an acronym -then create a memorable line from the acronym; often the first letter will clue you into the words you want to remember


In your narrowing dark hours

That more things move

Than blood in the heart.

~Louise Bogan~

O. I. T. T.

oil is terribly thick’

*be conscious of specific words, or line breaks that you miss on a repeated basis

*look up any words if you are not familiar with them

*choose a poem you appreciate and enjoy

*recall as many lines as you can before you go to sleep; often memorization is a good tool for overcoming insomnia

*begin memorizing early and don’t worry, with a little practice anyone can memorize far more lines than needed for this assignment; just think of all of the actors that memorize the whole of Hamlet’s character

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A Few Poems I Have Memorized:

The Way We Live
by Kathleen Jamie

Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises
to the gods of movement and absolute
non-friction, flight, and the scary side:
death by avalanche, birth by failed contraception.

Of chicken tandoori and reggae, loud, from tenements,
commitment, driving fast and unswerving
friendship. Of tee-shirts on pulleys, giros and Bombay,
barmen, dreaming waitresses with many fake-gold
bangles. Of airports, impulse, and waking to uncertainty,
to strip-lights, motorways, or that pantheon —
the mountains. To overdrafts and grafting

and the fit slow pulse of wipers and you’re
creeping over roadways, while the God of moorland
walks abroad with his entourage of freezing fog,
his bodyguard of snow.

Of endless gloaming in the North, of Asiatic swelter,
to launderettes, anecdotes, passions and exhaustion,
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government. To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.

To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems to be:
let me bash out praises — pass the tambourine.

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by Phyllis Webb

The degree of nothingness
is important:
to sit emptily
in the sun
receiving fire
that is the way
to mend
an extraordinary world,
sitting perfectly
and only
remotely human.

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