What can we learn from Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches?

A Discovery of Witches is a novel that I recently read. Actually, I devoured it (figuratively, of course). The novel centers on the character Diana Bishop, a historian, and a witch by birth. Diana goes to Oxford University to research the history of science. While she is there, she calls a manuscript named Ashmole 782, attracting other creatures in the world, including fellow witches, vampires, and daemons. It turns out that the manuscript had been missing for over a century and that Diana had some special connection to it or else she never would have been able to call it. She also attracts a certain vampire named Matthew Clairmont when she summons a book using her talents as a witch to make it fly into her hand. Matthew enters her life first as another creature who wants the manuscript and then as someone who wants her. I hope that is enough of a teaser for you to call this book to your nightstand, iPad, Kindle, or whatever method you prefer to read a book. I learned of it first from my mother, who knows the author’s mother. For more information on Deborah Harkness, visit her website.

I believe we can learn a couple of lessons from the novel and I am going to share those thoughts with you.

Do not deny who you are.

The first lesson I learned from this novel is you cannot deny who you are. Diana, a witch by birth, spent most of her life denying herself the chance to use her gift. She felt that if she used her gifts in her work as a historian that she would be cheating. She worked doubly hard to achieve what she had until that point in her life. Essentially, she tried to be what she was not – a human. Diana is a witch, born with gifts she was meant to use. If you have special gifts, use them. You were given these gifts for a purpose.

Be true to yourself.

Matthew, a vampire who also did not have a choice about what he became, denied his vampire cravings by not feeding on humans. In this case, I think he made the right choice, even if that choice meant that he would have to work harder to be true to himself than others. He fed on animals rather than humans to have a clear conscience.

Open your mind to new possibilities.

Some of the characters in the novel were closed-minded about new possibilities for relationships among the creatures of the world. Just as humans opposed mixed-race couples until their thoughts evolved, the creatures in this novel feared change. They opposed Diana and Matthew’s relationship because the creatures did not trust one another. Some were simply supercilious toward others of another species. In their history inhabiting this planet, there were times when creatures hurt and killed one another. Some of the creatures held grudges for many years. We learn that we need to forgive and open our mind to new possibilities. We cannot live in the past and cannot blame the innocent for what happened then or in the future among ourselves.

I believe this book could be a good addition to a teacher’s SSR library. It would appeal to young people, especially those who are interested in Twilight. I recommend you read this book and see if you come to the same conclusions. I look forward to your comments.

Visions of the Future

As we make our way through July, 2011, I am thinking of the ways that teaching will change in the not-too-distant future. We already have SMART Boards, of which I wrote in a previous post. There is increasingly sophisticated technology to come. Can we imagine what we will use in a year from now? How about two years from now? Are you ready? If you are a member of the MAT@USC program, you are well on your way. You have already experienced something important: the elimination of geographic barriers to synchronous learning. This post explores some of the changes that might come.

Trainers have been working with eLearning tools and web conferencing for years.  A web conference or self-directed learning delivered via the web is much more cost-effective than flying participants to a training center or flying a trainer to a remote site.  These eLearning tools would benefit teachers in terms of resource management and the opportunity to tap sources of knowledge that would not have been available before because of geographical barriers.  Imagine this:

  1. Middle and high school students learn Chinese from an instructor based in China using a large HDMI monitor and a High Definition sound system, along with a web connection.  The instructor takes them on virtual field trips once a month, wearing a web camera that shows the students the sites, such as Wall of China.  The instructor also invites friends into class to demonstrate conversational skills and allows the students to ask questions.  Finally, the students are able to meet Chinese students and practice conversation.
  2. Ninth graders experience the thrill a Shakespearean scholar and actor gets by studying the Bard as they watch her facilitate a seminar with college students in the UK.  She delivers the seminar at Shakespeare’s Globe, a theater in London.  After the seminar, college students take groups of ninth graders on a tour of the building using portable web cameras and answer their questions about the theater and life in London.  They can see and hear the ninth graders via an app on their tablet and the younger students watch the tour guide on their own tablets.

Is this farfetched?  I don’t think so and I think it’s doable now.  Some of the more affluent schools may be doing things like this right now.  The only thing standing in our way is the technology and, of course, funding.  In the future, however, these activities will be commonplace and much less expensive.  Businesses had been using SMART boards and other sophisticated technology for years before they came into the classroom.  Once the prices dropped on these very useful tools, schools could start bringing them to the classroom.

The Paperless Society?

Do you remember the paperless-society craze?  It is still an important objective, of course, but I remember a time in which people talked about it more than they do now.  I have an office manager’s perspective on that idea and remember ordering more paper than ever as people balked at not having a “hard copy.”  I still have friends in the business world that print everything.  Today, however, our electronic storage capacity and redundancy virtually assure us that anything we want to save as 0s and 1s will not be lost during a disaster.  What we save in San Jose has also been saved in Wilmington, DE, Providence, RI, and on our personal computers and portable hard drives.  The paperless society could become reality.  Imagine this:

  1. Students no longer take tests using the paper and pencil method.  Instead, all tests are administered on a computer and graded by the teacher on a computer.  In distance education programs at the post-secondary level, this happens all the time.  The professor no longer has to decipher handwriting and can quickly grade the tests and provide feedback to students.   I have also seen secondary teachers blessed with computer labs for classrooms administer their tests via the computer.  They print the results and grade them by hand, but that could change in the near future.
  2. Students keep electronic portfolios.  Any work that originally done the old-fashioned way is scanned into the electronic portfolio.  During parent-teacher conferences, the teacher shares the portfolio via the SMART board or a tablet and explains the student’s progress to the parents using the portfolio.  Electronic portfolios are available to students and parents at any time via a secure website.  They can add comments or reflections based on any artifact at any time.
  3. The copier machine has gone the way of the dinosaur.  Teachers no longer make copies of anything, but push the information to the students’ tablets.
  4. Students have everything they need on a tablet computer they carry with them to school: textbooks, programs, etc.  If they do carry a backpack, it is light.  Lockers are to store jackets, not heavy textbooks.  Textbooks are updated and new versions are pushed to the students’ tablets, just like programs are now.

Is this farfetched?  Hardly.  In fact, as I said before, there are probably schools where this is happening now.  Post-secondary institutions have been moving this way for years and all distance education programs operate mostly through electronic media.  If you want to buy a hard copy of the book, it costs a lot more than the electronic version (believe me, I know).  Again, the problem with bringing this to K-12 education is funding.

I am sure that there are many other ideas I could have mentioned in this post.  These are the first that come to mind.  I would love to hear your ideas.

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“Why did you become a teacher?”

An educator recently asked me this question and as I started to respond, I realized that it would be quite a long explanation. She did not want a long explanation, however; she wanted a succinct answer. Would you be able to answer her in just a few sentences? Since that conversation, I have come up with one. I think that we all need to come up with our own replies to this question so we can share with others our passion for teaching without putting them to sleep. I know we all want to be teachers; we would not be studying at USC if we did not know that teaching was a vocation compatible with our personalities and goals. However, I think that some of us – myself included – might not be able to provide the “nutshell” version of our personal epiphanies. If you are one of those who have struggled with this question, this post is for you!

I believe that we craft our jobs to best utilize our strengths. In almost every job I ever held, I managed to incorporate a teaching element. Over time, I realized that teaching was the most enjoyable part of my work and after receiving a Master’s degree in adult education, I decided that I wanted to leave the business world and start teaching full-time. I enrolled in the MAT program at USC and knew immediately that I was on the right path. I would not trade my business experience for the world, but I feel that I can best help others in this new role. I love helping people learn and grow. I am so happy I found that teaching is my calling and look forward to having my own classroom.

Is that answer good enough? It is all true. Every job except the very first (a gas station attendant in high school) ended up having a teaching component because I made it that way. As I expressed a desire to teach others what I knew, management gave me the chance to assume a teaching role. It was always fun and a part of my work. Then, I realized I wanted it to be my sole occupation. After meeting K-12 teachers during my first Master’s program, and listening to their stories both good and bad, I heard myself saying I wanted to leave the job I held for 13 years and become a certified English teacher. I was not sure that I would be able to teach young people or that I would be able to connect with young people. Even as I entered student teaching, I was not sure but I never told anyone. I did not know if I belonged. Every morning, however, I was thrilled to get out of bed. I could not wait to get to school, to see what would happen. Even when something bad happened, I wanted to learn from it instead of wanting to forget it. The students intrigued me the most. I wanted to know them and establish relationships with them; as a people person, I gravitate toward others and find them fascinating. There are a few students with whom I developed fledgling relationships. I wish I had more time to see those relationships grow, but I am also happy to know that I can connect with young people.

If I were to give the “fortune cookie” summary of my answer to the question, I suppose it would be “I have always been a teacher.”

Ever have a conversation with one of your characters?

It was two minutes to ten in the morning. I was sitting in a diner caddy corner to the high school, waiting just as impatiently as Gatsby waited for Daisy to arrive at Nick’s house that fateful day. I was not waiting to rekindle a lost love; rather I was waiting to meet my character and get his take on how he should be portrayed in my novel. I was fairly certain he was not going to show when at ten o’clock precisely, he came through the door. Koda came through and I made time stop a moment so I could register what he looked like.

Of course, a part of me knows what he looks like. That part of me, of course, cannot capture his appearance for those who would read my book. Therefore, I needed a moment to process this mind’s image. He was in mid-stride when I stopped time and getting ready to duck under the top of the screen door due to his height. At 6’4″, Koda Rainmaker was an anomaly here, taller than most adults, but it seemed like the teenagers were growing like weeds these days and many of them would be ducking under low doorways. His long hair fell over his shoulders and down his back, reaching almost to his waist. I smiled as I remembered that he was quite pissed off when the Marines shaved his head in boot camp ten years’ prior. He took great pride in his hair and no wonder: It was beautiful, black and straight. His face was chiseled from terra cotta colored marble, it seemed. High cheekbones accentuated his seriousness. His nose was straight and not too thin. His eyes were chocolate brown and serious too. His lashes were long; they would make most women jealous. Why did men always have such nice eyelashes? His brows were nicely shaped, too. He cared for his appearance. Finally, the chin emphasized his pride in himself, coupled with a strong jaw and wide neck from years of lifting weights. Even ten years later, Koda did PT every day. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi.

I started time again and he came through the door. He straightened his shoulders automatically and stopped. He looked around the dining area for me. Of course, he would not recognize me right away, but that was only because he was a figment of my imagination. His eyes fell upon me and I gasped as the serious man smiled widely. His smile revealed the boy inside the man, the light-hearted person who covered himself for most with an air of superiority. I smiled back instinctively and that is when he started walking again. As he came toward me, his hand was outstretched to take mine. I shook his hand when he was closer and then he took a seat at the table.

“Heather, it’s nice to meet you,” he said. Marcia, the waitress and owner of the diner, approached and put a large mug of coffee in front of him. He thanked her and she smiled at him as a mother would smile at her son. She turned to me.

“I hope you write him well,” she told me in a maternal way. “He’s a good boy. I have known him all his life. I used to change his diapers.” Koda’s face turned a darker shade of terra cotta.

“Marcia!” he chided her. She laughed and walked away.

“I hope I write you well, also,” I said. Marcia called to me from the counter, “You want another cup of coffee, Heather?” I nodded and said thank you.

“Well, so far you seem to be doing okay,” he said and smiled. “Terra cotta marble, huh? I never thought of it that way.” He touched his face without thinking about it, then pulled his hand away.

I raised my eyebrows. How did he know that? Well, I’ve never seen this exercise done before. There were bound to be surprises.

“I don’t know if I am capturing you correctly. I want you to have a life,” I told him.

“I do have a life.”

“But I don’t want your life to be solely based on your model,” I explained. I took a sip of the coffee. It was so good, better than any coffee I’ve ever had, even in Paris.

“The model you are referring to is Douglas, right?” Douglas is my husband. I nodded.

“Well, he is very different from me, isn’t he? How is he a model?”

“I think it’s the love that you feel for Njka that is most important…and your inner strength. He’s one of the strongest people I have ever met, mostly selfless and yet finds himself and his happiness important. The rest of it, I made up.”

“Then he isn’t really a model, then, but someone you want to honor. You want to write me in a way that shows what a special man he is, how he is your soul mate and that you love him completely,” Koda said as Marcia put a muffin in front of him. It was so cute how she knew what he wanted. As Marcia walked away, he said to me, “You’re doing that, too, you know. You’re telling us what I want. Get it?”

“See, that’s Doug right there,” I said. “He always picks up on things that I am not consciously aware of.”

“I thought for a minute you were going to rephrase that sentence so you don’t end with a preposition,” he told me with that kid-smile again.

“Eh, fuck it.” I did want to go back and fix the sentence.

He laughed then, leaning back in his chair.

When he finished laughing, he leaned back in toward me. “Heather, I am who you want me to be. What do you want me to be?”

“You probably already know, so why don’t you tell me?”

“You think that Njka needs a source of strength and realism. You think that she is too optimistic and she needs me to rein her in at times. That’s true. She also goes overboard on just about everything, putting her heart and soul into things that others would not work so hard to accomplish. You think that’s a flaw. I think that’s a gift. So, you think that’s a gift, too, because I am a part of you just as much as Njka is. You think, though, that people will think it’s a flaw, so you are writing me as a character that wants to correct that … and yet, I’m also supposed to cherish it. That puts me in a tough position, you know. I’m constantly struggling with how I love her optimism and caring versus how I want to protect her from burning herself out. Basically, you’re putting me in a role that models balance for Njka, while in fact I just want to love her.”

“That’s what you want? Just to love her? Should I rewrite things so you aren’t the voice of reason?”

“What I want is what you want. Go back to Doug for a minute. What does he want most for you?”

“To be happy.”

“Exactly. If he was a model for me and I am meant to honor him, wouldn’t I just want Njka to be happy?” He took a bite of his muffin and chewed thoughtfully.

“Yes.”

“So far, you have made me get Njka to see that she needs to care for her finances and for herself, because otherwise she will not be able to help her students – which is most important to her professionally. I’m seeing into the future, preparing for hard times. I’m almost trying to protect her from herself. That isn’t the easiest thing to do, you know. She’s impulsive.”

“You think Njka is me, don’t you?” I took another sip of coffee, then ripped off a piece of bagel and shoved it in my mouth. I chewed as he started to speak again.

“Of course she is. Sure, she has a lousy ex-husband and you don’t. You have a beautiful son and she doesn’t. Sure, her mother is, well, misguided in her opinions of Native Americans and reservations and your mom isn’t. She has a brother and you don’t. You’re right when you say that her back story isn’t your back story in many respects. But she is you. She’s the person you want to be, a teacher who advocates for social justice instead of high test scores.” He leaned back in his seat, satisfied in his assessment.

“Let’s get back to you. Do you like the character you are?”

“Yes, very much. I especially like how you are putting more of my thoughts into your latest version of things. I think it helps.”

“It helps people understand you?”

“It helps make our relationship more real. You are moving toward an omniscient point of view, which I think is good. This novel isn’t just about Njka anymore; this novel is about forging a new life and involves more than just the main character.”

“Hmmm.”

“Now, would you really say ‘hmmm’? You’re not a ‘hmmm’ person.” I shook my head.

“It’s something authors write.”

“But is it what you would write?”

“No.”

“Then say what you want to say instead of what you think people want to hear.”

“That’s it, isn’t it? That’s it!” Koda smiled as the thought dawned on me, that kid-smile again. “I’m spending too much time writing what I think others want to hear.”

“You’re really hedging on Peter, you know. Peter should be an antagonist – there should be more of a struggle. You know who Peter is; write him the way you want to write him. I think you’re on the right track with me. You need to write him better, and Samantha. I think you’re doing well with Aliah, too. I would say Njka, Peter, and Samantha are characters you need to work on. You need to admit to yourself that Njka is you. Write your experiences in the classroom the way you want to write them. Don’t write what you think others want to hear. This is your visualization exercise. Create your world and then let it guide you.”

“You’re right. It will be hard, but you’re right.”

“It’s what Doug would tell you, if you let him read this thing.” We both smiled kid-smiles then and finished our breakfast in companionable silence.

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