Making-Strange Paragraphs

My students have been writing rhetorical analyses of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In an attempt to help them compose their paragraphs more mindfully, coherently and logically, I repurposed an idea from Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist critic: I instructed my students to take their paragraphs and make them strange.

They undertook Shklovsky’s concept of Ostranenie by rewriting one of their analytical body paragraphs on index cards, parsing the paragraph’s sentences out card by card. I provided each student with the number of cards he or she needed; post-it notes could work as well, although index cards are slightly easier to move around and manipulate quickly, and I happened to have a lot of them on hand!

As students wrote out their sentences, which took 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of sentences in their typed paragraphs and the length of their quotations, I fielded questions.

“Can I put ‘dot, dot, dot’ in the middle of a long quote so that I don’t have to write the whole thing out?” a sweet 16-year old boy called out.

I responded firmly. “No.”

“But this quote is so long!” he whinnied.

“Hmmmm,” I answered, “maybe you don’t need the whole thing?”

It was working! Students noticed things that normally are hard for them to notice; for example, the process slowed them down enough to recognize that maybe they didn’t need the WHOLE quotation to support their idea — maybe they only needed a part of it.

I emphasized that students should pay attention to any awarenesses and thoughts they had while they wrote their sentences out on the cards. “Maybe you’ll see a grammatical error that you didn’t see before, realize that you’ve mistakenly tried to make a dependent clause stand on its own. Maybe you’ll notice that one of your sentences can be broken into two sentences, or that one of your sentences doesn’t really belong logically in this paragraph.”

Students continued to work; their engagement inspired and thrilled me.

Once they’d finished this part, I gave them ten minutes to read and annotate a handout about paragraphs from The Little Seagull Handbook. Any grammar and writing handbook would work for this part of the lesson; I pulled from my bookshelf the book closest at hand, but I could have easily pulled the Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook or Easy Writer: A High School Reference, both of which are in my bookcase, too. These types of handbooks provide concise instructions for writing issues (like “Developing Paragraphs”) and provide examples for students to examine. Aimed at beginning writers, the lessons from these handbooks can be read and comprehended quickly.

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After they read the lesson on paragraphing, we discussed it briefly, reviewing the functions of a paragraph and the suggestions for how to make them more coherent using strategies like repetition, parallel structure, transitions. I spent a few extra minutes showing them examples from the Purdue Owl website of non-parallel and parallel structures, because in my experience, the importance of using parallel structure is the greatest challenge young writers need to master.

I asked them to shuffle their sentence cards before spreading them out before them again in the appropriate order.

“Based on what you just read, take some time to see if any of your sentences might benefit from the repetition of key phrases, from parallel structures, or from transitional words or phrases.”

“Wait,” a girl with braids said, “I can’t remember the order of my sentences! Can I look at my typed paragraph?” (They’d been told to put their typed drafts away).

“No,” I said, firmly again. “My hope is that you are able to tell which sentence goes where.”

This was one problem I had been hoping for. I wanted students to understand that no matter how strange they made their analytical paragraphs, the techniques they employed could make the order of ideas so apparent that they — or anyone else, for that matter — could reconstitute the paragraph from the index cards, based on the component parts (topic sentence, evidence, analysis of the evidence, etc.) and the logical flow (coherence).

Once they had finished finessing the sentences on their cards, I asked them to shuffle them again and then give me their stacks. Then, I randomly reassigned a stack to each student.

“Now let’s see how well you can reassemble your peer’s paragraphs!”

They were not allowed to talk at all during this process, to ask the paragraph writer which sentence went where. I gave each student a large post-it note and told them to write any comments or questions they had for the writer on the post-it. I gave them about 20 minutes to do this part of the activity.

At the end, I asked students to number their peers’ cards in the order they thought was correct and to return the cards and the feedback sheet to the paragraph’s owner. I overheard them giving great feedback to one another at this point, telling each other what had made it easy or difficult to reassemble the paragraphs.

One student asked, “What if my peer put my sentences into a different order than I meant them to be, but her order works better than mine?”

“Fantastic!” I beamed.

This lesson worked really well for all the students and they had a great time doing it.

“Doing this made me realize how I needed to make my paragraph stronger,” one student said.

“While writing out my paragraph on the cards, I felt really bad because I could see how bad my paragraph was,” another student said.

“That’s okay,” I consoled the latter. “It happens to the best of us.”

Inspired by Shklovsky, I hoped that by making their paragraphs strange, my students would see them in a more mindful, vivid light (instead of numbly recognizing them), and in seeing them more clearly — five days before final drafts are due — they could make revisions that would help them become clearer, stronger, sounder writers.

Want to be happy? Slow down

I enjoyed this read.

In 1972, Matthieu Ricard had a promising career in biochemistry, trying to figure out the secrets of E. coli bacteria. A chance encounter with Buddhism led to an about turn, and Ricard has spent the past 40+ years living in the Himalayas, studying mindfulness and happiness. In this free-wheeling discussion at TED Global in October 2014, Ricard talked with journalist and writer Pico Iyer about some of the things they’ve learned over the years, not least the importance of being conscious about mental health and how to spend time meaningfully. An edited version of the conversation, moderated by TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz, follows. First, Pico Iyer on how he became taken with the idea of staying still:

Guy Raz (left), Pico Iyer (center), and Matthieu Ricard (right) discuss mindfulness and the importance of being still at TED Global 2014. Photo by Duncan Davidson/TED. Guy Raz (left), Pico Iyer (center), and Matthieu Ricard (right) discuss mindfulness and the importance of being still at TED Global 2014. Photo by Duncan Davidson/TED.

Pico Iyer: When I was in my twenties, I had this wonderful…

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Mindfulness in the Independent School Advisory Program

In the 2012-2013 school year, The Kinkaid School revamped its advisory program. The following post contains the Mindfulness activity that I developed for 11th grade advisors to use over a two-period time frame.

Recently (February, 2104), Time Magazine featured the cover story, “The Mindful Revolution.”

The Mindful Revolution Cover Image

If you did not see or buy the issue on the stands, that’s okay: here’s a PDF of it for you (if you can’t access it, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to find another one) — PDF of Time Magazine.

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By now, there are very few Americans who have NOT heard the term mindfulness being tossed around like a whiffle ball. But few people have a sense of what this term means — for good reason: it means different things to different people.

Here is a working definition for the general Western audience, from a website called

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As a media darling, the catchphrase “mindfulness” relates to another contemporary catchphrase — “Emotional Intelligence.” Both imply a state of psychological equanimity that results in more inner and outer peace. In short, the mindful person or the emotionally intelligent person proceeds through life experiences with a deeper level of awareness about what is going on in any given moment, and this deeper awareness naturally provides him or her with more options for how to behave and respond in any situation, no matter the level of intensity.

Whereas the term “Emotional Intelligence” derives from Western psychology, the term “Mindfulness” is traditionally linked with the Eastern practice of Meditation. As a meditative practice, mindfulness can refer to traditional “sitting” meditation — where one focuses on an object, such as the breath or a mantra (like “Om”) — or it can mean bringing one’s full awareness to any given activity; for example, one can walk mindfully or eat mindfully. (Update — I have included a script for a fun “eating” meditation — the Raisin Eating Meditation — in the activities section. The advisor could read the script while each student follows along, eating a single raisin. One small box of raisins should be enough for every student to have one raisin.)

As mindfulness is linked to the Eastern tradition of Buddhism, mindfulness practitioners usually eschew attaching a goal to their practice; that is, they don’t meditate so that they can be more peaceful, or better learners. Nevertheless, the practice of meditating may lead to more personal peace and more ease in learning.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, “Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.”

The best way to understand what it means to be mindful is to practice being mindful. So here are a few links to some different types of basic mindfulness activities. It’s important to note that it’s through the regular practice of being mindful that we grow or develop our capacity for more peacefulness and psychological equanimity.


1) Here is a basic exercise — presented by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Google — of bringing mindfulness to the breath. (12 minutes)

Note that in this video, around minute 4, Kabat-Zinn stops talking and breathes with the audience for 2 minutes. Then around minute 6, he begins again to talk about what goes on during meditation.  I suggest preparing students for this silence in the middle of the video, and I would encourage them to close their eyes at this point and try what Kabat-Zinn is suggesting.

2) Here is a very short, animated introduction for how to bring mindfulness to the breath for a minute, used by Howard Rheingold in his Stanford course on Participatory Media Literacy:

Meditation in a Minute by Marty Boronson (5 minutes)

3) Here is an audio exercise for bringing mindfulness to the breath (around 7:30 mins)

Audio Guide: Meditation on the Breath

from Mindful Schools

4) Raisin Eating Script — from West Virginia University. For this exercise, the advisor leads students through the action of eating a raisin mindfully. One small box of raisins should provide enough for an advisory. This exercise should take about 7 to 10 minutes, but it could be shortened or elongated, depending on the time-frame. It should be done fairly slowly, in any case.

(featured image from Crazy Frankenstein)

Being Mindful Saves Lives

Guest Post by Dr. James Houlihan

How often we do accomplish something without knowing that we did? And how would we ever know unless someone told us?

I had just finished teaching my three-week Interim-Term class: Buddhist Meditation and Philosophy, where students develop the ability to sit zazen, facing the wall, for ten to fifteen minutes, and to be present to guided meditations for 20.

At the beginning of the term, I had been asked to admit a student even though the class was full and the space limited. But when I heard the student’s story from our psychologist, I agreed. His father had died suddenly of a rare heart abnormality that was also found in the student, necessitating open-heart surgery. His mother was recovering from brain surgery to remove a cancer and for the moment was doing well.

Throughout the three weeks, the young man showed no emotion whatsoever. Any attempt to draw him out was met with a polite word, no facial expression, and silence. But when the class gathered in the dim reflection room he was the first to sit properly on a zafu. I could tell that he was calm, not-distracted, able to follow his breath or the course of his thoughts. Basic mindfulness.

Later, all of his teachers met to discuss his situation with the psychologist and she touched my arm, and turned to tell the other team members. “The Meditation class,” the psychologist said, hand still on my arm, “was a life saver.” But without her words, I would not have known, for sure, the effectiveness of mindfulness for one challenged young man.

Mindfulness: How to Change Your School Culture by Doing Nothing

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This post is part of a series.

I am in Boston at the NAIS 2015 annual conference to present a workshop about practicing mindfulness in the educational environment. I developed this workshop, “Mindfulness: How to Change Your School Culture by Doing Nothing,” with two colleagues Dr. James Houlihan, my peer at The Kinkaid School, and Larry Kahn, Chief Technology Officer from The I’olani School in Hawaii.

Before Larry took his job in Hawaii, he, James and I developed an informal, collegial sangha (Sanskrit word for community) at The Kinkaid School, where we met regularly for the last 15 minutes of our lunch period to sit in silent meditation together.

zafuswiab.euFor many years, Kinkaid has had a Reflection Room as part of its Character Education complex, and this is where we’d meet. We dimmed the lights, sat on zafu cushions, faced the wall (in the Zen tradition), set the Insight Timer iPhone app, and “did nothing” — on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Recently, the Reflection Room was assumed by Kinkaid’s administration to serve as a staging ground for Kinkaid’s ISAS reaccreditation process, and, currently, it’s being reconfigured as a temporary office space for Kinkaid’s facilities managers, as that space undergoes construction renovations. My dearest hope is that the Reflection Room survives these waves of necessary progress; having a dedicated space to practice with colleagues and students is not only visionary, it’s revolutionary; it’s a built in garden where seeds of empathy, authenticity, resiliency, honor and many other positive character traits can be sown and grown. Our NAIS workshop grew out of our practice sitting together in this room at lunchtime.

We all came to meditation differently: I started practicing sitting meditation in the mid-90s, during a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Houston (MBSR is the program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at ); James has been practicing Zen meditation for 20+ years; Larry started with Transcendental Meditation during his teen years in the 70s. Although we all come from different traditions, we all know the positive impact meditating regularly has on our emotional, physical and psychological health.

As educators, we also have experienced the value of sharing this practice with our students and our colleagues. James and I both offer Mindfulness courses during Kinkaid’s three-week Interim session in January. Our classes are among the first to fill up, as students hear from peers who’ve taken them before that our classes are fun, interesting, and ultimately extremely relaxing. In a culture of high-achieving students and faculty, relaxation and peace often sound like elusive fantasies. And yet, through practice, we come to know that peace is available in every step and every breath, as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has taught in his seminal book, Being PeaceScreen Shot 2015-02-25 at 6.05.01 PM


In our classes, students learn by practicing mindfulness that they can become masters of their time and thereby their experience; time no longer is their foe, stretching them to their limits, causing undue and intolerable anxiety. This is an invaluable, profound lesson for students who are conditioned to feel like there’s never enough time to do everything they want to do, everything they have to do.

In addition to our Interim courses, James and I facilitate a monthly Mindfulness Study Group for our faculty colleagues. Over 27 Upper School faculty members have joined it. We meet in the morning from 7:15 to 8:00; our principal provides breakfast for us.

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We read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go There You Are, and we practice different mindfulness meditations; for example, breathing meditation or walking meditation or eating meditation or Metta (loving-kindness) meditation. This study group has provided us with an incredible community-building experience: in less than 45 minutes, we have connected to one another more deeply, authentically and compassionately than we have in over a decade of working in classrooms next door to one another.

Please join my colleagues and me on Friday morning to learn more about how to “change your school culture by doing nothing.” When: 2/27, from 8-9 am Where: Room 311 at the @NAISAC15.




MOOCs are to Higher Education as _________ are to __________.

MOOCs are to Education as __________ are to ___________. I’m in the process of trying to figure out an apt analogy. Feel free to offer your own.

First you need to know what a MOOC is: Massive Open Online Course. Next, you have to understand the wave (tsunami, it’s been called) these courses are riding, a wave big enough to carry hundreds of thousands of digital natives into the academies of higher learning and the workforce. As a result, the idea that one must follow a traditional path to learning and earning (elementary, secondary, college, (perhaps) graduate school, job) is quickly becoming obsolete. Sites like Uncollege have erupted and argue for potential learners to access the skills and knowledge to pursue their dreams in alternative ways. Uncollege’s “Hack Your Education” is a subtitle I love for the consonant shove. Although one could fathom that hacking an education might result in becoming a hack, I admire the way the Uncollege folks are vying for a different connotation of “hack,” a connotation understood by the digital natives more as “rebellious” or “rough-and-ready” rather than “dull and uninspired.”

On Coursera’s Twitter feed, I ran into this Inside Higher Ed article about possible funding sources for MOOCs. The article is interesting, yes, but what’s even more interesting to me is the first comment on the article.

The basic unseriouness [sic] of all this in regard to anything recognizable as education, is the stunning disregard for librarians, teachers, and scholars that is apprent [sic] in the idea that money might be made by “providing — or outsourcing — library resources, tutoring services, and other accouterments of collegiate academic life.” Accoutrements? Provide, outsource? As long as it looks like a Prada who cares? I wonder if they’ll send the police around every once in a while to check on things. A decent knock-off will serve just as well. After all, it’s just an accessory anyway, next year it’ll be old news.

The writer is comparing his Harvard degree to a authentic Prada handbag. And he is reviling MOOCs for being in the business of offering knock off Prada handbags. I don’t think his analogy works that well, though. It’s not visionary enough. I want something better than a handbag (although, if what a Harvard degree buys its students is higher paying salaries, then perhaps the Prada bag analogy is apter than I want it to be).

I’m intrigued with the bitterness of the above comment. When I followed the linked name of the commenter to his Facebook page (because that’s where it took me), I found out that not only did he graduate from Harvard, but also University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Washington University, damned good schools, at least one of which is considered “elite.”  His flippant “next year [Coursera} will be old news” is probably right; next year Coursera will be old news. But is he correct in his comparison of MOOCs like Coursera, Udacity and edX to knock-off Prada bags?  MOOCs are an entirely different thing than counterfeit luxury handbags.  MOOCs are to Education as ______ are to _________.

Well, what they do have in common — Harvard and Prada — is that they are both in the luxury brand management business. In his 2005 essay, “Getting In,” Malcolm Gladwell asserts that

Ivy League admissions directors … are in the luxury-brand-management business, and “The Chosen,” [the book Gladwell is reviewing by sociologist Jerome Karabel]  in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years.

As a teacher at a private Independent Day School, I am well-aware of the belief that getting into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, or another school of their ilk is the pinnacle of academic and social achievement among many of my students and their parents. I’m interested in MOOCs in part because of their potential to liberate more people from ignorance, poverty, basic “stuckness” through access to education, a potential which the above commenter seems to overlook. The people who are signing up for these courses — motivated to do so in part by the schools’ “eliteness” — are not the students who are going to attend Harvard or Princeton or Yale or Stanford. Not yet, at least. The people signing up are ones — like me — who would not have the chance to attend those schools, either because of their station in life, their geographical location, their GPA, their age, their SES. And for those students whose families can afford Princeton, I believe that MOOCs could lead to alleviating some of the pressure of having to get into a good school in order to have a satisfying and successful life, a fallacy if ever there was one.

Read more:

Inside Higher Ed