30 day challenges

Technology permitting, let’s hear a guy named Matt Cutts (an engineer at Google) talk about the value of 30 day challenges:


Today we’ll begin talking about our “30 day challenge” project. In addition to those links under the “Assignments” tab, you can also get a pretty good list here. There’s another list of 30 day challenges some guy tried here.


As we pursue our individual 30 day challenges, we’ll do a few things to keep us motivated as a group. We’ll check in on each other’s progress periodically. We’ll also make sure we’re each keeping up a log of our challenges.

As we log our progress through our challenges, we’ll take cues from a term from ethnography – thick description. As part of your assignment, you’ll be required to write at least 150 words a day about your particular challenge. You should chart physical things (ie, where you undertook the challenge, who you were with, how you felt, etc) and any social things that might be relevant (outside stresses, etc).


Day One – before: For the first day of this challenge, I have a college-ruled notebook and a Pilot G-2 07 pen. I’ve found handwriting samples on the internet that I’m going to attempt to emulate. I think my bad handwriting is a result of never learning to hold my pen correctly in elementary school. I may have to work on that, too, although I fear that it’ll be too difficult to undo 31 years of practice.

After: I chose to focus on my “a” for today. Tomorrow I will focus on “b.” I’ve chosen a conservative “a,” and I’ve self-consciously slowed down each time an “a” occurs. I’ve also decided to write out a random paragraph from a random book on my shelf. Today is Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. About half way through writing, my hand began to cramp. Perhaps another challenge will be to preserve better handwriting when writing hurriedly. I noticed that I like my existing “e,” particularly when surrounded by “s” (such as in “deserves”).


Day Two: I chose a random passage from Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. I began the challenge at 2:02 and finished at 2:14. The Ravens were playing, and I was distracted (so it took me longer than it would have otherwise). The passage contains several instances of the word “abyss,” which allowed me to practice my first two letters (“a” and “b”) one after the other. I used the same notebook and pen as I did yesterday. My hands were a bit shaky – probably because I just got back from the gym.

Today I noticed that I’m not closing the circle on my “a” when I write quickly. I’ll have to continue working on that. Unlike the “a,” which I can write in one motion, I found that sometimes I write the “b” with two motions: one downward and one circular, and sometimes with one motion. I like the one motion “b” better. I also notice that I tend to not close my “g,” either. I like my “e” and “y” as is. I will also have to pick my passages more carefully: this passage had many “a’s” (9 in the first sentence alone), but only 7 “b’s.” Looking over the passage, I also notice that some “b’s” – especially when I use two motions instead of one.



Active reading, “Coming to Terms”

What are your reading strategies? I’ve borrowed this list from Princeton University’s website:

Active Reading Strategies

  • Identify and define any unfamiliar terms.
  • Bracket the main idea or thesis of the reading, and put an asterisk next to it.Pay particular attention to the introduction or opening paragraphs to locate this information.
  • Put down your highlighter.  Make marginal notes or comments instead. Every time you feel the urge to highlight something, write instead. You can summarize the text, ask questions, give assent, protest vehemently. You can also write down key words to help you recall where important points are discussed. Above all, strive to enter into a dialogue with the author.
  • Write questions in the margins, and then answer the questions in a reading journal or on a separate piece of paper.  If you’re reading a textbook, try changing all the titles, subtitles, sections and paragraph headings into questions.  For example, the section heading “The Gas Laws of Boyle, Charles, and Avogadro” might become “What are the gas laws of Boyle, Charles, and Avogadro?”
  • Make outlines, flow charts, or diagrams that help you to map and to understand ideas visually.  (See below for examples).
  • Read each paragraph carefully and then determine “what it says” and “what it does.” Answer “what it says” in only one sentence. Represent the main idea of the paragraph in your own words. To answer “what it does,” describe the paragraph’s purpose within the text, such as “provides evidence for the author’s first main reason” or “introduces an opposing view.”
  • Write a summary of an essay or chapter in your own words. Do this in less than a page. Capture the essential ideas and perhaps one or two key examples. This approach offers a great way to be sure that you know what the reading really says or is about.
  • Write your own exam question based on the reading.
  • Teach what you have learned to someone else! Research clearly shows that teaching is one of the most effective ways to learn. If you try to explain aloud what you have been studying, (1) you’ll transfer the information from short-term to long-term memory, and (2) you’ll quickly discover what you understand — and what you don’t.

Let’s add to this list, based on Harris’ Rewriting. We might also add:

  • List and define keywords
  • Make marginal notes that you can return to later. Point out specific language that you want to do more work with. (Think “flashpoints”)
  • Make outlines, flow charts, or diagrams that help you map and to understand ideas visually. Also, such maps and organizational charts will help you better understand the methods and materials.
  • Also think about what are the main ways in which the author supports his/her assertions? Through examples, anecdotes, research?
  • What are the larger conversations that the author wants to enter? What claims or assumptions is the author questioning?
  • In what other contexts, conversations, or situations would this author’s work be useful? (What other uses does it have?)
  • What conversations, contexts, or situations does this author ignore? In what ways does ignoring those issues limit the author’s project?

Let’s apply these reading strategies to an except from Time magazine’s 2007 cover story, “Failing Our Geniuses.”

AS A CULTURE, WE FEEL DEEPLY ambiguous about genius. We venerate Einstein, but there is no more detested creature than the know-it-all. In one 1996 study from Gifted Education Press Quarterly, 3,514 high school students were asked whether they would rather be the best-looking, smartest or most athletic kids. A solid 54% wanted to be smartest (37% wanted to be most athletic, and 9% wanted to be best looking). But only 0.3% said the reason to be smartest was to gain popularity. We like athletic prodigies like Tiger Woods or young Academy Award winners like Anna Paquin. But the mercurial, aloof, annoying nerd has been a trope of our culture, from Bartleby the Scrivener to the dorky PC guy in the Apple ads. Intellectual precocity fascinates but repels.

Educators have long debated what to do with highly gifted children. As early as 1926, Columbia education professor Leta Hollingworth noted that kids who score between 125 and 155 on IQ tests have the “socially optimal” level of intelligence; those with IQs over 160 are often socially isolated because they are so different from peers–more mini-adults than kids. Reading Hollingworth, I was reminded of Annalisee, who at 13 spoke in clear, well-modulated paragraphs, as though she were a TV commentator or college professor. For an adult, the effect is quite pleasant, but I imagine other kids find Annalisee’s precision a bit strange.

In Hollingworth’s day, when we were a little less sensitive to snobbery, it wasn’t as difficult for high-ability kids to skip grades. But since at least the mid-1980s, schools have often forced gifted students to stay in age-assigned grades–even though a 160-IQ kid trying to learn at the pace of average, 100-IQ kids is akin to an average girl trying to learn at the pace of a retarded girl with an IQ of 40. Advocates for gifted kids consider one of the most pernicious results to be “cooperative learning” arrangements in which high-ability students are paired with struggling kids on projects. Education professor Miraca Gross of the University of New South Wales in Sydney has called the current system a “lockstep curriculum … in what is euphemistically termed the ‘inclusion’ classroom.” The gifted students, she notes, don’t feel included.

We tend to assume that the highly gifted will eventually find their way–they’re smart, right? The misapprehension that genius simply emerges unbidden is related to our mixed feelings about intelligence: we know Alex Rodriguez had to practice to become a great baseball player, and we don’t think of special schools for gymnasts or tennis prodigies as élitist–a charge already leveled against the Davidson Academy. But giftedness on the playing field and giftedness in, say, a lab aren’t so different. As Columbia education professor Abraham Tannenbaum has written, “Giftedness requires social context that enables it.” Like a muscle, raw intelligence can’t build if it’s not exercised.


Let’s read through two short examples, both on genius, in order to think through the project and methods in particular: “Is Genius Born or Can It Be Learned?” and “Re-evaluating How We Evaluate Gifted Students.”