I took the #bookcover2019 challenge today, posting my first entry. You’ll have to visit my twitter page (@sjvalentine) to see what I posted, but here are the book’s first sentences:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you.

The Number One Piece of Advice

It’s the start of a new semester, so I’ve been meeting with a lot of students lately to help them reflect on the successes and setbacks of the first semester. Puzzling through their issues — whether related to reading, writing, or some combination of the two — I find that we continue to arrive at the same, basic piece of advice: find inventive ways to show your thinking in the act of. . .

So, for example, students sometimes state, as a goal, that they would like to improve their ability to read for comprehension. They arrive at this goal because either they don’t understand the insights that arise during our class discussions or they are not doing well on our reading comprehension assessments. They need a way to improve before these events; they need a way to practice.

“Find inventive ways to show your thinking in the act of reading,” I find myself saying. “What does that mean?” they find themselves asking. “As you read, circle sentences where you feel confused. Draw question marks next to these passages. Then, during a free period, bring the passages, and their attendant question marks, to my office so that we can read them together and discuss them.”

This works because it allows students to show me not only the moments where they understand, but also the moments where they are fuzzy or confused or struggling or puzzled. This, too, is thinking! It’s just not the kind of clear, neatly packaged, polished thinking that teachers expect to process and that students believe they need to generate.

If students can show up in my office and say “these are the six moments where my thinking became a little confused,” then we can really get to work. We don’t quite achieve the same result when students show up and say, “this book is confusing,” or ask, “why do I keep earning low grades on my reading comprehension quizzes?”

Thinking Big vs. Doing Small

I’m not at all a photographer, but I’ve been taking pictures lately. I’m trying to be deliberate about lighting and angles and my subjects. I’m trying to keep things simple and the assignment (i.e., time commitment) as small as possible: take at least one picture of a tree every day. Here’s what’s happening:

First, I’m seeing the world differently. Already. After only a week of my new hobby, I’m much more aware — than ever before in my entire life — about the way light shows up, or hides, in the world. I’m also experiencing a not altogether unpleasant version of FOMO. Sometimes, I’ll be in a building and I’ll catch a glimpse of a particular moment during a particular day and I’ll think — again, for the first time in my entire life — “the weather outside seems perfect for a photograph.” Sometimes I sneak out and snap a quick picture.

I expect that the above sounds slightly smarmy to anyone who has ever taken a photography course or bothered to learn how to use a camera, but my point in sharing has less to do with my newly acquired perspective and more to do with the fact that I’m succeeding in seeing the world in a new way by simply committing to a new serial project: take at least one picture of a tree every day.

For those of you who have recently made a New Year’s resolution, I would ask this: is it a resolution that resembles the “see the world in a new way” kind of thinking or the “take at least one picture every day” kind of doing? In terms of actual change, of actual progress, the distinction matters. The former, an aspirational thought, might not lead to the latter, a functional behavior. But the latter, a functional behavior, often leads to the former, an aspirational thought.

Or at least that’s what I’ve learned over the past few cycles of my New Year’s resolutions.

The Every Time Opportunity

I try to read Ellen McGirt’s newsletter everyday when it arrives in my inbox. Today, she offered some general guidance (along with a lot of meaningful specifics) about speeches and speechmaking. Here’s a useful reminder for anyone within arm’s length of a microphone:

[Every] time someone steps up to deliver even semi-formal remarks, it’s an opportunity. To be human and transparent, to declare a value you embrace, to encourage people to act, to think, to see themselves as part of something bigger.

Here’s the full text and my source.

A First Principle for Productivity

First principle: Schedule work blocks (not just meetings or appointments) and then honor those commitments when they appear on your calendar. It’s easy to keep an appointment with other people, especially if they show up in your office at an agreed-upon time. It’s much more difficult to keep an appointment with yourself wherein, say, you’ve set aside time to read something important or write something or synthesize your notes from a meeting.

If you become an expert at applying the above principle, you will become more productive because, as you develop certain goals or aspirations, you will immediately schedule the work blocks it will take to complete them or reach them. And then, when you keep those appointments, the work will add up, the work will get done.

Additionally, you will become a more effective collaborator, in part because, when someone asks you to do something, you will be able to quickly tell him/her: “I’ll handle ______ on _______.” Communicating about the scheduled work will help to settle your partner, allowing him or her to move on to other tasks. And actually delivering on your promise to complete said work at said time, again and again, will build the kind of trust that allows collaborative work to flourish.

Automated Emails: The Yearly Purge

I dug into my professional email today after mainly ignoring it (except for quick “emergency scans”) since my vacation started in earnest on December 22.

As is typical for this time of year, I was able to delete quickly (i.e., without reading) ~half the messages in my untended inbox. They were from accounts that send automated emails to me daily, weekly, monthly, or randomly. This means I either subscribed to the email or someone added me to a list without my permission.

As I delete quickly, I consider slowly the value of these automated communications. Here are the questions I typically ask myself:

  • Did I subscribe to this automated email, and do I read it and derive value from it? (If yes, then I keep the subscription.)
  • Did I subscribe to this automated email, and have I stopped reading it? (This case is more tricky because I might want to continue seeing the automated emails in order to keep a person or organization on my radar. But I’m trying to be more vigilant this year, so I’m cutting out most subscriptions that I haven’t opened or read in the past few months. If they’re worth my attention, I’m guessing, they will find their way back onto my radar.)
  • If I never subscribed to the automated email, I unsubscribe unless the content has been interesting to me. (It takes a lot for me to maintain an “email relationship” with a person or group that added me to a list without first seeking my permission, but I’m not a snob about such things. If I attend your conference, you can consider that permission to continue telling me about the conference in the future. If I subscribe to your newsletter and you want to add me to a new list, that’s fine, too. If we meet in person and have an interesting conversation, I’d love to see your newsletter.)

That whole process takes about 35 minutes and leaves me with the emails in my inbox that can be considered “ill structured,” in that they require more personal attention, more creativity, sometimes more tact. I’ll answer half of them tomorrow and half of them the day after that, which will allow me to head back to work in the new year with a clean inbox.