Teaching Is…

To celebration Teacher Appreciation Week, which takes place May 5th through May 9th, the Center for Teaching Quality is encouraging teachers to share their ideas about what teaching is via social media.

I went back through my photos of the past year, and I dug up some images of my everyday work with my students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School, a Boston Public School located in Grove Hall, Dorchester, Massachusetts. I selected photos that represent my daily work rather than photos that seem profound in any way. It is important for people to see how joyful and interesting it is to teach every single day; I could argue that almost every day is a special occasion. There is not a theme or particular order to these photos; they are just images I enjoy.

Teaching Is Teamwork.

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My colleagues are my rocks. This photo shows me with Jozefien, my fellow Boston Teachers Union Representative. We try to keep everyone on our faculty feeling supported and cared for in our school community.

 

Teaching Is Inquiring.

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This student came to my room for the purpose of taking a mandated test on the computer. I noticed his bass case and asked about it. I was treated to a performance of Metallica and Nirvana songs. A boring test day was relieved by a brief sing-a-long. This young man always says hello and updates me on his playing when we pass one another in the hallway.

 

Teaching Is Welcoming.

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This photo is from the first week of school. Students in my ESL class are meeting and greeting newcomer ESL students from the class next door.

 

Teaching Is Performing.

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This photo was taken at the television studio at Roxbury Community College. Students had prepared a script using lines from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to perform on a local television show. I accompanied the students using a hand drum. Interestingly, Roxbury Community College is located on Malcolm X Boulevard.

 

Teaching Is Exploiting Our Democracy.

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I consciously prepare students to be future voters. In this photo, students are researching Boston’s 2013 Mayoral Candidates online.

 

Teaching Is Publishing Parties.

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I love having publishing parties for my students. In this photo, students have just received copies of their “This I Believe” publication. We always have cake at these parties, and you can see the cake on the table in the background.

 

Teaching Is Getting The Whole Community Involved.

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I invited Ms. Emily from the Uphams Corner Library (a Boston Public Library) to read to our 6th grade students, who have completed over 1300 minutes of independent reading this year so far.

 

Teaching Is Movement.

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Students embodied action verbs found in D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and created movement presentations that showed the Labors of Heracles. Here is a shot from one group’s rehearsal.

 

Teaching Is Dedication To The Advancement Of Learning.

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For the past two years, I have organized a Saturday trip to take students to the Boston Book Festival.

 

Teaching Is A Source Of Pride.

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I (far right, pregnant with twin girls) was very proud to accept a citation from the Boston School Committee for achieving my National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification in English as a New Language.

 

Teaching Is Identity.

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You can learn a lot about Angel’s values by looking at his identity sculpture. The base is a skateboard. It is covered in family photos, and he painted a box with a Puerto Rican flag. What does this say about Angel?

 

Teaching Is Getting The Students There.

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Quddus (far right) was accepted into Grub Street’s prestigious summer writing program. His mom could not take him on the first day, so she called me to help out. It was no problem to take the train downtown with him, and he had a great experience in this program.

 

Teaching Is Time.

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Every week, I offer a couple hours of homework help to my students. Mostly, they enjoy just having a quiet place to work after school, and I usually give them some kind of snack.

 

Teaching Is Making The Call.

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Last year, I called the Girl Scouts, and they sent a wonderful volunteer to run a troop for our school. All it took was a call to start a program that is still going strong for our girls.

 

Teaching Is Getting Down.

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Why sit and “do” character analysis? Here students participate in using a full body outline to display quotations and inferences about a character from a class novel.

 

Teaching Is Knowing Your Students Will Always Surprise You.

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Jose often avoided my classroom last year, preferring to hang out in the hallway and peek into the window. Once we began our unit on architecture and engineering, beginning with the exploration of tetrahedrons, he couldn’t get enough of the class.

 

Teaching Is Getting Out Of Your Comfort Zone.

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Last year, I was told I had to teach a math unit as part of my ESL class. I dreaded doing this, until I learned of the novel All of the Above. Prior to reading the book, my students built tetrahedrons and explored their unique properties – unlike a pyramid with a square base, the tetrahedron can balance on any side.

Teaching Is Getting Out Of The Neighborhood.

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Every year, we take our 8th graders to explore the African American Heritage Trail in Beacon Hill. Here students learn about the African American debate tradition from a park ranger.

 

Teaching Is Arts Integration.

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Early in the school year, my students created identity sculptures and then wrote about them. I am not a visual artist, so I enlisted the help of my colleague, art teacher Lynn Rosario.

 

Teaching Is Including the Whole Family.

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For the past few years, Mr. Patlan (far right) and I (far left) have taught Tech Goes Home, an evening technology class for students and parents. Here we are celebrating the graduation of 6th grader Randi and her mom Michelle.

 

Teaching Is Knowing What Students Value.

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Before launching into writing essays about beliefs, it was important for my students to identify, share, and discuss their personal values together.

 

Teaching Is Doing Something Different.

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My students went to see a classical guitar concert as part of a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration at the Boston Public Library in Grove Hall. It was a soothing experience for all of us, and we connected in a different way.

 

Teaching Is Facilitation.

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This photo shows reader’s workshop in my classroom. Students have a reading and can choose to work on their own, with a partner, or with a small group to discuss the reading as well as answer and generate questions.

 

Teaching Is Celebrating Success.

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These students were recognized as outstanding leaders in our school community, so they got to go to a special lunch at Burger King before attending a concert at the library.

 

Teaching Is Getting Help From Your Students.

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My colleague Alice Laramore enlisted the help of 7th graders Gladmaya and Rebecca in reorganizing her classroom library.

 

Teaching Is Creative Organization.

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I could never figure out a way to organize my students’ headphones well until one day I saw this vitamin box at CVS, and I invented this headphone case.

 

Teaching Is Alternate Assessment.

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After performing the play “The Conquistador’s Wife” (about the encounter between the Spaniards and the Mexica in Mexico) with the group Spirit Series, my students created memoirs of their experience as actors. A wonderful young man, Jesus, who is also severely dyslexic, created this cover that shows the battle between the indigenous people and the conquistadors with the feather serpent Quetzalcoatl in the center.

 

Teaching Is Enlisting Experts.

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My students have made many trips to 826 Boston, a writing center in our community that offers specialized writing workshop field trips. This photo is from a scriptwriting workshop that my students took with an expert writer.

 

Teaching Is Therapeutic.

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I purchased jewelry making materials for 8th grade girls to use after school. These girls were having some difficulties, and I needed a way to re-engage them in school.

Scientific Literacy at the Roslindale Farmers’ Market

While wandering through the booths filled with edible greens, baked goods, and handmade soaps at the Roslindale Farmers’ Market on this muggy Saturday morning, I spotted a sign with the word “Literacy” and magnetically fluttered towards it like a moth drawn to light.

The sign read:

Boston University ALES: Advocates for Literacy in Environmental Science

Boston University ALES: Advocates for Literacy in Environmental Science

Attached to the sign was a table with scientific instruments and props. And behind the table were the ALES themselves!

Three of the ALES with their scientific tools at the Roslindale Farmers' Market

Three of the ALES with their scientific tools at the Roslindale Farmers’ Market

I learned that the ALES are a group of Boston University graduate student scientists who travel to various locations (including public schools) to promote science by providing explanations and demonstrations of what scientists do. Their goal is to create public awareness of the contributions that scientists make to society. They strive to show that scientists do not exist  in “ivory tower” laboratories, but rather solve problems and study phenomenon presented by the world. The ALES certainly proved their capability to meet their objectives through their delightful demonstrations this morning.

The demonstration below served to personify soil by showing that it is a breathing entity that exhales carbon dioxide.

The breathing soil with a CO2 monitor

The breathing soil with a CO2 monitor

Maple woods, like the strips seen here, makes up the floors of bowling alleys.

Maple woods, like the strips seen here, makes up the floors of bowling alleys.

The prop above shows the growth of various maples. A member of the ALES informed me that maples are used to construct the floors of bowling alleys.

133 year old Red Spruce

133 year old Red Spruce

I learned that some species of trees do not deal well with shade, but they grow very quickly with enough sunlight. However, species that can tolerate shade often outlive sun-worshipping species. The BU ALES explained this as “Tortise and the Hare” syndrome. I also learned that I can classify the Red Spruce as a “tortoise” because it is able to withstand shade.

The BU ALES offered a variety of fungi to grow at home.

The BU ALES offered a variety of fungi and plants to grow at home.

Finally, the BU ALES offered goody bags of plants and fungi to grow in your home, and they explain to you how to create appropriate soils and containers for your goodies.

The 20 minutes or so at the BU ALES booth enriched my meager knowledge of environmental scientists, and I will definitely be contacting them in the fall to arrange for them to visit my classroom. I cannot wait to learn more from them and enhance my scientific literacy. Thank you to the BU ALES for promoting literacy in our community!

The Boston University Advocates for Literacy in Environmental Sciences are available for school visits and public presentations. Please contact ales@bu.edu for more information.

To a Thinker: An Original Poem by Jennifer Dines

An original poem by Jennifer Dines.

An original poem by Jennifer Dines.

To a Thinker (PDF download)

Sunday Dialogue: A Talent for Teaching

I am positively giddy over my New York Times 7-Day Home Delivery and Unlimited Digital Access, which I purchased as a gift to myself for all of my hard work this year.

How poignant that today’s Sunday Dialogue discusses what makes a talented teacher! I enjoyed reading the readers’ comments (some of whom are students, some veteran teachers, and some Teach for America “folks”), as they caused me to reflect on my own teaching practice.

This year, my students have shown a great deal of growth in standardized reading test measures. In fact, predictive assessments show that my special education and ESL students have grown by an average of 11% on measures of grade-level reading assessment (moving them from the “Warning/Failing” NCLB category to “Needs Improvement”), with several students showing growth of 20% or more (almost “Proficient”). Additionally, my students have very high attendance (around 95% or so).

I am a sixth year public school teacher, yet I had several years of experience working with children and young adults as an after-school music (piano, voice) instructor as well as experience tutoring college students in ESL. Also, throughout graduate school, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Boston Public Schools, where I currently teach (and plan to teach for a long time).

So, what has shaped me as a teacher and what has made a difference for my students?

1) Mentorship

When I was a student teacher for four months in 2006, I had the great fortune of having Dr. Berta Berriz as my practicum supervisor. This incredible, strong woman possessed a doctoral degree and a NBPTS certification, and she had diligently served for 27 years in the Boston Public Schools as a classroom teacher. How inspiring to work with a veteran teacher who had continued her professional growth and developed her practice over three decades. I worked alongside Dr. Berriz in her classroom, and I found her methods for teaching reader’s and writer’s workshop and building students’ identities as scholars to be positively inspirational. To this day, I incorporate her style of writer’s workshop in my own classroom.

I made up my mind to follow in her footsteps. After becoming an ESL teacher, I pursued my special education degree (just like Dr. Berriz) and I am currently pursuing my National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification. Six years ago, I also made a promise to myself to stick with teaching for 30 years, by any means necessary. I want to be that teacher in the future who teaches her students’ children and maybe even their children’s children.

For the past three years, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with Mrs. Deborah O’Shea, a middle school teacher and teacher leader who pursued her Reading Specialist license while serving at our urban public school. Mrs. O’Shea recruited me at a difficult time in my career, after I had been asked to reapply to my position at a highly dysfunctional “Turnaround School” and had refused. Mrs. O’Shea encouraged me to continue my professional development and strongly encouraged my enrollment in the MGH Communication Sciences and Disorders Reading Specialist CAS program. This program has not only developed my knowledge of reading expertise, but it has also provided me with a network of like-minded literacy teachers and speech and language pathologists who value knowledge of phonics, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and oral language development as essential elements of classroom instruction. Mrs. O’Shea has been a continual source of encouragement, and she shares my pride in my students for each and every academic and social achievement that they make.

2) Quality Professional Development

When I say quality, I mean research-based. There is a breadth of educational research literally at our fingertips (http://scholar.google.com – Most articles on this site from leading educational journals are accessible from the Boston Public Library website with a library card number and PIN number).

There is absolutely no reason for professional development of any kind that is not research-based. Be skeptical of what you spend your time on and look for the research to back it up. There are tons of “educational products” available for sale. Be wary of “white papers” and research by corporate entities themselves. Look for the citations of research from universities and esteemed professional organizations (i.e. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The International Reading Association, etc.) when you attend a presentation or seminar.

The best professional development for me has been self-selected graduate courses and programs, as well as a fantastic training provided by our district and taught over several weekends by Connie Henry and Bruce Kamerer on examining the base-10 number system to develop number sense.

I consider the gold standard of professional development to be the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification in which teachers examine and reflect on their practice through the careful examination of student work and videos of their teaching in the classroom. Teachers completing this certification must submit a dense portfolio, which includes 4 extremely dense 14-page essays that include description, analysis, and reflection, and they also must pass a rigorous three hour examination that consists of six essays about the content and practice of their certificate area.

Basically, the more I know about teaching and research, the better I can teach my students.

3) Rigor

My students have a lot of challenging work, every day of every week.

They are required to read aloud in our classroom, and they are graded on their decoding and prosody. I assign passages from class novels or selection on articles, and they practice at home, using dictionary.com to perfect pronunciation of unknown words.

My students complete essays regularly using process writing. Every day in my class, they are writing at least a page or more, single spaced. Sometimes they are writing answers to comprehension questions. Other times they are reflecting on a class project. Other assignments include writing, revising, and editing drafts of longer assignments.

What is my classroom management strategy? I provide difficult assignments within the students’ zones of proximal development, and I supply a great deal of encouragement and support. (At this time of year, I can be frequently heard saying,”You know how to do this. I have given you the tools you need. So, reach in the toolbox of your brain and use them!”).

4) Celebration, Joy, and Arts Integration

This is my “warm/fuzzy” side. After we work hard, we party hard (but still maintain our academic focus).

I celebrate students’ achievements. This can be as simple as a high five or a small piece of candy. After students performed in a play, they received certificates, and I put a video of their play on YouTube. When students publish a collection of essays in a book, we celebrate with a publishing party at which students read their work aloud and then they have an opportunity to autograph one another’s books.

After the first and third quarter, students who receive passing grades are invited to special field trips to 826 Boston, a local writing center, and then, they are treated to ice cream at McDonald’s (not the healthiest, I know, but it’s a special treat).

Arts Integration brings excitement and joy to my lessons. Again, this can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. For example, when we studied the concepts of compression and tension, we “acted out” the diagrams of an arch bridge and a suspension bridge in our reading by pushing and pulling of hands. We have constructed a tetrahedron with brightly colored paper in order to explore geometric concepts.

I sing out “Hy! Potenuse” in a silly voice, so that my students can remember the word. I teach using evidence in writing through having students “act out” a weight lifter. Evidence bulks up your argument, just like a weight lifters weights make him strong. A visual image of a weight lifter with rippling muscles is posted on an anchor chart in my classroom that reminds students to “bulk up” their argument with evidence.

One student told me,”When we laugh, we laugh hard, but when it’s time to work, we know you’re serious.”

5) Parental Involvement

My students’ parents are urban immigrant families who work. They are also caring and dedicated parents who love their children and want the best for them. We keep in touch regularly through text messages and phone calls in English, Spanish, and my terrible version of Portuguese-Cape Verdean-Criollo mixed with a splash of Spanish and a dash of made-up words.

At the beginning of the year, students are given syllabi that have my picture and contact information on it and their parents must sign the syllabus, so they at least see who I am. After first quarter, students select their best work and write reflections. Parents are then invited to attend Student-Led Conferences to show their work to their families and to set academic goals for the remainder of the school year. I had 15 out of 18 families from my grade 7 and 8 ESL 3 class attend these conferences.

Conclusion

I will close with one of my favorite quotations: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” I learned this from working with Patricia Suriel of the Mariposa DR Foundation in the Dominican Republic. For my own practice, I interpret this quotation to mean that I do not need to wait around for an administrator or policy maker to tell me what to do.

I will continue to seek out best practices and apply them to my students and teaching. Teachers do not need to wait around for an official or administrator to approve their work or to tell them which program to use. If teachers collect data on students (notebooks and file folders with dated assignments – make your students write the date on everything!) to show their progress, teachers have evidence to show that students are learning and growing. I have found that if I get good results and act professionally, I will be respected and not micro-managed.

Teachers cannot wait for the government or an organization or even the New York Times to tell us what is best for our students. We all can have a critical eye and examine the research on our own. We can look at data (student work) every day, and see what is working for Angel, what is not working for Clayton, what is working for Natalie…no one else knows the children like we do.

We must become experts on the students we serve and learn practices that serve them well and inspire them to take on difficult assignments and challenge themselves academically. Our students are our future. Will we cloak our future in bureaucracy and petty debates? Or will we forge a path of values, hope, and success? We are the ones we have been waiting for, and we can do this.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 2

Before beginning The Artist’s Way, I would wake up and instantly reach for my laptop. First e-mail account. Second e-mail account. Third e-mail account. New York Times. I would start the day by drowning my brain in communication with others. Well, The Artist’s Way has changed all that, and now the first thing I do is slide out the drawer of the bedside table to pull out my gold and red Chinese print fabric-covered journal and my InkJoy retractable pen and write down three pages of whatever comes into my mind. Since I am sleeping well for the first time in years, I actually have dreams that I can remember. I usually begin by writing those down, and then I write down whatever else is on my mind. Rather than infecting my brain will e-mails and advertisements, I am beginning the day by slowly massaging the thoughts from my mind and onto paper. It feels great.

Week Two focuses on rediscovering one’s own identity.

The second week of The Artist’s Way focuses on recovering a sense of identity through exploring self-definition, creating boundaries, and exploring one’s personal needs, desires, and interests. Ironically, these themes are something that I periodically I focus on with my own students, yet it never occurred to me to take the time to examine them for myself.

On page 43, Cameron states: “As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think our behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people.”

Prioritizing taking care of others over self-care is an extremely easy trap for those in the teaching profession or any human services career for that matter. In my teaching career, I feel an extremely compelling passion for and responsibility to my students and their families. However, there came a point last year when I began to felt burnt out or, as one friend said, like I’d been put through “the old-time, old-fashioned wringer”. I had spent nearly a decade putting my responsibilities to others over spending time taking care of myself, and I found myself feeling short-tempered, moody, and exhausted. Interestingly, since focusing more attention on myself, I feel more clear-minded, energetic, and self-assured, and I am better able to assist others with my stronger sense of self.

In this chapter, Cameron carefully cautions the reader to be wary of “poisonous playmates” and “crazy makers” in one’s life. She encourages the recovering artist’s to avoid those who diminish our self-worth and increase our skepticism and self-doubt. And she asks the provocative question: “What creative work are you trying to block by staying involved [with those who make you feel terrible and insane]?”

The Endangered Art of Browsing

A few years ago, I attended a meeting at the newly renovated local branch of the library. I arrived early in order to give myself some time to browse. The building, where I had spent many a meandering Saturday , had been closed for some time due to the renovation, and the formerly musty and carpeted interior had been transformed into an airy modern space with brightly-colored furniture and slick tile floors. But something about the new building made me uneasy. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the shelves, racking my brain to locate the source of my discomfort. And then it hit me.

Where are all the books?

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

It wasn’t the new shelves or the brighter space. There were really and truly disturbingly fewer books occupying the shelves. I felt as if I had arrived home to find my house redecorated and my family members missing. The old collection hadn’t been replaced with newer volumes; there were just a sparse number gracing the shelves. But this was a library – a place for books – it was not supposed to be  just some beacon of modern architecture with a couple of novels dusting the shelves.

I attended the meeting in the “community” room, and I sat uncomfortably in the hard plastic chairs that had replaced the wooden and chipped seats of yore. I tapped my foot on the floor beneath my seat impatiently as I waited for the moment when I could ask the question that was pounding on my brain.

When I finally inquired about the missing pieces of the collection, the woman who served as the central library’s representative made a startling revelation:

“When we packed the books, we didn’t seal the boxes properly. So, water leaked in and damaged the books. We had to discard them.”

I asked,”So, when will you replace them?”

“Oh no, we won’t be doing that. We are adding to our digital collection anyway, so people will have more access to e-books. The branches will eventually be open less hours due to budget, but we are doing so much with our electronic collection…”

Her voice trailed off in the background of my mind. All I could see was red, and all I could hear was static. Well, how the *beep* am I supposed to browse here now?

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor's office.

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor’s office.

I am not a technophobe, nor am I a stranger to biblio-centric social networking or from ordering books online, but browsing is an essential part of my life. I can never spend just a few minutes in a library or bookstore. The shelves of books pull me in like a magnet, and I need to spend a little time visiting at each one.

On Saturday, I lost myself for an hour or so, existing only within the confines of Music Espresso, the New England Conservatory Bookstore. My fingers pushed back one piece of sheet music after another, as I searched for the particular piece I wanted.  I prefer the editions with thicker, darker covers with opaque cascades of notation printed on buttery yellow paper, a hint of the past from whence the music came.

After locating the two pieces for which I had searched in the bins sorted by composer, I crossed the room to a taller shelf containing novel-length books about the practice of music. The Art of the Courtesan. Hmm, I never thought such a book would have existed.  I took out my iPhone and opened up the camera app.Click. Capture that title, gonna share it with my husband. I turned the back of the  book over to read the summary. The Phonetic Alphabet for SingersWhat? Is there such a thing? That’s fascinating…I want to find out more about that. I thumbed the pages, enjoying the flip-book effect of quickly viewing the different phonetic symbols. Click. The Alexander Technique. Oh, I totally forgot about that. I haven’t thought about the Alexander technique since college. I should look into that again.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

There is a very specific delight in finding a book, an idea, that you had never imagined would have existed. Recommendations based on previous reading are useless to the browser’s curiousity. I liked The Diary of Anne Frank because of the earnestness of the writing, because it’s a peek into someone else’s world. I don’t necessarily want to read about every book ever written teenagers in the Holocaust. I already have a great Italian cookbook in The Silver Spoon; why would I need three more books on the same subject? These types of recommendations are useful for the aspiring expert, but they are exhausting for the established thinker who craves new ideas and deeply hungers to become lost in thought rather than engaged in some neurotic fact-finding mission.

Interacting with a book through browsing allows you to experience the gestalt of the book, to view the cover, the summary at the back, to experience the true volume of the book’s surface, to thumb through with the soft light reflecting off the pages. It is a tactile and sensory experiences: the pages breathe as you turn them, the cover art may attract you to a topic you had never thought about before, the delicate steps you take from section to section, cradling books of interest in your arms while enjoying the quiet tranquility that naturally occurs in a library or a book store.

An idea I hadn't know had existed, a browser's gold.

An idea I hadn’t know had existed, a browser’s gold.

A digital collection, while offering many benefits for research, cannot provide the same sensuality as an afternoon spent between the shelves full of glorious paper books of all colors, shapes, and sizes, adorned with images, ripe to the touch and full of juicy new ideas just waiting to be explored. The journey of browsing offers no pre-planned destination; it is an adventure into the land of ideas.