Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Visit with a Thinker

“You can’t ask questions if you’re too concerned about what you already know.” This is the reason Dr. John Lienhard dislikes experts. He is interested in people who like chasing down answers to a question. All learning comes from asking questions; ignorance is your best friend. These are some of the thoughts Dr. Lienhard from the University of Houston, author of Engines of Ingenuity series, shared with 5th grade gifted students in the SPIRAL program at Bendwood. Students have been listening to and reading the Engines of Ingenuity series which is posted online and broadcast by KUHF in Houston. This visit was thanks to Julianna McKitrick, a parent who made arranging this visit her mission. The lucky students attending on Thursday had the chance to ask him a myriad of questions in person. (Students attending on other days will view a recording of the visit.)

Students inquired about his source of inspiration, his writing and recording processes, his hobbies, and upcoming episodes. Dr. Lienhard did a terrific job of relating to the students, never talking down to them or oversimplifying his answers.

Dr. Lienhard shared his rules for writing spoken prose with the students (in contrast to simply writing prose that will be read by a reader).

  • Sentences should fit one breath, or at least each clause should. It’s important to listen to your words as your write them. If you can’t read what you’ve written out loud, you’ve written clumsy prose.
  • Conversations tend be at a 6th grade readability level. This just naturally occurs. It doesn’t mean should you “dumb down” your content, but adjust the words you choose.
  • Polysyllabic words tire listeners. After you’ve finished writing, go back and replace polysyllabic words that occur close together with several short words.
  • Prepositional phrases sound like you are protecting yourself. Get to the point and eliminate “garbage phrases.” You can almost always eliminate “in order to” or “there is.”
  • Use contractions. We use contractions when we have conversations. Spoken prose should sound like a conversation.
  • It is acceptable to begin sentences with conjunctions such as “but” or “and.” Doing so allows you to eliminate a lot of words. It is important to learn to write without them, but for spoken prose go back and put them. Trade “but” for “on the other hand.
  • Being colorful can derail your point. No flourishes. Rather, keep to the structure of the piece. Good writing is elimination, always making the structure stronger.
  • You may use fragments in spoken prose. Use a hyphen to connect them to another sentence.

Students were curious about his inspiration for the episodes. Dr. Lienhard described wandering the stacks of the University of Houston library. He pays particular attention to books and magazines from 1922 or earlier. He likes to use photographs in his web postings and using graphics from 1922 or earlier avoids copyright issues. Suggestions are other people’s ideas so he rarely uses them. Rather, he looks for something that sparks an interest in him. He wants the listener to say, “Oh!” in response to an episode. Otherwise, what’s the point of the episode?

Don’t ask Dr. Lienhard about his favorites. Favorites tie you down. You get locked in and lose variety. Variety is important in asking and answering questions. He clearly differentiates between invention and innovation. Innovation is making new, tinkering with ideas that are already there. Innovation is safe. Invention is scary. Invention is about entirely new ideas, ideas that weren’t already there. Dr. Lienhard is excited by invention.

Dr. Lienhard shared that he was, and may still be, dyslexic. He described barely being able to read or write and finishing close the bottom of his high school class. An 8th grade teacher asked him to write an essay for a contest. He had to write about a Union general. Despite his difficulty with reading and writing, his essay placed third nationally! It was quite an important experience for him. He completed his master’s degree by working really hard. Then, while in the army, he spent a great deal of time practicing eye tracking to improve his reading.

After pictures were taken and a rousing round of applause, students were sent back to their desks to begin work on a project patterned after Engines of Ingenuity. Several students approached Dr. Lienhard for autographs and rush to form a line followed. How many 5th graders do you know who would run across a classroom to get the autograph of a university professor? This experience was the perfect fit this group of students.

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