Why Escher Hurts

Here is Rahul Malayappan’s essay entry in the 2016 Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize Contest. Rahul was a finalist in the contest, and he wrote about his experience here.

TomPorcelliRahulphotoThere is something persistently enigmatic about the works of M.C. Escher. In all of his art, from the most complex of his illusions to his most regular geometric tessellations, he
combines elements of artist, mathematician and illusionist in a way that leaves his viewers asking, “How did he do that?” as if they have just witnessed a magic show or a daredevil stunt. Escher’s artwork is more than simply visually appealing; each piece poses an intellectual challenge to its viewers, forcing them to make sense of the conundrums that he creates. Out of all of Escher’s works, Waterfall , a lithograph of a perpetual cascade of water, is among the most striking and powerful. The power of Escher’s Waterfall lies in the subtlety with which it presents the impossible and exposes the fallibility of our own capacity to observe and perceive.

At first glance, there is nothing overtly outrageous or unusual about Waterfall. The work appears merely as an exhibition of the water carrying structure that takes up most of its space, with a rather flat perspective that gives the work an initial air of technicality; it is reminiscent of an architectural study or a mechanical drawing. The work is monochromatic, typical of Escher, and the lack of color compounds its sense of ordinariness. There are no extreme distortions or striking imbalances; Waterfall dons a regular and unassuming visage for those who peruse it briefly. A little more attention tunes viewers to a slight sense of oddity, created by geometrical forms near the top, exotic looking plants in the corner and a background that intersperses foliage amidst irregularly layered formations. But while these details do give the work somewhat of an air of strangeness, they do not violate the viewers’ senses themselves. Rather, their peculiarity alerts the viewers to the possibility that there is something more that is deeply bizarre about the lithograph, and they encourage a deeper look into Waterfall.

Escher_WaterfallIt is only afterwards, when the viewer’s eyes take the natural course and follow the water along one full journey in its path, that Waterfall ’s most important paradox becomes apparent; even so the realization is gradual, more like the development of an annoying itch than a slap in the face. Initially, the path of the water flowing through the channel from the base of the waterfall seems perfectly natural; the sides of the path step downwards, and it is common knowledge that water flows downhill. The slope does not appear steep at all, and so it looks as if the water is ambling along steadily through the channel. Yet one full loop around the path and down the waterfall puts the viewers in a shock; after following the water all the way downhill, they find themselves right back where they started, at the base of the tall waterfall from which they embarked. The other contradictions flood in soon afterwards; pillars appear to layer segments of the path that are of almost equal elevation, while the channel appears impossibly to raise and stay approximately level at the same time. It is not possible to pinpoint any single element of the work that causes this contradiction; rather, the issues come from views of the lithograph from different perspectives, each of which is completely incompatible with the rest.

What is unsettling about Escher’s illusion is the ease with which he convinces our minds to accept such an impossible construct. Each element of Waterfall seems to make sense
individually, and Escher’s use of perspective allows the various parts to cohere internally. In isolation, the waterfall and the flow of water and the differences in elevation seem to exist without posing any difficulty to the audience. The descent of the waterfall past two levels of the aqueduct seems perfectly natural, as does the stream of water flowing around the structure and the stratification of the channel into different levels separated by pillars. This is true even after the viewer becomes aware of Escher’s farce; we are still able to see the water making its way through the channel and down the waterfall even though we are aware that such an arrangement is physically impossible. In spite of Escher’s violation of our physical and natural intuition, we are still able to digest and accept the disparate elements of the work; our discomfort stems from our understanding of these independent elements and the contradictions that arise between them. This is especially unnerving in Waterfall in comparison to the rest of Escher’s art because of its dynamism. Unlike the static pillars of Belvedere or unmoving staircases of Ascending and Descending, the water in Waterfall must give the impression of moving, and so Escher must toy not only with the laws of perspective but also with those of physics to be successful in his illusion.

Escher’s juxtaposition between the ordinary and the outlandish is apparent even in minor details. A host of quotidian elements is strewn about the lithograph; the canal is constructed of ordinary brick, while the building adjacent to the water is structurally normal and unremarkable in construction. A person is hanging clothes from a line in the corner of the work while a bystander is casually reclining down below. Yet there are also details of Waterfall that are as unusual as the others are banal, including the plants in the corner that look like they come straight from the depths of the ocean and the polyhedral shapes that ornament the two main columns of the aqueduct system in perhaps a surreal nod to Escher’s dabblings in solid geometry. Escher’s choice of detail contributes to his ability to disrupt our power of perception; in immersing incongruous elements amidst normal ones, he subconsciously makes them more difficult for the viewers to question.

The most troubling aspect of Waterfall is that it calls into doubt our ability to observe and gather information about the world, one of the most indispensable qualities that we possess. How can we trust our powers of observation when they are so easily deceived by a structure so patently impossible, and how can we be sure of our perceptive faculties when they manage to provide us with ideas that contradict each other? Waterfall makes it clear that our observations are frail; they can easily be deluded to construct pictures of the world that are nonsensical or incoherent. And these senses attempt to piece together models of the world even when they are conscious of the impossibility of their task; this is why the separate components of Waterfall appear to make logical sense long after a viewer realizes that they are part of a hopelessly absurd structure.

The issue is that we have no choice but to trust these senses that are so facilely deceived. There is no alternative way to gather information about the world around us, and we become encumbered when any of our faculties are impaired. These senses form the bridge between our minds and the world around us, and they are irreplaceable. This is the most crushing realization that Escher forces the viewers of Waterfall to face; while our perceptions may be easily deceived, we are stuck with them. We are constrained to use flimsy sensory powers, and those are the only senses that we can employ. We can only hope that the picture that we develop is reliable and that our interactions with the world around us are accurate. Waterfall tests the limits of our capacity to understand and reason, and Escher bamboozles us with disconcerting ease. Waterfall teases us; its semblance of normalcy and isolated comprehensibility make it appear within our grasp, yet it manages to confound us and stay just slightly beyond our reach. Waterfall makes it painfully clear that our own hold on reality is a fragile thing and that we are deceived more easily than we would like to be.

Rahul Malayappan is attending the University of California at Berkeley. His  interests include physics, computer science, electrical engineering and mathematics. Rahul was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Danbury High School in Danbury, Connecticut.

Research of a Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case: Loving vs. Virginia

The following guest post is by author Patricia Hruby Powell.  Powell will be one of our featured speakers at the Middle Level Mosaic at the 2016 Annual Convention.

PatriciaHrubyPowellLoving vs. Virginia is an informational book or a “documentary novel.” The story is told in verse in the voices of Mildred Jeter (African American and Native American) and Richard Loving (White). The couple grew up together, fell in love, married in Washington, DC, came home to Virginia in 1958, and were arrested in bed. It’s hard to believe that less than 60 years ago, interracial marriage was illegal in half of the United States.

Research included my watching Nancy Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story repeatedly. I viewed news clips, studied Hope Ryden’s 1960s film footage of the Lovings, read newspaper and magazine articles contemporary to the times. I read extensively about the convoluted court case that led to the US Supreme Court. I searched for photos and quotes. But perhaps the most fun was interviewing the “players” of my story.

Sadly, both Richard and Mildred Loving are deceased—Mildred died in 2008, and Richard only nine years after the US Supreme Court decision of 1967 which ruled in their favor. But I did speak extensively to Mildred’s brothers, Lewis Jeter and Otha Jeter; Otha Jeter still lives in the neighborhood in Caroline County where they all grew up together. Their neighborhood—or section—was remarkably integrated. Blacks, Whites, and Native Americans worked together, partied together, and in some cases, fell in love. This took place in a state so segregated that state statistician Walter Plecker instated the “Racial Integrity Act” as a health bulletin (!) declaring that interracial marriage was illegal.

One of my favorite interviews was with Richard’s friend, Ray Green. He and five buddies stood around a pickup truck outside a rural convenience store with my husband and me and chatted about their friends, the Lovings. They told stories, laughed, and gave details that would be the foundation of scenes in my book.

Another great part of the research? Remembering how it felt to fall in love. I listened to music that I listened to in my 20s when I was falling in love regularly. My husband and I spoke about falling in love—reminding each other of our stories.

My husband, being a white Southern man, had special insight into Richard. Studying Richard in film clips and reading his words from previous interviews was essential in recreating his character.

From the clips, I know Mildred was soft spoken, a gentle mother to their three children, and altogether charming. The couple was clearly in love. They did not want to be the center of this important civil rights issue. They just wanted to live their quiet lives together—at home in Caroline County.

LovingVsVirginacoverPatricia Hruby Powell’s Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle 2014) garnered Honors from the Boston Globe, The Horn Book, Robert F. Sibert, BolognaRagazzi, Coretta Scott King (for Christian Robinson’s illustrations), and a Parent’s Choice Gold, among others. Loving vs. Virginia (Chronicle 2017) is a Junior Library Guild Selection. Patricia is a former dancer and librarian living in Champaign, IL. Readers have a chance to receive one of  three free copies of her book, Loving V. Virginia, prior to its January 2017 release date by signing up to receive her blog

Why I Write

This is a guest post by author Cara Long. 

caralongI keep trying to make this article profound, but I don’t write for profound reasons. Since I learned to write, I have written. I’m fond of penning notes, from “I love you” to “I’m sorry,” from “thank you” to “I appreciate something you have done that touched me.” I have written papers for school, birthday notes, stories, poetry, silly songs, blog posts, reviews, social media updates, texts, résumés, business letters, letters of recommendation, and now picture books, novels, and query letters. I’ve placed notes and letters on pillows for people to find. I still send handwritten thank-you notes. I write for many little reasons that combine to make writing feel necessary.

Nothing pleases me more than when someone takes the time to genuinely write a note. I cherish handwritten letters from my parents and from people who have sent me notes. I save them all. I love to see the handwriting.  It marks the passing of time, from childlike scribbles to a teenage girl marking her i’s with hearts, from an adult personal handwriting style to the scratchy writing from the hand of a shaky, elderly relative, personalizing care and consideration.

Writing takes no special gift per se, which is what makes it so special. It allows people to uniquely express themselves and requires only paper and a writing instrument. I always carry a journal with a pen tucked inside because nothing gives me more pleasure than when ideas come faster than I can scribble them down. Others use cell phones and create in numbers of permitted characters or words. For business and storytelling, more often than not, many use a computer.

Writing allows me an artistic outlet while I raise my children at home. It gives me license to create characters and follow them to their darkest experiences and thoughts and to their best successes and how they found their way there. I love to see an empty page fill with words that mark my passing through this space and time.

Writing has given me the gift of being me—finding me and, I hope, leaving a memory of me. In the end, I write for me. I write because the words are there and need a home. I write because I love to write in whatever form that takes.

filthyfrannyCara Long completed her MFA in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. She loves learning about the art of writing. She is the author of three children’s picture books, has published poetry in Boston Literary Magazine and is currently working on a novel of realistic fiction.

The Night Before the National Day on Writing

Thanks to Lisa Fink for this blog.

It’s the night before the National Day on Writing and maybe you’re still thinking about what you and your students might do to celebrate.

nctechatParticipants in last Sunday’s #NCTEchat offer some ideas that might inspire you.

• Jeanne Bissonnette (@JDB_ISU) thinks it would be fun to do a live tweet like #NCTEchat. Her suggestion would be to roll out the questions one at a time. She also thinks it would be a good idea to have the students generate the questions.
• ShelfieTalk (‏@ShelfieTalk) already shares what “I am currently reading…”. The promise was made to share current writing in the same way.
• Rebecca Owens ‏(@Imbue_MissOwens) shared a great quote from Malcolm Gladwell.
• Jennifer Laffin (@laffinteach) brainstormed and created a list of ways to celebrate the National Day on Writing.
celebrate• UIUCWritersWorkshop (@WorkshopUIUC) likes to use graffiti walls (but only in sanctioned spaces!) as a means of showing writing is revised, dialogic, etc.
• Stefanie Cole (@MsColeQVPS) is planning on showcasing #WhyIWrite authors videos and their books everyday this week.
• Tynea Lewis (@TyneaLewis) encourages folks to write a reflection for #WhyIWrite as “It’s a great way to reignite the passion of writing in yourself.”
• Jen Schwanke (@JenSchwanke) wonders that since we do Read-Ins, could we do a Write-In?
• 90-Second Newbery (@90secondnewbery) suggests writing collaborate list poetry. “It makes writing accessible, fun and engaging!” Read more at http://ow.ly/hoWc305erC5.
• Vince Puzick (@2HeartedRiver) proposes inviting authors to class.
• Mrs.McLoud (@MrsMcLoudRI) plans to do freewrites outside if the weather permits. “Writing is a treat- present it so!”
iwritebecauseiaminasconstantstateofrevision• Katie Kraushaar (@MsKraushaar) wants to collect #WhyIWrite statements from the entire school! She is thinking about posting butcher paper in lunchroom.
• Karen DiBella (@ksdibella) recommends creating a story based on a page from a wordless picture book. Her suggestion was using Unspoken by Henry Cole.
• ValerieAPerson (@vperson) will be holding a “Writing Palooza” in library during lunches to celebrate the 20th.
• Alan Goodrow (@MrGoodrow) is thinking that a class-combined written story is an activity that he would love to try.
• Peg Grafwallner (@PegGrafwallner) is looking forward to uploading her #WhyIWrite post to her website as well as sharing a lesson plan with teachers and students.

Tomorrow it’s time to celebrate and to share writing, pictures, videos, celebrations to #WhyIWrite. Find out what people are saying about #WhyIWrite here.

• Join author Linda Sue Park (@LindaSuePark) who said, “I write because for me there’s no better way to explore & learn about both the world & myself, at the same time.”

If Not the Five-Paragraph Essay, Then What? A Response to Kim Zarins’s Anti-FPE FPE

This post is written by member David Slomp. 

david-slompTwenty grade-six students mull around the newly installed benches. Excited. Nervous. Proud. They are waiting for the dignitaries to officially reopen their town’s upgraded dog park.

 Their writing made this day possible. 

 For eight months they had been studying grant writing. They analyzed grant agencies as discourse communities, they dissected the genre of the grant proposal, they studied the rhetorical moves successful grant writers employed. Then they crafted their own proposal.  Finally, they submitted their proposal and waited. Today they got to witness the results of their work.

The students described above participated in the Horizon Writing Project, a research collaboration with eight teachers and their students in grades 6–11. The Horizon Writing Project was my response to the inevitable question that accompanies any denunciation of the five-paragraph essay (FPE). In the comments section following Dr. Zarins’s anti-FPE FPE, Tim Bedly put the question this way, “You’ve convinced me, Kim. So what organizational structure do I teach my 5th graders?”

The simple answer to Tim’s question is that you don’t teach a structure. Over the long term, teaching kids how to master particular structures doesn’t help them. To borrow from an old adage, “Give students a structure and you enable them for a day; teach students to analyze and you enable them for a lifetime.”

Pedagogy built around providing students with structures to follow fosters classrooms of dependence (a critique not limited solely to teachers who rely on the FPE). Applebee and Langer’s (2011) survey of writing instruction in American schools found that in too many cases, “The actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms . . . remains dominated by tasks in which the teacher does all the composing, and students are left only to fill in missing information” (p. 26). In such classrooms dependence is fostered because the teacher breaks down writing tasks, provides explicit instructions and templates, and does the deep thinking for students.

As the students in the Horizon Writing Project were learning to write grant proposals, they were being taught the metacognitive skills they will need to independently analyze and successfully complete other writing tasks they have never seen before. They did this by writing for authentic audiences/discourse communities and by submitting their work to those audiences.

Rather than providing their students with direct instruction on the art of grant proposal writing, the teachers involved in the project taught their students three areas of analysis:

  1. how to analyze audiences/discourse communities to determine what values and expectations they will bring to the text
  2. how to analyze sample texts so that they can
    • determine both the purposes and features of those genres, and so that they can understand how the genre has been designed to reflect the purposes, values, and expectations of the discourse communities that employ them.
    • understand the range of rhetorical moves found within the genre, and to recognize how the values and expectations of the discourse community shapes the rhetorical choices available to authors.
    • identify what subject matter the sample texts include, and to recognize how authors’ approaches to that subject matter are shaped by the discourse community for whom they are writing.
  3. how to execute the insights from the analysis described above in their own writing.

This process of analysis becomes the tool students use to figure out how to write other tasks they’ve never seen before.

If you are interested in concrete examples of how to put this approach into action, come to the half-day workshop—W.15—at the NCTE Annual Convention that will be hosted by our Horizon Writing Project team.

Work Cited

Applebee, Arthur N., and Judith A. Langer. “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools.” English Journal, vol. 100, no. 6, July 2011, pp. 14-27.

David Slomp is the Board of Governors’ Teaching Chair at the University of Lethbridge, where he works as an associate professor in the Faculty of Education.