Will this be on the test? 

I was momentarily stunned last week when a student voiced the desire for me to teach only what was necessary to pass the end-of-year (standardized? common assessment?) test. Because of Obama’s recent discovery that children are being over-tested, I am choosing to concentrate for a moment on this student’s request. What does it mean? 

1. Students have been brainwashed to think of learning as acquisition of facts or skills to serve as an arsenal against the day of judgment, arrows in their quiver for the last days of the year. The purpose of learning is to pass a test the teacher has neither designed nor seen. In the rare instance where I know the specific content of an end-of-year exam, I am ethically bound not to teach to that specific prompt and its text. 

2. Students have not changed since I was in college. I still recall my British History professor, Dr. Arthur Mejia, at San Francisco State, responding mid-lecture to a student’s question, “Will this be on the test?” with a well-considered look of dismay. “It’s all ONE HISTORY.” How I hope I too can shape a response with the same power. “It’s all one literature”? “It’s all one story.”? 

3. Education has reverted to the Gradgrind School of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. I am Sissy Jupe (see photo) and my students are the schoolmasters driving imagination out of the classroom. Evidently the rewards have been great enough for responding with the rote answer that a horse is a quadruped (denotative meaning) that they have bypassed any love for bread, circuses, and horses as beautiful creatures with a host of connotative resonances. [Me sneaking a photo in Dickens’s kitchen at Doughty Street] 

 Just when I thought the US-UK push for creativity, innovation, imagination, flexible mindset, individualized learning, curiosity, and inquiry must necessarily have produced a generation of young learners unique in the annals of education, I am forced to rethink my task. 

I need to acknowledge the voices filled with hope that I can prepare them for tests. But I want fill them with hope beyond tests, beyond this year, and into a distant future where they see themselves as dreamers, makers, community members, readers, writers and thinkers. 

I need to remind them that English Language Arts is a humanities class; we read and write about human beings, because people are inherently valuable. Reading, writing, and thinking about people both real and imagined offers us contact with and contemplation of lives that matter. We become more valuable, interesting, and effective persons by coming into contact with them: we are changed. 

I need to continue this conversation with colleagues at the NCTE convention in Minneapolis, including the CEL workshop. When I speak at roundtables and sessions on writing hope, establishing empathy, and close reading for “wonder and awe”, I await suggestions from participants that redeem our students from a culture of pragmatism and restore a sense of awe at beautiful language, strong characters, and words that evoke lasting imaginative impressions, whether “Fourscore and seven” or “Call me Ishmael.”


certainly, boys, what else? the piper pays him

IMG_2902 They say that a well-designed test allows students to learn; it is also a maxim of teachers that we learn from our students. In my case, not only did my students learn through their final projects; my students taught me. In an AP English class, each writer not only shared her concluding written work of the semester, but also responded aloud to two or three other students who shared. Time and again I was stymied by the perceptive and encouraging remarks students summoned within themselves in response to peers’ writing. They noticed things that I had completely overlooked because of my myopic view: I was so focused on completing my own suggested sentence stems in order to provide “useful” and immediate feedback, I ignored the artistry and voice of each writer.  IMG_2919 I learn that isolated teacher comments are such limited, fluttering birds, they ought not survive long outside the nest of writer’s conference; but with words young writers say about their own work and problem-solving, and with the addition of multiple responders, a teacher comment may contribute usefully to a healthy flock of writers in flight.   In other classes, a research paper took students into unfamiliar territory as they explored writing in a genre they were curious about. Not only did reflective letters report enjoyment and learning, but I also found in the student journals, original writing and letters implicit critiques of existing genre limitations. “This genre had no color”. “This genre had no images.” “This genre had no visuals–I am a visual learner, so I created charts and diagrams to go with my subject.” I learn that the teachers I know communicate predominantly with words. What would it look like if even my instructions to myself – lesson plans, notes, to-do lists – began to take the form of “back-of-the-napkin”, Creativity Core, and aphasia communication book tools? Would my own thinking change? Thanks to my students, as I plunge into summer learning and pedagogical refreshers, I am particularly attentive to simplifying the way I communicate my ideas. Can I express this idea in a color, shape, or sound? How about a texture, object, or fragrance?  

This means a new relationship between audience and purpose: even when I intend mainly highly verbal people like myself as readers or users of a list, article, journal entry, or letter, how does my own thinking change shape, take form and emerge as an expression of myself if I let go of genre conventions I feel most in control of?

My students yet again remind me to yield up control. Just as T.S. Eliot needed to find a new language for poetry that would speak to his culture, they seek rich and meaningful expressions that modify existing genres and invent new ones for this era. Instead of feeling like “I’m done” at the end of this school year, I am singing “We’ve Only Just Begun”.

I have even begun to record notes for a summer school class I am taking in colored pencil. Here are the results:


What are you doing in your content area or personal writing to implicitly or explicitly invite your students to contribute their voices and to become resistant to static forms? [Images: Communication Board, “Activities To Share” at Activitiestoshare.co.uk; student cover by TM; Unfamiliar genre page by MC.]


What Finland is Trying to Tell the World by Reforming to Phenomenon-Based Learning.

Not only is voice featured here, but I admire the paradox of school Autonomy and the provocation for teachers to move Outside their Comfort Zones. The result can be a rich interdisciplinary learning experience. Once again I am left believing that building “bridges” between learners, content, skills, and meaning is a pillar of education.

What Finland is Trying to Tell the World by Reforming to Phenomenon-Based Learning..


A.I. asks what it is be human



[Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn in 1957 film: on Pinterest at hyperbate.fr]

My contention is that A.I. is nothing new: Chaucer convincingly created artificial human beings in the technology of his day–ink pen and velum. 

And it may even have happened earlier. Thomas Aquinas writes the strategy of anticipating objections to his arguments in Summa Theologica as if he were engaged in a chess game. His challenge is getting it right–thinking ahead in order to beat his intellectual opponent to a logical move in order to discount it. But his opponent might as easily be another aspect of himself. What he does, as Chaucer and, later, Shakespeare do, is to imagine an equal to himself who will engage in the same sort of thinking strategies. 

The new movie Ex Machina raises questions about what we mean when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Do we mean consciousness in isolation from other entities? Freedom? Agency? And are such manufactured products self-serving, human-serving, or moral at all? The inciting incident of the film is the arrival of its protagonist at a remote top secret villa to interview an android and determine if there are any flaws in her armor.   The human loses his objectivity, and the AI anticipates this. Because he believes she is real – a consciousness that feels – he becomes subject to his own empathy. As a result, a damsel-in-distress scenario emerges. He trades his rationalism and scepticism for the willing suspension of disbelief. He enjoys playing this game.

With literature (plays, anyway) the willing suspension of disbelief is critical to my enjoyment. I want to get lost in the characters and conflicts, to believe that they are real for a while. 

Chaucer’s corrupt Pardoner would be a wooden automaton, a stereotype were it not for the human pleasure he takes in bilking the sheep, and in posturing before his auditors, the pilgrims, as if he were a traveling salesman of the Middle Ages; with verismilitude Chaucer depicts him as greedy, even as the Pardoner confesses that greed is the root of all evil. 

The antagonist in Ex Machina seems to want to create art that imitates life. His latest creation flirts, tells secrets, rebels and, like humans, can appear sincere. Despite the conventions of each genre: the female android has visible “machine-works”; the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath speak in poetry: you can see the artists pulling the strings that make the puppet move —  despite these reasons to disbelieve, the admirer who is the audience deliberately obscures his own awareness of the devices and allows himself to believe in the human before him. 

A recent article which discusses liberal arts, and debates the need for Chaucer among common people today, sees liberal arts education advocates as connecting the virtues of certain subjects of learning to the ultimate ends of human beings — their telos. But lack of consensus about humans’ ultimate purpose splinters agreement about the means and content of education. 

Teachers like me make decisions about teaching and learning based on our assumptions about life’s ultimate purpose. We necessarily grant that the person we teach has a similar purpose to our own. That she or he is human, is on the same journey as we are.

At its heart, Ex Machina asks, among other questions, what are the essential components of humanity? Chaucer, too, in his believable depictions of travelers both greedy and wise, boastful and generous, kind and silly, asks what mixtures of sinner and saint can one person carry inside and still be one of the pilgrims on a common journey? Like Bach experimenting later with the well-tempered Klavier he strikes different registers, tones, ironies, and themes,  making them pleasant, diverting, entertaining, beautiful and truthful. 

Despite the difficulty of ever reaching consensus about a completed canon, or which communities should study which works in order to be culturally literate, scientists and artist continue to create authentically engaging work, meaningful discoveries and innovations that add to or complement our sense of what it is to be human.  


My band of pilgrims on a recent trip to Ano Nuevo State Beach to see elephant seals. 

If AI is created, it should serve human beings (or assist us in serving things we value, such as forests or clean air). 

On the other hand, if literary characters can be considered AIs, imposing above criterion of service would restrict my idea of realistically human fictional creations to their usefulness. This limitation seems at odds with my preexisting concept of literature and liberal arts as the opposite of practical arts or techne. 

Certainly recent articles insist that business schools train MBAs in Shakespeare, and that a successful life must include leisure reading and the ability to appreciate complex thinking represented by whole novels, or the ability to empathize with others in order to be more benevolent (leading to service, to success). But for me there is something beyond literature’s usefulness that makes it valuable. I enjoy people in a different way than I enjoy a good story, jazz music or a serving of flan. 

Maybe our difficulty is in demanding both pleasure and service from our AI. The AI computer in a movie like The Desk Set is totally devoid of personality or pleasure. It exists to get a job done, and yet it replaces human beings rather than serves them. In contrast, an iPad can entertain someone for hours, but do we ask our handheld or desktop computer devices to solve difficult problems for us? 

“Where can I get cheap coffee in five minutes with the shortest wait?” 

“Have you ever seen a cat do that before?”

Then again I may be overlooking the obvious element of gender in Ex Machina: it is a male fantasy that the female android learns to satisfy; exactly such fantasies are the subjects and issues of Thomas Hardy plots (Far from The Madding Crowd, Tess of The D’Urbervilles). The concept of an independent woman seems foreign to the self-centered males in all these tales. They fall in love with an ideal rather than a woman. Our culture is quite happy to produce an independent self-driving car or drone but reluctant to grant complete independence of thought or action to other human beings. Too many of us think we’d be content living among those who think, act, or vote just as we do.

Both Bathsheba Everdene in the new film of Madding Crowd and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with The Wind use their independence to manipulate men. They enter into complex negotiations with others and strategize in order to get what they desire. They can play the game. Maybe it says something about our expectations of AI that playing “Jeopardy” is the ultimate test of one’s human-likeness. 

This morning’s #satchat educational focus was on gamed-based learning. In some cases the game allows students to compete for points by achieving mastery, and an element of differentiation occurs due to student choice of quest, individualized pacing, and swift feedback. But if I consider the game that Thomas Aquinas played in order to produce Summa Theologica….How do we get from there to here? from gaming to thinking about ultimate purposes? from mastering a skill for class to actually leading a military siege or debating what makes a society good? 

Robots, games, books and movies offer us a chance to consider what humans need as well as what we enjoy. They also, like poetry, offer us irrational pleasure. We glimpse minds and universes at work.  


How do your own view of the universe and your definition of humanity cause you to see others? to teach people in your subject area? to define the problems worth solving and the games worth playing? 


Handing over the baton: The power of change is yours……

I like this newly discovered blog so much I chose to share it. I keep coming across thinking that expresses the inescapable idea of voice and choice being not only something we invite students to use, but something leaders invite other leaders to use.

Handing over the baton: The power of change is yours…….


anyone can teach english

Rebecca Mead describes an actual English landscape which Goerge Eliot once wrote about, today tranformed by the addition of trees, which have newly risen due to the absence of shepherd boys and sheep. She writes that it is  now “a landscape changed by books, reshaped by reading, transfigured by the slow green growth.” (My Life in Middlemarch, “Finale”)

I love the language of transfiguration Mead uses here, and also Eliot’s repeated usage of related terms of conversion throughout Middlemarch. I enthuse over such things, even to the point of making it the topic of a round table session on close reading of Chesterton and Eliot this fall. Besides liking the words themselves, though, I like Mead’s use of this particular term to describe the complete change – a glorification, if you will – of the landscape of reading after the Education Reform Act of 1882. More children than ever before were given an education, were taught to read and write. Such a fundamental and democratic alteration of the fabric of life was necessary and beneficial. It didn’t require English teachers as we know them today. 

What if every word that came out of an English teacher’s mouth was exclusively at the behest of a learner? 

For all the good we literacy specialists (for that’s what English teachers and reading & writing teachers are) do, I wonder if we wouldn’t be doing the world a service by just turning kids loose in a big public library and hanging out with them there as accessories to their curiosity. 

We experts would spend our entire day at the library, familiarizing ourselves with branches of knowledge, and with new and older titles in the catalogue, from YA to Wittgenstein. We would become resource specialists who could channel our expertise into guiding each child to join The Literacy Club (as Frank Smith calls it) and then to discover the more challenging and interesting books, articles, art and music that standardized classrooms haven’t {usually!} time nor individuality to offer. 

Every student would be required to leave school and go to a library for 2 and a half to three hours daily, which would be staffed by a host of language arts educators. No longer would we have to face the sometimes embarrasing act of grading young readers and writers, nor of manufacturing “evidence” of their progress toward problematic standards. 

I see learning materials still being advertised to English teachers today which diminish a poem by asking pedantic questions about it, labeling it, putrefying it before it has a chance to be lived through, savored, digested, and felt. I would hope that by taking the English teacher out of the school system, the true enjoyment of learning and reading could be coupled with the good that language arts experts want desperately to give to all young people. 

The title of today’s blog occurred to me as I strolled along the Pacific coast on a clear Easter morning, watching waves, cormorants, and harbor seals. There is an immediacy which classroom teaching cannot replace: a learner of any age must only be caught up, surrounded by events (natural phenomena, books, art, music), stimulated to enjoy and learn. I know full well such statements are naive, yet on this first Monday of spring break, after celebrating resurrection and rebirth, and following a week of experiential learning with a group of 21 students and adults on nature walks, in a theater, & making meals at hostels, I envision celebratory learning. 

I really think that with coaching, all content area teachers can help students read and write for school. What we English teachers truly offer is something meta-school. Transfigurations. We want to actually see kids change because of their enjoymemt of STUFF! We know that reading and writing both contribute to such change and also grow as results of it. 

YES, the humanities are crucial for the development of young minds and hearts — of “souls”, as George Eliot might put it, though her complex shades of meaning for this term deserve more space — but when I watch the harbor seal pup following close beside its mother, it learns to swim, feed, climb without a specialized teacher. She is specialized: who better to show her young exactly what it needs to survive in the wild? She provides about a month of such imposed closeness, then he is on his own to continue the learning process. 

I don’t propose to reduce all instruction to 30 days per lifetime. But I do think much of what I do in the classroom is common sense. Seriously, I didn’t need a college degree to help someone read a poem, tell a story, or write a letter. 

But I do use every bit of my classroom teaching experience and pedagogical reading when I have a writing conference; I summon my knowledge of books and people when I discuss books with students. I listen as well as I can. Putting me where I belong, in a library, would ideally pair the thought of luxury (a treasure trove of books!) in a learner’s mind with the adventure of self-improvement, of choice.

I suppose I end up as always, seeing that as long as I am called classroom teacher I will always have a type of authority which be inauthentic. My authentic authority is as an experienced reader and writer. But when I choose to share authority with my students for their learning decisions, it is I who share with them. If I were not associated with a school, but were instead a fixture at the library, readers would see me as a resource at their service, an authority like a text, to be used, questioned, resisted, or enjoyed rather than a teacher who exists to grade them and assign homework.

What if every word that came out of an English teacher’s mouth was exclusively at the behest of a learner? I think of the way I check out music, books, DVDs from my library. I check out only what I want to. 

Of course I am half playful here, knowing that such a system would be dependent on county taxes, and a host of HR (human resources) issues. But when we step back for a minute and ask how we can actually contribute to new life in young people or adults ready to catch the fire of literacy, such invention and playfulness are needed.

Maybe it could be treated like Driver’s Ed: everybody wants to learn how to drive, right? If literature reading and writing were seen by kids as the class you go OFF CAMPUS for, that demands a road test in the real world, that’s worth paying extra for, and signifies a rite of passage, who knows? Instead of a set of keys at graduation a student gets the key to the executive washroom at the public library, or the unlimited items at checkout; kids would, instead of a parking space, get their own study carrel! They could help select the books displayed in the “new arrivals” shelf, and receive an allowance to apply toward new acquisitions. 

Think how they would transform the landscape of their library, their learning, their lives.


Sinking ships (Part 2 of “Canon”)

Our mini StuCamp offered students voice and choice last Friday. Authentic dialogue, engaged students, inquiry.

Will the dynamic duo save Common Core, Imagination, or Tech Tools? 

If we save only tools, we can ask learners to create anything, but we may sacrifice adherence to a shared set of standards. 

If we salvage only standards, we risk a product of our education system who can think and do, but who may be limited in ability to use tools and imagination;

If we rely on creativity we may open a door to wonderful innovations and new solutions to problems that arise; but we could lose the security of knowing that all children are absorbing similar content and using like strategies. 

Erasmus: I know where we have looking at this problem from the wrong angle. Instead of saving the methods of education, we must all make way toward the School of Athens and save the pupils themselves. They are equipped with imaginations of their own, and we and they together possess creativity and resourcefulness enough to invent tools for learning. Rather than import standards the way Don Corleone imported olive oil — an enterprise shrouded in mystery and suspicion — the local institution and stakeholders might continually write, examine, and re-evaluate their own. 

Captain: But what about the cost? The loss of the shipment? 

E: Perhaps from this new perspective we can see the fortuitous scattering of your cargo as gain. Its loss invites new collaborations, demands individual and group deliberation, and guarantees reforms as well as resistance. A truly democratic education will build both confidence and resistance. 

A: Yet won’t we risk watering down the stringent guidelines of thought and rigorous canon established once and for all? There are some things simply worth knowing, and others not worth spending time over. 

E: You sound concerned that the tools of thinking, and of imagination may somehow fall out of practice and be lost with the jetsam. This is an argument from the authority of tradition. I say, let the gods protect and preserve those divine traditions they want kept alive; it is for teacher and learner to weigh the traditions of humankind as part of their instruction. We cannot shed our innate capacity for learning, nor the acquisition of knowledge to appease our passion for discovery. If there truly are laws of logic which govern good thinking, the downing of one ship will not stop future generations from practicing deliberative and contemplative thought, nor from deducing rules of logic. 

C: Are the schoolmasters at Athens the preservers of all wisdom? The city itself bears some responsibility for inspiring its youths to attain wisdom. By maintaining a library, it too will be engaged in protecting and preserving the ancient texts it values while considering new acquisitions from every field: from philosophy to the popular novel.

A: You expect a bit much from citizenry, pedants, and children. With all of this thoughtfulness going on, how will there be any time for studying, commerce, and politics? 

E: I am afraid Time is the one commodity your ship, good Captain, was not licensed to import. We can merely point out, Anthony, upon our arrival, that time and persons are the only resources which cannot be replenished. Once gone, they will not return. 

C: Then we are agreed. I sail with you to Athens, with my crew, but we must let my ship and its educational cargo come to rest beneath the waves. 

A: Then our deliberations have been for nought? Nothing is saved.

E: Correction, Boy Wonder. Inquiry survives. Our disequilibrium led to the investigation of a problem we had not considered before. Perhaps the inquiry at Athens will begin and end with imagining what was left at the bottom of the sea. But I am hopeful today that we import something more valuable than a filebox, a toolkit, a playpen. This whole time we have been wondering what a school ought to be, but we should be asking what learning seems to be. If each interpretive community took up such an inquiry, it may even begin to pursue such questions as whether children learn best in schools, who is qualified to instruct, whether effective instruction actually molds character, and so forth. An inquiry process doesn’t ask which type of fuel to feed a dying fire, but whether it is light or heat we demand of the flame. Open the Trade routes to inquiry! 

Gordon’s Tweets

RSS Good Questions

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