Archive for the 'Why are you asking?' Category

27
Feb
17

interconnecting literacies

I face the challenge of interconnecting ideas. When I encounter a thought-provoking book such as this one, I both associate and resist various ideas and memories of the classroom, students, philosophy, and fiction.

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While at times I see such interconnectedness as an obstacle frustrating my simple enjoyment of a book, many times I feel each connection as an intimate part of my transaction with a text.

The back and forth, the push and pull — nebulous, binary, contrary — describe the innumerable voyages that readers like me have taken. Like me, Joseph Rodriguez, author of Enacting Adolescent Literacies Across Communities, found refuge in his school library and in the books and librarian and authors residing there.

His book, subtitled Latino/a Scribes And Their Rites, is both a handbook of effective literacy img_0013instruction and a catalyst for both more intertextual connections and new approaches that invite all students, not just Latinos/as, to a fondness for literacies.

I use the plural — literacies — because Rodriguez is careful throughout his book to enumerate the various ways young people can engage with words and ideas in the communities they inhabit. The classic modalities of reading, writing, speaking, and listening continue to be enacted as literacies; but he persuades us that becoming literate in history, for instance, involves the interest and ability to ask whose history, and by extension why this history?; and then to enact their growing understandings in their communities, through multiple literacies: I think of learners creating documentaries, interviewing family members and activists, apprenticing in ancient handicrafts, volunteering at museums, or teaching others the relevance of great books – old and new.

His book makes me want to wrestle with, cheer for, and work alongside with such teachers, librarians, and students.

The best thing this book does for me is to convince me that teacher education programs in this country have not given up but, on the contrary, have

turned their very resistance into the art of teaching

signified by the Master of Arts  degree, and represented by the author and his pre-service teacher-practitioners. If such programs are successful, in whatever regions and for whatever populations are served by teachers who care less about a test performance and more about whole human beings, they may restore hope in public and private schools which have chased dehumanizing business models, fragmented texts, outdated grading systems, isolated subject knowledge, and chased away some youth by disengaging learning from schooling.

Rodriguez’s book is a shot in the arm for public and private secondary school and college teachers. It goes a long way toward restoring my hope in the future for students and their teachers.


[Images: a. Creative Commons no attribution, Clkr-free-vector-images located by Pixabay; b. GH (l) with J Rodríguez in Washington, D.C. 2015.]

 

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23
Jun
16

from “how do you know?” to “let’s find out.”

I became an English teacher because of Kaye Clohset.

It was 1977. We were reading Jane Eyre in my tenth grade accelerated class, and Miss Clohset made the claim that the lightning-struck tree was a symbol for the love between Rochester and Jane.

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“How do you know?”, I asked with a raised hand.

Ever since that day I have been seeking the best answer to my own question.

My quest involves numerous strands, such as the art of interpretation, analytic reading, historical-biographical criticism, the canon, student-led inquiry, authority in the classroom, and literary period. It also wonders, along with my 15-year-old self, how much an author “hides” things in a text to be discovered, and when analyzing a book moves from an appealing activity that enhances enjoyment to a monotonous speculation that detracts from the pleasure of reading.

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This week, as I read Claire Harman’s compelling biography of Charlotte Bronte, “A Fiery Heart”, I am transported to the Brussels and England we visited last summer, and back in time to my introduction to Bronte that sophomore year. However Miss Clohset answered my question that day, I determined as a teacher that I would try to equip students to address such questions openly, whether they openly resist a particular reading of a classic passage, or hope to demystify the reading process of an experienced reader.

I can trace my interest not only in reading instruction, but also in composition theory and the teaching of writing to those early high school days, when we might have been asked to demonstrate in an essay test that a recurring theme or symbol had value, though we students didn’t actually do the work of digging through an assortment of selected passages, drawing our own conclusions about them, and forming an original controlling question or thesis.

I have stepped further and further away from making pronouncements about literature in my teacher role, and closer to encouraging exploration and discovery in student reading and writing.

I also experiment with how best to answer student questions, like my own how do you know? Here is a range of potential comebacks

“Does anyone see it differently?”

“Great question. Who else is wondering the same thing?”

“Hmm. Let me turn to the page and see what Bronte writes…”

“I haven’t been honest with you. I read ahead last night and in a later chapter she says …”

There is any number of teacher moves that might occur here, from modeling my own thinking through a “think aloud”, to inviting a student to moderate a discussion/debate on the topic, where students could pair off and prepare interpretations of the tree, backing them up with textual evidence. At some point a determination must be made about whether this question is worth pursuing for its own sake, or whether we need more students to generate more questions and begin a classwide investigation. Conversely, I may offer extra credit (or excuse a future assignment) for looking up some critical commentary, either online or in a resource I have in the room.

These split second decisions make teaching a thrilling adventure for me, especially as the direction the class takes after such a moment can influence careers, with students seeing themselves as confident and resistant readers and writers in an interpretive community. image

I fast forward to today. I have been reading Robert Cormier’s Tunes for Bears To Dance to. It would make a great pairing with The Diary of Anne Frank as an 8th grade book, raising questions as it does about anti-semitism, hate crime, individual conscience, and what makes people feel powerful when they can get weaker people to carry out their hostile actions. The teacher’s gift and art is the ability to extend an invitation to students themselves to raise their questions, as well as to recognize an author’s questions and decide which ones are worth investigating through discussion, writing, research, and further reading. Whether dealing with a classic book or contemporary work; middle grade, YA, or general readership, good writing triggers a questioning and teaching urge–I can’t avoid imagining how I would use it in the classroom.

The counter-narrative here is my high school English teacher’s own strong role in pushing me toward this career long inquiry. Without her firm convictions about that tree, I would not have resisted her reading and become suspicious of critical interpretation. On one hand I desire to let young readers explore multiple points of view, yet on the other I need to offer clear well-argued solutions to literary problems that have already been worked out. It is a bit like playing chess in the summer: I set up the board with a chess problem from a 20th century game in my handbook, Logical Chess, and play along with the historical combatants in the hope of acquiring a more strategic mind myself. I hope students will practice new strategies in order to grow and advance.

Thanks to those teacher we have had who prompted us, in their own particular ways, to pursue our own questions, careers, and passions. Wherever you are, Kaye, I want you to know that your class made a difference in my life.

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Images: top to bottom – http://pin.it/N7iL4sL posted by Megan Murphy

cover art for Charlotte Bronte biography by Claire Harman, 2016 Borzoi Books.

NYT review: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/books/review/charlotte-bronte-a-fiery-heart-by-claire-harman.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek TV series, Paramount.

25
Oct
15

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.”

02
Nov
14

against discovery learning?

Who could be against discovery?

We define it ill.

Today it means entrepreneurship, novelty, knowing and doing, making culture, apprenticeship. There is a goal, a telos. To innovate, to change, to add, to perform, to practice. MakerSpaces, Genius Hours.

It is theory and practice united. Learn A-Z, now go and create a letter or alphabet that has yet to be imagined.

engagement with mystery

Yet I hesitate to embrace wholesale the concept of engaged learning that suggests a workshop mentality to every learning situation.  I picture a broader conception of discovery: the intersection of acts of imagination and with the apprehension of mystery. I am torn between wanting to invest time and energy in collaboration and invention, or in slow reading, deep thinking, and sustained conversations that stem from as well as lead to acts of attention expressed through writing.

Below are my musings about my uneasy rest in the Discovery learning camp.

discovery and revelation are  inseparable

My reticence stems from appreciation of an older form of the word discover which indicates unveiling, revelation, and making known. As long as we can admit

A few years, Plato described a kind of discovery learning that the learner finds difficult to convey to others. The true world outside his Cave is beautiful and true, but incommunicable to other cave dwellers. It must be seen to be believed, but darkness and limited vision harness the learner’s contemporaries.

There is a problem to solve: how to communicate a life-altering mystery to fellow human beings? Words alone will not succeed.

Imagination is necessary.

In my own classrooms I listen to student voices discovering that literature speaks, igniting empathy and other products of imagination. The harshness of Maya Angelou’s early years as represented in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings sensitizes students to inequalities and injustices in history and their own cultures, lives.

The “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedict contrasts with the unforgiving imaginations whose violent inflexibility stabs Hero. Whereas B&B discover self-knowledge, Hero herself learns, as Tess Derbyfield does, “there is no good in men”; then she marries one.

imagining and making

A liberal education, in contrast to one emphasizing practical application can teach how both innovative and ancient ideas have been expressed, challenged, and modified; you can learn to evaluate the properties of an enduring idea. The student of ideas learns to revolve concepts in the mind for examination, facet by facet; theories are apprehended, applied, modified, or generated in physical labs and through discussions, writing, limitless activities, and by reading.

It isn’t a far stretch of vocabulary to compare today’s MakerSpace classrooms with the patronage system of the Arts: studio space, time, and materials are provided by schools (whether privately funded by tuition and grants or publicly by taxes) or public libraries whose leaders believe such classrooms are consistent with its mission, purpose and goals.

inquiring minds

I am wondering if a spell being cast by the nova nebula has underplayed the roles of imaginative language and free inquiry in learning. There is much to be said on the for the internal view of life and reality which takes shape over a long period of sustained engagement with a universe of ideas.

But if we as educators thrive on providing learning experiences which have the goal of innovation and new discovery, I fear we bypass crucial moments of the discovery process, at least we exclude such moments from the current broader rhetoric about learning.

new & ancient creations in dialogue

I want my students to see new artwork that reflects a point of view critical of ideas harmful to women, to read journalism describing attacks on freedom, such as threats against women who are opposed to violence against women in video games, or pepper spray deployed against pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong. I also want them to dig down and consider what democracy is, and at what cost it is delivered or purchased. Does one wish it upon others? must it be discovered and learned or can it be given to and taken from a culture?

Artist Jerusha Pimentel allowed me to use her images

Pimentel "Stripper" series

Pimentel “Stripper” series

of women and men as an introduction to and commentary on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I hope that seeing an artist who wrestles with ideas will drive them to think about the ideas a novelist wrestles with; I assuredly hope they too will begin wrestling with ideas, and will generate new and provocative ways of representing their own voices in dialogue with the present and past. 

As I adjust my thinking about this as a balance of theory versus practice–it may not be as simple as pitting “useless” gifts (thinking) against “useful” ones (doing) – a dichotomy Dylan Thomas uses for humorous effect in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. A child’s mind and hands like toys. We teachers have come to see productivity as a measure of understanding, and engagement as a measure of learning. What is practical to adults is often useless and boring to kids.

learningspace vs makingspace

Production does not equate with learning.

Human work is not all artistic and theoretical pursuit, or even inventing, engineering, or marketing useful products that simplify or enrich our lives; much of our endeavor is mind-numbing, repetitive, and hazardous. As Tim Keller writes, it is cursed because we are too far removed from its original and dignifying purposes (Every Good Endeavor 2012).

I suppose that whatever educators can do to restore enjoyment of good endeavors is beneficial to learners. It is good for people to learn to enjoy work and the satisfaction it can bring, rather than looking to financial gain or performing for a grade or promotion. But do we make demands on the work, or does the work make demands on us?

demands of work

In the movie “Birdman” Michael Keaton’s character is beset by doubts about his own relevance and dignity, dramatically represented by conflicting voices in his life. Ed Norton is the voice of the actor’s work, work above all; Emma Stone is the voice of purpose – What does it all mean? The villainous alter-ego of his early career fame as Birdman speaks urgently into his head appealing to his prideful desire for staying power and box office draw. In an ironic scene the main character seeks dignity in his life even as he parades around a theater block in undignified dress yet trending on Twitter. His life spins out of control.

Lucy in Sara Zarr’s Lucy Variations wrestles with the coinciding pleasures and pressures attendant on the career of a competitive concert pianist. Demands encroach on her life — demands made by her family, mentor, and herself.

Work will always make demands on us. But there may be a peace that comes with relinquishing control.

relinquish control

Even in my own classroom, I find tremendous satisfaction in those numerous moments — whole days, even– when authority and control are shared among all participants. Ironically, I  continue searching vigorously during my off hours for ways to engage students even more: to offer them greater freedom, control, and autonomy. From my restless pursuit, I cannot desist.

I am not against exploring, discovering, creating. I just want to save some time for reflection, rest, reading. Ceaseless activity is wearying.

In my new post, I will investigate the role of creativity in problem-solving, teaching for thoughtfulness, and making connections with ELA content and skills.

13
Jan
14

“I don’t know how a grade would reflect my learning process”

I began interviewing students last week about their self-evaluations in order to negotiate their English grade. The conversations afforded wonderful insights into each student’s mind. One tenth grader, stumped, said she wouldn’t even know how to go about giving a letter grade to her learning, and used the above (title) sentence.

She had pinpointed the difference, without my directly expressing it, which led to a helpful dialogue about that difference– between earning and learning. She knew that getting the work done was not equivalent to learning. I suggested other things she could rate herself on, such as finding humor in Pride and Prejudice. She imagined that only if she were to explain the book to another person less familiar with it would she really have demonstrated learning.

Asked if she had done that with a sibling, she said that yes, in fact, she had talked about the book often with her mother and sister, who knew the film versions but not the novel. I asked if it would be fair to evaluate herself on how well she explained the book and its characters to those interested parties, and she began to feel more confident in finding ways to talk about what she called her learning process.

Such one-to-one meetings are proving valuable to me, and time will show whether students, too, find them so. I suspect that they have not often been given a chance to contribute so deliberately (deliberatively) to a grade at the end of a marking period.

Since Alfie Kohn’s announcement on Twitter that he had written the foreword to Joe Bower’s book De-Testing and De-Grading, I have been investigating alternatives to traditional grades and formulations. My only certainty at the moment is that offering my students a voice in the grading process is a good thing, one that involves them in the reporting process, and begins to make me even more accountable to them for the meaning of a grade.

At the very least I can use these interviews as a chance to ask students to tell me anything they think would help me to meet their personal learning goals. One today said, “We’re all kinesthetic learners, so the more hands-on learning we do, the better!”

But at their heart they are proving richly rewarding conversations that shed light on how students see themselves–their proficiencies, areas to grow in; at my faith-based school it is also a chance for some to respond to my open question about growth or change they notice in their reading, writing, thinking, or faith.

I encourage you to personalize the grading process in a way that reflects your goals for your own class. You could pass out a short self-evaluation sheet for a unit or quarter, possibly considering essential questions, 3-5 class and individual goals, or proficiencies and standards the class has been targeting, for the purpose of inviting students to reflect on their learning during the period. The completed form or journal reflection could be brought by the student to a 5-minute meeting during a time when others are reading, studying, or writing. On two I directly asked what letter grade they thought would reflect their learning, but on a third I avoided connecting the evaluation (of their small group experience and decision-making, partly) with a grade, and merely used it to start students thinking about their progress.

I think giving students a voice in the reporting process is one way to help them see that class exists to serve their purposes, as Gordon Pradl has said. It does not cost anything to share authority this way. It did involve carving a good-sized niche out of the routine schedule of class activities, but students are grateful for additional free reading or study time. Through these meetings I have been able to watch and hear my students actively evaluating themselves as learners, searching almost painfully for the right words to express their ideas, their eyes casting about the ceiling for a solid hold.

20140113-144352.jpg Penny Kittle taught us about reading and writing conferences, now it is time for grading conferences; soon it will “abolish grading” conferences?

07
Jul
13

The night i first heard laura nyro

…I met a fellow traveler. I was seated at Joe’s Pub on the Lower East Side. A stranger was put at the same table, and soon we were introduced by a mutual friend. “I’ll let you all figure out what you have in common,” Louis said as he left to meet others. Ha, before the lights went down and we were all held spellbound, electrified for seventy-five minutes by theater magic, all I had learned was that David teaches.

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2007 reading, Kate and Louis, One Child Born website.

As we listened to the gospel as sung by Laura Nyro, a miracle was in progress. Somehow David and I had been immersed in a process or authorship, experiential learning that honors creativity.

At the end of the performance, when we really had time to visit, it turned out that David in his teaching had been pioneering ideas about teaching and learning that will move students from ownership of their learning experience to authorship of their own learning. Music has this capacity to bring people together; theater has this charm, to gather strangers, unite them through story; both are engines of empathy, generating an experience that leads to greater understanding of others and of oneself.

The performance, featuring Laura Nyro’s songs performed adoringly, beltingly, and bluesily on the piano by Kate Ferber, is a scripted tapestry woven of original monologues by distinct characters all brought under the charm of Nyro’s music, life, and persona. It is also molded and shaped by the metanarrative of Kate’s appreciation for the music.

Louis Greenstein and Kate Ferber can’t know directly how each audience member is affected by the monologues and music that we hear and see, or through our communal theater experience. But they and the director must know that for each person brought to life on stage last night, we each supplied our own concert and place memories, recalling ourselves. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt tutors us in a beautiful reversal that honors her former teacher, David. There is something poetic about educators being taught by past students, as exemplified in this public performance before a rapt audience.

Kate Ferber in performance

Kate Ferber in performance

The reversal is the same one he and I look for every day in our classes, a moment where the student moves from asking the authority figure for permission to “wonder and wander”, as David Dunbar puts it in his blog entry, toward assuming authority for learning. At that point, she or he might decide to share her wondering with the whole group, and ask for help with a new idea; bring a text to the table for discussion; or propose that the best way to explore an issue is to write and perform a play about it. When it is equally possible that in the classroom the learner will be the leader, and the tutor the listener, what you have is authentic dialogue, a productive and yearned-for ambiguity. Such a dialogue seems to be carried on between the audience and the show: during the actual performance I saw it in the give and take; over the years this show has been developed it is apparent in the sequencing and the truthfulness of each section.

I think the secret to effective learning is listening: teachers who listen to students, students who listen to their own minds and worlds, and writers, directors, and performers who listen to the voices around them. Louis said he keeps tinkering with the script, and I am certain that means he wants to learn by listening to what his characters are teaching him about themselves, as well as about structure, writing. You don’t play and sing as authentically and passionately as Kate Ferber does without internalizing the songs, empathizing with the person whose story is told in each song. She has listened to those voices; she has become a conduit for them.

He and I were privileged to listen last night. We were taught; we were changed.
One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro

David Dunbar’s blog




Gordon’s Tweets

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