Archive for the 'classical schools' Category

26
Feb
17

Are you standing at the borders of mystery?

Begin mystified
begin unbelieving
___off balance
learning begins.

We learn to believe
___to accept mystery
___to stop the balancing act.

Such moments, seeds of new knowledge
___of wisdom

V  i  s  t  a  s

Are you standing at the borders of a mystery?

                                                                             by G. Hultberg

We are disillusioned. Teachers, students, and parents are disenchanted with school and schooling. Just when we are about to give up, a new book offers hope.

coverjoEnacting Adolescent Literacies across Communities: Latino/a scribes and their rites (2017) offers a hopeful vision where young scribes:

  • relate learning to their public and private communities;
  • work with teachers to demystify literature, writing, and hidden processes;
  • co-learn and co-lead in their communities to enact their literacies;
  • celebrate:
    • dialogue and discovery,
    • beauty and language,
    • deliberation and negotiation.

Joseph Rodríguez knows teachers. He knows that new and veteran teachers alike are desperate to turn this historic moment into poetry. For some it may be poetry of protest; for others meditative sonnets.

Students, too, want to lend their voices to conversations about the past and present. Who will tell their stories, if they remain silent? Teachers in Enacting Adolescent Literacies invite us to introspection and investigation of past and present lives, and of forces that shape histories.

I love how the same question surfaces in Hamilton, serving as a theme not only of the show, but of histories themselves:

Who Lives,

Who Dies,

Who Tells Your Story?

[PHOTO: composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton] spotify:album:1kCHru7uhxBUdzkm4gzRQc

 

 

 

 

 

In Chapter 2, “Histories and Scribes at Milagros High School”, Mariano Guerra’s students, tired of “succumbing to authority in their schooling lives” and having legitimate questions go unanswered, learn to equate history with investigation and research into the “veracity of sources” and “chronicled points of view”. They move from studying Herodotus, through Mr. Guerra’s teaching as “subversive act”, to their own research as citizens whose education “questions and challenges authoritarian policies”.

The beauty of Mr. Rodriguez’s research and reporting is that it holds out hope for all such students, not merely Latino/a adolescents. Although his work focuses on school sites near El Paso, Texas, with a high percentage of Latino/a students, it invites any teacher to re-engage with the often mysterious, and inherently human, learning processes which drew us into learning and teaching in the first place.


 

Upcoming posts this week will feature a few thoughts about Mr. Rodríguez’s book in connection with my own thinking and learning.  

coverjo

Lexington Books: www.rowman.com

Mr. Rodríguez will co-direct a summer institute Tales From the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderlands Narratives.screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-1-42-31-pm

16
May
15

A.I. asks what it is be human

Always.  

 

[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? 

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.

09
Aug
11

Whose Wisdom? (“Teaching Literacy” Part 2)

In the second half of Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom, Wilhelm and Novak share a vision for the future of education. I am aware of the irony of a “Christian school” -teacher feeling uncomfortable with the evangelical fervor with which the book makes its case, as it calls for us to  “spread” this “worldview” to the “masses of world citizens” (192). They call for nothing less than a “reawakening”, arguing that it is “our central task as human beings to teach others to “bring their separate odysseys into fruitful convergence” (195). But I am uneasy. I hope I can explain why.

Building on a foundation laid by Gordon Pradl and Sheridan Blau, the authors’ ideas of students dialoguing about texts shift away from conversations about texts of all kinds toward texts that resonate with the ideals of a classical era – books from the eastern and western canons, especially sacred texts.

What is important and valuable in their book is the attention it gives to why we feel called to teach in the first place: the souls of our students, the desire to make a difference, and the belief that education must address the needs of the whole child, not intellectual, physical, or spiritual growth alone. Because practicing wisdom means (in this book) learning about and acting upon our desires for justice and compassion, I agree with their concept. The Hebrew scriptures contain the following in Micah Chapter 6:

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

But one of the drawbacks I see as possible with educating children for wisdom as a national “American” practice (American democracy is foundational to the theory that drives the vision) is that such wisdom is inextricably merged with a view of God as well as of humanity. Therefore, if the highest aim we have is the establishment of peaceful, kind, and just communities worldwide which change culture, create hope, and eventually offer happy coexistence to all citizens, this seems a supernatural feat. The authors admit that nothing short of spiritual awakenings, one soul at a time, will succeed in altering the world positively, given its track record. In the verse above, doing justice and loving kindness are requirements–not options. It seems to me that the whole program of education set forth in “Literacy” would be much easier if we stopped teaching literature altogether, and began teaching Hebrew prophets. If, as they see it, all wisdom teachers (sages) essentially agree, then why not simplify things, and read only one or two who put it most concisely. Really, how much easier could a  life statement be than this: be humble before your God, and do good to others?

If the end result is really to have a whole culture made up of people who follow such a spiritual practice devotedly, performing acts of mercy, and pursuing justice, with the understanding that only spiritual renewal will allow such transformations, then by all means begin to teach only the sacred books, and make it so easy a child could understand it – a portion of St John, a dash of Jeremiah. We could all appeal to an influential God who arguably has made a big difference in societies all over the world (the God of Abraham), asking for the enlightenment that will let us see Him, see each other, and to “know as we are known” (an allusion the authors make to 2 Corinthinas 13: 12, which in context says: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”) But as an English teacher this would severely limit the value of my credential and all that reading! What do I do with all that Melville knowledge? No, we turn to the great books because they communicate their wisdom in vastly diverse eloquences, available not only to those whose eyes have been opened, but to anyone in a learning community who is willing to make sense out of words on a page, and open to listening.

[Barry Moser’s image http://hortontankgraphics.com/broadsides3.html]

One of the puzzling things for me in putting together the worldview presented in “Teaching Literacy” is to determine whether this is a spiritual undertaking in a mystical sense or a psychological sense. Profoundly theological statements in their book and in my own faith tradition acknowledge human dignity. But I am uncertain how to integrate the anthropocentric worldview presented here with my own theocentric worldview. That is, I assent to the dignity of human beings because I believe all people are created in God’s image. For me to educate children for wisdom would be to help them fully realize their potential to be awakened and used by God to serve (love) others. Caring for them and working for their justice would have little meaning apart from my seeing them in relation to myself as fellow human beings and to God as expressions of himself. Are we being asked to teach children to do good because it is good? or because it is right? a healthy mental practice? what are the grounds for the claim that it is morally good? As a teacher who aims to make his classroom more democratic, I can get behind reading Kant and St Paul on the reasonable or spiritual roots of goodness; but will my own philosophy get in the way of students forming their own opinions?

How welcome am I, using Wilhelm’s and Novak’s concepts, to teach an author such as Marx, who asserts that all human relationships are economic ones. His own wisdom, once adopted by me and my class, could lead to our action on behalf of oppressed people. (But could I guarantee that such action would be non-violent?) Or a reading of Ayn Rand, opposed to collectivism of all kinds, could push us to adopt individualistic goals. In one respect, it seems like conversations about their great books would foster a wonderful conversation about democracy and equality – its limits and liberties. Yet texts and wisdom must be selected somehow; all along, I have felt one question will have to come up: whose wisdom? whose texts? whose worldview?

Whose new orthodoxy?

In my educational paradigm, each individual must take responsibility for forming and integrating his own worldview, determining how best to practice what he believes about the world and the people in it. Literature and philosophy and history, as well as writings in the sciences and arts, provide a rich array of texts which touch on essential aspects of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional life, allowing their wisdom to emerge through democratic conversations. I don’t quite see the benefit of an agenda that pushes readers to find a particular brand of wisdom. If anything, during a democratic conversation about a text, we teachers need to set aside our agendas long enough to allow students opportunities to explore meaning for themselves. [Away from what we claim is a democratic conversation, there is ample time in a Christian school Bible or English curriculum for teachers and students to apply biblical wisdom to readings and experience. In carefully orchestrated classes run by a sensitive teacher or facilitated by student leaders, it can occur even during open dialogue.]

My own prejudice shows through here: I bristle a bit when any thematic unit announces its literature’s theme prior to the students’ opportunity to read it. In a perfect conversation in a democratic classroom the students, not the teacher, will explore and discover (or construct) themes and meaning; it may also happen in concert with the teacher as co-learner and co-leader. Wisdom’s themes, as the authors suggest, will be truths that are acknowledged universally. They also posit the co-creatorship of the world which will ensue during a series of classes. It is something like a return to Eden. Because they have chosen a powerful religious myth as their conceit, the new life they are selling in “Teaching for Literacy” has powerful appeal to teachers, who already want to save the world, one student at a time.

It seems there are models of wisdom education already in practice. What would have to change in order for these to comply with the new literacy, the new and generous orthodoxy promoted by Wilhelm and Novak? Am I already engaged in this kind of reflective learning and teaching?

1. Jesuit education: for education that honors spiritual wisdom, academic rigor, and emotional connections with the personal practice of mercy, justice, and compassion, look no further. There must be many classrooms in this model which promote democratic conversations.

2. Classical or classical Christian schools: liberal arts schools built on foundations of the eastern and western canons, often featuring Socratic dialogue seminars, get to the heart of the texts which the authors deem worthy of attention – those from the high period when wisdom flourished.

3. Matthew Lipman’s research: integrating philosophy from an early age in classrooms, so that young people begin thinking about wisdom and truth and continue throughout their lives.

I am unsure of a few things as I continue to muse about the reasons I need to teach this coming year. Is it so that I can start my students on a journey, or involve them in the democratic process? Is it to make them grow wise or become good? Is it to provide them a space where they can explore their faith in human beings, or their faith in God?

I do think I want to be part of this conversation, but I do not think I am clear about what is expected of me. I do feel certain of several things: students need to be acknowledged holistically, and teachers are in an excellent position to help them become aware of their own growth and potential; a democratic classroom offers good opportunities for students to listen to and express ideas, and teachers are in a privileged position to help them think about the implications of accepting various wise and true things. I think that an experienced teacher should have a grasp of various worldviews, sources of wisdom, philosophies, and critical schools, in order that when students do find or challenge the apparently wise and true, we may respond in ways that help them question, understand, and apply the new ideas, so that as they form their identities, they are continually growing as confident and resistant readers (as Pradl has it), and who are reflective about the way they practice what they believe.

They do not have to save the world in order to love it and its people.

[Photo credit: St John’s College website]




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