Archive for the 'constructivist' Category

25
Apr
17

your teacher is right

I recently tutored a student online as he prepared for the AP English exam.

“Have you done any preparation in your English class?” I ask.

“My teacher feels that the class should be enough. What we learn in English will prepare us to do well on any exams we choose to take.”

Well, that’s right, I think. So why the choice for online tutoring to prep for the AP Lit exam?

I did not ask this question directly.

I know the signs.

Parental orchestration. Weak knees in the days leading up to the annual May exam seating. A gripping awareness that other people take this test seriously – maybe they know something I don’t.

Leaving aside for now the whole question of The College Board, the value of AP, tests in general; acknowledging that a quick survey of 3o minutes will suffice to acquaint one with the type of questions to expect and the time and attention to allot; I agree with that teacher.

I am that teacher.


A slightly different angle, though, complicates my clear vision: my student’s personal goal is to gain confidence as a writer of AP exam essays. Under the umbrella of Writing Hope Works, I have chosen to subscribe to the mandate to coach writers toward their goals, so that they become more confident and resistant writers who write with clarity and force.

Combine this student goal with my belief that English class (and tutoring) exists to serve student learning purposes, and I do feel I can be of service. My writing conference format works well enough here, except for the urgency of time: it is days before the exam; and I charge an hourly rate for my tutoring time. In the normal writing workshop a revision process recurs, terminating with editing conferences. The student’s role is to do a lot of talking about her/his own writing; mine is to listen, encourage, ask a productive question.

Student choice is very important here. If this student CHOSE to sign up for the AP exam, great. If she/he CHOSE to set a goal and find a writing/literature coach, also great. This particular coach is a co-learner: I prepare (reviewing) major works in my personal time along with my tutee, who does it separately while on spring break. I create charts, analyze text, and outline my own response to pst prompts to the open question. I won’t simply lay out strategies – instead we need to learn alongside each other [the physical limitations of online learning notwithstanding].

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Me with Penny Kittle, author of “Write Beside Them”  

Yes, this is like English class. I even hear this response sometimes from my pupils, or from others in the background during my online sessions. I harbor a secret delight in their comment: in solidarity with all English teachers I know, the test is not the point. The point is two learners engaging in dialogue with the best minds of all time, both of us finding our voices, choosing how to respond, listening, shaping replies…

I can’t not be who I am called to be as a teacher.


And my pupil responds very positively to this. The young writer initiates and chooses activity. Behind the scenes lurk motivating forces beyond our control; but the writer is in control.

And the AP written exam is primarily an opportunity for a young writer to demonstrate control of language. Each prompt imposes specific constraints whose purpose is to draw out the best in each writer, to allow the writer to flourish. It is not much different from The British Baking Show, when it imposes a time and ingredient constraint such as “three chocolates in three hours — B-A-K-E!” The contestants CHOSE to be there in that tent; they CHOSE to work on their baking at home during the week.

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detail of a novel preparation chart for Gatsby

So today I am resigned in my position. I will use my experience with writing conferences, literature workshops, and oral exams [with my St. John’s tutors] to inquire with my pupil, dialogue about texts, and solve problems together.

I will enjoy the process of co-learning and co-leading, and will value the goal because it is my AP student’s own goal. If I truly trust the system (Writing Hope Works, whose aim is learner agency; writing conferences, whose aim is writers solving their own problems) then my young writer will set new goals tomorrow. When tests are done, today’s short-term goals are rewritten, and new long-term goals are imagined.

Even in the creation of new goals can I identify with all my learners. My writing goal in the coming weeks is to write a scholarly essay on novelist George Eliot as a critical educator. My teaching goal is to observe a local school model of student-initiated activity.

My goals have “real-world” constraints, such as a June 1st deadline and particular genre requirements for the written one, including submission to an audience of peers and professors. My own goal mirrors that of my tutee in its imminent deadline, highly qualified audience, and specialized genre. Observing the school demands fingerprinting, arranging hours, and understanding the rules (e.g. “No one will suggest to a child that one activity should take academic precedence over another.”).


A common theme runs through the posts I have written lately – not all of them published — every teaching moment is also a learning moment for me. And when my own interests, such as playing cards or piano or reading Victorian novels, put me in the shoes of a learner and student, I appreciate once more how difficult and rewarding learning can be. There is no substitute for the personal relationships formed within small groups learning together and the individualized help from a more experienced teacher. Anyone of any age can be a teacher.

Time and again, analog schools and teachers have proven not only better at teaching students, but  they can actually present more innovative solutions for education’s future.

from “The Revenge of School”, in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things And Why They Matter by David Sax

 

 

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.

07
Jun
16

Mastery vs. Understanding: Honoring my students

The whole school year there has been a push for recording and analyzing data, with the parties involved (let me rephrase: with teachers, administrators, and superintendant) using the trigger term mastery. I believe some colleagues were able to engage students in collecting and seeing their own data about standards they had been assessed on, and that as a class they were able to see at a glance how well they had performed on a specific task with respect to its related standard; then were successful at helping the students set goals to improve or re-learn.

I admire teachers who invite students to set and achieve goals; and I dutifully posted and projected daily standards phrased as statements of “I can:” or

We are learning how to:

In retrospect, though, I believe I had greater student buy-in the previous year, using Judith Langer’s concept of envisionment, in which my students agreed upon one or two classroom standards or cognitive procedures chosen from a preselected set–“Ask relevant questions” or “Apply lessons from literature to our own lives”.

 

 I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.

 

In either case, deep student learning was connected to benchmark standards, for which various assessments were employed to sample student preparedness, ability, and degrees of mastery. Setting aside for now the class time needed to re-teach for mastery, and the question of involving the already-proficient students in new studies based on new goals or deeper knowledge and thought, I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.

I wish, when it came to the big, statewide, district-mandated tests, that my students had been afforded the opportunity to show outside the walls of our school the big things they carried away with them this year, the meanings they constructed in our classroom communities. They did have such opportunities through debate, music competitions, and Schools to Watch involvement; I might have done much more myself to promote visibility and engage the wider community.

Here are a few things my students might have written, spoken, sung, discussed, or asked good questions about:

 

What multiple perspectives about justice compete for attention in this narrative?

How the details of any Edward Hopper painting contribute to its mood.

How an English Language Learner can distinguish between English words that sound or look the same but mean different things.

The way an author uses historic detail from a civil war battle to dramatize the story of a young teen in search of a father figure.

How students’ writing pathways and mindsets lead to a sense of control over their own writing purposes.

Why their books, music and video games are important to their lives.

Where new vocabulary terms and concepts intersect with their own lives.

When, how, and why to use literal, inferential, and critical reading skills.

How can dramatizing a poem help understand what it means?

What process did they use to compare the way two different genres tell the life of a President, and what did they learn about the genres, themselves, and others? Who will tell the stories of their lives, and in what media?

How to listen to all other people, and to address them with dignity and respect.

How to ask the group for help when they do or say something harmful to another person.

How to write a proposal and follow through on an individual plan for learning during genius hour.

How to work with others to establish the criteria by which their work will be assessed.

When making a decision, can they listen to an argument, recognize when someone is using ethos, pathos, or logos in an attempt to persuade me, tell if her or his argument is flawed?

What writing tools and tricks to apply depending on the job they want done or the idea they want to explore.

How to run a class meeting.

How do they conduct research and evaluate, document and cite reliable sources?

How and when to participate in written and spoken dialogue (including comic strips and opinion/editorials) with texts, people and ideas.

If an argument can be constructed and a viewpoint expressed using combinations of expository prose, poetry, narrative, fiction, allegory, and figurative language, then what combination will they use in their writing to express a new idea?


My students did amazing work all year, and I am left at the end of it all imagining that the lasting record of their learning is quantified as “30% growth demonstrated by 45% of students in grades x and y.”

My classes were full of individual human beings, each with her own learning styles, interests, and background experiences to be activated as she constructs meaning for herself. Because a single letter grade, reading level, isolated test score, or even year in school do not do justice to the complex thoughtfulness of each person over a whole year, I resist placing much value in them. I wrestle with the increasing amount of attention they are given and the time they demand.

Today I celebrate the accomplishments of my students, the middle grade classes of 2015-2016! My students showed care for others, worked together on hard things to achieve great results, read a ton of good books, and engaged in conversations all year about texts, learning, and life. They took risks, were willing to fail in order to learn, and stretched outside their comfort zone with many learning activities. They forged deep connections between ideas, experiences and friends.

My students went deeper, with extended and strategic learning (Webb’s Depth of Knowledge). What a privilege it has been to see all this at first hand! Today I honor my students for all the work they did to construct learning that will not show up on a report card, in a statistic, or in a comparison with Finland. I salute the students who ran home last weekend to try their hand at baking cream puffs after reading Wednesday Wars, or who sought me out to have a one-on-one discussion about a question they brought after reading The Giver. Today I commit to remembering the faces of learning this summer, not its frustrations!

Please let me know, via Twitter, WordPress, or your own blogs and FB pages, what you commit to remember and celebrate from this year. Have a great summer!

 

 

 

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? 

08
Nov
14

Engaging eyes remix

I want my students to see new artwork. Art critical of ideas that harm women. It is timely now, when news articles appear describing threats against women opposed to misogynistic violence in video games.

Enter Jerusha Pimentel. This artist and friend allowed me to use her provocative images of women and men as an introduction to and commentary on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 

Jerusha Pimentel's "stripper Series"

At the risk of narrowing inquiry early, I chose to use art to draw in my British Lit students, establishing a mental image of a recurring pattern they could watch for in the book; it established also the message that it was going to be OK to discuss the male gaze, double standards for men and women, and date rape.

I was permanently changed by reading Toni Morrison’s “Playing in The Dark”, because in it she shares a vision of rereading old books to see things in them we had not noticed before; she challenged me to hear unwritten voices and listen to unspoken stories; I want to pass this quest on to my students. When I approach a classic book in English class, I desire to be open to hearing my students’ discoveries.

It helps me this month to think of new works as doorways into older books. Artwork such as Pimentel’s speaks directly into the lives of today’s young women, addressing body image and men’s distorted views of the female, and interrogating  traditional understanding of gendered concepts of innocence and vice. A single effective visual can become a touchpoint for many discussions and discoveries relating today’s world and a classic text.

Face in Jerusha Pimentel's "Stripper Series"

We can do much to support our students – present or past – in producing thoughtful responses to today’s issues.

Teach literature as an ongoing conversation in which their voices are welcome and needed. If it is a closed conversation, why invite participation?

Encourage not only creativity but imagination: some of my students share that they believe they are helpless when it comes to changing the grading system itself and the way parents, colleges, and teachers equate grades with “success”. Learning, they write, is about more than a grade. We can help young people imagine the possibilities of change and progress even in the most entrenched facets of culture.

Another friend and artist, John Kuhn, began sharing conversations and discoveries with me in 9th grade. In his twenties now, he continues to explore the connections between art, thought, and culture.

coyote paints 1

Engaged learners become interested in the world and remain so. Engaged teachers demonstrate interest in their students by being open to the possibility of new discoveries in old texts.

If I had taught this the old way, I would have resorted to a dual focus on allusions in the novel, and symbols of purity. I can’t with integrity ask students to examine multiple perspectives in a text if I am unwilling to listen to their voices. I hope that art provides an engaging starting point for conversation.

Once visual art has been introduced, it is an easy step to invite students to create art of their own in response to the reading; even to take notes using creative methods such as Daniel Weinstein shares in his Creativity Core.

06
Nov
14

before vs. after

BEFORE
The time change has wreaked havoc with my sleep system. Waking early, I used the extra time this morning to develop a few conflict cards — improvisation tools for students to use in class today. I have finished, and am certain these will prompt lively engagement from my British Lit students reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

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We are about to read the chapter in which Tess and Angel reveal their past to each other in an agape meal: so named by the author. Sensing that the students will benefit from a sharpened sense of the forces at work in the new bride-and-groom’s minds, I plan to use 1-minute skits in which pairs and trios dramatize the internal conflicts.

I employed a familiar id vs. ego or angel vs. devil motif, generally with opposing forces urging Angel Clare to resort to either his pride or humility, his impulses or reason. I also took the couple through the ages, asking pairs to play similar situations in 1620s & 1850 (American Lit students will recall Hester, Pearl, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale), 1968 and 2014.

Because most have read The Hunger Games, I also included several antagonisms related to literary issues. A gifted screenwriter is offered $15 million to produce a script which in no way criticizes modern culture or society. Hardy and the author who acknowledges his influence on her work, Suzanne Collins, challenge the young writer to refuse the contract, in the name of artistic freedom. My final card is a challenge between Katniss and Tess to see who is stronger.

I can’t wait to see how they will react, but I am pretty certain they will love to be out of their seats and up on their feet doing fast-moving scenes that relate to challenges they face.

AFTER
So, actually it was a good result: it was still a nice day, just before lunch, so we stepped outdoors to tackle the skits.

I was most pleased with the students’ ability to enter into the spirit of the tug-of-war, not over the character’s decision as much as over the ideas that are relevant to lives today.

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Students role-played both earnestly and with melodramatic flair, confessing sordid pasts and buried children, tempting one another to abandon or stay with their partner, to forgive or forget each other.

Because double standards for men and women still exist, it was satisfying to see both young men and women making strong arguments for equal treatment. I was also delighted that all but one person had read The Hunger Games (and even she had read parts) and got into persuading the young writer not to compromise his freedom, citing familiar anecdotes about Collins’ real life cultural inspirations.

Wouldn’t you know it, three people were absent from that one class? Yet that afforded the others a few more minutes of stage time. I even had more cards than I was able to use.

I am pretty sure that these imaginary scenes will serve the students as “frontloading” for the upcoming chapter about the Clares’ wedding night. We had taken a few days away from the novel in order to write and share fiction. I feel confident that with such skits and today’s sense of playfulness fresh in their minds, readers will be ready to appreciate and actually enjoy Hardy’s scene.

Photos of earlier scenes

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.




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  • Guided Discovery Lesson Plan: Cubbies November 9, 2015
    This lesson introduces students to the their classroom cubbies. The lesson allows the class as a whole to determine what is the appropriate use of a cubby and how to best care for them. What is a Guided Discovery? It is a student-centered … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Guided Discovery Lesson Plan: Freeze Signal November 6, 2015
    The Freeze Signal is used to communicate to students that they should suddenly stop what they are doing and pay attention to the teacher.  I consider it an important safety measure.  Personally, I use a singing bowl, but I have seen teachers use … Continue reading →
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  • What is this Maker Movement? February 12, 2015
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    Erin Mahollitz
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    Erin Mahollitz
  • Story Starters August 9, 2013
    This is a first for me.  I have been contacted by SmileMakers to preview one of their products, of my own choosing.  As an avid writing teacher, and a writer myself, I chose to review their Story Starter Word Cubes. … Continue reading →
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    My love for tech begins at a personal level.  I plan my life (and my lessons) on iCalendar. I create invites, worksheets, game handouts and more with Word and/or Pages.  All of my music comes from the web (check out … Continue reading →
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  • Math Game: Hangmath October 8, 2011
    What is it? Hangmath is paper and pencil game similar to Hangman.  Players take turns creating two-digit addition problems, which the other player guesses. Rationale: Hangmath reinforces place value concepts because the Magical Minds must ask questions about the digits … Continue reading →
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  • Studying Systems October 7, 2011
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  • Reading: Understanding Genre Help Us Make Predictions October 6, 2011
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  • Math Game: Foreheaded (place value) October 5, 2011
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