Archive for the 'literature for democracy' Category

19
May
18

run away! ! !

Yes, I am obsessed with, and keep returning to Monty Python.

As inspiration, as nostalgia, as poultice; as philosophy.

Thanks in no small part to the gift of the COMPLETE Python collection on DVD, courtesy of best friend and science educator extraordinaire, Susan Berrend. Beneath a shared love of British gardens, humor, and baking shows (and no small affection for Oxford commas and Anglican prayers) resides an even deeper shared commitment to pedagogy, an unwavering interest in discerning student needs and experimenting with new ways to meet those needs.

Which brings me to the force of my allusion to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. King Arthur and his knights are on a quest, but when nearing a treasure horde which may yield the coveted grail, they are frightened by a rampant rabbit.

avoidance strategy

This year I have seen students avoid reading. Some practice what Kelly Gallagher describes in Readicide – where students get assignments done without actually reading. This is ascribed to teacher expectations. One of my students, fascinated by problem-solving, is absolutely convinced that by dedicating time and energy to memorizing punctuation rules and grammar definitions she will inch her way forward and improve her standardized testing score.

Why?

running from or running toward?

Lest I forget that learning is social, and that literacy processes do not occur in a vacuum, these avoidance strategies serve to alert me to the motivating factors in my learners’ worlds.

One learner is driven to complete tasks as quickly as possible in order to move on to the social interactions they look forward to that day. Therefore they will do precisely what the teacher demands, in order to prove to their parent that their calendar is now open to schedule play dates and plan parties. My skill set allows me to integrate even those plans into journaling, research, organizing, and writing-to-learn; I can also involve cooking, makeup, and executive function lessons in authentic and meaningful ways.

For such a student, part of my challenge is to de-school the learner, who will benefit when they see learning as something one does for oneself, as opposed to what one does for others in authority. True, there are wonderful social benefits to the greater community when individuals grow intellectually and acquire wisdom; but one does not learn to love reading just to complete a checklist whose goal is to free one FROM reading.*

race to the finish

Today’s Preakness Stakes reminds me that other learners, like my prescriptive grammarian pupil, run headlong toward a clear goal they have set for themselves, which motivates them. Even if I do not understand the full enticements of these goals, I must acknowledge their power in putting a student in charge of her own learning.

My student can tell me how she learns best, what I should focus on, and how quickly she is improving; she can also relate which fall semester class she wants to qualify for, and how many minutes a day she will dedicate to this finish line. Now, I am no genius, but if you don’t like reading I am not sure why you would want to get into a course that expects you to do a ton of it. The challenge? Actually, I suspect that, like thoroughbreds, the air of competition somehow drives them to top performance.

Yet what role do I play as a democratic instructor who advocates for student voice and shared authority? As a trusted teacher and coach, I can offer advice and exercises that stretch the reader, inviting her take up a text and enjoy it.

I suspect that my I do not fully understand my influence at this time.

A couple of nights ago a school parent from the past recognized me at a concert, and made a point of telling me “Mr. Hultberg got me to like Shakespeare!” The parent also said that our production of King Lear made Shakespeare clear to them. This was poignant, since the performer on stage was Michael Bigelow, a jazz arranger and saxophonist, who had played Lear in that show, which I stage directed and Berrend tech directed.

I have also received a printed invitation to an upcoming ceremony at my current school, and I R.S.V.P.-ed in person to the preteen who had handed me the slip. She said, “I knew you would dress nice, because you always show … respect for people.”

At this moment I simply want to show my respect for the learning choices my students make, and to honor the freedom I claim to value.

When it is most important in their lives, I have to trust that my role as an engaged reader and lifelong learner will exert its due influence some day.

rabbit rampant

So the next time you are frightened by a rampant rabbit, or notice students running quicky in the opposite direction from which you wish to lead them, P A U S E. Remember that they are on a personal quest of their own, and nothing you can do will alter its course. Confide in your trusted friend as I do in mine; value your relationships with students and colleagues, knowing that others will be inspired by your commitment. Trust that what is most important to you – a garden, music – will not fail to exert its due influence in its time.

*Checklists: As I write this post, many of my students are actively engaged in reading ten books this summer in order to win free passes to the state fair!


Image at http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_7FAsUT6FePU/SWOhlsoMZgI/AAAAAAAAAdA/1Emq5jvchOc/s1600-h/Holy-Grail-Killer-Rabbit-Posters.jpg cited in Moviedeaths.blogspot.com

Degas painting public domain

Photo by GH pradlfan 5/17/2018

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01
Mar
18

Moonlighting until tomorrow

I always thought there was something fundamentally broken or unfair about people needing to “moonlight” by taking a second job outside their vocation. I had consumed a steady diet of TV police dramas featuring daytime cops with evening jobs as bouncers, security detail, bodyguards, driver safety instructors. Then I began to notice teachers working extra jobs, too. Last year, one of my colleagues supplemented her full time teacher pay working as a waitress at a local restaurant. When did she see her family?

The job of teacher is demanding enough, consuming all one’s time and energy, without the added stress of more time and work. It would feel more whole, be more just, if our teachers could just remain dedicated to their professional art and craft and have time for family, friends, and community; for rest and remaining current in their fields. How do I remain true to my calling while earning enough to survive, now, and retire, later?

Other professions, too, require clean hands: a similar investment of time, service, and diplomacy that appears both impartial and above reproach. The teacher’s craft compares with the doctor’s, clergy’s, governor’s. Many of us cheer the idea of a politician whose hands are not sullied by an inordinate desire for money, and who can practice the wonderful work of statecraft without becoming dependent on the money offered by the pharmaceutical industry or gun lobby. I am thinking that there are noble ideals in teaching; but in acknowledging them I must be wary not to judge myself against an unrealistic ideal. Where do my ideals come from?

The movies

If we applaud the home-y philosopher-stateswoman who is not beholden to special interests, we are not necessarily alienated by the Western-genre myth of a person hired to “clean up the town”. See our mythic heroes John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart. A higher ideal guides such characters, now seen as archetypal, who have come to be embodied in John Ford and Frank Capra movies.

Sometimes these characters step into volatile situations, act to temporarily bring about equilibrium, and leave the town stronger, cleaner, and more whole than when they arrived. All of us humans are touched by some evil or threat of harm, and even if we temporarily gun it down or fight it off, it will outlive us because only something like a love altogether more powerful will disable it. Hints of such better futures are also found in ideal film performances by Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. But they are perpetuated in new and original films such as The Post and The Shape of Water in performancesby Meryl Streep and Sally Hawkins.

Both Casablanca and Gone with the Wind end with lovers parting, and someone walking off into a mist, the words “beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “tomorrow is another day” reverberate in the theater as the score swells and the camera zooms out. But we overlook the romanticized heroism or love that redeems such flawed people. Rhet and Rick are profiteers with “hearts of gold”, but they admire idealism in others. Rick sees Ilsa’s and Rhet sees Scarlett’s. Louis is a Nazi sympathizer by convenience; Rhet will fight on the side of the South if it pays better. Everyone is caught between the real world, with its demand for practical tasks, time, and money; and the ideal world, with its tough and courageous love that sacrifices all for family, love, and justice. And most of us, rather than being in love with a single task-specific aspect of our teaching jobs, such as grading papers or taking attendance, are aligned to a more general, abstract habit, such a coaching learners toward independence or encouraging creativity in others.

vocation

That is why I feel the vocation of teaching is caught at this moment in history, caught, like night club owner Rick in Casablanca, between the practical responsibility of running his business (casino, black market) and the romantic heroism of aiding the helpless. In an early scene establishing his virtue and higher calling, he protects a married woman from having to compromise her marriage at the hands of a ruthless, predatory male (who can give her safe passage out of Casablanca in exchange for sexual favors) by fixing the roulette game to ensure her husband wins, then sending them away on an alternate route to safety.

In traditional and archetypal film style, the heroic male is costumed in white and lit strongly; in this shot, I see how Hungarian-born immigrant director Michael Curtiz focuses on the woman’s idolizing gaze at Bogie (Rick), as he, a knight in shining armor, defends her; and while the real love of her life, the man in the foreground, entrusts his savings to Rick. The romantic triangle in tableau foreshadows the actual one eventually played out when Ilsa bargains for her own husband’s safe passage, in order to continue fighting against the Nazis and leading his countrymen to freedom through resistance.

I like hopeful endings: they satisfy my acknowledged preference for justice and honor. I fear that, with many other people today, I also share an unacknowledged preference for the unreal Western myth to be realized in the midst of our daily real lives.

Thus it comes about that we have an national dicussion on the table about whether I, a classroom teacher, should be armed with a pistol in order to protect and defend my students.

The film buff in me has always wanted to be Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart — with a little Hercule Poirot and Fred Astaire thrown in.

Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, PUNK?

But I sense there is a collision of worlds in this scenario I have not acknowledged. It is a clash between the Platonic ideal of Teacher and the practical reality of Bodyguard. Yet some idealism about my work remains implanted in me. I am hopeful that my vocation and my workplace can retain their integrity of purpose. Learning happens in an environment that is safe, peaceful, and fun; when Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith makes his stand in Congress against corruption, he uses his proper tool, his voice, until it wears out; when Eastwood as Dirty Harry patrols the streets of San Francisco to stop a deranged serial killer, he carries the appropriate tool of his trade, a handgun. Movie teachers, in their fictional worlds, carry their spectacles, their Browning versions, their chalk, and their occasional cane or ruler.

Just what America needs in the classroom: one more phallic symbol of authority and force. I remember a much earlier national conversation steered by the Western myth. We considered the “Star Wars defense system” proposed by Hollywood actor-turned-President Ronald Reagan. To most of my friends, such a mistaken idea was a collision between two worlds: one fictional, in which war was glamorized because it symbolized noble human deeds and ideas (Jedi Knights and The Force) pitted against monstrous cruelty and power (Darth Vader and the Death Star); the other nonfiction, in which human beings on either side might bleed and die, and no one could say with certainty which were the monsters and who the humans.

Fortunately, there are women to compete with this myth of masculine power. Katharine Graham, whose strength towers over the men in her Washington, D.C. world, those attempting to exert force over her publishing The Pentagon Papers in The Post, resists their influence in order to make her independent choices.

Graham shown here with Truman Capote

As another Academy Award ceremony is telecast, viewers have a choice of new myths in which to believe. The stories themselves may not be new, since they include historical accounts of such events as The Battle of Dunkirk and the fight to publish The Pentagon Papers. Yet the expression of such stories is meaningful and original.

We witness Katharine Graham make a choice that exposes years of top level government officials’ knowledge about the unwinnability of the Viet Nam war; and in The Shape of Water we feel a tyrant’s monstrous contempt for life, beauty, and weakness countered by a mute cleaning-woman’s love and respect for a captive and complex being. Filmmakers, actors, and writers are only a few of the craftspersons serving as today’s “shapers”, the scops [singer-poets] John Gardner wrote about in his 1971 novel Grendel, a reshaping of the Beowulf epic from the creature’s point of view.

empowered teachers

The decisive Moments in our lives are born in the moments we feel the most powerless. We still need heroes, underdogs, and champions; but we must choose them more carefully today.

On Friday I saw a refreshing film hero with an ancient weapon.

I enjoy knowing that the students next to me during the screening admired this teenage girl’s tenacity; two weeks earlier, I had noticed a couple of others picking out the perfect airsoft assault rifle from an online catalog.

Clearly, we are not the first generation to critique the Hollywood commercialization of the myth of the Old West – its glamor, its icons, its hostility to indigenous peoples and disempowerment of women. Unlike some, though, I don’t feel the need to remove all traces of a trigger-happy culture or of a past for which anyone with privilege used it without a second thought. Warhol alters an iconic image so that we can never see it again as we did before. As summer scholars in El Paso at the recent NEH-sponsored “Tales from the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderland Narratives”, we secondary teachers and UTEP program directors Joseph Rodríguez and Ignacio Martinez saw value in keeping old monuments standing alongside newly erected ones, in order that the whole story could be told and no voices silenced. This new figure of a Tiguan woman stands not far from the Chamizal Memorial and U.S.-Mexico border, whereas previous Texas statues tended to honor conquistadors.

El Paso Times photo

I do believe there is room for a plurality of voices; new monuments and new myths can help to reinterpret the past and to invite participation in a more hopeful future. In a scene from Middlemarch, author George Eliot composes the view from the window of Dorothea’s future house, “happy” on one side, but “melancholy” on the other; she establishes that in “this latter end of autumn”, in the house’s sunless interior “air of autumnal decline” Dorothea’s fiance Casaubon has “no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background.” Dual images compete for Dorothea’s attention, the happy side including a small park, a fine old oak, a pleasure-ground, and an avenue of limes “melting into a lake in the setting sun.” The landscapes and interiors represent a choice between two futures: from the same single vantage point today, any of us might look ahead in time in multiple directions and project either dismal and sunless or cheerful and pleasant days ahead. We may not have the agency to effect a change in our circumstance when things appear hopeless. Yet our outlook might take on a new shape given the myth in which we find ourselves.

vocational training

Our teaching can take new shape in response to new students. As Philip Davis writes in The Transferred Life of George Eliot (Oxford 2017), George Eliot had begun one novel in 1869 and set it aside, only to begin a “different novel instead” in November 1870, more than a year later.

The story was of an ardent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, a modern St Theresa though ‘foundress of nothing’, seeking, without the structure of a clear faith, a vocation and an epic life in the modern world. … As D H Lawrence said of George Eliot … ‘It was she who started putting all the action inside.’

Eliot sets aside one kind of work for another, and her result is Middlemarch, in which she eventually found room to accommodate both stories. And in contrast with film, which by its nature externalizes action, she transfers action to the inside. Her influence is felt in genres as diverse as the mysteries of P.D. James, the hardboileds of Ross Macdonald, and the YA of Sara Zarr.

Marian Evans as the novelist George Eliot is a true teacher, having used the art of poetry to fashion little worlds in which characters investigate vocation, question faith, and imagine better futures. Just imagine if all our classrooms could be little laboratories like hers!

One of the drawbacks to such rooms, worlds, and communities is that it takes a good deal of time to read and probe, through open dialogue – true Socratic dialectic – and reflect on vocation, faith, future, and authority. I feel helpless and disempowered when the school schedule, class size, curriculum, and student interest and inexperience prohibit frequent use of such authentic investigations. Such lack of agency can lead to shame when I seek part-time work for which an education is not required. I have applied for my share of odd jobs in recent month, from library aide to UPS clerk to cafe attendant; and I have done some moonlighting that puts my expertise to work as a copy editor, test-prep tutor, and background actor. At this stage, for me, it is realistic to work part-time jobs, in order to press on toward an ideal class in which students use their voice, participate in community decisions, acquire abiding understanding of ideas and how they work, and have agency.

Such ideals are shaped less, I find, by the myth of teacher-as-hero than by the ability of my students to see themselves as having a role in their own future. Maybe it is time I acknowledge learner-as-hero mythology. [Icarus, Bildungsroman, Fellowship of the Rings, Karate Kid]

changing the narrative

When my students have agency and hope, I am able to step in and guide, support, or nudge them in my role as a learning coach. I can replace outdated or unrealistic myths with models and mentors who show me how to be flexible, patient, and strategic as a teacher. There remains for me a temptation to put off tomorrow, as Scarlet O’Hara does, till “another day”; and to subvert the traditional broken and unjust systems of authority as the anti-hero Dirty Harry does. I have even been attracted to the notion of placing it all on the roulette wheel, cashing out, and leaving the game, like a Casablanca character.

But my calling goes deep, and has a history dating at least back to Socrates, who believed there was justice in showing young people how to question received traditions, systems, and authorities; and there was poetry in the art of speaking properly about humans and divinities. Today social justice is a key term along with agency, and a motivating force in pedagogy which seeks to empower both students and teachers as literate citizens making a difference in society.

Movies and teachers can work to change the narrative stars by which young people sail on their journeys.

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].

20140113-144352.jpg

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.

IMG_0045

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

 

 

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

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.

image

“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.

image

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.

image

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.”

06
Apr
15

anyone can teach english

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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




Gordon’s Tweets

  • RT @onewheeljoe: A3 Almost all of the challenges I have encountered I handle by giving the student an alternative. When students have voice… 2 days ago
  • RT @danahmaloney: The Pope: “There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make th… 2 days ago
  • @CathEdToday Newman’s Ideas of a University inform my daily teaching practice. 2 days ago
  • RT @CathEdToday: “A great memory does not make a mind any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.” CARDINAL JOHN HENRY NEWMAN ht… 2 days ago
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