Archive for the 'literature instruction' Category

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.

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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.

20
Nov
14

mirror exercise

In drama games we play mirrors, where the goal is to “follow the follower.” First one partner leads and the other follows her/his gestures and expressions as if facing a mirror; then they switch roles: the focus is on following the leader, on close observation. But as they continue, a fluid exchange of leadership occurs, until when both members of one mirroring unit function perfectly, neither an observer nor even the twain can tell who leads. They have achieved the goal of following the follower.

In my English classroom such moments occur as frequent flashes, but just as in drama those spectacular star bursts of creative energy have brief half lives, until you look again and once more it is obvious who leads who.

I have practiced the co-leader co-learner philosophy for at least 8 years now, in class and in my St. John’s College Alumni seminars, at CEL conferences and at church book studies; it even shows up in jazz music when I try to work on songs at the piano with a sax player, and this year it adds a new focus to my Professional Development circle of 4 teachers each struggling to learn about ourselves as instructors with the observations and insights of the other 3.

Today it feels as though my English classes are one long attempt to generate more flashes of following followers. Am I wishing for more beauty in the constellation of student interactions with texts and each other? Clearly, yes.

It seems my students don’t recognize the flash, spark, beauty when I have found it.

Consider my 10th graders, who helped write stories with 2nd graders in October (at our K-12 school): when self evaluating, students didn’t feel their work merited a grade; however, I was able to see that their accomplishment had met at least 5 of our school’s major learning outcomes, in categories of service, critical thinking, and communicating. Grades themselves weren’t the issue, but even as we have begun to move toward narrative feedback of student progress, the language of standards and Envisionment learning (Langer) is not yet adequate to meld in student minds with what they actually accomplish: they do not see reflections of themselves in words yet, but still see themselves as grades.

My seniors notice the problem with being identified as grades, numbers, ACT scores. They desire to be known by colleges for their interests, skills, and personalities; what’s more, they dream of a higher ed experience that they can tailor to their own needs and interests–one that won’t kill off their love of learning things.

I am now focused on starting a Utah StuCamp, modeled on the EdCamp movement, in which a half-day of free meetings with other teens, without an agenda, affords students the opportunity to express themselves and have their voices heard by others, including teachers who assist in the logistics of the operation. I think students need to hear other students, in order to figure out whether they experience learning as more “doing” or “done to”.

Creative problem solving

Continue reading ‘mirror exercise’

26
May
14

unfinished business

This has never happened before.

With at most two class meeting left at the end of the year, I have failed to reach the destinations I had assumed we desired.

There is one act of The Tempest yet be read.

There are two chapters of Tale of Two Cities still ahead.

The group action and product for a collaborative inquiry has yet to be created, though it is under way.

On the list of “completed” I am happy to say that small group book clubs and research studies did not suffer. I subordinated my own “coverage of content” goals to student goals such as the book clubs, and curating To-Read lists on Goodreads for their summer reading.

They also worked with younger students to teach them how to get onto Edmodo, and how to dance Jane Austen -style (both 21st Century skills!).

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

They provided me with useful feedback and their own reflections about small group and individual learning as readers, writers, and researchers; they offered suggestions for whole class book studies for themselves and future students.

I have not ever faced so blatantly the absence of alignment between my unit calendar and the actual daily learning processes that occur. I attribute the finish–like the Preakness, where my students are California Chrome and I am the pack spread out behind; or the Giro d’Italia, where they are riders out front, and I am the peleton who waits too long to put on the speed and overtake them before the finish–I attribute the finish to the surrender of control that necessarily accompanies the sharing of authority in my classroom. As I try to respond to their pacing, their needs, I adjust the pacing and mini-lessons that I had planned, adding writing conferences to generate encouraging feedback and removing burdensome requirements.

But the subtraction of certain work means re-prioritizing goals, so that I must ask myself “How important is it for their learning?”

For example, I always told them “Tale of Two Cities [whole class novel] is the dress rehearsal; your book club is the opening night.”

Diigo screen for research group

Diigo screen for research group

 

Coming into the home stretch at the end of May, we have all run the race. Our students, us; there is plenty of unfinished business on either side. I have a heap of partially operational websites and apps to either dismantle or rebuild as models of student portfolios, class blogs, glogs, and research tools.

Google Site

Google Site

But for now, I have left it all behind at the paddock.

I have to get out of the old mindset, in which I was in competition with myself against last year’s number of units, with students over whose goals merit priority treatment, or with a Platonic ideal of interpretive community. In the new mindset, my students are in the game, and I am their coach, not their opponent; their goals and my goals merge end evolve over time, but flex more by student progress achieved (Past Performances) than by distance remaining to the final furlong, toward unrealistic expectations.

What I see as unfinished business is actually an opportunity for me to practice a flexible mindset and join my students in the Winners’ Circle.

29
Mar
14

a revolution

Stuck. In a hard place between gamifying A Tale of Two Cities — involving students discovering things I have predetermined and solving problems I have identified and defined; or having them learn it “by wholes” — incorporating play, working on the hard parts, and treating it as the “junior version” of the real game afterward: small group book clubs.

In gamifying, I become gamemaster, a role I am quite comfortable with when it comes to Dickens novels. They chose this book, incidentally.

Sophomores.

In the other option I coach as they identify problems that defy easy definitions, offering useful feedback as they respond to the text (which a well constructed game will also do), and setting up conditions for collaborative inquiry. This approach, too, should lead to discoveries, yet I cannot know in advance what they will be.

Because the novel is set during the French Revolution, I have been thinking that revolution encompasses a good deal that might be worth inquiring about as a reader establishes connections and builds envisionments through this text.

There are so many beautiful aspects of revolution that stir me: patriotism and social change; faith, and spiritual change; education, and intellectual change. And there is that unpredictable awakening that happens in most individuals during the teen years when they rebel against conformity and distinguish themselves from others through clothes, music, art, books…looking for a subculture with which to identify.

I insist upon [the right attitude to work], because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage  of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice.   From Dorothy Sayers’ post-war essay, “Why Work?” 

For a few moments they will recognize Mr. Lorry, who fights through his deadpan facade, whose bright eyes are the only unburied thing about him; Sydney Carton, who redefines his unsatisfying life by leaving it behind; and the embittered Madame Defarge, knitting in silent rebellion at first, her indignation rising until it breaks out in violence.

Possibly they will acknowledge the protests their grandparents endured or waged against the Vietnam War, similarly removed in time as Dickens was from the Revolution.

And then there is the technology revolution. Will they be moved to consider the implications, the new freedoms, the shameful abuses?

And then there is me. Stuck. Witness to a time of great education revolution, yet grudging participant in a system that still issues grades for indefinite achievements, shouts Liberty, Fraternity, Equality! for some, but not for all. As much a relic of the British Tradition (title of my little-used but proudly shelved Prentice Hall anthology) as Mr Lorry or the institution he serves, Tellson’s bank. All I need is the powdered flaxen wig.

What pulls me forth from my grave, recalls me to life, as Manette, Lucie, and Darnay are summoned to resume theirs? My freshmen, who last week devised a solution to the problem I posed. They had to evaluate “how do I know if I am finished?” with Fahrenheit 451. One group came back with a great response: “We want to read another novel to compare it with (Lord of the Flies), research some elements of both the books, and then show connections we make between the texts, ourselves, and our lives on the bulletin board with yarn [like the one up there now that the sophomores did].”

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My American Lit students are enthused about pursuing an inquiry question arising from The Scarlet Letter that will lead to research and social action: writing a bill to send to a Utah legislator who has promised to read all propositions. They became quite engaged in Pearl’s custody hearing earlier this month.

 

2014-02-26 10.42.33

2014-02-26 10.42.25

 

No, I am not actually stuck. I am challenged and excited to help my sophomores make sense of a complex text that will yield unpredictably personal and individualized rewards. I just want to be worthy of their thinking, ingenuity, and creativity; this means practicing patience, and allowing ideas their percolating time.

Last time my students did Dickens, my goal was that they would become performers of the spoken text; they found it very helpful when I offered them a guideline that suggested what proficiency might look like, sound like. Fearful at first that they would turn a teacher-designed rubric into a pale excuse for a cause for reductive grading (conformist, aristocratic, abnegating reflection and authorship of their own learning), I was recalled to life by the students’ choice to respond individually to each other’s presentations one by one, pausing between oral interpretations to offer written feedback and encouragement in the form of blank notecards I had in my possession. Each presenter received immediate feedback on her speech from peers, who had also coached her during preparation earlier in the week and could monitor improvements. A true, meaningful recognition by peers of learning by whole, rather than teacher grading on Gradgrind-iose toadying expertise.
Students in those merry days would swap with others who became delightedly immersed in a speech; they recorded the orals as a lasting record of achievement.

The next step sophomores will take is determining whether an Essential Question is to guide their reading and inquiry, now that they have been introduced to the earliest chapters and done some learning activities. Essential questions can work very well; this is where revolution may aid us as a centering concept, but other themes could just as well take the shape of EQs and drive inquiry into this novel. Yet to be a truly responsive coach, I would be remiss not to allow students to delve fully into the love triangle that Dickens places against the backdrop of the French Revolution. For me to urge a Revolution focus would be the equivalent of attending Hamlet and advising an essay be written on the draperies masking the wings, or the fabric of the arras behind which Polonius [spoiler alert] is run through. If the teacher chooses the Essential Question he belittles the concept of democratic decisions. Better perhaps to model frequent socratic seminar questions related to daily readings, asking students to come up with their own opening seminar questions, then periodically grouping and categorizing the subjects of inquiry, watchful for any common elements that might suggest a centering concept.

About my own next step I am ambivalent. The above Tweet appeared just a week after a parent had told me about a book she was reading on grades, motivation, and Finland. I voiced an opinion about grades, homework, and standardized testing, but what I really meant was REVOLUTION. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, colleges, textbook/test publishers, and legislators all play roles in the dialogue about what good learning is. Until we reach consensus about what Dorothy Sayers calls the “absolute value” of doing hard work, the ultimate purposes for and measurements of learning will be frustrated. Last week’s #satchat gave rise to multiple possible ends of the educational project in our country: citizenship, morality, democracy, imperialism. It may be up to stakeholders in each learning community to define its outcomes. Ask essential questions: Why is it worth teaching well and learning well? What can parents do to enter into good learning? How do teachers and students reject tests that don’t measure the things that make good work valuable? How do administrators support and communicate the beliefs about learning among all constituents?

Back to my sophomores. They told me, in response to my mid-year reminder to them that class exists to serve their learning purposes, how to help coach them: 1) “force us outside our comfort zone”; 2) “do a unit where we all read exactly the same thing at the same time and pace”; and 3) “help us work on the hard parts”. That is my mandate. I will fulfill it if I have to don a flaxen wig, take up a pair of knitting needles, and direct the storming of the Bastille in “Tower” Room 209 myself.

 

 

02
Mar
14

Holy fear

Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand/This holy shrine… (1.5.92ff)

For years I have shied away from inviting students into a deep engagement with the language of the lovers at their first meeting in Shakespeare’s famous love story. This week I shook off my fear, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and learned from my freshmen.

In the past I have prematurely hurried on into Act 2, afraid to impose my own reading of this scene on the students, because it closes off further thinking about the language in this scene and discourages multiple viewpoints. Ironically, I was doing exactly that anyway by avoiding a close reading of the scene. Today, students organically explored the meeting between Romeo and Juliet. In doing so, they not only classified the diction in the lovers’ sonnet, but began to adopt a critical stance toward that language choice.

A student-created poster hangs in the room: “Learn to recognize paradox in a scene, so we can apply it to the rest of the play”, the unit goal reads. After students met in expert groups to work towards their goal by categorizing potentially paradoxical terms from the scene, I gathered new groups comprised of one member of each expert group at which students shared their findings and reflected on categories of words Shakespeare uses and their effects.

What they taught me was that even at grade nine they make a distinction between author’s intention and reader’s interpretation. Asked to consider aloud the effect of Shakespeare’s language, a student countered with the question, “Do you mean the effect the author intended, or the effect it actually had on us?” Bingo.

I gestured wordlessly to the student — “We are all listening to you,” — and backed slightly from the round table at which we sat. Elated, excited, I was a bundle of nervous energy. Authorial intent? Where does meaning reside? These are concepts I listen for and encourage, yet seldom find emerging even in AP classes without teacher- driven, goal-oriented prompting.

A resistant reader is born.

A vigorous conversation ensues without me speaking.

Fast forward several weeks into the future. See these students generating ideas about culture as they read Fahrenheit 451; hear them wrestling, unprompted by a teacher, with whether books can be meaningful or dangerous; watch them divide into three large reading groups as their solution to a reading problem. By making their own decisions, managing their own talk, and setting their own goals, students gain ownership and authorship of their learning purposes. They will teach me to leap out of the way so they can do the hardest and most enjoyable work.

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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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