Archive for the 'reading pedagogy' 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.

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.

02
Nov
14

Elementary: a realm apart

I worked as a learning partner with a freshman student on Thursday and Friday as we read “The Red-Headed League”, a Sherlock Holmes story by A. C. Doyle. Although I had read the short story numerous times, this was my first time reading and hearing it read aloud most of the way through. One paragraph especially stood out.

Watson’s narrator writes about feeling mystified at the ease with which Holmes sees clearly, in the midst of the “confusing” and “grotesque” details of the case.

I equated Dr. Watson’s wonderment at Holmes’s mastery to the way students are mystified at our expert interpretive “performances” of English classroom texts. They likely see as magical our detection of hidden symbolism, analysis of setting, understanding of internalized conflicts. The apprentice James Watson stands in awe of the Master Sherlock Holmes, whose idiosyncratic reading of persons, situation, and detail is phenomenal, unattainable.

Even Holmes would have him believe that if Watson only becomes an astute observer he, too, will perpetrate astonishing feats of detection.

We ELA teachers fall into the trap of suggesting that a few meager degrees on an Expert-Novice continuum separate the gurus from the gurees. Is it really true that by demystifying the reading process

IMG_1720.JPG we equip readers to perform readings such as we arrive at after years of literature study, curiosity, and attention to fine detail?

Holmes cites ridiculously minute bits of data, such as awareness of the pigmentation of Chinese tattoos. to support his reasoning. No strategy other than obsessive observation might offer Watson a hope of rivaling his friend’s competency for crime detection and problem-solving; Holmes’s wide experience provides him rare entree to the gathering of such trivial data. Which of us, finding herself on a visit to China, would consume the hours in making a study of variations among local tattoos?

Watson tells us “I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity” in his dealings with the Master.

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These Sidney Paget illustrations from the original Strand Magazine facsimile reveal Sherlock doing the thinking and work as Watson tags along. His disciple, James, feels as inadequate to the task as Jesus’ disciples must have felt when the Master sent them out in pairs to practice. Similarly mystified, when encountering stubborn demons, they marvel at Christ’s ability. They admit, as Watson must, that their teacher is in a realm apart.

If there is any place our students have an advantage over us at their age, it is in their insatiable curiosity: such curiosity drives Holmes to fasten upon minutiae, and presumably prompts Watson to write memoirs about his master teacher.

Since 2001 when I attended an AP Institute and first understood the importance of student questions, through recent years when Judith Langer in her description of Envisionment Learning suggests “asking relevant questions” as a class goal, and The Right Question website, Essential Questions, and Socratic seminar questions (and Victor Mueller’s prepared follow-up questions), I have explored the ways students come to appreciate their own questioning role as necessary to learning and problem-solving. When they do the work of asking better questions, they feed natural curiosity and train it expand into all areas of lilfe, like a Halloween night horror movie creature, The Blob, which takes over the whole town.

Mysteries and horror are not that far removed. Holmes borders on the monstrous–isolated, obsessive, so calculating he can appear inhuman. Elana Gomel points out that the cool, unemotional criminal Stapleton from Hound of the Baskervilles is a mirror of Holmes, to whose “cold, precise” mind “emotion” is “abhorrent” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”, quoted in “Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject”). Gomel stresses that the reader of mysteries feels comforted by them, for readers desire to know that the world and other people make sense.

It is a wild stretch of imagination for a non reader to believe how much pleasure in a lifetime may be derived from the inky marks on a virtual or paper page. How much more imagination and faith is required to trust that a full length work provides even more pleasure!

In order to read the world and other people, experience and observation certainly help, but a sense of initial curiosity and deep wonder are readily available to a learner at any age.

I fear, however, that curiosity slips noiselessly away some time during late adolescence. What can we do to foster curiosity?

At Utah’s first #EdCamp last month I attended a session on Curiosity, which made me more keenly aware of its silent departure from the purple room of pedagogy. We participants were like party goers on the eve of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, dancing from room to symbolic room pretending that education can thrive even while a plague of indifference gathers its army at the castle doors.

I found curiosity alive and well this week as my 10th grade students led 2nd graders through the editing process on a collaborative story.

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Wonder is not gone. Children can be inspired by teens; teens can be reminded of their impulsively curious younger selves; and we their experienced, obsessive, compulsively curious teachers can model a reading life; we must not tyrannize nor oppress them with a sense of their own stupidity. Rather, we might show them how their own sense of curiosity can lead to hypotheses, solutions, and deep and satisfying reading experiences. They, like us, are only trying to make sense of the complex text of the world and its people.

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.

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.

 

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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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04
Nov
13

Melodious Monday

A good Monday – (Thankfully!) – It began in second period with our Romeo and Juliet introduction to the rhythm of the sonnet which for the first time I equated to “the old soft-shoe” [“Tea for Two”]. Everyone had a hat, and choreographed her/his own Chorus Line-style moves (arms straight out; foot-kicks). Then we got down to business with a quick-write.

Later, in third period, American Lit, my Grapes of Wrath Unit really took off (the Joads are at the government camp) as “families” comprised of 2-3 smaller reading groups met and began discussing human rights. Fur flew further than off a jack-rabbit crossin’ Route 66. Then, to complete our block period, students modeled a democratic process in decision-making about how to establish criteria for journal entries. They have selected themes and essential questions pertaining to the American Dream and Order vs. Chaos, and I was somewhat surprised at how effectively today’s all-class meeting was facilitated, and at the high standards students seemed to aim at, desiring both autonomy and skills that will help them prepare for college. Good job, AmLit!

Finally, my Pride and Prejudice sophomore class split into two groups last week, based on personal preference as to pace, and today met and demonstrated almost total engagement as they shared journal entries, collaborated on vocabulary words they selected from the reading, responded to the prior reading and worked to set future goals. It is about the first time I have seen students reach for my new dictionary and thesaurus on their own. Great things are happening 🙂




Gordon’s Tweets

RSS Good Questions

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