Archive for the 'socratic learning' Category

26
Feb
17

Are you standing at the borders of mystery?

Begin mystified
begin unbelieving
___off balance
learning begins.

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

Such moments, seeds of new knowledge
___of wisdom

V  i  s  t  a  s

Are you standing at the borders of a mystery?

                                                                             by G. Hultberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Lives,

Who Dies,

Who Tells Your Story?

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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


 

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

coverjo

Lexington Books: www.rowman.com

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

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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.

IMG_1979.JPG

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.

IMG_1929.JPG

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.

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.

24
Sep
11

Doctor Demento, Gateway Drug

As high school sophomores, we drama freaks knew Olympia beer was “piss water”, and our discriminating tastes praised concord grape wine above wanna-bes like Thunderbird or the yet uninvented Bartles and Jaymes. Shakespeare and George S. Kaufman put Booth Tarkington to shame. For real comedies and dramas depicted worlds that were tenuous, crazy, and unstable, not unfamiliar to us who were waiting to turn 18 soon and be eligible for the draft. We had watched tv coverage of troops sent home from Viet Nam and a President’s resignation, and in months would see that of the assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. We had discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS and would soon discover twin late-night bulwarks against the world’s insanity and its taste for insipid sit-coms or milquetoast dramas:  our antidote? “Creature Features” and “The Dr. Demento Show”.

While Night of the Living Dead and the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing imports from Britain reigned as staples of my weekend horror film viewing, Shel Silverstein’s readings of his own poems became my FM listening highlights of the week. My friends and I would recite “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” in our own Sterling Holloway-swallowed-gravel voices, along with other artists’ compositions such as  “Dead Puppies” and “Fish Heads”. Both shows featured hosts who playfully enjoyed the fans, the genres, the creators of films and songs; and the worse the production values, the larger the audience. In fact, it seems to me that the songs and films actively resisted society’s definitions or limits of good taste and, naturally, we  followed.

As I read an essay in last Sunday’s NYTimes in praise of the “scary, silly, and sophisticated” books by Sendak, Dr. Suess, and Silverstein, I thought about the role those “gateway” programs played in forging my literary and dramatic tastes. The article, which reminds us that at one time these “classics” forced readers to ask “‘Is it appropriate for a children’s book to be raising such questions?'”, struck a chord with me because this week in my classroom students were engaged in dialogue about the appropriateness, even for adults, of the subject of Anna Karenina, and the role of literature.

“Aren’t books supposed to make you happy?”

I was delighted to hear my students articulating various points of view, and referring back to Tolstoy’s opening sentence about happy and unhappy families as a basis for their defense of a literature esthetic. I have held for about five years or more now the opinion that a primary goal of high school education is that students graduate with a personally worked out ethics of reading, something along the lines of a reasoned defense for being life-long readers. The culmination of many years of such ruminations might be the writing of an article such as Bill Keller’s mid-life defense of poetry, or a book-length treatise like Edward Veith’s Reading Between the Lines; but where and when does our sense of literature’s purpose begin? I am certain I was observing its sprouting and growth this week, and I am grateful for the glimpse I was given.

I overheard juniors and seniors grappling with the question of the appropriate subject of a book,  sophomores asking whether a graphic novel was blasphemous or reverent in its use of biblical allusion, and freshmen pleading for time to write poetry and read books, bending their definitions of poetry around the uses, tastes, and preferences of every person in the room.  There was an impulse however, as the observing teacher, to influence each of these situations. As will be clear from the foregoing, my preconception allows for any ethical point of view–providing it considers as a staple of the literary diet copious reading. More particularly, I hope the diet is hearty and well-balanced, consisting of lots of roughage and no artificial sweeteners. Honestly, though, I didn’t start eating like that until my forties, and I don’t read like that most of the time even now. Can it be that I am looking to my own students to reinforce my own self-imposed restrictions and assumptions about what is worth while to read? I am so certain about my own convictions that I can be certain I am teaching them, both consciously and unconsciously.

What I must guard against, then, is the impulse to discount any opinion which may run contrary to my own. I have to be silent in the classroom long enough to hear the voices of students who do not yet (and may never) share my convictions about good books. Just because I might have reached the conclusion that books I read ought to cover a breadth of human experience, as Tolstoy’s does, I need to act on behalf of the liberty of young people to disagree, and to shape their own ideas and definitions of what literature can be and should do.

Such disagreement relates to Gordon Pradl’s notion of the usefulness of resistance. By providing a social environment in which, and a text against which, readers may freely respond, we teachers strengthen a student’s ability to resist a given or accepted reading or standard, and to argue more skilfully and confidently. It is enough–and I must trust that it is enough–to select the best words (and images) by women and men which do invite student questions, Tolstoy, Robert Cormier, Gene Yang, and Adam Zagajewski, Anne Overstreet, Sara Zarr, Madeleine L’Engle, and Toni Morrison. Words that spark a conversation so compelling that readers will never forget the feeling associated with the opportunity to define the world for themselves. It may be such clarifying questions that Richard Peck has in mind in his Invitation to The World:  “Novels need to raise the questions no one else is raising in the lives of readers.

If for this teenager Dr. Demento’s radio show was a gateway drug to the silly, scary, sophisticated inebriation of the written word, how are young people today getting hooked on the hard stuff? Books, graphic novels, SLAM poetry, music lyrics: some of these have traditionally been in students’ control.  Does the term “controlled substance” deserves to be reexamined? Who is in control of what we read? Is there a proper substance for academic reading in secondary school? One might argue for an appropriately stuffy canon of books that deal with the human condition as tragic dramatists or metaphysical poets do; but I urge you to let them read Shel Silverstein alongside a Shakespearean sonnet or The Chocolate War before Paradise Lost. Students, fascinated by the ethics of truth-telling Tim O’Brien’s “Ambush”, will discuss, write about, and read further in relation to the topic in Kant, Bonhoeffer, and The Bible, in search of words that support their point of view, or that suggest how they are to construct a view they hadn’t yet considered.

“The novel is called The Last Safe Place on Earth because there isn’t one”. – Richard Peck, Invitations to the World: Teaching and Writing for The Young, Dial Books NY 2002.

Image Source: Getty Images (in Keller’s NYT article)

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]




Gordon’s Tweets

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