Archive for the 'thinking and learning' Category

19
May
18

run away! ! !

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

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

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

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

avoidance strategy

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

Why?

running from or running toward?

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

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

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

race to the finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rabbit rampant

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

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


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

Degas painting public domain

Photo by GH pradlfan 5/17/2018

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01
Mar
18

Moonlighting until tomorrow

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

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

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

The movies

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

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

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

vocation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham shown here with Truman Capote

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

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

empowered teachers

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

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

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

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

El Paso Times photo

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

vocational training

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

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

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

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

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

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

changing the narrative

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

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

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

27
Feb
17

interconnecting literacies

I face the challenge of interconnecting ideas. When I encounter a thought-provoking book such as this one, I both associate and resist various ideas and memories of the classroom, students, philosophy, and fiction.

circuits-37211_640

While at times I see such interconnectedness as an obstacle frustrating my simple enjoyment of a book, many times I feel each connection as an intimate part of my transaction with a text.

The back and forth, the push and pull — nebulous, binary, contrary — describe the innumerable voyages that readers like me have taken. Like me, Joseph Rodriguez, author of Enacting Adolescent Literacies Across Communities, found refuge in his school library and in the books and librarian and authors residing there.

His book, subtitled Latino/a Scribes And Their Rites, is both a handbook of effective literacy img_0013instruction and a catalyst for both more intertextual connections and new approaches that invite all students, not just Latinos/as, to a fondness for literacies.

I use the plural — literacies — because Rodriguez is careful throughout his book to enumerate the various ways young people can engage with words and ideas in the communities they inhabit. The classic modalities of reading, writing, speaking, and listening continue to be enacted as literacies; but he persuades us that becoming literate in history, for instance, involves the interest and ability to ask whose history, and by extension why this history?; and then to enact their growing understandings in their communities, through multiple literacies: I think of learners creating documentaries, interviewing family members and activists, apprenticing in ancient handicrafts, volunteering at museums, or teaching others the relevance of great books – old and new.

His book makes me want to wrestle with, cheer for, and work alongside with such teachers, librarians, and students.

The best thing this book does for me is to convince me that teacher education programs in this country have not given up but, on the contrary, have

turned their very resistance into the art of teaching

signified by the Master of Arts  degree, and represented by the author and his pre-service teacher-practitioners. If such programs are successful, in whatever regions and for whatever populations are served by teachers who care less about a test performance and more about whole human beings, they may restore hope in public and private schools which have chased dehumanizing business models, fragmented texts, outdated grading systems, isolated subject knowledge, and chased away some youth by disengaging learning from schooling.

Rodriguez’s book is a shot in the arm for public and private secondary school and college teachers. It goes a long way toward restoring my hope in the future for students and their teachers.


[Images: a. Creative Commons no attribution, Clkr-free-vector-images located by Pixabay; b. GH (l) with J Rodríguez in Washington, D.C. 2015.]

 

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

07
Jun
16

Mastery vs. Understanding: Honoring my students

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

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

We are learning how to:

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can dramatizing a poem help understand what it means?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to run a class meeting.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

16
May
15

A.I. asks what it is be human

Always.  

 

[Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn in 1957 film: on Pinterest at hyperbate.fr]

My contention is that A.I. is nothing new: Chaucer convincingly created artificial human beings in the technology of his day–ink pen and velum. 

And it may even have happened earlier. Thomas Aquinas writes the strategy of anticipating objections to his arguments in Summa Theologica as if he were engaged in a chess game. His challenge is getting it right–thinking ahead in order to beat his intellectual opponent to a logical move in order to discount it. But his opponent might as easily be another aspect of himself. What he does, as Chaucer and, later, Shakespeare do, is to imagine an equal to himself who will engage in the same sort of thinking strategies. 

The new movie Ex Machina raises questions about what we mean when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Do we mean consciousness in isolation from other entities? Freedom? Agency? And are such manufactured products self-serving, human-serving, or moral at all? The inciting incident of the film is the arrival of its protagonist at a remote top secret villa to interview an android and determine if there are any flaws in her armor.   The human loses his objectivity, and the AI anticipates this. Because he believes she is real – a consciousness that feels – he becomes subject to his own empathy. As a result, a damsel-in-distress scenario emerges. He trades his rationalism and scepticism for the willing suspension of disbelief. He enjoys playing this game.

With literature (plays, anyway) the willing suspension of disbelief is critical to my enjoyment. I want to get lost in the characters and conflicts, to believe that they are real for a while. 

Chaucer’s corrupt Pardoner would be a wooden automaton, a stereotype were it not for the human pleasure he takes in bilking the sheep, and in posturing before his auditors, the pilgrims, as if he were a traveling salesman of the Middle Ages; with verismilitude Chaucer depicts him as greedy, even as the Pardoner confesses that greed is the root of all evil. 

The antagonist in Ex Machina seems to want to create art that imitates life. His latest creation flirts, tells secrets, rebels and, like humans, can appear sincere. Despite the conventions of each genre: the female android has visible “machine-works”; the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath speak in poetry: you can see the artists pulling the strings that make the puppet move —  despite these reasons to disbelieve, the admirer who is the audience deliberately obscures his own awareness of the devices and allows himself to believe in the human before him. 

A recent article which discusses liberal arts, and debates the need for Chaucer among common people today, sees liberal arts education advocates as connecting the virtues of certain subjects of learning to the ultimate ends of human beings — their telos. But lack of consensus about humans’ ultimate purpose splinters agreement about the means and content of education. 

Teachers like me make decisions about teaching and learning based on our assumptions about life’s ultimate purpose. We necessarily grant that the person we teach has a similar purpose to our own. That she or he is human, is on the same journey as we are.

At its heart, Ex Machina asks, among other questions, what are the essential components of humanity? Chaucer, too, in his believable depictions of travelers both greedy and wise, boastful and generous, kind and silly, asks what mixtures of sinner and saint can one person carry inside and still be one of the pilgrims on a common journey? Like Bach experimenting later with the well-tempered Klavier he strikes different registers, tones, ironies, and themes,  making them pleasant, diverting, entertaining, beautiful and truthful. 

Despite the difficulty of ever reaching consensus about a completed canon, or which communities should study which works in order to be culturally literate, scientists and artist continue to create authentically engaging work, meaningful discoveries and innovations that add to or complement our sense of what it is to be human.  

 

My band of pilgrims on a recent trip to Ano Nuevo State Beach to see elephant seals. 

If AI is created, it should serve human beings (or assist us in serving things we value, such as forests or clean air). 

On the other hand, if literary characters can be considered AIs, imposing above criterion of service would restrict my idea of realistically human fictional creations to their usefulness. This limitation seems at odds with my preexisting concept of literature and liberal arts as the opposite of practical arts or techne. 

Certainly recent articles insist that business schools train MBAs in Shakespeare, and that a successful life must include leisure reading and the ability to appreciate complex thinking represented by whole novels, or the ability to empathize with others in order to be more benevolent (leading to service, to success). But for me there is something beyond literature’s usefulness that makes it valuable. I enjoy people in a different way than I enjoy a good story, jazz music or a serving of flan. 

Maybe our difficulty is in demanding both pleasure and service from our AI. The AI computer in a movie like The Desk Set is totally devoid of personality or pleasure. It exists to get a job done, and yet it replaces human beings rather than serves them. In contrast, an iPad can entertain someone for hours, but do we ask our handheld or desktop computer devices to solve difficult problems for us? 

“Where can I get cheap coffee in five minutes with the shortest wait?” 

“Have you ever seen a cat do that before?”

Then again I may be overlooking the obvious element of gender in Ex Machina: it is a male fantasy that the female android learns to satisfy; exactly such fantasies are the subjects and issues of Thomas Hardy plots (Far from The Madding Crowd, Tess of The D’Urbervilles). The concept of an independent woman seems foreign to the self-centered males in all these tales. They fall in love with an ideal rather than a woman. Our culture is quite happy to produce an independent self-driving car or drone but reluctant to grant complete independence of thought or action to other human beings. Too many of us think we’d be content living among those who think, act, or vote just as we do.

Both Bathsheba Everdene in the new film of Madding Crowd and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with The Wind use their independence to manipulate men. They enter into complex negotiations with others and strategize in order to get what they desire. They can play the game. Maybe it says something about our expectations of AI that playing “Jeopardy” is the ultimate test of one’s human-likeness. 

This morning’s #satchat educational focus was on gamed-based learning. In some cases the game allows students to compete for points by achieving mastery, and an element of differentiation occurs due to student choice of quest, individualized pacing, and swift feedback. But if I consider the game that Thomas Aquinas played in order to produce Summa Theologica….How do we get from there to here? from gaming to thinking about ultimate purposes? from mastering a skill for class to actually leading a military siege or debating what makes a society good? 

Robots, games, books and movies offer us a chance to consider what humans need as well as what we enjoy. They also, like poetry, offer us irrational pleasure. We glimpse minds and universes at work.  

 

How do your own view of the universe and your definition of humanity cause you to see others? to teach people in your subject area? to define the problems worth solving and the games worth playing? 

29
Nov
14

Strangers on a plane

How would you describe the CEL (Conference on English Leadership) and NCTE convention to others? As I traveled home, I found myself explaining it to Alphonso, a D.C. pedi-cab driver who toured me past the monuments; to strangers on a plane, a mother and daughter returning from a trip to Puerto Rico; and to a shopgirl a perfume fragrance counter saleswoman at Macy’s. Notice, I already monitored my phrase and revised it because of my audience. In what ways do we self monitor and alter our messages for specific audiences?

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During the conference itself, I used persuasive terms with a college professor who was at the contemporaneous ALAN conference, and beforehand I chose humorous analogies to give my students a picture of where I was heading. For my parents and sisters, who know a lot about my 25 year teaching career, and have attended professional conferences themselves, I wrote a letter detailing particulars of my personal involvement that would distinguish this year’s conference from those of previous years.

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As I had the privilege of visiting a New York publishing house office this week, I noticed this sign on an editor’s desk: “I am silently correcting your grammar”, which was hilarious to me because both English teachers and editors, whose complex roles cannot be distilled into a single phrase, are frequently oversimplified and misunderstood as grammar police. This becomes evident whenever we meet strangers on a plane or train, who suddenly feel the need to excuse themselves for speaking improperly, or for not being readers or writers.

Since all writing is language choice, we choose language to suit the occasions of our dialogue. I have never had the chance to use these words in a sentence before, but CEL made it happen: “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.” Can you picture me, waving my bill under the ticket window of the National Harbor Ferris Wheel, contradicting their devil-may-care no cash policy?

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Tailoring our tongues to meet particular situations involves knowing something about our audience. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst insisted on this as one of the keys to adolescents understanding complex non-fiction, as they shared recent collaborative work with us on Tuesday at CEL’s closing session. “What does the author assume I know already?”

Learning to listen
As I planned this blog post, I expected to present you with a fun challenge to write about a recent event you attended — conference, performance, holiday celebration, service opportunity — for several different audiences, say: children, peers, strangers and administrators (the Oxford comma debate matters here).

“I went out to dinner with some new friends, and we rode the Ferris wheel together…”

“I spent several days with high-powered speakers on cutting-edge topics…”

“I got to go to Washington, D.C. to tell researchers about the exciting writing you guys are doing…”

But as I relive each of my actual conversations, I realize they involve not so much constructing a stance, but rather listening to the person I am interacting with. I found out from Nadine at Macy’s that she was an English major, but could not stand the thought of her love of books such as Jane Eyre being dehydrated by dry analysis; that Alphonso, a D.C. native, used to be a bike messenger and has never been to California, and will have to find different work when weather prohibits operation of his pedi-cab for the season; that the mother-daughter love reading books, which were stolen the second day of their two week vacation; that the visitor from Paris at the Blue Note jazz club believes Paris is “not what is used to be”; that the airport shuttle driver works seven days at peak travel seasons; that Audrey, a session attendee, believes collaboration can lead to shared values and assumptions about writing.

We not only enrich a conversation by knowing the people we speak with, but I learn and grow myself by hearing them. The difficulty comes now, when I ask myself if I can be as diligent, open-eared, and knowing of those in my inner circle as I am with strangers or acquaintances.

All the “out-of-town” practice, as David Perkins calls it in learning, has to be brought to bear on the big games: our marriages, families, significant friendships, and career.

What good is it if I carry on inconsequential small talk with someone I meet once a year or once in a lifetime, if I don’t apply more careful listening in my most dear relationships?

Because of this,

Sara, I want to be the best listener I can; please be patient with me. I love you more each day, and want to know you even better.

Susan, I want to be a better friend and colleague, to keep asking the right questions.

Patrick, I want to be a better friend, to offer support where you need it and receive your input when you offer it.

Tyler, I want to be the kind of encourager you are to me.

Judi and Janice, I hope to be the brother you can depend on to celebrate your triumphs and share in your disappointments.

Evan, I hope I can be a better mentor; please help me know the ways I can support you this year in your teaching.

Writing is important, and conferences are helpful; but relationships and love are essential, necessary, foundational. The purpose for communicating is understanding, empathizing, knowing and loving people: communion and community themselves.

So go ahead, know your audience. Don’t just be a clanging cymbal, Gordon; “though I speak with tongues of men and of angels…[without] charity…I am nothing.” My plea: reduce me to Love.

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(me on the left, Chris Bronke on right)




Gordon’s Tweets

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

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