Archive for the 'trust' Category

25
Apr
17

your teacher is right

I recently tutored a student online as he prepared for the AP English exam.

“Have you done any preparation in your English class?” I ask.

“My teacher feels that the class should be enough. What we learn in English will prepare us to do well on any exams we choose to take.”

Well, that’s right, I think. So why the choice for online tutoring to prep for the AP Lit exam?

I did not ask this question directly.

I know the signs.

Parental orchestration. Weak knees in the days leading up to the annual May exam seating. A gripping awareness that other people take this test seriously – maybe they know something I don’t.

Leaving aside for now the whole question of The College Board, the value of AP, tests in general; acknowledging that a quick survey of 3o minutes will suffice to acquaint one with the type of questions to expect and the time and attention to allot; I agree with that teacher.

I am that teacher.


A slightly different angle, though, complicates my clear vision: my student’s personal goal is to gain confidence as a writer of AP exam essays. Under the umbrella of Writing Hope Works, I have chosen to subscribe to the mandate to coach writers toward their goals, so that they become more confident and resistant writers who write with clarity and force.

Combine this student goal with my belief that English class (and tutoring) exists to serve student learning purposes, and I do feel I can be of service. My writing conference format works well enough here, except for the urgency of time: it is days before the exam; and I charge an hourly rate for my tutoring time. In the normal writing workshop a revision process recurs, terminating with editing conferences. The student’s role is to do a lot of talking about her/his own writing; mine is to listen, encourage, ask a productive question.

Student choice is very important here. If this student CHOSE to sign up for the AP exam, great. If she/he CHOSE to set a goal and find a writing/literature coach, also great. This particular coach is a co-learner: I prepare (reviewing) major works in my personal time along with my tutee, who does it separately while on spring break. I create charts, analyze text, and outline my own response to pst prompts to the open question. I won’t simply lay out strategies – instead we need to learn alongside each other [the physical limitations of online learning notwithstanding].

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Me with Penny Kittle, author of “Write Beside Them”  

Yes, this is like English class. I even hear this response sometimes from my pupils, or from others in the background during my online sessions. I harbor a secret delight in their comment: in solidarity with all English teachers I know, the test is not the point. The point is two learners engaging in dialogue with the best minds of all time, both of us finding our voices, choosing how to respond, listening, shaping replies…

I can’t not be who I am called to be as a teacher.


And my pupil responds very positively to this. The young writer initiates and chooses activity. Behind the scenes lurk motivating forces beyond our control; but the writer is in control.

And the AP written exam is primarily an opportunity for a young writer to demonstrate control of language. Each prompt imposes specific constraints whose purpose is to draw out the best in each writer, to allow the writer to flourish. It is not much different from The British Baking Show, when it imposes a time and ingredient constraint such as “three chocolates in three hours — B-A-K-E!” The contestants CHOSE to be there in that tent; they CHOSE to work on their baking at home during the week.

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detail of a novel preparation chart for Gatsby

So today I am resigned in my position. I will use my experience with writing conferences, literature workshops, and oral exams [with my St. John’s tutors] to inquire with my pupil, dialogue about texts, and solve problems together.

I will enjoy the process of co-learning and co-leading, and will value the goal because it is my AP student’s own goal. If I truly trust the system (Writing Hope Works, whose aim is learner agency; writing conferences, whose aim is writers solving their own problems) then my young writer will set new goals tomorrow. When tests are done, today’s short-term goals are rewritten, and new long-term goals are imagined.

Even in the creation of new goals can I identify with all my learners. My writing goal in the coming weeks is to write a scholarly essay on novelist George Eliot as a critical educator. My teaching goal is to observe a local school model of student-initiated activity.

My goals have “real-world” constraints, such as a June 1st deadline and particular genre requirements for the written one, including submission to an audience of peers and professors. My own goal mirrors that of my tutee in its imminent deadline, highly qualified audience, and specialized genre. Observing the school demands fingerprinting, arranging hours, and understanding the rules (e.g. “No one will suggest to a child that one activity should take academic precedence over another.”).


A common theme runs through the posts I have written lately – not all of them published — every teaching moment is also a learning moment for me. And when my own interests, such as playing cards or piano or reading Victorian novels, put me in the shoes of a learner and student, I appreciate once more how difficult and rewarding learning can be. There is no substitute for the personal relationships formed within small groups learning together and the individualized help from a more experienced teacher. Anyone of any age can be a teacher.

Time and again, analog schools and teachers have proven not only better at teaching students, but  they can actually present more innovative solutions for education’s future.

from “The Revenge of School”, in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things And Why They Matter by David Sax

 

 

25
Oct
15

Will this be on the test? 

I was momentarily stunned last week when a student voiced the desire for me to teach only what was necessary to pass the end-of-year (standardized? common assessment?) test. Because of Obama’s recent discovery that children are being over-tested, I am choosing to concentrate for a moment on this student’s request. What does it mean? 

1. Students have been brainwashed to think of learning as acquisition of facts or skills to serve as an arsenal against the day of judgment, arrows in their quiver for the last days of the year. The purpose of learning is to pass a test the teacher has neither designed nor seen. In the rare instance where I know the specific content of an end-of-year exam, I am ethically bound not to teach to that specific prompt and its text. 

2. Students have not changed since I was in college. I still recall my British History professor, Dr. Arthur Mejia, at San Francisco State, responding mid-lecture to a student’s question, “Will this be on the test?” with a well-considered look of dismay. “It’s all ONE HISTORY.” How I hope I too can shape a response with the same power. “It’s all one literature”? “It’s all one story.”? 

3. Education has reverted to the Gradgrind School of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. I am Sissy Jupe (see photo) and my students are the schoolmasters driving imagination out of the classroom. Evidently the rewards have been great enough for responding with the rote answer that a horse is a quadruped (denotative meaning) that they have bypassed any love for bread, circuses, and horses as beautiful creatures with a host of connotative resonances. [Me sneaking a photo in Dickens’s kitchen at Doughty Street] 

 Just when I thought the US-UK push for creativity, innovation, imagination, flexible mindset, individualized learning, curiosity, and inquiry must necessarily have produced a generation of young learners unique in the annals of education, I am forced to rethink my task. 

I need to acknowledge the voices filled with hope that I can prepare them for tests. But I want fill them with hope beyond tests, beyond this year, and into a distant future where they see themselves as dreamers, makers, community members, readers, writers and thinkers. 

I need to remind them that English Language Arts is a humanities class; we read and write about human beings, because people are inherently valuable. Reading, writing, and thinking about people both real and imagined offers us contact with and contemplation of lives that matter. We become more valuable, interesting, and effective persons by coming into contact with them: we are changed. 

I need to continue this conversation with colleagues at the NCTE convention in Minneapolis, including the CEL workshop. When I speak at roundtables and sessions on writing hope, establishing empathy, and close reading for “wonder and awe”, I await suggestions from participants that redeem our students from a culture of pragmatism and restore a sense of awe at beautiful language, strong characters, and words that evoke lasting imaginative impressions, whether “Fourscore and seven” or “Call me Ishmael.”

02
Dec
14

full frontal

At the first whiff of plagiarism, I am quick to launch a full frontal assault. Check the plot summary or, for my student, uncharacteristic phrase against its occurrences online; assign a zero for the assignment, request a meeting, send a parent/guardian email, deliver the offending evidence to an administrator who can track other screw-ups by the same perp.

These are all in my arsenal of responses to the Demon Plagiarism. From there it is a short walk to sending a herd of pigs off the cliff, and having the teachers-only job satisfaction of seeing a student crumple into tears as years of bad behavior are repented of, and finally wading into the water with him, emerging with faces to the sun, both knowing that Creative Commons has our allegiance forevermore, and the laws of copyright shall remain inviolate. “from this day to the ending of the world.”

But today yesterday I brought out a new weapon; a kinder gentler means by which to assert my dominance over the spirit that bedevils young writers. In my feedback to the writer I referred not once to the “P” word. I made no mention of credit. I appealed to the writer’s sense of authority, personhood, audience and purpose. [See images below of writers at my school creating and sharing their work for a variety of authentic purposes and audiences in secondary English and science, also second-grade/tenth-grade collaboration.]

Because of my recent focus on expressing “what the words do to the reader” — both in peer and teacher response to student writing as well as mentor/class texts — my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged for responding to cutting and pasting of another’s work.

my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged

Rather than corner the student with an awkward out-of-class confrontation, I took a different approach by responding just as I would to any electronically submitted draft. Instead of using the authority of our student handbook and its policy, I appealed to the authority of the reader.

➡️Will your reader know these big words?
➡️Where does the reader hear your voice?
️➡️Why should your reader be interested?
➡️Which class discussion or personal inquiry question got you thinking about exploring this topic? If the reader can see your thinking process, you might persuade her to thoughtfully consider your point of view.

Although I have slightly modified these to protect the anonymity of the writer, they differ drastically from my typical frontal assault: Is this your own work? Where did you get it? Why didn’t you cite the source? What did you think was the goal of the assignment?

All of which are mere pretenses and preamble to the often unstated Big Gun: Whatever could have possessed you to think I, all-knowing, would not recognize this as another writer’s work? You have insulted me, broken our trust, and demonstrated that you do not value the deities of the writing process (insert constellation of choice, for me Bay Area Writing Project, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Sheridan Blau, Tom Romano, Dons Murray and Graves to infinity and beyond)?

As I often remark, I am the one doing the learning here. Because of my interest in authority in the classroom, I see this as an opportunity to wait and observe the outcome — just as I do with every other paper at this later drafting stage. By turning the focus inward, I am able to monitor my own problem-solving process, identify the place where my own ego gets in the way, and try an innovative or at least creative solution that eases the burden for the student in one way by subtly shifting it.

The student’s responsibility would have been to justify himself (his cheating behavior) to me and to his parent, at least; but now it becomes more about justifying his writing choices to his readers. If the writer is willing to assume creative control over this writing task, the finished written product will communicate a chosen purpose clearly and strongly to a specific chosen audience, which it does not yet do.

The paper will have voice and the student will exercise choice. This is my first blog entry ending with the term “Voices and Choices.”

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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)

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

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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.

20
Oct
14

no bad days

Most of my blog posts are shunted to “drafts” because of incomplete thought. I hope to state up front, today, that the reality is I will not develop this one as much as I could, but rather, like each class each day, call it “good for one day”.

Like many school days, this one had ups and downs. One class saw volunteers either form committees, who set paper deadlines and established principles for fair grading practices, or prepare to model an editing conference. Another class interacted with a younger grade level class as they co-wrote stories. But along with their sparkle came some mud: some students handed in last week’s work incomplete carelessly done, or took a devil-may care attitude to free reading books or writing tasks.

My students who are usually engaged in class were distracted by SSR — sustained surreptitious reading, and those usually wrapped in personal books or reading ahead projected themselves into the class activities.
Absences of key students in pre-assigned roles meant that others shared more than they otherwise might have, while also filling a gap left by less prepared students.

Although during third and sixth periods I did not have time to share my fiction prompt by Ursula Le Guin, nor my sample attempts at her writing exercise, my students did decide on our next steps in class reading, writing, and performance.

I know that tomorrow I will hold numerous writing conferences, receive forty letters from students about their free reading books, listen to discussions of Shakespeare, Hardy, and Wilde, and wonder whether to wrest control from their hands. This, you see, is the most difficult of all decisions, for upon it depends so much.

Democratic, student-centered learning opens the door of a room that exists to serve student learning purposes. At the high school level in English this means some uncomfortable minutes spent every day as I listen to learners and wait for the processing of ideas — the second draft thought that inevitably will follow their initial draft thinking aloud. It must be an uneasy time for the students, too; today that came out effectively when mavericks spoke out in contrast to the majority, swerving the reigns of the whole cartload and helping true consensus, compromise, and accommodation to occur.

I don’t always need a refined, revised draft as a blogger. Taking you to the room I actually reside in immediately following the intertidal flood and ebb that is the end of my school day, before the effluvia settle, is not telling you how my day has gone. It is still a fresh impression on my mind; it will be hours before I can evaluate my own silences and interjections.

It was not at all a bad day.

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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

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