Sunday, January 09, 2011

Like Mike Rose, I’m feeling a little bit hopeful because of the turn of the new year, the end of one semester and the beginning of another, and the fact that I have cleaned out my financial files from the last decade and created three enormous bags of shredded trash to put out at the curb. I want to propose that, if I were to visit some middle and high schools next week, I might see some promising practices like those below. English teachers could resolve to try them; administrators could be aware of them; and college professors, at the very least, might apprise future English educators of their value.

1) Let students talk. Direct it, guide it, structure it (some), yes, but be a listener more yourself. There is so little in language arts that can actually be taught directly or lectured about. Indeed, the “facts” of most fields of knowledge, even the “hard” sciences, change constantly and need to be updated daily, so most teachers should lecture less and let students explore more.

2) Ask students to write about ideas or experiences they’ve just encountered, no matter what the subject. Ask them to write quickly, off the top of their heads. Write with them, off the top of your head, every time you ask them to do this, even if the ideas they’ve just encountered are very familiar to you, and especially if they are not. Don’t grade these pieces of writing. Use them (see number four below) for discussion; first, between two students sitting near each other, then for small groups or the whole class. Students who need additional time to warm up to free-writing can be encouraged to draw responses to ideas or experiences (or texts) which can be used in the same ways as free-writing. You can justify it to yourself if you connect drawing, in your mind, to 21st century literacy, which often involves graphics.

3) In fact, until the end of a marking period (six to ten weeks or so), simply read and respond to students’ content, organization, and style. Don’t grade any writing until students have gathered a bunch of more formal pieces they are proud of – a portfolio. And give them lots of help, as an editor would when a writer is preparing for publication, with mechanics and convention. Foster an attitude in which students will notice their own weaknesses and ask for instruction. Knowledge which is eagerly and consciously sought is that which is learned.

4) Use student writing as text for consideration in class. Students learn – about writing, about content, about form – in discussions centered on some text that they have invested in. Investment can be from production or from locating a text (see number seven below).

5) If there are literary or rhetorical terms you want students to be able to use, introduce them as you participate in discussions, so they will see them modeled and explained in a natural situation, the kind of situation where you want them to use such terms. Putting them on a test will turn them into the kind of knowledge students know they can just memorize and forget (or more often, just reject). Instead, make them the currency that flows through each day of class, necessary, non-threatening, natural as breathing. Students will learn them as they become ready (remember the zone of proximal development), although it may take some students longer than the benchmark tests allow.

6) Don’t ask students to write (by which I mean grapple with difficult thoughts and ideas) or read difficult material for homework. It won’t happen, or else it will happen, for students who always follow orders, in a mechanistic way, void of understanding, thus contributing to a corpus of exasperating experience that leads students to learn that reading and writing are impossible and useless. Instead, ask them to read novels or nonfiction books they choose outside of class, and engage them in discussion about their reading once a week (short letters in a journal kept in the classroom would work, or small groups discussions by students who are reading similar or identical material). Again, don’t be afraid to accept drawing or maybe even some other media as a response (see number two above).

7) Bring to students literary pieces and current nonfiction gems with which you are unfamiliar so they can watch you tackle new prose, wrestle with difficult ideas, stretch your way to new understandings…right alongside them. You have the perfect source – the internet is lousy with good (and bad) writing. Students can help you look for material, thereby increasing their investment in ensuing discussions, and you can ask them to sort good, better, best, and discuss the characteristics that lead them to such sorting. This is the same sort of norming that we do when we are scoring for a state test, and we learn a lot when we meet in this way. Let’s bring this process to our students. We will probably learn a lot, too, from the samples they bring us. It will be good for them to see us learning, as mentioned above.

8) Bring to students some gems of the canon that are available in class sets, if necessary – but make sure you plan for making the text accessible to all students, allow them to make connections to their lives, and give opportunities for discussion and reflection that will weave such literature into their experiences, making learning unavoidable. As some students have told their teachers, “I didn’t like that book [think, Lord of the Flies, The Crucible, or The Scarlet Letter], but I’ll never forget the discussions we had about ********/the projects we did about ******” [fill in the blanks with whatever theme or concept you have connected to their lives].

9) When you bring texts from outside the classroom, don’t be afraid to read aloud large portions of them. Everyone enjoys hearing stories, even poems, especially when read well, as you will do, after you rehearse just a little. Such readings increase the likelihood that students will develop that inner voice that helps mature readers get more meaning from their silent reading.

9) Take time to teach classroom skills at the beginning of each school year, even if the students seem too old for it, especially if you will be asking them to do something that might be unfamiliar to them…like free writing, discussion, reflection, collaborative choice and/or creation of texts. This definitely includes ways to show tolerance for contested ideas and respect for individual thinkers, even when one might not be feeling such tolerance.

10) If you organize your teaching thematically, make sure your themes come from common teen concerns that touch on real world situations in their world right now. Use Google News or something to keep in touch. FaceBook or YouTube will do in a pinch, since that’s where teens often hear about events.

11) Parents of teens want to talk to their children about their learning. Think of ways to facilitate such dialogue, with you, the teacher, as the heavy who is requiring it. Perhaps a ten-week portfolio will need parents to sign off or to write a short response letter. Don’t let such a response be a deal-breaker, though. Some students may have to ask a guidance counselor, another teacher, or some other significant adult to react to their work and provide such a response letter. That’s good, too. Dialogue is the human path to meaning, so encourage it in as many ways as possible.

12) If you supervise in your building, get out of the way of learning as much as you can.

Facilitate: make it possible, painless, perhaps even fun for teachers to shepherd authentic projects that foster learning.

Fund: divert budget money from expensive, obsolete textbooks and shiny technology (unless a teacher has an immediate use for it) to helping teachers accomplish plans they have been bankrolling with their own meager salaries.

Celebrate: when students are active, engaged, showing growth, say something to their teacher. Ceremonies are unnecessary, but acknowledgement goes a long way to making teachers’ days easier and smoother. You of all people know how difficult teaching is.

13) Also, supervisors, do not transfer the pressure you are feeling to raise test scores to the teachers and students in your building. Scores can be obtained and data can be added to the golden coffers of “whatever it takes” without making learning and testing and going to school onerous. Do what you can to make the tests that have to happen seem like small blips on the radar. Limit the amount of class time displaced by them, so they won’t interfere with the real learning of living, talking, writing, and sharing. Do what you can to protect the students in your building from emotionally abusive pressure that detract from learning. For example, don’t let the volume of your voice rise when addressing faculty or students just before annual tests. Don’t treat the analysis of benchmarks like the Manhattan Project.

14) I return to number one: Let them talk. “Them” refers to teens, adults, teachers, administrators, human beings. Talking is how we hear new ideas, solidify what we know, change to accommodate new directions. It happens early (when toddlers learn to be part of the human race) and often. Make sure we are not silencing people who need to be in dialogue to progress, nay, even to simply proceed and survive from day to day.

“If I have seen a little further,

it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton


The inspiration for the advice above comes from many sources I have read in the course of my studies at Binghamton University, written by people like Richard Allington, Michael Apple, Nancie Atwell, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ann Berthoff, Joe Bower, James Britton, John Dewey, Peter Elbow, Don Fader, Paulo Freire, Penny Kittle, Alfie Kohn, Ellen Langer, Donald Murray, Richard Nesbitt, Susan Ohanian, Walter Ong, Sir Ken Robinson, Mike Rose, Clay Shirkey, John Spencer, Lev Vygotsky, and a host of others in classrooms far and near.

Friday, January 07, 2011

I have often wondered why the composition research of the past doesn't seem to have filtered down to the public school teachers. Now I wonder whether current students would reveal the effects of test-prep teaching (which, in English classes, means formulaic five-paragraph essays or school-only paragraphs with cardboard topic sentences). What if someone recreated work of, say, Janet Emig or Sondra Perl, and asked kids what they are thinking about as they compose? Someone has probably done this, but did they try to tie their findings to the testing movement that began in the nineties? And what are some other important studies that are (or could be) replicated?

Another way to look at change: What would happen if we conducted the same kinds of interviews with established writers on the web, the way they did in some of that earlier work? What would people like Seth Godin and younger Huffington Post bloggers tell us about their writing, their composing habits? Would anyone be interested in the way they think about their writing, which they compose for an internet audience of RSS feeds? What are the composing processes of tweeters like? Is there a "Process" now that is different from the "Process" then, the process that produced "process pedagogy," which then produced workshop, etc.? Or has process stayed the same (a recursive dialogue with self) while some other details of composition and thinking have changed?

Is there a difference between children who write for tests and test prep and children who are instead engaged in authentic writing, multi-mode/multi-media composition, etc.? I'm thinking of the students in classrooms taught by John Spencer, Joe Bower, some other Canadien classrooms where the test pressure isn't as ubiquitous. I'm thinking of younger children, third and fourth, maybe fifth and sixth graders, before (at least in New York State) testing expands to fill the classroom? Alas, I'm not sure that hasn't happened yet.

What happens when children who are used to test prep are put in a situation where testing hasn't taken over and the teacher is using writing workshop and some dialogic methods? How long does it take for children to adjust? I know that I had to get students in the groove when they came to my classroom after sixth and seventh grade with very little writing experience, all of it graded, little of it personal or meaningful. It was getting worse (students were more noticeably and more vocally uncomfortable) in the years right before I took my leave. I had to reassure, "hold hands," ease them into it more. It would be difficult to study unless I am in a classroom myself, working with real children who have to take the test in May, in which case there would be administrators hanging over me, asking me about test-related objectives. That whole nightmare, all over again. I would probably have to pay children to come to some sort of writing workshop in July. Not exactly authentic. Or I would have to go to a state which has rejected NCLB money. Are there any states not getting on board?



Thursday, January 06, 2011

When I started teaching, a class discussion was as scary to me as the idea of having to "teach" poetry. Twenty years later, I was fine with poetry, but class discussions were still difficult and something to be avoided. I rejoiced at the reading days when our classroom was silent for minutes on end, an accomplishment that many other teachers, of the very same students, could not believe. I experimented with discussions about poems in my March Poetry Madness, and sometimes they went very well. I used some templates to help my students learn to disagree respectfully with each other, and discussions went even better. Alas, discussion skills were not tested, so I was hard pressed to justify time spent on classroom talk, though students loved it and often asked me for discussion time.
I am embarrassed to think back on how many times I could have allowed and encouraged and facilitated discussion time and didn't. Now, with time to read Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and the composition theorists who wrote, sometimes with knowledge of the Russian psychologists' work, sometimes without, I see the central role that talk plays in our learning. Society and culture (even our humanity!) spring from the human urge to communicate over whatever artifact presents itself (I love Bereiter's term, "improvable object"), whatever work or project needs to be accomplished.
Unfortunately, as this new awareness has unfolded over the course of the last century, mechanistic approaches to education have held sway. The behaviorists kept Dewey's ideas about collaborative learning from gaining much hold over the institution of public schools in the early 20th century; the Business Model is keeping the next iteration, with input from the translated Russians, from making inroads.
I think about the old saw from probability theorists, that if a succession of monkeys were set before a typewriter with limitless paper, eventually the complete works of Shakespeare would be repeated by chance. If 25 or 30 eighth graders are allowed to discuss ideas, and given the time and skills to do so without bullying; if they are given access to current information and well-written literature to spur them...what could they accomplish? My readings in the past few months tell me that we would need to stand aside at some point -- they would go to places they seldom see in the current institution that is run by constant testing.
Okay, my cultivated optimism is a bit over the top, but I think it is safe for me to say that nourished and regulated discussion should be part of every child's day, along with reading and writing. The writing is a must: it should be constantly interwoven, seldom collected to put before the limited audience of the teacher, often shared with the group, so that it seems as natural as breathing out and breathing in, for a thinking human being.
Because it is natural. What is unnatural is NOT discussing the ideas that surface from studying history, math, science, literature...and from thinking and writing.
How is it that generations of public school teachers have not been made aware of what so many journal articles and books and studies, since about 1960 or so, have been saying to us? What has squelched that voice, as soon as academics put it on the page? The disconnect that troubled me while I was in my classroom has become even more apparent as I discover what I was missing. It is a miracle that I even heard about Atwell's writing (and not even she, whom I idolized for a while, mentioned Bakhtin) and so managed to bring my teaching out of the traditions of the sixties.
A reflective attitude, nurtured each August as I reinvented my classroom and curriculum, caused me to contact my grad school mentor for ideas when I saw that my "clientele" had changed and my old methods weren't working with them. This reflective attitude is so important, and I see it given lip service in texts for teachers, but I didn't see it in colleagues, even those I respected for their content knowledge and general orientation of child-centered teaching. Some business writer (I think) has said something about being willing to give up old ideas when better ideas come along: that this is a disposition, a habit of mind, that should be cultivated. Change is difficult and humans resist it unless their environment encourages investigation of new ideas and methods.
I can't understand why this is so true, when it does not support our survival and evolution. And I see expert teachers as constantly watching for the next good idea: in every student, every piece of writing, we have to search for signs that they are getting it, that something is clicking, so we can offer the next step in their development, just when they need it. This is what Duncan says we will get from the stupid benchmarks that are littering the landscape of policy and legislation right now, but it is what good teachers tacitly know how to do without such flawed distractions.
Polanyi says experts know much more than they can talk about. I have now had three semesters to think about what I know, in the classroom each day, for every child. I am, in some ways, discouraged even more than when I left the middle school, because I can see even better ways of teaching, but I cannot see ways of putting them into action, not with the political climate faced by public schools now. My superintendent, even though he is young and not sedimented with decades of paternalistic or behaviorist pseudo-science, even though he is child-centered, is not resisting Albany's following of the stream of money. I send him occasional nudges: articles I read in the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, or studies by Willingham or essays by Krashen. He is too busy running a multi-million dollar corporation. He could influence other superintendents; they could rise up and push back against wrong-headed policies. They don't.
Even as I wait for a letter from the small, liberal arts college about whether they want to meet with me for an interview in February (I think the phone interview before Christmas went well), I turn over in my mind what it would be like to go back to my eighth grade classroom and do more of what I know is right. At least 100 students a year would have something to hold onto during their high school years. I could give them some of what I have learned.
On the other hand, I could work with sixty students a year at university and try some more of these new ideas. I could investigate further the reflexivity and recursiveness of language behaviors in a writing classroom, and the power of the back-and-forth movement to generate energy, ideas, and prose, especially when the process is undertaken socially. I could write, as Doug H. in Denver asks, a paragraph or two about what happens with freshmen who write and talk and talk and write, (a la Ponsot and Deen) and then write each of our four assigned essays. I've spent some time talking to a colleague about his view of the value and use of peer conference, and I want to see where that goes.
I could go through the interview process at the small liberal arts college for the experience, but stay with the freshmen who have come to university from public school English classrooms across the Eastern seaboard and beyond. Then I might have even more to say about how similar writing instruction should be, from secondary school to college. I could pick up a class at a community college, too, and try that again (my experience in the fall, 2009, was quite awful, very different from my experience in the eighties) with what I know now. Different clientele, from another set of secondary school classrooms.