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.

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