Noise and Its Discontents

A few weeks ago, during a lesson on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I played my students a DVD of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra performing the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, which has “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” as its lyrics. At first, the students were somewhat giggly; then a hush came over the room. It seemed that we were all taking part in something extraordinary. Afterward, I felt deeply rested and restored; I carried the music in my mind long afterward.

It’s a truism to say that we live in a noisy world—but noise has become the default in our lives. It is the norm to have many conversations and activities going on at once; it is unusual, even exceptional, to focus on a single thing. Yet something like Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 requires full focus—so, insofar as we have pushed such focus away, we have pushed away the music as well.

Lately I have read, on blogs and in magazines, various insinuations that certain people—classified as Highly Sensitive People—are especially affected by noise. To me, that’s a diversion of the problem. Yes, noise affects some more acutely than others, but it affects everyone; it scatters our thoughts, work, conversations, meals, commutes, and sleep. As we (as a society) lose the practice of quieting down, we also break up others’ quiet.

But let’s backtrack a little and take a look at what noise and quiet actually are. The words are often used loosely to encompass visual stimuli as well as sounds. This is legitimate; I will explain why.

The word “noise” apparently derives from the Latin nausea (“disgust, annoyance, discomfort”). That is one theory, anyway. Another is that it derives from the Latin noxia (“hurting, injury, damage”). Let us think of it as something cacophonous to the ear or eye or mind—a pile of clashing stimuli. So, if I am reading an article online and am interrupted by flashing ads and popups, I consider the experience noisy. If I am at a concert, and my neighbor is checking messages on her illuminated handheld device, I am bothered by what I would call noise. You can have a chorus of a hundred and no noise; you can have two people interrupting each other—and noise aplenty.

The opposite of noise, then, is not silence, but harmony and integrity of a kind. A focused class discussion is harmonious in that the people listen to each other, build on each other’s points, and refrain from distraction. The harmony need not be perfect. In a concert hall, there will be sounds of rustling programs and feet, or even the occasional squeak of the bow on the string. That doesn’t turn the performance into noise. Nor do dissonant musical intervals, necessarily. You can have a dissonant piece that is nonetheless harmonious in a larger sense. Noise destroys the harmony and integrity of something.

Quiet is not silence; it is the foundation of the harmony and integrity discussed above. It is a kind of rest. You can be quiet while giving an animated speech; the quiet underlies the speech. It is that which allows you to collect your thoughts and perceive the audience. Without the quiet, it’s difficult to collect or perceive.

So, what are the intrusions on the quiet? What accounts for the rise of noise?

I could not answer that question in just a few paragraphs—but one of the biggest culprits is acquiescience: the attitude that “that’s just the way it is today.” I often hear people say that because we live in a world of multitasking and constant digital communication, we should simply go along with it, in the classroom and everywhere else. Stop holding on to the old ways. Adapt to the new. Have more group work. Have kids text about Shakespeare. Have many conversations going on at once. Even explicators of the Common Core—or many of them–tell teachers not to be the “sage on the stage” but instead to “facilitate” while the students work in groups.

I have never advocated for lectures as a primary pedagogical format in secondary school. When I defend lectures or the “sage on the stage,” I defend them as part of a larger collection of approaches. That said, they merit defense. One great benefit of the lecture is that it allows students to listen to something, make sense of it in their minds, come up with questions and counterpoints, etc. Also, there are some true sages in the classroom. I don’t claim to be one—but I have had teachers to whom I wanted to listen for hours because they inspired me so much.

When the quiet and focus are in place, a host of possibilities rises up. The teacher can shape the presentation; she has the latitude to approach a question obliquely, since she doesn’t have to meet the a demand for instant entertainment and sense. The students start to see how one idea leads to another; the sustained thought enters into their reading and writing. This makes room for serious joy and accomplishment.

Outside of school, whoever reads a book for an hour or two without interruption, practices an instrument with full concentration, or stays away from email for a full day, not only has a treasure, but holds it out for others to take as well.

For these reasons, I will continue to fight the noise on many fronts, external and internal. It may be a losing scrimmage, but if I can win here and there, it will be worth it.

What Is Joy, and What Is Joy in Learning?

This morning I read a piece by Annie Murphy Paul titled “Fostering Joy, at School and at Work.” She begins by describing the efforts of Menlo Innovations to create a joyous workplace (a great success, according to the CEO). Unsatisfied with the unscientific nature of this report, Paul then turns to research by the Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä on the subject of joy in schools. They conclude that (a) “teacher-centric” instruction does not foster joy (in their words, “the joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches”), whereas student-centered instruction does; (b) students are more joyous when allowed to work at their own pace and make certain choices about how they learn; (c) play is a source of joy; and (d) so are collaboration and sharing. Before taking apart these findings (which hold some truth but are highly problematic), let us consider what joy is.

Joy is not the same as cheer, happiness, or even enjoyment. It does not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter. It is a happiness that goes beyond regular happiness; it has to do with a quality of perception—of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard. When you suddenly see the solution to a geometry problem, you are also seen, in a way, because your mind has come forward in a way that was not possible before. When you listen to a piece of music that moves you, it is as though the music heard you as well. Joy has a kind of limitlessness (as in “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and stricture (as in Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?”). One thing is clear about joy: when it comes, it marks our lives. It is not to be dismissed.

So, let us look at the first of the research conclusions cited by Paul: that “teacher-centric” learning does not foster joy. My personal experience contradicts this flat out: some of my greatest joy in school (K-12, college, and grad school) happened when I was listening to a teacher or professor who had insights into the subject. The listening was not passive; to the contrary, it woke up my mind. Likewise, as a teacher, I have known those moments when students are listening raptly—not necessarily because of something I have done, but because the subject itself is so interesting.

Of course, students need a chance to engage in dialogue as well. I am not advocating for one-way discussion. Nor do I consider a lecture necessarily “teacher-centric”; it may be the most “student-centered” thing the students have encountered all day, in that it gives them something interesting to think about. Or rather, maybe it is subject-centered. Whatever it is, there is no need to rush to put it down. Take a closer look at it first. Consider the great freedom of listening–and the great gift of something to listen to.

Working at one’s own pace—yes, there may be joy in finding one’s own velocity and rhythm. But in the higher grades, this normally occupies the realm of homework. In the classroom, one is discussing the material—and such discussion can meet several levels at once. In a discussion of a literary work, for instance, some students may be figuring it out for the first time, whereas others may be rereading it and noticing new things. The class comes together in discussion—but outside of class the students may indeed work at their own speed and in their own manner (yet  are expected to complete assignments on time).

(I can already hear someone objecting that the researchers focused on early elementary school. Yes—and that is how they should present their findings. They should make clear that their research does not comment on “joy” in general—in school or anywhere else. Onward.)

As for play, it is immensely important—but play, like anything else, can be well or ill conceived. There is play that leads to amusement, and play that leads to joy. (Amusement is not a bad thing, but it is not joy.) Also, play does not always bear the obvious marks of a game, although it can. There is play in considering an untried possibility or taking an argument to its logical conclusion. There is play in questioning someone’s assumptions or taking apart an overused phrase. My students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is full of play of different kinds—and it’s also intellectually serious. An academic essay can be filled with play in that the author turns the subject this way and that. If you are immersed in a subject, it becomes difficult not to play with it. Play is the work of the intellect. So, I would say that when there is no play in a classroom, something is very wrong, and joy is probably absent—but this doesn’t mean that students should be playing “algebra badminton” (whatever that is—I just made that up) every day.

As for the researchers’ last point—about collaboration and sharing—yes, those can be rewarding things. But did the researchers consider how much joy can also come from working alone, or, even better, having a combination of solitude and collaboration? As long as I can remember, I have loved to sing with others, but I don’t think that would have had meaning if I didn’t also sing alone, in private. It is there that one comes to know the song. If you have ever gone out into the woods to sing—or even sang quietly while walking to the subway—then you know what it is like. It seems sometimes that the song must be solitary in order to exist at all. I am only touching on this subject, which I have discussed at length elsewhere; in any case, sharing and collaboration are only a part of joy.

Joy is not always happy. The other day I experienced joy when reading “Winky” by George Saunders. The ending was so unsettling and perfect, so beautiful in its botching of a plan, that I cried “yes,” in not so many words. Maybe joy is a kind of wordless “yes.”

 

Note: I made a few minor edits after the initial posting.

A Dream of Uncertainty

Yesterday I sat for a while on a bench in Riverside Park, listening to the water and the wind (and traffic). I had a chance to sort through the many events and conversations of the week. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting time: my students’ philosophy journal received a great review, a paperback edition of my book just came out, and my classes have been lively. More exciting events lie ahead—and, as usual, I have piles of homework to grade and a backlog of errands and duties.

In the midst of this, I have a slight ache, which goes back to the subject of my book. It has been a long time since I heard someone praise—or even acknowledge—singularity and independent thought. (The one recent exception was Susannah Heschel, who gave a wonderful lecture yesterday about her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his relationship with Rabbi Marshall Meyer (1930-1993). One thing she said that struck me is that we have a responsibility to let ourselves be uncertain.

In general, what I hear all around me is “Go Team.” People are praised insofar as they serve the team; teams are praised insofar as they are teams. (G. K. Chesterton would have had a field day with this phenomenon.) The word “community” likewise comes in hardened dogmatic form (as David Bromwich notes in his 1992 book Politics by Other Means). As it is commonly invoked, the “community” doesn’t make allowances for those who don’t fit its strictures or who make a regular practice of walking away.

I am not deploring the concepts of team and community; my complaint is that they have been taken too far. There is too little room for the counterpart, which could be called solitude. Solitude and company (or community, or collaboration, or friendship) exist in complex relation. Solitude, like community, can be understood crassly. It is not just time alone, or space apart. It is part of the mind, soul, and sinews. (Yes, there’s solitude even in dusting the furniture—the private glimpse of the shining wood and the specks flying up in the air.)

My students recently read part of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There’s a passage (in the final chapter) where the sight of a man and woman coming together on the street and entering a taxicab sets off a stream of thoughts about how our creative work requires the coming together of the male and female in our minds. In this very passage, there’s solitude (the stream of thought) and company (the man and woman entering the taxicab). Who could separate them? What would the stream of thought be without the encounter, or vice versa?

My most important projects have had a combination of solitude and collaboration. The philosophy journal could not have existed without the individuals who worked on it. Yes, we had to bring the many efforts together, but without the singularity of the contributions, there wouldn’t have been much to bring. The wit, thoughtfulness, and beauty did not come from a team. At the same time, we spent much time meeting and deliberating over matters of many sizes.

My book, which was largely a solitary effort, involved some collaboration as well. I sent individual chapters to scholars and others who had special knowledge of the subject. Whenever I quoted texts, I did so with care—taking the larger context of the work into account, tracking down first editions for the bibliography, and so on. Beyond that, many of the ideas in the book were inspired by people who had influenced me along the way: teachers, students, mentors, friends, and family members.

All of this is obvious yet difficult to describe. Solitude is not completely solitude, nor company completely company. The problem I see around me is a sealing of terminology. People speak of “the team” as though that’s all that existed and mattered. There’s little recognition that it’s only a part. The same can be said for invocations of community; the community would be a great thing, were it allowed to be a little less than great.

This brings me to the title of the post: “A Dream of Uncertainty.” I long for a language that questions itself, that recognizes its own indefinite edges. I long for a community that does not pretend to be everything, to include everyone, or to be more glorious than it is. Uncertainty allows for an opening—a way of existing with things that go beyond us, that slip away from us, that hum a song beyond our understanding.

District Leader Calls for Inhumanities

Rhino Falls, Wisconsin—Citing a global trend toward ruthless school and workplace practices, Superintendent Mark Sequor called on for a steep increase in the inhumanities throughout the K–12 grades. “It’s time we not only caught up with Singapore and China, but showed them who’s who,” he told an assembly of 10,000. “Our kids think they have lots of meaningless tests? They should see the tests the kids in Korea take. Our kids think they have too much homework? Compared to other kids, they’re on permanent vacation.”

To catch up with the rest of the world, says Sequor, the schools need an inhumanities emphasis even more than a STEM emphasis. “STEM might still give you a few stargazers,” he explained; “whereas a course in inhumanities will keep every child on task.”

The inhumanities, Sequor continued, are at the heart of the Race to the Top competition, which awards funding to districts that race into flawed reforms without really thinking them through. “The whole point here is to get ahead, not to succumb to lazy thoughts,” he explained, “and so, by embracing the inhumanities, we’re really going the extra mile—faster than anyone else, I’ll add.”

Telos Elementary, a model school in Rhino City, allows visitors to witness its inhumanities curriculum in action. The day is filled with rapid and strictly timed activities, where students from kindergarten on up must turn and talk, repeat, rotate, move to the next station, repeat, summarize, and get in line. “We can’t let them get dreamy,” said Holly Vide, the school’s inhumanities coach. “We need to have everyone engaged. Also, in the workplace, they’ll be switched from task to task or even fired, so we need to prepare them for that reality.”

By second grade, students are already learning to cheer over their data. “You’ve got to get into their heads that the statistics are what count, so to speak,” Vide said. “The biggest thing in their world should be that graph at the front of the room, showing their rise or fall in scores. This mindset will prepare them well for high school, where they have spend months preparing for the SAT. They learn to live for the score. That’s called achievement.”

In middle school, students refine their social ostracism skills. “Group work helps everyone spot the non-team-players,” said Sequor. “For this reason, it’s important to have group work in every class. Once you’ve spotted the non-team-players, you can exclude them and get on with your project.” The excluded students will receive low grades for classroom collaboration. “This is an important red flag for colleges and employers,” he said, “and it allows us to boost our credibility. If our team players are doing well, and we’re doing due diligence in classifying our non-team-players, then we’ll keep our good ratings.”

Once students enter high school, they are expected to do everything, he said. “Every high school student, in order to have a fighting chance in life, must have top grades, top test scores, leadership credentials, an array of extracurriculars, athletic prizes, community service hours, and at least ten things that go above and beyond what everyone else is doing. Can you be a person of integrity and character and do all of this?” he asked with a rhetorical flourish. “Of course not. That’s part of the point. Integrity and character are relics of medievalism. I think it was the medieval writer Flannery O’Connor who said something about how integrity lies in what one cannot do. We live in a ‘can-do’ era. A ‘can’t-do’ attitude is simply out of bounds.”

According to some critics, it’s the “can’t-do attitude” that makes room for thiings like reading, pondering, or playing an instrument. “No one who does anything substantial or interesting can do everything,” said Brian Emerson, a professor of English and an opponent of the inhumanities movement. “There must be areas of ‘no’ and failure.”

“That’s a quaint idea,” responded Sequor, “but it amounts to a bunch of fluff. Substantial and interesting things? Those are subjective terms. We have to take a hard look at the era and go where it goes.”

The era was not available for comment, but one of its representatives repeated its recent press statement that “following is leading.” We would have mulled over the words, but a whistle blew, and everyone scurried on to the next task.

 

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

CONTRARIWISE Is Here!

contrariwiseMy students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in big boxes on Friday, and it is beautiful! It has 128 pages of dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary, art, and more—on philosophical topics ranging from time to tyranny. (My students’ work has previously appeared on the Core Knowledge Blog and GothamSchools.)

The editors-in-chief (both juniors at the school) defined the journal, insofar as it can be defined. They made creative and editorial decisions, wrote commentary, held contests, solicited work, recruited the cover artist (also a student at our school), examined the proofs, and did more than I can enumerate. The fourteen-member editorial board assisted with the selection and editing of pieces, attended meetings, offered ideas, contributed work, and helped spread the word about the journal. The twenty-five contributors (or thirty, if one counts the honorable mentions) gave us rich material. I provided guidance and support.

To order a copy by mail, please write a check for $10 to Columbia Secondary School and mail it to CONTRARIWISE, c/o Diana Senechal, Columbia Secondary School, 425 W. 123rd St., New York, NY 10027. (The price includes packaging and first-class postage; if you purchase a copy in person, it’s only $5.) Proceeds help us cover printing costs and other expenses. The first issue was funded by donations from generous individuals; the second will rely primarily on sales. Thus, by purchasing a copy, you are not only treating yourself to a wonderful journal but also helping it continue.

This inaugural issue was five months in the making, and here it is. I am honored to have witnessed my students’ inspiration, care, and wit throughout the project—and thrilled to hold and read the book.

Update #1: CONTRARIWISE has a lovely mention on Columbia Secondary School’s Facebook page–as well as a Facebook listing for its May event. We are working on a possible April event as well. See the CONTRARIWISE website for information.

Update #2: CONTRARIWISE has received its first review–on Cynthia Haven’s outstanding blog The Book Haven!

A Common Core Lesson Gone Wrong

I have seen many lessons that purport to implement the Common Core but botch the subject matter in the process. I ask: is this due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line within the Common Core itself, or something else altogether? A lesson on Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (commonly known as “The Daffodils”) serves as a good test case here. The lesson left me queasy; that’s a sign that my stomach is working well, so I am hopeful.

The main problem with this lesson (featured in video on the front page of LearnZillion.com) is that it has little or nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poem. You could take the same lesson, adjust only a few words, and slap it on any of a thousand poems. Second, it gives bad advice: it states that when tackling a difficult poem, one should proceed one stanza at a time, summarize the stanza in one’s own words, and write that summary on a sticky note. (No, no, no!)

The lesson begins: “What happens if you get stuck when you start reading a difficult poem?” The answer: “In this lesson, you will learn to analyze each section of a poem by rereading and restating in your own words.”

I question the premise that this is a helpful activity. The reason poetry is worth reading in the first place is that it makes singular use of language; it cannot be translated into prose. Restating a stanza in your own words takes you away from the language of the poem itself. Yes, some poems have complex constructions that need to be teased apart, but that does not have to involve restatement; or when it does, one can restate the specific construction, not an entire stanza. To restate a stanza is to stop it at the border and say, “You may not cross over into my mind with your own goods; you must exchange them for mine.”

After this, the speaker makes a few generic statements about the poem: “The poet William Wordsworth used lots of imagery in his poem ‘Daffodils.’ Imagery is the use of vivid language that describes something so well that readers see the images playing in their minds like a movie.” Well, that isn’t quite right, but let’s leave that aside. It gets worse: “When we see images in our mind as we read, we can visualize to help us understand the poet’s words.” Maybe—but images can also be puzzling, even confounding. They do not make things pat for us, nor do they have to do with sight alone. “Visualization” is a much-abused concept; I see no need to invoke it. “Imagination” is more to the point.

The speaker then addresses the common assumption that poems are easy to understand because they are short. She counters that they take a great deal of concentration. (This is a good point—but it’s still generic.) She goes on to say that  readers often focus on what they don’t understand, rather than what they do. Instead, she says, they should focus on what they do understand. (This is not necessarily so.) From here, she explains the process of summarizing, which culminates in a sticky note. Along the way, she makes passing mention of the imagery in the first stanza—but otherwise does nothing to bring out the poem itself.

What would I do instead? I would have the students take in the language of the poem—without turning it into anything else. Have them listen to it several times, and maybe, on the third time, make note of things they found striking. Some might point to “I wandered lonely as a cloud”; others, to “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” Some might be drawn to the lines, “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.” Many, I think, would find something in the final stanza, maybe in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” After they had brought up specific things that struck them, we could start to look at how the poem fits together as a whole, listening to it again along the way. In particular, we would look at the shift to the “inward eye” in the final stanza.

Now I will return to the initial question: are the flaws of this lesson (and many others like it) due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line in the Common Core itself, or something else? I would say all three.

The lesson seems to target a standard along the lines of CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.” Some might interpret this as a call for strategy instruction: for instruction on ways to approach texts in general. Yet the same standard, a few grade levels higher, calls for attention to specific texts. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.4 reads: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.” Thus it seems likely that the author of this lesson misinterpreted the standard.

Yet the ELA standards themselves are worded generically and thus encourage generic approaches to literature. Granted, they call for attention to the specifics of the text, but they mention no texts except as examples, in passing. I am not suggesting that there should be a national literature curriculum; the chances are too great that it would turn out mediocre. My point is that the Common Core ELA standards are removed from the subject matter itself. This, in my view, is their main fault line. Because of this, they should be taken down a few notches; they should be secondary to curriculum. Even that isn’t a solution; the curricula must be good.

There seems to be still another problem: a tendency, stretching far beyond the Common Core, to avoid the subject matter, whether out of fear, ignorance, or deference to mandates. The author of the Wordsworth lesson takes pains to say that poems are difficult, that this poem is difficult, and that there are specific procedures one can follow in order to make sense of a difficult poem. Yet “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is not, at the surface level, a difficult poem. One can quickly grasp what is going on, until the final stanza. The challenge lies in the subtleties, which must be met on their own terms.

These problems have no quick solution, but they don’t have to mire us. The first step, as I have said elsewhere, is to insist on teaching important, compelling, beautiful, lasting things. Yes, this requires that we exercise discernment; but what else is education for? By exercising discernment, we help students do the same.  I do not mean that the curriculum should be up to every individual teacher, or even every individual school. I mean that listening to literature, reading it, thinking about it, discussing it should be part of the schools’ practices and among their highest priorities. There should be faculty meetings about works of literature, mathematical proofs, historical eras—the subject matter itself, not instructional strategies. Schools with this kind of intellectual culture could stand strong against the winds of nothing, which do great damage through their emptiness.

Three updates:

1. It turns out that this lesson is one in a series of seven. The others are at least as distracting and misleading. See comments below.
2. Joanne Jacobs blogged about this post. There have been interesting responses. Update: Diane Ravitch blogged about it as well.
3. LearnZillion no longer features this lesson on the front page. Instead, it features an array of lessons that, like this one, emphasize a skill over a work of literature. Some go into the literary work more than others–but from what I can see, all of them stick to formula and refrain from the idiosyncrasy and flexibility that literature demands.

Why “Turn and Talk” Instead of “Pause and Think”?

A recent New York Times article describes a classroom observation in which a teacher supposedly made good transitions between “turn and talk” activities and lecturing. (She was criticized, though, for not asking more open-ended questions.)

I commented on this article, despite being unable to access it from my home computer (I’ve exceeded my limit of free NYT Digital articles) and having great trouble typing it out on my iPad’s touch keyboard, which seems to invite typos. I criticized this new evaluation system for being very much like previous ones—for emphasizing processes and activities over the content of the lesson. I asked, while I was at it, whether “turn and talk” was a worthwhile activity in the first place.

Of course its value depends on its relation to the lesson topic—and, to a large extent, on how it is conducted, if it absolutely must be conducted. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’ll explain why I think “turn and talk” should cede at least some space to “pause and think.”

A “turn and talk” activity usually goes like this. A teacher poses a question of opinion or something else that’s easily answered. Then she says, “Turn to your partner and talk about it! Come on, let’s hear everyone talking!” Then she circulates to make sure they are “on task”—that is, talking about the subject. Within thirty seconds or so, she stops the discussion and maybe asks students to “share out.”

While the “turn and talk” is going on, the room is full of noise. You can’t hear yourself think. Also, you know that anything serious you begin to say will probably be cut off in midsentence. It is better not to bring up an idea that you care about. It’ll get lost in the rush and tumult.

Also, the chances are fairly high that your “turn and talk” partner won’t do anything to challenge you or push your argument a few steps further. The point is not to work with ideas, but to show that you’re talking, period. Supposedly talking is good, even if you aren’t saying much.

Then what? After a “share” or two, the whole discussion is swept under, as though it didn’t matter. The lesson moves on to the next activity.

“Turn and talk” is meant to draw out shyer students who wouldn’t necessarily speak out in class discussion. But is this hubbub an improvement? For some, it might be; others, however, might want to run out of the room. Proponents of “turn and talk” ignore the possibility that a student who stays silent in class discussion may actually be thinking.

Yes, it is possible to be intellectually active without saying a word out loud! In fact, whole-class discussions allow students and teachers many possibilities. A student might stay silent on some days and speak up on others; the teacher might leave her alone one day and call on her the next. Yes, some students may feel intimidated speaking up in front of the whole class—but if the focus is on the subject, and not on the social relationships, many students will participate. (I include silent participation in this.)

Why should anyone be forced to talk before he or she has something to say? A few years ago I audited a physics class; on the first or second day, the professor posed a question and had us talk to our neighbors about it. I knew that I didn’t know the answer to the question; it seemed my neighbor did, but the activity concluded before she could explain what she knew. I would have loved to listen to the professor’s explanation in that instance.

I favor whole-class discussions and lectures because they allow one to focus and build on an idea, and because they suit my subject matter (philosophy). It is true that other classes in other subjects (such as languages) might benefit a great deal from “turn and talk” and similar activities. It is also true that most subjects could use “turn and talk” sparingly. The problem arises when everyone is supposed to incorporate “talk activities” in the lesson (and this is a real problem).

Also, it does matter how the activity is conducted. At its best, “turn and talk” resembles the Jewish practice of hevruta, or studying religious texts with a partner. Such “turn and talk” is not frenetic or noisy; it allows for pauses and silence and lasts longer than thirty seconds. Hevruta has substance because it is about something substantial; the same could be said for a good “turn and talk” session. (If I were to try to institute good turning and talking, though, I’d give it as an assignment, so that the students could go off to a quiet place with their partners and discuss a topic without rush. But then, where is that quiet place, and when are the students not rushed?)

On the whole, I consider “turn and talk” activities painfully superficial and wasteful, but I recognize that they, like so many other oversold procedures, have a time and place.

Note: For the sake of consistency, I kept “turn and talk” unhyphenated throughout this piece. There’s a good argument for hyphenating it when it functions as an adjective, but that seemed too jittery.

The Great Sin of Introducing a Text

Yesterday I had some of the liveliest classes of the year. My eleventh-grade students are about to read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an intensely beautiful and challenging philosophical essay. In preparation for this, I devoted a lesson to Mill’s life and thought.

I began by asking my students whether happiness could be measured, and, if so, how. (Many students jumped into the discussion.) Then I told them about Mill’s life—his upbringing, early work in utilitarianism, intellectual crisis, emergence from the crisis, relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and more. I brought in excerpts from his Autobiography and the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (which he had read during his crisis). I asked them to consider what Mill might have found in this particular poem. At the end of the lesson, I posed the question: if there were a mean between utilitarianism and romanticism, what might it be? Throughout the lesson, hands were flying up and dialogues mounting.

Under the Common Core, teachers are admonished against providing background for a text before the students actually read it. The rationale is that background information can interfere with the students’ direct reading and interpretation of the work. Supposedly, if you tell them too much up front, they will rely on what you told them instead of focusing on what the text actually says.

I understand this concern–but it doesn’t hold in all cases. For instance, nothing I told my students, and no ideas I drew out of them, will help them comprehend and interpret the following:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.

When reading this passage, we will focus on the words and phrases and their logical interrelation. We will examine the contrast Mill draws between social tyranny and tyranny at the hands of government. We will discuss the very concept of the tyranny of the majority—and ask why Mill considers it so insidious, pervasive, and dangerous. Almost all of the discussion will focus directly on the text—but we will draw important ideas and questions out of it.

Why, then, would I introduce students to Mill’s life in the first place, if there’s so much to be found in the text itself? Am I not wasting precious instructional time?

I would say no, for several reasons. First, Mill’s life is downright interesting—his strict classical education, his contact with Jeremy Bentham, his early work in utilitarianism, his crisis, his ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism and romanticism, his relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and much more.  Why shouldn’t students learn about something as intriguing as this? His intellectual crisis and emergence are intriguing in themselves—especially for teenagers, who may have experienced crises of their own.

Second, David Bromwich refers to Mill (in his essay “The Life and Thought of Mill,” which appears in the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty) as “the thinker of all the nineteenth century in whom romanticism and utilitarianism were most nearly joined.” It’s a great philosophical exercise to imagine how romanticism and utilitarianism might be joined—and that’s part of what we did yesterday. (One student suggested, strikingly, that they could be joined in optimism.) Later, after they have read On Liberty (or most of it), we can reread certain passages, and consider how they might contain a synthesis of romanticism and utilitarianism. That will come after students have seen and discussed what’s actually in the text, and it just might bring things around full circle (though it won’t be complete, as there will still be open questions).

Third, this is not a literacy class, but a philosophy course. Its content includes texts, ideas, and some intellectual history. I don’t think anyone would fault my course for lack of complex texts or careful textual analysis—we have spent entire lessons working through Locke’s syntax, for instance—but the course holds more than that. This is normal for a course in a subject; it needs no special justification. College courses focus on subject matter. Professors present and interpret the subject, and students must still read and think a great deal on their own. If part of the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college-level work, shouldn’t there be room to teach a subject?

Third, part of the point of education is to foster the exercise of good judgment. How do we show students how to exercise good judgment, unless we ourselves strive for the same?

Teaching in Vastness

I am ambivalent about Parker J. Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, but I return to it as I assemble thoughts on teaching. I treasure passages in this book and admire its durability overall. Palmer makes a vitally important argument: that good teaching comes from the teacher’s identity and integrity. There is no single “successful” pedagogical style; one teacher may teach through lecture and another through dialogue, but if both are deeply connected to the subject and aware of themselves and their students, they can both do powerful work.

A teacher, says Palmer, works on the border between the public and the private—“dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, and ridicule” (18). To ward off this danger, according to Palmer, we tend to disconnect—and this disconnectedness hurts education and those involved in it.

All true—but when I read Palmer’s words, and continue to read, I get restless for something more. (He recognizes the danger of sounding pat–but falls into that trap repeatedly.) Yes, identity and integrity are essential to teaching, but there’s something beyond both of them. To have identity and integrity, you must go into something larger than yourself. To hold up at the intersection between public and private, you must be aware of something beyond public and private, something that transcends the two.

Or maybe this is not necessary for all; I have no way of knowing. What is it, though? What is this space or sound or presence that can shape a teacher’s work?

Every day in the classroom, I run up against my own imperfections: I make a mistake, misunderstand something that a student said, get slighly irritated, answer a question too quickly, or find myself combating something internal—an area of ignorance, an excess, a sadness, even a rampant joy. In the moment, there’s nothing much that I can do beyond using my best judgment, which is far from perfect. Then, later, when I sort through the events of the day, something else happens.

I don’t just “reflect” on what went right or wrong. That’s an important (and much touted) part of teaching, but only a part. Reflections, after all, must be informed—and where does that form come from? First, it comes from immersion in subjects—any subjects. I learn as much about teaching philosophy when immersed in Russian or Hebrew as I do when reading Machiavelli. Learning to consider the sounds, shapes, roots, and different meanings of words—learning their tones, weights, and connections—all of helps the teaching. Also, when I study anything beautiful or important, I find out, all over again, what education means and how it happens. That said, there are special reasons to immerse myself in the specific subject I teach—to read and reread Machiavelli, Locke, etc. I find out, over and over again, that there’s far more than I presented or even suggested in the lesson. New lesson plans light up in my mind.

There’s still another kind of immersion. When I go through the events of the day, I find myself in a silent, private dialogue—not with myself, really, or with God (I don’t claim such direct access), but with something a little beyond myself. I am able to sort out not only the practical aspects of what I did that day, not only the ethical aspects, but something else, something that puts the events in their proper place, a place I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Without this, I would lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

For example, last week, in one of my classes, I found myself telling my students about a dream in which one of the assistant principals appeared. (The subject came up because had just popped in the classroom a moment earlier, and a student had mentioned having a dream about him.) My dream was strange and brief, with no embarrassing events. It wasn’t too far off topic, since we were discussing Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which is filled with dreams of a kind.  Still, I felt a bit off kilter after telling it. I didn’t know whether I had done the right or wrong thing.

From a practical standpoint, it was a bit of a digression, but it didn’t do any harm. From an ethical standpoint, it was mostly harmless, though it feels “gossipy” to tell about a dream that involves a colleague, even though the person isn’t really involved at all. That said, there was nothing gossipy about the dream, in which I was the conductor of a mostly empty train, and he was giving me driving advice (I think).

But there’s something else to reckon with, beyond practical and ethical matters. I recognized, as I went into rumbling thought, that I was feeling unwell on that day and that my gauges were a little off. I also saw that I was starting, in general, to relax around my students and tell them stories now and then—and figuring out when and when not to do so. There would never be a final, fixed answer, but I was finding my way. This meant that there would be errors, or semi-errors, or things that seemed like errors. It is an important question, when and when not to tell a story, since we are made of stories. I loved the stories that my teachers and professors told me over the years. They didn’t distract from the subject; rather, they made things more vivid overall.

How is this different from “identity and integrity”? It differs from them only insofar as it is their source. I find, again and again, that I am up against immensity, or maybe not up against it at all, but walking and thinking in it—and that this is the honor of teaching. Those running the system ask us to show results, to show that the students have moved from point A to point D. That is a reasonable request, if put in its proper place. Palmer would add that a teacher should teach from the self–a self that inhabits the subject. Yes, I grant that as well. But there is something beyond the self, an invisible teacher without lessons, maybe, who shakes me out of my limited senses and points out signs of life.

Turning Our Attention Toward Interesting Things

This blog has been slow lately for two reasons: first, I have been unusually busy with school; second, I am in the midst of my happiest teaching year yet. Why is it going so well, and what does this say about the possibilities in the teaching profession?

First, I teach at a wonderful school–but this kind of thing can happen at many schools, under the right conditions. These include curriculum, which I’ll bring up later.

Aside from that, perhaps the most important factor is that I have time to think—and lots to do with the thinking. I teach part-time; thus, there are days in the week when I am planning lessons and correcting student work but not running around. Last year, I also taught part-time but had an enormous challenge: 270 students and three new philosophy courses that I had designed. It took all I could do just to keep up with the grading, and I was generally exhausted. This year, other teachers took over the ninth-grade philosophy course. I provide them with the materials, but they teach the classes. I teach “only” the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Teaching them for the second time in a row is a delight; they are more solid and more flexible at once. The students have been doing inspiring work; reading their homework is a treat (as it was last year).

These great conditions come at a cost: the half-time salary. If I were teaching full-time, I would have more classes, more assigned duties, and less room for the intellectual and creative work. I would also be better off financially. Weighing the two options, I would rather have less money and more intellectual space—but it’s sad that I have to choose. Teaching should be treated as a thinking field. Teachers’ schedules should not be crammed and hectic, nor should every moment of the day be programmed.

That leads to another point: about collaboration. I have written on many occasions about our misconception of the term. In many districts around the country, there is something of a group work mandate for students and teachers alike. It is presumed that students and teachers should spend a great deal of time in small groups, working with others on a task. In reality, the best collaboration involves substantial independent work and thought. For example, when an editor and author work together, rarely do they sit down together at a table and revise a piece. Rather, the editor provides some suggestions, and the author thinks about them, determines which ones to accept, finds alternatives for the others, and revises the work. When scientists work together on a project, it often happens that each one works alone on a substantial branch of it. They come together for the intersections of their work.

This year, I have great collaboration without the group work. I attend very few meetings, since they do not fall within my official schedule. However, I am frequently in touch with colleagues and am alert to their work We have discussed many ways to join efforts. Also, I am the faculty adviser for the school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE—and have the honor of working with two outstanding editors-in-chief (both juniors) and a large and dedicated editorial board (sophomores, juniors, and seniors). This, too, involves a great deal of independent work and just a few meetings. The meetings are all the more fruitful because there’s so much  to bring to them.

This suggests to me that “collaboration” should be reconceived. It is essential to education and most fields, but it should involve and not drive out solitary thought. The practice of thinking alone should have honor, not stigma. (That’s the subject of my book, Republic of Noise.) I would go even farther: a certain kind of solitary thought inspires collaboration, and vice versa. If you strike the right relation between the two, you allow for an abundance of ideas and accomplishments.

The other difference from last year is that I am doing more things of my own outside of school. I don’t have enough time for substantial writing (I would need to take some time off again from teaching in order to write my next book). Nor do I have enough time for books that I choose to read; I already have so much to read for my teaching. On the other hand, I have been giving talks, participating in projects, and taking some classes. All of this feeds my teaching but is distinct from it; it is not “professional development,” but rather the development of something internal.

The moral of this, if such there be, is that teachers need room for their own lives and interests, even if they devote most of their time to school. Schools and policymakers should recognize that those outside pursuits enrich lives and translate into better teaching. Studying a language out of interest is much more important than attending some professional development workshop on how to scaffold a complex text. In truth, if you are studying a language, you are probably developing insights on “scaffolding” that no workshop could give you.

That leads to the final point. Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

I recognize that what makes me thrive is not what will make every teacher thrive. Yet most teachers would agree, I think, that the work should be less frazzling, with a focus on the intellect, imagination, and spirit. In addition, most would agree that a teacher’s intellectual and spiritual life affects that of the students. Lifting the quality of life for teachers–”life” in the rich sense of the word–serves not only the teachers themselves, but the students, the school, and the endeavor.

Clearly it would be expensive to do some of the things I recommend here. But some of it could be done at no extra cost—by turning our attention toward interesting things and defending them against encroachments. It is not that simple, and yet it is.

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