The First CONTRARIWISE Interview

Last May, Mark Balawender, communications director for PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), interviewed the CONTRARIWISE co-editors-in-chief and two contributors. His wonderful piece was published today on the PLATO website.

CONTRARIWISE is my school’s philosophy journal. The inaugural issue, released last February, received a lovely review from Cynthia Haven. The second issue will feature an international contest!

What Should Teacher Education Be?

This is the closest I will come to reviewing Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher. (For earlier posts on specific parts of the book, see here and here; see also my response to the book excerpt “Why Do Americans Stink at Math” (New York Times, July 27). I find that the book raises important questions about teacher training but makes false oppositions between the “bad old days” and the promising present or future. In addition, I question its underlying assumption that we need a grand model for teacher training; as I see it, the best teacher education (and training) will be humble in scale and goal; it will give teachers the knowledge and skills they need to exercise independent thought, which will transcend existing models.

Elizabeth Green does us a great service by bringing the question of teacher education to the forefront and challenging the rhetoric and policy about “good” and “bad” teachers. She argues passionately that teachers can improve through deliberate study of the craft, yet she does not ignore the complexities of this proposition. The book is sure to meet with strong responses, because it deals with old (not new) controversies underlying pedagogy.

Unfortunately, she tries to resolve at least some of the complexities through a cosmic tale of slowly converging perspectives. We have Deborah Ball, Magdalene Lampert, and their TKOT group on the one hand, and Lemov and his “Taxonomy” group and “no-excuses schools” on the other. At first, it seems that Green is setting up a dialectic–but this does not seem to be the point. Slowly, through failures, revisions, and chance meetings, the two groups start to converge, or so it seems. Enter the Common Core, which (in Green’s depiction) seems to mesh well with both TKOT and the revised “Taxonomy.” It seems–though this may be incorrect–that Green is placing hope in the possibility that some great convergence will lead to a great master plan for teacher training.

Robert Pondiscio, who finds that Green comes “perilously close to undermining the case she sets out to build,” shares Green’s belief that any viable plan for teacher training must be scalable: “But if teachers are to be made, after all, rather than born, then good instructional practice must be something that can be identified, named, practiced, and mastered by millions.” (I wish I could attend the September 2 discussion, hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, between Pondiscio and Green; alas, I am at school until late afternoon and can’t possibly get to D.C.).

I argue the opposite: that both TKOT and the Taxonomy go wrong when they try to become comprehensive models. Scale them down a bit–make them into working principles for certain situations–and they can be of great use. The problem with an overarching model is that it comes from the minds of the few–so you have a few thinkers at the top, and many followers at the bottom. Teaching must allow for independence of thought, or education itself will be downgraded.

Green quotes Ball’s statement that the math she learned in school was “uninspiring at best, mentally and emotionally crushing at worst.” Her own pedagogical approach seems to repudiate and counter the “old style.” Yet one of her classmates might have been inspired by the lessons that she found so dull. I have seen math students–and have been a math student–who, listening to the teacher’s presentation, detected a pattern or corollary and jumped out of the seat with excitement. I have had teachers who expected this and who would pose questions along the way: “Where do you see this going? What would change if I did such-and-such instead?” In addition, my math teachers (in high school) were skilled at diagnosing my errors. They could quickly tell the difference between a careless error and a conceptual one; in addition, they recognized when I was solving a problem in a way they hadn’t considered. Good math pedagogy has been alive and well for a long time. (So has bad math pedagogy–but it often appeared in the guise of a new method.)

What about classroom discipline? In my book and in an op-ed, I criticize Lemov’s Taxonomy for its rigidity and excessive emphasis on external behavior. My main argument is that Lemov’s system promotes a “thinking gap” between those who depend on directives from moment to moment and those who have internal focus and direction. A classroom of students in the latter group–which you will find in top-level schools and colleges–do not need SLANT, nor do they get punished for minor aberrations (such as looking out the window). The focus–for them and for the teacher–is on the substance of the lesson; within that focus, they have great intellectual liberty. Helping students reach such self-possession is another matter–it takes some effort–but the Taxonomy, as a full model, is not the route. Yet certain techniques within the Taxonomy could be of help to teachers.

If, as a teacher, you have a mind of your own, you will find any model insufficient for your purposes. The challenge lies in recognizing those aspects that could be helpful. For example, I object strongly to an overemphasis on “reading strategies.” I find that generic strategies do little to illuminate specific texts–and that strategy instruction tends to bring down the intellectual level of a course. Granted, students need to learn strategies of various kinds, but they can do that in the context of the subject matter. Green describes Pam Grossman’s strategy emphasis with apparent enthusiasm that I do not share (see pp. 268 and 302, for instance). It is important to challenge such enthusiasms. Most principles of teaching can be taken too far; the challenge lies in recognizing when they do.

Likewise, a teacher should be willing to question advice. When Green prepares to give a guest lesson to a high school class, she accepts the regular teacher’s (Andy Snyder’s) judgment that the readings she initially selected would be “too boring” for the students. I do not blame her for deferring to his judgment here; this is a one-off occurrence, and he is a highly skilled and respected teacher. Yet in general it is important to question assumptions about what students will find “boring.” My students have gotten excited about John Stuart Mill, Hannah Arendt, and other writers that some would consider far beyond teenagers’ realm of interest. Much depends on what the teacher does with such works. That leads to the point of this piece.

Good teachers are knowledgeable, questioning, and self-questioning. They learn much from others–but also learn from the many hours of rumination over the course material, the lesson plans, and the students’ work. To insist on an opposition between the “bad old days” of teacher isolation and the “good new days” of collaboration is to set things up for a great error. Green writes, on p. 311: “The only way to get better teaching, [some teachers] argued, was lot leave teachers alone–‘liberate’ them, one columnist put it, and ‘let them be themselves.’ Yet leaving teachers alone was exactly what American schools had done for years, with no great success.”Here Green commits two fallacies: first, by quoting the columnist, she comes close to ridiculing the idea that teachers should be left alone–an idea that has great merit when not taken too far. Second, she implies that schools were uniformly leaving teachers alone for years–which is not true. Collaboration and professional development are not recent inventions.

In teaching, both solitude and collaboration have an essential place. If you never consult with others, you may develop blind spots; if you only consult with others, you may settle for the judgments of the group. Collaboration, at its best, is distinct from group work; it involves a great deal of solitary work. One goes off and thinks on one’s own; then one brings one’s insights to the table and listens to others. This allows for substantial discussion. When collaboration is reduced to group work, when it no longer has a solitary component, it becomes shallow. Although this varies widely from one situation to the next, I would say that the solitary work should take up about 80 percent of the time, and the remaining 20 percent should go to in–person collaboration. Instead, I see a widespread assumption that collaboration and meetings are one and the same.

What, then, should teacher education look like? First, teachers should have a liberal education–a background in math, literature, history, science, art, music, and preferably philosophy and a second language. They should have additional preparation in their own subject. This “preparation” should consist not simply of required courses and grades, but of intellectual discussion; “professional development” should often consist of literary and mathematical study.

Then what of the pedagogy? Teachers should be offered techniques and tools–with the emphasis on the underlying principles, and with the recognition that any given technique may be more appropriate for one setting than another. Beginning teachers–or teachers in an especially challenging setting–may need more structure at the outset, but ultimately they should be encouraged to find their way.

Finally, teachers must not be crushed with unreasonable duties. Too many teachers have to create their curricula on the fly, while teaching; this is  unreasonable and harmful. (Some aspects of a curriculum may well be spontaneous, and that’s good; but there’s more room for spontaneity when you know what it is you’re teaching.) Teachers should not be assigned to teach subjects that they don’t know; that, too, is a setup. Finally, teachers should have more time in the day for planning–both on their own and with colleagues.

These three facets of teacher preparation–liberal education, pedagogical techniques (to be used with judgment), and a restructuring of teachers’ responsibilities–would do a great deal to strengthen the teaching profession. Various pedagogical models could come into play, yet teachers would be expected to go beyond them. Is that not what we hope our students will do: learn, defy, and transcend the structure we have offered?

 

Note: I made some edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it. I made two more minor edits on September 1. Then, on September 8, I made a substantial addition to paragraph 10 and inserted a new paragraph after that.

The Role of Love in Teaching

This is not meant to be a spoiler, nor is it meant to be taken out of context. In the final chapter of Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green remembers the advice–received separately from Doug Lemov and Andy Snyder–that good teachers must love their students. After making a hurtful comment to a student during a guest lesson, and seeing the expression on the girl’s face, Green writes, “Staring back at her, I thought about how she was a human, a person I cared about. I decided that I loved her.” (This has already been quoted in Charlie Tyson’s review of the book on Inside Higher Ed.)

Soon I will say something about the book as a whole. Right now, I want to consider the general questions: Should teachers love their students? Is it possible to love all of one’s students? What does it mean to love one’s students, or to love anyone?

I will take up the last question first, since I find that the word “love” is thrown about too carelessly. We live in a time when you can “like” something with just a click, and where “love” seems just a few clicks away from “like.” There’s also a widespread belief (rooted in various religious traditions) that if you have a loving heart, you can love everyone, especially children. I would say that love is much rarer and more difficult than that.

What does it mean to love someone? It is not easily pinpointed, because love is in motion, and it comes in different forms. If we are considering basic human love–of a nonfamilial and nonerotic kind, that is, love based on intellectual, spiritual, and emotional but not physical bonds–then it has perhaps three sides: first, a recognition of another person as human (that is, a recognition of the person’s dignity); second, an appreciation of the person’s particulars, the things that distinguish him or her from others; and third, a genuine wish for that person’s well-being–that is, the person’s movement toward the good. Each of these aspects contains still more: for instance, a recognition of what one doesn’t know about the person, and a recognition that he or she is not static but changing.

Given this definition of love, it seems, on the surface, that we can and should have this love for everyone. But it is one of the most difficult things in the world. Each of us is given certain insights and certain blindness, which may or may not change over time. The insights allow us to see another person’s beauty (or shortcomings, as the case may be); the blindness may prevent us from seeing the same. In addition, it is our very idiosyncrasies that give meaning to love in the first place. If everyone loved me, I don’t think I would feel loved at all. There is something important about being recognized in the crowd, of being singled out. If love were universal, we would have no names. Everyone might as well be called “X.”

Even dignity–the most basic element of love–is difficult to keep in view all the time. In I and Thou (1923), Martin Buber describes the fleeting nature of the true I-You encounter; it comes and goes and cannot be held, but once one has known it, one knows it is there: “You cannot come to an understanding about it with others; you are lonely with it; but it teaches you to encounter others and to stand your ground in such encounters; and through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that You in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.”

But if dignity, fully realized, is elusive, it is also the most stable of the elements; one can honor it in anyone, and one can always keep it in view. A teacher may not be able, all the time, to treat others (or even herself) with full dignity, but she can recognize when she does and doesn’t. (One of my poems from long ago, “Looking Glass,” has to do with this–though it isn’t about teaching.) I think Green may be talking primarily about dignity here, although she calls it love.

A teacher can keep dignity in view, strive to treat everyone with dignity, and recognize her own shortcomings in that regard. That, to me, is a worthy aspiration for all teachers. What about love, then?

Returning to the three sides of love–recognition of dignity, appreciation of particulars, and wish for the person’s well-being–I would say that it can never be mandated, in the classroom or anywhere else, and that any effort to enforce it will lead to betrayal of others and self. It is much too rare and too precious to be encoded. But then I am puzzled by Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (In Hebrew: לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה). If love of others is commanded here, what does it mean? It must be something different from the definition I gave above, yet it must also go beyond recognition of dignity.

In a short piece in The Jewish Magazine, Ahuva Bloomfield explains that the Hebrew ahava, “love,” has the same root as hav, “to give.” There is thus a connection between loving and giving–precisely because giving creates a connection with others. Bloomfield suggests that to give is, in fact, to love, because the act becomes the bond.

Yet giving, too, is a tricky thing. First, it’s challenging. Many of us fall short in generosity to ourselves, to others, or both. Also, giving must be tempered. Give too much, and you wear yourself out–and make yourself unable to listen or receive. Give the wrong things, in the wrong way, and you prevent others from showing what they have.

A parent comes to know these complexities well. You can wish to give comfort to your son or daughter who has gone through a disappointment–being turned down for the school play, for instance, or being rejected by a peer. The comforting has its place but can also get in the way. Young people (and older people) need to go through certain things in their raw form. So a parent comes to recognize when to give comfort and when not to do so. Not doing so is also a form of giving.

In teaching, giving takes many forms–and must often combine with abstinence from giving. A teacher gives to the students by showing a way into a subject–and also by letting them figure out certain things for themselves. She gives to the students by being alert to their ups and downs–but also respecting their privacy. In addition, to give well, a teacher must have integrity; she must know her own limits and be willing to stay true to them. In doing so, she allows the students to have limits as well.

Where does this leave us? It seems that a teacher should have, first and foremost, an active intellect and conscience–a willingness to seek and seek. At the root of this is a recognition that there is more to learn–that we are full of error, and that even the highest attainments are only hints.

Building a Better Definition

Here is what I like so far about Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher: It has a searching quality, as I mentioned yesterday.It has vivid descriptions of lessons in action. It discusses actual subject matter. It makes the important argument that teachers can improve their craft through deliberate study. It gives rich examples of such study. All of these qualities make the book a worthwhile read.

At the same time, I am puzzled by Green’s utter lack of skepticism over certain exemplars of pedagogy that she offers in the book. In saying this, I am not trying to disparage them. My point is only that they could use some critical questioning and examination–in the very spirit of the kind of lesson study that Green finds promising.

This is a preliminary review, with a focus on a particular passage (about a third-grade lesson) in the second chapter. I haven’t read the whole book yet (I read slowly and have been very busy), but I had so many thoughts about these few pages that I decided to start here.

The context: Deborah Loewenberg Ball, at the time a professor at Michigan State, a scholar of math pedagogy, and a teacher at the public school Spartan Village, was teaching her third-grade students about odd and even numbers. The lesson was one of many that she and her colleague Magdalene Lampert had filmed for close study and discussion. Just before this lesson, the fourth-graders had a conference with the third-graders in which they discussed their findings on the question: “Was zero even, odd, or, as some children argued, neither one?”

For this lesson, Ball intended to have the students move from conjectures to proofs about odd and even numbers. But something unexpected happens: a “tall boy named Sean” puts forth a surprising conjecture that six is both even and odd. His classmates then jump in to refute him. What follows is a lively but flawed discussion–flawed not because of the students’ insights, which are excellent, but because of the lack of attention to basic principles, such as the principle of identifying and building on one’s working definitions (or, in the absence of definitions, information leading up to them).

The problem throughout the entire passage is that we never learn whether the students have a working definition of odd numbers. This lack of information affects everything, as I will show. It seems that they have a working definition of even numbers–but at times they appear to confuse definitions with properties. Moreover, the working definition itself could be the cause of Sean’s confusion–but this possibility is not mentioned. More about all of this shortly.

Back to the conference: it is a brilliant idea to have fourth-graders present their findings to third-graders. This gives the fourth-graders a chance to teach others what they have learned, and it gives the third-graders a glimpse of knowledge and insights that lie ahead. In addition, a conference on zero is a great idea; there’s much to explore about zero. Yet I fail to see why the question of zero’s odd, even, or other status merits a conference (even a short one). If the students have a viable definition of odd and even numbers, they can immediately rule out the possibility that zero is odd. (If they do not have working definitions, then they have no way of discussing the question anyway.) Then, if the students have a viable definition of even numbers, they can see (without a great amount of trouble) that zero meets the criteria. One stumbling block might be the concept of dividing zero in two. Some students might think that can’t be done. So, that would be the meat of the discussion, but it’s easily digestible. There isn’t much gristle here.

The students themselves don’t seem to be clear about their working definitions, or whether or not they have them. After Sean has spoken, Cassandra goes up to the board to refute him. She says that six can’t be an odd number, because zero is even, one odd, two even, and so on up to six, which must be even.

Green comments on the reactions of the mathematician Hyman Bass as he watches the video.

Hy marveled as the video continued. These third-graders–not a gifted class, but average, public school third-graders from, Deborah said, a wide range of backgrounds and ability levels–were having a real mathematical debate. One of them had made a claim, and then the others were trying to prove him wrong. Cassandra’s proof followed a classic structure. First, she had invoked one definition of even and odd–the fact that integers alternate between the two types on a number line–to show that six could only be even. Then she had drawn out a counterargument. To be odd and still fit the alternating definition, she’d shown, zero would have to be odd too. But, she’d concluded with a flourish, they had just decided the other day that zero was even. QED: Sean’s conjecture was impossible.

The two descriptions of Cassandra’s words and actions don’t match–the second is much more sophisticated than the first–but that’s only a secondary problem. The bigger problem lies in the notion that “the fact that integers alternate between the two types on a number line” could be called a definition. To me, this appears as a property, not a definition. It makes sense that the students would be working from properties to definitions–but it’s essential to point out the difference.

The same confusion arises a couple of pages earlier, in a footnote regarding the evenness of zero: “Like all even numbers, zero can be divided evenly by 2, is surrounded on either side by odd numbers, and when it is subtracted from an even number, produces an even result.” Only the first of these qualifies as a definition, and it alone is necessary.

The discussion goes on.Apparently the students do have a definition of even numbers: one girl, Jeannie, reminds them that an even number is “one that you can split up evenly without having to split one in half.” If this is indeed the working definition, then it seems possible (though it never gets mentioned as a possibility) that Sean’s confusion arises directly from this wording, particularly the word “evenly.” (His own explanation of his reasoning seems to proceed from such a misunderstanding.) He may have taken this definition to mean that a number is even if it can be divided into even numbers–a circular definition, but one that “evenly” seems to invite. In that case, there’s more to say about Sean’s conjecture. More about that in a minute.

Now another student, Mei, makes a great argument: by Sean’s reasoning, it could turn out that all numbers were both odd and even, in which case “we wouldn’t be even having this discussion!”

What Mei suggests here–but no one brings out–is that they have been working with the premise that a number is odd or even, but not both. If that is indeed one of their working premises, then it should be on the table. If it isn’t, then I wonder how they conceive of odd numbers in the first place.

I admire Mei’s energy and logic, but I feel bad for the student who has been sitting there quietly–who gets odd and even numbers and yearns to move on. I also feel bad for the student who has no idea at this point what has been established and what hasn’t.

To draw something helpful–and fascinating–out of this discussion, the teacher only had to remind the students to go back to their working definitions (and distinguish them from properties). This is important mathematical practice. One has to return to working definitions continually. Sometimes they come up for questioning. Sometimes a definition may prove flawed, or it may need better phrasing. But one must be clear about what the definitions are.

If, as I suspect, Sean thought that a number was even if it was divisible into even numbers, then the teacher could have clarified the meaning of “evenly” (and “even” elicited a rewording of the definition).

Then, to take up Sean’s idea (which is actually very interesting), she could have asked: Which numbers are divisible into even numbers only (assuming one does not treat 1 or -1 as a factor)? Students would notice that the positive integers in this set were 2, 4, 8, 16, …. in other words (though they wouldn’t have the vocabulary for this yet) exponentiation of 2 to the powers 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.

Many interesting things happen in the lesson–but the confusion over definitions and properties prevents the discussion from moving forward. For this reason, I do not share Green’s amazement, though I am grateful to the lesson (and to Green’s description) for stirring up some thoughts.

 

Note: I made some minor edits to this piece after posting it. Also, on 8/26/2014 I added one parenthetical sentence.

A “Good” Common Core Lesson?

In a recent NPR article titled “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” Anya Kamenetz takes the reader through a “good” lesson as explained by Kate Gershon, a research fellow at EngageNY, which develops Common Core instructional materials for New York State. Unfortunately, this lesson exemplifies curricular confusion, misunderstanding of the nature of intellectual work, and a dogmatic approach to pedagogy. Kamenetz picks up on none of this; her reporting is unskeptical and cheerful

The lesson–the very first in the year for a ninth-grade ELA course–focuses on a short story by Karen Russell: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Students begin by reading and discussing the pertinent standards–then spend most of class time circling and looking up unfamiliar words.

Russell’s story looks promising–but the rationale for its inclusion makes me shake my head. According to Gershon, it meets the standards’ criteria in four areas: complexity, “canon” (in that the author was a Pulitzer finalist), contemporaneity (the standards use the phrase “contemporary authors” in numerous places), and diversity. What about its inherent quality., though? What about its form and meaning? What about its relation to the other works in the unit or course?

To be fair, Gershon does mention that this is a “gorgeous text by a young, brilliant writer”–so it would be a stretch to say that she (or the curriculum writers) ignored inherent quality. But shouldn’t that be the first consideration: offering the students something worth reading and rereading over a lifetime? The other criteria–complexity, canon, contemporaneity, and diversity–should be subordinate to this first consideration. (In addition, one might include works for their importance–because other works allude to them, or because they do something unusual with their genre or form. That’s related to “canon” but not identical to it.)

Moreover, a curriculum as a whole should have coherence and meaning. A ninth-grade literature course may well be a survey course–but the works can still be selected to combine in interesting ways. I can’ say for sure that this isn’t the case here–but it’s curious that the article doesn’t touch on curriculum. Without a literature curriculum, a Common Core lesson quickly turns into a lesson on reading skills. That may explain why, on the very first day of the school year, the students begin by reading and discussing the standards, and then turn to their main activity of circling and looking up words.

If this were a literature course, the teacher would give an overview of the works, questions, and problems to be considered. The students might well read something on that first day–in order to start thinking about the substance of the course. The teacher might take them into a passage–reading it out loud, pointing out subtleties, and posing questions. Strangely, the current lesson is based on disparagement of such activity. It rests on the premise that the teacher is not supposed to present much at all, lest her “performance” make the students lazy.

This leads to the next problem. Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work. According to Gershon and others, students will be hard at work under the Common Core. Teachers will no longer be making things easy for them, as they did in the past when they presented literature to students.

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

That’s a caricature of literature instruction–and I’ll get to that in a minute–but what strikes me here is the assumption that if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work. Now, this might be true, if the teacher’s explanation is reductive–that is, if she is handing students basic plot points and other takeaways. But there are many other ways to take students into a text, ways that will get them thinking.

Thinking should be  the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure. Students learn to discern when they do and do not have something to say; in the former case, they may speak up; in the latter, they may listen. Such discernment will serve them well in college and beyond.

Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

Just as the lesson misconceives intellectual work, so it misrepresents teaching.

Common Core advocates are zealously repeating the mistakes of their predecessors: they insist that in the bad old days (or backward regions of current days), the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read. What forgetfulness! For years under Balanced Literary, teachers were told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” But teaching is much more complex than these crass oppositions allow. Back to the NPR piece:

[The Common Core's emphasis on actual reading] sounds obvious. We don’t go to school to be able to recite the plot points of an arbitrary short story.

Yet in practice, English teachers often spend their time in conversation with “the three or four highest-performing students in the room,” Gerson says, while others, at best, passively absorb the main ideas of a text.

[...]

One major strategy the standards introduce is for teachers to get out of the students’ way and not to make it too easy on anyone. “It’s very common to want to protect, advocate, support and ensure the comfort of students that are struggling,” Gerson says. “What all the research is telling us is that we must create content where there is a productive struggle … where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else.”

Now, a teacher in dialogue with several students isn’t necessarily ensuring comfort at all. True, if she spoke only with those students for the whole year, a dreary kind of comfort could take over. But often a dialogue like that can inspire others to join. Or a teacher can involve others deliberately–or give them ample time to puzzle over difficult questions. A teacher at the front of the room may be giving students the challenge of their lives. Let us not assume that she should “get out of the students’ way” or that she takes anything away from them by teaching them.

In his essay “Former Teachers” (in his 1943 collection Philosopher’s Holiday), Irwin Edman recalls his English teacher Mr. Michael Kelleher, who “gave us the contagious impression of so liking poetry that he simply had to tell us about it.” Edman may not have known how blessed he was that no one told his teacher to get out of the way.

 

Note: I made some revisions to this piece after posting it. One of these is a correction: Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist, not a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Standards Count as Complex Informational Text, Says Leader

Green Lake, NY–In response to schools’ complaints that they have not yet received a viable, affordable Common Core curriculum with actual texts, district superintendent Mike Vnutri announced that the students should be reading the very standards. “It’s informational text, and it’s complex enough,” he said. “Plus I have it from higher up that everyone’s supposed to be reading the standards several times in every class, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. Sorry about that metaphor; I happen to like birds.”

In a recent model Common Core lesson for a tenth-grade literature class, students spent a lesson reading ELA standard RL.9-10.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).”

Although this is not in itself a literary text, every literary text should be paired with informational text anyway. According to sources, it is even acceptable to leave the literary text out. This standard satisfies complexity requirements; when fed into text analyzers, it shows an eleventh-grade level and could thus be considered a “stretch” text–too hard for struggling readers, but within reasonable range for many others.

In order to ensure that all students leave the classroom with an understanding of the text, teacher Ernesta Pourtous announced, at the start of the class, that the goal of the lesson was to understand all of the words in the standard, which she then read aloud. She then asked each student in turn to repeat the goal of the lesson. She noted where they stumbled over words.

“Now,” she said, “when you encounter an informational text that has difficult words, there are several strategies you can use. One is to look the words up in a dictionary. That’s not the strategy we’re going to practice today, because we don’t have dictionaries in the classroom. Instead, I am going to teach you a four-step exercise: Identify, Predict, Align, and Define. You can remember it as IPAD.” There were giggles in the class.

For the next activity, she had students copy the standard from the board and carefully circle the words they didn’t know The circles had to be complete (or they would have to start over), and any student who did not circle “figurative,” “connotative,” or “cumulative” would lose a point. She circulated the room, taking photographs so that she could document that every student was hard at work. At the end of the ten minutes, she told students to hold their sheets of paper in the air. Circled words abounded.

Next, she took a minute to touch base about how it felt to succeed at an activity. Tessie Moran, a tall girl with dark bangs in the corner of the room, spoke quietly about how she now knew that she could do it. (There were hidden microphones n various locations.)

After this, Ms. Pourtous instructed them to turn to their partners and predict the meanings ot the words. “At this point, you are allowed to say what you think they mean; there are no wrong answers,” she told them. “But I do want to see everyone talking.” Soon the room was filled with noise. Five minutes later, she called for silence again. A student raised his hand.

“Yes, Jose?”

“Why aren’t we reading a sonnet or something?”

“It’s no use reading a sonnet if you don’t have a Common Core-aligned goal. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get your goals in place. That will make you college and career ready. If you want to read sonnets, you’ve got to do the hard work. Which leads us to the hardest part of the lesson: alignment.” She explained that now their task was to align their definitions with those of their classmates. First, they would compare notes in small groups. Then they would rotate to other groups–three times. Once they had completed all of these alignments, everyone would have an identical list of definitions. Through group influence, she said, these definitions would become more accurate over the course of the activity.

She then circulated as students conferred excitedly on the meaning of “connotative.” “I think it’s like a suggestion,” one student said; the others nodded and copied him. “Now, how do you turn that into an adjective?” Pourtous asked the group. Once they arrived at “suggestive,” she moved on.

At the end of the class, she had them all post their identical definitions on the walls. They had defined “figurative” as “imaginary,” “connotative” as “suggestive,” and “cumulative” as “piled up.” The room was now decorated with words and their approximate meanings.

“You see,” said Superintendent Vnutri, after displaying the video at a principals’ meeting, “every single student was involved in this lesson, and every single student walked out with a better understanding of the standard. Do you see how it was all in their hands? This is vastly more productive and student-oriented than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and yap about Shakespeare, or engage in dialogue with just three or four students.”

“I’d like to hear about the Shakespeare, myself,” a principal ventured.

“Sure you would,” Vnutri retorted. “You’ve just got to remember that this isn’t about you.”

 

Note: I made some 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!

Learning to Govern Oneself

What is Teacher book cover test3Happy New Year (of several kinds) to all!

For the past two days i have been in Dallas, where I spoke at the Education Forum at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (and participated in panel discussions, plenary discussions, a seminar, and more). This year’s Education Forum celebrated the 30th  year of the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, as well as the publication of the Dallas Institute’s wonderful book What Is a Teacher? Remembering the Soul Of Education Through Classic Literature, to which I contributed a chapter. I have just begun reading the other chapters, with great enjoyment. I met many people at the Forum and recognized many others from the Summer Institute and various Dallas Institute events. In addition, I had a chance to work through some ideas that have been on my mind and that I plan to carry into the school year.

This year, in my Ethics and Political Philosophy courses (for tenth and eleventh grade, respectively), I will bring up (and return to) the idea that education prepares a person for self-government. Self-government is not the same as “self-regulation” (a concept that Elizabeth Weil takes apart, with partial success, in a recent essay in The New Republic; more about that another time). Rather, it involves drawing on one’s knowledge and understanding to make numerous choices and decisions. None of us can escape being governed in some ways by others–our political leaders, our bosses, our teachers, and, in childhood, our parents–yet we can come to understand the terms of these arrangements (and question them intelligently).

The difficulty is this: self-government involves what seems its opposite: laying aside our own urges and immediate judgments in order to learn or consider something foreign to us. It may seem unrewarding, at first, to make one’s way through John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, but that treatise opens up rich ideas about intellectual liberty itself. Similarly, it takes great patience to listen to another person in the classroom, be it the teacher, a classmate, or even a musical recording–yet such listening can be a way of adding to one’s resources and treasures.

So, we will be discussing the idea if self-government (intermittently) while reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and many others. It’s a tricky and paradoxical concept–but it plays a role in many texts and has a great deal to do with education.

Knowledge vs. Nonsense

Rarely does an article make me cheer as did Shannon Rupp’s in Salon (about the benefits of studying philosophy). Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

I’ve long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring — the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense.

A treasure! Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for bringing it to my attention.

It brings me back to my first year of teaching, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times about the misguided focus on “strategies,” especially reading strategies.

“Strategies” of that kind make me queasy (unlike chess strategies, which I enjoy). Yet I fear that the “strategy” nonsense is now being supplanted by other kinds of nonsense (or even wrapped up inside it). At least there are people calling out the nonsense! Here’s another quote from Rupp’s article:

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Yes, and the same can be said about “strategies.” What are they? In many cases, they are methods of evasion. When I taught elementary and middle school, I saw students dutifully look at the picture on the cover, read the blurbs, make predictions about the book’s contents–before even opening the book and reading. They had been taught to do this. Then, once they started reading, they continued dancing around the text–making “text-to-self connections,” using pictures to help with word meanings, and so on. I encouraged them to pay attention to what was actually there.

But now the focus is on “close reading,” and while that’s an improvement, it might get taken too far. For instance, you do need to understand certain things outside the text in order to grasp the text. Try a “close reading” of Aristophanes without any knowledge of mythology, ancient Greek literature, or ancient Greek history! You might as well try to boil a turnip without water (or other suitable liquid).

Also, reading is not always linear; the mind goes here and there, drawing connections and imagining things. When you read Crime and Punishment, for instance, you start to feel the presence of Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovich. You can cite textual evidence, of course, when describing these presences, but it’s also good to take them in less rationally, to imagine them in the room. This requires close reading, but not of a strictly analytical kind. Similarly, when reading a poem (such as Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“), it’s as important to take in its mystery as it is to notice its structure, syntax, and tropes. (This goes for literary nonfiction as well; if you try to read Emerson’s “Experience” in a strictly analytical manner, your mind will end up in knots, and the text will fly away.)

How should one read, then? Well, the thing one reads will often lead the way. If it’s good literature, it calls for careful, thoughtful, imaginative reading. If it’s nonsense, well, then, it calls for the “spot-the-nonsense” strategy, which requires some background knowledge–of philosophy, literature, and other subjects–as well as a salutary allergy to buzzwords and overpuffed ideas.

Why Give Literature an Honored Place in School?

In education discussion and elsewhere, the terms “literature,” “fiction,” and “nonfiction” get jumbled up a bit. I jumble them too—I catch myself talking about “literature vs. nonfiction,” for instance, knowing that there’s overlap between the two. The term “literature” refers to works with lasting artistic merit (except when one is talking about the “literature” on a given topic). Artistic merit is difficult to define, but it involves a certain transcendence as well as mastery. A literary work goes beyond literal meaning; it has hints, metaphors, paradoxes, juxtapositions, ironies. It takes us a bit beyond the information that it presents. Moby-Dick may teach us a thing or two about whales, but that’s only part of what it does.

In that sense, the push for more and more “nonfiction” in classrooms (for instance, through the Common Core Standards) does threaten literature instruction. Those pushing for more “nonfiction” rarely have Emerson, Buber, or Kierkegaard in mind—works that tease us with possibilities. They want students to read argumentative pieces and informational reports: that is, works with a clear thesis supported by evidence. Of course it’s important for students to read such works; the problem lies in privileging them: in hinting, through one mandate after another, that informational text is more useful than literature (for college and career preparation) and therefore more valuable.

“But no one’s saying that!” some will protest. “No one said that informational text was to come at the expense of literature. The ELA standards apply to all of the subjects, not to English class alone.” Well, if this were so, English teachers would not be getting directives to include much more informational text in their curricula. New York State would not be considering a proposal to require high school students to write a research paper (for English class) that draws on at least four informational texts. Make no mistake: the push is for informational text. And it’s destructive as well as misguided.

Should students be reading informational nonfiction? Of course—but they don’t have to do this in English class. From elementary school onward, they should read on scientific, historical, and other topics. They should have a chance to read ancient mathematical proofs, musical scores, biographies, letters, historical documents, and more. Where should this take place? In the most appropriate classes. At times, students might read a work of fiction for history, or study a song for English. In the early elementary years, some of the courses may be combined into “literacy blocks”—so that students may find themselves reading poetry and historical narratives in the same class. But overall, each course should have readings for its domain—and English class should be the place for literary works.

An English course in expository writing might be an exception here. If a school’s English department offered a specific course in writing a research paper, then the other English courses wouldn’t have to be eroded. My high school had such a course—and many students reported years later that it was the most important course they took. Nonetheless, the other English courses were devoted to literature, excellent literature, and no one apologized for that. It was in middle and high school that I first read Sophocles, Euripides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Hardy, Faulkner, O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, and others. No one doubted that such works were important; no one suggested that we were deficient in information. (We read a range of historical works and wrote research papers for history class.)

Now, there are big gaps in my education, including my literary education, but I found myself prepared not only for college, not only for a range of workplaces (even in the 21st century), but for a life that I want to lead, a life that involves pondering words, listening to music, and sifting through thoughts. I was not prepared in all ways, but who can be? Either one enters predictable situations with skills and knowledge to match them, or one enters the unknown, with the risk that one may not always know what to do. Who on earth would want the former? I’ll take the uncertainty and the risk any day, again and again. That said, one shouldn’t be foolhardy about risks; one shouldn’t enter the adult world defenseless. I have been foolhardy at times, defenseless at times, but not in relation to academic or vocational knowledge. I had what I needed in order to learn more; I had, moreover, a store of things to recall and reread.

Reminiscence aside, what is at stake here? Why stick one’s neck out for literature? It isn’t always beautiful (beauty is a complex topic), meaningful (try to find a stable meaning in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground), or even likable (I find 100 Years of Solitude irritating at times). It is easy to slip into sentimentality about literature, but sentimentality is not the point. Literature deserves an honored place in schools for many reasons, including its ability to open up areas of life that we might not otherwise face. There is room in it for bravery and uncertainty. When reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one does not have to be snappy and polished; one does not have to put on a good face or rattle off talking points. One can roam for a while in the lovely and perplexing mess. (It isn’t mess itself, by any means–but it allows for a bit of the messy, and takes us out of the realm of the pat.)

Today’s students learn skills like “speed networking”—making a quick, flawless impression. What they don’t learn, often, is the practice of mulling, of staying with something they don’t immediately understand, and of allowing themselves their own mysteries too, and allowing themselves time. Not all students have lost this; some know how to sit with uncertainty, difficulty, questions, pain. Sadly, these very students get faulted for being “off-task,” since the tasks have become quick and shallow. Our priorities have gone off kilter; things that can keep us mindful and soulful get shorter and shorter shrift.

 

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

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