The Secret to Education

rainydayThe Secret to Education … that One Thing that will Change Everything … the Great and Shocking Truth … one by one, I reject these titles, until I finally pick the first, just for fun.

It is a dim and rainy day (photo taken just now); before I take off for New Haven, where I will be spending the afternoon and evening, I thought I would put together some thoughts on teaching.

I taught for approximately nine years in New York City public schools: first at a middle school in Boro Park Brooklyn (for three years), then at an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn (for one year), and then, for the last five years, at Columbia Secondary School, where I served first as curriculum adviser, then as philosophy teacher and coordinator.

In addition, I taught for several years in other contexts. I taught first-year Russian at Yale for a year (as a graduate student), second- and third-year Russian at Trinity College in Hartford for a year (as a Mellon Fellow), and literature for six consecutive summers at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (This is ongoing.) Finally, I taught English in Kyrgyzstan for a summer and taught elementary enrichment summer school on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

So, after all this time (which pales in comparison to many teachers’ experience), what would I say that our schools need? I say emphatically that there is no one answer. None! I have no secret, no great solution.

Or rather, if there is one thing schools need, it’s good judgment: the ability to recognize good curricula and practices and apply them discerningly.

One truth presents itself again and again: teaching requires focused, quiet thought, which the school systems do not emphasize or honor. Yes, teachers need to collaborate, but to do so well, they also need to think about the subject on their own. This has little room in the school day; if you want time for quiet thought or focused study, you have to find it on your own.

Nor is “more time” the answer; there has to be a strong understanding of what that time is for. A teacher’s work must be perceived as intellectual. For that to happen, there must be more time for intellectual life overall. That will not come overnight, nor will any one reform bring it closer.

With all my skepticism, I do have a few ideas. They are not mass solutions, but they could set an example for many.

I would start with a good curriculum: that is, not a script, not a pacing calendar, but an outline of the concepts, works, and problems to be studied, along with the major assignments and projects. I would find schools willing to adopt the curriculum and education schools willing to base their program on it. This curriculum is not meant to be constricting; rather, it builds flexibility, as it gives everyone a working base.

Prospective teachers would begin by studying the actual subject matter of the curriculum (before thinking about how to teach it). They would learn it backwards and forwards, pose questions about it,  give presentations about it, and attend lectures and seminars. They would study their own subject matter and another subject (and possibly a third). Those already familiar with the subject matter would study it at a higher level.

The following year, they would translate the curriculum into lesson plans, practice giving lessons, and serve as student teachers at participating schools. They would not have to reinvent the wheel year after year; if lesson plans already exist, they might review them and modify them for their own teaching. They would develop more than one way to teach a given topic and would anticipate student questions and errors.

Then, when they entered a school, they would be well prepared to teach not only the subject but the actual curriculum itself. They could put their efforts into their new responsibilities.

Of course there are problems: what  if there aren’t enough education programs or schools? What if some district mandate comes along and topples  the curriculum that was constructed with such care?

Any number of things can go wrong; this is no magic solution. Still, I see promise in (a) having prospective teachers focus first on subject matter, then on curriculum and pedagogy and (b) having schools and education programs work with a shared curriculum. To some extent, this is the approach of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center and (in a different way) the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Such an approach takes time, but this is precisely the right kind of taking of time: going far into subject matter and figuring out how to bring it to students.

Endings and Unendings

Graduation goodbyes can be tricky. This afternoon I spoke with an alumna who attended the Philosophy Roundtable last  night and returned again today for the International Celebration. We talked about two simultaneous truths. On the one hand, there’s no such thing as goodbye, at least for the living, because there’s always a chance (big or small) that we will cross paths again. On the other hand, to diminish  a goodbye is to diminish everything. At times we must leave a person, place, practice, or idea behind. This allows us not only to go forward but to gather up the meaning of the past.

In the languages I know, there is more than one word for goodbye. The more casual the expression, the less final the goodbye; the more formal, the more final. (In English, we have “see ya” on the one hand and “farewell” on the other.) This suggests to me that farewells contain something serious and unpopular. That does not automatically make them truer than their casual counterparts–but they need to be heard with full ear.

Should a high school treat graduation as a “goodbye” or as a “poka” (Russian for “while” or “later”)? Some might argue for a balance of the two, but they don’t balance. The goodbye is heavier and needs its weight. How do you say, “Goodbye; you’re welcome to come back” without taking away from the goodbye? To do this, you must acknowledge that the goodbye could be final. This might mean, “Goodbye–if forever, best wishes to you; and if not forever, likewise all the best.”

The needs of school and students may diverge here, though. A school needs its alumni; they offer continuity and wisdom (and, at private schools, financial support). When students return to speak of their experience, the school gains a sense of meaning. Yet a school needs a sense of departure as well; while students leave, the school continues on and must turn its attention toward the ones who are there. Alumni, for their part, need a combination of departure and return, which varies from person to person and changes over time.

So in schools and individual students, there is need for both return and departure, for “see you later” and “farewell.” Schools may pull toward the former and students toward the latter, but in any case they are distinct goodbyes, each with its form and meaning.

 

Note: I added to this piece after the initial posting.

 

 

Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. My writing was influenced by it. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book still has great meaning for me; I have brought in passages to my students over the years. (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, and details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?”

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything, but I found the conversation puzzling. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t accept: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal of the meaning. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with their instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was amiss. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text. The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself.

Yet if people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further in a variety of ways.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of culture. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

The Blessing of Slight Neglect

Almost a year ago, I commented on William Faulkner’s Nobel speech. I focused on how the sprawl of our lives–the pressure to be available around the clock, the leveling and spreading of our intentions–tends to break down our sense of sanctity (broadly defined),* and how, without a sense of sanctity, we lose touch with what he calls the “old verities.” Today I would like to comment on a different aspect of his speech: the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” I begin, though, with a change of direction. Last week, I started a post along these lines and ended up dissatisfied with it. I realized that there was great danger in implementing Faulkner’s words in a literal way.

From Faulkner’s speech:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

One could nod vigorously and say, yes, we have forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, and that’s part of the problem in education today. We look at social, political, economic problems–but not the problems each of us carries in our private minds: problems of love, loyalty, hate, betrayal, and their limitless combinations. Therefore, it seems that we should turn our attention again to these problems.

Yes, but how? The worst thing–and the thing likeliest to happen–if someone were to present this argument to education policymakers–would be for schools to mandate daily attention to the “old verities.” Teachers would be required to write an “old verity” on the board every day. When reading a work of literature, students would have to identify the “old verity” that it addressed. This is deadly and counter to Faulkner’s meaning–for he is speaking of fiction and poetry, not of dogma. (The links in the previous sentence point to the etymology of these words, which is interesting in terms of the “kneading” and “piling.”)

Something would likewise be forced and false about addressing “old verities” through so-called “informational text” (heavily touted in schools, even in English class). It cannot be done. Philosophy and history can tackle the central human problems–but to do so, they cannot rely on abstractions and information alone; they need insight and form as well. Insight and form belong to fiction and poetry, which in turn rely on a certain concealment, or a complex kind of revelation. That is, to see truths of this kind, you must also have room in your imagination for the unseen.

A passage from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote sheds some light on this. (Note: These texts are among the shorter readings in the Epic course at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I am currently teaching. The past two weeks have been filled with the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and other works–all of these read in their entirety–and we will finish next week with Moby-Dick.) Here’s Ortega y Gasset:

There are things which, when revealed openly, succumb or lose their value and, on the other hand, reach their fullness when they are hidden or overlooked. Some men refuse to recognize the depth of something because they demand that the profound should manifest itself in the same way as the superficial. Not accepting the fact that there may be several kinds of clarity, they pay exclusive attention to the clarity peculiar to surfaces. They do not realize that to be hidden beneath the surface, merely appearing through it, throbbing underneath it, is essential to depth.

Maybe there’s a blessing in having Faulkner’s “old verities,” the problems of the human heart, overlooked in schools. Maybe a certain kind of overlooking is the best kind of honor. I think we can honor them through curriculum and general bearing, without pounding themes and messages into the students’ heads. Give students room to hear the works, to wade through them, to feel their pull and counter-pull. Show, through selection, intonation and gesture, that something worthwhile is there.

I think of these lines from the beginning of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover:

The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

One can go barefoot as a reader, too–and this means reading and interpreting in an unfettered way. Yes, one analyzes what one reads, often in great detail and depth, but one does not try to map everything onto a specific external meaning, method, or theory. One allows the literature its life, not all of which can be explained in external or technical terms. (Some of the most inspiring criticism is fiction of its own kind.) When one does this, when one enters literature with heart–in the Hebrew sense of “lev,” not our current sentimental sense–one will confront those verities willy-nilly.

There is a focus and clarity that comes from not fretting over what we are going to get from a given thing. Unfortunately, schools have been trained into a “customer service” mode. They are supposed to deliver a product to the students–who, for their part, are supposed to expect one. There is partial good to this; one does want students to learn and do concrete things. But one can accomplish this with recognition that it is not the whole.

Beyond this, I have started to think that certain kinds of “neglect”–not extreme or irresponsible kinds, but the kinds that let things hide just a little–may hold more good than we know. In the same way that a poem or essay revises itself when one steps away from it, so we, too, may take shape when others are not looking. We get to putter around and think things through. The neglect must be slight, though, and not self-justified. A world shrivels when it asserts that the things it ignores don’t exist.

 

*Sanctity: the quality or state of being holy, very important, or valuable (Merriam-Webster); I would add: the quality or state of being set apart from other things. (In the earlier post on Faulkner’s speech, I didn’t use the word at all; rather, I used terms that conveyed a similar meaning.)

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

Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core: that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different, so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value, but instead they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy, of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument, nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites, as it allowed for focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.

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.

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 with 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.

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.

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 the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Reading the students’ work is a delight (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.

District Purchases New Goal Package

vennUpsidasi, MN–While schools around the country scramble to align themselves with the new Common Core State Standards, a district in Minnesota has taken a different tack. Because growth is what matters, it has purchased a new product called Goal-a-Matic, which gathers data through surveys and sensors, generates personalized goals, and then calculates progress toward them. What’s more, it guarantees growth for all.

“It’s amazing,” said Superintendent Tracy Groter. “I just sit down with a sensor bracelet, fill out a form, and boom! I’ve got a goal that matches me. Then a few months later, I sit down again, and boom! I see growth. Not any old growth, mind you, but academic growth.”

What was her personalized goal? “I will learn the spelling of two of the three following words: accommodations, accountability, and principal.”

Isn’t that goal a bit too close at hand? “It doesn’t matter; it’s a goal,” she replied. “Goals are goals. Growth is growth. Show the growth, and you’re good to go.”

The software comes with electronic Goal-Mentors, cellphone-size digital devices that remind users of the goal every hour. “It’s great to have that kind of pressure,” she explained. “If you know you’re being held accountable, you’re less likely to slip up.”

Teachers’ goals range from “I will write three standards on chart paper five times a week” to “I will praise the new teacher evaluation system in two out of the next three faculty meetings.” (While not strictly academic, these goals still serve academic purposes, according to Groter.)

For students, the goals are friendly and flexible: for instance, “I will turn and talk to my neighbor in 80 percent of my classes”; “I will draw a Venn diagram of something”; or “I will look at the title of a book and predict what it will be about.”

“I find these goals incredibly annoying,” said a fifth-grader. “I want to learn algebra, and instead I have to spend all day promising to learn inane strategies that I don’t even need and then showing that I’ve learned them.”

“This kid is just going to have to get used to it,” said Groter, “because the workplace does this kind of thing too. In fact, we’re borrowing a lot from what we hear is out there.”

Setting and meeting goals is only part of the process. Once they have attained their goals, students, teachers, and administrators must advertise their attainments. “When you’ve got 100 people showing growth, there’s got to be some other way of standing out,” said Groter. “Basically you’ve got to promote yourself. You do it by buying airtime.”

When students meet goals, they earn advertisement points. Once they accumulate five points, they may show a video ad of their attainments at the start of class. The teacher must accommodate these needs. At the end of the week, students vote on the most popular ads. The students with the winning ads take part in speed-networking events; the one that makes the best impression is named Student of the Week. At the end of the year, the student with the most Student of the Week awards receives the Success Prize, the school’s highest honor.

“I made my ads over the summer,” said Vince Chitry, a high school junior. “Then I started talking them up on Facebook. I know I’ve got the votes. Question is, what if someone offers to buy my votes? I could really use the cash. I could even use some of it toward special effects for my next video. I’ll have to think about that one.”

Vera Denken, a history teacher, asked what students would learn from all of this. She was swiftly informed that she would have to make an ad (her second) in which she displayed at least five approved “artifacts” of goal attainment.

“She had better be wearing new shoes this time,” commented Groter. “You can’t succeed in the real world if you wear the same shoes in two ads.”

A Different Way of Being with Others

Lately I have seen slews of articles about the need to teach “social-emotional” and so-called “non-cognitive” skills in school. According to many educators and theorists, schools should emphasize teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, communication, and all sorts of other social things. These arguments (or the ones I have seen) evade an essential point: that schools should give students a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

Many schools respond by making more room for social interaction. But such social interaction has the same pitfalls as regular teen interaction, unless it is elevated in some way—that is, founded on something compelling, such as a work of literature or a piece of music. In that case, the students come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions.

I dimly remember my eighth-grade English class, at a school I entered that year. Aside from a year in the Netherlands (when I was in sixth grade), it was the first time I was happy in school. We read The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie, and much more. Through the discussions, I came to know my classmates, and they me, in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial. There was still peer pressure and ostracism. Still, regular social life took second or third place to this other way of associating, which allowed strong friendships to form.

Some insist that group work in the classroom achieves the same end: it gives students a structure for their socializing. But group work often degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on. Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone). I have said this many times before, but it still needs to be said. Group work in itself has no inherent good. I know the sinking feeling of being asked to “turn and talk,” or to pick up my things and go join a group to fill out some chart. Why not stay put and think for a few minutes? Why not discuss a question in full forum?

Proponents of group work often assume that the students are better off without the teacher. If  a teacher leads a discussion, that’s fine, they say, but it’s even better if the students take charge. I am not at all opposed to student-led discussion; rather, I find that it requires long-term preparation. A teacher, having perspective on a subject, can draw out ideas that students might not recognize as worthy. She can help raise the level of the dialogue. Once they have seen this happen (many times), they understand what it is. It has little or nothing to do with “Accountable Talk” or other formulaic kinds of discussion. It has a great deal to do with listening closely (to the comments and the subject matter) and giving the ideas honor, direction, and perspective.

What about the idea of the school as a “team”? Well, teamwork has its place, but again, it is not transcendent or even good in itself. Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. The solitary and communal aspects of learning are closely related; they find their shape through the endeavor itself. Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

There is no denying the social aspect of schools. If coming together in a building and a room were not important, then there would be little need for schools in the first place. One could rely on computerized instruction, tutoring, and other services. Still, schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.