Monday, February 6, 2012

Dr. King and the Problem of Representation

Following a link from Susan Ohanian and one from Grant Wiggins, I came across the same video by Common Core State Standards author David Coleman. Few things have stopped me as this video did. The purpose of the video, 'Text-Dependent Analysis in Action: Examples From Dr. MLK, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail,"  is to offer a model to teachers illustrating how to teach critical text analysis to students. Mr. Coleman remarks:
"Many teachers and others have asked us to show them a model of what that (teaching students to read with care, identify textual evidence & represent that learning) might look meet the Standards."
So let me stop here and ask you to take a moment and imagine what Mr. Coleman will next do.  

What do you see? 
What do you imagine?

Below is a screen capture from the video.  Take a careful look at this scene as it is unchanging throughout the 11-minute model teaching video. Mr. Coleman stands in front of a vanilla screen wearing a sports jacket and collared shirt and describes what he does when reading the opening to the letter.  

Screen capture of David Coleman offering a Model Teaching Lesson sans Children

You may ask, "But wait a minute--where are the learners? Are there no children? No students?"  These represent critical questions.  In fact I would ask, Is it even possible to have a model of  student learning that does not have learners represented?  Can we call this a classroom model if the only one present is a man in a suit talking?  

I want to say here that Mr. Coleman's thoughtful inquiry into the opening of the letter is interesting.  I can imagine that we might have a lot to discuss.  But I would be quick to also say that such a discussion about text should not be mistaken for teaching.  There is no teaching when there are no students. Children collectively co-compose the class. They are not vessel upon which we pour 'correct' interpretations. They are the living impulse that along with the teacher make a collection of people into a class.

That's the quiet secret that is missing from so many of these reform efforts and standardization. Teaching and learning are human enterprises. Fallible as they are beautiful. Representation is essential.

Now there is an irony to Mr. Coleman's model lesson without students as he is showing all of us how to critically read Dr. King's impassioned letter from the Birmingham Jail.  What's unfortunate is the significant disconnect between Mr. Coleman's model and his failure to recognize that without students he has no model.  Representation is missing and isn't it ironic given the very text he is critically analyzing?  Dr. King's message is largely about the responsibility we have (especially those sanctioned with power) to ensure the representation of all, especially those who may be cast as 'other'. This important understanding is not lived in the actions of Mr. Coleman.

There are several sections in the letter where Dr. King conveys the importance of representation.  But two sections resonate so loudly.  Dr. King writes:
I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" men and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
"Nobodiness."  I think here of the absence of actual student bodies in the model Common Core State Standard lesson and want to suggest that this should give us pause. This is not a simple oversight.  This is a philosophical failing--a moral problem that extends well beyond the video lesson. It makes me ask, Would an actual teacher, regardless of competence, actually fail to recognize that one cannot have a class without students?  Is this not the primary understanding that we carry with us when teach? The class cannot exist without the children, the teens, the you, the me.

A bit later in the letter, Dr. King also states: "To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things." When I read the Common Core State Standards or watch the Common Core expert modeling lesson, I do not see my son.  That quirky 13-year-old who is flesh and blood, complicated and impassioned is not represented.  Rather my child, like yours, is situated as the 'student'  who is an homogenized, disembodied thing.

Is that the most we can want?

Now Mr. Coleman and I disagree about approaches to reading.  As a coauthor of the Common Core, Mr. Coleman wants us to read like a detective. This insistence on close reading as the singular method is privileged every year in the Standards and yet it is simply one method.  It is an apt method at times, but it fails to represent the whole of reading.  Additionally, I would want my son, a child of color,  to come to know Dr. King's letter through a more embodied experience. I want him to know the issues of representation in his bones, not just in his head. For my son, this isn't simply an academic matter.  The issues of representation and justice may well be matters of life and death.  In such instances, close reading is at best, a weak antiseptic.


  1. Lovely, Mary Ann. The distinction between the "I-Thou" and the "I-It" relationship is one I have thought about many times. All this frenzy for numeric quantification of children and learning is rooted in an "I-It" attitude, which is why it is inherently dehumanizing. Life turns to dust in your hands when you look at it this way.

    1. Dear Carol,

      Wow what a closing line: "Life turns to dust in your hands when you look at it this way." Unfortunately I think you're correct. Schools have been relegated to an I-It relationship.