Monday, March 31, 2014

On Brilliance and Necessity and the Problem with an Autonomous Model of Literacy (AKA Common Core)

Empty Lot (M.A. Reilly.  Harlem  2012)
"I love those who yearn for the impossible." - Goethe

I received this tweet early this evening from Heidi Siwak (@HeidiSiwak) that included a link to an important post, Creative Solutions are No Accidents. (Please take a moment to read.)

I stopped what I was doing and read the post and then reread it and then thought: There's such scholarship and generosity--inquiry and curiosity in Heidi's work as a teacher and learner. What I so appreciated in the work and processes Heidi describes is the occasioning of thinking and problem solving, alongside community that she composes. Complexity cannot be caused. At best, it can (sometimes) be occasioned. Such understanding, especially when actualized, represents a major shift in teaching. We move from what should and ought to happen to what might or could happen.

We dwell in possibility (A fairer House than Prose...).
Heidi's work exemplifies such a shift.

Her work reminds of this important shift we also need to be thinking about when working with teachers:

The overt (and perhaps even tiresome) obsession in the U.S. with the Common Core has redirected professional attention and critical resources almost exclusively on the endless naming and renaming of content to be learned. How many ways can we say, "Pay attention to text while reading and writing"? (You can hear the drone even from great distances sounding: Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text. Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text and so on...)  These words and phrases are empty as they are fashioned out of a belief of an autonomous model of literacy instead of recognizing literacies as being inherently ideological.

Brian Street who first coined those phrase (autonomous and ideological) explains:

The ‘autonomous’ model of literacy works from the assumption that literacy in itself – autonomously – will have effects on other social and cognitive practices. The model, however, disguises the cultural and ideological assumptions that underpin it and that can then be presented as though they are neutral and universal ... The alternative, ideological model of literacy ... offers a more culturally sensitive view of literacy practices as they vary from one context to another. This model starts from different premises than the autonomous model – it posits instead that literacy is a social practice, not simply a technical and neutral skill ... It is about knowledge: the ways in which people address reading and writing are themselves rooted in conceptions of knowledge, identity, being. Literacy, in this sense, is always contested. (Street, 2000, pp.7-8).

Discerning key differences between autonomous and ideological models of literacy helps us to understand situating teaching as a causal act and understanding teaching as attempts to occasion learning.  Heidi's work (as described in the post) illustrates the creative scaffolding necessary to occasion learning that happens within social practices of the classroom--where 'conceptions of knowledge identity, being' are present and contested.  It's a messy, complex place.
Forgetfulness (M.A Reilly, 2010)

When I read about the intellectual and social spaces Heidi's work with children opens, I remember what it means to teach as a learner, not merely as a player cast in someone's already determined epic. What passes as teaching excellence in these CCSS days is paltry stuff--something akin to cheap magician tricks. How could such mimicry ever escape the paralysis that comes with the philosophical belief that literacies are neutral, universal: Repeat after me: Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text. Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text? It is as if meaning of these terms remained universal, unmoving, untouched--not something emerges as it is being made. Bakhtin described such phenomena well when he wrote: “[d]iscourse lives, as it were, beyond itself, in a living impulse toward the object; if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word” (1981,  p. 292). In so many ways, the resurgence of CCSS certainty is as Bakhtin (1981) describes epic: a poem about the past” told by “a man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible” (p. 13).  
In contrast a living impulse describes well the classroom Heidi shares with students as they create and deconstruct--test constraints that confine and liberate. The means to thoughtful inquiry is composed, not copied.

No simulacrum there.

This is the great stuff of teaching--learning.
The trial and error.
The making of failure and more failure and within that the opening of  big, big space where ideas bloom wild and becomes named alongside critique.

Oh, to be a learner there.

Cited Works:

Bakhtin, MM. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Street, B. (2000). ‘Introduction’ in Street, B. (ed.) Literacy and Development: ethnographic perspectives. London, Routledge, pp. 7–8.

1 comment:

  1. Mary Ann,
    Thank you for your eloquent and generous praise. That it comes from someone whose work I greatly admire is very rewarding. To have someone appreciate the significance of this particular lesson is even more rewarding. It represents the culmination of a long and winding journey - an exploration of what it means to teach and learn that has taken several years. I by no means consider myself "arrived". But that is the point of the post, isn't it?

    The idea of "composing" so that learning is "occasioned" is an apt descriptor for what is represented in this lesson. When I first began experimenting with student centered learning, there was much that I glossed over out of ignorance and lack of awareness. My early efforts had holes and pedagogical gaps. While students enjoyed the process, their learning could have been better had I understood what was needed. My expertise "emerged alongside the collective practice and discourse of the community" I inhabited. It was through a continuous conversation - local and global; face to face and networked - with educators, researchers, students, parents, my spouse and my children, those outside the field of education as well as through the generous sharing of practice and the willingness of my colleagues to experiment and provide feedback that I have a much better grasp of what is needed in the composition so that we are not producing squeaks and squawks. You are right. Teacher education must shift from content ( what must be learned to be a teacher) to an understanding that meaning and effective practice emerge over time. Creating space and support for this to happen is what is needed.

    I sympathize with American teachers who are being put through the common core wringer. Ontario went through a similar change in curriculum many years ago although never to the degree that the United States is currently experiencing. Our jobs were never threatened by test scores; we only had and continue to have tests in grades 3, 6 9 and 10. The scores are meant to provide broad indicators; however, given that so few people are trained in the interpretation of statistics, they are mainly useful to real estate agents hoping to earn better commissions by selling homes in areas where results are perceived to be higher. At the peak of those dark days we were teaching to the tests, classrooms were expected to look the same and "best practices" were the driver. We ended up producing a generation of disengaged students who lacked creativity, couldn't think and couldn't solve problems. Fortunately our system learned from that experience and continued to evolve. I wouldn't say though that the learning wasn't useful and in hindsight I don't begrudge being made to go through the process. We are better educators now because of it. Up until that time we worked in isolation in our classrooms. The curriculum shift forced us to examine our practices, collaborate with colleagues and engage in different kinds of conversations. We resisted and resented but did experiment because we had no choice. We stumbled and began to discover that not all that we were being asked to do was meaningless. The deeper we went into the process the more we began to develop practices that allowed us to move beyond standardized classrooms and the dull lessons they brought. We have now reached a point where students and teachers as co-creators of knowledge within learning communities is about to become the standard. Ontario's new social studies curriculum supported by the Knowledge Building website show the direction we are moving in.

    I do wish to express my gratitude to you, Mary Ann. My journey has been greatly enhanced by your remarkable work. Much of what I developed in my classroom was influenced by your incredibly thoughtful explorations of pedagogy and practice. Thank you for that.