Sunday, June 8, 2014

Heat & Work

Muscle Memory (M.A. Reilly. Florence, Italy, 2009)
I. Heat and Work

The last few weeks have been filled with work with teachers--teachers we have worked alongside mostly for the last two years. One interesting observation that a colleague of mine made as he observed some work I was doing with fifth grade teachers was that the level of energy in the room increased significantly when teacher shifted to to the role of composer.  We were making our way through a review of the teaching they had done this year and they were determining what they wanted to revise and abandon, as well as what new work they wanted to create.

It was during the composing phase that the energy level increased dramatically:

Multiple voices talking
            at once.
More intensity as they worked
          to capture on screen some of their ideas, language.


The next time I worked with the same group of teachers, I mentioned my colleague's observation and wondered if there might be a parallel between the energy they produced while designing and innovating and how students might work if such spaces of permission were afforded to them as well. We also discussed how tiring it is to actually teach any eExpeditionary Learning ElA units as opposed to working from plans self-authored.

I was reminded as I listened that crafting, composing--be it as teacher or student-- represent active stances made in the context of the present.  Scripted curricula and programs are forever situated in the past. They are dead, epic in construct, untouchable and closed.  And yet, some administrators as well as some teachers, reach for the scripted curriculum as a 'solution' to academic performance challenges. Each time we reach for a scripted program as the solution to perceived academic and teaching 'issues,' we mist remind ourselves that all closed systems lose energy over time.

In an article I wrote, Restoring Points of Potentiality: Sideshadowing in Elementary Classrooms, I captured a moment in conversation between a school superintendent (someone for who I think of as the New Ed Leader who has little actual experience and has been catapulted into the job due to connections) and myself.  We had been discussing scripted programs and professional learning.  He told me matter-of-factly: 
We got standards. We got methods. We got assessment. The teacher’s job is to employ all three and get the job done.
For him, teaching is a simple algorithm and children are receptacles waiting to be filled.  

Line 'em up. Fill 'em up. (Consider the 'em here is likely to be a teacher as it is a student).

As we spoke more and he revealed his interest in scripted literacy programs. He told me: 
I’d rather some of the teachers follow a script. They can’t teach well and at least a script will get the content to the kids.

Sigh.

(An aside: I see more and more of these New Ed Leader-types being promoted into high level leadership roles, especially in poor cities where these new leaders are ushered in as if they were the second coming. Scratch just below that polished veneer and don't be surprised to find appointed superintendents who sport only a bachelor's degree or who have a few years of education experience and even less teaching experience...)

Each time we reach for a scripted program as the solution to perceived academic and teaching 'issues,' we must remind ourselves that all closed systems lose energy over time. 

Being There. (M.A. Reilly, Florida. 2009)
II. Human Doing, Self-Organizing

When I think of teaching and learning, I am reminded of Bakhtin's notion of the architectonic that he defined as “the struggle to effect an whole out of the potential chaos of parts” (Art & Answerability, 1990, xxxiiii).   In Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity, Bakhtin defines architectonic as “the intuitionally necessary, nonfortuitous disposition and integration of concrete, unique parts and moments into a consummated whole" (Art & Answerability, 1990, p.209). Yes it is a mouthful.  I like to think of architectonic as timber and stones and the endless array one might make by (re)arranging such materials into whole compositions.  Bakthin's architectonic denotes the cohesion of structure and form composed by humans. Human doing is at the center of the architectonic.  Just as human doing needs to be at the center of classroom life, no scripted program can anticipate the lived utterance (Bakhtin, 1981, 1986).

We must be mindful and acknowledge that it is human doing, not human miming. In thinking about the superintendent's beefs about teaching as a transference act, I wrote in the article:
Delivering the curriculum to students then is a misnomer. In contrast with the school district leader’s presumption, no amount of scripting will get the content to the kids. Bakhtin explained that the speaker’s utterance gains meaning in its audience as it is being uttered: 'Each individual utterance is a link in the chain of speech communion' (p. 93) (p.302).
Teaching is largely about awakening: self and other.


Cited
Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). Epic and novel. In M. Bakhtin, The dialogic imagination: Four essays (M. Holquist, Ed.; C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.; pp. 3–40). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M.M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Eds.; V. McGee, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M.M. (1990). Art and Answerability. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Reilly, M.A. (2009). Restoring Points of Potentiality: Sideshadowing in Elementary Classrooms, 298-306. In The Reading Teacher 63 (4).

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