Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fallacy of Workshop

I have been thinking about content knowledge, its importance, and the difference between tacit knowledge and theory and how these get played out in classrooms.  I want to suggest that teacher knowledge based on theory needs to be privileged. 

Story 1:
In this fifth grade classroom,  20 students are present and are seated four to a table. Students have just regrouped so they are now seated with  their literature group members, all have the text they are reading in front of them, and many of these texts have one or more post-its adhered. On the board is an outline of activities students will be doing during workshop. Literature circles is slated for 40 minutes.  While students meet to discuss their books, the teacher observes the students at work and eventually joins one group.

Posted on the walls are a series of anchor charts designed to help student know how to talk about books.  Each group has a talking stick in order to ensure that students take turns talking, a packet of post-its, jar of sharpened pencils, and a self-evaluation form to complete at the end of the session. When I join one group's conversation I find that the students each are taking a turn, reading in a round robin fashion, from their post it notes. They have written  in response to the prompt, "What do you think will happen next in the story? Make a prediction." The students' predictions are all similar guesses and after they dutifully read aloud their predictions, they next find words they did not know.  After everyone offers at least one word they did not know and they guess what each might mean, one student reads aloud from a dictionary a definition.  The definition offered does not always match the intention of the writer, but nonetheless all of the students record the word and the definition in their reader's notebook in the section titled: My Personal Dictionary.  Next, they take time to determine how many pages they will be reading for the next class.  They have a calendar that tells them when they will need to have the whole book read, but are permitted to determine how many pages they will be reading for each class session.  This group determines they will read 10 pages  which will place them in the middle of the next chapter.

At the end of the the 35-minute group session each student completes a Literature Workshop Self-evaluation form and then places it in a basket, labeled "Assessment" for the teacher to review at a later time.

Name _____________________________ 
Week of _______________________
Book Title _____________________________________________________________

Grading Criteria: Ex = Excellent    S = Satisfactory    N = Needs Improvement  U = Unsatisfactory  

________ 1. Completed assigned reading
________ 2. Prepared with book and/or assignment
________ 3. Participated actively in Literature Circle

Story 2:
Down the hallway, another "workshop" is happening in a fourth grade classroom.  Here students are paired and are writing a praising statement in response to a peer's finished text.  Students read their partner's typed text and on another sheet of paper write a response.  Everyone in the class is busy, including the teacher who moves from pair to pair overseeing the work students are doing.  When I read the text one student has written it becomes noticeable that the student's finished work has such serious syntax concerns that it is difficult for her partner to actually read.  In response the student writes, "I like the lead." This task (exchange papers, read, offer a complement, and return the text to your partner) has taken 30 minutes to complete.

Story 3:
In a third classroom, students have dropped everything and are reading.   Every morning in this second grade classroom, students spend 30-minutes engaged in sustained silent reading of self-selected texts. Students are seated at desks and are reading and the teacher is also reading, modeling what good readers do. Every student has one or more books.  As I sit next to one child and ask her to softly read aloud to me it becomes obvious that she cannot read the text with any integrity. It is simply too hard.  She has selected a Dora the Explorer book because she likes the cartoon. I ask her if she has any other books to read and she indicates she does.  None of the books though are ones she can practice reading with as all are too difficult for her to manage on her own.  At the end of the reading, students write a reaction in their response journal.  The girl writes the date on the top of the paper, makes a heart and writes I love Dora.  

Story 4:
In a seventh grade classrooms, students are engaged in a genre study and specifically they are writing "Wow" endings to their personal narratives.  The teacher has provided a model WOW ending to the narrative she has written.  Students study the last paragraph and make comments about word choice and varied sentences, including the use of a one word sentence.  The teacher explains that the one word sentence is meant to summarize her overall feelings. Many students indicate they like that technique and plan to try it with their own writing. The teacher reminds them that they do not need to follow her model, but instead should make the closing wow their readers and to refer to the list of craft techniques they have been studying all year.

Students take out their own writing and begin to work on their endings.  Alongside, they also have a list of craft techniques they might use.

"I'm going to end with a rhetorical questions," says one student.
"I like the one word ending," another offers.
Other students determine they will write a summary statement, repeat the opening line, or write about the setting.

As I listen, I wonder about textual cohesion and try mightily to recall that lovely line by Toni Morrison about endings ("I always know the ending; that's where I start.").  I ask the one student who is writing a rhetorical question how that question connects to the narrative.  He indicates that he doesn't understand.  He then explains that the task is to use one of the craft techniques as they are target skills.  He is very certain about this and shows me how he will indicate the target skill at the top of his narrative.

Story 5:
In another middle school classroom, a group of 3 teachers are visiting a colleague's classroom and they have been charged by the consultant to observe how she confers with a student in order for them to try it.  Also present is the principal. The teachers have been told by the writing consultant that the students are "moving from their seed ideas to their initial draft."  The consultant first models how to confer with a student highlighting 4 steps: engage the writer in a conversation, find a teaching point, give the writer a skill to work with, and then exit the conference. After modeling each step, she then directs the teachers to  find a student in the class and confer.

Needles to say, everyone is feeling a bit awkward. The teachers do not know the students, have not read any of their former work, and most of the students do not actually know what they wanted to write as their list of seed ideas was simply that, a list.  They also aren't quite use to the writing workshop terminology, such as seed ideas. What is a bit ironic is that two of the three visiting teachers are published writers. One has a young adult novel and a children's story published and the other teacher has published articles in juried professional journals, as well as served as an editor for an NCTE journal.  The consultant, unpublished, taught for five years in NYC and is now an affiliate with a college reading and writing project. 

The teachers each engaged a student and went through the steps as directed.  After the classroom experience, the teachers and consultant and principal debriefed their site-based professional learning experience. Each teacher needed to explain how they had used the four-step conferring process.

In each of these stories I wonder about the amount of time that is dedicated to pursuits where the learning may lead to gross misconceptions about reading, writing, learning, and teaching.  In each scenario, the absence of knowledge about how we learn and develop as readers, writers, and teachers is problematic.  Instead of developing and/or deepening understanding about these matters, a set of procedures have been substituted along with an alarming sense of certainty.

I think it might be better to stop compartmentalizing teaching and learning and privilege time to study one's teaching and learning, to steep one's self in juried research, to tangle with theory, to avoid reading only practitioner-based texts, and avoid think tanks at all costs.

Curious as to what you think.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

13 Ways of Looking at Snow

It has been a snowy winter.  These 13 images are different ways of looking at snow. I  made these images during the month of January (2011).

January (Leonia, NJ 1.2.11)

Snow is Fleeting (Ringwood, NJ, 1.26.11)

Snow is Silence (Morristown, NJ, 1.26.11)

Five Deer in Snow (Harriman State Park, NY 1.23.11)

Empty Lot (Harlem, NYC, 1.16.11)

Brick City (Paterson, NJ 1.16.11)
105th and Park (NYC, 1.9.11)

The Distance Between (Mountainville, NY, 1.8.11)

Willows (Mountainville, NY, 1.8.11)

Trio (Manhattan, NYC. 1.16.11)

And Still the Birds Came (Leonia, NJ 1.2.11)

Suburbia (Teaneck, NJ 1.2.11)

Posted (Leonia, NJ 1.2.11)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Just Say No to Nonsense: Kamil, Wiggins and Poor Huck - Why Literature Matters

Ever since Nancy Reagan first uttered her anti-drug slogan, Just Say No, it has been co-opted for all sorts of situations such as  Proposition 19, taxes, and now—fiction in the classroom. I first heard about the just say no to reading fiction in classrooms a few years ago while I was attending of all things—a reading conference.  Michael Kamil concluded a keynote speech about the shift to including more informational texts on the NAEP assessment by saying that he had never learned anything from fiction.  Not sure I had actually heard him correctly, I spoke with him after his lecture.  I immediately brought up James Joyce, not only because I come from Dublin, but also because well, I am pretty sure it would be impossible to read Dubliners, Portrait or Ulysses and come away having learned nothing.  It has been my experience that all fiction leads to the possibility of learning.  Nonetheless, Kamil was adamant and reiterated that he had not learned anything from fiction. I wondered then, as I do now, if he believed that only that which could be measured by national and state tests was representative of important learning given the context of his talk. 

More recently, in the Education Week blog, Teaching Now, Caroline Cournoyer posed the question: Should We Ban Fiction Books from Schools? The question was raised in response to a Center for Education Policy report indicating that girls outperform boys on reading measures internationally.  Cournoyer dedicates most of the blog to quoting Grant Wiggins who indicated that in response to the "boy reading crisis," most fiction should be banned from classrooms. Bold words for sure. Cournoyer writes:
ASCD blogger and president of an education consulting firm Grant Wiggins ... thinks schools should ban most fiction books from the curriculum altogether because they don't prepare students for the future, when the bulk of the reading they'll do as adults is non-fiction. And, he says, fiction bores boys.
"I recall with horror having to read Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne as a student," Wiggins says. "Worse, look at current favorites in younger grades, such as Sarah Plain and Tall: utterly boring, with no action and endless overly-fine detail for page after page."
With books like this, he says, it is easy to see how boys have become uninterested in reading.
Let me first say that anytime someone is making a claim for something better based on preparation for a fictive future, I am alert and concerned.  I often wonder whose vision of "the future" is being privileged and what is lost given that particular point of view.  As a mom, I want my son to love the pleasure of reading. Regardless of the life he composes, I hope this for him.  As such I am joyful each and every time he reaches for a book to read.  I am less concerned with the text type as I know reading often inspires more reading.

With all of that aside—Kamil and Wiggins nonetheless undervalue narrative text (what they call fiction) and fail to understand that meaning does not reside in any text, but rather is composed during one's transaction with a text (See Louise Rosenblatt).  As such, there is no "extra" meaning or value in informational text, which often includes narrative structures (just think Loren Eiseley or Bill Bryson).  Nor will eliminating particular types of text cause boys to desire to read. Empowerment cannot be realized by eliminating choice. 

If all of this wasn't bad enough, at the same time Wiggins is spouting his anti-fiction rhetoric, Auburn English Professor Alan Gribben is guiding NewSouth Books in "improving" Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by replacing the "N" word with slave and replacing Injun with Indian. Gribben  says he is doing this in order to increase readership.  He is quoted as saying, "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified."

I think he is right to expect that many will be horrified, textual purist and not.  Whereas I do empathize with Gribben's assessment that teaching Huck Finn is challenging, sanitizing the text undermines its power and the reader's.  I can recall the deliberateness with which I approached the novel each time students and I read the text, taking time to explain to students that the representation of people of color in the text surely would be painful to read.  This is not so different  than the talk we would have had when reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal".  Racial and ethnic hatred hurts and pretending such hatred was and is not real does not make it so. What NewSouth Books fails to understand is that an important teaching point requires the accuracy of the text as Twain wrote it.  A teacher's work is to help students understand how the casual and consistent use of racial slurs by young Huck and other Whites in the story represent the dominant culture's beliefs about the value of people of color at both the time of the novel's setting and the time in which Twain is writing.  Against such beliefs, Twain situates Jim as the moral compass in the text and it is a triumphant moment when young Huck decides he can't pray a lie (from Chapter XXXI):
 It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie — I found that out.
   So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
   Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
   I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
   It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
   "All right, then, I'll GO to hell" — and tore it up.
Readers deserve the actual text, not a sanitized one.  However painful that trip down the river with Huck and Jim is, it is pain worth coming to name.  That is the art.  Such important learning cannot be named if we remove the text from the classroom because it is fiction or we offer students a sanitized version in order to make it "acceptable".  Neither should happen and we should say so often and loudly.

In Burn this Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word, a collection of essays by writers about the power of the written word  and censorship, Toni Morrison asserts in the opening essay, "Peril," that it is our very lives that are jeopardized when writers' voices are silenced and removed—a perspective that Kamil, Wiggins, and Gribben would do well to understand.  Morrison (2009) writes:
And it is imperative not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists' questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—the thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

Certain kinds of trauma visited on people are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the good-will of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are a necessity.
Morrison would have us understand that literature, in all its various genres, matters deeply and is a necessity--one we need to ensure continues. It is no less important than water and air.  Reading literature helps us to shape the meaning we make in our lives and helps us to imagine other possibilities of the lives we want to live and lives others do live.  It is wrong to remove fiction from classrooms and to remove an author's words from a text.  Both are terrible lies.

As Huck comes to know, he'd rather go to hell, than pray a lie.  We should be willing to do likewise.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Twitart Magazine is Here

The first issue of Twitart Magazine, Global Contemporary Art has been published and is available here.  The issue's theme is Growing and features work by 11 artists, all of whom are on Twitter.  Links to the artists' pages are listed below.

This is a screenshot of two pages that feature work I  composed that is included in the magazine.

Page 5 from the new Twitart magazine.

Twitart Magazine donates 10% of the issue revenue to a charity. For this issue, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is the recipient! I hope you will take some time to check out Twitart Magazine  (@twitartmagazine) and consider sending some of your work for possible inclusion in the next issue which will focus on portraits. You can email your article and work to article@twitartmagazine .

Also a special thanks to Margeet Broekhuizen Ledelay, the art director at Twitart Magazine, for her hard work to make this magazine happen.  Deeply appreciative.

I hope to see your work in the next issue.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sisyphus in the New Year

When I was contemplating writing a blog, I found myself split between wanting to compose entries about art and wanting to post entries about teaching and learning. In striking a balance between, I have come to see that each (art and education) requires a mindfulness that (in)forms the work I do, fail to do, refuse to do, and desire to do. Mindfulness occasions deep living and profound pain. Consider Camus.

Towards the end of Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus," he notes:

"The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious."  


My work as an artist and a teacher requires a mindfulness of what cannot be named earlier than the present moment will allow and at the same time often requires a rehearsal of possibilities, as well as deep reflection.  As an artist-educator, even when I work deliberately, I know that the present when traded for a prescribed truth, often yields something cliched. It takes me time to understand what I have created and to assign it value--value that sometimes changes alongside reflection and a passage of time. All things reveal themselves in time and being mindful allows me (sometimes) the opportunity to come to know and understand an insight and to (re)present that insight in the work I create. Insight, as Camus suggests, is accompanied by pain that redresses absurdity as tragedy. The dilemma associated with consciousness is old. It is the dialogue that Socrates and Malcolm X might have had: Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living and Malcolm X  writes that the examined life is painful. Living deliberately as artist and teacher requires both. Avoid such dilemma and little of value is left.

When I reread Camus's essay, I thought about how tragic US education feels. 30 years into a career as a teacher, learner, and leader and I see that so much of the rhetoric reported in popular press and touted by those with significant power is blatantly foolish, situates learners (teachers, administrators and students) as widgets, and is based on a belief of certainty. In these days, certainty trumps thoughtfulness. Consider how certainty is privileged in the recent post by The Christian Science Monitor, Education Reform: Eight Chiefs to Watch. With the exception of the first educator, Jason Glass, the remaining school chiefs' agendas, as represented in the article, suggest certainty as the logic that informs their positions and ideas. These leaders' views are posited as representing the singular and truthful perspective, as if meaning could be determined before the utterance. In the article, it states that these leaders want to:

1. Reward effective teachers (What does "being" effective mean? Is being a singular state?  What is effective? Effective for whom? By what measures? In what context? Across what time period? In what subject areas? At what grade levels? By whose standards? Is it possible to be effective in one context and not another?)

2. Give greater school choice to parents (The word choice means a variety of things from choice within a public system to choice beyond the public system. What choice do these chiefs want? Who gets privileged to make a choice? Who does not?  What happens to our democracy if choice weakens public education? Is separate by equal okay now? Does a democracy require public education? Is there any correlate that suggests "choice" of schools yields higher student scores on state mandated test?  What do higher scores on state mandated test mean to a learner, parent-guardian, teacher, employer...?)

3. Get "tough" with teacher unions (Are the ills of public education [whatever those "ills" actually are] directly related to teacher unions? Are all unions the same? What is tenure?  How is tenure represented in states? What happens in the absence of tenure? In the presence of tenure? Can tenure be singled out as a factor of anything? Is the presence or the removal of tenure related to a student's achievement and if so, achievement at what?)

Mikhail Bakhtin writes that the word is overpopulated with the intention of others.  We seem to have failed to understand this and instead act as if a word had a singular and agreed upon meaning. This seems to be the case today as the understanding of "education terms" such as achievement, excellence, effective teacher, school choice, funding, toughness, unions and so on are offered with little substance and less context.  Yet, meaning is always tied to the utterance.  Separate it from the context and we have little to offer and less to know.

The "discussion" about public education in the United States is a lesson in hegemony. Select people with power tell the rest of us what is truth. Their truth is uttered often enough and it is repeated by other people of means, politicians, TV and print commentators, business leaders, writers, speakers, educators, parents, bloggers, tweeters, until the words are meaningless and a position becomes a given truth. No need to understand what we mean by a given word, the task is to just continue to babble the rhetoric, like some long forgotten Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill. No wonder we feel so tired and oddly stuck. This is the tragedy about which Camus writes;  the naked awareness that allows us to see ourselves and our situation at this moment in time.  Our situation is not only absurd, it is tragic as it is impossible to discuss anything without offering alongside some definition of term and intention. Discourse is dead.

What then is needed to challenge the one view truth being passed along as reality? Oddly, on the US Department of State's web page an interesting definition of democracy is offered.

Democracies make several assumptions about human nature. One . . . is that any society comprises a great diversity of interests and individuals who deserve to have their voices heard and their views respected. As a result, one thing is true of all healthy democracies: They are noisy. (US Department of State, International Information Programs, online)
As an artist and a teacher, representation and voice are critical. Agency is critical and requires local discourse.  Noisy would be so much better than the singular drone of "those we should be following." Let's stop following "those in the know"and instead engender local conversations.