Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Learning from an Author of The Common Core Standards: A Lesson for Our Time

Today I attended the acting NJ commissioner of education's convocation, designed to introduce superintendent and curriculum directors to the Common Core Standards (CCS) and PARCC (see my post about PARCC here).  There are many things I might write about, but it is the afternoon session that I want to describe and comment. The afternoon session (about 2 hours) was dedicated to listening to a lecture about what is emphasized in the CCS and why. We were told that we want students to "read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter."  David Coleman, an author of the Common Core Standards and founder and CEO of Student Achievement Partners, LLC wanted us to understand what a CCS "model" literacy lesson would look like and so "taught" the 600 of us present using Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Mr. Coleman said that the instruction he would be "doing" would occur across 6 days, emphasizing the need to "go slow".  

How might a teacher begin such a complex task?

Mr. Coleman offered three ways to not begin:
  1. Forget giving background information. Mr. Coleman said an introduction would simplify the text. Mr. Coleman believes that doing this would undermine the complexity of the text as he assumes that instead of reading the text, students would base their understanding of the text solely on the opening remarks. If students did not do this? Mr. Coleman did not address that potential reality.
  2. Mr. Coleman told us to also forget using pre-reading strategies. He explained that it makes no sense to predict ahead of time and referenced how foolish it would be to predict what a movie might be if you had no knowledge of the movie.  I am unsure how Mr. Coleman defines pre-reading strategies, but guessing has never been a pre-reading strategy of any merit. I'm confident that Mr. Coleman does not understand what pre-reading actually might mean as he characterizes such strategies as tangential, not directly related to the actual text that is being read.  Don't readers skim a text? Don't readers think about what they might know about a topic or author in preparation to reading?  Why are these methods wrong?
  3. The third method to avoid is to conduct any type of strategy lesson. Mr. Coleman said the surest way to ruin a text is to ask students to read with a main idea in mind. Yet, one of his questions while modeling was for us to consider three reasons Dr. King offers to support his main thesis.  Does this question not shape the reading?  It is at this point that I begin to understand why Mr. Coleman carries on as he does. Mr. Coleman believes that meaning exists inside a text and the reader's job is to extract meaning, as if meaning was a nugget the author left (remember your job as a reader is to be a detective) that remains whole, untainted by human experience and misunderstanding.  Meaning is not composed in transactions between the reader and the text, rather meaning is found. 
So how did Mr. Coleman begin his model lesson?

He began by reading the text aloud. None of us, apart from Mr. Coleman, had a copy of the text and that fact did not seem to have any influence on Mr. Coleman's pedagogical decisions.  Mr. Coleman read paragraph by paragraph stopping to ask us questions that on only one occasion did any "student" offer a response. 

For the rest of the "model lesson" only Mr. Coleman spoke. 

No one else offered even a modest utterance.  Mr. Coleman's questions were mostly recall questions. For example, Mr. Coleman asked, "Does anyone know who makes their second appearance in the letter?" No one responded. He paused for a couple of seconds and then answered his own question letting us know that Socrates is mentioned twice.  Mr. Coleman read aloud, offered his insights, and asked and answered his own questions.  By the conclusion of his model lesson, the audience dwindled to what looked like less than 100 people.

What might we make of such a model that Mr. Coleman says we should be emulating? Mr. Coleman educated at Yale and Oxford seems to be a student of  New Criticism, a literary theory employed in colleges and high schools beginning in the 1940s and displaced by other theories by the 1960s.  Some New Critics discounted reader's emotional or personal response to a text, believing the text to be autonomous and privileged close reading methods. Mr. Coleman and his business associate, a former math director from NJ, were quick to demean the value of Reader-response Theory, misrepresenting it as an approach that simply asks students how they feel.  In April of this year in Albany in an address to New York state educators, Mr. Coleman told his audience, "People don't really give a shit about what you feel and what you think."  (You can access that "talk" here). 

Is that really the message we want to convey to our 5-, 10-, or 15-year old students? Is it even true?  Are there no occasions when how one feels in the business sector is valued? Is thinking a cognitive function divorced from feeling? Was e.e. cummings wrong when he wrote, since feeling is first?  Creating false dichotomies is not a way to begin.

I'm guessing that Mr. Coleman hasn't spent any considerable time actually teaching children or young adults.  Had he, I would hope he might have learned that it is a costly mistake to assume any single approach, including the one he advocates, is what is needed to teach millions of children and young adults how to read powerfully.  Reading aloud a text and stopping to frequently ask questions is hardly a novel approach and given that 5/6 of the audience left one might assume it may not be a credible one either.  What is disheartening about this afternoon is that I believe Mr. Coleman thinks his "teaching" is inspired, as he gave a similar lesson last month. Mr. Coleman has the ear of powerful politicians and foundations and I worry as an educator and a mom that his vision of learning will prevail.  

The lesson I took from the afternoon is that equally compelling voices must be sounded so that children are not harmed by such an impoverished understanding of what it means to teach and learn. We need to offer alternatives to the vision of teaching that Mr. Coleman would have us enact. I have little doubt if enacted as Mr. Coleman represents in his model, we will deeply fail learners.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Nation of Employees, not Citizens

Counting (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

I find the constant referencing of studies that attempt to show how the arts & the humanities increase students' mathematics and science achievement fairly obscene.  It's as if the full measure of each was limited to what they might do to 'improve' students' achievement in the 'really important' subjects.  In this post-Sputnik world, do poets, painters, photographers, cartoonists, historians, dancers, musicians, singers, actors, sculptors, dramatists, performance artists, film makers, writers, and mixed media artists--to name but a few-- still have no value apart from boosting math & science scores? 

Against the consistent manic attention to mathandscience (they are singular, not plural), we also add the buzz that the US economy (a stand in for securing wealth) will require the participation of "creative" people to "win the race".  Such thinking has led to the retooling of public education shifting attention and funding from preparing learners to be active citizens in participatory democracy to building engineers, doctors, and scientists--as if these professions were the full sum of the people. 

Mark Slouka (Harper's, 09/2009) explained the shift in what is being valued as education when he wrote:
"By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe."
A nation of employees, not citizens. Studying the arts and the humanities require thinkers to not be confined to espousing only government or corporate-sanctioned ideologies. One never quite knows the twists and turns the human mind might take while reading literary works or participating in other aesthetic experiences, including those that might also be considered mathematical or scientific in nature. I am reminded here of the recent push to devalue literature study in schools, replacing The Iliad  or The Bluest Eye with the ubiquitous, non fiction text which seems to be understood as being non-literary--informational.  In "How To Make American Teens Smarter," Dana Goldstein writes:
...children should read newspapers and magazines, texts about nature and technology, and biographies—genres that increase real-world knowledge. This is especially important for poor children, who may not be exposed to as much "background" information at home: the random vocabulary, facts, and associations that make it easier to do well on tests like the NAEP and SAT, and to succeed in the workplace.
This is wrong for so many reasons, not the least is the unfortunate implication that being poor means your knowledge is not important. Goldstein let's us know what the end game is for education: succeeding in the workplace. Success in the workplace has replaced pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.  Or consider ASCD writer, Grant Wiggins, who in an earlier ASCD post this year (now removed from the site) said we should ban fiction from classrooms (I wrote more about this here). Who needs literature? Well it seems our President agrees. Proposed federal education funding this year for reading, writing and the arts is $0.  It is enough to make one ask, Why study literature? Why participate in the arts? Is the study of history even relevant? It makes one wonder if mathandscience is democratically neutral--indifferent and is not valued in part, because of this indifference. Slouka writes:
I see no contradiction between my respect for science and my humanist’s discomfort with its ever-greater role in American culture, its ever-burgeoning coffers, its often dramatically anti-democratic ways, its symbiotic relationship with government, with industry, with our increasingly corporate institutions of higher learning. Triply protected from criticism by the firewall of their jargon (which immediately excludes the non-specialist and assures a jury of motivated and sympathetic peers), their economic efficacy, and the immunity conferred by conveniently associated terms like “progress” and “advancement,” the sciences march, largely untouched, under the banner of the inherently good. And this troubles me. It troubles me because there are many things “math and science” do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy. They have no aptitude for it, no connection to it, really.


A Room of One's Own (M.A. Reilly, 2008)
I think we tend to think of our democracy as a stable thing we have inherited from the "founding fathers" that has been rendered ready-made and requires little of us now. A quick look at US voting records suggests a similar sense of reality. Slightly more than half of us vote during a presidential election and slightly more than a third in off years.  Slouka states that an arts and humanities education is about life. He writes:
"...every aspect of life—every marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting—hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity."
Arts and humanities education allows us to live more fully, more aware of how our past informs our present and why such knowledge, even when it is most painful, is critical to understand.  Less we think our democratic rights are stable, consider your right to marry whomever you love. One would think that the freedom to marry would be an example of an inalienable human right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Not so.

In 1883 in Pace v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court upheld Alabama's right to make interracial marriage a felony.  Nearly 100 years later, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the US Supreme Court ruled that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. At that time 16 states had such laws. However it was not until the end of the century that all states changed their constitutions. In 1998, South Carolina and in 2000, Alabama amended their states' constitutions prohibiting miscegenation.  More recently in 2011, I read a poll that indicated 46% of Republican lawmakers in Mississippi supported banning interracial marriage. Now consider where we are in securing such rights if we replace interracial marriage with same gender marriage. Democracies require that its citizens be able to participate. Public schools need to value citizenship as evidenced by funding.

Dewey (1916) understood the aims of education in ways our current representatives seemed to not grasp. We must understand that for a democracy to continue, the aims of education are not to make better workers, but rather better citizens. The route to such ends will not be found by over privileging mathandscience. Dewey understood that aesthetic experiences were an important and necessary method for learning deeply--a requisite to developing thinkers, not merely followers.  He explained:
"Tangible scenes of life are made more intelligible in esthetic experience: not, however as reflection and science render things more intelligible by reduction to conceptual form but by presenting their meanings as the matter of clarified, coherent, and intensified or 'impassioned experience" (1934, p. 290).
Similarly, Maxine Greene (1995) argued that through aesthetic engagements that invoke imagination learners are positioned to become "otherwise"-- that is to become wise about those who we are not.  Empathy, clarity, reason, living with ambiguity, and being wise about other: Are these not perhaps, the most important dispositions we might hope to teach and learn in this increasingly more global world?

What Felled You is Important (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thinking About City as Floorplan

Trying to find home (2011)
I've been thinking about dwelling (place and intention) as a metaphor for learning and perhaps a new metaphor to replace schooling, and worked on the image above for awhile, finishing it today.  I've been wondering about the need for home.  After I finished, I followed a tweet by that took me to Monkia Hardy's city as floorplan.  There are no coincidences.

Monika asks,
"What if school's setting were life,
and kids were working
on health,

Monika tells us that kids, you, me, all of us are "craving work that matters."

Boy does that stop me.  Isn't that a source that explains
why I shift

Perhaps you too?

Now, imagine schools as community places where craving work that matters is the norm, not the exception. Imagine a s/place where learning is not one direction (input, output), but rather is rhizomatic, where being in the middle of possibilities is the new definition of school.

You know you're at school when... you're home, at the supermarket, in the park, at a reservoir, skating, skyped in with x and y, at city hall, in the library, at a performance space, on the street...

Go ahead: Take some time to really look at Monika's city as floorplan.  Follow the links.


Think rhizomes, not trees of knowledge.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Negotiating Curriculum with High School Students

A few nights ago, I was reading a started draft of an AP Govt and Politics course by Chris Kenny (@chriskenny233). Chris plans to teach the course next year and had placed the started curriculum document on line via Google Docs. As the dir. of curriculum,  I find it helpful to work with curriculum in a method that allows cor conversation about the work as it is being designed and written.  Google docs allows us that access. Where Chris and I work, we have been talking (along with lots of others) about negotiating curriculum with students. Chris's immediate supervisor, Scott Klepesch (@shklepesch) has been encouraging teachers to open the first month of school, not with a rush into content, but rather to take time to work with students in designing aspects of the course.   I also have been surfacing the idea with administrators, teachers, and Board members  that curriculum is not the printed document, but rather complicated conversation

While reading and responding to the document, I raised a question about why Chris had decided to  weigh certain aspects of students' products (class discussion, test response, essay, projects) as he had and asked would it not be possible for students to weigh in on this and perhaps have different options for assessment values depending on the student, context, etc.  When I posed the question I did not know that 13601579 was a high school student who had signed up for the course next year.  So it was thrilling to see Chris pose a related question to the student who had been chatting with him alongside the curriculum document (chat is a function inside google docs). 

Here's part of the chat (reprinted with permission):
kenny.christopher: Guys, what do you think about grading policy? What would you like to see?
13601579: I like the grading policy I think.
kenny.christopher: Why's that?
13601579: It's similar to history this year.
12602454 has left.
kenny.christopher: Well, I guess part of me feels like you will be getting that kind of conditioning with (name of a teacher) AND you got it with me this year... so would it make feel comfortable to move away from it? Or maybe just deemphasize it?
13601579: with history I feel like the tests are a big part so its important to work towards those which is good studying tactic
hmmm possibly
maybe increase the amount that quizzes and projects count for
kenny.christopher: I don't disagree, but I feel like there's a different quality to the kind of content we're learning... the baseline information is there, but so much of it is going to be student-directed as far as assigned topics and whatnot
13601579: like 50 30 20
yes I like the 20% class discussion thing
kenny.christopher: Yeah, I was thinking that... 50% seems fair. I just want them to count enough that there's incentive.
13601579: we do that with (name of teacher) and its a helpful review
the class discussion online I mean
kenny.christopher: Yeah, I was going to say the blog will function on that level.
13601579: good review and summary. But also good analysis when youre discussing with people who are into it
kenny.christopher: Yeah, it's almost liek you're writing an FRQ more regularly, though informally...
13601579: yes. the FRQs are shorter for AP gov than for history right?
I'm asking I don't know at all
kenny.christopher: I'll be honest, I'm not sure. I have to do some research on that. I'm positive there is no DBQ...
13601579: yea because you can see the questions online but what you can't see are sample student responses which can be helpful
kenny.christopher: College Board has to have some of that...
I know they float around for US History all the time
13601579: yes but you have to get it as a teacher I think
I can't get it is what I mean
kenny.christopher: Yeah, I know, I'm thinking I'll get a hold of it this summer and then give it to you guys next year...
I feel like I don't have to beat writing over your heads so much next year, esp. kids who just came off having (name of a teacher) all year
13601579: for sure. I still want a summer assignment though
kenny.christopher: You'll be getting a lot of that from him as we move along too... he told me he thinks that kids who are taking both are going to do really well on the history exam... i have to agree...
Haha, I dunno, man.
13601579: yea I know your stance
During the next couple of days, I mentioned to a few other high school teachers what Chris was doing and they started brainstorming how they might do similar work with students prior to class beginning.  Another history teacher said, "Just think of how the kids will enter the class in September if they have had a say it what we will be doing!"  I shared a few ways other teachers negotiate curriculum throughout the year with students using in class time to discuss options, using social media to surface ideas and serve as a place for commentary and also reminded them that Scott had indicated this was a good way to start the year.

All of this negotiating has me thinking not from the distance of a curriculum director lodged in central office, but more so as a teacher.  I have committed to co-teaching a senior year English course with another teacher/instructional coach, John Madden for next year.  I know that the richness of conversations John and I will be having as we try to figure how to do an "unschool" course inside a traditional high school is something that will need to be informed by student and parent voices.

Hmm.  Time to get thinking about how to connect.

Monday, May 23, 2011

We Are Too Full with Knowing

A Walk Through the Woods (5.23.11)
I believe in rituals.

For a long time, each spring I would reread Thoreau's Walden I found it reconnected me to self and other in ways often necessary after a long winter in the Northeast. Sometime between December and May I had forgotten the most fundamental of things: how to breathe.

I have neglected reading Walden in recent years, hurrying about as if the work at hand might be better shaped through frantic pace.  I was feeling all of this today as I made my way to work, wondering not for the first time, what is it that I do and is it worth what it takes.  It was as if I saw school for the first time, wondering how Richard Elmore might see it: With indifference? With certain clarity?  It caused me to pause, remember what my first years of teaching were like and how privileged in many ways those days were before the advent of external and national Standards and with them all the rush, rush, rush to perfection.

Today I asked a group of senior students which was more beautiful: perfection or imperfection. They were discussing ethical implications of cloning and it had me wondering why we find ever newer ways to shun our humanness, our imperfections. I was thinking of being married, of being a mom and how I have learned that I will never be perfect as either and how hard it is nonetheless to not expect an idealized version of love in return.

I thought about this as I listened to this group of students discuss their views-- their partial understandings.  How can you know at 17 that love will always disappoint and that it is in the disappointment that its beauty will be so clear?  

What do we teach at school and how essential is what we teach?  Much of what I read in the Common Core Standards feels inconsequential to me, quite frankly rather unimportant.  I mean just how important is it for 10- or 11-year-olds to type three pages on a computer "in one sitting"? Is this essential? Is this even worthy of our time, our children's attention? Where in the Standards does it say that students need to know that perfection has been oversold; that imperfection is beautiful?...That the way home is often not direct and that we may be the better for it?

A Bend in the River (5.23.11)

It was with such thinking that I made my way home and was hardly surprised by my sudden decision to pull to the road side and take a walk through the woods.  Yes it was misting, perhaps some might characterize it as drizzle or light rain, but it fell with such aimlessness and I thought there's a message here I need to feel, to hear.  Deep breaths of rain and spring must be good. A restorative perhaps?

The woods were wet, filled with fog and empty of people.  And surely the hour I spent there was a baptism of sorts.
Summer Waits

I walked mostly on paths I had not known before, with my camera in hand and thought is there nothing lovelier than a feeling of being lost? I stopped thinking and lifted the camera to make images and now and then I put the camera down knowing no image could be made.  It was this lovely bit of tension between making and being that steadied me, reminded me that art and living are not separate breaths I take.

Later, I began to read Walden and stopped in the second chapter when I read:
I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet.

It is in what I do not know that I make art.  I have searched the Standards and cannot seem to find this elemental truth.

Sadly, I think, we are too full with knowing.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Before We Let Them Go, We Better Understand Why We Treat Them as We Do

Richard Elmore concludes an essay, What Would Happen If We Let Them Go?,  by wondering:

“…what would happen if we simply opened the doors and let the students go; if we let them walk out of the dim light of the overhead projector into the sunlight; if we let them decide how, or whether, to engage this monolith? Would it be so terrible? Could it be worse than what they are currently experiencing? Would adults look at young people differently if they had to confront their children on the street, rather than locking them away in institutions? Would it force us to say more explicitly what a humane and healthy learning environment might look like? Should discussions of the future of school reform be less about the pet ideas of professional reformers and more about what we're doing to young people in the institution called school?"

American Bust Stop: Prisons (M.A.Reilly, 2010)
In the essay, Elmore recounts his visit to two high school English classes and chronicles the sleeping students he watches in the first classroom and the teacher who outlines in detail all of the decisions students will need to make to "organize a notebook into a portfolio" in the second classroom. He says that these examples are not the exceptions, but rather they are the expected.  In both classrooms, as well as in the school, adults' misuse of power is displayed.

Two ideas strike me as I read the essay:

  1. Alternatives to traditional high school are present already, such as: options that divorce seat time from earning graduation credits, the development of unschools, virtual schools, early college, blended learning, and home schooling.  The choice to open the door may not be our choice after all.
  2. Alternatives will not answer why we allow and sanction such disregard to happen.

What worries me is the probability that although the specific symptoms Elmore identifies may not be transferred to these new learning methods, the underlying power issues surely will be if we fail to understand why we keep reinventing reforms that maintain the primacy of adult power.

Having students follow an alternative path is not a solution to the issues of power and responsibility. Such action will not help us to understand why teachers, counselors,  administrators, security personnel, and support staff sanction the misuse of power to occur repeatedly.  We need to understand why indifference and over attention, just two examples in a list of power mishaps, happen. If we fail to understand and take action, we may well reinvent the same power relationships in new venues.

So how do we begin this rather straight forward redesign? We can start by honoring the work we are paid to do and being responsible for how all students are addressed, taught, disciplined, and empowered. We cannot act on Elmore's belief to understand what we're doing to young people in schools if we permit ourselves to be blind and deaf. We are complicit by our silence.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What High School Students Have to Say About Powerful Learning

Today I wished that Arne Duncan and Governor Christie might have been in the room quietly observing the 3 hours of discussion I had with 16 public high school students about their learning. The educational outcomes I think these political leaders seek for all students were clearly demonstrated by the students as they reflected on their learning during this school year.  It is important to listen to students and I wish politicians might do this more often, especially before determining educational priorities. What clearly was told by EVERY student is that it is their love for their teachers and the respect  and care their teachers show them that most influences their learning. It is a lesson adults, especially those setting policy, must hear. It was a privilege to listen to the students.

The students volunteered or were randomly selected from three new courses and one new academy at the 1500-student, highly diverse high school in the district where I work. My goal as the director of curriculum was to understand the effects participation in these courses might have had on students' achievement and their sense of themselves as learners. All of the courses and academy were determined by teachers based on their interest and passions. 

The new courses include American Studies I, American Studies II, and African American Studies which are all team taught courses and are experiential-based.  Additionally students from the senior level Classics Academy were also interviewed. Classics Academy is a year-long engagement for students who enroll in five courses: AP Vergil, AP English--Classics Academy, AP Modern European History, Classical History and Classical Mathematics (team taught course), and the Symposium. Curricula for all of these courses were developed by the teachers, including revision to all AP courses in order to increase relevancy, intensity and connections to ancient worlds. 

The Process
I interviewed 16 students from these courses, recording more than 3 hours of discussion.  It is important to note that on traditional measures, such as marking period grades and midterms, every student in these courses earned passing grades. There were no students issued a failing grade.

In quickly listening to the audio, the following themes emerged:

1.     Learning via these courses has been unlike any school-based learning the students have done previously.  As one student succinctly said, “This year we didn’t do high school.” Students clearly expressed that they were engaged as learners in these courses in powerful and memorable ways. Every student interviewed indicated that the learning they composed  transcended the border of school and continued to influence them in their non-school life. As one student said, “This year I found that not only am I making connections in different classes to other things I learned in other classes, but also outside of school I am still thinking about stuff I learned that day or past weeks.” Students emphasized that the learning they were doing was learning for life.

2.     Choice and rehearsal matters. Students referenced specific examples of how they co-designed the learning that happened in the course and cited how this sharing of power positively influenced their learning. For example, in the American Studies I course, a student indicated that she had not selected the course as an honors option, but had carefully watched students who did throughout the year.  She noted that they did not do “more work,” but did more complex work. As a result of this yearlong rehearsal, she is opting to taken American Studies II for honors credit next year, as she “now feels ready to be successful.” Students also indicated that being able to choose texts and determine how they would represent their learning influenced them.

3.     Every student used the term, family, to describe the relationship among students in the class and their teachers. Their use of the term was completely unprompted and was said during each and every interview.  The students indicated that they "love" and respect their teachers.

4.     Students expressed that being intellectually confident is a significant disposition they have developed during the year.  One reason students gave for their increased confidence is that their teachers and peers “really listen” to them and that they in turn have learned how to not simply hear, but to deeply listen and to appreciate other points of view.

5.     Many of the students indicated that a major learning they had was that the past informs the present.

6.     For students who have struggled as learners, specifically as reader and writers, they indicated that they had strengthened their skills by being able to think deeply about topics before writing, by the type of response teachers and peers offered, by not having to attend to strict “due dates” so that they could take the time to compose carefully, and by selecting and reading/viewing relevant texts. Some students indicated that a revised grading system (A, C and Inc.) led them to learn more and to develop the habit of revision. Students indicated that the differences they experienced this year suggested that their teachers were more interested in the quality and intensity of their learning, than in issuing them a grade. Equally interesting is the fact that for all of the senior students (8) who were interviewed, they made no reference to grades when describing their learning. 

7.   Senior students referenced that through class discussions, literary works, projects, simulations, and virtual chats--they rehearsed ethical situations they might encounter as adults and felt prepared not only for college, but for adulthood.  They said that important learning was thinking about how they are responsible for treating others with kindness and justice, becoming comfortable with ambiguity, and learning how to solve problems that offer no clear method of beginning. They indicated that this learning was greatly influenced by their teachers who attended to them as adults and treated them with respect throughout the year.

8.   All of the students said that it is their teachers' passion for the learning that most influenced their learning. One student indicated that he was "not very good at English" in previous years but that his teachers helped him to love reading and to respect the quality of work he composed, and that his skills improved significantly. Another student said that her teacher ignited her passion for reading.  One student said, "They (her teachers) are so passionate about what they are teaching. I mean, that's what gets me.  It's their passion. How do you expect me to learn if a teacher isn't passionate?"

9.   Students said that "failure is important to learning. You cannot learn without failing."

10.  Powerful learning is vital. One student said, "This year is a lot less like high school than other years have been. I felt like this was not high school. Maybe this is a lot more like high school should be like…This was such a change. Such a shift. I don’t have any classes this year like XXXXX where I go memorize things and then I go home and I don’t think about it.  We leave Symposium and (another student) and I walk home and the only thing we can talk about is what we were just doing in Symposium."

11. Curriculum gets lived in the classroom, not written in a book, said several students. Our voices matter and are respected. We share intimacies with one another. There is trust. We get to be responsible for what we do and say.

In thinking about the students' comments, as well as discussion with the teachers, some potential lessons include:

1.     Teacher and student autonomy and passions matter and need to be privileged in the design of courses, more so than a strict adherence to national and state standards. The local matters.
2.     Collaborative work brings tensions and challenges that are worth exploring at the student, teacher, and administrator levels.
3.     Students who are empowered to co-design learning, learn deeply and are able to strengthen their capacity to read, write and reason in ways that "remedial" courses cannot do.
4.     Mutual respect among peers and teachers may be correlated to student achievement.
5.     Blending "achievement" levels can help students to better challenge themselves and their peers.
6.     Teacher experience matters.
7.     Student learning is aided when administrators function as instructional leaders.
8.     Reflection by students, teachers, and administrators leads to better learning.
9.     Modeling aids learning. Expert modeling influences even more.
10.  The use of technology is seen as less important by students than the power of learning.
11. Curriculum is complicated conversation.  Documents may guide, but should not be confused with the lived course. 
12. A teacher's passion for teaching and learning ignites learners' desires to innovate, experiment, and compose.

By the way, the students in Classics Academy will be presenting via public exhibition culminating projects in June.  They plan to extend an invitation to Governor Christie.  I hope he can make it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Clocks and Learning

Image by Zoutedrop posted at Flickr here.

I sometimes wonder how students can learn in 45-, 60- or 80-minute periods stacked one atop the next, with little time they can call their own.  I wonder the same thing for teachers who are a bit more fortunate as they are usually afforded by contract, planning time each day. Students don't fare as well, as lunch is often the only time they can call their own. Such "efficiency" smacks of scientific management, which privileged the separation of planning from labor.  

The man who is fit to work in any particular trade is unable to understand the science of that trade without the kindly help and cooperation of men of a totally different type of education, men whose education is not necessarily higher, but a different type from his own (Copley 1923,45) as quoted in Thomas Newkirk's Holding On To Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, p. 14.

Learning requires both planning and labor. School requires only the latter for its students and in more repressed places, separates planning from labor for its teachers who are tasked with "transmitting" prepackaged lessons via scripts. 

The clock is a powerful force. Lewis Mumford knew this. In Technics and Civilization, Mumford wrote, "The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age" (p. 14).  He said that the clock shifted how time was represented and understood from a cyclical process of nature to a quantity. With the clock came the regulation and regimentation of life, parceling work into manageable bits of time.

Is this parceling not also true for schools as well? Is the bell not the most powerful symbol of regulation at schools? 

I was reminded of the almost obscene power of bells today while participating in a 3-hour learning engagement with high school seniors from a Symposium class, their teacher Mark Gutkowski (@mylatinteacher), designer Akemi Tanaka, our school's superintendent, an instructional leader, John Madden, our librarian, Debra Gottsleben (@gottsled) and supervisor, Scott Klepesch (@shklepesch). Mark and Akemi had designed an initial engagement for all of us to do involving design, building, and team work that had all of us thinking and doing.  Akemi next explained the thinking and production processes inherent in the industrial design work she does. We all peppered Akemi with questions wanting to better understand how her work originates, how it is modified and by whom and for what reasons.  We wanted to know about the thinking she does when making eco-conscious decisions and the relationship between identification of a problem and the development of design. Akemi then offered critique to students' design presentations as they presented drawings (made on paper or iPad) and discussed how their design originated and what problem it attempted to solve. 

Throughout the morning,the mix of students and educators learning side by side marked a distance from traditional schooling and its roles.  Empowered, engaged the time passed swiftly. And yet, at 11:18 the high school bells rang signaling the start of school-wide lunch. With this, students in dribs-and-drabs left to attend to clubs, make up tests, and other obligations, forgoing all of their found power in a swift acquiescence to the clock.  It was disappointing that closure was not determined by learners, but rather by a bell. 

I was reminded today that deep learning doesn't happen on schedule. Never has. Probably never will.  And yet, we persevere in diminishing learning by organizing school into predetermined blocks of time and signaling the start and stop of those blocks with bells, not intention.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Designing Alt. Learning Spaces: I Need Your Ideas!

I have been tasked with designing an alternative learning space to traditional high school within a NJ public school system and to have it operational by 9/12.  Two constraints of working within a public system:

1. Students will still need to take and pass state assessments and earn x #of credits to graduate.
2. Under option 2 in NJ there is great liberty w/ regard to how students earn graduation credit. Seat time can be divorced from coursework allowing project/passion-based learning, virtual learning, and community based learning so long as they are connected to state standards.

So I am wondering:

If you were to design a learning space as an alternative to traditional high school, what might it look like? 
What would you privilege? 
What would be absolutes that you would need to include in your design?  
What would learning look and sound like? 
Who would own the learning? How would you know?

I really value your ideas and I know that they will surely (in)form mine.  Please let me know what you think.  Thanks.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Stripping Language from Thought; Responsibility from Corpus: The Need to Invent, Not Ape

Want. (M.A. Reilly 2010)
I was participating on a listserv that privileged experimental and quasi experimental research as the sole type of research that should be used to inform classroom practice. This USDOE "think(less) tank" was an attempt to make teachers rely exclusively on recommendations by the National Reading Panel. Any pedagogical approach that was not developed directly from experimental and quasi experimental research was discouraged. 

I learned about the listserv after I had attended a conference the USDOE sponsored. It was somewhat surreal to be with several hundred professors and school administrators who believed in only using scientifically-based reading research (SBRR).  I was an observer on the listserv and at that time a professor at a college in NY.  I found my voice after reading  the following question that was raised by an employee from USDOE:
Do we want to teach preservice teachers they can use any approach...their own approach?
I thought a great deal about the question and wondered what approach is there, but one’s own? The lived discourse of the classroom is created through interaction in novel time.  Learners need response that is context sensitive. Simply aping some believed “perfect” instruction (a myth if ever there was) is a dangerous act, one we need to resist.  It strips language from thought, responsibility from corpus. What’s left?  Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin explains that “[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, from which we can learn nothing at all about the social situation or the fate of a given word in life” (1981, p. 292).  Can students afford teachers speaking the “naked corpse of the word”? Can teachers?

To think that teaching will be made more effective for students by having teachers rely only on pedagogical practices associated with experimental and quasi-experimental research as singular points of knowing is misguided. There are multiple ways of knowing, let alone unknowing.

Further, the work of teaching is not simply in the design of a given lesson but in the lived experience of the classroom and school.  Teaching requires us to make sense of patterns through patient contemplation and on-going conversation. We need to be keen observers and realize that we cannot know ahead what will happen in a class with any certainty.  Teaching and learning requires ‘slow knowing’ (Claxton, 1997).  Schools are lived places with histories—with stories.  They are acentered and rhizomatic.  When designing for emergence, there is an emphasis on middles; those places of action, largely found in the comings and goings of people.  In many ways schools resist the tenets learned through experimental and quasi-experimental research—as such research is ultimately epic in construct and schools cannot afford such positioning.

Learning, is a far from hardened matter, one that is conditioned by the time, place, and ongoing action.  So, as I read the question I asked, "Do I intend the preservice teachers I teach to develop hybrid approaches to teaching and learning—approaches that use methodology beyond what the National Reading Panel Report privileges?"  


Do I expect that theory, research, and practice will influence their thinking and help them to shape pedagogy?   

Yes, again. 

Thinking matters. 

Monday, May 9, 2011


In Roland Tharp's and Ronald Gillmore's (1988) seminal text, Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling in Social Context, they discuss the meaning of the term, school, and in many ways target the tensions felt today. Consider:

When citizens and their leaders hear of places and things calling themselves "schools" and those places and things do not correspond to the nation's internalized and shared vision, a deep offense is experienced, an offense to all the components of basic meaning-- the intellectual, emotional, activity, and historical components of the meaning of the word "school." The tendency of society is to gather back to the flock any errant geese.  It is no accident that the political movement for greater emphasis on higher academic goals has labeled itself the back-to-basics movement....Any social system will attempt to recapture those who deviate from its shared and internalized symbols; schools wander off the well-worn path at their peril. (p. 266).

Against this felt desire to maintain the known, there is also public dissatisfaction with schools. This leads to reform after reform regardless of how it is dressed that carries with it the subtext that "we're going to make it more like it was than ever before" (p. 267). Tharp and Gallimore write:
Political school-bashing and teacher-bashing are almost always based on the assumption that schools are no longer adhering to their real purposes: teachers are less knowledgeable than they should be; students are not as disciplined as they should be; the basic skills of reading, writing, and ciphering are not emphasized as they were in good old schools. (p. 267)
Tharp and Gallimore state that "intersubjectivity of the nation is the root problem--the shared meaning of school, the common history of schooling...the continual dousing of innovation and the restoration of the school to the comfortable conformity to the internalized image are reliable and reassuring political acts" (p.267).  Twenty-three years later, has much changed in the way we view "school"? Tharp and Gallimore conclude that "true school reform can come only about with a radical change in the meaning of school" (p.268).

In many ways the voucher programs and charter school movement hold the promise of something shiny and new, but nonetheless maintain the fundamental structure of school as a place students go to learn a prescribed curriculum. Yes, students may go to a charter school for a longer period of time during the school year. Charters may look more focused on the surface as they may be formed with connection to some type of occupation (the arts) or disposition (school of problem solving). Central here though is that the fundamental understanding of school as a location where students come to learn from teachers remains largely unchanged. And that's a problem.

I've been thinking a lot lately about learning and less about schooling.

Although still formative, what is emerging is an unschool: think of it as a commitment to learning that young people and some not so young make and in doing so form alliances based on interests, curiosities, questions, and passions. These alliances are not located solely in one geographic place, but can and do exist both in real and virtual spaces. Unschools have no prescribed state of national standards as the idea of a single prescribed curriculum runs counter to the stated goal of helping young people to compose themselves as learners.  Some critical ways of coming to know are privileged however, and find expression as composing and consuming--problem solving and problem generating, as well as the development of heuristics. Learning decisions are informed by mentors and peer-learners in concert with unschool community members, as well as peer-learner defined "expert practitioners". The mentor and peer-learner work is largely to fashion personalized learning that is inherently iterative and attends to the critical ways of knowing and doing. Peer learners, like mentors, are not restricted to a single place as virtual learning is part of the unschool design, although it is expected that there will be mentors and peer learners who will come together in real space for certain work.  Self assessment is privileged, alongside some external norms that the mentor and peer learner determine jointly.

That's what I am seeing currently and I would love to know what you think. Unschools will make most of us uncomfortable as they resist our understanding of school. As such, imagining unschools is difficult, especially as the remembrance of our own "schooling" is often romanticized and will be of little practical value, except in pointing at what it is not like.  Instead, it is better to think of a deep learning experience you have had that did not take place at a school and consider how that learning evolved, and trace as best one can the often nomadic journey of such learning.

There will be lots of ideas and content that unschool learners won't know.  What they will know and have experience with are the challenges, frustrations ,complexities, beauty, and perseverance necessary to learn well and deeply and to share that learning in meaningful ways. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Remove the Records and Someone Will Learn to Sing

Trio (Central Park, 2010)

"A lady            from Texas               said:            I live in Texas            .
                                    We have no music    in Texas.              The reason they've no
music in Texas                                               is because            they have recordings
in Texas.                        Remove the records from Texas
                                    and someone               will learn to sing
                                    Everybody                        has a song
                                    which is                               no                                song at all  :
                                    it is a process             of singing                                     ,
                         and when you sing                            ,
                                    you are                                 where you are                               .
                                                                  John Cage
                                                            from  Silence, "Lecture on Nothing," p. 126.

Listening For Silenced Voices
During the opening weeks of the semester I met with Kathy, a single mother, who had recently started college after securing her G.E.D.  She told me, “I want to make something outta my life. Something for me and my kid.”  After class and over coffee Kathy told me that she had read her first book during the previous semester.  She told me this slowly, hesitantly as if she might be revealing too much, too quickly and I think perhaps she was.  She dropped her voice and said,  “It was a young adult book, but I really liked it. It was the first book I could read.”
She continued explaining that she “got mostly A’s” on her papers the previous semester in Developmental Writing I.  She also said that her teacher rarely commented about her writing.  That was when she asked me if I would read the same essays as she was considering then for her portfolio. I said yes and she then confided in a lower voice that she didn’t believe the grades her work received were warranted.
“I think she just gave me the grades because she liked me.”
I read and reread the essays Kathy gave me. The texts were brief, averaging slightly longer than a paragraph of two to three sentences.  They were rather lifeless texts, insomuch as the spirit that Kathy showed during our conversations outside of class was difficult for me to discern within the texts. As she had indicated to me, the compositions were each topped with a red A and the sparse cryptic markings of correction, such as c/s and awk.  The one essay that stood out had no teacher remarks or a grade.  It was the one essay that Kathy would later tell me she did not hand in.  In this essay she wrote about being a single mother receiving welfare, a topic she knew first-hand.  It was her most sustained effort of seven sentences and the one she kept silent.  In sharing this writing with me, I thought of her courage to tell her heart especially after she explained that she didn’t hand the essay in “cause it didn’t belong at school.”

Years later, I still wonder what belongs at school. Whose stories matter? It was 1994 when I wrote that opening to a ten-chapter inquiry about women and courage.  I was beginning course work toward a doctorate and teaching at a community college in NJ. I didn't know then that Kathy's understanding of what belonged and did not belong at school would be so prophetic. I would learn though that Kathy was right: Matters of the heart have no place in a standards-based world.

I've been thinking about the terrible constraint the Common Core Standards impose on learners.  I've read through the document a few times and I can't find the section that acknowledges that matters of the heart are central to learning.  Instead I find statements situated as writing objectives that say sixth graders need to "demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting." Why three pages? Why in a single sitting? Is this behavior anticipated in preparation for the computer testing that is being developed for sixth graders by groups like PARCC?

Bass (Central Park, 2010)
Lost in all the racing about is what makes for great learning: caring relationships, courage, perseverance, diversity, autonomy, and love. As these cannot easily be tested we no longer find them in what is privileged curriculum via national standards. The more we privilege standards and measurements that narrowly test those standards, the more I think John Cage was right.  He was wise to discern the difference between a recording and music.  Instead of the real deal, the people in Texas have only the fake.  And I think that what is true about the relationship between records and music is also true between standards and learning.

The Common Core Standards wall out important learning by narrowly attending to lists of ten and by paying xenophobic attention to mostly "foundational" texts.  Additionally, now that national tests are being made based on these extremely narrow standards, the most students can hope for are records, not music.

It makes me wonder: if we were to remove the standards, might students not learn to learn?

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Brief Introduction to Rhizomatics Via Sheri Leafgren’s Reuben’s Fall

prepared by Jane M. Gangi, Ph. D.

Last semester Driscoll (2005), in Psychology of Learning and Instruction, discussed rhizomes in connection with constructivism:

The rhizome is a tangle of tubers with no apparent beginning or end. It constantly changes shape, and every point in it appears to be connected with every other point. Break the rhizome anywhere and the only effect is that new connections will be grown. The rhizome models the unlimited potential for knowledge construction, because it has no fixed points…and no particular organization. (p. 389)

Driscoll thinks of “spaghetti”; Eco thinks of “marbles”; I think of daffodils.

Sheri Leafgren (2009) thinks of Reuben’s fall:

Reuben fell. My professional life defined itself eighteen years ago when Reuben fell on the hard school-linoleum floor outside my classroom door. I was a young(er) person and a more na├»ve teacher at the time, blithely enjoying my lively class of kindergartners, covertly noticing some of the more interesting children in the kindergarten class down the hall, and on that morning, fully engaged in minding the interactions of the children in my own classroom when I heard the hard smack and muffled grunt signaling Reuben’s fall. When I went to the door to see had happened to disturb the commonplace silent, gender-based, double-lined trek connecting Mrs. Buttercup’s kindergarten class to the restrooms at the end of the hall, I witnessed a significant event.
            In the aftermath of Reuben’s fall, Julian—one of those spirited, full-of-verve, curious, “bad” children whom I had coveted for my own classroom—had left his place in the back of the line to reach Reuben where he had fallen near the front of the boys’ line and, as I  arrived at the door, was helping him off the floor, asking, ‘Reuben, are you okay?’
            As the other children steadfastly maintained their places in their straight, silent, boy and girl lines, Mrs. Buttercup shook her head, held up two fingers, and said to Julian: “That’s two, Julian. You are out of line and you are talking. You’re on the wall at recess.” (p. 15)

As a result of Reuben’s fall and Julian being made to stand on the wall, Leafgren conducted research on disobedience and wrote a dissertation. Her dissertation resulted in the book, Reuben’s Fall.

James Baldwin
“The greatest achievement of art is the ‘laying bare of questions which have been hidden by answers’” (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 110). So, asserts Leafgren, is great research.

Theoretical Framework
The theoretical framework for Leafgren’s dissertation (and book) comes largely from Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari (1987): “In developing a comparison between a rhizome and a tree as a metaphor of the contrast between two forms of logic, they name the tree’s linear structure—from roots through the trunk, to the branches—as a metaphor of the fixed, determining and linear logic that explains things in terms of cause-and-effect relationships…” (p. 36). In contrast with this vertical structure is the rhizomes lateral structure.

Leafgren’s 5 lines of inquiry on classroom disobedience:
1.     Disobedience (and childhood itself) as a form of deficiency (developmental, moral/religious, social, and behavioral) and/or as problems to be solved.
2.     The need for a particular order and control in schools and the means of achieving child compliance—and, as a result, “a positive, productive classroom atmosphere conducive to student learning…
3.     The teacher’s perspective and role in children’s moral and social behaviors, and the complexity of child compliance. Often discussed from a constructivist perspective in comparison to the more behaviorist approaches in the two prior categories, the goal here, however, is the same—to assert the authority of the teacher, but as a moral authority instead of a coercive one.
4.     The political, philosophical, and spiritual constraints of school morality. Within this category are researchers who study the state of school itself and authors who, with a more philosophical bent, write about the ideals of school(ing) in contrast to what they perceive as the state of school.
5.     The value of dissent and noncompliance toward an authentic democratic good life, reflecting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s caution: “your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none” … (p. 19)
Leafgren’s rationale for using rhizoanalysis as methodology:

…identities grow and shift rhizomatically. And so, ways of researching with children also need to be rhizomatic—overlapping, multi-focal and shifting with time. Rhizoanalysis challenges the idea that one moment in a child’s life may be “caused” by his/her stage of child development, his/her gender, his/her teacher or by what another child said or did. Scientific findings of research using the representational “tree logic” of cause and effect are difficult to implement in education because humans in schools are embedded in complex and changing networks of being and social interaction. As each participant in every interaction has variable power to affect one another from day to day, and in the ordinary events of life, the generalizability of these educational research findings is greatly limited (Berliner 2002, McNaughton 2003). The non-representational lateral logic of rhizoanalysis serves to create tensions related to “changeability, diversity, ‘noisiness’ (complexity)” and so highlights the complex and shifting links between…gender, cognition, class, race, culture, obedience, and compliance as the links shoot in unpredictable ways into a particular moment in a child’s life…. (p. 22)

Leafgren’s Research Questions:

1.     In what ways do the kindergarten children disobey in the context of the kindergarten classroom?
2.     In what ways are the kindergartners’ moments of disobedience representations and enactments of something more than merely disobedience?
3.     In what ways are the kindergartners’ moments of disobedience opportunities for responding to others in caring, ethical ways and for acting out the possibilities that a spiritual childhood provides, such as reverence, awe, wonder, reflection, vision, commitment and purpose; and the sensitivities in awareness sensing, mystery sensing, and value sensing…? (p. 83)

Connections between rhizoanalysis and “Dissent and the Democratic Good Life” (Leagren, 2009, p. 77)

Butchart (1995)

Since the fifties, disciplinary literature has fallen silent on the long-term social objectives of school discipline, stressing the immediate control of students. The emphasis has shifted from ends to means and strategies. Rather than developing philosophies of discipline linked to visions of a preferred social order, writers have developed systems and models whose only criterion for success is their short-term goal of classroom order.

Dewey (1985):

[Democracy is]

Simultaneously a way of life, an ethical ideal, and personal commitment. Specifically, it is a way of life in which individuals are presumed to be self-directing and able to pursue their own goals and projects. No society that maintains order through constant supervision and/or coercion can be rightly called democratic. Further, individual benefit and the common good are mutually enhancing in a democracy. (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 119).

More from Deleuze and Guattari:

Rhizomatic thought is multiplicitous, moving in many directions and connected to many other lines of thinking, acting, and being. Rhizomatic thinking deterrorializes arbolic striated spaces and ways of being. Rhizomes are networks…build[ing] links between pre-existing gaps between nodes that are separated by categories and order of segmented thinking. (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 90).

Rhizomes are about mapping new or unknown lines and entry points, not tracing which records old lines or patterns. (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 23)

In conclusion, Leafgren (2009):

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I worry about small things being lost. Children are not just small things themselves—they are great appreciators of small things: a silly joke, a fly crawling on the window, a ray of sunlight, a tickle fight, a secret” (p. 248).

“The memory of Reuben’s fall forever serves as a symbol of my resistance to order for the sake of order, valuing control over concern and sacrificing kindness to a keeping of the rules” (p. 253).

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning and instruction (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Leafgren, S. L. (2009). Reuben’s fall: A rhizomatic analysis of disobedience in kindergarten. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

For Further Reading
Deleuze, G.
Guattari, .

More Thoughts
George Betts (creator of the Autonomous Learner Model) at the University of Northern Colorado was invited to study high school drop-outs. By hanging out on street corners, he gradually coaxed them back to school. Once there, he gave them IQ tests, which showed them to be off-the-charts (NOTE: I am not a huge IQ fan [see S. J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd ed., for the whole sorry history of IQ testing]; they are easy to undertest and hard to overtest, so that is where Betts’s information is helpful).  Betts called them “disenchanted” and tried, in the Autonomous Learner Model, to formulate ways that would make school more engaging to bright, although often disobedient, students.