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?


  1. I love this idea of learning to learn.

    But I'm torn between two ideals. My school district has been doing a Reading/Writing workshop model of literacy up through 12th grade. The general concept is that they will choose their own reading and writing projects that will challenge them. This should be ideal for learning to learn. And you would think that by 12th grade their desire to learn more would be strong.

    But what happens instead is that they are not exposed to anything of substance and end up learning very little. It's a frustrating quandary.

  2. Guiding is always a challenge. I like the idea of studio as opposed to workshop. In studio, a range of models are provided and critiques are offered not to replicate, but to inspire and at times to norm against.

    I think your experiences w/ workshop are important.


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