Sunday, October 17, 2010

Teaching with Our Own Wisdom?

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This oft-quoted poem has been used for many hopeful celebrations of life: graduations, college acceptance, internships, fellowships, study abroad, weddings, births; the list seems interminable. One thing many people do not know about Robert Frost is that he too was a disillusioned modernist. His adherence to form did nothing to alter his message. Another possible interpretation, one I think does the text more justice, is about the inverse relationship of power and intelligence in received wisdom. The “sigh” that Frost makes later in life is not necessarily the sigh of satisfaction. Rather, it is the sigh of momentary indecision, the what-do-these-youngsters-expect moment that characterizes later life. There is not necessarily any wisdom in experience. Living a long time means nothing unless it is examined. Frost echoes this sentiment in another of his poems, “Mending Wall”:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself…
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Between Waiting for Superman and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act [ESEA or N(o) C(hild) L(eft) B(ehind) for short], there has been a lot of talk of school reform, but little of it contains any wisdom. Aiding the sweeps of received wisdom about education are the counterarguments claiming that public schools are performing admirably; but what is our metric for admirable performance? I personally get easily confused when I listen to closely to this maelstrom, so let’s take a moment and rise above.

First, let us look at the current iteration of ESEA. Essentially, there are four pillars behind the Bush-administration-generated education agenda:
1. Raise Academic Achievement
2. Focus on What Works
3. Reduce Bureaucracy and Increase Flexibility
4. Increase Options for Students and Parents
The first pillar includes considerations of raised expectations for all students, closure of the various achievement gaps, and measurements and reports of achievement. The second pillar deals with topics like research-based educational strategies, funding proven strategies, and communicating findings of what works to teachers. The third pillar provides flexibility for teachers to do their jobs while moving away from a culture of compliance to a culture of accountability (whatever that means; a recent CCC journal article speaks in convincing and eloquent ways about the need to eliminate this word from our educational lexicon in favor of the word responsibility). The final pillar seeks to dismantle the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to education through more choice and more parent communication. There is nothing specifically wrong with these goals, but there is a lot here that, eight years from implementation, seems laughable or frustrating to people in our position. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I presented information on a radically different, yet highly effective new approach to teaching that did not meet with some resistance, rather than the funding and support called for in NCLB.

We all have our frustrations with NCLB, but a lot of that frustration is misdirected. Much of what we see as difficulty created by the Act is really ineffective implementation. The states are still the primary sources of control in education and the localities are still the implementation arm of the states. It is the locality level that really needs direction. For example, at a recent meeting in my county, people were upset with the upcoming budget and the lack of funding we have. To make a long story short, people are afraid, as many are, that their jobs will be lost. The only solution is to advocate for funding. But, people think our schools are great. Just last week, I quoted an article that offers the same piece of received wisdom. Education is in trouble, we all say doing our best Chicken Little, but my school is fine. The reality is that our schools, while functional, are not necessarily great. At the high school level alone, only two of our five schools made their progress goals. The other three did not meet the standards they set the year before. Sounds like we could use funding to develop more effective ways to teach.

Now, we can agree that there are multitudinous reasons for schools not to meet there progress goals. I’ll even concede that the eventual 100 percent goal is, statistically speaking, impossible. The reality is that these are the conditions under which we toil. The problem is about the structure adopted by localities. We cannot look up to the national government, hands out like the mouths of baby birds, without first looking at ourselves. Are our policies at the local level truly effective for teaching and learning? Are our budgets balanced for the benefit of people or facilities? I don't care how many SMART boards you have, poor teaching is interactive, too. So it comes down to examining our practices and policies in localities.

In Virginia, the state test, or Standards of Learning—SOL for short (make your jokes…welcome back)—tests, are given at reasonable points in the school year. The problem is that my locality does not use a school year; they use a hybrid system. Some of the classes in my building are on a semester schedule—everyday until the end of January, four classes a day, eighty-seven minutes each—while others are on an alternating day schedule. This can be confusing. Some buildings use this hybrid schedule; other buildings have either one or the other. The SOL test in writing is given in the spring to year-long classes; for semester classes, it is given this week. Just over a month into the school year and we are giving the writing test. Not to mention, the testing happens on the National Day on Writing, a day designed to promote writing, not reduce it to a chore (irony, don't fail me now). Talk about setting people up for failure? At the local level, there was a considerable lack of wisdom used in this decision. Additionally, students from year to year may have English in the fall, then not again until the following spring. That is an entire calendar year between English classes. As teachers of English, we know the value of consistent application of skills and feedback of progress.

This poor planning is not the fault of high-stakes testing or NCLB or even George W. Bush. Short-sightedness is not partisan. The wisdom we have received tells us to vote with the union, point fingers at the federal government, and demand better for our children. I agree one out of three times. We should demand the best for our children; however, we forget that education is a matter of local importance: local funding, local boards, and local children. When we remember this simple fact, our view of the “problem” of American education can become, paradoxically, more complete. When a student’s essay is confused and jumbled, the source of the problem is usually too large a focus, not too small.

Like Frost’s speaker, we have occasion to use our everyday skills to speak for ourselves, show others the potential of our schools, and build systems that defy the expectations of cynical politicians and jaded directors. I can’t tell people what’s wrong with schooling, but I can certainly show them and let them awaken to the understanding themselves. I would be satisfied with “elves” or even “boogeymen.” The bottom line is that if schools in America are failing, it is because people have forgotten their responsibility (not accountability) for our children in lieu of some other, less reliable, source of wisdom.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rhetori-WHAT?: Teaching Rhetorical Analysis to High School Juniors

Those of you who teach AP English Language are probably not impressed with the title of this blog. Rhetoric is the heart and soul of our curriculum. The juniors I speak of are not AP students. Rather, in this post, I will outline a method I developed for teaching my students in standard English about rhetoric and how to analyze its use in writing.

I spend about a week introducing the terms and having students identify how and where the terms can be used. You can really play with this portion of the unit depending upon how you teach new concepts and terms. I use a combination of graphic organizer and PowerPoint presentation. The real fun happens after I get through the basics, when i am ready to tackle the actual analysis.

First, I hand them one of the "Nacirema" lectures. In particular, I hand them the one on the "Body Rituals among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner. The real fun in using this piece is the reaction the students have. Usually, about half way through, portions of the class are fighting off sleep. Until, suddenly, one student begins to laugh and shake his or her head. The heads pop up like gazelle who have heard a lion nearby. Laughter? With this boring lecture. But then, another student starts laughing, as though the laughter from one was enough to help others that this piece is not to be taken seriously. Suddenly, everybody is trying to figure out what they missed. We finish that lecture and move on to the "Sacred Rac." Again, students frantically try and discover why their classmates are laughing (some so hard they've fallen on the floor--not really). Finally, we throw out the big reveal. "Nacirema" is American backwards. These crazy rituals? You did about half on your way here. Suddenly, they want to know how they were fooled.

Here's your moment. Reintroduce the rhetorical terms. Have a discussion about some examples of the terms in the text. Come up with a main idea. Model a think aloud wherein you link the examples to the main idea. Show the students that analysis has a function. They get into this discussion, throwing examples out right and left. Then, break their hearts.

When you say, let's write, they'll be upset for a minute, but they'll get over it. I write up the following criteria on the board:

"Your analysis will...
___ Discuss the use of 2-3 rhetorical terms

___ Define each term

___ Provide an example for each term from the text

___ Explain how the example is representative of the term"

This brief analysis hones the students' skills in selecting the correct term to describe an author's style and it pushes them to choose good examples and then justify them. Win-win all around.

But wait...they didn't explain how the example shows an author using style to support a main idea?

Slow down.

After students have written the analysis and turned it in, we move on to another challenge. Now, we read a piece of more traditional satire: Larry Doyle's "The Babyproofer." They love this one. The jokes are in your face and the ones who babysit/have younger siblings really identify with the message. Once we read it, students are asked to identify the author's main idea. They spend time doing this in groups, discussing their ideas and trying to find a common idea. Then we spend time refining this idea using evidence from the text. Then, I write the following criteria on the board:

"Your analysis will...
___ Explicitly state the author's main idea

___ Discuss the use of 2-3 rhetorical terms

___ Define each term

___ Provide an example for each term from the text

___ Explain how the example reinforces the main idea of the text"

By the time the students finish this analysis, they've done all of the steps from the first and then supported the main idea. The main idea portion of this analysis helps students pick out examples that specifically focus on support for the main idea, rather than just a grab bag of quotations that may or may not support the main idea.

After these two, I assign a piece of their choice. They then perform all of the steps on their own and explain how they went through the process. The students really seemed to enjoy the process this year and their scores on the Unit I Test were appreciably higher because of it.

Waiting for Reason: Documentary Films and Lack of Critical Discourse

There’s an old movie starring Humphrey Bogart called Dark Passage that features an iconic and, at the time, unheard of conceit. Bogart’s character, an escaped convict, spends the first portion of the film invisible to the audience. Why? We are watching the events of the film unfold in first-person; that is up until the moment when the bandages are taken off of our surgically-altered face and we are finally able to glimpse ourselves. It is in this moment of reawakening, of a fresh start, that the film, and Bogie, really open up and fly headlong through the rest of the narrative. This critical viewing of self is what film is all about. We see ourselves in characters locked in timeless struggles, rooting for the good guys and cheering the destruction of the bad guys. In our postmodern world, this view has slightly changed. We’ve moved out of the completely fictional and into the realm of the real, too. Documentaries share marquees with the latest action thriller; unfortunately, these documentaries are swallowed as truth, not discussed with a critical eye.

I could spend paragraphs, lines, words, letters galore talking about the lack of critical intelligence in America; however, I would just be another charlatan trying to get you to read or buy something. In the end, that seems to be what Waiting for Superman is all about. Truthfully, though, I wouldn’t know. Why do I feel the need to write about it? Frankly, between Oprah’s special episode, my daily interactions with parents, movie reviews, pundits talking, the odd guy on the street who has a vision for education, and the founder of Facebook donating $100 million dollars to Newark schools, I feel like I’ve seen the movie, had the discussion, and moved forty years down the road.

What this overhyped monster does reveal is a truth that is fairly timeless (if timeless counts as the early 1800s). Horace Mann, widely recognized as the father of the American public school, wrote in his 10th report all about why people should fund public education. These reasons are the same ones we emphasize now: youth are occupied, communities are safer, and the country becomes more affluent. The only difference is that in Mann’s day, nobody wanted a public school. They didn’t mind paying a tax; just don’t spend it on that wasted institution. Mann argued, enough people relented, and the American public school was born. Now, nearly 200 years later, everyone wants everything public schools can offer for every child because it is those children’s right to go to school. Even the UN says so. They formalized it as a human right.
While education may be a human right, it cannot be forced upon people or used to promote or shape a particular political view of a people. Yet, since the early part of the 20th century, we have tried to do both. Now, we are reaping what we’ve sown.

Students get it the worst. I can think of at least one ethnography (Ain’t No Makin’ It) that shows how social and cultural dissonance can bring groups down and keep them there (feel free to check the book out; the research and argumentation are so solid, it is hard to disagree with MacLeod’s assertion that schooling can hinder as much as it helps). The children in the film are not alone in their struggle. Whereas Guggenheim, the filmmaker, holds folks like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee up as heroes, I ask what kind of heroic policies shut down public schools and offer only charter school raffles as an alternative. The crying faces of those left unselected by the lottery make an excellent platform from which to proselytize the blasé American public; however, it does us all well to remember upon whom we are standing.

This preachy, self-serving rhetoric really leads me to administrators. These middle-management folks seem to have come a long way from the classroom. I know that, as of August of this year, the combined teaching experience of one administrative team in my county was a whopping 20 years (among 5 people). I’ve been teaching longer than 4 years, I must have more knowledge of my job than my administrators; however, we continue to labor under the false pretense of principal educators and not principal managers. I bet many of my administrators wish they had time to devote to studying the content which they oversee. They are not envious of ignorance. They simply do not have the time given all of the accounting they must do to keep the school “accountable.” They, instead, spend those summers that teachers supposedly have off going to workshops, hearing an idea, and deciding that, despite a lack of evidence, we must change tactics. I have only one question: Who provides the funding for that stuff? I mean, College Board I get; professional groups, like NCTE, I get; but these other random corporations who suddenly have the answers to educational problems? I am not so sure. So the questions about the affluence of American schools—or rather lack thereof—become less about the lack of resources than the careful consideration of how to use those resources. Why does X Corporation spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this educational theory instead of providing the funding to schools that need it to hire and retain teachers, bolster infrastructure, and buy some books?

And then come the teachers. Yay! We are on the front line. Yay! We love children. Yay! We want to bring our expertise to bear and help these young people become adults; however, we have some demands. We must be heard complaining, fighting, and naysaying as often as possible. We must be allowed to possess perpetually bleeding hearts, but we cannot afford them because our pay is too low. We must be treated as professionals, despite the fact that some of us act like we never graduated from the grades we teach. We, as teachers, cannot absolve ourselves from responsibility; and yet, Guggenheim’s film will have exactly that effect on some people. They’ll get their rear-ends up on their backs and parade around as though they are blameless, as though they speak for all teacher-kind. And for the most part, we’ll let them. Not because we agree, but because we are tired.

In all seriousness, color commentary aside, the whirlwind on the media has been about this coherent. So, I did some digging. And it all goes back to Dewey and Thorndike, an epic struggle for the hearts and minds of our children.

Thorndike, king of the quantitative, crushed John Dewey’s assertion that schools should be about experiential learning and the nurturing of learning experiences, or teachable moments. You think that is not true, just look at the plethora of standardized tests students are required to take anymore. This clash is also why we are constantly asking about preserving the teachable moment. Daft administrators will try and tell you that you can still do that; however, Thorndike would disagree. Thorndike believed that “whatever existed at all exists in some amount. To know it thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality” (Lagemann, 2000, p. 57). Thus, a new era in education was born. This era was one driven by quantifiable IQs, measurable standards of achievement, and paced instruction. The motto was learn it or lose it. On top of that, nothing measurable was worth doing. Training students to become better people? Show me a measurement. Training them to appreciate literature, art, and music? Pshaw. Show me a measurement. Teaching students that they could grow beyond their basic capabilities? Liar. Show me a measurement. Thorndike refused to accept that all things in education could not be measured quantitatively (Lagemann, 2000). If the lesson involved anything outside of the “simple variables” of the educational process, he could not be bothered; “observation within naturalistic settings” was a waste of time (Lagemann, 2000, p. 59). In the 1906 text, Principles of Teaching, Thorndike boldly declared that “it is the problem of the higher authorities of the schools to decide what the schools shall try to achieve and to arrange plans for school work which will attain the desired ends” (qtd. In Lagemann, 2000). In typical administrative form, he followed that line up with “the teacher is to make these changes as economically and as surely as is possible under the conditions of school life.” Ok, Eddie. How does one do that? Thorndike never had those answers. Thus, a myth was born: the teachers are the ones who mess it all up.

And so, it falls to the English teachers of the world to help set the record straight. Why us? We teach critical thinking more than any other discipline. Really. In science, math, and history, they are so busy learning the basics of their subjects, that students don’t have the time, or inclination, to read critical writing about those topics. They come to us to read Hersey’s commentary on the effects of the atomic bomb, to write about the history of the Civil Rights movement in America as portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, and to critically view documentaries on the application of math to complex social problems like public schools. If we don’t teach students to question the motives behind Guggenheim’s inclusion of the post-lottery meltdown, we haven’t taught our students. Furthermore, when they turn as an angry tide of parents and try to beat us down, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

And then we let it get away from us. Since the media frenzy following, and sustaining, Waiting for Superman, I have not seen a single public forum dedicated to bringing frustrated parents, bedraggled educators, consumed administrators, and broken politicians together to discuss the schools in their areas. Why? Let me provide you with an excerpt from one of the articles provided in September 28th’s NCTE Inbox newsletter.

Parent Renee Cooper, whose son is an 8th grader at Hudson Cliffs PSIS 187, said the film, "used real-life situations to provide a holistic look at the problems that plague our education system.
"With the resources we have as a country, there is no reason why every child should not receive an excellent education in a state-of –the-art educational environment.
"I liken the work of the director to the heroism of Harriet Tubman — it helps bring awareness of how we might escape the problems, and thereby, it contributes to the solution.”
As for her son’s school, "my view of the faculty is that, by and large they have the highest professional standards."

Within the same quotation, we go from righteous indignation, to uneducated analogy, to the familiar education-is-broken-but-my-school-is-fine response. So, while the article in question may start out saying that the audience was “seething” or “in tears” after viewing the film, our inability to think critically will create the same stagnant pool in which we currently sit. Meanwhile, a student fails the marking period and there is an unholy reckoning the likes of which has not been seen since Torquemada and the Inquisition.

While the Inquistion rages on at a theatre near you, what can we do to really open up a dialogue on this problem? Can teachers really get involved and make a difference, or is the frenzied mass simply too eager to dump this problem on the shoulders of a few bad teachers and wash their hands of it? Has Guggenheim’s film really accomplished its reformist goals or has it simply swollen an already festering sore in the social conscience of the nation?
I for one look forward to seeing the film, but I think I’ll reserve my judgment until then. Maybe I’ll even discuss it with my neighbors. Who knows?