Saturday, June 26, 2010

Knowing is Doing

As I wind down every school year, I usually reflect on how I do some things in my classroom. Here is something I wrote down reflecting on whether or not we can tell if teachers "know" their content.

I remember taking English classes with gimmicky worksheets designed to help me read this part of Shakespeare or that part of Homer, etc. I remember these worksheets quickly giving way to comprehension tests that never seemed that hard if you read the book. I then remember showing up in my first college English class and being blown away by what was expected of me. I never really learned how to do the study of English literature and language; I was woefully unprepared.

When I finally figured it out, I was hungry for it. I wanted to learn why Chaucer calls the doorway of Cressida’s house "quaint." I wanted to experience Shakespeare because he was the only superfamous writer I knew of who could incorporate romance, drama, tragedy, and fart jokes in a single play. I fell in love with writing. Once I understood, I became more and more interested.

Then I returned to high school. I didn't teach every lesson this way, but I found myself using some of those worksheets again. Students were uncomfortable with doing the study of English, but they sure loved doing the worksheets.

After 5 years of teaching, I can safely say that teachers who best know their subject are those who don't need the worksheets. Let me explain.

All academic study (science, history, English, mathematics, foreign language) becomes more and more ambiguous as you go higher. Most people are uncomfortable with ambiguity, so they try to avoid it. I can think of no better way to avoid ambiguity in the English classroom than by turning to worksheets. Those simple fill-in-the-blanks; those elegant comprehension maps. They take ambiguity and box it. They take that complex, central concept and they sterilize it. The best teachers I have known are those who take the ambiguity and place it at the center of their classroom activities without the sterilization endemic in too many worksheets. I say too many because the occasional thinking map is a good stepping stone, while constant thinking maps just become monotonous.

So, how does this ambiguity appear in the classroom? There are numerous discussion-based ways of making ambiguity the center of teaching. One of the best ways is to create essential questions for a unit. When teaching a novel, I usually come up with a central question to guide our reading. For example, when we read The Crucible this year in my English 11 class, we asked ourselves “When and why rebellion is necessary?” Our investigation of this question led to many great discussions of many core American values (including the War for Independence). Navigating these complexities is easier when you begin with a question in mind.

There are also seminar-style lessons that can be used. My personal favorite is Socratic Seminars. These seminars can be used to teach deep discussion methods or even good questioning techniques. When my AP seniors read Paradise Lost, we held a Socratic Seminar on whether or not Milton thinks Satan is a sympathetic character. There were great questions and great points made throughout our 60 minutes of seminar. The questions are central again, but this time students practice coming up with some solid answers. Watching the students have this discussion without teacher input (one of the caveats of the seminar format) has really shown me how well I have communicated some of the key concepts in a literary work.

There are also ways to have students wrestle with ambiguity all on their own. The I-search paper and project is a really fun way for students to wrestle with ambiguities that they want to explore. The presentation portion of the project is especially important. When they are in front of the class answering questions about sensitive topics, they really struggle with the content they’ve undertaken to study as they try and formulate answers. Watching students develop these projects and then defend them shows me that they are comfortable with ambiguity.

As I enter the summer, I develop a list of content-growth opportunities. These are things like a new novel to read, a seminar on some aspect of my teaching, exhibits in museums I'd like to attend--even opportunities to teach different classes. First up on my list this year is reading Jennifer Government by Max Berry. My mentee this year recommended this novel and thus far it is not disappointing. Following that, I have the AP Annual Conference in nearby Washington, D.C. I hope that the experience there will be as rewarding as my other AP experiences have been. The bottom line is that knowing comes from continually doing the things we profess to teach.

What are you doing this summer? How do you keep current with your content? What will you be doing to reinforce your knowing? New ideas are the most refreshing thing about summer, so let's hear yours.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Happiness and Education, or Why Nel Noddings is the best author for the end of the school year

I was sitting in my room the other day...just sitting. I was looking out over the desks, counting the small shreds of Otis Spunkmyer muffin laying on my carpet (a daily ritual thanks to the "muffin cart"), and generally wondering what I would do to finish the school year. I mean, a lot of stuff has happened this year. I got involved with the county policy making side of teaching, taught both AP English classes and crossed my fingers on each testing day, and watched my students grow from teens to college-ready adults. I watched the smaller dramas unfold, too: the happiness of winning awards, the heartbreak of losing a boyfriend or girlfriend, the sad silent struggles of a dysfunctional family. I asked myself a question, one I still have resonating inside my burnt-out and tired skull: Will my students remember this year fondly; have they found a little joy in the exercises of this year?

I know that this question doesn't seem all that big, but let's pause and look a little deeper. I had to go to one of my favorite educational philosophy books of all time to do my digging, Nel Noddings's Happiness and Education. I reread the first chapter about the philosophical history of the term happiness. I found this interesting note about some of the earliest speculations of what happiness might be: "The Greeks located happiness in the full exercise of rationality. Reason, they argued, is the essential characteristic of man, and the development and use of reason constitute his genuine happiness" (Noddings, 2003, p. 10). I know that this is simplistic and even a little flawed, but it is interesting that ever since the early days of modern philosophy people have considered thinking to be a key component of happiness.

There are many more fascinating, and more thought-provoking, reasons to read Noddings's book, but this one started me down the path to my culminating assignment. The purpose for which Noddings brings up happiness is the discussion of aims, or ends, in education. Another great writer, Neil Postman, wrote a book in the mid-nineties all about this aims-talk. The End of Education is a brilliantly, ambiguously-titled labor of love that pushes us all to consider our narratives, or "gods," for why we attend school. You may have heard one of these before: the God of Economic Necessity, or the work-hard-study-hard-earn-good-grades-and-get-a-good-paying-job-one-day reason for going to school. Postman deconstructs this narrative or "god" and a few others before turning to some narratives which he believes benefit all people. These narratives usually deal with community ("The Spaceship Earth"), the uncertainty of what we know about certain disciplines ("The Fallen Angel"), the tenuous agreement we call American culture ("The American Experiement"), and even the ways our words define our world ('The Word Weavers/The World Makers"). So, after reading both Postman and Noddings, I decided to ask my students what their narratives will be, not for schooling, but for their future pursuits.

We used literature as a backdrop as always; there is plenty of literature that talks about the uncertainties we face and the potentially devastating results of a lack of conviction in individual thinking. Coincidentally, our last two novels in my AP Literature class were 1984 and Brave New World. What better way to discuss the potential result of a loss of belief in our own convictions than the juxtaposition of two undermined societies? In comparing and contrasting the cultures of fear and pleasure that 1984 and Brave New World present, students can ask questions about how societies end up this way or that way. How did Big Brother come to dominate Oceania? Why do the people in Brave New World need to take soma to repress their sad thoughts if their society is so perfect? Why is it that both societies must destroy those who would stand apart as individuals? What would I be in that society?

The assignment is deceptively simple: Write a narrative that describes why you wish to pursue what you are going to pursue in college and beyond.

I say deceptively simple because the students had no clue. They had never been asked to think about it before, they said. It is almost graduation, they whined. But I persisted. We studied Noddings's first chapter before discussing the hedonistic controls placed on the citizens of Huxley's London. You want to really watch someone struggle for words, ask high school seniors to define happiness and how school has made them happy in June of their senior year. But, then it happened.

During that conversation, they suddenly seemed to realize what school was all about...or at least what it was all about to them. They began to critique themselves as students, to criticize the teachers they felt didn't challenge them, and to praise those courses that did challenge them and the teachers who taught them. They began to ask why they wanted to save the whales, oceans, babies, baby whales, and so much more. They began to ask each other about their dreams, about what and who they wanted to become. And they began to be satisfied by their dissatisfaction at the simplicity of some of their answers.

It has been a joke around my school the past two years that you should never ask me a question unless you want a question in return. Usually that question is something like "is it?" or "are you sure?" or some such. Suddenly, the students began to see how some questions ask for more questions, how they need to seek depth and clarity in academic discussion. I even saw one girl stand up to her parents, declaring that she did not want to go to business school but to music school to become a music teacher. They asked her why, didn't she want to make money. She said, in a reply that made me cheer aloud somewhere inside me, that she didn't need or want money if she had to live the rest of her life without happiness.

These are the moments I teach for. She had struggled for a number of years with this decision, and she finally developed the courage to stand by it. If schools and the education they provide cannot galvanize us into better forms of ourselves, why do they exist?

I told a colleague about Noddings's book. She laughed at the title as though it were some sort of inside joke about the lack of happiness in our world. I've thought about why schools end up as places of negativity, regret, and discontent all year long. That colleague was the person who directed me to the following: Our students cannot find joy in a process that provides no joy to those who direct it. If we continue to sit on the sidelines and allow the happiness in education to be obscured by data-driven bottom lines and ethnicity-driven census forms, then we should all quit and move on. That was the gift of picking up Nel Noddings's thoughts in June. She gave me back the fire I started the year with, and that fire got passed onto my students. They are still tentative about the world after June 19th, the day they graduate, but at least they are ready to face the world with an idea of what they believe and why that makes them happy.

As always, I look forward to hearing what you have to say about this post. As we all begin to settle into our umbrella-drink-induced hibernation modes, think about the joy you bring. Where is the joy in your day? What do you do to keep your self burning bright through the end? I know I didn't always have a clue about what to do; I can honestly say I like ending the year full of fire more than feeling burned out by it.

See you next week.