Tag Archives: Philosophy

Deep in the Heart of Whiteness

In 1993, I took my Bachelors Degree, my Masters Degree, and my teaching coursework, stepped on to an airplane and left for Honolulu, Hawai’i to begin a one year teaching internship.  I was confident that I knew the subject I was going to teach, English, and I was confident that my teaching coursework had taught me what I needed to adapt that content into a curriculum suited for learners anywhere.  I was also possessed of a young, white, suburban liberal’s confidence that I valued diversity and in the ability of that disposition to make up for the lack of either theoretical or practical knowledge that I had about the community I was moving to.

As it turned out, I did know a great deal about English.

My other assumptions were woefully inadequate, and I soon realized that if I was going to be anything more than a tourist who also collected a paycheck, I had an enormous amount to learn about the political, economic, racial, and linguistic history of my new home. Hawai’i’s history since contact with Europe and America includes colonization, disease, displacement of native peoples, a plantation labor economy, and concentration of land and wealth into American-born hands. Eventually,  a cabal of American-backed businessmen, not content with what they had already accumulated at the expense of Native Hawaiians and imported plantation labor, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 with assistance from the U.S. military and worked towards annexation by the United States, succeeding in 1898.  In 1896, the government set up by the coup leaders officially banned the use of Hawaiian language in all schools, both public and private, a law which would remain on the books until the 1980s and which nearly succeeded in wiping out the Hawaiian language outside of tourist kitsch.  I knew none of this when I stepped foot on O’ahu.

Teaching English is always a political act, but the starkness of that become far more clear as I accumulated experience in Honolulu and got to know my students better.  A few years later, I was handed a textbook that was supposed to be on the subject of “American Literature” for a class of eleventh graders.  The text was nearly 600 pages long, and it contained perhaps 30 pages written by African Americans, no more than that by Americans of Hispanic heritage, literally nothing by Asian Americans, and a 3 page speech attributed to Chief Seattle for which there is no definitive text and a lot of mythology that served other people’s interests.  Thumbing through the book and thinking about my students – who largely traced their ancestry to continental Asia, the Philippines, Hawai’i, and other Pacific nations – was enormously depressing.  Here was a text of “American” literature that would have been inadequate in countless American communities and which effectively erased the majority of my students from the nation’s literary tradition.  Luckily, the Bishop Museum Press had just published Mary Kawena Pukui’s bilingual collection of Hawaiian folktales, and breaking my department’s copying budget, I set about using it as the basis for a semester long project on family folk stories incorporating oral, written, and visual presentations.

This doesn’t mean that I did not fail frequently, especially in my first year teaching.  I did.  I recall with shame showing visible impatience with a student in my first year who tried to explain that his family was Buddhist, and he simply did not know a lot of the religious references in the Hawthorne story we had read.  I had difficulty sustaining students’ conversations about our reading until I recognized that the classroom speaking pattern I was used to at home and in school was culturally specific and until I tried to embrace the richness of students’ language in all of the forms that entered my classroom as classroom talk.   It took me too many years to really question the ethnocentrism of the English curriculum, far too often taking the easier path of sticking with the literature that spoke to me.

As I grew to appreciate the complexities of this community, I grew to love it as well.  Hawai’i had far more to teach me that I had to teach it, and while it was not always comfortable, it was surely valuable.  And that growing value was why, in my second year teaching, I was absolutely flummoxed by an admission a fellow “mainland transplant” made to me.  It was at a party at a friend’s home.  This friend was also white but had lived in Hawai’i all of her life, and one of her guests was a young woman who had moved to O’ahu with her husband for his job a few years earlier from the east coast.  We spoke briefly before she, perhaps assessing me as similarly-situated and sympathetic, made an admission:

“You know, living here really makes me understand what black people must have felt like in Alabama in the 1950s.”

I don’t recall my exact reaction, but I must not have registered anything obvious as she continued for some minutes about how much she disliked Hawai’i in general and Honolulu in particular.  I do not recall getting into an argument with her, and I do not recall any further discussions.  I do remember being bothered by her hostility and absolutely floored by her comparison to herself, as a white person in Honolulu, to a black person in the Jim Crow era.  Numerous explanations seemed possible:

  • Perhaps she had a staggeringly shallow understanding of the history of White Supremacy, the kind of terrorism inflicted upon people of color in the Jim Crow South, and just how much of that persisted past the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Perhaps she was plainly unused to being in the racial minority.  Hawai’i, as is often overlooked by the national press, was a “majority minority” state the moment it was admitted into the Union.  To be suddenly thrust in a position where her status no longer appeared guaranteed may have been supremely uncomfortable.
  • Perhaps she had experienced genuine racial animosity and had considered it the equivalent of systemic racism.  Hawai’i’s history has born complex and often painful racial relationships, and I knew more than one white person who bristled at being called “haole” especially in the sense that the words denotes a judgement of one’s character.

Of course, it is entirely possible she simply didn’t like Hawai’i.  I have lived in places I found less than wonderful in my life.  But her comparison of herself to a person of color in the Jim Crow South screamed at a deeper level of resentment, uneasiness, and angst in need of explanation.  Even today, over two decades later, I have trouble understanding it.  At the time I seriously could not grasp it all because except for reasonably average homesickness and an inability in my first year of detecting the change of the seasons, I really could not understand what she was trying to explain and did not feel that sense of racial discomfort and anxiety she expressed.

This doesn’t denote anything particularly special about my enlightenment regarding race in my mid-twenties.  I suffered not a single professional consequence as a white male with an Ivy League degree while teaching.  It is possible that some of my chosen social activities, like the Sierra Club, were over-populated with people like myself, so I effectively “shielded” myself from situations where racial tension was more evident.  I grew up in a majority Jewish town, but spent college in an environment with a very small Jewish population, so I had already experienced moving to a place with a different culture.  Perhaps the nature of my job meant more contact with young people who had grown up in Hawai’i, giving me the opportunity to know and appreciate them.

Whatever the reason, I genuinely cannot recall a single incident in Hawai’i where I personally felt my identity as a white person disadvantaged me.  It is entirely possible, although I’d be hard pressed to recall, that an individual here or there was personally hostile, but nothing left any lasting impression and certainly nothing was consequential.  Ultimately, I can only understand the young woman’s response as a viscerally negative response to being suddenly thrust into a visible minority status, where the majority of people looked very different than herself and possessed cultural histories and practices with which she was unfamiliar.  Being taken from a position of comfort and presumed normalcy to a space where your standard assumptions might no longer work is not an experience many people in America’s racial majority are prepared for by any of their upbringing.  I assume (and it is an assumption) that the woman who clearly thought I would understand her assessment of her situation was struggling with that to such a degree that she was erupting with her own resentment.

I’ve been thinking about this encounter off and on since the election in 2008 and almost nonstop since 2016.

The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency sent a shock wave through many white Americans that manifested in opposition to him far beyond what can be explained by mere partisan politics.  As late as Fall 2015, 29% of Americans still believed that the first black President was secretly a Muslim, furthering an ongoing campaign to “other” Mr. Obama and to refuse to accept his legitimacy as President of the United States.  This has been an outgrowth of a general sense of shock among much of the nation’s white population that their assumed normalcy and social/political status was under threat due to Mr. Obama’s Presidency and demographic projections of a dwindling white population in coming decades.  Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Samuel Sommers of Tufts University noted this in a 2011 study where whites expressed that racism is a “zero sum game” and that they see themselves “losing” in America today.  In that study, both black and white Americans believed that racial animosity towards blacks had fallen from the 1950s to the 2000s, but whites startlingly saw racial animosity against themselves as having simultaneously risen to the point where there was more discrimination against them than against blacks.  The authors concluded that their white respondents were seeing that progress for black Americans had occurred and that it had done so at their expense.

This phenomenon exploded into support among Republican primary voters for Donald Trump who initiated his campaign on racism, nativism, and isolationist populism.  Pew Research found that warmth towards Donald Trump in the primary campaign was closely associated with seeing immigration and a shrinking white demographic as negatives.  A minority of Republican voters (39%) believed that the fact that America will become “majority minority” was negative, but an overwhelming 63% of these constituents had a favorable view of Donald Trump.  Economic anxiety may have gotten a lot of media attention in the last election cycle, but when a lot of white people went into the voting booth, racial animosity and fear of living in a diverse future motivated their votes.

The only way to explain this fear and animosity is with the inability to see a future for themselves in an increasingly diverse national community which is inexorably coming.  In 1980 (the first year the census recorded a “Spanish Origin” population), whites numbered roughly 189 million in a national population of over 226.5 million,  roughly 83% of the population counted in the Census.  In 2014, non-Hispanic White Americans were 62.2% of the population, projected to be only 43.6% of the population in 2060.

In other words:  in coming decades, more and more white Americans will find themselves more and more a demonstrably minority population, and much like the young woman I met in Hawai’i in the mid-1990s, they are uncomfortable with that and often down right fearful.  Much like their predecessors in the 1800s and early 1900s who saw waves of Irish Catholic immigration, Southern European immigration, Eastern European and Jewish immigration, and Asian immigration as inherent threats to a cultural and political order dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestants, white Americans fearful for their place in the social, cultural, and political order are lashing out.  The march by avowed White Supremacists in Charlottesville this summer that sparked a national furor was merely the most ugly manifestation of this — and not even the most problematic.  It takes little courage to denounce people marching in Nazi regalia.  It takes a bit more to ask friends and neighbors to think about what really motivated their vote last year.

And yet not asking that is not a viable option.  A shocking percentage of white Americans believe that they are discriminated against racially and that their dwindling demographic majority is an actual threat rather than a natural outcome of a changing society.  This is a process that will continue for decades, and white Americans need a very different framing of the ongoing changes if they are going to adapt to it without the upheaval we have seen recently, and the echoes it has of past, violent, responses to immigration and civil rights movements.

Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of history at Princeton University and author of A History of Whiteness, suggests just how difficult this might be.  As a construct, “whiteness” has a long and complex history beyond simply noting a cluster of a few, vaguely-shared physical attributes, and Dr. Irvin Painter documents how the concept has changed over time:

In the mid-to late-19th century, the existence of several white races was widely assumed: notably, the superior Saxons and the inferior Celts.  Each race – and they were called races – had its characteristic racial temperament.  “Temperament” has been and still is a crucial facet of racial classification since its 18th-century Linnaean origins.  Color has always been only one part of it (as the case of Ms. Dolezal shows).

In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful.  Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.

Dr. Irvin Painter also documents that by the 1940s, anthropologists, dominated by white men as academia was, determined that white, Asian, and black were the only “true” races and that each existed as unitary without any racial subgroups.  This new classification system had the side effect of removing white people from any burden of racial identity in America:

The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting.  A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting.  In the 1970s, long after they had been accepted as “white,” Italians, Greeks, Jews and others proclaimed themselves “ethnic” Americans in order to forge a positive identity, at a time of “black is beautiful.” But this ethnic self-discovery did not alter the fact that whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.

This leaves white Americans in modern America with a disturbing binary in their identity.  Toggling between “bland nothingness” on the one hand and “racist hatred” on the other, white Americans have little that is compelling to hold on to, but this has at least one positive effect.  Like the young woman who asked me to affirm the injustice of her situation, “nothingness” meant that she was entirely “normal,” that her sense of how the world worked and how culture functioned was unproblematic, and she could navigate life without her identity causing any special discomfort. This is perhaps the “heart of whiteness,” the ability to live and interact with others wrapped in the privilege of assumed normalcy.  Finding herself in Hawai’i flipped that construct in a way she could not process without lashing out, and the rest of the white community in America is entering a future where the assumption of normalcy is methodically being deconstructed by the sheer weight of demographics.

The past decade says that deconstruction will be turbulent under current understandings of whiteness and identity, risking severe backlash from wide segments of the white population.  Dr. Irvin Painter argues that breaking down the binary toggle of whiteness is essential and that the abolition of white privilege and social justice could be incorporated as a component of identity.   It is a worthwhile vision.  The alternative is decades of fear, resentment, and efforts to retrench white privilege across our political and cultural system.

 

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Filed under Activism, Drumpf, politics, racism, Social Justice

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now.  President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades.  According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public.  Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.

Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here.  Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize  the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites.  It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts.  Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four).  So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it.  The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.

It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”.  According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”.  These terms are defined in the report as follows:

Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that?  Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:

K rubric

So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.

Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.”  I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students.  It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient.  In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”?  How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?

Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:

However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.

I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics.  In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:

A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)

Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this.  His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play.  In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development.  But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.

For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations.  The consequences have been negative.  While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.

Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, politics, teaching, Testing

On My Twelfth Year of Common Core, David Coleman Gave to Me…

…a tightly written College English 1 essay.

And not a whole heck of a lot of anything else.

Three months ago, I wrote about the very narrow theoretical perspectives that appear to inform the Common Core Reading Literature standards from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and I followed it in October with an exploration of how the incentive systems written into the Race to the Top grant programs are likely to lock in a very narrow reading of the already narrow standards.  This entry takes a look at those same Reading Literature standards and posits what possibilities and pitfalls await young readers as the potentially learn reading via these standards.  This is speculative and highly dependent upon a certain degree of fealty to the Common Core State Standards project that is not precisely guaranteed.  However, in all of the discussions on the process and content of the CCSS English Language Arts standards, I’ve seen little that takes these standards and posits what they would mean in classroom implementation for teachers approaching literature instruction using them.

I want to open by stating that people I admire think that aspects of the CCSS ELA standards have potential, and it would be a mistake for any opponent or advocate to assert that the literacy acquisition standards are entirely with or without merit.  In any complex endeavor such as the adoption of common standards for the ELA, there will be conflicting views of the research and developmental appropriateness of the standards.  Regardless, the International Reading Association (IRA) has taken a stance of what I would call cautious optimism that, if implemented correctly, the CCSS ELA standards have strong potential especially in literacy acquisition, fluency, and vocabulary development.  Throughout the chapters in the linked book, authors offer hopeful visions of what teachers could accomplish with the standards, but also sound cautionary notes about the need for development, education, quality materials, and systems that do not narrow what teachers are doing.  P. David Pearson of the University of California at Berkeley notes:

Teacher prerogative and the comprehension model, two assumptions that are strongly represented in the standards and clearly based on research, will not, in my view, be implemented with a high degree of fidelity because the guidelines in the Publisher’s Criteria (Coleman & Pimintel, 2011) are likely to undermine the standards as they are written. Only if schools can resist these guidelines and stay true to the version of the standards in the original document do we have a hope of a high fidelity implementation of what we know about reading comprehension and about teacher learning within school change efforts.
He goes on to state that he still supports the standards because he believes they are an overall improvement because they are “the best game in town”, a hope that they can be used as a “living document” that can reflect best research knowledge, and his reading of the research literature on reading and comprehension supports that the standards are a “move in the right direction.”
I should note that I know Dr. Pearson personally, having studied with him in graduate school, and I have a deep admiration for his body of work and his perspective.  I also note that the qualifications he has made on his endorsement are striking to me because given the policy environment that surrounds CCSS most of his cautions, just like the cautions of his fellow authors for the IRA volume, are being plainly ignored in states that adopted CCSS alongside the high stakes testing and teacher evaluation models based upon them.  Further, while the questions of early literacy acquisition and text complexity are worthy of continued discussion, I remain convinced that the CCSS ELA standards on reading are so text-centric that questions of student engagement and the very purpose of a complete English Language Arts curriculum remain woefully underdeveloped as the nation moves into full implementation of the standards.
Blogger Peter Greene took the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, to task recently in a response to an essay entitled “Cultivating Wonder” where Coleman, who has never studied early or adolescent literacy and who has never taught in a secondary ELA classroom, posits the “proper” way that teachers can inspire students to engage deeply with texts with “good questions.”  Greene shrewdly notes that Coleman’s perspective on reading literature is so tightly confined to reading within the “four corners” of a page that he misses that Shakespeare’s lack of stage directions is a likely byproduct of the playwright being present at productions himself, and he misses aspects of Shakespeare’s story telling craft that are common across his plays.  Professor Nicholas Tampio of Fordham University goes further than Greene, postulating that Coleman’s approach to reading does not prepare students for college because his intense focus on what is just in the text limits students from being able to make insights within and across texts, and preparing them to be graded by software:

As a professor, of course I demand that my students provide evidence to support their arguments. Coleman’s pedagogical vision, however, does not prepare students for college. He discourages students from making connections between ideas, texts or events in the world — in a word, from thinking. Students are not encouraged to construct knowledge and understanding; they must simply be adept at repeating it.

His philosophy of education transfers across disciplines. After analyzing literary passages, he observes, “Similar work could be done for texts … in other areas such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.” Like a chef’s signature flavor, Coleman’s philosophy of education permeates the myriad programs that the College Board runs.

Computers can grade the responses generated from his philosophy of education. Students read a passage and then answer questions using terms from it, regardless of whether the text is about history, literature, physics or U.S. history. The Postal Service sorts letters using handwriting-recognition technology, and with a little tinkering, this kind of software could seemingly be used to score the SAT or AP exams.

Grading writing by computers is probably a long way off, but taken together, both Peter Greene and Professor Tampio’s critiques highlight that David Coleman’s reading perspective is narrowly confined to the “four corners” of the page of text which, when coupled with high stakes testing and teacher evaluations based on testing, will likely produce students responding narrowly, citing small segments of text, in ways that will fall into predictable patterns.

Looking at the CCSS 11-12th grade Reading Literature standards, we can see the boundedness that Peter Greene calls the “four corners of the page” because even in standard number 7 which deals with “multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem” the language of the standard draws readers immediately to evaluate “how each version interprets the source text” with no indication how it is that different actors, designers, and directors might come to various stagings of a play as representative of time, place, and audience; the analysis remains text bound.  The other anchor standards are similarly bound, with standard 1 calling on students to “Cite strong textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain;” standard 2 stating students will “Determine two or more central themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text;” standard 3 requires students to “Analyze the impact of author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g. where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed);  standard 4 requires students “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful;”  standard 5 puts students to work to “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g. the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact; and standard 6 says that students will “Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meany (e.g. satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).”

I do not have enormous difficulties with much of this.  The Reading Literature standards for the upper grades of high school outline a tightly textual approach to analysis that, if done well, could train college bound students in the kind of “text as puzzle” thinking that is often rewarded in introductory level college courses.  The standards require students to support their statements about the meaning of the text with “strong” evidence from the text, and they set students both to understand the tools of text that authors employ when writing and to speak and write analytically about those tools.  It seems very likely to me that a student armed with a mastery of these Reading Literature tools would be capable of crafting spoken and written arguments that would satisfy the grading criteria of many introductory college English courses.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) this remains a narrow vision of what an English Language Arts curriculum can be.  For example, the standards make frequent notice of Shakespeare, and Mr. Coleman’s “Cultivating Wonder” essay includes a pass at making students “wonder” at Hamlet, but can one truly imagine a English Language Arts classroom bounded by just the tools needed to write a competent college English essay?  It is not that those tools are unimportant, but given the Sword of Damocles hanging over teachers via assessment, can they expand their vision of powerful engagement with literature outside of those tools?  I have my doubts, and I have my doubts that David Coleman sees that engagement as important.

However, most English teachers I have known would agree that it is critically important.  Hamlet, for example, even for students in a college preparatory curriculum, is far more than a textual puzzle to be picked apart and analyzed to determine if Shakespeare believes that Hamlet has actually lost his mind or if the scholarly and dickering Hamlet is actually ill-suited to rule compared to the villainous but capable Claudius, the noble and active Laertes, or the militaristic and decisive Fortinbras.  It is a play worth reading and performing because it holds up an uncomfortable mirror to our own human failings, and it asks ourselves what we value in our most human of endeavors, seeking understanding of our place in the continuity of human experience.  And that is because the English Language Arts are much more than tools for advancement to the next phase of education or economic obtainment; they are an exploration of the richness and power of language, which ranks with religion and art as the most universally deployed tools for understanding ourselves.  William Shakespeare has not survived for four continuous centuries of reading and production because his works provide interesting textual puzzles for essays; he has surveyed because he remains one of the English language’s greatest instructors in the meaning of being human.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Coleman, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Also troubling is that the Common Core way of reading literature makes no express acknowledgement of what we know about sophisticated reading in adolescent literacy.  There is no mention of students reading intertexually, using what they know from other texts and applying it to create nuances in the meaning of what they are currently reading.  Nor can one tease out an understanding of the processes by which a student reads in order to make sense of how they will use the close reading perspective so privileged by the standards themselves.  Before a student can deploy the directives of the standards to create a piece of close reading analysis, that student will first need to read and comprehend, and as demonstrated in the Rosenblatt text I’ve linked to, that is a layered process that deploys an incredible number of resources both inside and outside of the text.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  it does not matter that the lesson is directed at citing “strong textual evidence” in order to substantiate a point about the text, if the lesson does not allow for the face that two different readers will be drawn to different points and different “strong textual evidence” depending upon factors that exist entirely outside of the text itself.

It is not that teachers and readers cannot acknowledge that reality within the confines of the standards; it is, however, something they will have to acknowledge entirely on their own because the Reading Literature standards provide no vision of a reading process.

If teachers were holding that perhaps this tightly contained vision of the ELA was restricted to upper secondary levels, it looks like that hope is in vain.  The first three Reading Literature standard looks like this in 8th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.1
Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
And like this in 5th grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.1
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.3
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
And like this in 3rd grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
Even in Kindergarten, children who are not yet fluent are tasked with being little reading detectives:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1
With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.2
With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.3
With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.
What is striking in this backwards engineered set of reading standards is not what is included, but what is excluded and how it remains excluded (and how it cannot help but remain excluded given that states agreed to add no more than 15% of their own material to the standards upon adoption).  I have no problem with Kindergarten students having reading discussions with teachers to practice recall and retelling.  I have no problem with 3rd graders asking questions that can demonstrate whether or not they comprehended what they read.  There is no harm in a 5th grader being asked to locate where in a text he or she developed a particular idea about the text or in an 8th grader honing that skill into a more formal tool.  None of these things harm children, and for those on a path to a four year liberal arts education, the end goal is defensible.
But what is left out absolutely harms them.
What is left out is an understanding of both reading as a process to be fostered and developed over the lifetime of a reader, and what is left out is also any reason for reading that strays from that eventual college English 1 essay and into the multitude of reasons why people read.  As written, these Reading Literature standards would make at least somewhat subversive a teacher who asked students to consider why certain features of the text attracted their attention, who asked students how a piece of reading made them feel initially, who asked students to place authors and literature in the context of place and time to see them as social commentary, who connected works of literature to other works of art, who asked students to connect the text to other pieces of literature except to delve into the author’s use of allegory, who explored the role of literature in the history and sociology of a culture…all of these can only be squeezed into the standards after the total fidelity to close textual reading has been duly observed.
And with the policy system that is currently in place, I fear many teachers will have no idea how to find the space for all of the other purposes for reading literature.  I can think of few tactics more likely to DISCOURAGE a lifelong relationship with reading outside of the classroom.
I’ll take my A on that essay now, Mr. Coleman.  Can I have my Tolkien back, please?

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Filed under Common Core, teaching

Dear Common Core English Standards: Can we talk?

Back in 1993, when I had barely been teaching in my own high school English classroom for a month, I had an epiphany.  I looked around my classroom of ninth graders and realized, consciously, that they were not all going to become high school English teachers.  As epiphanies go, I admit that does not sound exceptional, but it was actually foundational for the rest of my career in education.  The reason for this was that I simultaneously realized that I was teaching English because of the lifelong qualitative relationship that I had with reading and writing in English.  My father probably read “Oscar the Otter” to me every night for a month when I was four.  As a young reader, I often wondered if I would ever have a friend as cool as Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball.  Later, I was positive that I found a lifelong friend in Charles Wallace Murray, and my copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” and  “A Wind in the Door” were shortly falling apart from their spines.  Bilbo Baggins’ fate trading riddles in the dark is still a matter of tense anticipation, and what I remember most about a bout of chickenpox was that it gave me an opportunity to read all three existing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books in one afternoon.  Why was I a high school English teacher?  Because of the transformative power of reading to develop relationships over distance and centuries, to teach about cultures and ideals, to illuminate human nature, to amuse and to challenge.  I am a better person because of books, and I wanted students to discover similar experiences and to build skills that would allow them to both read and to write powerfully.

That most of my students would not seek the same path did not mean that they were incapable of such reading and writing, but it did mean that I could not ignore that they had their own reasons for being where they were, and that I had to allow them to find reasons for reading and writing that mattered to them.  In other words: You cannot be an English teacher and aim your instruction at the students who most remind you of yourself.

Common Core English Standards, you really need to learn that lesson.

I have read the standards, many times.  I have introduced them in foundations classes.  I am now working with teacher candidates in an English language arts methods class with the standards used for planning.  In this class, candidates not only are learning classroom methods for teaching English, but also they are learning the theoretical basis for adolescent literacy.  I have told them that if they squeeze the standards really hard and shake them a lot, it is possible to get something other than close textual reading out of them.

Common Core English Standards, you are making me a liar.

It is not that the Common Core English Standards do not describe aspects of reading and interpretation.  It is that they describe them from a single literary perspective, and then they backwards engineer them from high school all the way down to Kindergarten.  But don’t take my word on it, let’s look at the Reading Literature Standards themselves.

The Reading Literature Standards are laid out by what they call “College and Career Readiness” anchor standards that are iterated in each grade level.  Those ten anchor standards are organized in groups by Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Text Complexity.  For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to select one standard under each of these groups to present at different levels.

From the grade 11-12 Reading Literature Standards:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Range of Reading and Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

If you have graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college or university, odds are good that this sounds familiar regardless of your major.  The selected standards in Reading Literature represent a description of the close textual reading you were required to do as part of your introductory English coursework, possibly taught by an enthusiast of the New Criticism school of literary analysis from the mid-twentieth century.  For college bound students, this is not off the mark as far as a portion of their work with literature is concerned.  However, reading the entirety of the reading literature standards demonstrates that close textual reading is pretty much ALL that they contain.  Each of the anchor standard descriptors reiterates the anchors’ focus on the text — to the exclusion of the reader.

As mentioned, these standards then move down to Kindergarten, largely describing simpler tasks for less experienced readers.  From 6th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7: Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

From 3rd grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5: Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

From Kindergarten:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.5: Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.10: Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.

So what is wrong with this?  It represents a very specific purpose of reading literature, a purpose that does not serve the reasons why all children read, not even all children destined to become college English majors, and it is backwards engineered to grade levels when students cannot be expected to have full fluency.  What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis.  In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.

This stands in stark opposition to Reader Response criticism where the role of the reader in creating meaning not only cannot be set aside, but also is absolutely essential for the words on the page to have any meaning whatsoever.  Louise Rosenblatt informed this school of thought by demonstrating that the process of reading is best understood as a transaction between the text and the individual readers who approach the task of reading it:

The transaction involving a reader and a printed text thus can be viewed as an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. It stresses the possibility that printed marks on a page will become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers….

Does not the transactional point of view suggest that we should pay more attention to the experiential framework of any reading transaction? Is it not extraordinary that major social upheavals seem to have been required to disclose the fact that schools have consistently attempted to teach reading without looking at the language and life experience, the cognitive habits, that the child brought to the text? And should not this same concern be brought to bear on more than the problem of the language or dialect that the child brings? Should not a similar concern for reading as an event in a particular cultural and life situation be recognized as pertinent to all reading, for all children at all phases of their development as readers, from the simplest to the most sophisti­cated levels? (pp. 15-16)

Reader Response does not deny that there is a text with a structure that readers must encounter in order to make meaning, but it also recognizes the robust and essential elements brought by each individual reader in the meaning making process.  Instead of the text containing a single meaning to be derived by close textual analysis, the text is brought to many different meanings because of the histories, cultures, dispositions and experiences of the multitude of readers who transact with that text.

At this point, some advocates of the Common Core standards may protest that the Reading Literature standards are not trying to shoehorn all readers into New Criticism, and that with the tools of close textual reading, students and teachers could possibly engage in any number of reading experiences incorporating social, cultural, historical, psychological and personal knowledge.  To some degree, it is upon this that I have been hanging my promise to my own students that you can shake a social reading out of the CCSS if you just shake hard enough.  The problem is that I am not really convinced of that myself.  To begin with, even when the standards suggest some form of reading that is connected to something other than the text, it circles right back to close textual analysis. From the third grade standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

Looking at these, I get somewhat hopeful.  RL3.2 states that students will recall some rich literature such as fables, folktales and myths which could become a great basis for comparing current and past societies, understanding the concept of a the heroic figure and how it relates to the child’s life.  But the standard quickly segues right back to picking out “key details in the text” in service of determining “the central message, lesson, or moral.” (emphasis added) Similarly, RL3.3 begins with some hope that students might develop personal relationships with the characters in the story and use those character traits to better understand themselves.  Then the standard immediately purposes their understanding to “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.”  In Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis.  The reader is a bit player.

This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise.  After all, one of the key players in the creation of the English Language Arts standards is David Coleman, current president of the College Board, philosophy graduate from Yale and Rhodes Scholar in English literature at Oxford University.  He is, plainly, a man of great intelligence and of sincere interest in the classical liberal arts.  What he is not, however, is a person with even the slightest credentials in literacy acquisition, elementary literacy or adolescent literacy.  As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts all the way down to Kindergarten is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom.  This seems entirely unproblematic to Mr. Coleman, and while I have not read his thesis from Oxford, I have little reason to doubt that he is an enthusiast of New Criticism and other formalist schools of thought.  When presenting on the Common Core standards, Mr. Coleman derided what he described as a heavy emphasis on personal writing in most school curricula, thus:

When you add together the structure of the standards with the heavy testing regimen that have been tied to them and actual career consequences for teachers tied to those exams that were simultaneously put in place with the adoption of the CCSS, I find it hard to believe that very many teachers, on their own, are going to be able to use these standards to promote children’s love of literature from any social or experiential angle.  There is also extremely limited room for states to maneuver around the standards, as Mercedes Schneider reminds us here because the Memorandum of Understanding that states signed before adopting the CCSS only allows 15% of states standards to differ

If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.

Did anyone have anything better for children before Common Core?  That’s difficult to answer because while states have been held to progress in examinations since the No Child Left Behind act of 2001, this is the first time that nearly nationwide assessments are going to be aligned with a single set of standards.  However, it is possible to speak about how states with standards different from Common Core did on nationally administered assessments prior to this endeavor.  For example, Massachusetts has long been recognized as a high performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  In 2009, when Common Core was still twinkling in its authors’ eyes, Massachusetts’ 4th grade NAEP reading scores were higher than any other state in the nation.  At the time, Massachusetts was still using its own English Language Arts framework, adopted in 2001.  I would like to draw attention to Standard 9: Making Connections:

Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
By including supplementary reading selections that provide relevant historical and artistic background, teachers deepen students’ understanding of individual literary works and broaden their capacity to connect literature to other manifestations of the creative impulse.

The standard is then extrapolated forward, requiring that students examine works as related to the life and experiences of the author and in relationship to key concepts, ideas and controversies that existed in the society that produced the work itself.  Examinations such as these are fruitful grounds for personal experiences and comparisons of current society and events as well.  This is similar to principles articulated by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) in the standards for the English Language Arts that they released in the 1990s.  Standards 1-3, in particular, articulate a broad vision of what reading is for and how readers go about doing it:

  1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Neither of these documents rules out close textual reading, nor do they dismiss the need for students to develop skills in creating sophisticated analyses using the tools of text.  Common Core, however, provides no explicit space for any other kind of reading or analysis, and it appears entirely uninformed by any framework of reading as a process that includes the reader in any capacity other than as faithful seeker of the text’s internally constructed meaning.  Readers who want to understand society and history via the text?  Readers who want to explore their own humanity across space and time with characters who live and breathe after centuries?  Readers who want to enjoy the feelings of a work of art without picking it apart into its component parts?

People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

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Filed under Common Core, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Welcoming a New Generation of Teachers

My university welcomes the Class of 2018 this week which means that I will begin teaching a new class of first year students enrolled in our secondary education and secondary/special education programs.  It goes without saying that I am consistently impressed with the caliber of young person I meet each year.  They have committed themselves to a program requiring hard work from them early in their college careers, and they have committed their talents and futures to a profession that is intellectually and emotionally demanding.  These are the types of young people I have admired since I began my work in teacher education in 1997 at the beginning of graduate school, and it is genuinely exciting to know how many of them over the years have stayed in teaching, honing their craft, becoming leaders and teaching many 1000s of young people over the years. This is incredible work.

My first year students were born in 1996, when I was still a high school English teacher, and they began Kindergarten in 2001.  This means that among the myriad of things the media likes to remind us that Millennials have “never known”, this class of Millennials has never known a school system without the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization of 2001, popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Hailed by President George W. Bush as refusing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” NCLB ushered in an age when school districts, schools and teachers were to be held accountable by student results on mass standardized tests.  While President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program was billed as loosening the punitive measures of NCLB, it has further entrenched mass test-based accountability by pushing states to adopt common standards and to include the results of students’ standardized test scores into teacher evaluation.  Any current hot potato issue in elementary and secondary education, from the Common Core State Standards, to the mass standardized testing and the use of those tests to evaluate can be traced back to the premise of both of these laws:  accountability of schools for students’ annual “progress” on mass testing is an appropriate lever to effect positive school change.

The cumulative impacts of these reforms on teachers, teacher morale and schools is a subject for another blog, but suffice to say that despite recent efforts to paint the picture more rosily, overall teacher morale has suffered and has suffered more in our schools that need help the most.  It hardly helps that most high profile efforts to “improve” teaching focus solely on weeding out teachers deemed to be ineffective and placing pressure on all teachers to demonstrate effectiveness via standardized test scores.  Absent in those reforms?  Improving school working conditions, increasing teacher collaboration and leadership, emphasis on markers of student learning and accomplishment outside of mass testing, addressing community poverty impacts and looking at what opportunities actually exist in our economy.

Despite all of this, I will meet a group of young people who want to teach.  Experience tells me that all of them, despite the environment in which they grew up, believe in the transformative potential of education and are genuinely committed to inspiring future generations of students.  

But this is also where a cautionary note must be sounded.  The process of becoming a teacher is not one that actually begins with university classes.  Most people begin to make the commitment to teach many years earlier.  Talk to an elementary school teacher, and you will frequently find someone who began with make believe games set in an imaginary classroom.  Talk to a secondary school teacher, and you will often find someone whose love of subject matter set her apart from peers from middle school forward.  During their long “careers” as K-12 students, future teachers observe upwards of 15,000 hours of teachers teaching which forms the backbone of what Dan Lortie called “the apprenticeship of observation” with which all teachers enter their formal preparation.  Unlike professionals in medicine and law, most students of teaching are intimately familiar with being the recipients of teachers’ practice, and it is that familiarity that largely inspires them to enter the field and informs their deeply personal visions of what it means to teach.

Many researchers have noted to much of what future teachers learn from this apprenticeship is incomplete and fails to capture all of the work that goes on beyond teachers’ in classroom performances.  Regardless, it is a beginning, and an important one to people who want to teach — it is our job in teacher education to layer upon it, making elements of it problematic so they can be revised and adding to it the hidden pedagogical skills of teachers that are not generally learned before teacher education.

If learning to teach, if the very commitment to learning to teach begins with the process of one’s own K-12 education, then it is vitally important to the profession and its future that we are mindful of the kinds of schools in which the future’s teachers are currently enrolled.  I would argue that we have done a poor job historically, but especially in the past 15 years, of listening to what teachers themselves believe will help them be better at their profession.  According to Francie Alexander of Scholastic, INC., a survey conducted for a joint Scholastic-Gates Foundation study by the Harrison Group found the following

  1. Most teachers feel heard in their own schools, but 69% do not believe they are listened to by district, state and federal players.
  2. 71% believe they need more time to study and understand the Common Core State Standards before implementing them.
  3. Teachers value collaboration, but 51% cite a lack of time for collaboration as a challenge.
  4. 99% of teachers believe their work goes beyond academics.
  5. 88% of teachers believe the rewards of teaching outweigh the challenges.

While that survey cited high levels of teachers “enthusiastic” about the Common Core standards, more recent surveys have shown significant cratering in teacher support.  Further, the overall satisfaction reported in this survey has to be weighed in contrast with the 2013 findings of the 29th annual Metlife Survey of Teachers which found only 39% of teachers said they were “very satisfied”.

There is a lot of “churn” in the waters of education today, and it is beyond admirable that so many teachers are able to take professional satisfaction in the concept of the “small victories” many of them routinely see in their work with students and community.  It is equally admirable that young people with exceptional talents and skills seek to join the profession.

But we must be careful that reforms are not allowed to alter the aspects of schooling that make it such rewarding work.  Mass test-based accountability that reduces teachers’ work to an “effectiveness rating” tied primarily to test scores is a toxic approach.  Not only does it disrespect the fullness of the work teachers know that they do, but also it over emphasizes what can even been learned from such tests, and few current reform advocates put their efforts behind better support, collaboration and leadership.  Schools must remain humane places where teachers and students can meet as far more than average annual progress calculations, or we will lose those who wish to become teachers because they want to do good in the world.  If our vision of school tilts too heavily towards the technical/rational aspects of measurement in learning and ignores the humanistic development side, we will end up with future teachers who lack a rich and full vision of their profession.

Think of it this way:  If you have a baby born this year, she will be ready to enter high school in 2028.  Many of her potential ninth grade teachers were born in 2006 and are beginning 3rd grade this Fall, the grade where most high stakes testing begins in earnest.

What kinds of school experience do you want your child’s teachers to have?

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Filed under Common Core, Data, teacher learning, teaching, Testing, Uncategorized

Messages From the Tenure War – “Teachers Aren’t Special”

When Campbell Brown goes on air to discuss the lawsuits against teacher tenure protections, she knows how to comport herself.  First, it is very important to profess her respect for teachers and the teaching profession and to make it clear she just wants teaching to be a well-compensated and treated profession.  Then she has to express a completely sincere desire that the profession improve for the sake itself and the children. At this point, she has to point out that the laws she is suing to overturn stand in the way of that improvement and that it is simply ridiculous to oppose that effort.  When on The Colbert Report, she conveyed this message by leaning forward and pitching her voice for maximum earnestness as she stated that everybody agrees that the due process and “last in first out” provisions are “just anachronistic.”  A media representative has to make the pitch appealing to the broadest possible demographic.

Her general audience supporters are under no such restraints.

I’ve been reading #WithoutTenure on Twitter and made the very poor choice to read comments on some news articles about the lawsuit.  Obviously, some people support Ms. Brown’s efforts, and that  is expected in a democratic society.  What I did not expect was the periodic denigration of teachers as a whole and fairly serious hostility to the concept that teachers have job protections  granted through tenure that the respondents do not believe other professions have.  A refrain that sums up the attitude is “Teachers aren’t special.”

Teachers aren’t special.

Hostility towards teachers’ due process protections is necessarily a complex phenomenon.  President Ronald Reagan made contempt for unionized workers fashionable in his first administration, and since the late 1970s, public approval for organized labor has ticked down from 59% to 52% with some fluctuations along the way.  Public disapproval, however, has steadily gained from 31% to 42%, meaning that there is decreasing middle ground in public opinion on unions at a time when less than 11% of the total workforce is unionized.  Some of the contemptuous remarks certainly stem from the growth in hostility to unions.

Some who expressed that opinion based it on their belief that teachers are given undue job protections via tenure that other professional workers in the economy do not have.  Part of this is stems from the popular misconception, encouraged by Ms. Brown, that a teacher with tenure has “permanent lifetime employment” and is shielded from removal even in the face of serious incompetence or misconduct.  Another part stems from a belief that the critics do not possess any particular protections in their employment, even in highly skilled fields, and a demand to know what about teachers makes them deserve what the others do not have.  This is a particularly odd and perhaps uniquely American aspect of class relationships.  Instead of asking why their employer or profession does not do more to protect and compensate them fairly, many Americans demand to know why others are better protected and/or compensated.  We tend to fight our class wars against each other in the United States.

I cannot solve that tangled mess in this essay, but I do want to examine one of its consequences: Teachers aren’t special.  It sits me back on my chair a bit, to be honest.  Wrapping my head around it is nearly impossible as I have spent every working day of my life since 1993 around teachers, either as a high school English teacher or as a graduate researcher or as a college professor.  I have met, worked with and taught some incredibly special teachers over the years, and I am continuously impressed by the caliber of young person who shows up at our teacher education program each Fall looking to start her or his professional career.  These are people who could have sought more lucrative careers , and having worked with them I do not doubt that most could have been successful in those careers.  However, something draws them to teaching: a passion for learning, for a subject matter and for the transformational power that it holds, for children and their growth.

Gary Fenstermacher, Richard Osguthorpe and Matthew Sanger, writing in the Summer, 2009 issue of Teacher Education Quarterly, discussed how teaching not only involves  content related to morality but also demands moral characteristics of teachers:

Just how teachers attended to moral matters became more apparent as we examined the connections between moral manner and moral content more closely.  We sought to “see” the ways they imparted moral ideas and ideals to their students.  We encountered six methods used by most or all of the teachers as they went about the work of teaching their students.  They are: 1) the construction of the classroom community, 2) showcasing specific students, 3) design and execution of academic task structures, 4) calling out for conduct of a particular kind, 5) private conversations, and 6) didactic instruction (Fenstermacher, 2001).  These six methods suggest how moral traits and dispositions of teachers might be reflected in their practice.  They also suggest an important interplay between moral content and moral manner. (p. 12)

The authors go on to ask their central question, “how do we seek ensure that those who teach possess a moral manner that is proper and appropriate for the tasks of teaching, and that they learn to employ this manner properly and appropriately in the course of instruction?” (p. 16)  This is something much deeper than professional ethics, although those matter for teachers as well, because we entrust that teachers will be involved in the implicit of explicit instruction of moral conduct for their students through both the curriculum and the environment in which it is taught.

It is very clear to me what it is that makes teachers “special,” and it is the sense that they are as much in a vocation that is of service to others as they are in a profession in service of themselves.  When people dismiss the due process rights in tenure by saying “teachers are not special” they are simply dead wrong.  It is true, however, that teachers are not unique in this central premise of vocationalism.  Many, in a wide range of professions, are driven by the call to serve purposes greater than themselves.  There are doctors who seek to aid those in lands afflicted by disease and warfare, and there are medical practitioners who eschew more lucrative practices in the effort to provide needed general and family practice.  There are lawyers who dedicate themselves to low cost or pro bono services for the indigent , and there are attorneys who seek to use their talents to right great wrongs.  Fields like nursing and social work are full of people who are on the front line of patient and client care and who are primarily motivated by their desire to help those in great need and with little voice.

Teachers are special.  They are not unique in how special they are.

Which still leaves an open question:  If teachers are special in a way that is shared across other professions what is it about tenure and its due process protections that matter for teachers?  There is no single answer to this.  However,  not only do teachers need strong due process, but also good teachers need it even more.  Reflecting back upon what Fenstermacher, Osguthorpe and Sanger wrote, it is clear that good teachers must be motivated to rock the boat on behalf of their students.  Having a “moral manner” is not simply about appropriate behavior, it is about appropriate advocacy that will sometimes run afoul of administration and community expectations.

A good teacher will question curriculum priorities and instructional materials on behalf of students and their needs.  A good teacher will question spending priorities within a school a district if classroom needs are neglected.  A good teacher will advocate that students receive special education, ESL and enrichment materials that will enhance their experience and provide them with opportunities to learn.  A good teacher will help unpopular viewpoints gain a voice within the class regardless of the teacher’s or the community’s views.  A good teacher insists on the integrity of instruction and assessment even if it means a popular student athlete is made ineligible to compete or if it means the child of a local politician does not pass a class.  A good teacher collaborates with peers and experiments with new teaching strategies and constantly questions whether or not what is happening in the classroom, the school and the community is what is best for students.  A good teacher will make people uncomfortable at least some of the time.

A good teacher must do all of these things even as he or she is an employee of a system controlled and administered via local politics.  Teachers, of all of the moral vocations, are the most public and the most in need of the ability to openly question and confront on behalf of students and learning.  Taking away the due process rights of tenure diminishes the ability of teachers to buck the system and to make necessary waves for the good of their students.

Reference:

Fenstermacher, G.D., Osguthorpe, R.D., Sanger, M. (2009). “Teaching Morally and Teaching Morality.” Teacher Education Quarterly, 36 (3), 7-19.

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Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice, teaching, Unions

Ms. Tullo — Portrait of a Great Teacher

Recently, I contemplated what it would take to really evaluate a teacher preparation program in contrast with the methods employed by the National Council of Teacher Quality.  My thoughts rested  with actual measurements of program effectiveness and quality, but they also rested with the graduates of the program and the education narratives they compose with their actual students in actual schools.  In an age when we valorize data from test scores far beyond their designed capacities, it is important to pause and see how lives are impacted by teachers in ways that affirm the aesthetic in teaching.

A number of my former students came to mind as I considered that question, and, among them, is Ms. Shaina Tullo, a member of Seton Hall’s Class of 2010 and an English teacher in the northern New Jersey area.  I taught Shaina in a number of classes from our introductory history of education and foundations course, to a course on the role of diversity in the classroom and her secondary English methods course.  From the beginning of her teacher education, it was obvious that she was sincerely dedicated both to reading and writing and to helping new generations of children learn to love them both.  Shaina always demonstrated a passion for the English language, a deep appreciation of the power that is embodied in language and genuine excitement at the thought of working with her future students born of her own discovery of what language’s power can do.  What was perhaps most impressive about Shaina as a teacher candidate was how consistently she reminded me of why I had originally become an English teacher.

Naturally, I was delighted when she agreed to let me write about her and her work in this blog, and she was very informative when answering my questions.  I will let her words speak on her behalf from this point forward:

How did you decide to become a teacher?  Which people and which experiences were most influential for that decision?

Ironically enough, I decided to be a teacher when I was in kindergarten. I actually have a photo of my kindergarten graduation with my “When I Grow Up”project which stated that I wanted to be a teacher and teach children how to read books.  Seems like quite a bit of foreshadowing, huh?  This was definitely drawn from my experiences in and outside of school.  To say I grew up from modest means would be an understatement.  School, and moreover, books became a method of escapism and wonderment that would carry me through the hardships of growing up in poverty.

Additionally, the unwavering support of my educators throughout my school years drove me to education. I have been blessed with some of the most diligent and beautiful educators throughout my school life.  Mrs. Goldenbaum, my first and third grade teacher, condoned my book habit at a young age.  Once, when crying because the librarian would not let a seven year-old me check out Joan of Arc, she marched me to the library and took it herself.  We had to renew the book about five times, but I finished it.  My eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Weissman, was an invaluable member of my life and continued to push me towards more complex texts while nurturing my love of poetry and creative writing.  He would read my stories religiously—even the horrifically bad ones—and provide meaningful feedback.  In high school, Mademoiselle Cermak and Mr. Bischoff became surrogate parents, offering life lessons and advice on everything from prom dresses to boyfriends to the philosophical ramifications of existentialism. All of these people were monumental in helping me towards teaching.  They awakened in me the need to give of myself, to strive for excellence, and to love unconditionally. So, in a sense, the decision to become an educator was never something I pondered over. It seemed to be what I was always meant to do.

What is most important to you about teaching English?  Why is this subject important?

Teaching English, to me, is more than just analyzing symbolism or parsing poetry for deeper meaning.  To teach English is to study the human condition, to examine life as it should be lived and as it has been lived across cultures and time.  There is something so remarkable about finding truth, didacticism, advice, hope, despair, and fear within the written word.  My subject is important because it teaches students how to live life well, and is an essential component in understanding our humanity.  Other subjects, mathematics, science, foreign languages, are pursuits that will undoubtedly aid those in my classroom in being intelligible, functioning members of society.  But few subjects get to help formulate identity, as is the case in an English classroom.

What do you think draws most people to become English teachers?

I truly believe that English teachers are a special breed of people. We are, for starters, a very bookish bunch, but a reader does not necessarily make an English teacher. Those of us who are driven to teach English are profoundly inspired by text, by literary culture, and by words. We seek to guide others on this path because we believe it will profoundly alter their lives for the better. And those of us who are truly devoted to the study of literature, will continue with this pursuit in the face of resistance. It is too important a task and, thus, we are not easily shaken.

Explain your education as a teacher –from being a student, to being a student of teaching to being a teacher.  What was influential and helpful at all three phases of your education?

The progression from student to teacher is a very gradual one and, perhaps, the minutia of it may be lost on the outside world.  I would say the most easily traceable difference is the progression from philosophy to practicality.  As a student in high school, most lessons are very philosophical and idea heavy.  We discuss motivation, draw inferences, and express feelings.  As I moved into being a student of education, particularly as I moved through the teacher education program at Seton Hall, more and more practical aspects are integrated into education.  No longer was I dealing with the abstract, I was creating lesson plans, units, assessments with purpose.  This is practical.  And, of course, being a teacher, comes the most practical of all the stages in which most of which I produce is utilized.

I will say that Seton Hall was a remarkable institution for guiding me through all the phases of this process.  That my field placements started much earlier than other teacher education programs was invaluable.  I was able to have tangible and meaningful experiences in classrooms, such that I never experienced the “first year jitters”when I finally had my own classroom.  At that point, it seemed as though the classroom was a natural extension of myself. To this end, the various lesson planning and assessments done throughout my program at Seton Hall were so helpful.  Not only do I frequently use many of the artifacts I produced during my undergraduate years in my own classroom, but I also have the skills required to create high quality items for my class.  Throughout my four years as a teacher, I have consistently been complimented on the quality and caliber of the artifacts I generate for class.

What are some of the most important things a future teacher should learn before entering the classroom?

First and foremost, a future teacher should master his or her content. I cannot explain how invaluable this is in preparing yourself for a classroom, for without a deep knowledge of content, real learning cannot happen.

To this end, practical components of teaching should be mastered before entering the classroom. Understanding the basic tenants of teaching pedagogy and lesson planning, methods for employing differentiated instruction, and the philosophy and justification for differing types of assessment should not necessarily be mastered, as mastery will take the sum total of many years of teaching, but any future teacher should have a good working knowledge of these concepts.

I would also say that a lot of the important things a teacher will learn (classroom management, quick-thinking, the ability to balance work and social life) can only truly be learned in a classroom. In your first year, in your first classroom, you will fail.  Lessons you thought would profoundly change the lives of your students will be met with glazed eyes and snores.  This is natural, and will help shape you into the educator you want to be.  So, in a sense, the most important thing a future teacher can learn is the ability to forgive oneself, embrace failure, and learn from mistakes.

Can you describe a “typical”day teaching?  What is most memorable to you day by day?

A typical teaching day starts with arriving early and basking in the quiet of the halls for an hour or so before the students arrive.  This gives ample time to ready myself (literally and mentally) for the day.  The actual teaching component of the day flies by. This year I taught six classes and I always felt like the most enjoyable part of the day was the actual class time I spent with my student.  Almost all of my free time (lunch, prep periods, after school) is devoted to talking with or helping the students in some capacity.  This is the blessing (though some may call it a curse) of being a popular teacher in school.  The students often want to spend time with you.  I would recommend taking this time with the students as much as possible and within reason.  It is these quiet moments outside of class where students need you most.  They come under the guise of “hanging out”at lunch, but the amount that is shared in this time period is paramount.  Consequently, it is these moments that endear the students to you and you to them.  This allows for an environment of mutual respect and understanding.  It creates a mentor/mentee relationship in which you can become a positive adult role model for the students.  For a lot of students, particularly where I work in an inner city, having a grounded adult is very important as this may be the most stable time period in their whole day. These are always my favorite moments when teaching.

One of my favorite anecdotes surrounding teaching was this year during the spring musical.  I directed our production of Little Shop of Horrors which was an amazing experience but also a very stressful one as our theater program was very new.  As a former performer myself, I really did work the students very hard throughout preparation for the play (the theater kids started the rumor that I was tougher than the basketball coach). But, on opening night, when I was backstage with the kids who were all very nervous, I told them that the most important part of the play was to have fun. This alleviated so much tension and prompted what became a traditional backstage dance party.  It was so wonderful seeing the kids loosen up and enjoy themselves at what would have otherwise been a very stressful moment.  And, as it turned out, our production was nearly flawless.

Another one of my favorite times of year involved my work at my former school where I was the yearbook adviser. Our club sponsored all the social clubs, and we would frequently put on dances as a fundraiser. Being after school with an army of children, having about two hours to transform the gym into something other than a gym was always very stressful but also the most fun we had all year. The gym was always beautifully decorated and we always had successful dances, but seeing the kids pull together to create massive pieces of decoration was always tremendously rewarding. Our post-decorating dinner of pizza always impressed upon me a feeling of family, as we would laugh about whose tape ran out or who had paint on their faces.

One of my other favorite accomplishments that actually deals with the classroom involves my juniors from this year. When I first started teaching them, I realized the students in my class had never written academic analytical papers or conducted research of any kind. To be blunt, on average, their writing skills had been far below grade level.  I spent an extraordinary amount of time after their first papers were due teaching academic writing, research, and analysis. Finally, in March, I sat down to grade a stack of Othello papers and was absolutely impressed with the body of work I had received. Not only were my students writing academically, but they were uncovering nuance of text that I myself had not considered. I actually almost cried over how far they had grown and how much they had developed. It was definitely a gradual development throughout the year, but those papers really did move me.

How important are your fellow teachers to your daily work?

My fellow teachers are very important to my daily work. I have been blessed in both schools where I have worked, in that my fellow staff members were always extremely helpful and outgoing. There has always been a support network available to share materials, collaborate with projects, or share snacks on a particularly bad day.

Cross-curricular planning is also a very vital method for improving student achievement, as it ensures students’abilities to make connections and draw upon multiple intelligences. Having a teacher to work with is very helpful in this regard. Most recent, I taught The Things They Carried as a cross-curricular component to my juniors’unit on Vietnam in US History II. A lot of students said this was their favorite unit all year, as it provided faces and emotion to what would otherwise seem like a very rigid history unit. In turn, my students brought with them a breadth of knowledge as to the context of the events in the novel.

Also, given the demographics of where I teach, I often rely heavily on the foreign language department of school to provide translations and assistance when interacting with the parents of students who are non-English speaking families. Having the interpersonal relationships with these staff members help create a classroom culture that is both accommodating and welcoming.

What is your teaching “philosophy”?  What beliefs and commitments guide your teaching?

I am actually going to copy the first paragraph of my philosophy of education as it appears in my teacher portfolio:

First and foremost, each class has a different culture and personality dependent upon their past educational experiences. This is equally true of teachers. To teach is to find a marriage of class culture and teacher philosophy. As a teacher, I find myself consistently engrossed in developing my craft of teaching, especially when done in order to better meet the needs of my classes’cultures. Thus, the philosophies represented are a testament to my current beliefs and practices. They are in no way finite. I am committed to constantly adapting and changing my beliefs and practices in light of new data or new student needs. When it pertains to the teaching reading and writing, I find that five major beliefs shape my philosophy: (1) I believe that there is an inherent and necessary need for the study of reading and writing (2) I believe in the power of reading as a method of attaining lifelong thinking skills (3) I believe in the wide-reaching and pervasive importance of writing (4) I believe that assessment of reading and writing needs to reflect true learning by emphasizing process over product (5) I believe technology and the teaching of reading and writing is not exclusive.

Is there anything you would say to one of your students who wants to teach?

I would tell one of my students who wanted to teach that this career is about sacrifice. We give of ourselves so much, and, sometimes, we do so without thanks. But, if you can endure the long hours and can commit yourself to a life where your accomplishments are often immeasurable or unknown, then you will be rewarded in profound and extraordinary ways. You will see students grow to unbelievable heights and you will shape them in ways that they themselves may never notice. It is a beautiful life with so, so many rewards, and I fully recommend it.

I have been a part of conversations between other faculty members and students who have advised students not to become teachers, “Be anything but a teacher. Be something better,” they said. I even had a professor say the same thing to me in college when she found out my major. It is a hard job, yes, and it pervades your identity. But there are few careers that offer such tremendous rewards as teaching. It may take the right type of person, but when the person is right amazing things can happen.

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Welcoming a New Cohort of Future Teachers

Yesterday, my program got an early chance to meet members of our incoming Class of 2018.  I had a series of hand outs with critical planning information for their next four years, but more important than reading to them action items that they can read for themselves, I and my colleagues wanted them to get to know each other and begin to see each other as people who can be relied upon.  This is not only good for them as they enter a four year program together, but also it is good for their future practice in schools.  Teachers who collaborate and seek out ideas from a variety of trusted people are more able to seek solutions to questions about teaching than teachers who close the door of their classrooms and try to not be seen.  It also helps our incoming students start to see how people with different backgrounds and reasons for being in a school can quickly come together to collaborate and learn about each other.

These new future teachers are entering their university preparation for teaching at a difficult time.  The Common Core State Standards movement was sweeping along as fait accompli until questions about its quality, purposes and the speed of implementation have hit mainstream.  New mass high stakes testing is still scheduled to roll out over the next few school years, but it is meeting with increasing teacher and parental resistance.  Communities across the country will soon see their students, teachers and school assessed by those exams, and teachers will face potential career consequences based on value added modeling of their teaching using test data.  These policies are not being tested carefully in small settings; they are being rolled out simultaneously in classrooms affecting 10s of millions of students.  Mass disruption is the order of the day.

Teaching as a profession is under higher scrutiny.  “Reformers” such as Michelle Rhee have advocated for years that the solution to nearly every problem facing education is to fire “ineffective” teachers and to use test scores to determine teacher effectiveness.  To accomplish this, they not only needed mass testing, they also needed to diminish teachers’ workplace protections and that has meant stripping away traditional union rights.  Court cases like the recently (and controversially) decided Vergara case are likely to increase in number. At the same time, traditional teacher education is coming under attack via the partisan think tank National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ) which has taken it upon itself to “rank” all teacher preparation programs in the country.

The contradictions of the self-styled education reformers are evident and troubling.  They have pushed for complicated standards and testing regimens at a time when states and school districts around the country are cutting budgets and personnel.  They have demanded that teachers be held to higher standards of performance using measures of their performance that experts in statistics say are poorly designed for that purpose.  They have demanded that teachers work with fewer protections for their employment while dramatically raising their stakes of their work.  The same “reformers” who bemoan the quality of university based teacher education are enthusiastic backers of Teach for America’s five week training model and of charter schools which are contemplating setting up their own teacher training “graduate schools” that resemble computer delivered workplace training rather than a serious professional education.

And yet, we still are able to welcome a group of young people enthusiastic about becoming teachers and eager to take up the challenges of learning to teach.

Young people have historically been attracted to teaching as a profession for various reasons.  In the early decades of the Common School movement, teaching was seen as an appropriate occupation for young, educated women until they found husbands and had children of their own.  For some portions of the teacher population, teaching was a way for a first college educated generation to take a place in a middle class profession with a reasonable salary and benefits.  As more white, middle and upper middle class women have sought careers in previously restricted fields like law and medicine, more minorities have taken up teaching (although proportions still lag behind the percentage of students who are minorities).

There are, however, reasons that teachers teach which go well beyond labor economics.  Decade after decade, talented young people seek out careers as teachers for reasons that are best labeled as affective, meaning they speak not to rational calculations of risk and reward, but that they speak to rewards that defy measurement.  Since 1975, researchers have repeated affirmed Dan Lortie’s observation that teachers rely upon “psychic rewards” rather than extrinsic compensation for affirmation of their purposes in school.   Ask a teacher about the greatest satisfactions of teaching, and you will almost certainly hear about how making a difference in child’s life matters or a specific instance of reaching a particular student with a lesson that made difficult content interesting and exciting.  Teachers consistently report that they revel in the ability to connect with students academically and personally and that a “good class” provides personal and professional satisfaction (just as a “bad class” provides personal and professional angst).  There is no external measurement of this, but it is a major part of the difference between a teacher who is happy on the job and one who is not.

Similarly, teachers tend to be people who found at least some enjoyment from school and wish to impart some of that experience to their own students.  Lortie referred to this characteristic as “continuity” meaning that teachers generally wish to continue experiencing that which was pleasant in their own education.  This can take many forms, and it should not be construed to mean that all teachers wish to be uncritical of schools and schooling.  In my years as a teacher educator, every student I have taught can point to an example of someone that he or she does NOT want to be, but the powerful visions of teaching come from those teachers they wish to emulate.  It takes time to dig down into what it actually was that made those great teachers exceptional (most of my students rely initially upon affect), but once understood, that former teacher is an even more powerful role model.

The reality is that the new class of future teachers I greeted yesterday began their teacher education many years ago when the narrative of their own education began.  That narrative is wrapped up in a 15,000 hours of time spent in classrooms from Kindergarten to 12th grade and involves all of the work done as students and impressions of work done by teachers.  Much of what they learn from this “apprenticeship of observation” is facile, and it takes a lot of hard work being introduced to the teacher’s side of the desk to understand what it means to academically and socially manage the workings of a classroom.  However, this narrative is still very precious because it contains the initial commitment a future teacher makes to her or his future students.  Without that narrative, they would not want to teach in the first place.  It is here that words like “vocation” become equally if not more important than words like “profession” when discussing how teachers learn to teach.

It is, therefore, vitally important that we keep our eyes not merely on what schools and classrooms achieve on standardized tests, but also we keep our eyes focused squarely on what kinds of places schools and classrooms are and what kinds of experiences teachers can craft for the children entrusted to them.  I know of no truly dedicated teacher who is afraid of using some data as a tool to both analyze and communicate about her or his work.  But I know many people who are rightly concerned that we have spent far too much time in the past ten year using data from high stakes standardized tests in ways that reach far beyond their utility.  I know people who are concerned that we have incentivized administrators and teachers to value test performance over genuine learning.  I know people who are concerned that the risk taking and uncertainty that accompanies real teaching is becoming too risky for teachers who are evaluated as if they are producing manufactured goods tested within tight tolerances.  I share those concerns.

We do not need to simply demand more of our teachers; we need to demand more of ourselves and of our vision for a public education.  Schools need to be places where uncertainty, risk taking and messing around with ideas is both encouraged and instructive.  Teachers need to be able to inspire their students to create meaning rather than merely fill in bubble sheets because the narrative of schooling and learning that we create for those students today does not just impact how they learn, it impacts how those among them who wish to teach will envision the role of a teacher.  How many powerful examples of passionate commitment to students, content and learning will those students encounter and incorporate into their constructs of the work and craft of teaching?  How many of them will see intangible rewards for teaching that offset the difficulty of the job and inspire them to share their love of learning with the generations that follow them?

The next generation of teachers is in our public schools right now.  We owe it to them and to the 100s of millions of students they will teach to envision schools as places of joy and passion.

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A Few Thoughts on the Passing of Maxine Greene

If you missed the news that Maxine Greene, reigning philosopher of Teachers College at Columbia, died at the age of 96 last week, I do not blame you.  However, if you are a teacher or have been a student at any time in the past 50 years, the odds are very good that you have been influenced by her work.  I think it is safe to say that future generations of teachers and scholars of education will regard Dr. Greene’s work in the same way they regard John Dewey; many, myself included, already do.  In an age when technocratic forces seem more and more in control of our public discourse, a rediscovery of Maxine Greene’s focus on aesthetics seems more vital than ever.

I did not discover Dr. Greene’s work until I was in graduate school, but I could recognize its echoes in what had mattered most in my own education and teaching up to that point.  In an interesting way, reading her work after having been a student through the college level and having been a teacher was like discovering someone who had always been immensely important to you but who you had, paradoxically, never met yet.  It is certainly empowering to discover a voice that has been articulating for decades many of the ideas you hold dear, and to discover that it is very likely that the very teachers who encouraged you to explore those ideas were probably influenced themselves by the same voice.

Dr. Greene explored the power of “aesthetic education” throughout her career as central in the picture of education, not as some extra to be provided on the fringes of learning and only if the budget allows for it.  From her 1977 essay, “Toward Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education”:

I believe this may be said, in essence, about all the arts. Liberating those who come attentively to them, they permit confrontations with the world as individuals are conscious of it, personally conscious, apart from “the Crowd.” I would want to see one or another art form taught in all pedagogical contexts, because of the way in which aesthetic experiences provide a ground for the questioning that launches sense-making and the understanding of what it is to exist in a world. If the arts are given such a central place, and if the disciplines that compose the humanities are at the core of the curriculum, all kinds of reaching out are likely. The situated person, conscious of his or her freedom, can move outwards to empirical study, analytic study, quantitative study of all kinds. Being grounded, he or she will be far less likely to confuse abstraction with concreteness, formalized and schematized reality with what is “real.” Made aware of the multiplicity of possible perspectives, made aware of incompleteness and of a human reality to be pursued, the individual may reach “a plane of consciousness of highest tension.” Difficulties will be created everywhere, and the arts and humanities will come into their own.

What is striking to me here is how unencumbered this explanation is from the tedious necessity imposed upon all avenues of study to justify itself for immediate practical aims.  The warrant is that arts provide individuals with genuine opportunities to explore, challenge, be challenged and to explore the nature of reality and meaning in existence.  How devoid of the language of “college and career readiness” is this framework, and yet who could possibly be MORE “college and career ready” than a learner who has fully engaged in the “wide awakeness” that Dr. Greene speaks of in this essay?  It is almost as if the process of becoming a thinking, reflective and “awake” individual is not a process that can be tidily mapped into proficiencies.

In a 1978 essay, “Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality”, Dr. Greene observes about the problem of teachers who encounter the political and bureaucratic demands upon teaching:

The problem is that, confronted with structural and political pressures, many teachers (even effectual ones) cope by becoming merely efficient, by functioning compliantly—like Kafkaesque clerks. There are many who protect themselves by remaining basically uninvolved; there are many who are so bored, so lacking in expectancy, they no longer care. I doubt that many teachers deliberately choose to act as accomplices in a system they themselves understand to be inequitable; but feelings of powerlessness, coupled with indifference, may permit the so-called “hidden curriculum” to be communicated uncritically to students. Alienated teachers, out of touch with their own existential reality, may contribute to the distancing and even to the manipulating that presumably take place in many schools. This is because, estranged from themselves as they are, they may well treat whatever they imagine to be selfhood as a kind of commodity, a possession they carry within, impervious to organizational demand and impervious to control. Such people are not personally present to others or in the situations of their lives. They can, even without intending it, treat others as objects or things. This is because human beings who lack an awareness of their own personal reality (which is futuring, questing) cannot exist in a “we-relation” with other human beings.

She goes on to suggest that such teachers need to rediscover themselves and their stories as a vital part of their work:

Looking back, recapturing their stories, teachers can recover their own standpoints on the social world. Reminded of the importance of biographical situation and the ways in which it conditions perspective, they may be able to understand the provisional character of their knowing, of all knowing. They may come to see that, like other living beings, they could only discern profiles, aspects of the world. Making an effort to interpret the texts of their life stories, listening to others’ stories in whatever “web of relationships”29 they find themselves, they may be able to multiply the perspectives through which they look upon the realities of teaching; they may be able to choose themselves anew in the light of an expanded interest, an enriched sense of reality. Those who wished to become nurturant beings may (having entered new “provinces of meaning,”30 looked from different vantage points) come to see that nurturing too can only be undertaken within social situations, and that the social situation in the school must be seen in relation to other situations lived by the young. Those who chose themselves as keepers of the academic disciplines may come to realize that the perspectives made possible by the disciplines are meaningful when they illuminate the experience of the learner, when they enable him or her to order the materials of his/her own lived world. Those who focused primarily on the social process may come to see that existing individuals, each in his/her own “here” and own “now,” act in their intersubjectivity to bring the social reality into being, and that attention must be paid to the person in his/her uniqueness even as it is paid to the community. Seeing more, each one may be more likely to become “a network of relationships”31 and perhaps be more likely to act in his or her achieved freedom to cut loose from anchorage and choose anew.

It is striking how relevant this perspective is today in 2014 as education policy has placed layer after layer of technical rationality upon teachers and seeks to hold them accountable to poor markers of their own effectiveness and influence upon learners.  Today, teachers are more in need than ever of ways to keep their focus upon the real and authentic nature of their work, and I am struck by how timely Dr. Greene’s observations are for teachers in 2014.  In danger of becoming “Kafkaesque clerks”, teachers need to rediscover their own stories and thus rediscover their purposes.

In a 1989 article in “Education and Culture” called “Reflection and Passion in Teaching”, Dr. Greene took on the current trends in education policy in the nation (trends that today have yielded us the Common Core State Standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing consortia, value added measures of teacher effectiveness and labeling all children as either proficient or not proficient):

I am concerned, certainly, about competent practice and about what Schon calls “reflection-in-action” as an alternative to technological rationality. But I need to say that I am concerned about something in addition to competent action, important as that is for us to define and understand. We ought to talk more readily about what that practice is for about the purposes we define for ourselves at this peculiar moment of our history.

These words ring especially importantly today:

For educators, this is not a narrowly partisan position, I would insist, because teaching, as many have viewed the activity, is an undertaking oriented to empowering persons to become different, to think critically and creatively, to pursue meanings, to make increasing sense of their actually lived worlds. Wholly unlike “selling” or drilling or training, teaching is oriented to provoking persons to care about what they are coming to understand, to attend to their situations with solicitude, to be mindful, to be concerned, to be fully present and alive. Democratic education, certainly, involves provoking persons to get up from their seats, not to come to Christ or to be magically cured, but to say something in their own voices, against their own biographies and in terms of what they cherish in their shared lives, what they authentically hold dear. It involves getting them to leave their assigned places in the crowds and even in the marches, and to come together freely in their plurality. It means creating an “in-between” among them, a space where they can continue appearing as authentic individuals, each with a distinctive perspective on what they have come to hold in common, a space where something new can find expression and be explored and elaborated on, where it can grow. It is when people become challengers, when they take initiatives, that they begin to create the kinds of spaces where dialogue can take place and freedom can appear. And it is then, and probably only then, that people begin thinking about working together to bring into being a better, fairer, more humane state of things.

Dr. Greene not only challenged technical rationality as a basis for teaching and learning, she also challenged what she saw as insufficiently alternative view of reflective practice proposed by Donald Schon:

If it is indeed the case that, in a period like this, we ought to be making particular efforts to provoke students to think and speak for themselves, the approach to teaching outlined (but not endorsed) by Schon is entirely antithetical to the kind of practice we ought to be considering. For one thing, it is extraordinarily difficult to justify any knowledge as “privileged,” now that we know as much as we do about the diverse approaches even within the various specialties, and now that so many recognize the importance of the kind of perspectival and interpretative knowing of which Eco’s blind monk was so afraid. Moreover, many professionals now realize that their practice is almost always situation-specific. To depend upon generalized formulas and quantitative measures, to limit our concern to student success and failure in the assimilation of curriculum materials and the mastery of skills, is (more often than not) to distance the particularities of classroom life. It is to act as if the classroom were indeed an “object-in-general,” not an unstable, unpredictable human situation identical to no other in the world.

Dr. Greene’s vision was much more compelling and goes far beyond offering an alternative perspective to technical rationality:

My adversary point in this moment of “reform” concerns the significance of empowering diverse individuals to think, to be mindful, to make sense, and to reach beyond. I am not suggesting that we set aside subject matters or the disciplines, which obviously provide perspectives, modes of ordering and symbolizing and articulating experience. Nor am I arguing against the kind of professional education that introduces teachers-to-be to the human sciences, the natural sciences, the arts and humanities, and the technical literacy that can inform situations of practice as well…This is quite different from the application of technical or scientific constructs to fluid situations where they frequently do not apply; it is quite different from the application of conclusions from research external to the actual concerns, the unease of teachers and students immediately involved. I am not sure but that one of the unwanted consequences of technical rationality and a skills orientation has been the desire for the folding screen, the submission to kitsch, or the hidden fear. But if we are the kinds of educators who want to provoke, to motivate persons to move and become challengers, I believe we have to reconceive.

And to stir ourselves, to disturb, to transform. An emotion, a passion can be a transformation of the world. It can break through the fixities; it can open to the power of possibility. It may even render practice more reflective. We need to open spaces for this in education at this time in history, to renew as we reform

 

We are, as then, in a moment where such visions of teaching and learning and the very purposes for why we have pursued them over a 200 year history of common schooling are vitally important.  Education lost Maxine Greene last week, but her writings will continue to speak about what really matters and to what those who want to improve our schools should truly pay attention.  There is much more to this work than can be captured in a standards document or in a standardized examination or in a teacher effectiveness score derived from those exams, but those are the matters that have dominated our conversation about schools for far too long.  It is past time to consider what it means to “stir ourselves, to disturb, to transform”.

 

 

 

 

 

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