Archive for March, 2006

Writing Across and Against the Curriculum

Mar 30 2006 Published by under borderland,literacy

A couple of ideas appeared in my email today in advance of National Poetry Month. I now have a poetry resources list for the sites I found potentially useful. While following links for those poetry sites I ran across Altered Books. Remixing digital media has been popular among artists for a long time, but I’ve never seen anyone tear a book up to change it into something else. I plan to visit the local used book store and buy a box full of old kiddie lit paperbacks and have the kids rip and mix them. It’s found poetry, but you find it by taking words out of the book, or layering new words or pictures onto the book. Take that, publishers! Your paperbacks all fall apart sooner or later anyway. We have power over any text. No reason to limit ourselves to magazines and newspapers.

In Writing Across and Against the Curriculum, Art Young described the benefits of using poetry in writing for all academic disciplines.

I found that when students write poetry in response to a specific assignment carefully constructed to fulfill a course goal, under the tutelage of an encouraging teacher who makes students feel "œsafe" as they compose and share, most authors do express fresh perspectives on disciplinary knowledge and develop better understanding of multiple purposes, connections, and contexts for that knowledge….When poems are assigned as brief, informal, writing-to-learn activities, students are free to spend as much time writing them as they wish…In writing poetry students write outside the discourse of the discipline; at the same time, they often make connections to the discipline not typically available when they attempt to follow the discipline"™s rhetorical conventions. Usually they are being graded on how well they follow those conventions and how quickly they learn the discourse of an insider. Writing poems across the curriculum interrupts their expectations for disciplinary writing and thinking; for many poets it loosens the requirement to think inside the curriculum. Using the writing of poetry as a tool for learning should not be an esoteric activity but, rather, an important strategy for enhancing student learning and influencing campus culture.

Young, Art. "œWriting Across and Against the Curriculum." College Composition and Communication 54.3 (February 2003): 472"“485.
Update: Art Young has a book that is available online called Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, Third Edition.

Mess around. Mix it up. Celebrate poetry with writing “across and against the curriculum.” Have fun with transmediation.

5 responses so far

Kids are Natural Learners

Mar 28 2006 Published by under borderland,education,science

Kids are natural learners, and it isn’t a big deal to them most of the time. Learning is what kids do. Simple. When I was a kid nobody bothered to keep tabs on what I was learning, and I had a lot of chances to set up little educational projects of my own. Some of my projects were ragged constructions and others were impromptu experiments. I never thought of this as learning, but in retrospect I see that’s what my projects were about. It’s a good thing nobody tested me on them because most of what I learned held little educational currency. I’m glad I had the chance to ask my own questions before adults came up with tests for fake knowledge and forced kids to only learn what could be filled into a blank space on paper.

My grandmother had a little house in the country with an old broken concrete path near the back porch. There were about two million cats living under her house. The cats were mostly wild. Some had ringworm and were pretty thin. Most of them looked rough and were shy of people, but if they thought you might have food for them they’d get close enough to let you pick them up.

As a little guy of maybe 7 years of age I remember one of my entertainments on visits to Grandma’s house was to crack open walnuts with a hammer on the concrete walkway. One day, for whatever reason, the cats seemed more interesting than the walnuts, and I decided to try a little experiment. I remember wondering whether it was true that cats always land on their feet. Since there wasn’t anywhere high enough to drop a cat for an honest test of the question, I decided to find out if they’d land on their feet when they were traveling UP as well as Down. My project design to test the question was to throw some cats into a tree to see if they’d grab onto it. I expected that most of them would be able to grab the tree because my experience was that they all had sharp claws.

It was a great plan. The large number of cats around the house meant I had plenty of raw material to work with. I knew that a single trial wouldn’t meet validity criteria to justify a conclusion about cats in general, so I tried the experiment many times. I began rounding up cats and heaving them into a big tree next to the house. The cats usually flailed a little bit on their way up, hit the tree, fell to the ground, and ran away. To give them a better chance of sticking to the tree, I revised my technique and tried tossing them feet-first. Most of the time if they hit the tree high enough up they’d bounce off and hit the ground running. Very few of them hung onto the tree. Of course I don’t know if that was because they couldn’t, or didn’t want to. Everyone knows that cats are independent minded. I wasn’t strong enough to throw the big cats very far, so my results were limited to kittens and smaller cats.

I know that the ethics of this experiment are apalling, except in the case of a small boy who’d never heard the word, ‘appropriate.’ That wasn’t a word that was used on kids until the early 1980′s. Until then all we got from adults was either, “Do this,” or “Stop that.” There was a lot of gray area to be explored between those two limits when no authority figures were around, and my cat project was novel enough that nobody had specifically set forth guidelines for that set of conditions.

I wonder how many learning opportunities kids miss these days as we socialize them into the culture of formalized schooling and conventional modes of learning? You know, I don’t remember a single science lesson from elementary school, but that little experiment of mine is quite vivid. Interestingly, I never told anyone about it. I’d forgotten all about it, in fact, until the other night when I was visiting with some friends, and we were talking about walnuts. It was just another day in the life of a kid.

The essential observation I have to make about my project at this point is that you can learn a lot from cats if you have enough of them. The problem with having just one or two is that they are more difficult to catch for additional trials. Live and learn.

4 responses so far

The Power to Define

Mar 26 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Wow! I take a day off to snowboard with my family at the ski area down the road, and Miguel goes nuclear, getting quite deep into some complex thinking. Sometimes I think I could make a part time job out of simply responding to what he has to say. What would happen if we ever found ourselves in the same room? I get a lot to think about from reading his blog, but I don’t write as fast as he does.

Sincerely, I think that exploring the power relations embedded in language is a provocative line of thinking that holds promise for latching onto truth, which seems to be a difficult thing to pin down anymore. I wrote a while back about evaluating truth claims because I find Carspecken’s analytical frame for understanding the validity requirements of different types of claims useful when I’m exploring new ideas, trying to sort the B from the S, to be polite. Principally, mistaking normative claims for objective claims seems to me to be a fundamental point of difficulty for people.

In a quote from Borderland that Miguel used to illustrate a point, I wrote that

The balance between responsibility and the need students have to take a risk is real, but it"™s not a static limit….

In his post, Miguel rephrased the statement as

The limits students work within are not absolute and they shift and move with each individual. Good and evil are absolute, aren’t they?

Maybe I’m missing something here, but the links to pages discussing moral relativism/absolutism don’t apply to my intended meaning. My intention with the word ‘responsibility’ was to reference the teacher’s responsibility to maintain a safe learning environment, while my use of the words ‘need to take a risk’ is an assumption that I make about our need to learn from our experiences. Think about the type of playground equipment we provide at school. It’s swings and slides – not trampolines and tightropes. I was trying to say that each kid has different capacities for understanding the world, coming to us as they do with a wide variety of life experiences and family values. And furthermore, these capacities vary with the age and temperament of each student, so the limits we must observe are not static.

Perhaps the relativism/absolutism moral spin was the meaning that Miguel made from my statement which, indeed, would say something about his own frame of reference with respect to authority and freedom. The claim that “good and evil are absolute” is a normative claim, and would require a great deal of conversation about many other things before we’d ever reach agreement on that simple statement.

I am one hundred percent in agreement about the value of challenging our own assumptions about power, and our use of language to impose those beliefs on others, particularly children. Miguel’s use of the metaphor of the “strong father” for an authoritarian symbol interests me in this discussion. As an exercise of thought, consider how the meaning would change if he used the term “big brother” instead. Orwell chose that Big Brother symbol carefully, I think, because he recognized how easily power could be imposed on people who believed it was being applied for their own good, and big brothers are typically viewed as caretakers, while strong fathers are stereotyped as disciplinarians. In our current political climate, and more and more throughout western society, safety is emphasized as a value that trumps respect and freedom of choice. Power that is exercised in the name of security has very disturbing implications, in my view.

Teachers are being asked to serve a monster. NCLB is a mechanism to enslave us and our students to definitions of competence that are outright fabrications. The entire issue is based on lies, justified by a claim that attempts to link economic well-being and national security, and will indeed destroy public education if we don’t figure out how to reframe the discussion. We need to actively define an alternative vision from the one that is being legislatively promoted. I do see a ray of hope in this dark cloud. If teachers ever manage to summon the will to begin working on the legitimate weaknesses and failures of the system we toil within – weaknesses that we ourselves identify – we might begin to reframe this discussion from one of educational reform to one that is focused on changes that will matter. The power to control definitions is the power to control thought. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, we lack consensus. Consensus has been managed for us by administrators.

Normative claims that masquerade as objective truth are tools of propaganda. Fear and lies serve devious ends. Do not allow people to use terms like achievement gap, failure, or proficiency without challenging their meaning. The problem isn’t simply “failing” schools. Schools are being asked to clean up a broadly distributed social mess caused by centuries of materialism and greed. Education has been colonized. We are being trampled by our rescuers. This is not a new story.

5 responses so far

I Made a Connection

Mar 22 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

I began the test prep shuffle this week. I’m teaching math topics we haven’t covered that I suspect might be on the tests. Testing is 2 weeks off, but I don’t do any bubble-marking practice until a couple of days ahead of the real deal. I also don’t much care if the kids do a good job on the tests. I’ve seen my little thoroughbreds stumble on gentle turf, so I question my ability to prepare them to be competent bubblers. What I do think about is helping them to avoid a deer in the headlights reaction to questions about things they never learned about.

In the midst of these worldly concerns, I was stopped today by a single sentence from a ten-year old. Things that can’t be captured in test data, can’t be communicated on a report card, and can’t be measured are true indicators of personal growth and transformation. But that stuff is of no consequence to anyone but me and the kids. I’ll report it here to anyone who might be interested because there’s no other relevant forum.

I’ve been working with a self-styled readers workshop format for several months. The kids choose books and read them. It’s revolutionary in its simplicity. They write in response journals, and I write back. Along with my comment or question I put a number between 1 and 5 near the entry to let them know how I thought they did with the reading response. We have a rubric, but I fly by line of sight most of the time. Making connections has been a big topic for a while now. I’ve taught them about schema and the importance of background knowledge for comprehension. They have fun making connections between texts.

Today I shifted gears a little, and introduced them to a new novel by Louis Sachar, There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, which we’ll read as a class. I plan to teach them how to discuss a book. They had a Sticky assignment to leave three yellow notes in the assigned section they’d like for us to discuss. The period ended at the end of the day, and there was the usual day’s-end-chaos with coats, clutter, and conversation. Loud and in motion.

Near where I was standing, and I’m so glad I was there to hear this, one of the girls called, “Hey Skitchy, I made a connection with the story you wrote. Your story was just like in the book!”

That’s all. Just that much, but what a load of meaning it carried. The comment validated my instructional efforts. It revealed a thoughtful reading of the book and the work that a classmate had written, and it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t putting our work online in our community writing project. My students see themselves as writers and readers. They know who they are, and they are sharing the joy of belonging to a learning community. The best part is that even if everyone didn’t make that connection independently, they all understand what that statement meant. There are no test bubbles for that.

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.
Galileo Galilei

2 responses so far


Mar 21 2006 Published by under borderland,education,technology

To those who visited Tell the Raven and left comments for my students, thanks. We were on spring break last week, and the kids were jazzed when they came back and heard that people from far away read their stories and left them comments.

Miguel’s comment about the folks who have “NO CLUE” interested me because that sentiment runs as a theme through many of the blogs written by educational technology specialists. Miguel, in a separate blog entry, 3 Factors of Interactive Communications, also posted a link to an interesting article about technology diffusion that analyzed competing views of technology as an agent of educational change. The analytical framework he wrote about describes technology adopters as belonging to either the instrumentalist camp or the determinist camp. Instrumentalists say that Education Reform is made possible by new technology, while determinists see Change as a process that is driven by new technologies. Dichotomous categorization schemes construct an either/or reality that simplifies complex social questions. I don’t know how useful they are for developing deep understanding of current conditions, but I have fun playing with them sometimes. In this case I wandered into a contradiction in my own thinking that made me question some of my assumptions about determinism.

The subject of internet technology and education reform (ie. blogs, wikis, podcasting, videoblogs, games, Wikipedia, Google,…) is frequently coupled with the observation that many teachers don’t seem to recognize the wave of Change that is rushing toward us, traditional classrooms are becoming obsolete, new forms of communication are requiring new definitions of literacy, etc…and the question: How are we going to get them to see it? Because, according to the edublog evangelists, seeing it is a mark of progressive visionary practice that will prepare kids for the future.

Like Miguel, my sympathy is with the ‘possibility’ folks. At first I saw determinism as a dark and narrow channel, but then I realized that my discomfort with blog evangelism is that it seems to rely on a deterministic view of technology. Science fiction has filled our imaginations with both miracles and nightmares, after all. My experience suggests that there is a basic difficulty with the proposition that the culture of schooling will be constructively affected by the read/write web, a proposition based on a vision of liberatory pedagogies emerging from technology applications. An instrumentalist view, on the other hand, does not necessarily imply a constructive outcome since the people who are making choices for the ends to which technology will be applied don’t necessarily share my expressivist ideals.

For example, there has been very little outside interest in my students’ site among members of my school community. I think there have been maybe 3 comments posted to the site by adult relatives of my students. A few cousins and siblings have left comments as well. In an effort to promote what we are doing to the school community, I made a bulletin board featuring student writing announcing that it’s all online. This generated one comment, and the comment wasn’t even online. An adult volunteer in another classroom read our bulletin board and told the principal that he enjoyed the students’ work. Our online presence is all but invisible to the people who we are closest to. We are like subway musicians, playing for ourselves in public.

When I told a few other teachers at a staff meeting that there were free websites available from my web host, they brightened up. When I told them that they had to know a little bit about building web pages, they deflated immediately. The learning curve is too steep. The conceptual leap is too vast for them. Meanwhile, my students tell me that they are writers. They are also thinkers. They are inventors. They are powerful. They supportively leave comments on each others’ work, and many are slowly learning to employ conventions of print without my help. The project is working for me and the kids, but I see that it isn’t necessarily for everyone. The rest of my colleagues use computers for management, for drill and practice, for spell-checking and neatness, for games, for Google.

So whose web will it be? Will we drive or be driven? The question about the impact that Web2.0 will have on classrooms is ultimately limited by the vision of those who are running the show. Miguel mentioned 3 factors that influence technology diffusion: a critical mass of users, regular use, and innovation by individual adopters. In my immediate experience, these conditions suggest that read/write web technologies are a long way from mainstream classroom integration. Teachers are overloaded with a barrage of demands that limit their openness to new self-selected challenges. As long as accountability, standards, and measurement dominate the conversational and curricular agenda then those are the purposes to which technology will be directed.

I made a presentation about blogs to a group of teachers last summer. After I talked for probably too long, a woman raised her hand and asked, “Why would anyone want to do this?” I didn’t know what else to say. You either see it, or you don’t. We lack consensus – not only for technology – but for our vision of schooling.

5 responses so far

Tell the Raven, Tell the World

Mar 12 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,technology

It’s been about 2 weeks since I got the new domain online for my classroom Community Writing Project. I’m not calling it a classroom blogging site because the kids don’t know what blogging is. They’re writing, though. And how! They’re jazzed to be writing for each other and the few outsiders who’ve left comments.

I’m not an outlaw, but I would be if there was a law. I was amused to see this post from Miguel about outlawing unsanctioned technology tools in school. My amusement was with the coincidence, not the subject matter. I saw it the same day that I got the class project set up on its new domain. Miguel said that districts might want to reserve “the right to ban the use of non-school related tools and/or evaluate their efficacy in K-12 settings on a case by case basis,” and though I like the case-by-case basis part, and I don’t dispute anyone’s right to dictate what their network should be used for, I don’t feel particularly in synch with district technology uses. So if push ever comes to shove, I’m not confident about how my case will shake out.

Last year I requested and was allowed access to a server for a class blog site. This year I found that the site had been removed. I was a little bit unnerved, thinking that I’d maybe done something ‘they’ viewed as wrong. (See the power dynamic here?) What I learned, though, is that the system admin had dropped the database because the server was “repurposed.” Boom! Gone! He was apologetic. With a stroke, my project was belly-up. More discussion…the system admin assured me he’d work on getting a new server online. We talked about the application I would run. The set-up was expected to come together in December. While I waited for the web server I taught my students how to type with both hands. Every kid can type now, and they can save their work by downloading to a file server on our building network. This, I think, is a giant step for fourth-graders.

In January I wanted to move forward and get students involved in something more dynamic than saving stories to a file server, so I put a Drupal site up on a subdomain at but I didn’t like having my students’ work near my weblog. I saw an offer of free web space for education projects at Lunarpages K-12 Education Program (US teachers only, it looks like.) and sent an email inquiring about it. I got an immediate response, ran it by my supervisor, and in two days I had a free domain. It was absolutely painless.

What’s going on here? The school district appears to be headed in a completely other direction from me. I know that there are sympathetic technologists downtown, but there are competing forces in play. I got a Professional Development Input Form handed me the other day. I was to put check marks next to the topics I am interested in.

Under the heading: Technology: Ways to integrate technology with instruction:
Learn how teachers are managing student learning with the help of computer technology.

Under Technology: My students know more about this computer program than I do:
District tech-types will help walk you through specific software programs: PLATO, Accelerated Reader, Accelerated Math, Larson’s Math, etc.

Note to all: these software applications will NOT help integrate technology with instruction-they will encourage technology to displace instruction. To my way of thinking, this is a disruptive use of technology, sanctioned by the administration, that is anti-educational. The use of computers to deliver and monitor drills and exercises is an abuse of people and machines, debasing them both, disempowering teachers, and students, promoting an uncritical submissiveness to the power of Technology. If we are going to expand minds with information technology, we need to avoid placing students in a submissive posture around computers. They should be learning to drive them, not be driven. There were no choices that I was interested in. I had no box to check.

More evidence of my out-of-steppedness: I got this letter from my daughter’s middle school principal.

Thank you for helping with the pilot testing of Centerpoint…[our] new student information system.

As a pilot parent tester of Centerpoint, your use…will better help us prepare for our phased implementation of the new system for use by all secondary school students…and for elementary schools soon thereafter.

What is Centerpoint?
…a secure web-based student information management system where you can quickly check grades assignments, attendance, the school calendar, student progress, communicate with teachers and set up automatic email alerts regarding attendance, missing assignments and progress reports. As parents using Centerpoint, you will have 24/7 communication link to your student’s performance and attendance.

Why, I ask is this needed? I can think of only one reason. Parents are unable to communicate with the younger human beings, the students, in their own homes who have direct access to all of this school information and should be learning to manage it themselves. The network for these analog datatypes has existed for decades, but has lately broken down, apparently. Mind you, I am not placing any value judgments on the nature of that information, (worthless for the most part though it may be which may, in fact be the problem, and if so, Centerpoint will not be of much use). We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and God knows how much time and energy to bypass the obvious links between home and school that students were formerly responsible for. If evidence of a broken system is wanted, look no further. But you must also recognize that it is not only the Education System that seems to be broken. The Family System is ailing, as well. Students are being systematically absolved of the need to participate in their own education, and parents might actually *buy* this! If the District High Priests of Technology are monitoring this blog. Hear me now: God Help Us!

My little writing project does not represent nearly the hazard to students that the institutional steamroller is prepared to deliver. I wish that I could “reserve the right to ban the use of inhuman tools and/or evaluate their efficacy in K-12 settings on a case by case basis.” We would immediately cease the practice of measuring and grading young children, as inefficacious, coercive, and immoral a use of technology as any.

Technology is limited and defined by our imaginations, which determine how things are deployed. Our imaginations are limited by narratives worn thin through constant retelling. To realize the great potential of our human spirit we need to consciously and courageously break with the narratives of fear and mistrust. They are the matrix for confusion and conflict.

My question for the authors of this twisted text: Whose ‘system’ was it intended to be? And whose ends does it now serve?

14 responses so far

Resources for Copyright Literacy

Mar 08 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

I found out today that this is Copyright Awareness Week. In recognition of this occasion NCTE Inbox [subscribe to NCTE Inbox] newsletter had several links to resources about finding and using online media and information. For teachers whose students use the internet for project work, this seemed like a valuable resource. I’ve collected them in my folder. I’ve included annotations so that anyone browsing the tag might be able to see which links might be useful for students.

Students need to learn how to acknowledge the sources they use, and they also need to learn when to do so. My students have innocently turned in web pages that they’ve simply printed, thinking that qualifies as a report. At age 10, I imagine they feel pretty smart giving me a bunch of reading to do! My fourth-graders are learning to take notes with TextEdit, Apple’s native text editing application, by copying-to/pasting-from the computer clipboard and then digging out the stuff they understand, rewriting it so it makes sense and comes out sounding like something they understand. Citing the source material is pretty far out for most of them at this point.

I’m satisfied when students can find information and restate what they understood without copying the source material verbatim. With a computer, this involves managing multiple windows and applications. It’s good to see some of them doing it almost naturally now. At the beginning of the year, none of them knew about copy/paste, or cycling between applications. Now they use it routinely to accomplish basic tasks.

Following some of the copyright links took me to the lessons pages maintained by IRA, NCTE, and the Marco Polo Education Foundation. This is one of the most comprehensive literacy resources I know of. It’s been a while since I’ve browsed the site and I’m going to make a point of looking around there again real soon. I especially like the lesson plan selector that lets you search for grade level options, literacy strand options, and lesson content (“engagement”) options.

The literacy strand options allow for searching among three process objectives: Learning language-using language to make meaning, Learning about language-comprehension strategies and word study, and Learning through language-using reading and writing as a tool for exploration and critique. It’s an excellent conceptual model for a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction.

One response so far

I Shared my Bed with Mice

Mar 06 2006 Published by under borderland,education

My personal narrative frames the Why that led me to become a teacher. It is linked to my previous post about cultural narratives.

I left the University after my second year there. I quit to work on an oil tanker. I was unfocused, unmotivated, disillusioned, disenchanted, and disengaged. I’d always been a good student, but I wasn’t interested in school in 1973. There was a world to explore and it wasn’t between the pages of any book. After I left the unversity I spent about 6 years doing odd jobs, embracing aimlessness and wandering. I didn’t work at anything longer than a few months. I was homeless part of the time. One of the things I did was work as a field hand in apple orchards in Washington state. I did that, seasonally, for a few years. After making a few bucks I went to Mexico to see how long I could make the money last. I also worked on fishing boats, washed dishes, painted houses, dug holes, and pushed wheelbarrows. I cleaned and moved anything that came along.

I lived on the margin. My vision for the future had about a 3 month horizon. The god that commanded my reverence was the god of Experiments in Rough Living. One of my more ambitious experiments, for example, was to spend a winter in an abandoned mud-floored log barn in the Idaho wilderness. The building was heated by an old oil drum that I made into a stove with a cold chisel, a hand drill, a hammer and a screwdriver. I covered the roof with a roll of felt paper. I cut my wood with a bow saw, and I shared my bed with mice.

The insight that led me to become a teacher presented itself when I was standing at the top of a three-legged ladder with an apple sack on my shoulders, with branches in my face. It was late fall. The weather was cool and grey. Nights were cold, and we didn’t work until the fruit thawed each day. A lot of pickers left that time of year because they couldn’t make money working only half a day. I stayed on because I had a free cabin to live in. A Mexican family drove into the orchard in a yellow Buick. They were assigned the row next to me. There were several people working the row, and they all spoke Spanish. There were kids in the car.

I began thinking about the limited options those people must have had to be all living out of that car and working as fruit pickers. I realized that any day I chose to quit I could return to the university and pick up where I left off. The difference between me and them, I reasoned, is that I had a foundation in the basics of reading, writing, and math-tools that I could use to construct an alternate future.

It might not sound like an earth-shaking revelation now, but at the time, with six years of distance between me and any coursework, and the contemplation of much Mystery, it seemed like a monumental understanding. The very fact that I remember that moment now, 30 years later, says something about its significance. I decided to go back to school and become a teacher so that other people might have the same access to choices in life. The point I failed to consider, though, was that the cultural narrative which served to keep me engaged and motivated to acquire those academic skills in the first place isn’t necessarily shared by everyone who might enter a classroom. I knew nothing about achievement gaps or institutional discrimination because my upbringing had primed me for success, and completely sheltered me from minority points of view.

I see now, after 22 years of trying, that all of the “best practices” and new technologies won’t make a difference for all students until we shape a shared vision for schooling. Some students, of course, will succeed no matter what institutional model we employ because they have a sustaining reason, a compelling Why for schooling that serves them wonderfully. Every student needs that, but they don’t all have one. Those are the people I entered the profession to serve.

The only institutionally viable option I see at the moment is charter schools, an idea that I’ve been entertaining for a few months. Still, the promise of an alternative approach seems but a desperate attempt to patch a shattered vision with just another technology, another How. If disillusionment is a stimulus for growth, I’ve had a dose.

Comments Off

Wanted: gods that will serve

Mar 05 2006 Published by under borderland,education

Sometimes a new idea is at once so big, so simple, and so obvious that it seems strange that I’ve never noticed it. After reading Leigh’s post about Neil Postman, an author I’d never read, I picked up a couple of Postman’s books at the library last month. The End of Education [book review] triggered an awareness for me of cultural mechanisms that Postman called narratives, which might be likened to worldviews with a storyline and, according to Postman, have the power of gods over our perceptions of reality. The power of cultural narratives to define education explains many problems I see in the classroom.

These narrative-gods are entities that prescribe rules of conduct. They help us imagine a future as well as construct a history. They give meaning and purpose to our lives. The importance of cultural narratives for education, Postman said, is that they are shared.

There was a time when American culture knew what schools were for because it offered fully functioning multiple narratives for its people to embrace….Among them is one that goes by the name of the Protestant ethic. In this tale, it is claimed that hard work and a disciplined capacity to delay gratification are the surest path toward earning God’s favor (p. 13-14).

Focusing on the importance of narratives to schooling, Postman said that “What makes public schools public is not so much that the schools have common goals, but that the students have common gods.” (p. 18).”

Whether or not there ever were truly functioning gods with the power to adequately define schooling for most people is a debatable point. The need for a common narrative, however, seems entirely reasonable if we expect common outcomes for all students.

We humans have our symbol-creating power to thank for this god-making power. The power to create symbolic forms is what enables us to construct meaning through language, art, music, dance, gesture, etc. Cultural narratives are a means for us to create meaning. How ironic, I think, that the gods we create come to dominate us by overwhelming our ability to perceive the world directly.

During the past century, our gods have been under attack. The god of Faith has been challenged by the god of Science, The god of Self-reliance has fallen victim to the god of Corporate Responsibility. The god of Liberal Democracy has been wounded by the gods of Market Economies and Consumership. The battles for narrative primacy present a crisis that is turning people around the world toward tribalism and fundamentalism as we seek to recover lost meanings and values. What this means for schooling is that problems of relevance are not technical but metaphysical. The vital question for educators is not How, but Why.

What students need to engage is not a method, but a reason. Our solutions for making education more “effective” will at best benefit only those who share the sanctioned institutional vision. For the disaffected and disengaged, our technical advances and pedagogical refinements seem irrelevant and contrived. Alienated students see through our ruse and recognize the conceit for what it is. All must pay homage to the god of Economic Utility. Education, according to this narrative is a means to gainful employment. Productivity, efficiency, and organization are the values this god requires. The god of Economic Utility is the source of educational standards and accountability, the 2 Commandments of modern schooling. The god of Measurement is child to the god of Technology, the source of all Power and the Supreme Authority of our age.

Postman’s book doesn’t name all possible gods. New gods are born constantly, pounded-out of acetate and silicone, they are offered up to us for our approval on screens, in newsprint, and in shop windows. I’ve added some of my own here. Most teachers, I think, have observed that some children learn the prescribed lessons in school, while other students seem to learn only lessons about schooling itself. They learn that schooling is inflexible and unaccommodating, boring and irrelevant.

The End of Education isn’t a eulogy for public education. In this case ‘end’ can be taken to mean ‘goal’ or ‘result.’ Recognizing the need for new gods, Postman proposes a few. His list isn’t exhaustive but does offer a hopeful starting point for recreating a shared vision. Without going into detail about Postman’s list, I would say that any attempt to suggest solutions seems to me merely one more desperate How aimed at resuscitating the faltering Why. Not wanting to be entirely cynical, I think that new gods are possible and likely, but they are not going to arise from a conscious collective effort to create them because that’s not how they are born. Gods are born out of chaos and confusion. People rush to them for salvation. They appear when we find ourselves on the cataclysmic brink, or they insinuate themselves silently like snakes. I believe that the birth and adoption of gods that will serve us will require awareness and resistence to the suggestion that somehow we are going to teach our way out of this mess unless that teaching is about the mess itself. In short, I think the gods currently in ascendance will first need to fall.

One response so far