Archive for January, 2007

In Names We Trust

Jan 27 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

One of the things I note about my blogging practice is that it lets/forces me to tie up various loose ends that would otherwise remain what they are – random threads of disjointed information. Sometimes I have a hard time coherently bringing them together. Like now. This post is a link-fest, and rather long.

Neal Postman’s recommendation that we include the study of semantics in school curricula to encourage critical thinking sparked my interest in the subject. Postman was referring to Korzybski’s general semantics, a theory about thought and language that examined the the differences between symbol and object, map and territory, and the processes of abstraction we use to construct knowledge. Postman’s interest in the subject was driven by his conviction that we are all potential victims of subtle and not-so-subtle media messages in what has become a technology-dominated society.

I was thinking about this three weeks ago when I left a comment at Liz’s blog, I Speak of Dreams. The comment I left was that the term ‘learning disability’ is a social construction, an idea that she responded to back here.

Blogging offers a great opportunity to have your beliefs and statements reflected back to you for reconsideration. Very briefly, I agree with Liz’s comment and I see why she needed to make it. She pointed out that there is often a neurological component associated with learning disabilities, as well as the social aspect. I want to elaborate a little bit about my comment which I see now has prompted a similar “red flag” from another of her readers. Liz’s comment highlighted my need to do some more reading and think some more on what I meant about disability being a social construction.

My immediate reaction to Liz’s comment was, Well…yes, there are both sociocultural and clinical dimensions to learning disabilities. That’s right. I didn’t mention it, or qualify my comment, because I assumed that it was obvious. And because she felt a need to mention this, I was alerted to the fact that I’d stepped into a bigger discussion I knew little about. I didn’t know about the political dimension of special education, which mirrors current debates about public education in general. Unsurprisingly, I suppose.

I’ve never had a course in reading dysfunction or neurological processes in reading, even in my graduate courses for a reading endorsement. Few teachers have, I’d wager. Every public school teacher has experience working with kids who have learning disabilities, but training in what to do is not widely available. Mostly, what we are offered is a commercially packaged solution that’s adopted at the district level with training provided to specialists and aides. So I’m behind the curve where theory is concerned here.

In reading through the material that Liz posted, I see she has linked to several resources for people who want to explore them. She also criticizes claims that dyslexia is a myth, and offers concrete suggestions for remediating dyslexia. While I agree with Liz that students with processing difficulties require special interventions, she and I do not agree that whole language is “nonsense.” But maybe we can avoid that discussion for now.

When we identify a kid who isn’t making normal progress in school, we try different things and meet with an “intervention team” to discuss the situation. Eventually we test for specific areas of strength and deficit to see if we can get a better sense of what’s happening. Questions that we attempt to resolve have to do with

  • memory functions,
  • auditory and visual processing,
  • language functions, including receptive and expressive vocabulary,
  • verbal and non-verbal abstract reasoning or logic,
  • attention span and concentration,
  • visual-perceptual abilities including various spatial tasks,
  • sequencing,
  • fine motor dexterity,
  • organizational and planning skills.

All of these are mapped against a broad cognitive (IQ) measure, to determine what the expected scores should be. If a student qualifies for services, and an individual education plan is developed, the student meets regularly with a specialist who provides instruction based on the student’s identified needs.

What interests me, and was the point of my comment, is that these same students may not appear in the least “disabled” away from school. The kids that we call “low achievers,” “behind,” and “at risk” may in fact be the same kids doing flips off the high board on a field trip to the pool, while their more “proficient” peers are wallowing in the shallow end afraid to put their faces in the water. I think about this when I work with my students, and I keep in mind that they come to school as whole people, and that it is in reference to curricular scope and sequence that we see them as “disabled.” In other words, the student is not the disability.

This may seem obvious but it isn’t always easy to remember. In the rush of a day when you realize that one of your students is having a particular unanticipated difficulty, you may not always have the ready solution, the properly understanding tone, the most graceful response. Achh! I don’t always get it right, but I try.

How we talk about disability has a powerful influence oh how we think about it. If we work from a deficit starting point, we constantly have to scale down, simplify, and accommodate. If, instead, we look at the situation as affording us an opportunity to restructure lessons with multiple entry points and an array of options for meeting objectives, we can begin to see how differentiating instruction would be beneficial to all students. The “disabled” student might also be viewed as a “creative” learner. Many students who are not LD also enjoy learning in a variety of ways.

I am not denying that these students have a right to high expectations. I am saying, though, that it is unfair to expect all students to learn the same things at the same rate, and in the same way. When we approach disability from a rigid and dogmatic frame of reference, we traumatize and cripple students who may merely need more time or an alternative approach. The discussion about LD that I wasn’t aware of appears to want to force participants into positions that advocate for either a neurological or social analysis of disability. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. I believe I need to look at each student as an individual with a history and a future, and with needs and capabilities, special or otherwise.

Moreover, the territory is not a world of “either-or-ness” or, for that matter, of “thingness.” Yet our language depicts it as such. The territory never presents itself in all of its detail, whereas our language creates the illusion that our descriptions are complete. Everything in the world is unique but our language forces us into categorical thinking.” – Neal Postman, from “Alfred Korzybski” in Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education (p. 143).

Hayakawa’s, Symbol, Status, and Personality, elaborates the theory of general semantics by Korzybski. Interesting reading, and certainly to the point. “The Tyranny of Words” chapter emphasizes that “The word is not the thing,” and that we need to remember that the meanings of words are inscribed by our responses, and not by other words. Hayakawa points out that, though we teach students the meanings of many things, we neglect to teach about what things do not mean.

The term ‘disability’ is meaningful only when there’s an inflexible norm or a standard, an ‘ability’, to compare with. What it does not mean is as important as what it might mean. Throughout my career I’ve attempted to be a buffer for students against institutional abuses. This has never meant lowering my expectations, but instead has meant having realistic expectations for everyone, which requires flexibility in decision making and a thoughtful consideration of each child’s specific capabilities.

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A Reading Continuum

Jan 23 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

It’s important to explicitly acknowledge the downsides of any technological transformation – to “think of the underside first,” in a precautionary way.
-Bruce Sterling, in Shaping Things

Bruce Shauble’s post, A Book in the Hand, raises an interesting question about reading. Bruce is wondering whether kids are missing the chance to read deeply because so much of their reading and entertainment is electronically mediated.

…they’re essentially non-readers. Or, more accurately, they’re merely functional readers. They may be, and and in most cases probably are, technologically adept. They’re good at text messaging and instant messaging and Googling and playing video games. They know how to access information. They graze, grab what they need to get an assignment done, and then move on. But their mental lives, as far as I can see, are about a mile wide and about an inch deep.

I’m grateful for Bruce’s post, because it prompted me to look at this issue for myself. Like Bruce, I believe that my reading habits have changed in the last few years, and that my purposes for reading seem to have become more centered on my interest in blogging. I don’t know if this means anything – good or bad – in the grand scale of things. I’m reading a novel now, and though I don’t make as much headway with it as I would have pre-internet, I still read a variety of books.

The influence that computers have had on reading is an important question for teachers to think about. Are people reading more superficially? I don’t know. But the temptation to condemn technology should be resisted. The web is a great resource, and it needn’t be viewed in a deterministic way.

Differentiating between literary and informational reading was a subject that Louise Rosenblatt addressed with her theory of transactional reading. Rather than seeing texts as being either informational or literary expressions, she developed a model of reading that constructs reader stance as a variable that exists on a continuum between what she called efferent and aesthetic reading. In an interview that nicely summarizes her thinking, she had some advice for teachers that is worth passing along:

…the same text can be read either way. I can read Shakespeare efferently, I can tell you how many images of pain there are in King Lear or something like that. But if I really want to experience King Lear as a tragedy, I have to be reading it very differently. Not categorizing or labeling. It’s often very valuable to know afterwards, to do it afterwards, after you’ve had the experience. So I would say about teaching: whenever you are having students read something, have them be clear about their purpose.

I believe that superficiality is a danger of information overload, but with technologically mediated texts, we should remember that we can exercise choice in what we read, and how we read. It’s a question of stance, not substance, and we can learn to deliberately read from a variety of them.

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Transmediation and Visual Literacy

Jan 17 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,literacy

Transmediation is a process of bringing meaning from one sign system to another. Transmediation is the basis of all literacy and it’s the essence of media literacy. Graphic art, sculpture, dance, music, photography, all are bearers of meaning, and each medium constrains the types of messages it can express. Every sign system has it’s own grammar.

Take graphs, for instance.

About a month ago John Pederson posted a graph on his blog about rate of change in education. Tom Hoffman commented, and left a trackback that he called Graph Troll (Tom’s blog had a meltdown and we can’t see his post now. He’s got a new blog running here.)

I thought about how graphs might be useful for communicating all sorts of messages – like opinions – not necessarily empirically validated. It seemed like a good idea for a blog, but I didn’t have any messages that demanded graphic representation. I forgot about the idea.

Until Kevin linked to Indexed. It’s a GREAT graphic blog. It’s smart. It’s funny. The author, Jessica Hagy, uses graphs and diagrams to produce cultural commentary. Good stuff.

7 responses so far

Teaching King

Jan 15 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics

I heard a report on the radio this morning about The King Center, which lead me to the Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute’s Liberation Curriculum. There are lesson plans and speeches. King was such a dynamic speaker! You can listen to an excerpt of I Have Been to the Mountaintop, King’s last speech.

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop; and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has it’s place. But I’m not concerned with that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; Im not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Teaching is an act of faith. Of hope. Of healing. King was a teacher. It’s amazing that we can still hear him. Listen. There’s a good article about why kids need to learn about Dr. King, posted at History is Elementary.

updated: see Schools Matter: Losing Black History, All History.

Sarah Puglisi has some book recommendations for celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday.

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Exploring Naive Misconceptions

Jan 13 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,technology

A couple of years ago when I was teaching sixth graders, I took the kids on a science field trip to gather samples of water from a local stream so that we could gauge the water quality. We chartered a bus to take us from the mouth of our local river, the one the kids see flowing through the city center, back up toward the source.

The Chena River empties into the Tanana near the airport. So we rode over toward the airport and found a spot to park and get water samples. The kids kept notebooks for the data they gathered. We got back on the bus and traveled up the river to another location, did the same thing again, and so on, all the way out of town and up to the recreation area east of town where the river is narrow and fast. We don’t have many rivers around here with roads next to them, so this was a convenient chance to give my town-kid students an overview of a local watershed. ‘Watershed’ was a concept we discussed before-hand, along with a lot of other information about ecology and geography.

In the afternoon, around 2:00, we came to a place where the river narrowed and was tumbling over rocks and riffles. Large gravel bars were exposed on the inside bends. Out on one of these open areas, the kids poked sticks at smelly dead salmon carcasses which typically wash up on the rocks after the fall run. Someone found a bear track in the mud. Another kid picked up a stick that had been chewed by a beaver. There were all sorts of things to do and see besides the river water they sampled. Most of them had never been this far upriver (40 miles).

On the bus headed back to school, one young lady remarked, “I never knew that the river gets smaller later in the day.” I looked at her carefully. She wasn’t joking. She was making a generalization based on her limited experience. She’d formed a naive misconception. I was amazed, but glad for the chance to wonder about how important guidance and talk is in making sense of experience, which brings me to the point of this little reflection.

Students aren’t the only ones in school who suffer from limited knowledge and naive misconceptions. I’m only now beginning to appreciate my own woeful lack of understanding of the rhetoric that surrounds discussions about achievement gaps and accountability. I’ve never been a supporter of standardized testing, and when NCLB began to grow teeth I told my principal that it would result in a lot of spilled blood and finger-pointing. And so it has. But all along I thought that this was somehow a “mistake,” a bad decision that would have unintended negative consequences. The rhetoric of equality and equal opportunity for underprivileged populations sounded sincere and well-meaning, even if the law didn’t deliver those results. Now, however, I’ve begun to question the intention behind the rhetoric, and examine my own naive misconceptions.

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. I need to follow some of these ideas – new to me – back to their source, and so will probably share this little journey here as I map the territory for myself.

Neal Postman:

Of all the disciplines that might be included in the curriculum, semantics is certainly among the most “basic.” Because it deals with the processes by which we make and interpret meaning, it has great potential to affect the deepest levels of student intelligence. And yet semantics is rarely mentioned when “back to the basics” is proposed. Why? My guess is that it cuts too deep. To adapt George Orwell, many subjects are basic but some are more basic than others. Such subjects have the capability of generating critical thought and of giving students access to questions that get to the heart of the matter. This is not what “back to the basics” advocates usually have in mind. They want language technicians, people who can follow instructions, write reports clearly, spell correctly. There is certainly ample evidence that the study of semantics will improve the writing and reading of students. But it invariably does more. It helps students to reflect on the sense and truth of what they are writing and of what they are told. It emphasizes the manifold ways in which language can distort reality. It assists students in becoming what Charles Weingartner and I once called “crap detectors.”
-from Technopoly, (p. 195)

Substitute the word, teachers, for students, and it still sounds right. Many of the themes that Postman raised in this dystopian view of technology’s influence on our language and culture are echoed in a post from Susan Ohanian yesterday, in which David Hursh outlines the effects of neoliberalism, which is at the root of the education reform discourse that has dominated the conversation about schools for the last few decades.

I’ve needed a frame to make sense of news articles, such as the one that appeared in our local paper today, in which readers are told

The students spend time reading in small groups or individually and are given research-based instruction by specially-trained tutors. Students are tracked and assessed throughout the year so that individual needs can be met.

What the hell does that mean? I know what it is. And I know what it sounds like, and they aren’t the same. Those “specially trained tutors” aren’t teachers. I’m curious about the “training” they got. Meeting the “individual needs” is code for deciding which level to “put the kids” in the program.

Both Postman and Hursh have plenty to say about how language and technology has shaped our thinking about “scientific management,” and efficiency as the success criteria for institutional functioning in the modern world. Hursh has a manifesto, Carry It On: Fighting for progressive education in neoliberal times.

For me, right now, the internet is helping me to make sense of my experience. I’m reading about neoliberalism and globalization, thinking about what kind of society we’re creating. More to come.

8 responses so far

What is Writing?

Jan 09 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

Roland Barthes

We know that a language is a corpus of prescriptions and habits common to all writers of a period. Which means that a language is a kind of natural ambience wholly pervading the writer’s expression, yet without endowing it with form or content: it is, as it were, an abstract circle of truths outside of which alone the solid residue of an individual logos begins to settle. It enfolds the whole of literary creation much as the earth, the sky, and the line where they meet outline a familiar habitat for mankind. It is not so much a stock of materials as a horizon, which implies both a boundary and a perspective; in short, it is the comforting area of an ordered space. The writer literally takes nothing from it; a language is for him rather a frontier, to overstep which alone might lead to the linguistically supernatural; it is a field of action, the definition of, and hope for, a possibility.

-from Writing Degree Zero

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Symbol Makers

Jan 08 2007 Published by under borderland,literacy,technology

When I read the statement, “it’s about the pedagogy,” with respect to technology and school, I think (sympathetically) OK, but how does that translate in practice? Chris has a list, and he asked if anyone cared to add to it. This is my elaboration on the translation.

I noted several months ago that most examples of blogs in education come from secondary and university-level classrooms. I wondered what blogging with younger students might look like, and speculated that something like a developmental continuum might be useful.

James Moffett’s, Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1968), gave me some ideas.

Previously, when I was thinking about development of voice in student writing, I quoted Moffett:

By discussing his productions in a workshop class, he could profit from other points of view, discover what part of his abstracting is peculiar to him and what he shares with a public, and see how the worth of his higher abstractions is determined by the worth of his lower ones. Generally, a student should learn to play the whole symbolic scale, and to know where he is on it at a given moment. (p.28)

What does this have to do with weblogs? The social nature of the read/write web allows for interactions that mimic conversation. I believe many teachers recognize the potential for technology to supply an authentic context for writing instruction, hoping it will enhance students’ engagement and awareness by providing a real audience for their written messages. Audience has always been the missing discourse element in classrooms.

Discourse is the word that Moffett used to frame the context for all social interactions, essentially a triadic relationship between speaker, listener, and subject. Moffett’s theory of discourse outlines a rationale and a framework for a learner-centered pedagogy, which seems central to 21st century renaissance visions.

Moffett recognized that studying English is much like the study of a foreign language, or mathematics. He believed that students should learn to use the symbolic system to “think and talk about things” by operating it “at all levels of abstraction,” which he defined as a “cycle of sensations, memories, generalizations, and theories.” He theorized that:

…speaking, writing, and reading in forms of discourse that are successively more abstract makes it possible for the learner to understand better what is entailed at each stage of the hierarchy, to relate one stage to another, and thus to become aware of how he and others create information and ideas….Increasingly, in the future, people will need to know, not how to store and retrieve information, which can be done by machines, but what the nature of information is and how it can be abstracted (p. 25).

Moffett’s schema for teaching the Universe of Discourse

Maltese, D. (2006)

With the understanding that we relate to an audience through various modes of discourse, and that we represent subject matter at various levels of abstraction, we can help students become conscious of their own cognitive processes, to become meta-cognitive, when they read and write.

To be the master, and not the dupe, of symbols, the symbol-maker must understand the nature and value of his abstractions. This takes consciousness and an integrated view of the hierarchical, inner processing (p. 25).

So what would the student’s writing look like when played upon the “whole symbolic scale?” According to this schema, younger students, less inclined to generalize and theorize – since cognitive development generally proceeds from the concrete to the abstract – should be encouraged to exploit all of the discourse modes and to produce texts at the lower end of the abstraction scale – texts that tell

  • what is happening (recording),
  • what happened (narratives, reporting)
  • and, to some extent, what happens (generalizing).
  • As students mature, they would presumably be more able to create meaning across all levels, including what may happen (theorizing).

Rather than focusing on subject-oriented genre writing, as in conventional curricula, teachers might consider using this schema with student bloggers since technology capitalizes on the relatedness of writer, audience, and subject matter. A writing curriculum that foregrounds the writer ahead of subject matter is in fact, student-centered, and has never before been so possible.

Maltese, D. (2006) Out of the Narrow Tunnel and into the Universe of Discourse. Voices from the Middle, 14(2), 47-56

Moffett, James. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1968.

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The Country

Jan 05 2007 Published by under commonplaces

Billy Collins

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time-

now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?

-from Nine Horses: Poems

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Jan 05 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

I ran across a link to Borderland last evening that prompted an idea for something I want to try here on this edge of the internet. I read through the Watsoncommon archives, and I found this post about commonplace books in which Christopher Watson explained the genesis of his blog. He mentioned that Bruce Schauble, (who also commented here recently) uses commonplace books to:

1. Copy out passages from readings which interest you or strike you as being noteworthy
2. Record other pieces of incoming data from the world at large: bits of conversation, turns of phrase, song lyrics
3. Make note of questions that occur during the course of the day
4. Write down brief ideas or reflections as they occur
5. Include visual data: pictures, charts, ads, drawings

The term commonplace book triggered a memory for me. I first saw the term on Chris Lott’s blog when I was enrolled in a course he taught. They are a literary form that has a long history and closely fits the definition of a weblog. Turns out Chris has a commonplace book online. There are a few other examples. I was too busy looking into other mysteries of the social web to give the idea much thought beyond a “hmmm” way back when…

As a result of participating in the read/write web, reading blogs and following links on my delicious network, I find myself wandering far from my academic comfort zone into unfamiliar intellectual territory. I’ve been reading about literary theory, epistemology, politics, and history – subjects in which I have little or no formal background. Often, I feel like I can’t comment coherently on those things without knowing a lot more than I do. But sometimes I simply want to remember something, or to make a brief note.

And why should I let incoherence stop me from keeping a record of these little side-trips? Bloggers and columnists do it every day on the internet. What’s wanted is a new category signifying random trivia that, for whatever reason, seemed worthy of my attention.

I think it’s funny that I had to “discover” this. Anyway, Commonplaces will serve as Borderland’s new annex. It’ll be the junk drawer in the kitchen, the attic storage, the bits and pieces department.

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What are you optimistic about?

Jan 01 2007 Published by under borderland

My family celebrates New Years by going to a big fireworks celebration at the university. We stand downhill from the launch pad, close enough to hear the pyros in charge of the show yelling to each other. The explosions are a full-body sensation there, and sometimes the sparks even come down near us. We have to look nearly straight up to see the colors, and it feels like we’re in the display. Not as cosmic as a good aurora borealis night, but the aurora doesn’t explode, so the fireworks are still pretty cool.

January 1 is a personal accountability day. Everyone looks back and remembers people who are no longer around. They make lists of good stuff and bad stuff that happened. They make predictions. They resolve to do better. Nonetheless, I’m trying very hard to not make any New Year’s resolutions since I can’t think of a time I ever made one that mattered. I have no lists. Nothing much on my radar to look ahead to since the world today seems a lot like the world yesterday.

Feeling a bit bleak, the Edge World Question Center’s Annual Question for 2007, What are you optimistic about? seemed like a good place for me to turn for a little “fresh start” inspiration. There’s a lot there, and I haven’t had time to do more than scan a few of the articles. Maybe my interest in this title says something about my outlook. I had to laugh.

Happy New Year. Really.

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