Archive for July, 2009

A Community of Learners

Jul 18 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

Maxine Greene, on The Teacher in John Dewey’s Works:

In “Progressive Education and the Science of Education,” written in 1928, many years after the closing of the Dewey School, Dewey spoke of the importance of progressive teachers presenting to other teachers “for trial and criticism definite and organized bodies of knowledge” along with a listing of sources. The material presented would not be intended for adoption by the other teachers. It would serve as an indication of the intellectual possibilities of various courses of activity undertaken by diverse groups of children. The reason for presenting it was that it might “liberate and direct the activities of any teacher in dealing with the distinctive emergencies and needs that would arise in re-undertaking the same general type of project.” The teacher’s method, as Dewey there described it, “becomes a matter of finding the conditions which call out self-educative activity, or learning, and of cooperating with the activities of the pupils so that they have learning as their consequence.” This was in no way a type of permissivism; since, as Dewey put it, the teacher as the member of the group with the riper and fuller experience “and the greater insight into the possibilities of continuous development found in any suggested project” had the right and the duty to suggest lines of activity. He or she was obligated to find projects involving some orderly development and interconnection of subject matter without imposing material upon the students. Considerable stress was placed on the judgment and art required of the teacher, if that teacher were to identify the conditions of learning, note indications of progress, and detect their causes. Dewey knew full well the kind of responsibility being given to the teacher, who was asked to observe, to keep track, to interpret, even while engaging fully with the learning process itself. Today’s reader cannot but be struck by the reflectiveness, the wide-awakeness for which he was asking. Anticipating current ideas having to do with teacher collaboration, his concern for open dialogue among the teachers becomes as striking as his interest in the school itself as a learning community for adults as well as the young.


…Dewey made sharp distinctions between the meanings of subject matter for, for instance, a scientist and the meanings of subject matter for a teacher. The teacher, he said, was not concerned for locating new problems or propounding new hypotheses. His or her obligation was to make the subject part of the child’s experience: to find out what there was in the child’s present experience that might be usable with respect to the subject and how the teacher’s own knowledge of the subject might help in interpreting “the child’s needs and doings, and determine the medium in which the child should be placed in order that his growth may be properly directed.” The teacher ought to attend to the psychologizing of the subject matter to the end of inducing “a vital and personal experiencing.” In Dewey’s view, the failure to keep the “double” aspect of subject matter in mind led to the dualism of curriculum and child, the setting of one against the other. Chemistry or physics or any other subject matter, as the scientist conceived it, always stood outside the child’s experience. There was something threatening and what he would later call miseducative in trying to impose external, unrelated knowledge on a child. “Textbook and teacher,” he said, “vie with each other in presenting the subject matter as it stands to the specialist.” When the difficulties are smoothed out in order to make the subject so conceived in some way understandable, the intellectual level is lowered; but it is not translated into life terms. It becomes purely abstract, “dead and barren,” as it would not be if the symbols involved had lead out of something actually experienced by the child. Dewey in no way underestimated the significance of the formal and symbolic in discussions of this sort. He knew that they are the tools, the means by which the learner moves beyond the immediately familiar to the unexplored; but this cannot happen when symbols are imposed, “induced from without.” He reminded his reader that the symbol must really symbolize; it must stand for and sum up in shorthand “actual experiences which the individual has already gone through” and which become significant for their own sakes.


Knowledge, as he wrote in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, “is a name for the product of competent inquiries…. The general conception of knowledge, when formulated in terms of the outcome of inquiry, has something important to say regarding the meaning of inquiry itself. For it indicates that inquiry is a continuing process in every field with which it is engaged. The ‘settlement’ of a particular situation by a particular inquiry is no guarantee that that settled conclusion will always remain settled.” This view of incompleteness, ongoingness, and what Dewey called “warranted assertability” takes teaching and knowledge-getting both out of the realm of the purely logical and propositional. It locates both processes in time and history; it relates them to the organic as well as to the experiential and perspectival. At a moment of extreme technicist concern, of problem solving largely defined in terms of means-end relations and expressed in “context-free language,” it may become particularly important for teachers to attend once more to a mode of teaching oriented to the natural, the social, and to the making of a human community.

I wholeheartedly endorse a vision of teaching “oriented to the natural, the social, and to the making of a human community.” They are shared values among the people I work with now, and they are central to my work as a teacher. I consider myself lucky. Unfortunately, no such effort is being promoted on a broad scale in the US, and “reforms” such as standardized curricula and merit pay, along with high rates of teacher turnover in schools are antagonistic to the natural, the social, and the making of a human community.

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Reading Sarah Palin

Jul 13 2009 Published by under borderland,politics

I heard from Alice Mercer, recently, curious about Sarah Palin. Here’s what I think: Sarah Palin decided to ditch the actual responsibilities of governor to become a community organizer.

Accountability, we all know, is inconvenient, and Sarah finally figured that out. She’s been griping that ethics complaints are using up all her time, and costing the state millions of dollars, but many of us see it otherwise. I’d file an ethics complaint myself for the liberties she takes with the truth except that lying is normal for politicians.

I read somewhere that she may have raised more money for Barack Obama than she did for McCain last fall. That resonated with me since I did give a few bucks to the Democrats for the first time in my life after hearing her talk at the Republican convention. If anyone had asked me about Sarah Palin a year ago, I’d have said that she’s our governor; so what? She was unremarkable. After her performance last fall, though, I felt the best thing we could do was to keep her tucked out of sight here in Alaska, but that is not going to happen, apparently.

The best thing about her national celebrity, for me, was discovering some Alaska blogs that have filled the gaps left by other media coverage. My two favorites are The Mudflats and Progressive Alaska. For anyone who wants the longer version of Sarah Palin, with all her melodramatic twists and turns, I recommend starting there.

Philip Munger at PA linked to an op-ed by Michael Carey, who writes for the Anchorage Daily News:

A former legislator wondered: “Maybe she is leaving because she got a better offer.” There’s speculation about whether she’s gotten herself a contract as a conservative television commentator, for instance.

But the “why” of why she left may be as simple as this: She couldn’t take it anymore. The scrutiny, the criticism, the mockery, and yes, the hard work of being governor. Palin’s thin skin is legendary. She never ignores a slight. For most of the last year, she has been feuding with the Alaska media and many of the state’s political leaders.

She has almost no support among legislators, even Republicans. And she haphazardly applies herself to the labor of government at a distance — some critics call her the BlackBerry governor.

Philip’s post also features an interview Carey did with Terry Gross on NPR that is worth listening to. Carey gives a pretty even-handed account, I think. The gist of his assessment of her significance for Alaska is that she will become a historical asterisk. She’s someone else’s problem now.

Meanwhile, she’s left us with a constitutional knot to untangle and some bills to pay.

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Competitiveness and Excellence

Competitiveness and excellence are not necessarily related. Competition may lead to excellence, but it may also lead to cheating and lying. Or it may lead to more benign perversions, like data mining and “public relations” initiatives that focus on quality indicators, rather than quality itself. Alfie Kohn’s twitter stream today contained a link to a story about how colleges may manipulate their rankings in US News and World Report’s list of top universities. But data mining and publicity campaigns aren’t always necessary for an institution to promote itself. Sometimes ideology alone is enough for a school to stand on.

Case in point: I found an old composite photo of my first-grade class (1959 – 1960) the other day. The main thing to notice is that there are 41 kids in the picture! This was a Catholic school. The numbers fluctuated over the years; we had 37 kids in third grade, and 47 in fifth. In my experience as a teacher, elementary school classes are considered large at 30, and parents complain when numbers get that high. But here we see that people of modest means were willing to pay real money to put their kids in a no-frills private school with no science equipment, no teacher aides or support staff, no gym or music teachers, no special classes, no librarian, no nurse.

There was also no whining and nobody to feel sorry for you. There were no special kids, either, come to think of it. If you ever got the idea that you were somehow special, you’d soon learn otherwise. My younger sister came home from her first day in first grade and reported that a little girl who wouldn’t stop crying was put in the coat closet with the door closed. You can bet that dampened any similar emotional displays. I have several stories like this – things that I remember which, if they happened now, would result in legal actions against the teacher. Stories about abuses at Kipp charter schools sound very familiar to me. To be fair, my first teaching assignment was in a Catholic school, and there was none of that there. This should not be read as a general indictment, but as a reference to a particular instance.

Maybe the most interesting thing about this is that I have no recollection of the classroom feeling crowded, or anyone even talking about it being crowded. Apparently people believed that you can put any number of kids in a classroom as long as they stay in their seats and speak only when spoken to. What they mostly taught was order and obedience. Discipline is what my parents – my dad especially – believed was most important; it was good training for the workplace. It may come as no surprise that he eventually became a big-deal corporate executive.

None of the things that Alfie Kohn names as staples of progressive education were part of my elementary school experience. There was no collaboration and no intrinsic motivation. There was no discussion. There were text books, lectures, and tests. There was drill and repetition. There was abundant moral training and attention to detail. None of those things are bad in their own right. But a steady diet without variation also meant that there was plenty of boredom and little real learning. Most of the authentic learning I did was away from school in the neighborhood.

My own teaching philosophy and my reservations about using any form of coercion to get kids to learn runs straight back to my early years in school. The need for order has to be balanced with respect and a certain amount of freedom to direct our attention toward what interests us. The teacher has to figure out how to put that together, and the extent to which he or she can do that makes all the difference for kids. Bill Kerr has a great quote from John Dewey on this practical problem.

“As every teacher knows, children have an inner and an outer attention. The inner attention is the giving of the mind without reserve or qualification to the subject in hand. It is the first-hand and personal play of mental powers. As such, it is a fundamental condition of mental growth. To be able to keep track of this mental play, to recognize the signs of its presence or absence, to know how it is initiated and maintained, how to test it by results attained, and to test apparent results by it, is the supreme mark and criterion of a teacher. It means insight into soul-action, ability to discriminate the genuine from the sham, and capacity to further one and discourage the other.

This comes from a 1904 paper by Dewey called THE RELATION OF THEORY TO PRACTICE IN EDUCATION. I’m anxious to read the whole thing, and plan to do that soon.

Because of my experience in a militantly repressive elementary school climate – one that was deliberately chosen for me despite its obvious shortcomings – I believe that educational excellence is in the eye of the beholder, and what works for one may not be right for someone else. School reformers are now on the verge of enshrining a narrow set of values in new national standards and a national curriculum. Students will be tested and schools will be ranked. Data will be sliced and diced to show whatever it needs to show. Some kids are not going to pass through the gate, and they shouldn’t have to. Who gets to define success in the end?

Incidentally, if you think you can find me in the picture, you’re welcome to take a shot. I’ll post that bit of info later, somewhere in the comments, if anyone is interested.

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Installing a New iMac Hard Drive

Jul 01 2009 Published by under borderland,technology

It’s been a while since I’ve had a tech story to tell. This one ends OK, but it wasn’t as simple as I’d hoped it would be – as if that ever happens.

Last winter our family’s 2006 era iMac began crashing repeatedly, losing the kids’ unsaved English papers and generally pissing us off when the colorful “wheel of death” announced that whatever we thought we were doing was not going to happen. There was also a clicking sound that accompanied the death wheel, which (to me) suggested that it was a hard drive problem. I mentioned to Amy that we could get a new computer with some of her art studio money, since her business requires a computer for various things. She thought that was a great idea. What a gem! The hard drive may have been damaged, or maybe it was crammed too full of music and video files; I didn’t know. My son is publishing snowboarding videos now, and everyone has a pile of music and photos. When we bought it, 256 gigabytes seemed like a lot of storage, but the new computer holds 4 times that.

While I was waiting for the new machine to arrive via FedEx, I looked into what it would take to replace the hard drive on the old one. Emboldened by a YouTube video demonstrating a 17″ iMac Hard Drive Replacement, I went ahead and ordered a new drive from an online distributor. I especially liked the opening sequence in the video where the guy demonstrated unplugging the computer. Right there I knew this was going to be aimed at my skill level. Before today, I’d never taken the cover off a computer.

After the new computer came and I got all the files moved onto it, I zeroed out the hard drive on the old one and re-installed everything. It ran fine, confirming my suspicion that what was wrong with it was that it was simply too full. This left me in the position of having to break my “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule. The new hard drive cost 26 bucks to ship to Alaska, and I wasn’t going to pay more to send it back.

Getting the cover off the computer was easy, and so was taking the cover off the fan. Then I was supposed to disconnect three wires from the hard drive. The 2 on the inner-most side of the drive came off easily. I just pulled the connectors away from the drive, and they came right off. But the other one near the outer edge of the computer wouldn’t come loose, and I couldn’t even see how the connector worked. This was something I’d worried about beforehand. I did NOT want to muscle the thing off and tear up some delicate little piece of plastic. That wire was connected to the metal housing that holds the drive in the computer, and not to the drive itself. Maybe it didn’t need to come off, I thought. That was GOOD IDEA #1. There was no connection at all on that part of the new drive. The cable was connected only to the metal band that secured the drive to the computer, so I left it alone and unscrewed everthing, leaving the wire attached. It was long enough to get the job done without any trouble. But I did need a pair of tweezers to retrieve some screws that dropped into hard-to-reach places inside the computer.

When I got it all back together and turned it on, the installer program did not “see” the hard drive. This was a major glitch. I didn’t know if the drive was bad, or if I’d messed up that little wire by tugging on it. I put the old drive back in to see if it worked (It did.) and then I took it out and put the new one back in after a bunch of Googling to see if there was information about this problem online. What I learned was that the installer script needed me to “format” the new drive with a program on the Mac called Disc Utility.

I’d already looked at Disc Utility, though, and there wasn’t a Format option. I opened up Disc Utility from the Utilities menu on the installation disc and – for kicks – I clicked on the Erase tab. The Erase option was available. Lacking any better idea, I “erased” this brand new hard drive. Wonder of wonders, a message in the dialog box announced that the computer was partitioning the drive. I have no idea what that was about. After that, still operating on desperation, I decided to click Repair Disc. Amazingly, it ran a “repair” sequence and listed several things that it did, ultimately declaring the drive to be in proper order.

And it was. The installer script recognized the destination disc, and I had a beer while I watched the progress bar show me the system being re-installed. It took me over 3 hours to accomplish what the guy in the video did in 5 minutes.

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