March 14 2008: The Day My Father Would Have Turned 90

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Heart and mind swell with memories of my father. He’d be ninety today and pretty pleased about that. (Of course he was aiming for 100.) I always loved that our birthdays were exactly a week apart, separated appropriately by St. Patrick’s Day. This week right now feels unbalanced, shifted, torn open. Precisely the edge on which I should write, continuing to explore my reasons for leaving formal education while lauding the good teachers who find ways to work from the inside. I will celebrate his life, then, today by exploring this new space through writing a coda of sorts to my talks at University of Mary Washington’s Faculty Academy and at Exeter, both talks inspired by him. I write, too, with a nod, of course, to Rilke and to Kozol and to all of my students, past and present.

Blogpost to a Young Teacher

Dear M-,

Thanks for your recent email–how lovely to hear from you a good dozen years or so since you found your way into one of my courses. I do remember you well, and am glad to have played some small part in your journey to teaching though I know it is an unnerving, difficult time to be in this field. That you have reached back into your learning past to call out touches me.

I know you are surprised by my decision to leave teaching. I have received emails from teachers across the world in response to my announcement about leaving my teaching position. The solidarity of the response, the support for my move shows me that yes, we have reached a dark time indeed inside our schools. So many are feeling discouraged if not downright distraught by the lack of vision, courage and commitment to deep learning in their colleagues, their institutions and communities. But do not let my decision lead you out of your classroom. We need teachers like you. Right where you are, calling out for better, insisting on change.

From your letter, and with your permission, I excerpt the following paragraphs, for they bring home the reality of imaginative, talented, committed teachers throughout this country, and of the students they teach.

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“I googled your name, with the intention of dropping you a quick e-mail, and have blissfully spent the last hour perusing your blog (while simultaneously proctoring a study hall and avoiding piles of mediocre Jane Eyre essays!). I found the experience just as compelling as I remember your classes were. Your photography is gorgeous; each image tells a story (of course), while also making me long for New England and all of its subdued, lyrical beauty. More importantly, I felt your writing, about teaching, about grading, about blogging, all spoke so clearly to me. I had at least 5 major epiphanies as I read your comments about grading, about the classroom as a collaborative space, about helping students find the time and space to think creatively, etc. etc.

“I teach 9th and 11th grade English at a prestigious, ridiculously expensive school. While I really enjoy my students and my time in the classroom with them, I find myself growing more and more frustrated by this secondary private school world and all of its constraints. As Mel Levine puts it, we, as an institution, are so concerned with college prep that we seem to have missed the boat on life prep. These [kids] are so over-programmed/over-scheduled that much of what they do is done in a rush, thus preventing much sense of depth, care, or ownership. I worry that, as part of this institution, I am part of that problem, despite all my small efforts to the contrary.

“I was also really intrigued by your discussion of the grading process. The fact that your classes create their own “rubrics” is so exciting; I immediately started thinking about how much I would love to put a similar plan into place, but how impossible that would probably be in this particular environment. Though I’ve been teaching for 9 years now, I am finding it more and more difficult to grade my students’ work, not only because it can be such a daunting (and seemingly arbitrary) task, but also because the process has become so fraught with danger. Things are so litigious that you have to document everything; when students plagiarize (which happens much more than I ever imagined the onus is on the teacher to resolve the situation. Parents have no problem e-mailing, or showing up, to question a particular grade (often because they themselves have had a large part in the paper’s construction). It’s difficult to see the forest for the trees when laden down with progress reports, maintaining websites, infinite faculty meetings, college recommendations, etc.”

M-, what a time, what a time. What madness. I worry for these kids. But before talking about shifts of the 21st century, I have to ask, has deep learning ever been found regularly in school settings? Even in elite private schools? If we’re honest? We’ve all had those remarkable teachers who managed to pull us out of the mist of mind-numbing repetitive drill and lecture and into active discussion and collaboration. We remember the great lecturers. The teachers who listened. The inspired teachers. But mostly, they were the exceptions. Mostly I remember dully competent teachers. And in my evil moments I love to remember the worst teachers– my senile third-grade teacher who would teach the same drill lessons, hand out the same worksheets repeatedly for days on end while we snickered nervously and passed notes and sank into boredom and, some of us, into rebelliousness and trouble; and the eighth-grade English teacher who kept a flask of whiskey in his top drawer, to our wonder–it helped us make sense of his absence from class when he sat right there in front of us. I’m sure you can recall the ill-placed teachers in your life, too. They’re terrific story-writing material, and that’s at least something. Many say that all it takes is one great teacher, but I find that sentiment a condemnation of our schools’ general mediocrity. Why does so much depend on a teacher’s ability to transcend the inertia, the territoriality, the fear the fear the fear embedded in our schools?

Recently I read an article in the Chronicle by Mark Edmundson that at once seemed so right on the mark–so much like my father, in fact– and so out of touch–also like my father– that it embodies for me this uneasy time and my reasons for leaving formal higher education at this juncture. He writes: “It’s this kind of dialogue, deliberate, gradual, thoughtful, that immersion in the manic culture of the Internet and Adderall conditions students not to have. The first step for the professor now is to slow his classroom down. The common phrase for what he wants to do is telling: We “stop and think.” Stop. Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They’re always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising.”

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Yes, we’re caught on the barbed wire of confusion, of unsettled, unsettling times. We blame students and their IM-ing, texting ways for their inability to focus, and yet, look at us. We have fossilized learning–taking quick impressions of the works we’re studying, rather than digging down into them to see what they’re trying to tell us. We careen through novels, plow speedily through dense texts, through labs, through lessons, taking snapshots along the way, as we prepare students not for active, thoughtful citizenship but for performance, as you point out, a mad dash to acquire higher scores, better grades, resumes, jobs, more more more. And don’t we do that with publishing, racing to conferences, getting noticed, on committees? How much attention do we really pay to our students? Deep learning strategies?

You might be surprised to learn that bgblogging, the passionate blog-based teacher, still teaches two of three class days a week in a lounge with no computer access at all, just a small portable blackboard and a circle of comfy chairs, so all we have is one another and the materials we have explored. We have to talk, to turn over and over and over again the concerns of the writer. Sometimes class discussion is quite awkward, stiff, stuttery–this is hard hard stuff. Students do not want to feel exposed. No one has asked them to talk about what they have read as writers–I’m not looking for “smart” responses; I’m looking for discovery.

I worry that Mark Edmonson’s article will be used as fodder by teachers and others who out of fear, or ignorance, dismiss the computer in learning, holding it solely responsible for the way students live “to multiply possibilities. They’re enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to.” (Edmundson) Come on. Weren’t you like that? After college I felt free to wander about Asia, move to a surfer town and then an island, get to know myself outside of school before I settled down into anything. Everything was possible. Anything. But I was not pressured by my schools, by my parents to be something I was not. Vietnam had ended years before–things were pretty easy really.

They are not now. And to turn from computers as though that will solve our classroom problems is downright reductive. We know that computers used well in education, deepen and extend and slow down the thinking, the reflecting, the connecting and the communicating–students come to see that in addition to the delights of grazing the possible, we can use the connective, collaborative practices of the Web to dig far more deeply into subject matter by moving laterally and associatively across it instead of just chronologically and hierarchically. We can say things we couldn’t before when we can use image and sound as well as text; when we can shift between screens, use hyperlinks; when our viewers participate in the writing by deciding order, elements, options and responding. Why don’t we help students harness the power of connectivity and collaborative creativity to “stop and think.” In writing blog-letters, we can learn to engage in sustained, ongoing, unfolding, emergent dialogue with one another about our subject matter. We can slow down the chatter.

Chris Dede in a recent essay, writes, “…the primary barriers to altering curricular, pedagogical, and assessment practices towards any ICT-based transformative vision are not conceptual, technical, or economic, but instead psychological, political and cultural. The largest challenges in changing schooling are people’s emotions and their almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions and values.” p. 11-12 in “Reinventing the Role of Information and Communications Technologies in Education” You’re feeling that right now.

For me, it’s time to try a different approach, one anchored in the community instead of a school, a place where I can help the people of my lived community access the new ways of connecting and creating, across all the divides that separate us from one another, and from deep creative expression and learning. You are young. You have time to work from within to help your fellow faculty, parents, administrators and students come to their senses.

I’m optimistic when I hear that students such as you have become teachers, or students such as Piya and Remy are willing to teach into a school using new ways of expression. I am optimistic when I have students over from a J-term class and I watch seven of them plan out a new online magazine that they hope will engage their peers in creative expression. It is worth it. You’ll see when you receive an email a few years down the road from one of those Jane Eyre essayists.

Be brave. Speak your mind. Model great teaching and learning. Show them how computers are not the enemy. Laugh a lot. And breathe.

throughbarnwindows

Stay in touch.

Slainte,

Your old teacher

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