Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Information Literacy Needs to be Woven Through All Courses

Seymour Papert (1997) in an essay, Why School Reform is Impossible, writes:
The first microcomputers in schools were in the classrooms of visionary teachers who used them (often with LOGO) in very personal ways to cut across deeply rooted features of School (what Tyack and Cuban neatly call "the grammar of school") such as a bureaucratically imposed linear curriculum, separation of subjects, and depersonalization of work. School responded to this foreign body by an "immune reaction" that blocked these subversive features: The control of computers was shifted from the classrooms of subversive teachers into "computer labs" isolated from the mainstream of learning, a computer curriculum was developed... in short, before the computer could change School, School changed the computer.
In reading Papert, I began to think about the trend to locate information literacies within the domain of the media specialist as a separate "topic" or subject to be taught.  I want to suggest that this is a mistake every bit as much as was the design of computer labs in the 1980s for the very reasons Papert purports. He writes:
One may at first blush see a tautology in using this proposition to explain failures of reform. But to say that School changes the reform is very different from simply saying that School resists or rejects the reform. It resists the reform in a particular way -- by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structures. By doing so, it defuses the reformers and sometimes manages to take in something of what they are proposing.
Information literacies cannot be a 40-minute class taught once a week.  If so, the School will reform it to maintain its status quo and we will be ever be reading clever columns about why Johnny Can't Search, Communicate, etc... We need to want more for ourselves, our students, and our democracy.

Whereas media specialist and librarians may well lead the way helping us all to better understand ways to use Internet-based tools and how we might apply critical and creative thinking dispositions to the information we consume and produce, we must not situate this critical literacy as a single course or event.  Informational literacy shapes how we think and fail to think.  Its skills, strategies and dispositions deeply define what it means to learn powerfully and ways we might represent that learning creatively, critically, and socially.   I want to suggest that seamless integration of informational literacies into all courses across all grade levels for all learners may be more challenging to achieve than the single separate strand, but this commitment will help us to change schools in fundamental and enduring ways.  Unlike the computer movement of the 1980s where the computer was allocated to the lab and separated from the School as Papert purports, seamless integration of informational literacies along with critical literacies is the revolution knocking at our collective doors.  The question is: Do we have the will to open that door? 

Opening that door makes possible an environment where different types of learning informed by social media might occur.  Consider how different the learning potential is between a group of students in classroom A who learn that research is a solitary activity one does alone with a few resources, some note cards and an idea vs. the students (who cannot be confined to a classroom) who through diigo, skype and the like propose, build, challenge and re-present and remix ideas.  The differences between these scenarios are significant as is the environment that allows for social collaboration and learning.  

President Obama last year established by proclamation an information literacy month. The Proclamation read:
"Every day, we are inundated with vast amounts of information. A 24-hour news cycle and thousands of global television and radio networks, coupled with an immense array of online resources, have challenged our long-held perceptions of information management. Rather than merely possessing data, we must also learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information for any situation. This new type of literacy also requires competency with communication technologies, including computers and mobile devices that can help in our day-to-day decisionmaking.... Though we may know how to find the information we need, we must also know how to evaluate it. Over the past decade, we have seen a crisis of authenticity emerge. We now live in a world where anyone can publish an opinion or perspective, whether true or not, and have that opinion amplified within the information marketplace. At the same time, Americans have unprecedented access to the diverse and independent sources of information, as well as institutions such as libraries and universities, that can help separate truth from fiction and signal from noise."
In many ways we are the information we produce and consume and those among us who have multiple Discourses in which to represent one's self are significantly advantaged.  Ensuring that information literacies are infused across all domains should be national, state, and local commitment. Our very democracy to continue, may well need it.  

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Catching the Heart Off Guard: Teaching and Art Making

Gate. Graveyard at Sant'Anna in Camprena
Last summer I traveled to Tuscany to learn with photographer, Doug Beasley who "taught" a Zen and Photography course. There were 8 of us in the course and we stayed along with 20 other artists at Sant'Anna in Camprena Monastery in Pienza, Italy. I was fascinated by the cemetery at Sant' Anna and spent a lot of time making images, such as Gate, Crosses, and What is Written. I was captivated by something there and through the camera lens sought to have it speak to me.
Crosses.  Graveyard at Sant'Anna at Camprena.
In the year since, I have made many other images and along the way have misplaced the primacy of the spiritual. Photographing in the Badlands overwhelmed me. Working as an administrator instead of a professor has sapped my energy. I felt drunk on the drama of these landscapes, removed from what matters most. As I have written in other blogs, returning home left me without sight or will to lift my camera and shoot. This afternoon I watched a wonderful documentary film about Doug Beasley that I found inspirational and it rekindled the belief that making art is seeking the spiritual. In the film Doug says:
Photography isn't about finding the most spectacular place or photographing places that haven't been seen is more how we approach our subject matter and where that comes from is our internal space. Emotionally where we're at. Spiritually where we're at. To me that is more interesting to investigate that space than to always be trying to find a new destination.

I have been thinking a lot about what Doug had to say about internal spaces from the perspective of an artist and a progressive educator.  In many ways, the internal landscape that guides what I privilege has been obfuscated by the bombardment of false idols, both in art making and in teaching.  Instead of listening, I've been talking.  Instead of being patient, I have dismissed the ordinary. Instead of being the stillness I seek, I have been overly busy.

What is Written. Sant'Anna at Camprena

What I have forgotten is that every artwork I have made as a teacher or an artist has required an exchange of energy. This is why programs and national standards cannot work as they displace the idiosyncratic practice and the passion of the teacher with a prepackaged certainty.  So too, do consuming photography how-to books that offer photoshop tricks misdirect vision making, or partaking in a steady diet of postcard destinations. In each case, the external object becomes a substitution for seeing and reduces the need to feel and think in novel ways.  They are epic constructs with predictable, if not certain, outcomes that have been made elsewhere and arrive or are chosen with the expectation that the teacher or artist will enact as directed. Over time I wonder if the teacher/artist doesn't reach for these, not as substitution but as mistaken senses of self. At best, they are lifeless and terrible distractions. 

The works that speak most clearly to me, even after the passage of time, are ones that surprised me, unsettled me, confused me, and found me.  Teaching and art making are a lot  like the closing lines of Seamus Heaney's lovely poem, "Postscript".  He writes:
...Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Yes, that is what it means to make art as a photographer and as a teacher--to open to that which comes at you and in doing so to find yourself surprised, your heart caught off guard and blown open.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Deborah Downes

An Internet friend and fellow artist and writer, Deborah Downes is the author of today's blog post. Additionally, Deborah has allowed me to feature a photograph she made in Italy, Perfect Ending—one of my favorite images of hers. It simply steals my breath. What follows is a portion of a correspondence Deb sent me in response to some writing I had sent her. I was so moved by what she expressed that I asked her if I could feature her response on my blog.

If you  would like to see more of Deb's work, please check out her work posted at JPGMAG.

Deborah Downes
About Deborah Downes: I am a global nomad, working on ways to weave together tales and pictures of my life as an American expat (20 years and counting). Currently I live in Italy and I’m writing a book about the two times I lived in China. During the year I spent in Shanghai, I went through a sea change of sorts, resulting in a major shift in my writing and a great new love, photography. When not overseas with my husband, I'm usually at our home in Garland, Texas, near our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters.

...Now I long to go to the Badlands. Can sure see why it was like a religious experience for you. I’m certain it would have the same effect on me. I felt something similar my first time at the Grand Canyon. Flurries fell off and on during our drive there. Low lying clouds moved slowly across the sky as we approached on foot the lookout where I’d either get my first glimpse of the canyon or more of the kind of dark snow laden looking clouds above us. A bitter gust of wind slapped my face and threatened to penetrate the winter coat my aunt lent me. I ducked my head and moved towards the vantage point like some character in a book fighting the elements for a lost love. 

At the lookout I stood a few feet from a middle-aged blond woman saying something in German. She was the only one there besides my uncle, aunt, and me. I followed her gaze, and shivered over the view before us. Moving low lying clouds caressed upper faces of the canyon. Lower ones cupped snow against sheer drops of contrasting shades of reds and browns. Then suddenly an opening appeared in the clouds letting in a shaft of brilliant light that made everything it touched look as if it glowed from within. The German woman and I looked at each other at the same time. We both had tears our eyes; we both held our hands over our hearts.

I read on facebook you’re going through a kind of photographer’s block, following your trip to the Badlands. Perfectly understandable considering you going from the drama of that amazing place and all that you felt there to home and all that’s familiar. If it weren’t for my granddaughters, Sasha (9) and Ashlyn (5), I’m certain I’d be caught up in it, too, following the sensory and emotional stimulation of Italy. Sasha and Ashlyn not only inspire me to photograph them, but see things in the Dallas area through their eyes. Being with them helped me through a bad case of writer’s block.

Perhaps interacting with a child or children, or just attempting to see familiar things, places, and people through the eyes of a toddler (a writing exercise I experimented with, resulting in some fascinating and fun prose) would help you through this dry spell.

Other things that helped me get through my bad case of writer’s block included trying new forms of creativity and interacting with creative and upbeat friends.

Hang in there. I’m certain you’ll get through this. 

Warm regards,

Perfect Ending. Image by Deborah Downes.
While living in an old farm house in Italy, I’ve come to realize I’m a country girl at heart. I’ve experienced connection, continuity, sensual pleasure, spirituality and peace through photographing the same countryside subject from different angles, at different times of the day, and during different seasons, such as this gravel road that leads to my current home away from home. I captured this image of that road as mist glided across it and the sun performed an unforgettable light show the morning of the day my daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters left Italy and returned to their home in Dallas.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Art Show: Driving without Destination

On Thursday, September 16th at the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University the reception for the art show, Driving without Destination, will be hosted. Artists were asked to create artwork in response to an essay by Dermot Quinn.  These guiding questions were provided to prospective artists:

We live today in a world of consolidation. Corporations and governments seem to be forcing us into a political and cultural homogeneity that few of us seem to want. Mass communication (television, the press, the internet) has aided the push to oneness. What G.K. Chesterton once called standardization by a low standard is increasingly the inheritance of modern man.

What has been lost along the way? Where are those local attachments, those beautiful cultures, those little communities we once took for granted? Unless local liberty, experience, instinct and invention can again be given a chance, Chesterton said, the whole life of the world will be withered. Is our world withering? How may we refresh it?

With these questions in mind, the theme of our exhibit is “Driving without Destination.” This is the title of an article in The Chesterton Review by Dermot Quinn, professor of history at Seton Hall University. In asking the question what do we lose? Professor Quinn suggests, we are ultimately faced with the question what do we believe?
Two works of mine, Lower East Side and The Dissolution of Wall Street, were selected for the show.

Lower East Side. 2009.

The Dissolution of Wall Street. 2009

Driving without Destination will be open from September 7, 2010 through October 2, 2010. I hope you can find time to see the show.  I can't wait to see the other artists' works.

Show Location:

Walsh Gallery
Seton Hall University
400 South Orange Avenue
South Orange, NJ

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Race to the Top (of What)?

With regard to the allocation of Race to the Top (RttT) competition, a colleague of mine,  Deb, writes: "Since when should a child's education be dependent on adults 'winning' a race?"

Well Deb, it does seem to be all about winners and losers and according to a Huffington Post article, the words that were used in the grant application:

The words "charter," "evaluation," "rigor" or "standards," "assessment," "accountability," and "online" or "e-learning" were mentioned more often in winning applications. On average, winners included the phrases "professional development" and "data-driven" almost twice as often as losers.

A distinct advantage reported in the NYT also was afforded to those states who employed full time professional grant writers, as opposed to South Dakota whose grant in the first round was written by a working teacher and a community volunteer.   Seems hardly like a fair process.

Another concern with RttT is the blatant privileging of charter schools.  If a state wanted to earn 40 points out of the 500, it needed to demonstrate how it was going to increase the number of charter schools.  Given the scores for those who won, the exclusion of this "priority" would have likely rendered an application a "failure".   So given the advantage and importance then of including in the grant a plan to increase charter schools, one might assume then that there is a plethora of research that clearly indicates superior student achievement outcomes in charter schools.   

In the RAND report, Rhetoric versus Reality, Brian Gill writes "None of the studies suggest that charter-school achievement outcomes are dramatically better or worse on average than those of conventional public schools" (2001, p. xiv).  In another RAND study (Charter School Operations and Performance), Ron Zimmer writes that "charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than do conventional public schools...Charter school students tended to do slightly worse than comparable students in math in both elementary and secondary conventional public schools" (2003, xxii-xxiii). 

The research published by Economic Policy Institute and Teachers College Press that was conducted by Carnoy, Jacobsen, Mishel and Rothstein (2005) state that "based on 19 studies, conducted in 11 states and the District of Columbia, there is no evidence that, on average, charter schools out-perform regular public schools. In fact, there is evidence that the average impact of charter schools is negative" (p. 2).


Okay, so no improvement in student achievement.  Why then the privileging? Why would the USDOE allocate $4.35 billion and ensure states pushed for the development of charters when the research does not show academic gains?

Consider what the DOE claims: 

Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come.
Why would our government want us to follow that which research says does not clearly improve student achievement? Where exactly does this trail, blazing or not, actually lead?  It makes me wonder if RttT is nothing more than a dressed up and more expensive version of Reading First.  Remember that when Reading First was authorized, schools districts that won grants were forced to purchase "proven" reading materials.  By 2007, none of the proven materials were included on the USDOE's website "What Works Clearinghouse" as these products did not have the requisite research to merit their inclusion. Tons of dollars were channeled to a few companies who certainly got wealthier.  Is this the same prospect with RttT?  Are we throwing dollars at some trumped up promise with the hope that something catches and "works"?  And we might well ask, works for whom? In what conditions? 

"Improvement," Richard Elmore (2000) suggests, "is more a function of learning to do the right thing in the setting where you work than it is what you know when you start to do the work" (p.25).  Developing the capacity to be responsive to emerging conditions appears to be a critical factor in occasioning improved outcomes for learners.  Yet, privileging the development of local sensibilities and capacities to be responsive to such changes is absent from the RttT. By its very name, we can assume there is a bottom, some "other" that serves as the base one must move from as the winning states race off to find some top. 

I wonder how long it will take for us to stop racing about and learn to dwell where we reside—to be present in the actual moment so that we can take measure of local circumstances?   All these large scale initiatives, like RttT frankly have me worried.  I wish for once, our government might consider Wendell Berry's advice.  He aptly observed that we would be wise to "learn to prefer small-scale elegance" (1989, p. 22).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Slow Fuse of Possibility: Why Race to the Top Is a Maimed Thing

Occasioning learning is not to be confused with causality. Whereas simple matters can often be attended to through linear methods, complex learning resists such methodology.  This in itself was not a new "discovery".  What was an "ah-ha" moment  (thanks to my colleague, Kelly Harte)  was the hypothesis about why some of us continuously teach "basics" and resist/refuse to "teach" more complex content and how this same constraint of thought informs educational policies at the federal and state (at least in NJ) level.

During my 25+ years as an educator,  I have heard some colleagues explain that they cannot move on to more sophisticated concepts and processes as the students have not mastered the simple understandings that are seen as prerequisites to more complex understandings. Teaching students how to solve a simple algorithm, requires something pedagogically different from creating a set of conditions or engagements whereby students are able to compose more complex expressions, that may well (and often do) include simple algorithms. Occasioning requires a very different set of thinking protocols on behalf of the teacher as there is no single outcome. Occasioning produces possibilities, not certainties.

Teaching the "basics" and situating the basics as simple, not complex learning-- dulls possibility. That is the true educational crime; the long term horror. Emily Dickinson wrote, "Imagination lights the slow fuse of possibility."  If we were serious about an educational revolution we would privilege the imagination and dwelling. Our metaphors to describe our intentions might well include these words, rather than words like, "race" or "top."

In these new times, when we are posing questions (I hope) and composing answers to educational challenges I would recommend we listen to poets more so than education tsars, like Arne Duncan, who are replicating input-output systems such as Race to the Top.  Duncan's rhetoric posits educational issues and couched dilemmas within the confine of causality. Problem x can be solved by "scientifically based research" solution y.  The predetermined constraints, such as accountability systems based on value added analysis, determine the parameters of the field well ahead of any reality. In many ways this rhetoric rests on the same logic that informs teachers who only teach "the simple basics".



These methods work well for simple situations.

The costs of teachers only teaching the basics are well discussed, especially in popular press. Just see last week's LA Times for an example.  Less discussed is the immeasurable costs associated with Race to the Top.  I would suggest that both situations (teaching only the basics and Race to the Top) are simply too much to bear.

Rather than listen to the educational pundits, like Duncan, I would offer we turn an ear to the poets and philosophers. Consider William Carlos Williams who admonished the poets in "Deep Religious Faith." He closed the poem, writing: "Shame on our poets:/they have caught the prevalent fever/impressed by the "laboratory"/they have forgotten/ the flower!/which goes beyond all/laboratories./They have quit the job of invention./The imagination has fallen asleep/in a poppy cup."

These are wise words--words we could hold close, and ones that might inform our decisions. Imagine educational policy that privileged the imagination?  How different schools might be.  Or perhaps, John Dewey's wisdom might be dusted off and offered for our consideration. In response to the question about What is the matter in education? John Dewey answered:

It lies, I think, with our lack of imagination in generating leading ideas. Because we are afraid of speculative ideas, we do, and do over and over again, an immense amount of dead, specialized work in the region of "facts." We forget that such facts are only data; that is, are only fragmentary, uncompleted meanings, and unless they are rounded out into complete ideas-- a work which can only be done by hypotheses, by a free imagination of intellectual possibilities--they are as helpless as are all maimed things and as repellent as are needlessly thwarted ones" (Dewey, 1937, Philosophical Review, 36, 1-9, from an address to the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, Harvard University, 15 Sept. 1926).
If we were serious about redesigning education we would understand that the role of the federal government and state government is to occasion local brilliance, not constrain it.

Shame on our politicians. Impressed by the laboratory, they have forgotten the imagination.

Your Mirror Lies. August, 2010.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

13 Ways of Looking Without a Blackbird in Sight

After being in South Dakota with all its open, open space and shooting a lot, I simply can't bring myself to lift my camera and make any new photographs now that I am back in New Jersey.  The images I shot recently of the moon are still in the camera. Even the the idea of a quick trip across the bridge to Manhattan, a normal haunt for me, has me uninspired and unmoving.
Has not having the desire to make photographs happened to anyone? And if so, is there a cure? I post that on Facebook and Gail from Vegas, a friend I have never met, but have shared art with for 2 years online, tells me that there's something here I need to learn.  Okay, but what?
I wait all day for God or something to show up and explain. I'm big on explanation. Nothing happens that I can see but I know there is a story here.  Is God a story? Is South Dakota a story? Or perhaps the man in Winner, the one who cut through the alley, is a story. I can't seem to forget him.
What felled you is important, I think as I watch him cut through that alley. The hard sun. The hard ground. The long shadows, the bleached white walls, and the absolute certainty that he will not live long follows him like a dog at his heels.
What Felled You Is Important. Winner, South Dakota, July 2010
The day I see him. The day I point my camera and really see him, Rob and Dev and I are traveling west and we stop late-day at a gas station in Winner, South Dakota: 98 degrees, full sun, and long shadows. There's a hardness here that wealth and privilege back home in the East seems to camouflage with its fancy cars and gourmet shops and busy busy busy.  Like the Native American man who stops in at the Gus Stop II where we are gassing up, the one I see through the lens of my camera and shoot.  He walks into the shop through to the 10' x 12' room with slot machines hanging on the walls. Goes in for a quick one and comes out empty handed. Even the ground is hard, I think, kicking a stone as I watch him slip out and up the alley.
"All photographs are memento mori," writes Susan Sontag. "To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability" (1977,p.15). What responsibility runs alongside participation, I wonder.
Calvary. South Dakota, July 2010.
"I'm going to call it grasshopper genocide," Rob says aloud, thinking about a possible book as we drive out of town back to a route that winds through Indian reservations.  The grasshoppers are no longer flying as they had been back by the Missouri River. Now they are dying and dead. Literally thousands of them on the road. Not moving. On the hill out of Winner, a man stands alone, bottle in hand.  There alongside, three crosses. Calvary again. I raise my camera and shoot. The noise of the shutter opening and closing is loud. We are nearing the Badlands.
Shadow and Light. Badlands, South Dakota. July 2010.
I hear that the Badlands look like some type of moonscape and have not dulled my sight by trying to see images before going.  When I get there, I don't think, as it is simply so dramatic. Later, I try to categorize it and think: No not a moonscape. It's the absence that is most profound, that I want to capture. All that was there that is now gone: the volcanic rock, the sea, the wind, the ghosts.  
Later the car breaks down, we get a jump, and just make it to Rapid City before it dies a certain death, where Amber, the waitress at the Holiday Inn, the one who easily asks me for help spelling Pinot Grigio so she can write it just right on her pad, tell us, "Someday, I want to leave South Dakota. You know, go somewhere else and maybe find a job and stuff."
Rising. South Dakota. July 2010.
Like the phoenix, the car rises once again and we head East, cutting across South Dakota. The distance between New Jersey and South Dakota is longer than I imagine.
Back home  I realize I am so tired from all the seeing I have done. Non-stop seeing for four weeks and I want to rest.  I worry though if I stop making photographs does that mean I am no longer a photographer?  
Dorothea Lange remarked: It's no accident a photographer becomes a photographer any more than the lion tamer becomes a lion tamer.
On the road to work I think how I am always watching. Even without a camera in my hand, I am sighting, but am I seeing?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Waiting for Daedalus: James Joyce in 8th Grade?

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was...a gigantic mistake.

The Common Core Curriculum Maps.

Yep. I had hope to exhaust what I might have to say about these maps in my last posting, but then I read the middle school maps and found more words to speak. The 8th grade maps, especially the fourth unit, simply defy common sense.   In the "Authors and Artists," a four-week unit,  the "essential" question: How are artists and authors similar is posed.  I'm a bit unclear as to why and for whom that question is essential, but was willing to pretend it could be essential to someone, somewhere.  What baffled me though was the list of 4 stories that were offered as the stories for the unit. They were:

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg)
Leaving Eldorado (Joann Mazzio)
Talking With Tebe: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist (Mary E. Lyons) (easier)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) (advanced)

Okay, Mixed Up Files, a story about an 11-year-old girl and her younger brother who run away from home and head to the Met. Perhaps a bit young for 8th grade, but it could fit.  Leaving Eldorado, an epistolary novel features 14 year old Maude who turns down marriage to become an artist. Historical fiction that could be an appealing read for some 8th graders, especially girls. Talking With Tebe: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist, a picture book biography about an African-American sharecropper who was an artist is intended for younger audience, but certainly might be appealing to 8th graders as a quick read. Three books with three strong female protagonists.  

What about boys? Well, I guess that would leave the last selection. Let's see what was that?  James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  It does feature a male protagonist. But wait a minute.  Portrait in middle school? 

Yes, Portrait. 

I had to reread the map a few times to be sure that I hadn't taken a wrong turn.  Perhaps there was in some parallel universe another text by the same name.  But no, it's the moo cow coming down along a very slippery slope.  There was one assignment provided to guide the reading of the text. Yes, just one. I know it's hard to image any one task could sufficiently scaffold a teen's reading of a novel, especially one as complex as Portrait, but just one was provided:

Literary Response
How does James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man help you understand the character’s motivations? Write responses to these questions in your journal, citing specific examples/page numbers from the text. 

Okay, so I'm a slow study, but at 51, I am still trying to understand Stephen's motivation and that's after reading and teaching Portrait, Dubliners and reading Ulysses as an adult.  I can't imagine why a 13-year-old would care to read Portrait, nor why educators would offer it as one of four choices for a unit about artists and authors. Surely there must be other texts more worthy, more appealing to young teens; one's teens might offer.  

This brings me back to the point I raised in the post prior to this: who did these educators have in mind when they wrote these maps?  Did they imagine that at the end of reading Portrait (if some student actually got that far) that the student(s), like Stephen, would declare: 
Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality
of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated
conscience of my race...Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

This is the problem with epic constructs, such as curriculum maps, made by others and offered as national models--they are without location--without voice and context.  Rather, these maps privilege paper and pencil tasks that find their expression mostly in the completion of essayist compositions.  In crafting these units, the educators seem to have confused rigor with difficulty and relevance with elitism.  Offering Joyce to 13 years old will do nothing more than frustrate them and their teachers.  

Finally, how does reading these texts or any of the ones offered or writing the essays assigned actually help a student to answer the "essential" question: How are artists and authors similar?  I always thought authors were artist. Isn't that what Stephen is declaring?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Common Core Curricular Mapping: Travels with A Tour Guide

Just who are we teaching? I wondered as I read the Common Core Curriculum Maps--"model" curricula that attempt to explicate the new common core state standards for English language arts.  One method (Socratic Seminar) and one literary theory (New Criticism) undergird the mile wide and inch deep maps at the secondary level.  I was reminded while reading the long lists of texts of Dennis Sumara’s (1996) characterization of the teacher as tour guide. Sumara writes, “Curriculum is a normalizing experience…Teachers become tour guides, showing students which sites must be noticed... As a daily performance, teaching becomes a pointing ritual that seldom pierces underneath the skin of the everyday” (p. 233).

Missing from these maps is the 21st century. No hyperbole intended. It is as if the teachers who wrote these maps were unaware of the digital world and the students they teach.  In the school district where I work, students are composing research by collaboratively building knowledge by sharing annotations through Diigo. Here students are connecting with learners beyond the classroom through skype to learn with and from others. Teachers and students are collaborating through google docs, posing questions and posting comments to one another through a Moodle account. Stories don't rest on paper exclusively in these classrooms as teachers and students compose, mix, and remix text using a variety of media and tools. 

It is rather shocking that the new common core curriculum maps at best posit a world long gone and then offer us that world as if it was relevant.  The Common Core Curriculum Maps are a dead end. We need to occasion powerful producers and consumers of text, not by following maps already made, but by lighting out for the new territory along with our students.  As Huck told us so long ago: "I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I've been there before." 

Haven't we all.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Woman with Crow

for Mamie Till-Mobley

Perhaps it was nothing more
than the suddenness
of a single black American crow
lifting from the branch
that had me thinking of you.
There in the pale wash of November sky
the bird winged North,
its blue-black splay of wings opening
like some long sought hope
and I wondered about us:
two mothers separated by fifty years.

I imagined an afternoon together with you.
A day, nothing too special,
certainly not that August
when Emmett’s bloated body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River,
a tortured and slain child—
nor late September
when that jury of white men
delayed the verdict sixty minutes by sipping soda pop
before carrying out certain Mississippi justice.
Not these, perhaps a different day
when memory might soften slightly
(if such days do come)
when we might sit,
two women in comfortable silence
interrupted by talk, tea.

I would have been nervous.
My clammy, too-white skin
bearing first an apology
for all that has come before
and comes with me
knowing too well the inadequacy of words—
sounding so slight
against this history of such relentless wrongs.
Perhaps you would have helped me to know
how we might begin to get said
what Williams knew must be said.

Sometime that afternoon
I might have mentioned how my mother
told me Emmett’s story,
the one I never heard repeated in school.
Seated at our kitchen table
with late afternoon tea, my mother claimed
history was rewritten on your loved child’s loss
when you said, “Open it up.
Let the people see
what they did to my boy.”
I knew those men
who mowed lawns on weekends
their shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow
and their women, so taken with their whiteness,
were a savage plague unrelenting.

America, thirty years gone by—

How could I know then
from the privileged whiteness
of home that tonight I would stroke
the sweet, unmarred cheek
of my own adopted boy
so slight
so innocent in his sleep, in his waking
knowing it would be only dumb luck
not his mother’s guiding hand,
not his father’s watchful eye
that keeps this child of color

Rising. South Dakota. July 2010. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Where is Emerson's (Wo)Man Thinker on Twitter?

I'm new to Twitter and tweeting. On my Facebook "wall" I posed the question: "I am wondering if u have a lot of people following you on twitter and you tweet crap but name it as gold and it keeps getting retweeted, is it not an Emperor's New Clothes dressed up for the 21st century?"

As a teacher and learner, I have found myself a bit dismayed as I followed links that bring me to 14 things a 21st century teacher must know--or 20 ways to use an iPad-- or thousands of free lesson plans, and so on. Now to be sure, not all the tweets I read are of this sort, but a lot are.  It isn't the quality of comment and link direction that fully concerns me, but more so the certainty that underlies and fixes these tweets as "givens".  Each time I read one I ask: For whom might this be true? In what context?  It's the absence of context that worries me. I think of Robert Frost's poem, The Mending Wall, when the speaker declares:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Do Tweets by their very nature function as walls?  Let's pause a moment and consider the link that promised thousands of free lesson plans.  When I followed it I was directed to a site where a pop up immediately let me know that I had won something. 
After clearing that away, I was directed to a list of choices. Here's where the problems really started. Again, it was not the quality of the lesson plans, although the number was daunting, but rather it was the reality of them. I mean, why do I actually want these plans that someone or some group made?  What will these plans disrupt and displace with regard to my own thinking and my specific context as teacher and learner?  How do plans actually get made that don't involve the students?  Have they and the teacher no voice in what gets privileged in the classroom?  What does all of this suggest about what is valued and not valued in the education?  What might the presence of these tweets that are retweeted and labeled golden suggest about what it means to teach and learn?

DoesTwitter in some way facilitate the rapid replication of the accepted dogma?  Against the speed and volume that makes Twitter tweet, has Emerson's (Wo)man Thinker been lost?  In a commencement speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson said:  
"The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,--the act of thought,--is transferred to the record. The poet chanting, was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled, the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly, the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry, if it is disparaged. Colleges are built on it. Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles." 
So, can a metalanguage be heard on Twitter?  I mean consider: If you are a full time tweeter and you have, let's say 500,000 people following you, is it a matter of number and volume that makes one's truths, true? 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nomadic Reading in a Standards-Based World

I have never really given much thought about how I get ready to read, but tonight as I went in search of a copy of David Foster Wallace's, Everything and More: A Short History of Infinity and failed to secure a copy, I realized that in lieu of the real deal, I am reading and talking about the book.

I first became interested this afternoon as I listened to my husband read aloud sections of the text from a copy of the book he is reading. It caught me ear. Then we talked about what he had read aloud and ideas we each had about mathematics. We talked a lot through the next few hours, off and on. Then I read a few reviews on line, abandoning some as I read and rereading others. Next, we went off in search of the book at two book stores and came up empty. I returned to the Internet found the opening of the text on Google books and read it and then read blogs that mentioned the text and I found myself cycling back to read more reviews. In one blog, I found a photograph of  David Foster Wallace reading, an image I had seen before, and this time I wondered what his voice might have sounded like. This stilled me and I wondered why he took his life.

All of these musings will (in)form how I read, stirring my imagination and readying me (perhaps) for when the book arrives on Tuesday and I open it. I imagine/anticipate that time when I come home from work to find the book has arrived and think about how I will spend that first night reading and writing in the margins, as this is a text where I most likely will want to write--will have something to say and to question.

So thinking about how I am approaching this text nudges me to consider how reading is situated in high school and wondering if room can be made so that possibilitites of reading stances are afforded to learners. It seems important to recognize that there are times when we ready ourselves to read and certainly times when we do not. Reading actions can be informed via an infinite number of possibilities and conditions and it is just staggering that any group could somehow contain such openness within a set of common core state standards that describe the conditions and outcomes of reading for all learners across 13 years. How could any group anticipate such vastness? How could anyone define, univocally, literate behavior?

The opening statement of the Common Core State Standards' mission says: "The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them." Oddly, when I read these standards, there was no mention I could find that suggests that pre-reading exists, let alone is desirable.

Tonight I wonder how any group can purport to know so much, when the possibilities of action/inaction that precede the arrival of the next book I plan to read are infinite? The path before me is largely nomadic; one that I am claiming and making simultaneously, and consider that I haven't even gotten to hold the book in my hands. What might happen to learners if instead of constructing epic certainties as a positive and sought outcome, we conceptualized curriculum as a road to make, not a determined path all must follow? Consider the possibilities that would immediately be opened.