Monday, March 31, 2014

On Brilliance and Necessity and the Problem with an Autonomous Model of Literacy (AKA Common Core)

Empty Lot (M.A. Reilly.  Harlem  2012)
"I love those who yearn for the impossible." - Goethe

I received this tweet early this evening from Heidi Siwak (@HeidiSiwak) that included a link to an important post, Creative Solutions are No Accidents. (Please take a moment to read.)

I stopped what I was doing and read the post and then reread it and then thought: There's such scholarship and generosity--inquiry and curiosity in Heidi's work as a teacher and learner. What I so appreciated in the work and processes Heidi describes is the occasioning of thinking and problem solving, alongside community that she composes. Complexity cannot be caused. At best, it can (sometimes) be occasioned. Such understanding, especially when actualized, represents a major shift in teaching. We move from what should and ought to happen to what might or could happen.

We dwell in possibility (A fairer House than Prose...).
Heidi's work exemplifies such a shift.

Her work reminds of this important shift we also need to be thinking about when working with teachers:

The overt (and perhaps even tiresome) obsession in the U.S. with the Common Core has redirected professional attention and critical resources almost exclusively on the endless naming and renaming of content to be learned. How many ways can we say, "Pay attention to text while reading and writing"? (You can hear the drone even from great distances sounding: Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text. Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text and so on...)  These words and phrases are empty as they are fashioned out of a belief of an autonomous model of literacy instead of recognizing literacies as being inherently ideological.

Brian Street who first coined those phrase (autonomous and ideological) explains:

The ‘autonomous’ model of literacy works from the assumption that literacy in itself – autonomously – will have effects on other social and cognitive practices. The model, however, disguises the cultural and ideological assumptions that underpin it and that can then be presented as though they are neutral and universal ... The alternative, ideological model of literacy ... offers a more culturally sensitive view of literacy practices as they vary from one context to another. This model starts from different premises than the autonomous model – it posits instead that literacy is a social practice, not simply a technical and neutral skill ... It is about knowledge: the ways in which people address reading and writing are themselves rooted in conceptions of knowledge, identity, being. Literacy, in this sense, is always contested. (Street, 2000, pp.7-8).

Discerning key differences between autonomous and ideological models of literacy helps us to understand situating teaching as a causal act and understanding teaching as attempts to occasion learning.  Heidi's work (as described in the post) illustrates the creative scaffolding necessary to occasion learning that happens within social practices of the classroom--where 'conceptions of knowledge identity, being' are present and contested.  It's a messy, complex place.
Forgetfulness (M.A Reilly, 2010)

When I read about the intellectual and social spaces Heidi's work with children opens, I remember what it means to teach as a learner, not merely as a player cast in someone's already determined epic. What passes as teaching excellence in these CCSS days is paltry stuff--something akin to cheap magician tricks. How could such mimicry ever escape the paralysis that comes with the philosophical belief that literacies are neutral, universal: Repeat after me: Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text. Close reading. Evidence. Rigor. Complex Text? It is as if meaning of these terms remained universal, unmoving, untouched--not something emerges as it is being made. Bakhtin described such phenomena well when he wrote: “[d]iscourse lives, as it were, beyond itself, in a living impulse toward the object; if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word” (1981,  p. 292). In so many ways, the resurgence of CCSS certainty is as Bakhtin (1981) describes epic: a poem about the past” told by “a man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible” (p. 13).  
In contrast a living impulse describes well the classroom Heidi shares with students as they create and deconstruct--test constraints that confine and liberate. The means to thoughtful inquiry is composed, not copied.

No simulacrum there.

This is the great stuff of teaching--learning.
The trial and error.
The making of failure and more failure and within that the opening of  big, big space where ideas bloom wild and becomes named alongside critique.

Oh, to be a learner there.

Cited Works:

Bakhtin, MM. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Street, B. (2000). ‘Introduction’ in Street, B. (ed.) Literacy and Development: ethnographic perspectives. London, Routledge, pp. 7–8.

Drawing Your Way Into and Out of a Poem

Eavan Boland reading.

This is an sample of some work I will be doing with administrators and teachers later in the week focusing on comprehension and poetry.  The poem, This Moment, is authored by Irish poet Eavan Boland.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Are You Walking Out? Newark Students Plan Walk Out on April 3

This video posted by Newark Students Union explains (to some extent) why these students plan to walk out of school on April 3.  They post (via Google Docs) 11 reasons why students should walk out. Posted here.

What do you think?  Do students' voices matter?  Is there a way we need to listen?  To respond?

First Chorus

from here

I plan to work with the idea of first chorus during the next month. Such a provocative opening to muse about.  Thanks to Heidi Siwak (@HeidiSiwak) for mentioning, Creativity from Constraints.

"First chorus" is a musical term for an initially played melody that provides the notes, chords, and keys used in the variations or improvisations that follow. For example, Mozart used the traditional melody Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star as the basis for 12 variations. First choruses in other domains also supply components to be recombined and changed. In painting Seurat and Signac used Monet's mosaic-shaped brush strokes as a first chorus for developing the dots of pure color that characterize Pointillism.

Patricia D. Stokes PhD. Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough (Kindle Locations 82-85). Kindle Edition. 

How Making Art (In)Forms My Work as a Teacher

Today I have been looking at images I made in classrooms and workshops where I am teaching/co-teaching, largely in Newark, NJ.   The images illustrate work done with principals, teachers, and children.

I have been sharing these images and insights via Twitter today. Here are a few of the tweets.

In doing this work today, I realize how influenced I am as a teacher by the art I make. I uploaded this portfolio of black and white images I made during a four year period to slideshare.  (See below) This got me thinking about how observing and seeing though various lenses influences the multiple perspectives I bring to my work as an educator.

All of this is to say that when we think about professional learning, the quiet out of school learning we do ought to matter. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In March

Winter Night (M.A. Reilly, 2013)

In March 
the earth remembers its own name.
Everywhere the plates of snow are cracking. 
The rivers begin to sing. In the sky 
the winter stars are sliding away;
new stars appear...
from "Worm Moon" by Mary Oliver

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Passion for Possibility

Want (M.A Reilly, 2009)
“A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures. We raise new questions for a foreign culture, ones that it does not raise itself; we seek answers to our own questions in it; and the foreign culture responds to us by revealing to us new aspects and new semantic depths” (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 7).
Tonight I was listening to Beethoven's 9th. It is such an expansive and emotional work.  One that never fails to move me--largely because it opens me to possibility.  There's something untamed about listening to the 9th.  

When I think about listening I wonder about about learning--how learning ought to open us--ought to be largely a matter of possibility, not certainty.  And yet, the desire to be certain when confronting an unknown and have it named often determines us and what we value--be it in our homes, our hearts, or our schools.  Consider Maxine Greene who tells us:
We are not the first to feel a slippage under our feet, to grope for a “point d’appui,” something to stand on, a platform, a ground. Like so many of our predecessors, many of us grope wildly for security. We seek a certainty of protection, of salvation.  (from here)
But what is the price we pay for security?  I can't help but think of the cool comfort standards and high stakes testing have offered--twin methods we have been embracing since we were told we were a nation at risk.  Frightened of our limitations, we wondered who might we trust? And in the ensuing years we have learned most not to trust ourselves, our very eyes and ears. We substitute certainty and completeness that wrap itself around national standards and national tests for the slippages we feel when we stand on our own feet atop a world that is always in motion. 

When I think about the CCSS and other educational certainties it is the sameness--the way the language parses itself so neatly, so predictably that most confounds me as it concerns me. Consider how likely it is that David Coleman and company, could name for millions of children (at least those enrolled in public US schools) what they most need to learn and when. Standards are a closed system. And yet, if meaning is most revealed as Bakhtin says when it comes in contact with other, then what might we make of this rather closed movement of educational standards--self-referential, monologic?  Hegemonic?

Again, Greene offers us a way of framing this conundrum when she writes:
As John Dewey reminded us, facts are mean and repellent things until we use imagination to open intellectual possibilities. Imagination may be viewed as a passion for possibility...this is where the effort to achieve freedom begins—freedom as the opening of spaces in which choices can be made and action undertaken. Thoughtfulness, imagination, encounters with the arts and sciences from the grounds of lived life: this is the beginning and the opening to what might be.
It is from the grounds of lived life, where we most need to dwell--the spaces that open and close causing gaps to appear. Nothing living is ever finished.  It is in the lived life where we can best "anticipate and accept incompleteness" (Greene again).   And perhaps that--incompleteness--is what we might value most at school. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Exemplary Writing, Illustrating, and Recording in 2nd Grade

Jenna Gample, a second grade teacher at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, created an ebook with her students focusing on snakes.  The work in so fine and I'm pleased to include it here. This is an example of exemplary work.

Here is a link to the book which you can also see below.

The videos below help to explain the process the students went through to create their ebook.

Inspiring Excellence Part 1: Overview from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Inspiring Excellence Part 2: Building Motivation and Skills through Whole-Class Research from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Inspiring Excellence Part 3: Building Motivation and Skills through Independent Research from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Inspiring Excellence Part 4: Using Models and Critiques to Create Works of Quality from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Inspiring Excellence Part 5: Reading to Get Ready to Write from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Inspiring Excellence 6: Writing and Speaking with Power from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Video: An Ordinary Moment in a Classroom - Thinking about Discourse

I love zooming in on what children speak about when engaged in conversation.

In this video, two fourth grade boys problem solve, sharing their enthusiasm. (Begins 24 second in.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Have We Lost Our Minds? The Omission of Guiding Students' Reading

2 second grader's initial thinking while reading
I was conducting an in-service for NYC elementary school administrators this past week when a person in attendance asked me to weigh in on the question of guided reading in primary classrooms. Underneath the query was the question of whether or not guided reading was an appropriate instructional practice given the emphasis on 'close reading' via the Common Core.

Many in attendance, it seemed, have been struggling with the absence of guided reading instruction for primary grade children. It seems an odd thing to me that guided literacy might be stricken from the primary grade classrooms, along with children actually practicing reading--but that does seem to be the situation many educators and their students are facing as time has been allotted for newer, (better?) basals that do not incorporate guided reading. In the mad dash to have all children 'PARCC-ready,' we are harming these same children by denying them the space to read with a more knowledgeable reader alongside them. Guided literacy learning offers the possibility of assistance during problem solving--be it as a writer or reader.

Linda Dorn and Tammy Jones (2012) explain:
An apprenticeship classroom should be structured so that children can work in their assisted and unassisted learning zones, including whole group, small group, one-on-one, and independently.' 
I like Dorn and Jones's reliance on Vygotsky and Bruner as they craft an approach to teaching that includes scaffolding (always with an eye to deconstructing the scaffold when it is no longer necessary). They explain the complex process of scaffolding:
Assisting a child in the zone of proximal development is called scaffolding (Bruner 1986; Wood 2002). During guided instruction, teachers provide children with varying degrees of support that enable them to accomplish specific tasks. As children become more competent, the scaffolding is removed and the children take over more of the responsibility. Scaffolding is not simply a case of breaking learning segments down into scope and sequence. Instead, it is a complex interactive process whereby the teacher regulates levels of support according to how well the children understand the task at hand. An essential quality of a scaffold is that it be self-destructing.
There's such clarity in the way Dorn and Jones situate the concept of guiding learning, while not succumbing to foolish (mis)understandings of text being inherently complex or not. Rather it is through interactions among child, teacher, task, and text that complexity and degrees of scaffolding occur. To me this is what the phrase, guided reading, has always meant.  It's not the technical aspects of group size, location, time, or a particular book or task that define this type of practice. Rather, it is the intentionality of the learners (teacher and child) who work alongside one another to problem solve. It is a relationship of shifting power as the child gains control over the processes of meaning making.

Over at EngageNY, there is a 5-minute video that has the title, "Guided Reading and the Common Core State Standards," that I watched twice as it did not make a lot of sense to me. I recognize this could be a shortcoming on my part.  It felt like the two speakers were trying to fit their ideology into a practice that was not actually a close fit and as such there was a lot of talk and not a lot said. Curious if you watch it what you might have to say. Truly it baffles me.

Guiding children's reading is essential for some learners at particular times.  It is practice that can help bridge the distance between I can't read it and watch me read it on my own.  As such the question of whether guided reading ought to be in primary grade classrooms is more a question of power and agency and less a question of method. To impose an absolute decision about such matters from positions beyond actual classrooms, is to deny agency and power to learners.

Dorn, Linda J.; Jones, Tammy (2012-09-28). Apprenticeship in Literacy (Second Edition) (Kindle Locations 3845-3846). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Teachers Innovate: Suzanne Capuano

A second grader participating in flashlight reading.
Suzanne turns off the lights and the children read by flashlight.
Robert Treat Academy, Newark, NJ. 2014.

Below is an email I received tonight from a second grade teacher who I have been working with (as a consultant) for the last three years. I so appreciate when teachers, like Suzanne, innovate. Suzanne is using a read aloud instructional collection that I wrote and have been trying out with teachers and students during the last year.  The text Suzanne is referencing is Tenzin's Deer written by Barbara Soros and illustrated by Danuta Mayer.  This text comes at the end of a unit focusing on the Himalayan Mountains.  Students have heard and interacted with three other texts: Jacqueline Briggs Martin's The Chiru of High Tibet (illustrated by Linda Wingerter), Steve Jenkins' The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest, and Jan Reynolds' Himalaya: Vanishing Culture.

Suzanne Capuano

6:04 PM (3 hours ago)
to me
So.. I read this story alone on Saturday.. made my teenagers listen to it on Sunday .. both times I cried at the end.
My students heard it today.  I cannot tell you how much they loved it.  I read the story straight through and I told them to write "Moment that caused me to wonder and 2 wonderings on their white board.. they love those markers.  I didn't know how often they would erase and what else they would put in its place but wow...
Right after the first page, I modeled my "Moment where I heard..." and "I wondered......"
I literally used a T-Chart and wrote those two headings with "The moment I heard .... that the Tibetan people live with "unity".. I wondered .."How do they ALL manage to get along with one another and keep peace where they live?"  We talked about how I came up with the word "unity" and used our knowledge from previous stories about how difficult it is to live in the mountains.  Then I read the entire story as they jotted down 2 notes on their white boards.  I just wanted to experiment with something similar to what they did on Friday.  I didn't know if they would understand the part "Moment where I heard, but wait until you hear what they came up with.

Moment where I heard...  Tenzin was talking to the flower... I wondered how do plants and items have a soul?
Moment where I heard... Tenzin tried to find a way to take out the arrow.. I wondered why does Tenzin care so much?
Moment where I heard...Jampa was feeling much better... I wondered ...since Tenzin loves Jampa so much.. is he going to let her go?
Sanaa Snead
Moment when I heard ....the boy didn't know what to do for the deer.. .I wondered .. how did the deer know that he would dream?
Moment I heard.. Tenzin talking to the flower.. I wondered how do plants have a soul?
Moment I heard ...Jampa went away and Tenzin could keep hearing him.. I wondered .. How .. from so far away?
When I heard.. he loved the deer.. I wondered why he had to let her go?
I was wondering how the deer looked when he grew up.
Moment I heard that Tenzin put tea on the wound and laid the flower on the deer.. I wondered why Tenzin put tea on the would that help?
Moment I heard that the tea was poured on the wound.. I wondered.. was the tea magic?
These Read Alouds are just so incredible... .thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Suzanne Capuano

I plan to update the ebook that contains this unit in order to include Suzanne's instruction. (She's given me permission).  You can see a draft of two of the units (Himalayan Mountains and Fables) in this ebook version.  The units currently have grown to nine and I hope to publish it via iTunes in May. The books focus on reading aloud, independent reading, and small group instruction. They are grade specific (K-4) and they are free.