What If Students Read More Books? (3/365)

Photo by Eli Francis on UnsplashI struggle mightily every day not to scream, “Stop making everyone read the same damned book!”

Yes, there is a beauty in a shared reading and examining of a text, but there is a perverse ugliness in the shared pretending to read and examine a text.

Yes, strive to have democratic classrooms honoring all voices, but do not pretend texts assigned by edict or the false choice of 4 titles equals democracy.

Yes, helping students gain the keys they’ll need to unlock cultural doors through understanding the ideas of canonical literature gives a leg up, but the leg up means little if that canon leads to a belief those are the only stories worth reading and telling.

Yes, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, and their ilk are masterfully written, but we were having conversations about humanity’s darkness, political inequality, and race in America long before each was written (and perhaps we’ve gotten better at it since).

There is an oppression in forcing someone to read a book long after they’ve realized they hate it. What might the effects of that oppression be on how students think about reading after they’ve left our care?

There is a disrespect in only asking students to read a single novel in a quarter or semester when conservative estimates put the number of new books each year at 600,000. What stories will they never see or see themselves in?

There is a shutting of our minds when we say, “These are the books I teach. What might we learn if realize we teach students and help them learn from as many texts as possible?

There is an hypocrisy in decrying the effects of text-impoverished homes on students’ literacy and then pretending we support and frame our school libraries as spaces students own. What if we allowed student access to these spaces in the same way we access bookstores, coffee shops, and the kindle store?

If literacy is key to democracy, if one in four American adults hadn’t read a book in whole or part in 2016, and if more than 90% of those adults were products of American public schools; then maybe we should stop making everyone ready the same damned book.

As a literate adult, how did you come to read the last book you read?

112/365 Play. Empathy. Democracy.

Playing the Building: Installation by David Byrne
I’ve been slowly working my way through Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. (Cataloged highlights from Kindle here.) The text began with much read-noddign on my part. “Yup,” my brain said, “She thinks what I think.”

Because of this, much of the early chapters didn’t feel challenging. Nussbaum was presenting the arguments I find myself making to others all the time. I needed her to either challenge my constructs or deepen my understandings. I saw the merits in her arguments, so I stuck with her.

Happening upon chapter six “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts,” I’m pleased I’ve kept reading. While the argument for play, creativity, fun, exploration and all their adjoining pieces is a familiar one, Nussbaum does something I’d not before witnessed.

She makes the argument for the importance of play and imagination in strengthening a democracy.

Claiming “Citizens cannot relate well to the complex world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone,” Nussbaum calls in play and imagination as skills to be prized in helping to build the empathy necessary for a democracy in which a plurality of views coexist and build a society.

We cannot get to empathy without imagination.

Democratic equality brings vulnerability…Play teaches people to be capable of living with others without control; it connects the experiences of vulnerability and surprise to curiosity and wonder, rather than to crippling anxiety.

Nussbaum calls for empathy education here. In fact, she opens her chapter quoting education authors calling for the same thing in 1916 and 1971.

I’ve made the call for empathy myself when speaking with groups of teachers. It’s embedded within the Ethic of Care. The pieces new here are the relationship of empathy to democracy and the use of play as a building block for empathy.

If I am not given way to imagine, I’ll never find the space to imagine how you are feeling or see our lives as interconnected. If I never see those lives as interconnected nor your thoughts and feelings as relevant to me, I’ll not take them into account when I think about things like school funding, civil rights, taxation, environmental issues…basically, every idea that intermingles with democracy.

I’ve valued and spoken to the value of each of these pieces – play, empathy, democracy. I’ve not had the occasion to consider them as interdependent and one leading to another. Such a relationship rearranges the furniture in my brain a bit and helps me to find a way to structure a call to action when next I find myself in front of a group of educators.

Things I Know 198 of 365: I want the SOS ralliers to be teachers first

The executive committee of the Save Our Schools March and Rally declined a meeting with the White House yesterday. Instead, they invited any White House personnel who were interested (by which I’m guessing they meant President Obama) to come to today’s rally and “see first-hand what teachers, students, parents and community members from across the country have to say about public education.”
I get the vibe there. I really do. High on the amassing of thousands from across the country to join in the march, it isn’t difficult to imagine the ease with which someone in the room said, “No. I’ve got it. Let’s turn them down and tell them we’ll meet after the march.”
To which the rest of the room cheered or harrumphed or whatever happens in moments like that when those of a group who feel empowered for the first time in a long time start to get the attention they deserve.
I haven’t read, nor do I expect to, the White House’s response of, “Oh, Friday’s no good for you? Ok, we’ll just wait for word from you.”
The nation at risk of defaulting on its loans, losing its AAA credit rating and falling down a deep dark financial hole, the White House made time.
Yes, it’s years after the first requests for a meeting.
And yes, the group of SOS teachers who met with the Department of Education Thursday felt patronized when the DOE issued a press release touting a useful dialogue.
I get all that.
Still, be teachers.
When the student in class who has resisted your every attempt at reaching him and teaching him shows a glimmer of interest in what you have to say, you don’t turn around and say, “You know what, I’m going to head to the Teachers Lounge and talk about what a horrible job you’ve been doing. You’re welcome to come listen in. Then, we’ll come back, and I’ll teach you.”
You teach. You teach in any moment you are given.
Ours is a profession of taking breaks where we can get them.
Not only that, you collecting every shred of data you can.
“Yes, we would love to meet with you. We are going to bring a couple of our top bloggers with us to make sure we document what happens so we can share it with all stakeholders We believe in a transparent process.”
Then, go to the rally and issue your own press release to the assembled thousands relaying exactly what happened, what was said and what plans have been made going forward.
Instead of seeing the offered meeting with the White House and making the case at today’s rally as mutually exclusive events, the chance and win lies in seeing the events as mutually beneficial.
I want equitable funding for all public school populations, an end to high-stakes testing, locally developed curriculums and policymaking by teachers families and local leadership.
These goals of the SOS March and Rally are just.
I want a full dialogue where little exists. I want the right to free speech, and the right to peaceably assemble to be asserted as well the temperance of knowing how and when to speak truth to power in such a way that I am modeling for those I teach the role of diplomacy in democracy.
I want this with the realization there will be no SOS Rally and March v.2.0.
A teacher friend of mine said it best yesterday, “Now SOS is asking us to call in to the White House?” he said, “You had a chance to meet there! Why do I have to call in?”
Be teachers.

Things I Know 56 of 365: My job is to look closely

You can observe a lot just by watching.

– Yogi Berra

In his discussion of the use of Critical Friends Group protocols with student work, Sam Chaltain explains the process as a chance to look more closely at what students have created. Rather than looking for what the teacher was hoping would come from an assignment, CFG protocols take a step back to ask what the student was doing, creating and attempting in the completion of an assignment.

It turns out you don’t need a protocol to be reminded we need to look more closely.

SLA welcomed visitors today.

Touring classrooms, they happened upon one of my senior storytelling classes.

After a few minutes, one of the visitors approached me.

“I walked in and saw kids cutting pictures out of magazines and thought, ‘This isn’t good.'”

Admittedly, as my students played with form and function as they diagrammed their six-word stories and then created art pieces to display those diagrams, it did look like an Adirondacks summer camp exploded in my room.

“But then I looked closer,” my guest continued. “There’s some deep work going on here.”

That’s the key.

“I want to take this class,” another visitor commented after spending five minutes listening to a student explain how he was attempting to understand what he was asking words to do in his story.

Admittedly, the room didn’t look like the standard English classroom today. Still, I was able to stop and have a real conversation about modifiers and direct objects with a kid who traditionally turns in 1 in 10 homework assignments. He wanted to make something that showed how his story did what it did. To accomplish this task of helping others understand his creation, he was willing to discuss prepositional phrases, understood subjects and adverbs.

“They’re doing some difficult work,” my first visitor explained.

“I know,” I said, “Don’t tell them.”

It’s not that I’m attempting to fool my students into learning. Monday, we’ll start looking more closely and talking more clinically about what they’re learning.

I didn’t want word to get out how difficult the task ahead was because they were creating. The drive to create had overcome the drive to exclaim the difficulty of creation. I didn’t want to stand in the way of that.

I didn’t want to stand in the way, but I still needed to look closely.

As my students were using yarn, construction paper, magazines, markers and colored pencils to create stories, I was looking closely at their abilities to understand language, build complex thoughts, dissect narrative and understand the relative relationships of words.


I’ll be using the CFG protocols to get my peers’ feedback on student work soon. For now, my goal is to look closely as that work is completed and understand what’s working and what isn’t.

Rather than have them pause and take a test, my goal is to have them continue to create so I can continue to learn about their learning.

Things I Know 52 of 365: My classroom should be as democratic as twitter

A great democracy must be progressive, or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.

– President Theodore Roosevelt

Teachers dig Facebook. They like ning and twitter and youtube and social networking. I mean, they really really like ’em.

A TON of teachers who like these online affordances also like to build the case for their inclusion in classrooms and education.

Of the Ton,I get the feeling many, if not most, of them work in schools or districts where those online affordances are blocked, banned, outlawed and censored.

I’m not sure many of those teachers really want the access or understand the shift in pedagogy that use would imply.

I’ve been reading Sam Chaltain’s American Schools: The art of creating a democratic learning community. You should too.

Chaltain holds that American schools should be places of democracy, but are not. No whiner, he then works to outline what he sees to be the keys of democratizing classrooms.

Before I picked up the text, I had been reflecting on the role democracy plays in my own teaching. While I’d wager it’s greater than many, I still struggle moving from compliance to choice.

Most recently, I’ve struggled with accepting the idea that saying, “Pick one of these three options,” isn’t the same thing as choice – not true choice.

Chaltain quotes Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick:

[I]f the world takes our ideas and changes them – or accepts some and discards others – all we need to decide is whether the mutated versions are still core. If they are, then we should humbly accept the audiences judgement.

When the Ton trumpet the use of the aforementioned online affordances in learning, they invariably speak of students’ abilities to choose, create, re-arrange, remix and “like” in the spaces they can inhabit online. In essence, they like that those online spaces would give their students the chance to do what the Heaths say sticky ideas do.

This leads me to question what’s been limiting those options in the physical spaces of their classrooms in the first place.

I know what’s been holding it back in my classroom – me.

No pedagogical prude, I attempt to take learning styles, intelligences and modalities into account as often as possible. I differentiate and modify and accommodate. In the end, I’m realizing much of the work in my classroom is still closer to conformity than I’d like. And perhaps, that’s limiting the contribution of those voices from whom I’m most waiting to hear.

“We should evoke contribution through freedom, not conformity,” Chaltain writes.

I agree.

To the extent that I work within a system that expects certain outcomes from my students, I agree. To the extent that I have a picture in my head of what my students can do once they leave my classroom, I agree.

It might be fear that leads me to the caveats above, but I don’t think it is.

There are pieces of being able to read and write that I know will prove detrimental if they are not within my students’ abilities when they leave my care. The democratic classroom I envision isn’t one without goals. It’s chock full o’ goals. Those goals are also balanced with choice.

When I write about improving choice in my classroom, I do not mean to imply the abdication of structure or goals. I mean to say I need to give greater and truer choices to my students in how they journey to those goals.

And to the Ton, I want to reference something Jerrid Kruse brought up tonight on twitter. He referenced his frustration with online ed discussions veering toward the tech and not the teaching. I don’t yet know if I agree with his claim that this happens in the majority of online conversations. I do know that it’s complicated my thinking.

If you’re clamoring for these online affordances backed by the argument of the democracy they bring to learning, have you done the hard, uncomfortable work of making your classrooms democratic so your students are better citizens when the tools show up (or don’t)?