Putting the Arts Back in Language Arts – One Journal at a Time

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This is the fifth in a series of blog posts focused on the value of art in our lives, and the role art can play in resisting the test and punish model of education.  See the intro and links to other posts in the series here.


Sometimes in public school you’ve just got to cut the crap.

No testing. No close reading. No multiple choice nonsense.

Get back to basics – pass out notebooks, crack them open and students just write.

Not an essay. Not a formal narrative. Not an official document. Just pick up a pencil and see where your imagination takes you.

You’d be surprised the places you’ll go.

You might invent a new superhero and describe her adventures in a marshmallow wonderland. You might create a television show about strangers trapped in an elevator. You might imagine what life would be like if you were no bigger than a flea.

Or you might write about things closer to home. You might describe what it’s like to have to take care of your three younger brothers and sisters after school until just before bedtime when your mom comes back from her third minimum wage job. You might chronicle the dangers of walking home after dismissal where drug dealers rule certain corners and gangs patrol the alleys. You might report on where you got those black and blue marks on your arms, your shoulders, places no one can see when you’re fully clothed.

My class is not for the academic all stars. It’s for children from impoverished families, kids with mostly black and brown skin and test scores that threaten to close their school and put me out of work.

So all these topics and more are fair game. You can write about pretty much whatever you want. I might give you something to get you started. I might ask you a question to get you thinking, or try to challenge you to write about something you’ve never thought about or to avoid certain words or phrases that are just too darn obvious. I might ask your opinion of something in the news or what you think about the school dress code or get your thoughts about how things could improve.

Because I actually care what you think.

Strange, I know.

At times like these, I’m not asking you to dig through a nonfiction text or try to interpret a famous literary icon’s grasp of figurative language. It’s not the author’s opinion that matters – it’s yours – because you are the author. Yes, YOU.

You matter. Your thoughts matter. Your feelings. YOU MATTER!

And sometimes students raise their hands and ask me to read what they’ve written. And sometimes – more often than not – the first thing they say is, “It’s no good.” “I don’t like it.” “I did bad on this.”

So I stop reading, I look them right in the eyes and ask them who wrote it.

“Me?” they say.

And I respond, “Then I’m sure it’s excellent.” And it usually is.

My 8th grade students have been ground down so low under the weight of a society that could care less about their well being that they’ve begun to internalize it. They think their thoughts and feelings are worthless. No one cares about what they think.

But I do.

So I offer them a chance to share what they’ve written. I don’t demand. I don’t force anyone to read anything. I know that some things that spill out on the page aren’t for sharing. But I want them to know that I value what they’ve just put down and that I think it’s worth taking the class time to let others hear it, too.

“Mr. Singer, I wrote five pages,” Jaquae tells me this afternoon. “That’s too long to share.”

“I disagree,” I say. “If you think it’s worth our time, you should read it. You deserve our attention.”

So he reads, blows out a cleansing breath and smiles.

In the process, we all become ennobled. We become more. We become a community. We get a peak at our common humanity.

It’s so easy to look at others as mere adversaries. Even our national education policy sees things in terms of a competition, a race. We set children against each other for points, for grades, for attention, just to feel valuable. You’re a Proficient. You’re a Basic. You’re a Below Basic. And somewhere along the way they lose the sense that they’re all valuable because they’re all human beings with thoughts, feelings and experiences that no one else has ever gone through before – but with which everyone can relate.

So I write, too. Every time I set my students a journal, I put pen to paper, as well.

At the beginning of the year, I share what I wrote to show them that it’s okay. At the middle of the year I ask them if they want me to share. And at the end of the year I remain silent unless they ask me to do otherwise.

Because these class moments aren’t about me. They’re about them. I’m willing to be as much a part of their creative space as they want, but it’s a choice, not a dictate.

In my class I will make you learn, but I don’t control what you learn or how you feel about it.

I extend my students this respect because I know that what we’re really doing isn’t some meaningless exercise. We’re creating art.

Not just scribbles on a page. Not something done just to please the teacher. This is an excavation of the soul. We dive into the depths of ourselves and come back all the better for it.

That’s why my students journal almost every day.

That’s why we put mechanics and spelling and grammar aside for a few moments and just write what we need to say.

Because Language Arts, after all, is an Art. It says that right in the title.

My students are artists. I am their muse. I hold a mirror up to their fractured and beaten spirits to show them the grandeur of what resides inside them.

And hopefully they come away inspired.

Because they are wonders. They are joyous. They are little pieces of my heart.


NOTE: This article was also published in Living in Dialogue, the Badass Teachers Association Blog and mentioned on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

 

Close Reading: Myopia as a Virtue

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Painting by Pawel Kuczynski

 

 

You are reading a text.

Yes. Right now.

Your eyes are scanning over symbols called letters. They are joined together into words and sentences and paragraphs to make up the total of this article.

Your brain is in the process of translating these symbols into sounds, meanings, concepts. And you are reacting to those concepts.

You’re having thoughts about what you’re reading. Maybe you’re reminded of a similar article you’ve read sometime in the past. Maybe you’re feeling a thrill of excitement at such an original introduction to an education article. Or perhaps you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why the author is such a doofus.

No matter how you look at it, reading involves complex processes. A whole bunch of stuff is going on to make it happen – all of it essential.

Yet when we evaluate reading comprehension these days, we put the focus squarely on one or two of those multifarious processes. It’s reductive, reactionary, and lame. It’s a dumbing down of the cognitive and metacognitive process. But it makes things easy to grade on a standardized test.

That’s what the fad of close reading is all about. It’s an attempt to make the mysterious and complex mind something that can easily be labeled right or wrong.

For the uninitiated, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text in which great emphasis is put on individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold.

It’s not that close reading is unimportant. After all, it’s something good readers do. But an overemphasis on this aspect leaves out so much that is even more vital. It’s like saying the only significant part of the Hershey bar is the wrapper, or the only salient part of eating the Hershey bar is chewing. However, when I unwrap my dessert, there better be chocolate inside, and after I bite into it, I’d better not forget to swallow!

But education specialists with little to no actual classroom experience are making a killing going from school-to-school lecturing teachers about how to teach. And they’re telling us to emphasize close reading to the detriment of all else.

They’re saying we need to give our students short texts of no more than a page or two. We should have our students read these texts without any background into who wrote them or why. We should then have students answer questions that require them to go back to the text, find something and spit it back to us.

For instance:

How does the author use figurative language to develop theme?

Explain how word choice in the passage develops characterization.

Provide examples from the passage that demonstrate the author’s bias.

To the uninitiated, it looks like really important work. It’s not. This is the literary equivalent of taking out the garbage or going on a scavenger hunt. These are good things, but they are not the be-all-end-all. They don’t capture the essential reason we read – to understand.

Imagine if I asked you to go back into the part of this article you’ve already read and find one example of a North American pejorative used by the author. You could do it. You could scan back to the beginning, look through everything I wrote and find that I used the word “Doofus.”

Huzzah! You win the scavenger hunt.

Now explain why I used that word by making reference to textual evidence. You could do that, too. You could look at all the other things I’ve written so far and explain why I probably chose that word.

Congrats!

But notice what you can’t do, what these think tank clones will never ask you to do – form a substantial opinion. Not just why do you think someone else did something but what do you think about what they did?

For example:

Do you think the use of colloquialisms and slang have a place in serious education theory? Why or why not?

When was the most or least effective time you or a colleague used a colloquialism to express a complex thought? Evaluate its effectiveness.

In what ways are forbidden words more or less meaningful than those more easily sanctioned?

At its core, reading is not about discrete facts. No one picks up a piece of text to find out minute fragments of information. Instead, we’re looking for enlightenment. We don’t care so much about how the astronaut puts on the spacesuit. We want to know why she put it on in the first place. We want to know where she’s going. We want to know what it’s like and if we’d want to do something like that ourselves.

But an overemphasis on close reading ignores all this. It pretends readers are robots. It pretends reading is a mechanical process that can be easily divided into its component parts and examined discretely.

Even worse it ignores the needs of individual students. For many children in our modern world, reading of this sort is almost entirely alien to their lives. There are so many things competing for our attention these days that reading often gets neglected. Even if you love to read, it can be difficult to find the time and inclination to sit down, quiet yourself and read.

THIS is where most educators would like to focus – getting students to read at all. We want to show learners why they might want to read. We want to engage them. Demonstrate what an amazing experience a good book can be. We want to foster that look of delight in their eyes, that sense of wonder, the epiphany of literacy.

But instead we’re being told to focus on the nuts and bolts, the everyday boring hunt and seek of mechanical mentation.

Whatever you do, don’t see the forest; see the trees. Don’t look at the big picture; look exclusively to the details and don’t worry your pretty little head about making any larger meaning out of it.

This is tantamount to child abuse. We’re putting blinders on children’s minds and telling them which direction to think. We’re taking away their ownership of the reading experience. It’s no longer about what they want, what they’ve lived through, what they believe or what they see. It’s only about the author’s view – an author they probably don’t care about because they had no part in all the other crucial facets of reading. In fact, I would argue that this isn’t even really reading at all. It’s little more than  decoding. It’s a skill set fit for a corporate drone, not someone in management or any position to make valuable decisions.

It’s no wonder that these prescriptions are only leveled at public schools. Parochial, private and charter schools are specifically left out of these mandates. The same people demanding close reading for your kids want something much different for their own.

This is class warfare as education policy. It’s all about keeping down working families and lifting up the one percent.

That’s essentially what corporate education reform is all about – every tentacle of the beast is wrapped around young minds of the poor, the brown skinned, the undesirable.

But perhaps you don’t agree with me. Perhaps you have your own thoughts on this matter which may differ from mine.

Fine, I say. Good!

Yes, please think about it. Ponder these issues carefully, because while I’m championing free thought, the other side wants nothing less than your children’s complete submission to the status quo.

Feel free to give that a nice close read.

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NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

 

 

A Real Solution to the Infinitesimal Cases of Child Predators in Our Schools

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Pat Toomey is obsessed with child predators in our public schools.

When I came to Washington, D.C., this summer to visit 
the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, he was lobbying to get his “Passing the Trash” bill included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

His proposed legislation – now part of the Senate version of the ESEA – would ban school districts from helping known pedophiles from finding teaching jobs at different schools. Toomey is hopeful the provision will remain in the final version of the law that eventually will reach President Obama’s desk.

I met with his education aide who cheerily told me her job was to comb through the nation’s newspapers everyday and count the number of teachers accused of acting inappropriately with children. I’d mention issues like inequitable funding, standardized testing and Common Core. She’d solemnly quote back the number she’d found in her research.

There was definitely a disconnect between our priorities. After all, I’m a public school teacher. I work in our school system everyday. She and her boss only know about our schools through what they read in the newspaper. And according to the media every school in American houses child predators. They lurk behind every corner protected by administrators, superintendents and unions.

However, the facts do not back this up.

The Associated Press held a landmark investigation in 2007 to discover the extent of the problem. Reporters sought disciplinary records in all 50 states and the District of Columbia over a 5 year period. The investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned following allegations of sexual misconduct. About 70% of those cases involved children being victimized.

There is no glossing over it. The number is disgusting and startling. However, it is far from the national epidemic the media and Toomey are touting.

There are more than 3 million teachers in this country. This report found that 1 in 800,000 may be a child predator. That’s .00083%.

In other words, your child is more likely to be struck by lightning than be the victim of a child predator at school (1 in 134,906).

Other things more likely to happen include dying in an airplane crash (1 in 7,178), death on the job (1 in 48,000), and being murdered (1 in 18,000).

I don’t mean to be glib. One teacher betraying a young person’s trust in this way is one too many.

I’m glad Toomey is pursuing this legislation. I even support it.

However, I don’t like the slander and libel against the great majority of teachers. I don’t like how we’re all being painted with the same brush – even when it is done in the cause of making it more difficult for child predators.

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. In that time, I have never met a single teacher who I would be uncomfortable letting babysit my 6-year-old daughter. Even when I was a student, myself, back in the 1980s and 90s, I never had a teacher who I was afraid would molest me or my classmates.

Compare this to the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. A review by American Catholic bishops found about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002. That’s .04% or 1 in 400. Sure the timescale involved is much longer than the AP study of educators, but the pool of priests is also much smaller. It would seem children are more in danger in houses of worship than houses of learning.

However, none of this helps people like Toomey pass legislation. You can’t say this doesn’t happen much, but we need to stop it. No one would vote for it. There would be no sense of urgency.

It’s just that in dramatizing the situation the Senator and his ilk are defaming the majority of teachers who would never even consider hurting a child.

The truth is not politically expedient. Child predation in schools is not a quantitative issue. It’s a qualitative one.

You don’t need large numbers of children to be hurt in this way for us to take the problem seriously. Even a small number, even a single instance, is enough to require action. No child should ever feel unsafe in school. No child should ever be victimized in these hallowed halls – especially by the very people who have devoted their lives to help them.

So I think Toomey’s right. We should pass his legislation. We should take steps to stop this kind of thing from ever happening in our schools.

And if we’re really serious, I have a solution that no one seems to be talking about: Let’s hire more teachers.

Stay with me here. Child predators almost always act alone. This sort of crime requires the perpetrator to have time undisturbed with the victim. Yet what do we have in our public schools? We’ve slashed and burned school budgets until there are fewer teachers and more students than ever. Class sizes have ballooned. It’s not uncommon for teachers to have upwards of 20, 30 even 40 children in one classroom.

This is the perfect breeding ground for child predators. They are more unsupervised than ever. They can do as they please and no one will catch them until it’s too late. Even principals and other administrators have less time to observe what goes on in the classroom because they’re unduly burdened with ridiculous amounts of paper work required to ensure every teacher gets a junk science value-added evaluation.

But if we hired more teachers, we could reduce this problem. We could even take the majority of these new teachers and put them together in the classroom. We could initiate a nationwide co-teaching initiative.

There would be challenges. You’d have to be careful to pair educators together that are compatible and can work well together. However, it would be worth it.

Few teachers would be alone with a class of students. There would almost always be another adult in the room. If another teacher was doing something fishy, it would be observed and probably reported. Moreover, the mere presence of another educator would be a huge deterrent to even trying something funny.

And this would solve our class size conundrum. You might still have larger classes, but the ratio between teacher and student would be halved. Educational outcomes would increase. Students would get more individual attention. They’d learn more. Teachers would be less stressed having someone else to shoulder the burden. And having an influx of new middle class jobs would boost our flagging economy.

This is a win-win.

Of course, it would cost some major bucks. It would require a lot of work from our nations lawmakers and policy wonks. But how could they really say ‘no’? After all, it’s being done to protect children!

From an economic standpoint, we already spend 54% of our federal budget on wars and the military. Only 6% is spent on education. It seems astoundingly unlikely that we can’t afford adding these jobs, increasing children’s educational outcomes, boosting the economy and protecting children – all in one sweep!

So, Senator Toomey, after your measure gets adopted in the final ESEA, I suggest you spearhead this new mission. After all, your bill will help, but co-teaching will almost eliminate the problem. Even if we had all children take classes exclusively on-line, it wouldn’t stop child predators from getting to them. (Heck! Predators thrive on the Web!) But co-teaching could make a real appreciative difference.

If we really want to stop students from being victimized in school, we need more teachers.


NOTE: This article was also published in the LA Progressive.