I spent my time dreaming in dictionaries, but opening the book in the middle. I can not start with the beginning of a story. From A to Z, for me it’s impossible. This order is an idea of life and death that terrifies me. When I write, I do not start at the beginning. When I draw no more. I mix everything. Bernard Yslaire
I as INTUITION: It’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing left. With the years, with fashion, the beautiful theories fly away. Intuitions help us make choices, direct us and allow us to tell the difference between a promise and a future.
“When [teachers] organize the tasks students address so that students learn to connect what they have learned in school to the world beyond it they are developing their students’ ability to extend and apply what they have learned to other domains” (Eisner, 2002, p. 13)
When students connected printed text to their image definitions, the abstract notion of alienation became concrete. The concept became real enough that they could wrap their minds around the idea and begin to apply the new term to other scenarios.
Before you tune out, let me assure you that I agree with those who argue for more diversity in school literature at all levels. Students need to be able to see themselves in the texts they read so they become fully part of the classroom community. One way to encourage a more diverse classroom community may be by allowing students to freely choose texts from a library that contains books from multiple cultures and points of view. Books suggestions may come from parents, social groups, or the students themselves so that the library is well rounded. Digital libraries may also be a good idea to broaden the reach across cultures. The number of schools adding 1-1 or BYO technology for students makes the digital library accessible to many schools, particularly in urban and suburban districts.
Having said that, there is still a place for much of the Western canon of literature in US schools. The US, for all its multinational communities, was still founded on Western philosophies and ideologies, and it is in the canon that those ideas can be studied from multiple points of view that may turn the traditional Western canon into something wholly American.
What got me thinking along this path was a sermon about the current culture war over Truth v. truth. At some point the pastor made a passing reference to 1984 and my mind took off. I thought about how the current Western culture in which we live really does seem to live in juxtaposition: war is peace, slavery is freedom, ignorance is strength. “Fake” news tells stories driven by site clicks and ratings. Debates become hostile arguments almost as soon as an unpopular point is made–no matter how accurate or reasonable it may be. The only recognized authority is the Self, which is not necessarily Orwellian, but does contribute to the unhappy chaos that fractures communities and fragments society. Fragmentation is just as evil as forced unity. Community requires its members to be welcoming of differences while supporting a foundation of a common understanding.
The Western canon, part of the cultural heritage of the US, is a place to begin to rebuild a common ground. A friend said not long ago that when he was a child, everyone read the same books, watched the same three channels on television, and knew the same stories from history. Kids had ideas and experiences in common, which gave them a place to begin building friendships or at least understand their school yard enemies. In a time where cultures collide, students deserve to have something in common that at least gives them a place to build conversations. Because the US is a western nation, it seems appropriate to use the canon as a place to begin.
This is not to say the canon should not be curated and supplemented. The US culture is changing and the texts read in schools should mirror those changes. Regional authors, women, multi-ethnic, and multicultural writers should add to the American educational experience. There needs to be balance. Too often US education policies position people against each other rather than looking at the US as us, a culture made up of many ideas but united by a common understanding of what it means to be American. Literature can provide the bridge of commonality.
I am in the final stage of my PhD studies. My official study runs August and September, and, Lord willing, I will defend my dissertation in March or April of 2019. The central theory in my studies is what I call transactional semiotics.
Because academic writing has its own rules, I am challenged when trying to explicate my idea because I have to interrupt myself with APA citations (lest I miss one upon revisions). This post is my attempt to share my concept without adhering to the strict rules of academia. For the most part, my ideas reflect a blend of the philosophies of Louise Rosenblatt and Charles S. Peirce.
Rosenblatt developed the concept of reading as a transaction with a text. Taking her lead (and the term) from Dewey, Rosenblatt considered reading more than decoding words on pages. She taught that a readers’ background experiences, personal histories, and internal philosophies inform or affect how they understand texts. Transactionalism, as she called it, meant that readers looked at texts through the lenses of their personalities, and their interpretations of what they read came from their experiences. Additionally, Rosenblatt postulated that reading is a cyclical transaction, made complete when readers create something new based on their interpretations of a given text. The reading transaction triad was made up of three parts: the text, the reader, and the poem (or creation of a new text by the reader.) Part of her philosophy was segregated from its based and labeled the reader-response method of teaching reading. The most important element of reading, according to this view, is the reader.
Focusing intently on the reader was part of Rosenblatt’s perspective, but she didn’t believe the context of the text or the message of an author was unimportant. It was along this line that reader-response theory cracked and fell into disfavor. As a writer myself, I want readers to understand what I am trying to convey before they begin to reinterpret it according to their experiences. Rosenblatt did not intend for readers to divorce the text from the author, but rather wanted readers to expand how they understood a text by adding their voices and the voices of others to its meaning. Hers was a broad view of interpretation, one wherein the author and readers engage in a conversation through the creation and recreation of texts.
Rosenblatt looked, not only to Dewey, but also to Peirce. Peirce was an American philosopher and scientist with a broad scope of interests, but his primary focus was logic and a theory of sign that he called semiotics. (He later changed the spelling to semeiotics because his original theory was misunderstood and connected to a language theory by Saussure, but that is another conversation.) For Peirce, understanding required three elements of equal importance: an object, an interpretant, and a sign. The object is the easiest part to explain–the object is, well, an object. A person, place, thing, feeling, idea, or text. The interpretant is the person who recognizes the object. The sign is the way the person describes the object and the way he/she communicates it to others. There are a lot more elements, but in its simplest form, the essence of semiotics is the system of how a person assigns identifying symbols to an object.
Sign systems vary by context and culture. Letters are a form of signs. In Language Arts, words, particularly written words, are the most common sign for giving meaning to things. But the culture and context matter. The letters F,A,C,E means one thing to to musicians (namely the named spaces on the treble clef in a sheet of music), but more commonly put together as a reference to the part of the body containing nose, eyes, and mouth. Face also describes part of clocks and watches, along with other objects I can’t name at the moment. The object and the signs exist independently of one another; only the person (the interpretant) makes the connection between them.
As in Rosenblatt’s theory, Peircean semiotics relies on the experiences and prior knowledge to make meaning of the object. Like Rosenblatt assumes the importance of works to convey meaning, Peirce assumes a knowledge of a particular sign system. For both, a person (reader or interpretant) sees a thing (text or object) and makes meaning of it using personal experience, prior knowledge, and language/signs. The meaning is conveyed by connecting the person and the thing through a newly created assignation (text or signs).
The concept of transactional semiotics in English Language Arts (ELA) is a mix of the two ideas applied to meaning making and composition. Because I am focused on teachers in ELA classrooms, my application is specific to how transactional semiotics works in educational settings. Broadly I think it applies to any kind of study. Peirce was not an educator (although he wanted to teach at university), and he applied his semiotic theory to science and mathematics more than to the humanities. Literature and composition may fall under the auspices of the arts, but only in a world that has segregated studies into subject areas. The living world and the experiences of it are holistic, and therefore, logic matters in all realms of observation and knowing.
When students enter a classroom, they bring with them a rich diversity of prior knowledge and experiences. To require all students to read, think, and write the same way is to validate only one part of the complexity of human life. Literature is a reflection of life, and so will resonate differently with students based on their experiences and prior knowledge. Students in high schools are developing unique world views based on their experiences in their families, communities, and instruction. Transactional semiotics as a theory values burgeoning world views by offering students a platform on which to build texts that reflect both an author’s intent (and context) and their own experiences, prior knowledge, and sign systems.
The idea is to begin with a text. Using one required by the school or district is always a good place to begin. As students read, they should look for similarities to people or situations they have experienced. Let them talk about their experiences and how what they’re reading connects to it. So far, this is standard procedure for many teachers. This is the beginning of transacting with the text. The semiotic piece comes next.
Ask (assign) students to create something that represents the life experience and/or connection to the literature. I’ve used altered books, photography, painting, music, and remix as suggestions to begin, but students sometimes have their own ideas. Let them run with it. As they create, they will begin to create a semiotic system that allows them to put their creative work with the text, although they won’t likely recognized it. Teachers will recognize some of the parallels to essay writing, still part of standardized assessments. Students choose a point of view, locate their evidence (materials), consider how to assemble their creations (outlines), and put it all together (writing). When students present their creations–and presentation is important, they explain what they did, how they did it, and why they made the artistic choices they did. Their signs will have come from their experiences and past knowledge.
Now the fun part begins for the teacher. Sometimes students will be first to see the parallels between their creations and written composition. Sometimes they need a little prodding through questions. Ask other students to identify the object, interpretant,and signs. Allow for discussion about student answers. As a reflection writing project, ask each student to revisit how they constructed their creations and assigned meaning to each element. Then ask them to look at the original text again, looking for clues about how the author did the same.
At this point, students have done the thinking, creating, questioning, and journaling that makes up a transaction with a text. They have also created something, devising a semiotic system that afforded them a mode of expression that is more comfortable than the five-paragraph-essay or the free-response questions (FRQ) on mamy of the high stakes exams. The final step of ELA transactional semiotic practice is to have students take the PROCESS they used to construct their creations and repeat it using ELA semiotics: words, paragraphs, evidence.
Employing transactional semiotics in a high school ELA classroom can be challenging. It means teachers relinquish control of the learning products. It means trusting students to use their skills responsibly. It may mean learning from and with students about culture, technology, and what makes literature relevant. It also may mean convincing administrators and parents that the skills developed through the process will translate to whatever standards are expected. In my experience, it is worth the challenges. When reluctant students get enthusiastic about creating something, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes one of anticipation instead of anxiety.
This practice is the heart of my dissertation study. I’ve done this kind of teaching with good results; now to learn how it may work for other teachers. I will know more in the next nine months.
In my last post, I wrote about the silence from the gubernatorial candidates when I wrote about my education concerns. That changed today.
A savvy representative from the Brian Kemp campaign responded to me and pointed me to Kemp’s position statement on education. We then engaged in a series of emails discussing the professional nature of teaching and the need to honor that expertise. While I don’t agree with everything Kemp says about his plans for education, two of his priorities set him apart from others I have read about or heard in advertising.
- Reduce the state’s role in education and empower parents, teachers, local school boards, and administrators;
- Craft a student-based QBE Formula that expands local control;
- Respect teachers’ time by reducing paperwork, unpaid duties, micromanagement so teachers can actually teach;
- Reduce standardized testing so that our children will have more time to learn.
- Set high standards, especially in civics and encourage school boards to customize curriculums to meet the workforce needs of tomorrow (cyber, agriculture, technology, etc.)
- Support school choice while strengthening the public school system;
- Double SSO Tax Credits;
- Promote Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) starting with a pilot for military families
I can quibble with Kemp’s school choice position, but if he can accomplish 3 and 4, more parents may not need or want to leave their neighborhood schools. I like those two because they are measurable and specific tasks, not goals or promises that sound nice. I’ve done enough research to understand that the flight of exceptional teachers from public schools is dominated by a lack of autonomy and an increasingly rigid script by which teachers must adhere. In a job interview several years ago a principal actually told me that my creative and innovative ideas were fine, but “we have to pass the test.” I didn’t get the job–but I didn’t want it after hearing that. There are still lots of exceptional teachers in Georgia public schools. Many of them have advanced degrees and years of experience that would put them at the top of any corporation. But their calling and commitment are to teach the next generation. Respecting their time, reducing the non-teaching duties, and returning the profession to them is a place to begin.
I also like what Kemp has to say about expanding high-speed internet to rural areas. If all Georgia teachers are to have the same access to the wealth of materials and ideas that exist in open educational resources (OER), they all need the same bandwidth, speed, and hardware. It’s time to recognize that quality education should be available beyond the suburbs. More than that, it’s time to take action and make technology accessible to teachers and students from the urban to the rural parts of our state.
In my day-long conversation with Ryan Mahoney, Kemp’s communications director, I felt like my voice was heard. He asked for more information from my research, which I happily supplied. He took me seriously when I suggested Kemp focus less on the emotionally charged second amendment issue and more on the unifying aspects of teacher support and excellent education for all. Will our dialog ultimately make a difference in the campaign? I don’t know. What I do know is that the other top contenders are still letting the crickets chirp. Kemp’s campaign took time to fill the silence with a meaningful conversation.
That speaks volumes.
Today was the Taste of East Cobb, a foodies paradise organized by the Walton High School Band. Usually, it features food from dozens of restaurants, a few crafters, direct sales, and local companies. And chiropractors. I’m not sure why, but there are always at least a half dozen chiropractors there.
This year is the mid-year elections along with the election of a new governor. At least seven candidates for various state offices bought booth space. Both the Republican and Democrat parties also bought places, with various candidates rotating through. It was a good opportunity to listen to people and their platforms face to face rather than through slick mailers, yard signs, and commercials. I talked to people in every booth, trying to learn which candidates were actually interested in a conversation about education and giving teachers a voice in their classrooms.
Full disclosure. I am a Libertarian with a pretty consistently conservative voting record. I believe the Constitution grants States an amount of sovereignty that allows the local population to choose how it is governed. I do not believe it wise to water down the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. I think business owners should be granted the freedom to run their businesses according to their personal convictions, especially if their services are not unique or do not affect life or health. This means if a baker turns away business for religious reasons, that’s fine; there are plenty of other bakers who will provide that service and pocket the profit. Police officers, on the other hand, are required by law and ethics to provide the exact same protection to every citizen, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or social status. No exceptions, no excuses.
Having said that, I want to share my experience with the politicians who attended Taste of East Cobb. I assume they were there to share their platforms, engage their potential constituents, and put faces to the mailers, yard signs, and commercials. To be honest, I was mostly disappointed in the responses when I asked where they stood on education. For the most part, Democrats said “no guns in schools” and Republicans said, “Common Core needs to be replaced.” Ugh.
To be completely honest, the guns in schools rhetoric is ridiculous. First of all, the number of instances of gun crime in schools during school days is minuscule. Yes, any crime that takes the life of school children and staff is unacceptable. No question. But arming teachers is a silly idea. Most people recognize that the problems that lead to violence of any kind cannot be addressed by arming teachers or by infringing on the Second Amendment. It’s a talking point. It’s emotional. It’s hot air, and nothing more. Tell me something else. Talk to me about teacher voice, assessment, preparing students for life beyond school. Crickets.
Common Core? First of all, I’ve actually read the standards, whereas most politicians have not. The standards are not the problem. They are broad and reasonably generic. Additionally, CCSS (Common Core State Standards) are being replaced. So there’s that. Talk to me about empowering teachers to be creative in their pedagogy or about upholding the value of public schools. Again, mostly crickets. Chirp. Chirp.
I had one nominally encouraging conversation with a volunteer in the Republican booth who was horrified when I told her I have written to the gubernatorial candidates about education and have received nothing in return–from any of them in any party. She took my name and email and said she would talk to the candidate she supports personally. They also invited me to a luncheon next month where I might be able to address candidates myself.
The highlight, however, was a delightful dialogue with Karín Sandiford, a moderate Democrat running for House District 46. I’m not even in her district, but she was genuinely interested in what I had to say as an expert in teaching. She asked questions, followed up with enthusiasm, and asked for more information. She has four children in public schools and has seen first hand how testing affected her children. Her background is in computers, so when I talked about the quantification of education she knew exactly what I meant. When I shared with her the frustrations of teachers, professionals who are often not permitted to teach according to their strengths or their students’ needs, she was taken aback. In her own family, she has a child who overthinks the multiple choice tests (like I do) and she recognizes there is a need for multiple avenues of assessment, both qualitative and quantitative.
Karín is open to dialogue and compromise because she understands that is it through relationship building and collaboration that solutions to problems are built. She is the kind of candidate for whom I could vote and with whom I could work. Would we agree on everything? Absolutely not. As I said before, I am more conservative than not. I prefer a small, local government, low taxes, and individual freedom to practice business according to one’s convictions. However, from what I could see today, of all the candidates and their representatives I saw today, Karín is someone I could support as a representative who understands the importance of listening, the value of genuine concern, and the need for people to work together.
We need more like her on both sides of the aisle.
Vitriol. Division. Self. Tribalism. Hate.
This world can be so ugly.
This weekend I had the honor and the joy to sing with a marvelous group of musicians of all ethnicities, ages, religions, and political affiliations in a concert of unity, healing, and overcoming. I am emotionally spent in the best possible way. There is still hope for this human race.
I came to work today exhausted, but happy. I usually work from home on Mondays, but I switched days this week. I’m glad I did. I’ve been working as a prospective student advisor for three years now. I have counseled more people than I can count, but there are a few who stand out. One such standout was M, a medical doctor from Romania who could find no work in the U.S. wherein she could use her considerable skills to do good in her community. She came in frustrated and discouraged, wondering whether she had any opportunities left. Our program prove to be a perfect fit for her, and I was able to encourage her to apply for both the master’s degree and for a grant that would pay her tuition. She was accepted to both. I saw her periodically over the next months. GSU’s certification and master’s degree is a grueling program. As a result, our graduates are prepared for the classroom and our five-year retention rate is nearly double the national average. I watched M struggle with the load, but I knew she would finish what she started. Today she celebrated completion of the program and has her choice of job opportunities.
Many students I counseled have completed the degree, but M came to my office with a sweet bouquet of flowers and a few words of thanks.
She talked about how she had grown through the program and how her confidence was restored and how she looked forward to her future with hope. She thanked me for seeing past her frustration and disappointment and helping her get started on the journey to teaching. It was a ten minute chat and a few flowers that showed me again that there is always hope.
Yes, I was just doing my job 16 months ago when M first stepped into my office. And as jobs in academia go, this graduate assistantship is not one that requires special skills or an advanced degree. I am grateful that this position covers my tuition and allows me to pursue my PhD without accruing additional debt. But I am not special in this job. I have very little authority and I make no decisions about enrollment, curriculum, admissions, or programs of study. What I can do, and what I strive to do, is to do my job here with excellence. I want potential students to feel welcomed, supported, and valued. When M came to visit today, I saw that my attitude toward my work made a difference in her life. Her visit also demonstrated that I am in this work for a reason, and that how I approach the seemingly insignificant days affects people in ways I may never know.
In the last three days I have seen hope for humanity in big ways and small. Large gestures that include groups of people promoting unity and healing illustrate hopefulness. A little bouquet of flowers in thanks also validates my hopefulness. In both cases, I feel like a very small actor in the play of life. I am here for such a time as this.
Yes, yes, yes!!!! A post by Dr. Peter Smagorinsky that articulates just how I feel (pun intended).
My summer began with preparation for and writing my comprehensive exams, a step down the Ph.D. road. For the most part, I think I represented myself well in how much I have learned about teaching literature and composition. I may have taught my advisor a couple of things about remix. And I learned I still have plenty to discover before this journey is over.
In July I tried to not think about education. I spent some time at the beach to refill my soul. As a California native, I breathe in time with the tide and extended periods away from the ocean affect me to my bone marrow. It had been a long two years since my last trip, and the moment I smelled the salt air I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Minimal computer access, limited social media, no television or radio for five days meant a true respite.
And then I came home.
The level of discord about pretty much everything seemed greater than before my hiatus. Politics, education, and even how best to get from the northern suburbs to the airport were not discussed but argued. I read more “I have a right to my opinion” in the last couple of weeks than anything else. No one was listening. A lot of people opted for the ad hominem instead of choosing discourse.
How are we to function as a society if being right is the only thing that matters? And who determines what or who is right? The loudest voice? The cleverest snarky comeback? And what about treating others as individuals rather than part of some collective liberal, progressive, conservative Borg Hive where “resistance is futile?” I certainly don’t care to be assimilated into a movement where my individuality is stripped from me and added to the collective. From where I sit, I am beginning to fear that resistance may well be futile.
Education is a prime example of what I mean. Public schools, begun to ensure that every child had access to basic skills (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic), have morphed into giant hives of busy activities about social justice, equity of outcome, high stakes testing preparation, and some-are-more-equal-than-others protests. Do these things matter? OF COURSE. With the exception of equity of outcome, society needs to be concerned with social justice (as in, treating all humans with dignity and respect according to the law) and boosting those who, for whatever reason, need extra attention in order to have equal opportunity to succeed. Frankly, equity of outcome benefits no one and is the educational equivalent to the Borg Hive. Each individual has different strengths and weaknesses; those strengths should be encouraged and the weaknesses mitigated without trying to make everyone the same. We aren’t.
Respect, opportunity, and justice can all be accomplished without sacrificing individuality and without creating villains of particular groups of people. This goes for both ends of the political spectrum. Not all conservatives think alike. There are, in fact, degrees. Not all liberals believe in lockstep harmony. Most people have opinions that cross political and social lines. The key to understanding is more knowledge, more story, more humanity, not less.
The publishing company executives that seem to rule education find quantitative data compelling. Politicians require donations from companies that are also driven by quantitative data. But, in the last 50 years, quantitative data has failed to lead to programs that make public schools more effective in any of the 3 Rs or the social initiatives attempted. More high stakes testing and punitive teacher assessment are not going to make our students better problem-solvers, better communicators, or better collaborators. Nor will it encourage the best and the brightest among adults to choose teachings. (This is one of those dilemmas faced when equality of outcome is the goal. If every outcome is the same, why do schools want exceptional teachers?)
The boom in homeschooling, charter, and private schools is evidence that parents want individualized, differentiated, and excellent education for their children. Those who have the means (like most DC politicians) take their students out of public schools because scripted and data-driven public schools no longer meet those needs. Many school districts do try to break out of the mandates handed down from on high–and there are lots of teachers at every level who bend over backward to bring out the best in their students. But those exceptional teachers are tired. And burned out. Undervalued and underappreciated in a system that rewards sameness, these teachers are leaving. Some are headed to private or charter schools. Others try consulting or professional development– or go back to college for advanced degrees. Others leave education altogether.
Something has to give.
I believe it begins by listening. Communities must listen to the teachers explain how they may be best supported. Teachers listen to parents about the needs of students. Parents listen to teachers about how they can help their children push through challenges. Administrators and superintendents listen to the studies based on qualitative data. Everyone listens to the exceptional teachers whose students are excited about learning. Districts focus on the teachers and students in their own classrooms rather than test scores from places too geographically and demographically different to be a fair comparison. Bring in literature from all the cultures represented by local transnational students. Showcase the unusual attributes of artists, inventors, athletes, and musicians. Give students real audiences for their accomplishments, not delayed feedback on a multiple choice exam.
Listening is a place to begin. Not listening for ideas to argue against, but deeply, truly listening to hear the point of view from another uniquely capable human being. We are not all the same, but we can treat each other as equals.
My house, too-minus the children.