Of content, standards, and humans beings

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I was born to teach. When I am in the classroom with students, I feel fully alive. If teaching itself it a high calling, which I believe it is, teaching teachers is even more so. In my four classes, I have about 60 teachers, some traditional pre-service, a couple of veterans, but mostly teachers completing alternative routes to certification, including Teach for America.

I’m grateful this last group is part of my experience as a new professor. Having gone through a traditional program myself, I have learned from them just how stressful an alternative route can be. These teachers are generally placed in high needs schools with just a few weeks of training. They teach based on their experiences as students, and often miss the theory and research behind WHY certain strategies work. This semester I have tried to give them the back story of English Language Arts education as well as encourage them to start teaching their students rather than focus on the standards. It’s a tricky balance. They are often constrained by a requirement to elucidate a number of specific Common Core State Standards they intend to cover even before they begin to compose their unit and lesson plans.

The Standards themselves are flexible and allow for a degree of teacher autonomy and individuality, but too often administrators require teachers to identify the number of the standard they plan to teach. In my opinion, this is backward. As L’Engle (1974) wrote, “You are basically not teaching a subject, you are teaching children.” L’Engle went on to say that machines could probably teach subjects better than humans, but the result would be the creation of little machine. Nearly 50 years later, we know that machines (computers) are useful tools to instruction in subject matter, but children still learn better from and with humans. Indeed, learning is a social action (Dewey 1916/2001).

The teachers who participate in my classes are so focused on the standards that it’s hard for them to think about anything else. I have constructed class activities to purposefully avoid the official standards, knowing that good teaching will ultimately connect to them. It has been a challenge convincing some of the teachers that they can address the standards LAST instead of first. Some are beginning to see that they don’t have to be rigid, and that they can deviate from a scripted curriculum to better meet the needs of their students. Some are relieved, feeling validated by knowing that they’re on a positive, if unorthodox, track. Still, habits die hard. These teachers learned to write five-paragraph essays, so that’s what they think they have to teach. Never mind that no one ever writes in five-paragraph essay form after high school or early college. Even most of the standardized assessments have dropped that requirement.

I understand the purpose of Teach for America and other Alternative Routes to certification, especially for people choosing to teach as a second career. These non-traditional teachers often bring a wealth of real world experience to the classroom that makes it a rich environment for learning. I do wish the alternative routes included a crash course in theory and research before placing new teachers into classrooms. The focus on assessment, rubric, and classroom management that most students experience dulls them to the human part of teaching. And it’s in humanity that the most effective teachers find their passion. The content of a course is the vehicle for helping teens find their identities, learn how to be in community, and consider the importance of others. Do students need to know how to speak and write in conventional English? Of course. But their thoughts and ideas are where the real learning comes in. CCSS, standardized tests, packaged curricula– these may be easily managed and measured, but they only tell a fragment of the stories in student learning.

My goal for this year is to assuage the apprehension new teachers feel when they try to do creative and innovative projects in their classrooms. I want teachers to feel confident that speaking to student lives in conjunction with literature makes for a meaningful experience that ultimately still leads to the test scores so many school administrators are after. But the students, as humans with individual stories, histories, knowledge, and experiences, have to come first. If the goal of education is to prepare people for global competitiveness (Department of Education), then it seems to me that the most important element is to focus on the people. People cannot be measured solely by a checklist of standards. And teachers must be afforded the agency to direct their classrooms in accordance with their students’ needs, interests, and stories first.

References

Dewey, J. (2001). Democracy and education. Hazelton, PA: Penn State Electronic Classics. Original published in 1916.

L’Engle, M. (1974). A circle of quiet. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

The Doctor is in.

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Office sign with name, title, and job description
The sign by my office door made everything real.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I took this picture. Moving across the country (temporarily), doing all the new faculty events, composing syllabi for four classes, and the first week of teaching kept me busy. After next week, I think I’ll begin to find a new routine for this exciting time of my life.

One thing I already know for sure. This is the kind of job I was born to do. I love surprising students with the unorthodox kinds of classes I like to teach.

I opened each class with a song from Queen (Don’t Stop Me Now) or The Who (Who are you). I borrowed and tweaked a couple of ideas from Aaron Levy. I read aloud from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I used slideshows heavy with images and light on text (the way slideshows are supposed to be used). I asked questions. I left the syllabus off the agenda until the closing moments of the first class–with a quiz to make sure everyone at least opened it. Having a quiz meant I could hold them accountable to the material in it without having to take class time for it. These are teachers; they should know how to find and read a syllabus.

I borrowed another element from Dr. Levy’s class: the feather circle. I changed it up and made it the red pen circle. Full disclosure: a red pen was the only prop at my disposal, but I made it work by talking about how red pens were associated with poor work, disappointment, and a restriction of personal voice. I gave writers the power back by giving the holder of the red pen the uninterrupted power of the floor until it was passed to the next person. I’ll expand the whole concept in another post, but it was a great first day exercise.

I also introduced don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements to two classes and asked them to collaborate on posters for their classrooms that represented each one. Again, not the usual way to begin a semester, but I think everyone enjoyed something a little unorthodox.

By the end of the week I was absolutely spent. And absolutely content. It’s going to be a fantastic year.

Highs and Not-So-Highs

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collage of graduate with books, computer, various notes about work, butterflies. Image credits Grad Images and Scrap from France

Get a terminal degree, get a job, right? Not so fast. The higher education job market is tight. If your degree is in the humanities, well, best of luck.

Hope springs eternal in the new PhD breast, and so we submit applications and CVs and bombard our committees with requests for reference letters. Sometimes people find a position quickly, but sometimes the search for gainful (and tenure track) employment is a long and discouraging journey.

I am in an unusual position. Yes, I want a position at a university teaching teachers. I think my experience with my research means I have a lot to offer. I also need to start paying off the the student loans I accumulated in six years of graduate school. It’s not a lot by some standards, but it’s more than I like and I’d prefer to get them paid off within two years rather than pay out that interest for five. However, my potential income is bonus income for our family. Our daughters are working adults, my husband’s salary covers all our basic needs, including healthcare, and we have a plan for retirement. I am blessed, and I know it.

Our living situation means I can afford to wait for the right job, rather than take the first offer, no matter when it comes. I’ve had a couple of great interviews, and at least one near miss that let me know I will be an asset wherever I land. Those are the high points. It’s quite satisfying to be in a position to ask the right questions and give the honest answers about how my work fits with education department needs. I’ve enjoyed good give-and-take, some fun personality connections, and new ideas and resources to consider. The process has been educative, to say the least.

On the other hand, it is almost July and I don’t know where I’ll land when school begins in August. Maybe I’ll have a contract for a year. Maybe a tenure track position will open up. Maybe the unexpected will happen. It’s been disappointing when potential contracts fall through for one reason or another. I’m not discouraged, because I’ve learned something valuable each step along the way. The right position in the right place will reveal itself at the right time.

While I wait, I’ll keep learning. I’ll keep submitting proposals and articles. I’ll start taking apart my dissertation for pieces that could be published. I will develop potential classes to teach. Maybe I’ll start a vlog. Maybe I’ll start writing the book I want to write. Hopefully I can do some part-time work to start paying on those pesky student loans. I know one thing for sure. For the first time in six years, I will not be a student in a classroom. And for now, that’s its own reward.

R3mixing English Language Arts NCTE 2018

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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.
http://www.64page.com/2018/03/08/yslaire-de-a-a-z/

“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.

The Western canon is not dead (yet)

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The Western canon is not dead (yet)

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.

 

 

Transactional semiwhatics?

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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.