Tag Archives: think

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.

What do we want schools in the US to be?

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Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.

The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.”  I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”

The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”

He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.

Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”

Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'”  Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.

Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.

In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?

I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options.  As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?

So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be?  We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.

Unorthodox Living and Teaching in a Standardized World

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This is a work in progress…mostly a rant, but eventually something more.

I am a teacher. I can’t help it. It’s how I am wired. I don’t need a classroom; in fact I am probably better outside the traditional classroom because I hate busywork, irrelevant information, and standardized tests.

I teach because I love to learn and I want everyone around me to get excited about learning with me.   In this country’s value system however, I am unorthodox.  I don’t believe in standardized tests. I think they are the single greatest waste of time, resources, and energy ever created by government to ensure that no one thinks critically. Every question in education can be sufficiently posed and answered on a bubble form sent through a machine that marks the answers as either right or wrong. And they call that education.

NO!  (I’d add a few choice words for emphasis, but you can add them in your heads on my behalf.) It is the most ridiculous thing in the world to limit answers to A, B, C, D, or E (with E being “all of the above”).  Yes, there are right and wrong answers in education.  2+2 does in fact equal four and nothing else.  The air we breathe is indeed a particular combination of oxygen, nitrogen, and a touch of argon. There are facts that are right or wrong, but knowing facts is not education.  Recitation is boring. And yes, there are things that must be memorized in order for understanding to evolve, but our current education system has focused so much on right answers that we neglect to teach WHY the answers matter and HOW the answers affect us.

The unorthodox teacher, no matter what his or her classroom, is one who challenges students to understand why and how along with teaching the who, what, and where. And a standardized test can’t measure that.