Is this English?

It’s the title of a wonderful book by Bob Fecho. The opposite also applies — today in class I had a student proclaim “this feels like an English class.” Discussions of writing seem to be limited to “English” class as if writing is not something you should be doing elsewhere.

There are a lot of reasons why students see things this way but it makes me wonder just how much writing high school students are actually doing.

Rice (1893) vs. Tough (2006)

Contrast Rice’s 1893 description of a classroom in New York City:

Another way in which time is saved is by compelling the children to stare fixedly at the source whence the wisdom flows. When the teacher is the source of wisdom, all the children in the room stare fixedly in the direction of the teacher; when a word on the blackboard is the source of wisdom, all eyes stare fixedly at a point on the blackboard.

Now, here is Paul Tough describing a KIPP classroom in New York City:

Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools follow a system for classroom behavior invented byLevin and Feinberg called Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track thespeaker with their eyes. When I visited KIPP Academy last month, I was standing with Levin at the front of a music class of about 60 students, listening to him talk, when he suddenly interrupted himself and pointed at
me. ”Do you notice what he’s doing right now?” he asked the class.

They all called out at once, ”Nodding!”

Levin’s contention is that Americans of a certain background learn these methods for taking in information nearly on and employ them instinctively. KIPP students, he says, need to be taught the methods explicitly. And so it is a little unnerving to stand at the front of a KIPP class; every eye is on you. When a student speaks, every head swivels to watch her. To anyone raised in the principles of progressive education, the uniformity
and discipline in KIPP classrooms can be off-putting. But the kids I spoke to said they use the Slant method not because they fear they will be punished otherwise but because it works: it helps them to learn. (They may also like the feeling of having their classmates’ undivided attention when they ask or answer a question.)

When Levin asked the music class to demonstrate the opposite of Slanting — ”Give us the normal school look,” he said — the students, in unison, all started goofing off, staring into space and slouching. Middle-class Americans know intuitively that ”good behavior” is mostly a game with established rules; the KIPP students seemed to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke.

Ghetto Film School

This sounds like an awesome program. I like how honest the kids were:

“One said, ‘I don’t want to come into a place and find out someone is trying to raise my self-esteem,’ ” Mr. Hall said. “Another said, ‘Yeah, it’s not like we want a ghetto film school.’ Everyone started laughing, and I thought, ‘What if we could co-opt a negative term and throw it back out there, do the exact opposite?’ ”

Enough of these half-baked programs — the kids know immediately whether it’s a fake or if real resources have been committed.

NCLB jokes

The parts of NCLB that makes me craziest are the provisions that allow students to transfer out of a low-performing school. This section is based on the highly-problematic assumption that there are genuine options in locales where there are poor performing schools.

There was an editorial earlier this year suggesting that NCLB allow for cross-district transfers, a worthy idea that has absolutely no chance of passing. Any suburban representative who voted for this would lose his or her job immediately; a legal challenge would ask the Supreme Court to overturn Milliken, which frankly, ain’t gonna happen. Maybe, if there were huge state and federal incentives, you might convince a few suburban districts to take on a handful of good students, but even that would require a well-respected School Board that could handle the response from reactionary residents…

Either or…

I’ve been working on this piece lately emphasizing the continued significance of the philosophy of education essay in teacher education programs. I argue that it ought to be the starting point for each class and that the process of revising this piece will make it that much stronger and relevant to the students.

But one of the things I’ve been addressing is how students deal with the question of location. One of my students wondered last semester why so much of our time was devoted to “urban education” when she just wanted to be a “regular teacher.” In a recent conversation within my department, the question of how much of a course ought to be devoted to special education and how much to “regular education.” In setting up my literacy course, I agonized over how much time ought to be devoted to “struggling” students and how much to “regular” students.

Are these distinctions necessary? Is good practice enough to address the needs of all students? Will well thought-out methods work, regardless of who is sitting in the classroom? Is there a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate methods based on the student population?

My gut response is no, but only if the teacher is paying very close attention to each student.

Elementary School

If you live in the city and you go to the park or pretty much do anything with your kids, you run into other parents and you talk about school. The conversations are almost always the same (public schools are a hard sell, private schools are very expensive, etc).

thinking about it tonight, here’s all I want out of elementary school for my kids:

1. they continue to love to read.
2. they learn to love math and they never become afraid of it.

That’s all.

Adolescent Literacy

Reading a recent text on how teens learn to read (Jetton & Dole, 2004) and I start to remember my issues with the literacy folks.

I always approached reading as emerging from engagement. If I had framed my class right and had gotten students invested in the topic at hand, then they would do battle with difficult texts. If students were given a chance to express themselves, they would happily search for the best word and slowly shape their arguments into the form I requested. The discourse of the class would aid their efforts to read.

I still think this is how you start in high-school classrooms, particularly when there are many students who struggle with reading. But I’m realizing that maybe ten minutes an hour might be well-spent in hardcore, explicit instruction on how to decode words. NOT giving vocabulary lists, but giving real sentences (from real texts) that contain difficult words, and discussing how to draw meaning from the words.

Adolescent Literacy

Thinking about a number of things as I prepare to teach Reading in the Content Areas again:

One, how much of one’s approach as a high school teacher has to be triage for the damage done by previous teachers? Unlike a fifth grade teacher, who can look at a group of children and know that they might, with a lot of work, be able to catch everyone up, a high school teacher can look around the room and know that getting all student to grade level is nigh impossible. And all of the horrid things that have been done to kids in elementary school and middle school in the name of literacy…well, let’s just say that high school is a chance for a revenge, whether the suburban “I don’t hear you version” or the urban “read it yourself chump” version.

I think about Mathilda and the discovery of the joys of reading. How do you get teenagers to feel that same joy if they’ve never done so before?

From Sven Birkerts, whose Gutenberg Elegies I have assigned…I’m scared of the outcome — I love this book but I’m really worried my students will hate it.

“The main difference between childhood reading and reading undertaken later is that in the former, futurity — the idea of one’s life as a project, or adventure, or set of possibilities — has not yet entered the calculation. The child reads within a bubble. He is like Narcissus staring at his lovely image in the water’s mirror. He is still sealed off from any notion of the long-term unfolding of the life, except in the perfected terms of fantasy: I, too, will be a pirate…

The change comes with adolescence, that biological and psychological free-fire zone during which the profoundest existential questions are not only posed, but lived. Who am I? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What should I do? What will happen to me? It is in adolescence that most of grasp that life — our own life — is a problem to be solved, that a set of personal unknowns must now be factored together with the frightening variables of experience. The future suddenly appears — it is the space upon which the answers will be inscribed. The very idea of futurity now becomes charged with electricity.

Birkerts, S. (2006). The Gutenberg elegies : the fate of reading in an electronic age (Pbk. ed.). New York: Faber and Faber, 89.