Creating Canon(s) with Children (and others)

What I posted Aug 24 2013 on the Imaginative-Inquiry Blog:

Sorry I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately here. I agree with Tim that it’s the conversation that’s important. Like reading itself, and teaching, I always believe it’s the journey not the arrival that’s more important.

I’m writing from the US (though I’m from the UK originally) where the Canon has in effect just morphed into a list of “complex texts” attached to the new Common Core State Standards (the first step toward a National Curriculum?). Who got to choose those texts is a poststructural question that I like to raise but as people have noted it’s not going to remove or add to the list which is not going to go away as teachers begin right now across the country to turn to a list to know what they should be reading.

I don’t have much of a problem with our “Canon” – you’ll likely guess what’s on there. And for teachers who actually look (or are allowed to do so by principals) they’ll see that the list is not prescriptive at all – so in that sense I like it.

My problem (as always) is with people telling me (as a professional) what I should or should not be doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t want debate (a al this Blog). However, it’s the top-down assumption (by so many living and dead white males and their female wannabes) which is so profoundly undemocratic that I resist. I value dialogue. I’d embrace conversations in schools, and classrooms, about what we could (should?) be reading and studying. That’s at the heart of democracy – the struggle to move forward when there is disagreement.

What I’d like to see mandated is that the conversations should happen – teachers (and students!) should be required (not all the time!) to create their own Canons (not the plural). Wouldn’t it be great to hear from recent immigrants to a school (and their parents) what they’d like us to read that might enlighten us about their culture. And I’m going to champion Shakespeare (and Homer … and the Beatles) but not just because I’m taller and older (and greyer) so I get to make you read this. No! If I want to bring texts to children (part of what I’m paid to do) I should be able to say why – and defend that with colleagues, and parents – and students. (No more “we do this cos Mr Gove says its good for you but I hate it”. Tim knows what that leads to).

When I lose faith in democracy I remember the classrooms where I’ve been invited into (I’m an education Professor) where there is an assumption that everyone has a voice – everyone should be heard, everyone can participate in dialogue. I see a huge part of my job as a teacher is to not to let anyone dictate everything that goes on in a classroom space (including me!).

I think my job is to create the climate and the activities in which we not only dialogue about what we might read but even more important about what we read means. Last year I used (the story and some of the text of) The Illiad with a small group of 14 year old “special” youngsters – supposedly “struggling” readers who were “behind” – their canon was pretty dumbed down material that would send me to sleep in 2 minutes. They loved meeting me-as-Achilles. They read an edited down account of his battle with Hector as we enacted it. And they were disgusted by what happened to the dead body – read it if you don’t know! I didn’t have to defend Homer to them – they told their parents why they loved him. Homer had just entered their Canon. The next time I went in they chose the text – they wanted to read about the sinking of the Titanic … (now which canonical texts would you have read? Mr Cameron? Mr Andrews?)

My point is that talk about what to read and dialogue about what we read should be local. By all means let those positioned as the good and the wise give us their lists but let those ready to explore literature go for it – knowing that they have to answer anyone who asks why they’re reading that – and why they should not be reading what they are passionate about. I’d say that goes for everyone: children, teachers, parents, principals … and Secretaries of State for Education!

Obsession with development, learning, and teaching

I posted this on Education Week Bridging Differences Blog where Deborah Meier is in dialogue with Michael Petrilli from the Fordham Foundation:

Mike Petrilli makes a provocative summarizing comment in his blog post that I’ve been mulling over: “Rich parents are obsessed with their children’s social and intellectual development.” I wonder if he would agree that we need schools where teachers are expected (and supported) to be similarly obsessed.

A concern with development should always trump a focus on learning. Adults need to take a more developmental long-view – asking where are we going and how might we get there? – rather than have only a short-term concern with what’s being learned in the moment. And as a Vygotskian perspective stresses, adults always need to be looking for what particular children and groups are capable of, not just what individuals have already shown they can do. Testing, especially high-stakes summative testing aligned with predetermined bite-sided curriculum, is so insidious because its dehumanizing mechanistic demands is continually undermining those teachers who are committed to children’s social and academic achievements in ways that will support their development into better people and smarter learners.

No one can develop socially unless they are able to interact socially. Ask any parent of a toddler! And families – or classrooms – don’t magically become socially supportive learning communities. They require adults who care enough about children to engage with them in genuine dialogue (not evaluative quizzing) about life, literature, and content (not textbooks masquerading as such). What sort of a country are we hoping to create if we don’t practice social democracy in the very places where children – and adults – can learn to become better citizens? Schools like Mission Hill are beacons for developing democracy where people together embrace the struggle to learn to be more democratic. Members of Congress could learn a lot from a field trip there.

Which brings me to standards. The founding fathers would agree that even the best pre-determined “standards” – the Constitution and its amendments – can never guarantee outcomes. Common Core State Standards are no different. We may critique standards for what’s good – and not so good – about them. We could start with the fact that democratic standards aren’t included in the Common Core. However, just as we can’t teach children to develop socially by telling them what to do, we can’t teach them to grow intellectually by imposing academic standards on them – and believing that repeated testing will somehow make development happen.

People’s intellectual development only really takes off when they become obsessed with what they are learning. It’s sad to have to note that that is as true for children as it is for adults. Effective parents – rich, poor, or middle-class – like effective teachers, know that teaching, trips, or tutoring makes little difference until children take charge of their own learning. And that can happen with preschoolers and dinosaurs as much as with teachers – or Think Tank executives – and education. How many parents or executives would be obsessed with becoming better at their challenging jobs if they had to live under the shadow of testing surveillance tied to imposed standards?
If teachers, principals, and school districts were rewarded for creating learning environments where children can develop socially and intellectually then all that money wasted on testing could be spent on professional development by, with, and for teachers obsessed with education and democratic outcomes.

Social Context and Using/Learning Academic Language

Posted to Guardian Teacher Network, May 7, 2013

Recently, working with a group of thirteen year olds with ‘special needs’ we planned how we might rescue hostages in Libya. As we imagined we were in 1804 in the days of the Barbary pirates, one boy asked, ‘What would we tell President Jefferson if we failed?’. We were thinking, talking, reading texts extracts, and acting, like historians. The boy was aware that history was his-story.

The learning in Lee Donaghy’s classroom is so powerful not just because one group is convincing the other. Significantly, the context of their talk – and of their writing – is more than ‘the classroom’. People (young and old) are engaged in the sorts of tasks that engage real historians. And that includes paying attention to the vocabulary they use to make meaning within an historical framework. This is not superficial ‘role play’. As in my example, students are becoming more aware of the language they are using – and learning – to explain and critique historical events.

At the heart of Michael Halliday’s theory is the idea that people use words, and learn how to use language, in order to create meaning in context. Social context is key. Why do teachers talk differently at home, in the staffroom, or at a professional conference? Because the social context – and thus the language expected to be used to make meaning – is different. The problem with most of the language used in classrooms is that the context is ‘schooling’ and the dominant genre for language use is as old as that used by The Bash Street Kids! When teachers are the ones asking questions that the pupils are supposed to answer ‘correctly’ then the relationship between teacher and young people tends to close down meaning-making. Using Halliday’s term, the ‘tenor’ of exchanges is hierarchical. When the meaning has been predetermined by a teacher – or by a test – then pupils don’t have to learn how to use language. Worse, they don’t have to learn – or think.

Behavior Management or Ethical Leadership?

Posted on Guardian Teacher Network May 5, 2013

Though the term is used widely I find the words ‘behaviour mangagement’ highly problematic. What youngsters need is our leadership rather than just being managed and our concern for everyone’s intended actions rather than just a focus on the behaviour of particular children.

Leaders do more than manage. Leaders provide people with direction – moral as well as academic. As leaders we model how to act but even harder, we can show others how they might react (and not react) in difficult times. Alan, Tim, and gulliblemartyr, each fine classroom teachers I’m sure, show a quality of leadership that I believe children need to see more often – they’re all prepared to acknowledge when they’ve made mistakes or acted in a way they are not proud of. They know that leading doesn’t mean being right but being prepared to struggle when necessary to take people in a direction we believe in. I’m human – I’ve been angry, I’ve shouted, I’ve being intimidating but I’m not proud of those moments. And I believe my colleagues, and at the right time, children need to know that. Thanks, Alan, for leading us in that direction. I’ve also been kind, caring, and understanding in building relationships with young people. Those are the sorts of actions I want to promote in the classroom with and among children.

When we are only concerned with behaviour we can all too easily fall into the trap of believing that compliance is enough – that what looks right according to me is what’s important. But do we really want schools where all pupils behave like the ‘nice’ quiet girls? I want a classroom where everyone takes responsibility for their actions. That includes me. I want the energy of those ‘naughty’ boys directed into acts that benefit everyone in the community. I’ll never achieve that through actions that others experience as intimidation or bullying even when in the heat of the moment (or even worse in quiet reflection) I may feel that my behaviour was justified.

How do we shift the focus from behaving to intending action? We have to start talking about what sort of community we want to live in. We have to engage pupils in shared tasks that they care about and want to be a part of and then we have to reflect with them on how we can all act to do more of that. Such a conversation cannot only take place in staffrooms, in hallways with sobbing children, or even on blogs like this. It has to begin with the children. It has to begin with me knowing what I believe in and acting on those beliefs.

I, Cinna (the poet) and Julius Caesar: the RSC productions

On Friday May 3 I joined Jessica Sharp, Amy McKibben (teacher-leaders from the OSU/RSC PD Program) and their middle and high school students at the Southern Theatre for a performance of Tim Crouch’s I, Cinna (the Poet).  It was performed on the set of the compelling RSC’s production of Julius Caesar (directed by the new RSC artistic director Greg Doran) which I’d seen two days previously.  Placing the events of the play in a modern-day African setting had evoked in me knowledge and memories of contemporary dictatorships and civil wars in post-colonial Africa.

You can watch a video recording of I, Cinna (the poet) on the RSC website but as always, being in the theatre was so much more engaging and compelling.  We were framed as if we were in the imagination of Cinna, the poet, (masterfully portrayed by Jude Owusu who also played the character in Julius Caesar).  As the events of Shakespeare’s play unfolded off-stage (as if in contemporary setting like London) we became implicated as Cinna led us each in writing down words that gradually create a poem.  What would you die for?  What would you kill for?  We gradually wrote one of Shakespeare’s lines  – It must be by his death – as we realized we were seeing Cinna predicting and then accepting his death.  Cinna raises questions for us about the value of poetry: Mark Antony changed the course of the play (and of history) by his words.  We are left wondering about the effect of Cinna’s words and of ours when he asks us to write to explain his death.  Like the several hundred young people, over 5 minutes I wrote:

Butchered like a chicken

By heartless men

Following the rightness of the mob

Following the wrongness of the inauspicious day

Who let slip the dogs of war?