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!

PD at Woodrow First School

I just led 2 days teaching with Tim Taylor and Iona Towler-Evans as part of professional development for teachers of children aged 3-5 in Nursery and Reception classes at the amazing Woodrow First School in England. The topic was pirates. We demonstrated dramatic inquiry approaches using both a ‘man in a mess’ narrative and ‘the mantle of the expert’.

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Presentation at National Drama 2013 International Conference

I gave a well received presentation at the UK National Drama 2013 International Conference: Reconsidering Heathcote titled: My current understanding of SOME CORE DIMENSIONS OF HEATHCOTE’S PEDAGOGY. More details later!
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I’m trying to work out how to upload as a powerpoint!

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Testing assumptions

These posts continued the exchange on Bridging Differences:
Dear Mike,

When I ask myself how I might be wrong, I try to examine my assumptions. These seem to be some of yours. Am I wrong?

You seem to want to put schools on a Bell curve and then assume that most schools that serve children in poverty are, and (because of “the system”) will remain, mediocre. Further, you assume that “those” children learn differently and need direct instruction. Are you really prepared to abandon a goal of working toward creating the sorts of learning communities you’d want for your own children, ignore learning for life, and just focus on increasing test scores? “Sorry kids, you chose the wrong parents so you’ll just have to put up with drudgery.”

You assume that testing tied to standards, including CCSS, is part of the solution because there’s a correlation between increased scores and higher-paid jobs. But correlations are not predictors. Fewer people are killed wearing brown shoes – but changing shoe colors doesn’t make driving safer! Further, high-stakes norm-referenced standardized summative testing is not the same as assessment of significant learning. Tests only measure how well kids did on the tests. And commercially created packaged tests are both artificially cut off from actual learning contexts and tend to value low-level individualistic thinking. Worse, most reading and math tests test for how well the students (and teachers) are following a scripted mandated reading or math program. Don’t you want young people to learn literacy and numeracy in context to get things done in the real world? Meaningful assessment can help but most testing actually gets in the way of real learning.

You also seem to assume that testing improves teaching. But summative tests don’t improve teaching – it’s authentic formative assessments tied to learning that make a difference. Gardeners don’t keep digging up plants to see how well their roots are growing or wait until the end of summer to see if they flower – they watch how well they are growing and tend plants accordingly to their individual needs.

Finally, and most disturbingly, you seem to acknowledge the negative effects of testing on the culture of a school and students’ relationships with teachers but assume that is no big deal. That’s like saying learning in prison is no different from learning in a caring family or in schools of the quality of the Mission School.

Dear Sherrie

You’re right. I didn’t address the issues you raise in your response but that’s not because I don’t agree with your core point about unfairness. I was focused on responding to the premises in Mike’s argument about testing.

I agree with you that all children deserve high-quality teaching in enriching learning environments and in schools ten minutes from where I live I could show you the same shameful inequities that you note. My point is that it is morally wrong to deny poor children in some schools the opportunities afforded to children in others based on a self-fulfilling statistical argument that some schools will always have lower expectations.

Deborah Meier has spent her professional life showing that it is not true. Just as I know too many examples of the inequities you are rightly angry about, I could also take you into classrooms and schools where poverty is not the deciding factor. Your sentence that begins “Schools with lots of poor children …” does not need to continue in the way it does. You are not describing how schools serving poor children all are or could be. Classrooms, schools, and districts can change and provide the sort of education your children, and those young people in the schools you allude to, deserve.

No one who’s experienced changing the teaching and learning culture of schooling would say it is easy, especially when you inherit young people (and teachers) who have been treated so badly by their school districts and politicians. But that doesn’t mean the goal should be abandoned. Nor that the resources and professional development that could move a district in a direction toward more fairness should be spent on testing aligned with scripted curricula.

I too want high quality teaching including everything you list. And yes, the teaching in some schools is better since NCLB. But that does not mean that the testing required under NCLB caused that.

The nub of the argument is whether or not high-stakes standardized testing is going to get you better schools. If you have time to read more of the literature referenced in some of the posts in this blog you’ll find a more critical analysis than I suspect you’ve been previously been introduced to.

Yes, good teaching can include testing as part of authentic formative assessment of learning. However, what’s at stake is whether you and I will support or question increased testing (justified by standards) knowing that testing narrows the curriculum and steals valuable resources and time to crowd out the very things you and I want all young people to learn in school. Worse, the plan in states including mine (supported by Race to the Top funding) is to sort children, schools, and teachers along that Bell curve into “good” and “bad” and “passing” and “failing” based on the results of the tests. I’d value dialogue about what we look for in good teaching. However, I am clear that teachers are not “good” merely because they are good at test preparation or compliant in the face of inequity.

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.

OCTELA Conferences 2013 and 2012

On March 23, 2013  I chaired presentations by eight of the RSC/OSU teacher-leaders at the Ohio Council of Teachers of English/Language Arts annual conference, held in Worthington.   We had three sessions titled: Teaching and Learning Shakespeare.  Over 50 teachers from all over Ohio attended our sessions.  You can see how engaged people were!

Lorraine Gaughenbaugh, Megan Ballinger, and Alison Volz led a session on Active Rehearsal Room Approaches to Reading

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Jessica Sharp and Jill Sampson led a session on Ways in to Complex Texts

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Sandy Guinto, Kathy Hoover, and Chris Ray led a session on Building a Community of Readers and Writers.

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This was the second year we had presented.  In 2012 Amy McKibben, Tonya Peacock, Aubrey Gibson, Janet Benedict, and David Hall presented alongside the teachers who presented in 2013.

Transforming Teaching and Learning

Transforming Teaching and Learning with Active and Dramatic Approaches: Engaging Students Across the Curriculum. will published by Routledge in August 2013.

Tables and Figures are posted under Handouts.

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NCTE Conferences 2012, 2011, and 2010

In November 2012 I presented in two sessions of the NCTE annual conference in Las Vegas with two of the teachers: Jill Sampson and Jessica Sharp.  We had over 100 people at our sessions.

In November 2011, at the annual conference in Chicago of the National Council of Teachers of English, I presented with four of the teachers in the Professional Development program as part of the OSU/RSC collaboration: high school teachers, Megan Ballinger, David Hall, and Jessica Sharp, and middle school teacher, Jill Sampson.  Over 75 eager participants attended our presentation, 100 Ways to Teach Shakespeare.

At the same conference, I was a discussant for a presentation by Camille Cushman and Lorraine Gaugenbaugh: At the intersection of dramatic play, critical inquiry, and performance in third grade reading instruction: imagining new possibilities for English language learners performing literacy.  Camille graduated in Summer 2011, was my doctoral advisee, and conducted her dissertation in Lorraine’s 3rd grade classroom.

In November 2010, at the annual conference in Orlando FL, Camille, Lorraine, and Harry Gee participated in an all-day workshop on “Ambitious Reading” led by me and Pat Enciso.