Friday, January 26, 2007

Second Thoughts: Reframing the Question

One of the articles of faith that I have come to believe as a writer, and that ask my students to consider and to at least attempt to practice, is that the act of writing not just a means of expressing, but of generating thought. Some writing may be merely expressive or informational, but the writing that generally interests me more is writing that is explorational. I think that this is particularly true of blogging. I won't attempt to speak for others, but often when I sit down to write I do not have a clear idea or a clear end in sight, and the act of writing the words out, one after another, as I am doing here, is what allows the ideas to take shape. I have had to train myself to trust my first thoughts, even if on appearance they turn out to be pitiful weak little things. Because even pitiful weak little nestlings can grow into sleek, golden eagles. The beauty of writing is that it makes first thoughts visible and subject to further contemplation. First thoughts make possible second thoughts.

Yesterday I wrote about a question of balance that arose in a teacher's meeting. I've had one comment on the post already, and have had extended discussions with Mark about what I wrote, and have been turning over all of this fresh input in my mind, and, yes, I'm having second thoughts. The question I posed yesterday was the question that I was able to articulate yesterday. But Mark has encouraged me to re-frame the question, not as a question of balance, but as a question about message, which turns into another, broader question about what we are doing when we teach, and how we contextualize messages. I'm going to talk about this question in the context of our discussion about this particular sequence of texts, but I think that the question Mark is raising is much broader than that, and in fact gets to the heart of what it means to be a certain kind of teacher, whether we're teaching English or Physics or Web 2.0.

At the risk of mis-representing Mark's thinking twice in a row, let me say that what I now understand to be the question he is asking all of the teachers in this particular group to think about is "What is the message that we send to kids when we give them this sequence of readings?"

One message that we might be sending, and which I'm sure, unless we are very careful, the students will think we are sending, is the didactic, moralistic message that "You ought to be doing more." It's utterly predictable that many schoolchildren, particularly teenagers, will react with immediate and perhaps even subconscious resistance to a message which has embedded within a negative judgementalism, something that feels to them like a paraphase of "You're not doing enough" or "You're not good enough." I agree with Mark that this is not a good message to be sending to kids, explicitly or subliminally. But I think there are other ways to contextualize whatever it is that we are teaching that puts the whole enterprise in a different light. And the one I would like to advocate for (tonight, as I second guess myself, fully aware that by tomorrow I may be able to see this more clearly and in a different way—especially if one of you out there writes in to point out the glaring weaknesses in my current position) is linked to the idea of essential questions.

We do a lot of work with essential questions at our school, and I'm not going to get into the whole framework we use for doing that at this point. Suffice it to say that we ask students to look at or perhaps brainstorm lists of questions, ask them to make some discriminations about which questions are more important to them individually, and then encourage them to reflect on, write about, work through their thinking over time in regard to those questions.

This sequence of readings we've been talking about looks different if viewed through the lens of (what I would consider to be a pretty good example of) an essential question: "What is our responsibility to others?" The message sent by this question is a meta-message: it is a message that says "There are some things that are worth thinking about. There are some questions that are worth asking. This is one of them. What do you think?" In the context of this question, the readings present themselves as examples of various people—Peter Singer, Zell Kravinsky, Bill Gates, Muhammed Yunus—trying to work out the answers to these questions for themselves. Seeing what they think allows us to consider, or re-consider, what we think.

Whatever we teach, I think it is of critical importance that we ask ourselves, and answer for ourselves, and be able to explain clearly to our students, what the intended message is. If we're teaching students to use blogs, for example, are we doing that because it's supposed to be cool or sexy? Are we doing it because it allows students to ask better questions or get better feedback or access better information? Are we doing it because all of a sudden they're showing up in class with school-mandated laptops and we need to do something so that the parents won't holler? Are we doing it because it's going to help them develop writing skills or presentational skills or networking skills or technical skills? Are we doing it because we think it's fun and we want them to think so too? What is the message? And do the students know what the message is?

I'm new to blogging. In all likelihood I'm now raising questions that Will Richardson has already written three books about that I haven't even read yet. But the question applies to any discipline, and to any school, and to any group of teachers. I have thirty teachers in my department. There are eight teachers who teach Sophomore English, and though I like and respect all of them, I'm sure that at this point in time we would answer Mark's question the same way. We need to talk about that. And I'm quite sure that even after we talk about, we will still not have exactly the same answer to the question. That's life, that's human nature, that's teaching. But the question is always worth returning to, for second thoughts, third thoughts, seventy-eleventh thoughts. That's what makes it an essential question.


Mr. B-G said...


I stumbled across your site after reading an excerpt of one of your posts on Bud the Teacher's blog.

Thanks for the pensive posts. I am in my third year of teaching high school English, and just a few months into blogging.

It's a vast, complicated, and exciting world. So much to process. I look forward to learning more and attempting to articulate my journey along the way.

Bruce Schauble said...

Hi, and thanks. It is an interesting world, and an interesting journey of discovery... looks like we're both just getting started. Good luck with your class blogs. That's what I'm going to try to set up in the next week or two with my sophs...

- B

M Maretzki said...

This second post reframes the issue in a way that more closely (and clearly) articulates much of what I am thinking about and was trying to begin to talk about in the sub-department meeting. I don't think I was very clear then, and I have my doubts about this response yet to come, but I guess I'll start with messages and see how far I get.

I agree with Bruce's assertion that, "there are other ways to contextualize whatever it is that we are teaching that puts the whole enterprise in a different light," but I have to question the implied assumption that we can turn out the other lights that students see. Do only the teachers shine the lights or control them? Are the students learning only what we want them to? Even if we go so far as to tell them directly that we're not sending them the message that they ought to do more, we'd have to snap Obi Wan Kenobi's fingers to get them to ignore the similarity in our selections and notice the absence of other answers. So why is this a problem? I think it's one on two accounts. First, since English 2 is a critical thinking course, my response is, "When we select our readings, why isn't our highest value critical thinking, instead of getting them to do more for others?"

English 2 is, at least in my mind, foremost a critical thinking course; therefore, I'd say that the strongest message the students should experience is the one that says, "Think critically!" Okay, then in a critical thinking class, shouldn't we ask students to practice evaluating a question from multiple of points of view? I'm not advocating other points of view based on balance for balance's sake; rather, I do so because in this particular course we have to give students the chance to see points of view based on different assumptions, and sound reasoning to go along with them, as models and for their own evaluation. How contradictory to ask students to practice critical thinking, and then to select readings that suggest a conclusion we believe is correct.

Second, I return to asking what happens when we give them readings that arise from a point of view informed if not by the same assumptions, then by very similar assumptions? We haven't randomly selected people trying to work out answers, after all; we've selected people whose answers we agree with and praise. That must be because we want, consciously or otherwise, to send a second message. Now, I'm not advocating that we ask them to read someone who presents a grotesque and hideous point of view, but even so, I have to acknowledge that I wouldn't do so because I don't want students to see that message. And if I don't want them to see that message, I have to acknowledge that I know our students are, even when we're being careful to make a different message crystal clear, seeing the readings as sending messages. You see where I'm going, don't you? To any halfway conscious tenth grader our readings will send a message that answers the question—after all, we're considering what the readings suggest when we're selecting or not selecting the texts! As Bruce notes, though we don't intend to, we might convey a negative judgment of our students that could leave them resisting even the question. And that's only the most obvious implication. Then why don't we give them other reasonable answers in this critical thinking course?

I should interrupt and acknowledge that I do want my students to know that they ought to do more. I ought to do more. We all ought to do more. That's the answer I arrive at; it's the answer Punahou School wants them to arrive at; it's the Right answer, darn it! But how we shape our students experience toward finding, internalizing, and living that or any answer is a tricky business for our sub-department to think carefully about. For our whole department to continually explore!

Now, The Poisonwood Bible. As Bruce points out, the novel does give them a narrative built from multiple points of view. But no one can read that novel and believe that Rachel represents a point of view that Kingsolver wants us to seriously consider following; one of my complaints about us using the novel in this particular course is that Kingsolver does want to send a message. When students read the essays we've chosen, they expect to hear a message, for that is the nature of an essay. But novels should be a different story. (Sorry, I didn't intend that lame pun!) Though I enjoy the moments when Barbara Kingsolver writes beautifully and I agree largely with her politics, didactic novels don't really thrill me, and I actually don't want my students to learn implicitly that novels also send messages, whatever the course they're in is. I want them to learn that novels, in their own way, show us the complexities and wonders of being human and allow us to find, through our reading, our own way through life. In English 2 I don't want to try to influence, in such a heavy-handed way, my students' thoughts by selecting such an obviously didactic novel. And I don't think we can prevent our students from believing that we ask them to read The Poisonwood Bible because we want them to hear her message. I'm sure there are many students who feel bludgeoned by the opinion so clearly expressed in the sum of our reading selections. That's reason alone for our sub-department to think further about what we're doing and why.

There's so much more to think about, but so far I fear that I've gone in circles in this writing—I know that I have in thinking about it! I hope I've successfully gone over this comment/response enough times that it makes some sense to whomever is so unlucky as to be reading right now. There's more in my head, but it's been a long weekend, so this is where I'm at! (I've got two turntables and a microphone…)

Malia said...

Hi Bruce--I agree with you: we don't have to teach with "balance" when it comes to what's good and moral. However, I can think of at least one text written by, for and about an "independent agent engaged in a free-for-all to climb over each other to the top." It's called "The Prince" by Niccolo Machiavelli. Where did I read it first? Punahou School in the 1980s. So, while it's certainly not our obligation to show kids the "other side" of the moral living argument, it can't hurt. I think you could use it to advantage to engage their critical thinking skills--or even provoke their sense of moral outrage at some of the things that are posited as acceptable in this world. Cheers--m.