Sunday, September 21, 2008

Shades of Grey

One of the biggest challenges facing educators today is how to go about meeting the needs of individual learners. Educational discourse today centers, to a greater degree than at any time in the past, on such concepts as individualized learning and differentiated instruction. I’m don’t know for sure whether in the students we are teaching today are in fact a whole lot different, in terms of their relative abilities or disabilities, or their relative inclination or disinclination to buy into what we aspire to teach them, than they were, say, thirty years ago. My hunch is that in fact they are. Certainly I’ve seen a lot more students in recent years who state flat out that they dislike reading and, given the choice, would prefer not to have to do it at all. Where this comes from is, it appears, anybody’s guess. Less time with primary caregivers and more time in preschools? Lots more time watching television and less time sitting in someone’s lap reading a book? Too many distractions (video games, DVD’s, cell phones, laptops? Organized sports programs from first grade on up)? A cultural shift away from print and toward images? Everyone’s got an opinion. Nobody knows.

In what many teachers and parents would like to think of as the good old days, you could count on some basic assumptions. Even kids who struggled with reading or with math would at least concede that the struggle was necessary. I was talking to a grade seven teacher two years ago, who has since retired, and she told me that for the first time she had students showing up in her class who were simply declaring “Well, I’m not a reader. I’m not into that.” That feels like something new to me: the idea that a student would feel it was acceptable to simply opt out. I don’t do reading. So sue me.

Throughout my teaching career I’ve tried to be responsive to the individual needs and learning styles of all of my students. Most of the adaptions I have made have been guided by instinct rather than a solid grounding in educational research. I’ve always tried to frame my classes, and my assignments, in such a way that there are multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they know and what they care about. I’ve tried to provide them on the one hand with carefully sequenced activities that build reading and writing and thinking skills through a variety of modalities: reading, writing, speaking, listening, moving, looking. On the other hand, I’ve tried to create spaces for student choices about what to read and what to write about and what kinds of projects they want to do and how they want to be assessed. I’ve tried to balance individual activities for the kids who like those to collaborative group activities for those who like those.

And most of the time, for most of the students, it’s worked. By and large, I’m proud of the work my students have produced, and I think that even in the worst case scenarios I have managed to send the struggling students away untraumatized by their experience in my classes.

But now I’m out of the classroom, in a K-12 supervisory role, and I’m a little reluctant to continue to rely on gut instinct. When teachers, or parents, or kids, or visitors from other schools come to visit our school, I think we need to be able to come up with a better explanation of why we are doing what we are doing to meet the needs of individual learners than, “Whatever feels right.” Which is why I’ve embarked a reading program for myself on differentiated learning and the development of 21st century skills, and why I’ve been attending a number of workshops and presentations on these subjects. And so far, it’s been a little discouraging, because despite the enormous amount of time and energy and resources that have been devoted to these questions nationwide, and despite the knowledge that we have been accumulating about the physiology of the brain over the last twenty years, the answers to the basic questions remain murky. There isn’t a whole lot of black and white. Everything is shades of grey.

Take ADHD, for example. Just the other day I was at a workshop where a presenter (who was excellent, by the way) presented the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. After checking the audience of parents and educators to see if there was anyone present who was prepared to make the argument that ADHD is bunk, and getting no takers, she gave us a handout with the clinical rundown:

Diagnostic Criteria for ADHD:
Six (or more) of the following symptoms of inattention have persisted for at least six months to a degree that is maladaptive and inconsistent with developmental level:
  • often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
  • often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
  • often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
  • often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort
  • often loses things necessary for tasks or activities
  • is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • is often forgetful in daily activities.

Now, I’m sure this is a useful list and I’m sure it’s the product of many an hour of rigorous debate in whatever committees were responsible for its generation. But what strikes me as I look at it from my point of view as an educator are its many overlapping zones of indeterminacy, the grey areas. That word “often,” for example. How often is “often”? My wife can testify that I myself meet every criterion on the list often enough to get her attention. Pretty much everyone does some of the things on this list some of the time. So how much is enough? Why six of the symptoms? Would the efficacy of the diagnostic criteria be significantly compromised if the number were five? Or seven? And who makes the call about those matters of degree? What exactly do we mean by “maladaptive?” Given the many variations in developmental levels even at the same age within different parts of the brain, how far out does a symptom have to be to be adjudged “inconsistent with developmental level?”

From a purely practical level its important to have some kind of working definition so that students can be identified as in need of particular services or adaptions such as extended time for testing or remedial assistance. But I would suspect that the diagnoses that result from this particular instrument have an awful lot to do with the point of view of the person doing the assessment.

Or, for another example, take dyslexia. Throughout the forty years of my teaching career I had been under the impression that dyslexia was one particular kind of organic learning disorder. But Maryanne Wolf has this to say, in the book I recommended in a previous post:

As we embark on the study of dyslexia we find very quickly that it is an intrinsically messy enterprise. There are at least three sets of reasons: the complex requirements for a reading brain; the fact that so many disciplines have been involved in its study; and the perplexing juxtaposition of singular strengths and devastating weaknesses in individuals with dyslexia… What’s missing, ironically, is a single, universally accepted definition of dyslexia itself. Some researchers eschew the term “dyslexia” altogether and use more general descriptions such as “reading disabilities” or “learning disabilities.” And despite the fact that Plato and the ancient Greeks were aware of the phenomenon, there are some who still argue dyslexia doesn’t exist. (167-8)

Well, great. That’s certainly good to know, but not necessarily helpful. But that’s where I am at the start of this particular educational odyssey: in a grey room in a grey building. If and when I find myself encountering some primary colors, I’ll be passing them along.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Happy Enchilada

Funny the way the brain works. Today I was writing in response to a couple of comments left on Throughlines, and I got thinking on the one hand about odd subliminal connections — the way the brain moves at the subconscious level — and on the other hand about the kinds of comments authors and performers make about their work. And that's when a memory popped up from wherever such things are secreted in the cerebral cortex.

When John Prine was in Honolulu in for a concert (in October of 2002, I discovered when I googled Prine-Honolulu-concert), he sang a song called “That’s the Way the World Goes Round.” And of all the things that I might remember about that concert, what has stuck in my mind, and popped out this morning, was what he said when he was introducing the song.

He said that at he had been playing at a club he had finished up and was going to do an encore and asked the audience what they wanted to hear, and one woman called out that she wanted to hear the “Happy Enchilada” song. Prine said something along the lines of, “Well, I’ve been writing songs for a long time, but I didn’t recall every having written a song about enchiladas, and I was damned sure I hadn’t written any about happy enchiladas. So I asked her to sing a little bit of it, and that’s when I figured out what song she meant. So I’m going to sing it now.”

Then he sang “That’s the Way the World Goes Round,” which goes like this

I know a guy that's got a lot to lose.
He's a pretty nice fellow but he's kind of confused.
He's got muscles in his head that ain't never been used.
Thinks he own half of this town.

Starts drinking heavy, gets a big red nose.
Beats his old lady with a rubber hose,
then he takes her out to dinner and buys her new clothes.
That's the way that the world goes 'round.

That's the way that the world goes 'round.
You're up one day and the next you're down;
Half an inch of water and you think you're gonna drown.
That's the way that the world goes 'round.

I was sitting in the bathtub counting my toes,
when the radiator broke, water all froze.
I got stuck in the ice without my clothes,
naked as the eyes of a clown.
I was crying ice cubes hoping I'd croak,
when the sun come through the window, the ice all broke.
I stood up and laughed thought it was a joke
That's the way that the world goes 'round.

He finished the song with the apocryphal version of the chorus:

That's the way that the world goes 'round.
You're up one day and the next you're down.
Happy enchilada, you think you're gonna drown.
That's the way that the world goes 'round.

Turns out that there’s a video on YouTube of Prine singing the song at somebody’s house, and, about midway through, telling the story.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

American Sentences

I ran across this exercise on the Poets Online blog, which is one of the many brainchildren of Ken Ronkowitz, on of my favorite edubloggers. Ken explains that the idea originated with Allen Ginsburg, who conceived of writing what he wanted to call "American Sentences," which would be the hang-loose, vernacular American version of haiku. The only formal restriction is that each sequence should be a stand-alone poem of 17 syllables. Seemed like a low-stress exercise that had the potential to be interesting. In a classroom it might serve to introduce students to the virtues of verbal economy. How much work can you get done in 17 syllables?

What I noticed in trying the exercise out is how the very nature of the exercise asks you to pay a different kind of attention to what you have written. There's a lot of counting and adjustment and recounting that goes on. Here are a few of my own:

Prairie highway: bleached abandoned houses, roofs caved in, shutters askew.

Outside the classroom door, students mill and swirl, bodies pressed in passing.

Rainy morning: orange flower petals strewn across the glistening bricks.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Proust and the Squid

I've spent the last four days reading one of the best books about education that I've ever gotten my hands around. It goes by the unlikely name of Proust and the Squid, and the subtitle is "The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." Maryanne Wolf, the author is a cognitive scientist, an educator, a parent, and a formidably talented reader and writer. In this book, she manages to convey in a comprehensive and comprehensible way the status of our current understanding of reading as a process from pretty much every relevant point of view: historical, psychological, physiological, sociological, and educational. She appears to have read pretty much everything ever written or published that relates to the history and science of reading, and she manages to organize this mountain of data into a series of clear and funny and eminently readable segments that are intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. The book is divided up into three main parts: "How the Brain Learned to Read" (the historical analysis); "How the Brain Learns to Read Over Time" (the physiological analysis); and "When the Brain Can't Learn to Read" (the pedagogical analysis). Each of these parts is in turn divided into three chapters, which can be read more or less independently as self-contained essays ("The Birth of an Alphabet and Socrates' Protests," for example). There are about 30 very helpful illustrations that help the reader visualize the brain processes being discussed. The book is also sprinkled liberally with quotations from all sorts of sources — literary, scientific, and personal — that speak to or illustrate the themes developed in each chapter.

I've done a lot of underlining and highlighting and dogearing in this book, and have already had occasion, several occasions actually, to go burrowing back into the book to revisit a passage that had set ideas rattling about in my head. A couple of examples:

Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading. A little-discussed class system invisibly divides our society, with those families that provide their children environments rich in oral and written language oppportunities gradually set apart from those who do not, or cannot. A prominent study found that by kindergarten, a gap of 32 million words already separates some children in linguistically impoverished homes from their more stimulated peers. In other words, in some environments the average young middle-class child hears 32 million more spoken words than the young underprivileged child by age five. (20)

From a cognitive perspective, therefore, it is again not that the alphabet uniquely contributed to the production of novel thought, but rather that the increased efficiency brought about by alphabetic and syllabary systems made made novel thought more possible for more people, and at an earlier stage of the novice reader's development. This then, marks the revolution in our intlellectual history: the beginning democratization of the young reading brain. Within such a broadened context, there can be no surprise that one of the most profound and prolific periods of writing, art, philosophy, and science in all of previously recorded history accompanied the spread of the Greek alphabet. (66)

(A concluding paragraph from a section considering Socrates Objection to writing on the grounds that it would weaken the powers of memory of the Greek citizenry, which Wolf sees as an analogue to current debates about, for example, whether Google is Making Us Stupid ):

Questions from access to knowledge run throughout human history — from the fruit of the tree of knowledge to Google. Socrates’ concerns become greatly amplified by our present capacity for everyone with a computer to learn very, very quickly about virtually anything, anywhere, anytime at an “unguided” computer screen. Does this combination of immediacy, seemingly limitless information, and virtual reality pose the most powerful threat so far to the kind of knowledge and virtue valued by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle? Will modern curiosity be sated by the flood of pat, often superficial information on a screen, or will it lead to a desire for more in-depth knowledge? Can a deep examination of words, thoughts, reality, and virtue flourish in learning characterized by continuous partial attention and multitasking? Can the essence of a word, a thing, or a concept retain importance when so much learning occurs in thirty-second segments on a moving screen? Will children inured by ever more realistic images of the world around them have a less practiced imagination? Is the likelihood of assuming we understand the truth or reality of a thing even greater if we see it visually depicted in a photograph, film, or video or on “reality” TV? How would Socrates respond to a filmed version of a Socratic dialogue, to his entry in Wikipedia, or to a screen clip on YouTube? (77)

Recent reports from the National Reading Panel and the "nation's report cards" indicate that 30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension. This is a devastating figure, made even worse by the fact that teachers, textbook authors, and indeed the entire school system have different expectations from grade 4 on. This approach is encapsulated in the mantra that in the first three grades a child "learns to read," and in the next grades the child "reads to learn." After children leave the third grade, teachers expect them to have sufficiently automatic reading skills that enable them to learn more and more "on their own," from increasingly difficult text materials. Through no fault of their own, most fourth-grade teachers never take a course in teaching reading to children who have not acquired fluency. (135)

Jackie Stewart, the Scottish racing driver, won twenty-seven Grand Prix titles, was knighted by Prince Charles, and had one of the world's most successful racing careers before he retired. He is also dyslexic. Recently, he concluded a speech at an international scientific conference on dyslexia by saying, "You will never understand what it feels like to be dyslexic. No matter how long you have worked in this area, no matter if your own children are dyslexic, you will never understand what it feels like to be humiliated your entire childhood and taught every day to believe that you will never succeed at anything. (165-6)

That's a preliminary sampler. I will have more to say about spinoff issues in later posts. But this is a start.

One sometimes reads blurbs that say something to the effect that "This is a book which is a must read for every parent and educator." I've never had occasion to use that particular phrasing. Until now.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Intricacies, Frictions, Evasions

My school is now knee-deep in preparations for the visit of the WASC accreditation team which will be arriving in the spring of 2010 for its regular visit, which occurs every six years. Part of our responsibility to prepare for the visit is to conduct a self-study, and the part of the self study which has consumed a lot of our time so far is the creation of a compact "current reality" statement which we can share with various constituencies within the school community — students, teachers, faculty, admin, staff, and parents — in order to test our sense of who we are and get feedback as to what we need to re-think and what items should show up in the school improvement plan which will need to include in the report which will be presented to the visiting committee. During our work on drafting the current reality statement, we have found ourselves returning to a set of words which come about as close as any we can think of to defining the educational goals of the school within the context of the school's mission statement. The phrasing goes something like this: as a school our goal is to create environments which support flexibility, collaboration, and individual attentiveness.

I've already written one post, just as we were getting started with this process in June, which mentioned this particular formulation and went on to explore some thoughts I had with regard to collaboration. Today I have it in mind to try to work into the idea of attentiveness. It's kind of a subtle word. It means something more, for example, than "attention." Asking students, our ourselves, to pay attention seems to me to be a slightly different thing than asking them to be attentive or to practice the discipline of attentiveness. "Attention" is the direction of the mind's eye, "the concentration," according to the AHED, "of the mental powers upon an object." "Attentiveness," on the other hand, seems to imply the willed extension of attention to an object over time. "Attention" is an action of the mind; "attentiveness" is a habit of mind. There is an ethical dimension to attentiveness: to be attentive to manifest a certain attitude toward one's work, to accept a certain kind of responsibility, to be, well, "care-ful."

What might this kind of care, this kind of responsibility, look like in the classroom? Well, as an English teacher, I can offer the example of the discipline of reading poetry, which certainly demands of its readers a different sort of attentiveness that associated with most other kinds of reading. Denis Donoghue, reviewing in the current (September '08) issue of Harpers a book about the status of poetry in the modern world, comes up in his closing paragraph with this observation:

Reading a poem entails, to a special degree, the act of paying attention; we are required to concentrate our minds, not only to the extent we do habitually on words as they pass in ordinary life but as we are impelled to do on words in the intricacies, frictions, and evasions of lyric form. That so much in contemporary life encourages us to do otherwise—to accept things as they are, whether for the sake of ignorance or convenience—suggests, finally, why it is that poetry matters. (98)
I like that, especially the sequence about the "intricacies, frictions, and evasions" of poetry. Which is not to say that there aren't intricacies, frictions, and evasions everywhere we turn; the three words might serve as the title of a book about the current presidential campaign, or your school, or mine, or your family, or mine. But what Donogue is suggesting is that while in everyday life we mostly choose not to pay attention to the complexities, not to hold ourselves that responsible, if we wish to think of ourselves as good readers of poetry, we have to raise the bar, so to speak, we are "required to concentrate our minds" and to commit ourselves to a more elaborated and painstaking process of attentiveness. By way of illustration of what might be entailed is a handout that over the years I have been in the habit of giving to my English students. It is my own lightly edited and slightly elaborated version of a handout that was given to me in 1978 by Helen Vendler, who was my instructor that summer during an NEH fellowship program for teachers:

Some Ways to Scan a Poem
The quality of your reading of a poem has to do with the quality of the attention you pay to the poem. There are many things to consider when reading a poem, and it's probably not possible to do all of them simultaneously. That's one of the values of re-reading: it allows you to focus on one or two things each time. One term for such a reading is "scanning," which basically means reading with one particular question or purpose or element in mind. Eventually, with sustained, patient attention during the course of multiple scannings, you can arrive at a fully-rounded awareness of all of the elements of the poetic performance.
  1. Literally. What does the poem say or assert? What parts of it make sense on first reading? What parts of it create questions in your mind? What words don't you know? (Look them up.)
  2. Structurally. How many parts does the poem have? What is the logic of the sequence of the parts? Is there a "turn" in the poem at one or more points? A shift in structure or logic? How does the poem up? Is there an implied antecedent scenario? How does the poem end? What's the effect of the ending? Where are the surprises in the poem?
  3. Syntactically. What sort of sentences appear in the poem? (interrogatives, exclamations, apostrophes, etc.) What sort of phrases? voice? mood? tense? logical articulations?
  4. Imagistically. Where and what are the images in the poem? What sorts of imagery are there? What patterns? consistent? coherent? developmental? drawn from nature? from culture? from literature?
  5. Figuratively. Are there explicit figures of speech: similes or metaphors? Are there parts of the poem which can only be taken literally? which can be can be taken literally or figuratively? which can be only be taken figuratively? Are there perhaps several levels of significance which exist simultaneously? How do they reinforce or work against each other?
  6. Musically. What sounds does the poem consist of? What patterns of sound? (rhyme? half-rhyme? assonance? consonance? onomatopoeia? How does the music of the poem reinforce, or perhaps work against, other elements in the poem?
  7. Grammatically. What parts of speech get the most use? are they clustered in notable ways? does usage change over time (e.g. a passage from the definite to the indefinite article, or from concrete nouns to abstract nouns)?
  8. Lexically. What kinds of words are being used? What sort of diction (mythological, allegorical, naturalistic, speculative, scientific, discursive)? Is there a logic to the selection of words?
  9. Prosodically. What is the rhyme scheme? the stanza form? the total form? the metrical pattern?
  10. Imaginatively. What is the founding imaginative act of the poem? (imagining the conjunction of Leda and Zeus? imagining models of human life? imagining that there are mental seasons paralleling the natural seasons, etc. What is the attraction of this act of imagination?
  11. Tonally. What tone (or tones) is taken up by the poet toward his or her material? (the same content can be treated ironically, humorously, sublimely, parodically, etc.)
  12. Aesthetically. What particular type of beauty is being aimed at? a "terrible beauty"? or a "touching" or "pathetic" or "invigorating" or "sublime" or "humorous" or "fanciful" or "whimsical" beauty, etc. And how is that effect brought about? What parts of the poem strike you as being particularly effective or "poetic." Where is the poem most successful, closest to its ideal self?
  13. Generically. What subgenre does the poem belong to? In what way does it conform to the expectations of that subgenre? In what way does it deviate from them, reformulate them, overthrow them? (Some subgenres: ode, elegy, eulogy, panegyric, confession, definition, boast, farewell, etc.)
  14. Allusively. References to other literary works, predecessors, poetic tradition?
  15. Culturally. Is the poem orthodox or heterodox with respect to the received ideas of its culture (blasphemy, paradox, revolutionary ideas, etc.)?
  16. Authorially. (That is, adopting the perspective of a writer reading as a writer.) What has the author done? How has the author done it? What steps in the writing process might be inferred? What did this writer do that I would never have thought to do? What "moves" can be observed? What would I have to do to write something which would have the structural and stylistic features of this piece of writing? Could I come up with a "recipe"?
Well, there are more, but this is a start. When you have ''scanned" the poem in each of these ways, you are more in possession of it than when you have just read it through. When you see how these scanned levels interact in a formal dynamic to make the poem happen on the page, you are on the way to a reading of the poem. After that, you can begin to connect this one poem to others by the same poet, then to others by other poets, then to tradition as a whole.
English teachers will recognize in this list many of the moves associated with the time-honored concept of "close reading," which might itself be described as "reading with full attentiveness." Two things occur to me as I look through the list and consider the imperatives implied by the interrogatives. The first is that very few adults, not to mention students, are in the habit thinking quite so broadly (and deeply: the road to depth being through breadth) about anything, much less poetry. It's just a hell of a lot of work, for one thing. It implies a seriousness of purpose that in our surface-oriented culture might very well come across as geeky and obsessive. But the second has to do with the essential nobility of the enterprise: to make a commitment to read this carefully, to be this patient, to pay this kind of attention, is to honor both the author and ourselves.

My father used to say, "What's worth doing is worth doing well." Donoghue's argument is that the reading and writing of poetry is important at least in part because it encourages us to practice and allows us to rehearse habits of mind which are of potential value to us elsewhere. I think they're both right; that quality is a function of attentiveness, whether in the reading of poems, or the building of houses, or the maintenance of friendships. And that's why it's important that my school, our schools, consciously make it their business to create environments in which attentiveness can be experienced and practiced by our students.