Reading Log Audit

Clearly, I once again chose a blog as the platform for my reading log.  In fact, I simply continued posting to my original blog, so I am left with a comprehensive catalog of my responses to numerous articles and readings spanning two different semesters.  The purpose of this reading log is primarily to aid in my understanding of the class readings through demanding that I engage in rigorous thought, explanation, and investigation.  In that respect, the ten most recent posts, beginning with “Teacher Anxiety,” are similar to the preceding ones.  However, because I was serving an internship and actually teaching classes this semester, several of my posts incorporate classroom experience that relates to ideas or strategies covered in the reading.  The most recent portion of the reading log consists of ten entries: three dealing with Burke’s The English Teacher’s Companion, three treating Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and four addressing concepts from other articles.  The posts range in length from 450 to nearly 800 words.  While I strive to remain concise as a rule, I often found myself wanting to continue writing because connections between ideas or applications of methodologies were popping up in my mind.

As I look back, it is clear that four different components contributed to the overall quality of my entries.  First, rather than attempting to address an article or section of reading in broad terms, I often select an intriguing concept to investigate more deeply or track throughout the reading.  For instance, in “Putting Together Occupation,” I track how Burke’s notion of occupation informs the other three components of good teaching that he identifies.  In “Absorbing Writing,” I investigate more deeply how the notion of classical learning might be applied to the teaching of writing.

Second, instead of sticking strictly to the reading I am dealing with, I allow myself to make connections between texts that might raise more questions or clarify important points.  A good example of that strategy is in the post “Bridging the Gap Between Skills and Knowledge,” an entry that deals mainly with the conclusion of Ravitch’s book, but incorporates ideas from Elliot Eisner’s work that seem particularly apposite.  In doing so, I come to a more complete understanding of each author than I would have by focusing on them separately.

Next, I take what I learn or discover in the reading and discuss it in terms of personal experience.  “Novel Idea” is illustrative of that approach.  Reading Burke’s suggestions and strategies for teaching novels directly related to some firsthand experience, and I took the opportunity to include some personal reflection in my response to that particular reading.

Finally, I did a little bit of stylistic experimentation this semester, and I think it helped to freshen some of the posts and avoid a monotonous tone.  My entry, “Grasping for an Anchor,” experiments with using a short section of narrative writing to introduce the more traditional analytical writing that follows, and “It’s a Numbers Game” featured a Bradbury epigraph that struck me as particularly relevant to the subject matter.  Admittedly, approaching some of the entries in this way was informed by personal preference, but I feel that the net impact for the reader is a positive one.

While such experimentation was a stylistic trend, I feel the content of my writing is influenced by whatever kinds of reading-based connections I can make.  I think that trend is due to the fact that I tend to understand concepts better when I think about them in a variety of contexts.  Not only does it help me to understand ideas more clearly, but it also leads to an application-based approach to what I am studying.  That is, instead of thinking about a concept in isolation, I am eager to explore how it relates to my experience in the field or other class readings.

I feel the work in this log connected well with the other assignments in the course.  Though none of my entries deals directly with such connections, I used the log writing as a place to think through many of the ideas I had for other class assignments.  The writing I did about the various Burke chapters definitely helped to lead me to ideas that I ultimately included in my semester plan.  While the log entries themselves need to have a polished feel in their finished form, the process by which they are created is valuable in itself for the ideas it produces.  Because of going back and reading more closely, certain activities or strategies that went unnoticed before might jump out as useful in my semester plan.  Even though a particular activity was not mentioned in my post, the very act of creating the post led to its discovery.

Because of those kinds of occurrences—surprising and useful discoveries—the reading log indeed has plenty of merit.  Additionally, the reading log provides a good mix of focus and freedom.  While the assignment offers guidelines as to how many posts are expected for each text, it does not ever stipulate a specific topic or concept that needs to be addressed.  I like having the liberty to pursue anything that interests me.  It is often more productive and rewarding to explore ideas that are either relevant to personal experiences or simply intellectually stimulating.  The only suggestion I would make is to incorporate somehow the writing we are all doing in our logs with class discussion.  I know we have access to nearly all of our classmates’ logs, but it could prove productive to set aside some class time where we raise issues we’ve been writing about.

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Bridging the Gap Between Skills and Knowledge

As the reader would expect and demand, Diane Ravitch ends her discussion of the American education system with a number of suggestions for improving it.  While she mentions the proper use of professional evaluations, the importance of family support, and the need to revive behavior and conduct expectations, the bulk of her ideas address issues of curriculum and instruction.  We’ve seen much educational reform–the rise of small and charter schools, the doctrine of choice, and the mandate for accountability–that is informed, driven by, and consequently judged by research and data that are almost entirely quantitative in nature.  From the siphoning of motivated students by charter schools to the tendency to “teach to the test,” it’s clear that such reform efforts have in many cases weakened the education system and left students ill-prepared for a quality life rich with engaged thought and innovation.  The recent onslaught of reform, because of its close ties to test scores, has spurred an approach to curriculum that is more reminiscent of training than it is of teaching.  That is, teachers and administrators, wringing their hands over ways to meet AYP, feel they have little recourse aside from, at best, teaching to the tests, and at worst, engaging in outright cheating and falsification.  Reform that leads well-intentioned teachers to falsify test scores, as in the APS scandal, is certainly not in the best interest of anyone.  That is reform that needs to be reformed.

Let’s consider for a moment the “better” option of focusing instruction on test-taking skills and teaching an unbalanced curriculum of reading and math.  Such a methodology is likely to increase scores on tests that measure those skills, but “Schools that expect nothing more of their students than mastery of the basic skills will not produce graduates who are ready for the modern workplace” (Ravitch, 226).  So we have schools meeting AYP, teachers receiving bonuses for improved test scores, and administrators patting themselves on the back, but students are leaving high school lacking the kind of education that builds productive and thoughtful members of society.  To build on my previous reflections on Elliot Eisner’s conception of reading, students enter adulthood lacking an ability to “read the whole.”  Because the balance of their education focuses on building discrete skills and taking tests that measures those skills, they have very little practice actually using the skills they devote so much energy to acquiring.  As Eisner suggests, an educational framework based on skills per se is not necessarily conducive to helping students derive meaning from and make sense of the world around them.

Ravitch, then, seems to be channeling Eisner when she writes, “The great challenge of our generation is to create a renaissance in education, one that goes well beyond the basic skills that have recently been the singular focus of federal activity” (224).  For Ravitch, the “renaissance” begins with giving instruction and curriculum the attention they deserve.  Well-trained teachers who have a deep knowledge of their subject matter are bound to bring to class an enthusiasm and love for learning that students will notice.  A curriculum that ceases to sacrifice complexity and controversy for political correctness and universal appeal will inject liveliness into the school environment.  Addressing those criteria can put us on the track toward improving what is taught in school and how it is taught.  Moreover, the education students receive will no longer be marked by vanilla summaries of courageous historical events or by perfunctory treatments of classic works of art and literature.  Instead, learning can become infused with excitement, enthusiasm, and joy.  Ravitch speaks to this need when she writes, “Sit down and read a textbook in any subject.  Read the boring, abbreviated pap” (237).  It’s no wonder that kids lack the motivation to learn and read: Their overstimulated experience outside of the classroom contrasts with the ennui of school, creating a perfect storm of apathy and disruptive behavior.

To be sure, the American school system is in a rough spot.  The political climate in this country is one that demands results come quickly and decisively.  No politician wants to wait through an election cycle while educators hammer out and implement real curriculum standards rather than ones solely based on skills.  It is also difficult to prevent foundations from injecting market-based ideology into the education system via huge donations and grants.  And there is no way to ensure that families provide home environments that ready their children for success in school from an early age.  These are big problems, but the first step toward solving them seems to be admitting that there is no easy solution.  It’s going to take much hard work and dedication from administrators, teachers, families, and students to get the country on the right track.

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Reading the Whole

English teachers are lucky, but they have a tough job.  It is fun to be able to continue reading, writing, and learning while working to help students develop their minds and personalities.  It is not so much fun, however, to put up with unmotivated, apathetic, and disruptive students who want nothing more than to be out of your classroom and one hour closer to going home.  That’s the challenge–reaching students who prefer to remain distant.  As Diane Ravitch puts it, teachers “have to find ways to educate even those students who don’t want to be there.  That’s the dilemma of public education” (136).  It makes for a difficult situation indeed, and one way to address the problem is to approach education in a mechanized fashion–a notion that, 35 years ago, struck Elliot Eisner as particularly alarming.  It is not be a stretch to suppose that he is still sufficiently alarmed.

His paper, “Reading and the Creation of Meaning,” originally delivered as a keynote address, deals with the various modalities we employ to read expressive forms.  He notes that people generally consider “words, sentences, and paragraphs found in books, articles, and stories” when they hear the term reading (14).  But Eisner is quick to point out that reading in a generic sense–making meaning out of expressive forms–is something ubiquitous enough to make it virtually imperceptible.  Though we may be unaware of it, we are often reading people, buildings, and media in rather sophisticated ways, taking into account and synthesizing discrete components in order to derive meaning from our experiences.  Eisner contends that such coalescence is equally as crucial for reading text on the page as it is for reading social situations, musical performances, or modern art.  In fact, that fusion of individual characteristics into an intelligible whole is integral not only to understand the content of the writing, but also to experience the joy of the work.  Of course, knowing the structure, content, and context of a piece of writing is essential to understanding it, but until all of that can come together with the aid of the imagination, the spirit of the art will elude the reader.

When confronted with that brand of student who would rather be anywhere besides the classroom, it is tempting to pare down lessons into mechanics and skills, which can be helpful, but will prove detrimental if lessons stay in that realm too long.  Most students who have decided not to care about school complain that the work is boring and seemingly pointless.  To reach those students, it is imperative to construct experiences where they can discover the joy that a text can provide when allowed to do so.

It did not strike me until recently, but I think that idea of orchestrating joyful experiences is the reason I enjoy reading aloud to my students.  I ask that they follow along as I read, but I truthfully only want them to be paying attention.  As long as I have their attention, I am confident that I can make the text come alive enough to spark their imagination.  And once the imagination is running on all cylinders, joy is soon to follow.

I cannot, of course, always be there to read for the students.  It’s fundamental that they develop their reading skills in order to be able to provide joyful experiences for themselves, but sometimes teachers need to ease off teaching the mechanics so kids can practice using their imagination.  I like Eisner’s suggestion of trading the bookshelf for the dress-up corner in kindergarten classrooms.  Perhaps strong imaginations will lead to joyful experiences, and then to quality lives for our students.

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It’s a Numbers Game

“Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451

As I sat nestled into a study carrel on the second floor of the library, nose buried in Ravitch’s Death and Life of the Great American School System, I encountered something that transported me back to a passage I recently read aloud to my eighth graders.  Captain Beatty, the ironically intellectual anti-intellectual fire captain, bursts forth with the above quote to help Montag better understand the intellectual trajectory that lands them in their current situation.  When people have plenty of numbers, data, and statistics, Beatty contends, they experience a kind of simulacrum of knowledge–possessed of information yet lacking understanding.

In her discussion of the data- and statistics-driven educational research spawned by the accountability mandate of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Ravitch often touches on the idea of quantitative research displacing qualitative analysis.  Writing about value-added assessment, she describes how computer data makes it easy for people to assemble, analyze, and evaluate student performance to determine teacher effectiveness.  Ravitch observes that with such tools, analysts “did not need to enter the classroom, observe teachers, or review student work to know which teachers were the best and which were the worst” (180).  By examining the numbers, statisticians turned educational theorists were able to make suggestions and draw conclusions that could have dire consequences for teachers, administrators, and entire schools.  As a result, “Discussions of what to teach and what constituted a quality education receded into the background; those issues were contentious and value-laden, not worthy of the attention of the data-minded analysts” (180).

It was that notion of the contentious and subjective nature of honest investigation into complex matters that sent my mind tumbling toward Beatty’s lecture in Montag’s house.  The most sinister and discomforting aspect of Fahrenheit society is not the government-mandated censorship, but the fact that the populace no longer has a sense of what is missing.  Professor Faber, a sympathetic would-be revolutionary, explains this idea to Montag, noting that they really don’t need the firemen anymore because people are no longer interested enough to challenge the system.

Of course, Fahrenheit 451 is a novel that explores an extreme possibility within a dystopian future, but its admonition against complacency is instructive in the context of educational research.  In a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, we often gravitate toward the comfort of objectivity.  However, the reality is that something as complicated and fundamentally human as education does not readily lend itself to analysis based entirely on facts and figures.  If we are to hold teachers accountable for their performance, we owe it to them to base such accountability on comprehensive assessments that incorporate both quantitative and qualitative data.  Though it may require more time and funding to do the necessary work, we owe it to ourselves, our students, and our country.

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Collaborative Writing

Educational researchers and theorists often tout the benefits of social learning.  Frank Smith (1998) addresses the role of social environments in acquiring and retaining new knowledge; Jonathan Erwin (2004) describes the payoff of appealing to students’ need for belonging through cooperative learning strategies; and Jim Burke (2008) frequently notes the success he enjoys by allowing students to collaborate on projects.  Humans clearly need social interaction to live fulfilling, meaningful lives, and it is no different for children who spend the majority of their time in schools.  Certain academic endeavors, however, tend to lend themselves to cooperative learning more readily than others.  In an English class, for instance, a small group discussion of a poem or short story creates a social environment where the exchange of ideas fosters student growth and curiosity.  However, when that same class transitions to a writing assignment, students are typically discouraged from talking and forced to develop their ideas in isolation.  While there is certainly a place for quiet, solitary reflection, maybe creating more time for students to write collaboratively would improve their perceptions of writing in general.

Rebekah Caplan alludes to the appeal of social writing in her book, Writers in Training.  She recalls that her happiest experiences with writing came when scribbling notes to friends or penning farewell messages in yearbooks.  In other words, writing that involved self-expression for and among friends.  Though she mentions her experience as a way of getting at students’ tendency to write in broad, general statements rather than in specific details and examples, her recollection suggests that collaboration should perhaps play a larger role in writing instruction than it does.  Part of Caplan’s training program involves daily writing.  Every day she provides her students a sentence that tells and asks them to transform it into one that shows.  For instance, students might receive the telling sentence, “The bus stop was painfully cold that morning,” then write a paragraph for homework that showed the experience.  Urging students to provide the experience for the reader rather than telling about it is a good way to get them to grasp the purpose of the exercise.

There is indeed much value in having students complete showing exercises.  They hone their writing ability through using specific language, closely examining a situation, developing ideas, and creating a questioning interior monologue–all important characteristics of good writers.  Because my eighth graders need to work on developing all of those traits, I implemented a version of Caplan’s training in my own class.  Rather than have them complete the paragraph for homework, however, we practiced writing to show as a whole class.  With a telling sentence as our guide, students took turns suggesting sentences to create an engaging, fun paragraph.  I was happily surprised by their enthusiasm and eagerness to share.  I began to have the impression that they were starting to see how writing–as a mode of self expression–can be more than something they are forced to do in English class.

It is clear to me that the same eagerness and enthusiasm would have been absent had the exercise been given individually in class or as homework.  The reason is that there would not have been a social collaborative element at play.  As Caplan was writing in 1984, she could not have anticipated the abundance of opportunities to share that are available to students today.  Perpetually texting, posting, tweeting, and updating, kids today have more writing modes available to them than ever before.  However, English teachers are justifiably reticent to legitimize text messaging per se as writing fit for class, but ought to channel students’ desire to socialize and collaborate through writing.  I have addressed this notion in previous posts treating the work of Kittle and Hicks as well as Stacy Kitsis, and my opinion remains–taking advantage of students’ urge to collaborate is a must for teachers of all disciplines.  Whether it is a simple class exercise or a writing assignment completed on a class wiki, appealing to students’ social needs through collaboration is well-advised.

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Novel Idea

I’m a reader.  I love books.  Sitting outside with a good novel for a few hours is my idea of a nice afternoon.  It’s not just the story that I enjoy: I like a novel that makes me think and requires me to learn something new about history, culture, and the human condition.  That kind of literary stimulation is fun for me and represents one reason why I want to become an English teacher.  Teaching novels not only allows me to expose students to literature, but it also provides me the opportunity to read and reread a bunch of books.  In spite of my enthusiasm, however, I experienced a certain degree of trepidation when my CT informed me that I would be handling the novel studies for both blocks.  At first, of course, I was very excited at the prospect of doing that which I longed to do.  Before long, the fear that accompanies anything new set in and I began to worry about what exactly I was supposed to do.  Something told me that it wouldn’t be good enough to get in there, have the class read the first section and say, “Well, whatdaya think?”  That approach could work in a graduate class or upper-level undergrad course, but it will not fly with eighth graders.

Ranging from anticipation guides and reading questions to situation-based activities and debates, I’ve come up with some pretty decent strategies for presenting issues to students.  An activity that I was particularly proud of was something that I called “Character Takeover.”  It was nothing ground-breaking.  Students were supposed to assume the identity of a character from the novel and write a journal entry or letter about whatever that character was going through in the story.  I am not so deluded as to consider myself the first person to come up with this, but I didn’t realize that virtually the same strategy would be addressed by Jim Burke in chapter four of The English Teacher’s Companion.

As one might expect, Burke’s version is better.  His assignment stipulates that a student will keep a character journal throughout the course of the entire novel.  I like that requirement because it demands that the student read attentively and be sensitive to how changes in relationships and plot affect the character psychologically.  Perhaps someone could argue that such an assignment would lead to reader myopia by making a student pay such close attention to one character, but I would disagree.  A character journal would help to bring to life the world of the novel.  Readers naturally identify with a particular character more than others in any given story, and the character journal provides a space to explore that identification.  Rather than spawning a narrow perspective, a richer understanding of and engagement with all of the characters is bound to result.

I do wonder, however, if the activity, as Burke describes it, is plausible for middle school students.  His example refers to high school students reading The Lord of the Flies, but it seems to me that an eighth grader might not want to make a commitment to just one character.  I fear that a middle school would lose interest writing from only one perspective, start phoning it in, and therefore defeat the purpose of the assignment.  Maybe splitting the novel into thirds and allowing students the option of sticking with their initial character or switching to another would ward off fatigue and present the added challenge of writing from a new perspective.

I can tell that it is going to be both challenging and rewarding to create engaging ways to involve students in novels.  Even though I’m by no means the first to think of it, my idea is at least good enough for someone of such high repute as Jim Burke.  That makes me feel okay about myself.

 

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Searching for the Right Path

We’ve all heard it.  From politicians and parents to radio pundits and news reporters, the consensus is clear: The American educational system is in dire straits.  I am imagining an upper-middle class backyard peopled with polo-clad men and fragrant women wearing too much makeup.  The soft light of a late September sunset is accented by flickering candles in mason jars.  Soft, unoffensive music fills the gaps in conversations that every now and then land on the issue of education.  Often, the topic passes quickly as someone, half grinning and shrugging, assumes the ubiquitous “Whatta ya gonna do?” stance, then moves on to discuss the more pressing issue of UGA’s pass rushing ability.  Or, and this has happened to me, someone (who means well) makes the overly simplistic suggestion of firing teachers who “don’t get the job done.”  The rationale is this: If I fail at my job, I run the risk of being fired, so why not teachers?  As if educating young Americans were tantamount to selling insurance or crunching numbers for Coca-Cola.

The point is that efforts to find solutions to the challenges we face with this country’s educational system far too often fall into those categories.  One group throws its hands up into the air while the other focuses on too narrow an issue.  Of course, there are some bad teachers out there who probably deserve to be fired, and I understand feeling exasperated at the scope of the problem, but if we are serious about improving American education, then we have to admit to ourselves that it will not be a quick fix.  Diane Ravitch addresses this idea very early in The Death and Life of the Great American School System when she reflects on her experiences studying the “rise and fall of grand ideas that were promoted as the sure cure for . . . schools and students” (3).  It’s natural to want to fix a problem quickly, but Ravitch argues that the most recent approach of high-stakes testing, accountability, and choice fail to address the real problem and actually end up harming education.

To understand the current climate of standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, it is necessary to consider the 1983 education report, A Nation at Risk.  “The report was an immediate sensation,” writes Ravitch.  “Its conclusions were alarming, and its language was blunt to the point of being incendiary” (23).  The commission did not sugarcoat the problems the nation faced, nor did it offer magic bullet solutions.  Instead, it recommended a sweeping overhaul of education that included “stronger high school graduation requirements; higher standards for academic performance and conduct; more time devoted to instruction and homework; and higher standards for entry into the teaching profession and better salaries for teachers” (25).  Those notions stand in stark contrast to the easily quantified basic skills tests mandated by NCLB.  Rather than solely testing math and reading skills, A Nation at Risk sought to address the fundamental elements of instruction and curriculum.

What happened?  Why didn’t the reform take hold?  The short answer is politics.  The revised history curriculum was heavily criticized for offering too liberal a representation of historical events and caused much vitriolic debate over what American children are taught.  Any content-based standards were likely to meet similar pushback from one party or the other, so “states settled for ‘standards’ that were bland and soporific to avoid battles over what students should learn” (30).

The resulting educational policy eschewed content in favor of testing to avoid controversy and political bickering.  It all sounds pretty good.  The idea of testing students to see where they stand and holding teachers and administrators accountable appeals to a lot of people.  There’s not much on the surface with which to disagree.  Hence the appeal for politicians.  The only problem is that such an approach almost entirely ignores the place where real education happens: The classroom.  In their article “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment,” Paul Black and Dylan William address this problem by reminding us that “Learning is driven by what teachers and pupils do in classrooms” (Black and William, 2009).  They argue that instead of focusing on various inputs and outputs like benchmarks and test scores, more effort should be made to help teachers and students with classroom issues like innovative instruction and formative assessment.  That focus on the classroom is reminiscent of the suggestions put forth in A Nation at Risk, and seems to be a more likely path toward healing the education system than the one we’re currently on.

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