"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The persistence of failure

So your car breaks down and you can't tell what's wrong as you're sitting there at the side of the road. You don't know anything about cars, but you do know who to call for help. You call AAA or a towing service. What you don't do is pray. Oh, you might pray for patience or fortitude to cope with whatever challenges this breakdown brings. But a rational believer does not pray for God to fix his car. Why not? Because you hate religion or reject the power of God? No, because this is not an appropriate sphere to invoke the power of God. And, to invoke a reason which is not at all blasphemous, it won't work. I leave it to theologians to explain why this is so, but I expect that God doesn't want us to pray for magic tricks.

And let me repeat this. We don't pray for God to do magic mostly because it doesn't work. Yet we persist with magical thinking with regard to educational theory all the time, and consistently ignore evidence that conflicts with our faith-based convictions.

I don't want to make the mistake of being overly subtle about this: MERIT PAY FOR TEACHERS DOESN'T WORK. It never has. Let's ignore whether or not it should work, or the value of applying market lessons to the profession of teaching. THERE IS NOT ONE SCRAP OF PROOF THAT MERIT PAY HAS EVER WORKED. Educational professionals have known this for years, over a decade at least, but that does not discourage political figures from continuing to bring it up. You don't see politicians advocating the use of astrology or voodoo, but they persist with merit pay for teachers idea because "common sense" says it ought to work. But it never has.

And even if one is skeptical of an assertion because it comes from an interested party, such as a teacher's union, that doesn't make the assertion untrue.

The most recent documentation of failure comes from the Rand Corporation, hardly a bastion of left-wing, pro-union thought. In a carefully conducted, well-documented study, Rand concluded that New York City's merit pay system did not improve student achievement or teacher practices. The city figured this out a while back and dropped the program back in January. "Well," say the pro-merit pay types, "they didn't implement it correctly. If we install it in the correct fashion, it's bound to produce the results we expect."

Except that they've been saying that for 20 or 30 years. How long before you send the voodoo priest home and call a doctor? Because nobody can point to a system that was unquestionably effective and could be copied by other districts. How do I know this without an exhaustive search? Because if somebody had made it work, we would all know what the template was. It would be widely reported, celebrated on the morning news shows and the print newsweeklies and publicized far and near. The very fact that we are still trying to re-jigger this seems to me like an engineer who is still trying to build a flying machine using flapping wings. Surely -- if we just get the wing size right...

And what's so particularly idiotic about persisting with this failed idea is the insulting and unconsidered assumptions that underlie it. That notion is that teachers are basically failures and slackers who flock to teaching for the compensation -- not perhaps the salaries, as most people acknowledge that salaries are relatively low for the level of education and training involved, but because of the security and fringe benefits. Once ensconced in a firm position at the public trough, teachers begin coasting and loafing until someone walks up with a fistful of cash to wave at someone who decides to actually try and do a good job. "Hey," we sluggards say collectively, "There's an idea -- actually teach something. Let's try it!"

What a load. I know most people dislike their jobs, but that is simply not true for more than 90% of teachers. Yes, there are probably some burnouts who are marking the calendar until retirement, but you would be stunned to know how few of them there are. I've never met one. There are some more experienced teachers who employ non-progressive methods of teaching, but that's not because they're trying to get away with the minimum effort.

And even the minimum effort of teaching is pretty difficult. For a person like me, who started teaching in his mid-to-late 40s, it's physically exhausting, and that's not a matter of controlling unruly classrooms. It's the long hours involved in preparation, research, creation of materials and reviewing and assessing student work. For me most days require at least 10 hours of work, leaving aside any extra-curricular projects I have, such as Drama Club. 12 and 14 hour days are not uncommon, especially when you're working on writing projects which require careful reading and comment. It can be grueling, especially around February and March. It can't be done without passion and commitment, or at the very least, the memory of it.

The mythology behind what should have been a harmless piece of fluff like the film Bad Teacher is based on the idea that any drunken, burned-out stumblebum can do this teaching thing without even breaking a sweat. Teachers are chumps and losers. To be honest, I haven't seen the film -- I avoided it -- so I can't analyze it, and certainly not without the perspicacity of this piece. (I know that films today have a lot of silly unbelievable junk in them, but it is hard to believe that in a film released in 2011, a teacher who has gone bad is punished for being involved with drugs by being sent to "Malcolm X High School." Translation -- a school full of those people. Disgusting.)

To be clear, I'm not lacking a sense of humor about teaching. I love School of Rock, in which Jack Black's goofy slacker finds his calling in teaching. But he brings passion to his work, and his teaching is actually a model of authentic-based instruction, in which students collaborate to accomplish a real-world goal. In a way, we should all aspire to be like that character.

But the broader idea behind Bad Teacher is the pernicious concept that the problem with education is teachers. Structural, social and economic problems apparently don't exist. We teachers just need to "bear down" a little harder and success would follow.

Again, anybody got any evidence for that? Or is this just another religious question?

We can argue what the solutions to deeply entrenched problems of society, culture and economic conditions. But I sure do know that you can't "teach around" them. You can't teach around the problem of a student who can't get homework done because he has no idea where he is going to eat and sleep each night due to chaotic family conditions. (This is not as uncommon as you would think.) Or a family which does not or will not support education as an important value. I've known children of very well-to-do families who refuse to do work because they've been guaranteed a situation in the family business. How do you "bear down" on that?

Mostly what's infuriating is that businesspeople and politicians are defining the problems and offering the solutions and excluding educators from the process. I didn't see the politicians telling GM how to build their cars, even as they were sending them hundreds of millions to stay in business. We don't let politicians design the bridges they levy taxes to construct. But somehow they (and everybody else) know more about education than the people involved in the practice every working day of their lives.

I picked the example at the beginning of this post with some thought. Because I actually do know someone who fixed a car with prayer. Years ago, as a traveling entertainer, my wife found herself in a broken-down van desperately trying to get to an Easter morning church service. As she tells it, she said, "I just want to go to church!" and on the word "church" her hand came down on the car. At once it started, and the startled members of her group jumped in the van and agreed they had better darn well get to church.

So, miracles can happen, I suppose. But depending on miracles is no way to build an educational system.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What do you think?

Is this video just a cheesy marketing ploy for Microsoft Word, or is it a way to get students to think of history as a chain of possible alternative actions and outcomes, not to mention a lesson in the value (and ease) of rewriting?

Either way, I wish they'd credited the theme from Parks and Recreation.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Infusing Poetry in Language Arts instruction Part II

This began with my post urging English teachers NOT to celebrate National Poetry Month in April, because that shunts poetry into a calendar-bound ghetto, whereas poetry should be freely roaming around your curriculum, lurking behind every pedagogical corner.

One of your obstacles will be the general resistance to poetry, or, to be more precise, to the way poetry was taught to your students in the lower grades. Too much emphasis was put on rhyme and other technical matters, and the subject matter tended toward nature and other harmless warm and fuzzy topics. It would be surprising to find an elementary school teacher presenting students with poetry that talked to where they really live.

Slam poetry is all about where we really live here and now. It is not interested in posterity. It is literally of the moment, of the moment it is being performed. Even now, into its second decade, there are not a great number of printed anthologies of slam poetry, any more than there are books of rap lyrics. Slam is primarily an aural medium, meant to be experienced, which brings the focus back to the aspect of poetry most greatly neglected in the 20th century. Poetry had become reflexive, self-referential and driven by academia. (The exception in the United States, were the new Black and Latino writers creating a poetry of the streets, designed to be shouted and chanted from the pavement up toward the sealed windows of the people who run things.)

Slam, on the other hand, was born and bred in a barroom and the critics are not academics, but audience members selected at random and given no criterion. The pressure is on for the slam poet to reach the listener immediately and have them like what they hear. Frank Loesser described song lyrics as being written on the side of a train which the audience has once chance to read as it goes by. So it is with Slam. No chance to reflect on the reference to Baudelaire and the significance of post-modernism. Get it now and it goes.

Simply put it, you must understand it -- at least some if not most of it -- on first hearing. This will appeal to your students. Also, it must have a performance rhythm and audience appeal; typically, this is the long upward build to a climax with a denouement, perhaps witty, wry or touching. Performance requires poetry to take a narrative shape, even if the purpose is not storytelling but reflection on a subject -- that narrative shape asserts itself in nearly all oral presentation.

And in New Jersey, and probably your state as well, oral presentation is part of your core curriculum. So forget about making it optional. All students must get up and slam. I leave it to you as to whether you require memorization, they all must speak before the others, learn how to speak clearly and evenly, to emphasize what is important, to vary the speed and the pitch of their speech. I know a lot of them will fight you on it, but it is teaching abuse to leave your students unequipped and afraid of public speaking. I've backed off in this area before for fear of traumatizing children, but I believe that was a mistake. Like other times and places when you must move your students out of their comfort zone, you can't bully and threaten them on this. You must persuade and cajole and coax. But you must insist and be firm. (My thought about memorization is to announce that it will be required, then let them use the paper on the day itself. This provides the benefits of both thorough and complete preparation of the text with relaxation and security during delivery which allows them to focus on the quality of what they are doing rather than the brute effort of recitation from memory.)

And there is the competition factor. My first principal, who is a superb teacher, was always skittish around competition and its negative aspects, which I need hardly recite here. But I believe that many of those negatives are mitigated here, as there is no built-in advantage for the brainiacs or the jocks in this competition. Most years there is at least one or two surprises as to who will excel at slamming. But one of the great values of competition is that it is its own intrinsic motivation. I rarely, if ever, offer prizes in classroom competitions. Pride of success is sufficient. Most young people cannot avoid wanting to compete any more than my cat can avoid jumping on a shiny thing that is moving. Some kind of atavistic impulse kicks in and, provided that they each believe they can be basically competent, they will try to do well at slam.

Getting them to a confidence about basic competence will take some time. Months, probably. You need to start adding the writing of poetry onto other writing assignments right away at the beginning of the school year. Have them add a poetic reflection to their five-paragraph essays. Have them do their classroom warm-up as poetry. Most of all, break the doggerel habit. Too many children are swamped by the tyranny of rhyme and meter and their expressive instincts have been completely suppressed. Find organizing principles other than rhyme, such as repetition, anaphora, antistrophe, alternation of long and short phrases, controlling metaphor and the like. Most of all, get them to write and not worry about the process and the devices much.

A side benefit of writing poetry -- by having to break thoughts and stories into lines and stanzas, they will gradually fall away from turning in prose in one single unbroken paragraph. Personally, I find unparagraphed so literally physically difficult to read, that I will hand such papers back and demand they be resubmitted with some divisions. Again, teaching in the lower grades has damaged them a great deal, and they thrash around fearing they have no topic sentences and that not all the sentences will support that, and generally write as if the chief end of writing was to be able to be outlined easily. As you can see by my style in this blog, I think this is hooey. The chief end of writing is, obviously, communication of (1) emotion; and (2) ideas. (3) Information is OK, but it is a lower order of writing, valuable to know but not aspirational.

How you organize your competition, your teams, selecting judges, involving other classes or other faculty, you are a far better judge than I. I can no more engineer your methodology than you mine. I am just here to be a cheerleader. But make sure that it is fun, that it is competitive, that is emphatic, that is strong, that it is real and true.

And this is authentic learning, in that slam competitions are going on each and every weekend, if not each night of the week, all across this country. As far as introducing your students to the ethos of slam, there are a number of videos on YouTube you could cull. Here's one example:

I would also suggest the very selective use of HBO's Def Poetry Jam -- but you MUST preview this, because unobjectionable material alternates in rapid sequence with very adult themes. I like to use excerpts from a documentary feature SlamNation which although more than a decade old and with some technical lapses, shows a lot of the great early stars of the medium (Taylor Mali, Saul Williams, Beau Sia), and presents the heat of battle well. And the film has a bleeped school-appropriate edition which can be ordered here. Another resource is the Russell Simmons miniseries Brave New Voices, which is too long for classroom use, but excerpts from which can be used to show actual high school students preparing for competition.

All of this is to prove that poetry is not for the faint of heart. It's not just for flowers and clouds and unicorns and rainbows. Although maybe it is for rainbows, because it is a powerful medium for all the colors of your classroom to be heard.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Breaking News: Pride is a better motivator than shame

We've all had those lunch room conversations about the million-dollar grants we'd like to get in order to prove that peanut butter is yummy or that up is different from down. A recent editorial in my local paper describes a study that might fall in that category, at least for most successful teachers and parents. Yet civic leaders and opinion makers never seem to catch on to this basic idea. The idea? If you want to mold behavior, shame doesn't work. I'll repeat that. Shame doesn't work. Pride works better. It's not perfect or complete. There is no infallible tool for the formation of character and setting students on the path toward success, but pride has a way better track record than shame.

Here's how one of the researchers described her experiment:
In one of our studies, we put three groups of subjects alone in a room with a very large piece of chocolate cake, the utensils to devour it and water. We told them they could eat as much or as little cake as they wished. But first, the members of one group were instructed to focus on the pride they would feel if they resisted the cake. Those in the second group were told to imagine the shame they would feel if they ate it, and the final (control) group was simply let loose, with no instructions at all.

We discovered that the study subjects who anticipated pride at resisting the cake consumed far less than those who focused on the shame of succumbing. They also ate less than the control group. In other words, when it comes to self-regulation, anticipated pride outperformed anticipated shame as well as unconsidered, heedless consumption.

That is, if you define the goal as "not eating tempting cake," then picturing yourself succeeding at that goal is a better strategy than imagining feeling ashamed. Translated into classroom terms, picturing yourself getting "A's" and receiving praise is a better motivator than trying to impress upon students the possibility and fear of failure, shame and punishment.

Think how powerfully that could be put to work in your classroom. I know I will try it in mine. I have found simple, brief meditation to be a good tool to help students to calm down and focus on the tasks to follow. Now in addition to the visualization of being relaxed and happy and calm and peaceful, I will add picturing being successful, being praised, feeling good, feeling proud of one's success and accomplishment.

Very simply ask them, "What would it feel like to get an A+ in that course? How good would that feel? Is that worth a few simple sacrifices?"

Anyway, it's something I plan to explore, and I always like to have a little academic verification to back me up.