Evaluation and The Betrayal of Learning

A necessary precursor to this post is the beautiful, romantic, and wholly human post that Carol Black wrote several years ago on the Evaluative Gaze of schooling and the effect it has on the human spirit to spend 7.5 hours a day under such surveillance.   What is the effect of knowing that we exist in a system that is constantly measuring us and whether we meet the “standard student” profile?  Such an evaluative gaze reinforces the “school as hospital” metaphor:  Students are “sick”, they need to be treated in order to “meet the grade” or to get to proficient/average (see Todd Rose on this–though I’m pretty sure most of us have seen it.  (And if we have, I next wonder…why are so few of us doing anything about it?)).  

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Learn

Let me give you an anecdote.  I spent a week at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in 2010,  in a cohort of college and HS teachers in a class called “Inquiry into the Essay.”  The first assignment we had was to read through 6 pages of definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary on the word “Essay.”  The impact of that exercise was lost on no one, because after reading them, we were asked to freewrite for 10 minutes on the patterns we noticed, on what surprised us.  Universally it was that only one of the definitions actually sounded anything remotely like what we have taught student an Essay is.  

I do this same exercise with my students before we engage in our first writing exercise.  I did it on Thursday with my students.  In my 10th period class when I asked students to share their observations, the first response was, “I feel betrayed.”  From there, the litany of complaints piled on.  And all of it. All of it! was tied to the fact that writing was always done for an evaluation.  Rarely was it done for any other purpose than “Writing to Demonstrate Learning.”  In my own classes, I tell students that we will strike an imbalance in our writing, as most of the writing we will do will be “writing to learn, to explore, to discover.” I will not “evaluate” anything, There peers and I wiill, however, assess constantly.  Assessment–feedback, discussion, hashing-out–is the only end of our work.  And isn’t this what we want from an audience, from mentors, from teachers?  A chance to enter into the intellectual discourse and to see ourselves not as equals, but as explorers on the same journey to self-discovery, just with different levels of experience? A chance to feel part of a learning community with “better” as the only goal/standard?

My own path has been such in many parts of my identity.  I am not a designer, but I think in designerly ways.  I am not a scientist, but I can think in scientific ways.  I am not an entrepreneur, but I can adopt an entrepreneur’s mindset.  So it is for students in my class.  While not all of them may see themselves as writers, they can learn to think in writerly ways, to approach the world with the same sense of inquiry and wonder as writers and to attempt, through language, to figure out what they are thinking and what they might learn from those questions and wonderings that could be useful, insightful to others, even if it is just themselves.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

And what has it done to my classroom to remove the “evaluative gaze” Carol Black has so beautifully detailed here? (She used to write for the TV show, The Wonder Years.). First is a massive shift in the culture.  My students are no longer up till 12AM sweating out their final drafts (which for many was a 1 1/2 draft).  They are not getting their papers back, looking at a grade, and losing the paper amidst the physical din of a notebook or disorganized google drive.  They are engaging with each other in discussions of craft and inquiry and learning that are real and genuine and appreciative.  They come to see themselves as a community of readers, writers, speakers and listeners, engaged in a curious, wonderful, and often intriguing if not always engaging search for meaning.  

Is it always this way?  Not always. No classroom is a Utopia, and Carol Black, a staunch home/unschooler, would say that the very institution of school itself, even absent grades, has a gaze we cannot escape.  However, the culture of our classroom creates a community that is far removed from the classrooms I remember and hear about…classrooms where rote learning and predetermined lessons about what should be retained and what is most important create learning expectations for students that are alien to their own lives; classrooms that remove the joy and wonder of discovery from their lived experience so that an efficiency can be applied to learning that makes the task easier for the teacher, for the system.

This shift away from grades entails no loss of rigor, for those prescriptive traditionalists amongst you.  In fact, we still hold ourselves to standards, still understand the end of most writing is to communicate with clarity, beauty, and understanding.  We don’t need grades to enforce compliance, to measure the humans in our classroom like so many meat puppets.  

And this is all premised on the simple act of grading…a task for which most teachers never had a class, never studied in any depth, never, for most of us (myself included for 20 years) actually really questioned.  It’s just the way we’ve always done things.

(*For more on this topic, the recent Washington Post article on the work being done by Scott Looney and the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a clarion call. Also, check out the brilliant work being done at One Stone and how they shape the Learning Experience around their Growth Transcript and Disruption BLOB. Also, visit Teachers Going Gradeless. )

Writerly Ways of Being

I’ve spent the better part of my life helping young adults become better writers. In all that time there has been no exercise, no trick, no clear and easy path to a better final draft. Sure, I can point to easy tweaks to tighten up writing like “Focus first on verbs–strong, specific verbs create stronger, tighter writing.” But on the whole (and I’m not saying anything new here) don’t look for startling insight from me on this) the work of improving writing is a process that is multi-faceted and intricate. It takes time. It takes focus and wandering/Wonder and Rigor. It takes patience. And while these are all things we can ask of our students, what’s more important is that we, the teachers, must own and offer the same.

And while it is the most precious of the commodities listed above, nothing is more important to writers than time. Sure, I think kids should be writing things every day in every classroom. But the kind of Writerly use of time I’m talking about is more than that. I’m talking about time spent writing even when one doesn’t know what to write about–writing to think.

Peter Elbow

For me, the greatest exercise in writing to think that I’ve ever encountered is Freewriting. Popularized (though not “invented”) by Peter Elbow in the 1970s and a technique my 11th grade English teacher taught us in 1984, I have never looked away from freewriting. Elbow’s insistence on writing simply to see what we are thinking, to get all the junk out of the way, to reveal the good pieces of thought, and work with them until we refine, shape, and better understand what we mean is just good cognitive practice. It’s a type of beneficial rumination…something that helps us develop a “Writerly way of being.”

This “Writerly way of being” is a term I’ve turned to for the past 6 years. I’m borrowing the sentiment of it from the work of the British design researcher Nigel Cross. Cross wrote widely and passionately about the need for the English schooling system to develop classes in design. His book, “Designerly Ways of Knowing” is one aspect of that work. That we can think/know in designerly ways indicates something of the very nature of human beings. We are designers by birth. We seek to act with intention to solve problems in our everyday lives, for ourselves and others.

The use of the adverb, “designerly,” then, indicates something about the mode of knowing. And it was abundantly clear to me that what had driven me to read about design in the first place–the similarity of its iterative nature and processes to the writing process itself–was a clear indication that if I could develop “Designerly Ways of Knowing” I could certainly help my students develop “Writerly ways of being.” And the first step in that is to write, a lot.

And there are other steps. I’ll direct you to others who have written and researched far more than I have on this: Donald Graves, Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins, Ralph Fletcher, and poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Walt Whiman and others. They’ve lived full lives engaged in developing writerly minded beings–their own as well as those they teach. And all of them recognize either directly or indirectly the necessity of unencumbered, unplanned time as invaluable to the writer’s being.

And this is not a capitalist interpretation of time. We are not concerned with the passage of time and the counting of coins gained or lost. Instead, we, as teachers, must be concerned with a different kind of capital, a soulful, courageous capital…a capital of beauty, if such can even enter into our accounting of how time passes and is experienced in our classrooms. The Poets are instructive here… In her widely anthologized poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver “accounts” for this use of idling in this way:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,

And one could not speak of idling and the necessity for “deep time” without speaking of America’s greatest “Loafer,” Walt Whitman who “leaned and loafed” at his ease, “observing a spear of summer grass.” Who admitted quite publicly how much he loved to loaf and watch, how he “enjoy[ed] so much seeing the busy world move by him,” and exhibiting itself for his amusement, while he takes it easy and just looks on and observes.

If being writerly means loafing, observing, and bathing in deep time, but our most rigorous classes and most of our college preparatory classes demand soulless, technically correct writing because…? Because we think this is what colleges are looking for? Well, surely we note the conflict here.

The other day I was working with a student on his drafts of short essays for the common app. Both essays were on interesting topics: Astronomy, Drumming. Both were clear and correct. And both failed in achieving their promise. At first I struggled with expressing my disconnect. And then it struck me: Both pieces were technically correct. The problem was, both pieces were technically correct. We’d taught this student, and he’d learned very well how to achieve the lie of objectivity, but he struggled with the truth of subjectivity, the very heart of moving, powerful writing.

So how, in a curriculum packed with “stuff” (for that’s what most of it is), how do we find the “deep time” to allow students to loaf, observe, and fall down on their knees in the grass? Given our current predicament–The COVID-19 pandemic–I’d say we need to look at what we’ve been doing and consider seriously a deep revision of what we have in our overpacked, ridiculous curriculum maps. One popular article that would help towards this end plays off a pop-culture sensation and asks us to, “Marie Kondo the Curriculum.

But let’s say we don’t have that autonomy. We’re too far in already to back out. (I’d argue that’s never the case, but I do recognize the safety one seeks in padded, blanketed curricula.). What can we do then?

Well, one of the best ways I know of to have writers pause and observe them there, to try on the mind of the writer, is a specialized form of freewriting called “Process Writing.” I first encountered process writing in one of my countless trips to Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. (Their professional development in the field of writing is unparalleled.)

In Process Writing, which is also the title of a brilliant chapter by Prof. Alfie Guy in the Institute’s book, Writing Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions, students produce drafts for revision and publication, but never without first writing about their process. That is, each draft is accompanied by a “cover letter…that describes where the text feels solid and where they would like more help.” A solid assignment for a first Process Write might address thes three questions:

–What were you trying to accomplish in this essay?
–Where did you have success and where did you run into trouble?
–What would you do next if you were to work more on this piece?

The perspective flip here is startling to many students. They’ve never written in this way before. Never done more than turn in the results, the products of their process. Rarely, if at all, have any of them thought about how they wrote and why writing about their writing might be something valuable.

Since I have used process writing, the level and depth of my student’s growth as writers is palpable. It pervades the entire community of the classroom. When we think as writers and about ourselves as writers, when we adopt “Writerly Ways of Being,” we shift from passengers in a body asked to labor with words to authors of our own stories, owners of opinions and thoughts with value far beyond a grade.

And that, is a fine way to be.

Just a bit on Joy…and Boy

You know, at 52, and as a teacher of HS-aged students, I look back at my own HS years sometimes with sanguine eyes, and others with embarrassment. No one is, in their aging, any different. Our history is always a story in revision. And sometimes, sometimes that revision is one where we have to forgive ourselves for the quick and ignorant judgments of youth.

To whit…As a teenager, I had had just about enough of Boy George and Culture Club after about one week. I found the entire experience cloying. But this “naked/acoustic” version of Boy singing a different rendition of “Karma Chameleon”…well, I find that he and the song have aged well, like a wine that, at first, was too sweet, too upfront, but which, with time, has mellowed.

Comparing Boy’s look now to the image of him as a young adult in the 80s…It’s beautifully comforting to recognize our capacity for change, and yet also recognize that we retain so much of who we were. It is just differently placed. For example, the smile he flashes as he moves into the chorus and elsewhere. It’s a sublime expression of being in two places at once: Here (now) and there (past).

Sure, I know this is perception. That I, too, have changed. I know that the song is still pure pop candy. But, and perhaps this is why I teach, the recognition of joy on his face as he moves through the song…? Is there any expression in the realm of human experience more holy than joy? That flash in the eyes, the pull of the smile, in which we recognize someone is so “in their element” that action is fluid and emanates from a wellspring deeper and more mysterious than we will ever know.

Bill Lyon: An Homage, of Sorts.

cole-hamels-cubsI learned today of the passing of one of the great sportswriters of any time.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bill Lyon deserved far more accolades than he ever received.  In my estimation, he represented the tail end of the great sportswriters of the early to mid-twentieth century.

Though slowed in his later years by Alzheimer’s, Lyon’s work, even about his battle with “Al”, was a pure pleasure to read, and something I used many times in my English classroom.

Below is my homage to his skill, written in 2009 during the second year of the Phillies magical run at two pennants.

I will miss your talent, Bill.  They don’t make ’em like you anymore.

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Bill Lyon (center) in the Inquirer newsroom, circa 1990  (from inquirer.com)

(*I wrote the following as an e-mail to my middle school colleagues.)

“You might remember last year when I sent around an e-mail regarding poetry in everyday language.  It would have been around this time (actually, it was 10/27/08), and I referenced a line from retired Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon.  Bill had described Cole Hamels’ delivery to the plate as “a lawn chair unfolding, a gangling tangle of loose limbs that flummox hitters.”

Cole’s chair is a bit rusty this year, but Cliff Lee?  Well that’s another story, and Bill’s written another entry for your “poetry in everyday language” folder.

“Tenderly he rakes the dirt with his cleats, windmills both arms three vigorous times, turns to face second base, and fires a phantom pitch there.

“Then, ritual complete, he turns around and sets about turning the Los Angeles Dodgers around.  Also, inside out.  And every which way but loose.

[Here’s the simile…you knew it was coming.]

“Cliff Lee pitches like a man late for a date.

“Get the ball.  Throw the ball. Swing and miss. Next.

“Rawboned and lanky, the hired lefthanded gun of the Phillies, on this gelid October evening is seeking to get his team halfway to the World Series, and they oblige by presenting him with four runs of Thunder Ball in their very first at-bats.”

Gelid?????  Come on!  When was the last time you saw that word in the sports section!  I wouldn’t be surprised if Lyon wasn’t chomping on cigars, filling out the box scores, and telegraphing in his story, like they did back in the day:  Grantland Rice, Red Barber, Bill Lyon—that’s his family tree.

And while I risk turning this simple, beautiful observation into a homily, I’ll say that what we can learn from baseball, Phillies baseball particularly, is that sometimes, all that effort, all that struggle, all the waiting, the slow pace of the game that so irks today’s “hit ‘em hard, play it fast” crowd… what we can learn is it all pays off in the end.  Just so with Mr. Lyon.  Slow down, take the time, enjoy the story.  There’s more to the game than the stats and the final score you get “tweeted” to your hip in bulleted points.  Attention to the craft, to the crafting of words … it’s the same as working a 3-2 count from an 0-2 start.  And once you’re there, Bill Lyon hits a homerun most every time.

Kodak Moments

Like many children who grew up before the advent of digital photography, I inherited numerous, neatly labeled shoeboxes full of what pop culture used to call “Kodak Moments”—real, tangible photographs, snapshots of my family processed and printed on photographic paper via the local Fotomat.  These artifacts, talismans of light and time captured by kodachrome and chemically fixed on paper, represent an archive of my life. Now 47, I’ve taken to going back to these snapshots to search for proof of my existence, to relive old stories, and to hold, if only metaphorically, a moment in time when I was younger, and full of wonder at the newness of the world.

fotomat post card_tatteredandlost

As a child, I would watch my grandmother spend her afternoons similarly searching for her own histories in piles of black and white photos from her childhood in Germany and her early adult years in Brewerytown, Philadelphia.  Showered by sunlight filtered through a high window and the leaves of a tall maple, she would sit, half-on, half-off her bed, photos spread out like an extra-blanket, reading, sorting, and resorting the photographs until she ran out of the stories to retell herself.  

Tracing an arc from my grandmother, through my childhood and now to my own family, I have grown into and out of so many shoebox archives that I’ve lost count.  Their size and number shifted with deaths and births until one day we stopped keeping them.

That day coincided with my purchase of a digital camera.  

I’ve since replaced the shoeboxes with virtual folders full of more pictures than I can count in a day.  Instead of spreading our photos out on a bed and moving them physically from one configuration to the next, we project them onto a large HD TV and praise the quality of the colors, the sharpness of the pixels.

And for all the convenience of the form, all the ease of printing and digital burning and dodging, for all that, I’m still drawn to the warmth and limitations of the physical snapshots over the flawless manipulations of digital photography.   Life is not perfect, at least not as perfect as it appears in digital photographs where the press of a button increases the “saturation” or the simple shift of a slider can alter the contrast or add more “warmth.” Rather, I believe life is full of fuzzily-focused thoughts, dimly lit understandings, awkward smiles, clumsy postures and poorly framed ideas. It is these errors and mistakes we laugh at and learn from which populate so many of our shoebox snapshots.

While I understand that all photos are mere pieces of larger stories and that most public photos from the pre-digital age underwent manipulations of their own, I believe the photos of the small cameras of our yesteryears, like the Brownie of my grandmother’s age or my own “Kodak Hawkeye 110” with its slim build and clunky flashbulbs, are a truer representation of who we were.  I believe in the photo-chemical marvel that was the old-school photograph and the errant, erratic beauty of lives captured in Kodak Moments.