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. )

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.

Why Design: Reading and Writing the World.

 

 

I was/am an English major.

The confusion in verb tense stems from a shift in how I act within the world. For years I buried my head in books. Fictional worlds allowed me to explore a myriad of human experiences I would never have had the chance to understand outside the covers of books. I spent years in college honing my skills at reading these worlds, divining the author’s deeper motives (if such is even possible) and understanding the intentionality at the heart of writing.


Head over to www.plusus.org/our-thoughts/ to read the rest.

Ambition, Discovery: Writing, and Teaching, and Learning

gustaveflaubert1

I’ve recently read more than my share of blog posts and articles on “Writing as Discovery.”  The sense is not new, of course, but the renewed (if that’s what it is) interest in writing towards these ends is refreshing.

As a teacher for almost 25 years, and an attendant at numerous conferences or workshops at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, my pedagogical quiver contains scores of methods for engaging students in writing to learn or writing as discovery.  This is informal writing, and primary among the methods I use is freewriting as a means for writing to think, and writing to learn.  It’s all about writing as discovery and the methods all rely on a mindset of “just getting it down.”

I’ve read Paul Thomas’s post about the dangers of “writing recipes,” and I appreciate the description of his process.  I suppose one thing to admit if we’re going to dive into writing and discovery with our students is that we as teachers must also be writers and see ourselves in that light. Further, we need to immerse ourselves in the scholarship surrounding creativity and creative production.  Doing so will give us a familiarity with the creative act (and writing of all types is, certainly, creative) and, more important, the vocabulary with which to discuss the act.

My goal as a teacher is not to create writers.  By the time students get to me they have enough facility with language for me to call them writers (ie., people capable of writing).  But if I’m going to get them to see themselves as more than writers in a utilitarian sense, if I want them to believe they can use writing to affect deep thought and emotion in their audience, then I have to teach them how to think in “writerly ways.” (With this term I’m riffing off of Nigel Cross’s work in the UK and his promotion of Design as a discipline for study and the creation of “designerly minded” learners.)   That is, I have to help them develop the mindset and questioning techniques of writers.  Any teacher who seeks to accomplish such must see herself as a writer in that sense as well.  In that, she must be one of the “teachers of ambition” who not only “teach English” but who live the lives of writers:  watching, observing, and questioning the world in intensely curious ways…in  manners similar to scientists, but who report on their findings in ways utterly different than scientists.  (Though seriously, it’s freakishly frightening that our theories of the end of the universe are that it will expand into a cold, whimpering “emptiness” and T.S. Eliot writes more or less the same (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”).

So if it’s teaching writing as discovery, then I’m making sure I’m constantly doing PD (BARD!!!!!) in writing pedagogy. I’m reading books like Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing (a personal favorite by Ray Bradbury); any books on writing Pedagogy like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, A Community of Writers; books on the creative process like A Whack on the Side of the Head, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (both by Roger von Oech), Thinkertoys, Five Star Mind, A Whole New Mind, and countless others.  And, of course, countless articles, etc.

To my teacher friends, perhaps it isn’t all that helpful, to say, go read all these things, go shift your weltanschauung.  But seriously, regardless of what you teach, if you’re not intensely curious about it, then you ought not teach it.  And students know this.  They know that the best teachers of a subject, the ones who go beyond the content and who craft a compelling story about why living a life that reads and writes the world through a mindset of science, math, words, etc…those are the teachers who transfer the sparks of passion, who offer learning as a gift and not a mere duty.  And that gift grows in the student, for they begin to discover their world expanding through mathematical patterns, scientific processes, musical harmonies, or words…”mere words.”

But maybe the best way to teach writing as discovery is to just share our own writing with students, to show them where we discovered things and how that happened.  To turn the classroom into a congregation worshiping at the miracle of creation, whatever form that creation may take.  For me, it is words, and not merely their consumption through reading books.  My classroom is a place to marvel at the utterly unique pairings, juxtapositions, and random wonders of words in all the varied forms and structures we have created.  It is a place to linger over those forms and structures, and to revel in the joy of new forms of expression we discover along the way towards a better understanding of who we are as human beings.

Advice to a Young Writer(?)

Image

 

Quotefancy-2806954-3840x2160We set writing goals for the semester and year in my classroom.  Many students set a goal of “organization” or “focus.”  These are natural goals for any writer, but what I often find is that they are masks for “I want to write more efficiently.  I want to write right the first time.”  Below is one such goal, and my response to it.

(Of course, I am not the only English teacher in the world, in all of time, who has sought to counsel such students, but this is my student, and this is my response…with strong thanks to my mentors:  Mark R., my 11th grade American Lit. teacher who introduced me to Freewriting and gave me his copy of Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power; Bard College’s “Institute for Writing and Thinking” where I have grown more as a writer and teacher of writing than any place else; and to Mr. Peter Elbow himself, in whom I’ve found a mentor and kindred spirit.)

“My goal for the marking period is to organize my writing better. I need to focus on putting my thoughts out in a clear format that makes sense and is in order. This means leaving out pointless information and recognizing the sequence that the paragraphs should be in. I’m really interested in working on creative writing or writing poetry, and it would help if I was able to write in a succinct manner in my writing without having to redo entire sections. I can recognize a lot of mistakes in writing, but the sequence of ideas is not one. My thoughts are sporadic, so are my ideas in writing. So my goal is to try and organize my thoughts in my writing so that a can write something that makes sense.”  –E….

E…,

I admire this goal as it seeks to discover a means for writing that is “easier.”  I’ll reply with a quotation attributed to, among others, Ernest Hemingway, one of our great writers of the 20th century:  “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

If you want to get things done and just be done with them and not worry about the quality of your thoughts or the craft of your words, then writing is easier than bleeding.  Organizationally the trick is to come up with some key ideas (Claims you want to make) organize them around a central thesis, and organize their order from least important to greatest, or from closest to most distant, (or vice versa, depending upon the topic), or order them from self, to community, to world.  Or from oldest to newest.  There are even more ways…but those are the key ones.  See, it’s easy, just like I said.  😉  But remember, that doesn’t take the measure of the quality of your ideas or the quality of your writing.

writing-is-no-respecter-of-blueprints-quote-1
The hard truth, however, is that nothing great was ever written with ease.  It is always a struggle, or perhaps a learning to dance with our selves and who takes the lead.  Perhaps that’s cold comfort to you and your goal, but the upshot is this:  to get better at writing, you must write, and not for a grade, but you must write for yourself, to please yourself.  If your writing is boring to you it will be so to the reader.  To do this well, you must find your voice.  To find your voice, you must write.  And so you’ve circled back. But none of this is unfamiliar to any artist.  And writing is an art–you must find your own way through it.  Here is one way to conceive of the act….

Peter Elbow breaks the writing process into two parts, “Growing” and “Cooking.”  One does not grow ideas and concepts in direct and linear ways, in ways that are totally organized as they leave the pen.  It is an organic process, like the growth of a vine of peas.  It wanders, meanders, finds new pathways…but it is always rooted in one place to begin…though it may find new roots elsewhere.  Only when that growth has been given time and distance can it bear fruit which we then take and “cook” under the heat of editing, organization, and pruning back all our wandering meandering ideas.  This will allow us to strengthen our original idea (the vine) and promote more growth.

That’s a lot to get, but it’s important to understand writing, at least in my class, as a craft, not a science.  I’m teaching you to write for learning, not write to demonstrate learning.  In AP Human or AP Gov/Euro you’ll write a lot…but most of that is artless writing to demonstrate learning or simply to rehearse ideas and cement learning (as writing is a good way to do that).  That’s not what I’m about in this class, though I will teach you simple ways to go about it.

Right now you simply need to spend the time upfront to develop and grow your ideas, find your center(s) of gravity(ies) and then work toward pruning and editing and reorganizing.  

If beauty is not skin deep, then beautiful writing is also not superficial.  

 In the end, I will urge you to follow this goal you’ve set, but only with the understanding that growing ideas is painstaking, heartbreaking, joyous, amazing, time-consuming work that requires a full-bodied attention to the world and the works around you.  It is hard, but good, honest, rewarding work.  All humans deserve to devote the time and effort to these rewards.

Such I will grant you in this class.