"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Writing Instruction Grounding Social Control

Those of us who have been teachers and/or wannabe authors before everyone was an author (see the note yesterday re: artists)--I know I'm treading on my commoner sensibility here, always a tension in me--remember there is a book by William Zinsser called On Writing Well.  I'll confess that I own it and yet have never read it.  When I was in the classroom I preferred the work of Peter Elbow (Writing Without Teachers) for some reason that I can't discover in my copies of his books.  I think there was a freedom to be always in the wrong with Elbow while Zinsser gave me the sense that I had to "do it right."  Just think of the differences implied in the titles above.  But do challenge me on this as these are days gone long by.

I went through a period where I bought "how to" books on writing and publishing: Rust Hills is funny and incisive, but I just read his work like it was a newspaper column, it amused me for the nonce but became more permanent if used in paper mache; Donald Murray, too practical for me--that is too much practice!; Natalie Goldberg--what are "bones" exactly and how do I write with them in any direction, down or up (but this coincided with my "Shambhala" phase as well as I tried to mimic Salinger's Seymour and follow Vedanta)?; John Gardner, another era and smeared as a plagiarist; Lucy Calkins surely was too precious for me; and Richard Rhodes, well, his book on writing is really just an autobiography--but still he offers the best piece of advice ever given. And probably most laughable for me in terms of my absolute, clearly absolute, "American" effort and intention to achieve success by reading about something instead of doing something about that thing: I bought, on the discovered suggestion of William Gass (an onanistic ACROBAT of a writer who should never give anyone advice on writing) I think in a pamphlet for a special library collection of the books which were most influential to his authorial becoming, from a used bookstore not far from The Tivoli Theater on Delmar in University City, Missouri, a rather nice copy of George Saintsbury's A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day, 1906.  I'm sure it accompanied me to the water closet a time or two.

That advice shared by Rhodes was actually advice given to him from a newspaper editor: "Rhodes, apply ass to chair."  A newspaper man...these authors, authorities, many of them, if not all, were working stiff writers.  They were forced by their professional livelihoods to "apply ass to chair" and produce coherent sentences every hour of every day!

And so, wisdom, be attentive: you must write to be a writer.  That is, you must do the work of writing...a lot.

To me, the most inspirational book on the work of writing is Donald Hall's Life Work which I suggest you apply as a "soul poultice" once you have traveled with me through the work of Peg Tyre on display as "The Writing Revolution" in the October 2012 Atlantic Monthly.  (She too, like Amanda Ripley, has a "social science" instruction manual about the "right way" to do things for sale.)

***

A quick note prior to setting off down the river of elucidation that follows.  Who are these brilliant pedagogical reformers who claim in every other sentence that their methods are "research-" and "evidence-based" (akin to Amanda Ripley claiming she studies human behavior)?  The folks here are all employees of interested institutions and individuals.  Again, as this is the only industry "thriving" at present, I am not surprised at the "gold rush" mentality in the charter movement and in the extension of "leadership" ideology to the corporate/academic hybrid "centers" of education.

Nell Scharff--Director of the Center for Education Leadership at Baruch College (in partnership with New Visions in Public Schools--an organization serving to "farm club" "leaders" into school systems).
Diedre DeAngelis--Principal of New Dorp High School--one of New Visions "partner schools." All of her training and career is in Special Education.
Steve Graham--Prof in the Ed Department at ASU--all of his work is in Learning Disabilities.
Arthur Applebee--The Center on English Learning & Achievement at the University of Albany.
Judith Hochman--The Hochman Project.   A focus on a formula centering on the words, "but, because, and so."  The Project is also run by Nell Scharff.
Peg Tyre--her bio with the article says she's the director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation.  In other words, this piece is strategic and self-interested.

(I expand a bit below on the preponderance of careers in learning disabilities and special education that seem involved in this revolution.)

I'll have to admit that my current dead mentor, Morse Peckham, might find all of this tip-top and dandy.  He, along with a colleague at UPenn, created their own method of reading poems that started with a very diagrammatic understanding of the structural relations of words in sentences.  This is published as Word, Meaning, Poem.  I recommend this.  I suppose we must say, yes, but, what happens after you learn to write "persuasive" sentences?  Is there any "ethical" content in them?

This is my gut feeling--that the training of writers has been discovered to have some kind of corollary to a controlling mechanism--that the CONTENT now becomes extremely IMPORTANT as one internalizes the "data" that is used in "sentence" training.

***

Here's the point sitting underneath Tyre's point in this article: Education is about the only viable "market" or "industry" going in this country.  (This includes the polemical texts of the authors on display in The Atlantic and being plugged for sale .)

We don't make anything and we don't do anything.  We talk a lot and a lot of that talk is nonsense and incoherent.
For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man. (HDT)
We watch television and movies and youtube videos of talking dogs and anything that is "incongruent," still mostly "jack-asses" hurting themselves (cue "nut-punch") or offering up their "dignity."  (Though a raving, narrow-minded blowhard now, Dennis Miller did have a fantastic joke about this aspect of culture--seeded many moons ago but springing up to a kind of "nationalism" that the Japanese seem to have exceeded us in of late--"Let's make a deal host Monty Hall stumped the entire audience by offering cash to anyone who could produce an ounce of dignity.")

Sub-point: Common Core State Standards is a product that folks "in the know" (these, in this case, are "progressives," though the method is anything but) approve of for the educational market.

Sub-sub: You really don't get to have a say.  But you have never had a say in how and what your kids were taught anyway (unless you homeschool).

***

The problem for me here is that I want to be honest when trying to convey the content of this piece.  I want to say that there are many things in here I would agree with BUT...and I've lost you.  The "but" I want to offer is that none of this is new and that it never is.  So, these ideas have always "played" and many of us believe that much of this can be used and that teaching using these tools CAN work.  BUT, this is not what the article (nor Tyre's book) is really selling.

I might propose that reformers (especially well-paid foot soldiers for the masters at The Atlantic and the other oligarchs in DC and NYC) simply aim to require that your tax money be used to buy new curricular content and implement "new" teaching methods, and this is most easily done by hiring "new" cheaper labor to enforce the top-down hierarchically proper curriculum.  An added bonus is that this "order" entirely undercuts any "local" input into education.  States are requiring a "common" core of content and this will be implemented by lock-step rule-followers that we are calling "training cadres" (at least in one state).

Rather, I might observe that this is the consequence of what is a full frontal attack on existing structures and organizations that have been "doing" our learning.  This is my surmise.

Or, I might say, this is good stuff, at least initially.

***

However, it seems just as easy to say that many of these folks do indeed want to "fix" education by "fixing" particular pedagogies and the carriers of those methods, i.e. the teachers.  That is, many of these reformers want to apply "systems approaches" to the classroom and school and they need all parties to be properly trained for that.  And proper and disciplined training is the key.  I only wish there were more honesty in how this is sold.  The fact that all citizens are coerced into "formal" education undercuts any discussion about "freedom" and "liberty" in this country.  Even a good progressive like John Stuart Mill, while agreeing that the state must check up on the "results" of state-funded education, insisted that state have ZERO say in the what and how (excepting of course the "basics" of literacy and numeracy).  Of course now is the time when all chime in about 21st Century skills.  Do tell, what has changed for the laboring class except the fact that there isn't one?

Recall that slave-owners in this country were adamant that a slave should NOT be taught to read.  Why?  Well, I'm sure there are many belittling reasons, but one is that reading would allow one to know OTHER opinions that couldn't be HEARD on the plantation.  Such as there being support in OPPOSITION to slavery (which we should note is called, rightly, an "institution").

One of the difficulties in thinking through any of this is that the social managers have as their goal the proper management of the proper order as they conceive of it.  Their ideas serve, well, themselves.  Even if we might (generously) contend they have "good hearts" and really want to see children "succeed."  That is, succeed in the way appropriate to the cultural presumptions of social managers.

***

What Peg Tyre conveys, finally, is, interestingly, an actual "revolution."  One definitional aspect being: "a procedure or course, as if in a circuit, back to a starting point."

Of course, as the circle is our geometrical truth, though we insist on privileging the boxing square, this is only natural.  From the article comes our Common Core rationale for the "revolution" in education.
Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.
(Would it surprise you to know that Prof Graham has spent his entire career, a long and distinguished one, and, as he points out again and again on his CV, productive, in the management of the educational environment for those considered learning disabled?  It's a fact that I find incredibly revealing as to the "orientation" of our "experts" as they apply their work to our population at large.)

It would be hard to argue against the erroneous order of asking for "creativity" prior to mechanics.  Again, you see that we will agree on many particulars.

Coleman, the Common Core, Nell Scharff, New Visions and all those involved in "centering" educational leadership are attempting to run the movie Pleasantville in reverse.  Perhaps Coleman, in offering his own version of Obama's "God and Guns" comment, revealed the true animus of this reform:
...Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication. “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he famously told a group of educators last year in New York.
We are still being subject to the conservative and cultural backlash against 60s idealism.  This includes a Rights movement yielding real human achievement in justice that has been systematically dismantled as soon as it was constructed.  Coleman offers the standard conservative line--who cares how you feel?; but more, well, surprising, is the inclusion of "what you think" in there as well.

Further, the majority of the "reform" is aimed at the fact that the country's population needs better social management.  That is to say, the coherence of America as an "ideal" has crumbled for many among us due to many things but not least a corporate economic structure that has, as obviously as the operation of a grain auger, pulled out all the wealth of the country and moved it off-shore.  That corporate structure was the very MATERIAL counter-statement to the IDEAL dreams (dreams!) of the 60s "counter-culture."  Note the CULTURE was and is MATERIAL and in that way has been and always will be REAL and dominant.

But, and here's the tricky part, the pedagogy is sound per Rhodes advice above as well as the first sentence of the Thoreau quotation ("For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.")  What must be made more clear to all is that this is a training environment and training has nothing to do with "freedom."  The basics in literacy are "trainable" surely--just as 2+2 is 4 without calculation so can the identification of subject and predicate be--but this seems to beg the "content and container" question, one akin to chicken or egg.  As Morse Peckham has indicated, mathematics is empty of content, but extremely useful being capable of "containing" any meaning.  The formulae of speech parts might be seen to fulfill this same function.

This training pedagogy--like any behavior-directed method--seeks to inculcate and habituate.  Perhaps we will readily agree that without proper habits, without proper discipline, we are afloat and rudderless coursing with dangerous speed southward on the Big Muddy.  But what is the what (a la Eggers) of this training?

***

What can literature teach us?  Everything and nothing!  We are the "preceptors" as much as "receptors" of meaning in that humans must be taught by responding and "observing" what comes next.  That is, the response may be "random" and the return response may be conventional (proper, culturally appropriate).  The conventional response is a "policing" act.  A random and inappropriate response will be "corrected."  The application of convention is an application of cultural force--an assertion of what is "right" and should be "replicated."

Let's look at a section of a book that has long been "curricular" but has also long been "contentious" as a proper text for the education of "right" citizenship.  Recently this book has been reproduced for the educational market excised of offensive words, well, one word: "nigger."  Can the excision of a word make the world a kinder, gentler, more caring place?  No.  But it can change the past (and he who controls the past...).  You might have guessed already that I'm talking about Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This novel is full of rebellion.  That is it's key element--it's real strength.  Huck on the river is a free human and he spends most of the book standing against "proper" civilization.  It is one of the travesties of "education" and our cultural interpretation that we "judge" a book based on its transcription of a word that bears the load of a cultural bigotry that was PROPER and appropriate.  The common and casual use is descriptive of how the world was socially managed.  I have written more abou this in "True Education: Huck's River..."

I know this falls outside of David Coleman's advised "informational texts" to be used to teach "proper" analytical skills, but hey, I'm an old man and past training (except by force, of course, thank you "at will" employment).

But perhaps you will allow it me if I present this "anecdotal" evidence for support.  In his "The Morality of Scientific Technology" Paul Goodman notes that Norbert Weiner, the "father" of cybernetics (feedback systems!) "used to point out that the repetition of communication just increases the noise; in general, he said, there is more new information in a good poem than a scientific report."

As Norbert and Goodman have my back, here are some ideas about reforming a body from Huck Finn.

From Chapter 1:


   Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try to not do it any more. That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.

From Chapter 6:
   He kept me with him all the time, and I never got a chance to run off. We lived in that old cabin, and he always locked the door and put the key under his head nights. He had a gun which he had stole, I reckon, and we fished and hunted, and that was what we lived on. Every little while he locked me in and went down to the store, three miles, to the ferry, and traded fish and game for whisky, and fetched it home and got drunk and had a good time, and licked me. The widow she found out where I was by and by, and she sent a man over to try to get hold of me; but pap drove him off with the gun, and it warn't long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it -- all but the cowhide part.
   It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study. Two months or more run along, and my clothes got to be all rags and dirt, and I didn't see how I'd ever got to like it so well at the widow's, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular, and be forever bothering over a book, and have old Miss Watson pecking at you all the time. I didn't want to go back no more. I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn't like it; but now I took to it again because pap hadn't no objections. It was pretty good times up in the woods there, take it all around.  
How shall we analyze this?  Huck is one of the best people in all of literature.  Can we make more of him?  

***

One other necessary item of which me must be aware (if you are not already): this is also a concerted attack on the "left" perspective of the "dispossessed."  Tyre's article takes a pot-shot at academic training of educators by trying to undermine the "usefulness" of "sixtiesism."  

Apparently all those hours of studying "leftist texts" really did a number on our "teacher training" institutions.  (I went through one of these programs in the early-90s and I can assure you there was very little talk of oppression.) Tyre makes this egregious ideological claim--as if our constant victors, the white and wealthy among us have had their hard-working values undermined by the pedagogy of the oppressed indigenous cultures.  
Back on Staten Island, more New Dorp teachers were growing uncomfortably aware of their students’ profound deficiencies—and their own. “At teachers college, you read a lot of theory, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but don’t learn how to teach writing,” said Fran Simmons. How could the staff backfill the absent foundational skills their students needed in order to learn to write?
How could we let Paulo Friere insinuate his ideology of being oppressed into our Golden Land?  Please seek out some information on Freire--note that the institute that bears his name is dedicated to social justice and not the marketing of educational products and methods.

This, to me, is an indication of the ideology at work underneath all of this.  If we can properly train our underclass there will be greater social control.

You see, it seems very clear to me more and more that the managers MUST institute greater social control in our centers for social obedience, or public schools.  Freire's pedagogy instructs us in the exact opposite way, by "community-based learning."

And finally, we must stop arguing with those in power.  As David Coleman made clear--in this country all of us are inconsequential and no one gives a shit about what we feel or think.

It is time for a rebellion, not a revolution, one family at a time.

***

Photo of David Coleman accompanies The Atlantic article "The Schoolmaster."

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