Category: Reflections on Readings

Sandra Cisneros – “One Holy Night”

Sandra Cisneros – “One Holy Night”

Last summer, I read two books with a student. We read The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Our conversations about The Awakening proved fascinating, but we didn’t have as much success reading and discussing Mrs. Dalloway. Nevertheless, I found the experience meaningful, and I think the student did too. She sent me the following Remind message before the school year ended:

Hey Carlson, are we reading this summer?

How could I say no? We haven’t yet started, but we plan to read The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. Additionally, I asked one of my students from this past year if she would like to read a book with me, and she agreed. We’ve been reading Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros. The story “One Holy Night” led to an interesting discussion. Here are the highlights and my rambling commentary. To maintain her privacy, I will refer to my student simply as C.

In “One Holy Night,” an eighth-grade girl tells of how she loses her virginity to a man who calls himself Chaq Uxmal Paloquín. He claims to be descended from Mayan kings. The people in the neighborhood call him Boy Baby, and no one seems to know much about him. We find out later – after he has left town and our narrator has become pregnant – that he is actually thirty-seven years old and that he is a serial killer. The story is only nine pages long, and it focuses more on mood and feeling than on specific details.

For whatever reason, our conversation fixated on rape. C rightly pointed out that Boy Baby committed statutory rape. She expressed some discomfort with the story and mentioned that some readers might be deeply disturbed (“triggered”) by the story. We talked about the choice Cisneros made to avoid detail and use poetic language to describe the rape:

Then something inside bit me, and I gave out a cry as if the other, the one I wouldn’t be anymore, leapt out.

C was glad that there wasn’t more detail. Because rape is so disturbing, she asserted, only a bad writer would need to include more detail to bring about the desired response from the reader. This assertion seemed to extend past “One Holy Night” to all literature (and other works of art, for the matter), so I asked if there could ever be a situation in which more detail might be necessary. She said no, again emphasizing that a good writer wouldn’t need to include the details of the rape. I told C that I didn’t disagree but that I wanted to press the point further. Could there be any value in graphic description of such a violent act? And what about other violent acts like murder? C felt that rape belonged to a category of its own, that it was even worse than murder. I wondered whether a rape victim might consider it necessary to express the horror and the violence she went through. C agreed this might be possible, but she expressed her concerns about works of art that use such violence for shock or entertainment value. She talked about the show 13 Reasons Why (which I have not seen) and how she felt like it glamorized suicide. We talked about how the narrator seemed to romanticize her own rape, describing Boy Baby’s face as “the face I am in love with” even after discovering he’s a serial killer. It was a meandering conversation, but it was a meaningful one.

When I chose Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, I didn’t know much about its content. I didn’t intend to pick a book with a story about a young girl’s rape, so I’m glad that C and I managed to have such an interesting discussion. I’m forced to wonder where this sort of conversation takes place. Or if it even does. It’s not easy to talk about rape, but it seems important that we do. Sometimes we don’t give our students enough credit for the depth of their insights. I look forward to learning more with C as the summer continues.

Reflections on The Classroom Chef

Reflections on The Classroom Chef

Take risks. More than anything else, that’s the message of The Classroom Chef by John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey. It’s 2018. We owe it to our students to do better than just teach the same lesson we’ve been using. We owe them better than life in a textbook universe. We owe them more than just lectures and practice. We owe our students a meaningful classroom experience that will help them develop understanding and not just procedural fluency. We owe them more.

Take risks. I told this to my students when we returned from winter break. I told them that I planned to take risks this semester to make class more interesting, to help them find meaning in what we’re doing, and to allow them to learn and refine academic and life skills.

Take risks. Grades don’t matter. Test scores don’t matter. Coverage doesn’t matter. Standard algorithms don’t matter. Compliance doesn’t matter. The book doesn’t matter. The pacing guide doesn’t matter. Standards don’t matter.

Take risks. What does matter? The students in front of you right now. Their thoughts and ideas and energy and interests and passions and enthusiasm and suggestions and questions and feelings and understandings and beliefs and knowledge and motivation and … What matters? Their future. What matters? They do.

Take risks. We owe our students the best education we can possibly give them. John and Matt understand this. They understand that we need to change if we really want our students to grow. They understand that it’s not enough to do the same old thing – even if it has been effective in the past. They understand that we need to keep pushing forward lest we end up going backward. They understand that education in 2018 can’t look like education in 1950 or 1990 or 2005 or even in 2017. They understand that students need us to value their engagement, their thinking, and their future.

Take risks. The Classroom Chef offers a ton of great ideas and useful advice. But beneath all of the stories and suggestions lies one simple message – take risks.

Reflections on Choice Words

Reflections on Choice Words

I recently finished reading Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter Johnston. Though the book is ostensibly about reading and literacy education, I found it spoke to much larger issues in education. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the best education books I’ve ever read. This post contains various thoughts about and comments on Choice Words.

Our communication reveals our beliefs about ourselves, our students, and teaching. Johnston writes:

The way we interact with children and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people.

If we place students in the roles of thinkers, problem solvers, and mathematicians, then they can construct and refine each of those identities. If we value our students’ questions, ideas, and suggestions, then they can develop their curiosity, insight, and creativity. A former colleague once asserted that “if we want students to become responsible, then we need to give them responsibilities and see what happens.” Johnston advocates “creating an intellectual space into which [students’] minds can expand.” This classroom would necessarily encourage discussion, cherish student contributions, foster mutual respect, and cultivate independence and responsibility. Why? Because these conditions define the environment needed to nurture young minds.

But we can also see that it is not simply the names and labels we invoke that affect children, or for that matter the love with which we embrace them, but the ways we unwittingly use language to position them and provide them with the means to name and maim themselves.

Johnston argues that everything we do sends a message to our students. Avoiding a classroom discussion, for example, may suggest that we don’t believe our students can make thoughtful contributions, or that we don’t trust students to engage themselves in meaningful conversation, or that only the teacher has valuable knowledge. When we cling to right-wrong, good-bad, and other dichotomies – especially about what students do and say – we indoctrinate our students to this way of thinking. We shut down the intellectual space that developing minds need.

We cannot persistently ask questions of children without becoming one-who-asks-questions and placing children in the position of the one-who-answers-questions.

When we work on Three-Act Tasks or ask students to Notice and Wonder, we allow them to pose their own questions and to take on the role of mathematician. Language, Johnston says, “creates realities and invites identities.” A teacher who acts as the sole arbiter of right and wrong may preclude students from developing their own evaluative capacities. A teacher who refers to a classroom task as “work” or something students “have to do” may unintentionally set students up to dislike that task, especially in relation to activities they find “fun” or otherwise meaningful. The intended message need not, and often will not, match the received message.

Teachers’ conversations with children help the children build the bridges between action and consequence that develop their sense of agency. They show children how, by acting strategically, they accomplish things, and at the same time, that they are the kind of person who accomplishes things.

Agency involves the power to achieve, the means to bring about desirable results. To me, agency lies at the heart of what we do as teachers. We have all taught the persistent student, the tenacious student, the driven student, the student who relentlessly pursues success. These students have a strong sense of agency, that belief in their own competence and in their capacity for accomplishment. We have also all taught students whose sense of agency remains underdeveloped. It’s not enough to tell students to be tough or to display grit or to believe in themselves or to just give it a try. A student whose narrative involves doubt and failure needs our help in developing agency.

But when a child tries something and does not succeed, we need to turn that event toward a narrative and identity that will be useful for the future. If children are not making errors, they are not putting themselves in learning situations.

Success and failure play important roles in the learning process and in helping students develop their sense of agency. These successes and failures must belong to the student, though. Teachers may support, of course, but students must play the central roles in their own narratives. A passive student becomes a student without agency, a student who relies on others to do the thinking and to solve the problems.

Children with strong belief in their own agency work harder, focus their attention better, are more interested in their studies, and are less likely to give up when they encounter difficulties than children with a weaker sense of agency.

Language matters. How we interact with students matters. The ways learning occurs in our classrooms matter. Most of all, children matter.

Reflections on The Hidden Lives of Learners

Reflections on The Hidden Lives of Learners

Graham Nuthall’s research focused on individual student learning. His team set up cameras in classrooms and had students wear microphones so that every conversation, discussion, comment, and under-the-breath remark could be captured. This incredible undertaking allowed researchers to take an in-depth look at precisely how classroom experiences shape student learning. The Hidden Lives of Learners is a challenging, but fascinating, book. It reinforced some of my classroom practices, made me question others, and forced me to really think about what my students actually experience and learn in my classroom. Here are some highlights of the book accompanied by my thoughts.

During a video in one class, two students whisper and pass notes. The researcher writes down the following:

“Reads note from Abbie passed by Leigh. Scratches head and writes on note. Passes note to Abbie. Glances at video and looks at Abbie. Leans down to pick something up off floor … Receives note from Abbie. Watches video and puts note aside … Sighs, rubs eyes, and glances at video. Takes Abbie’s note, rubs eyes, glances at video while fiddling with Abbie’s note … Writes on the note and passes note to Abbie. Looks across at Leigh and Abbie. Watches video …”

What an incredibly revealing observation of one student’s experience! It comes as no surprise that this student did not learn the information. What’s particularly interesting is how the student’s experience with the video affected her experiences during a class discussion, a group discussion, and a report. Nuthall stresses that students need to be exposed to information at least three times in order to remember and learn it, and this student missed out on those opportunities. I know that an accumulation of missed learning opportunities – whether due to absence, distraction, or any other reason – results in worse outcomes, but it seems that even a single missed opportunity can diminish future experiences and lead to worse outcomes. This heightens the importance of engaging students with each lesson, but also of revisiting material frequently to ensure students receive enough exposure to the content.

In a separate class, the teacher explains how compasses work. Nuthall notes that “Pam decides for herself that she already knows how a compass works,” leading her to “[pay] little attention to the teacher’s demonstrations of how magnets work.” This struck a chord with me because of how often students persist in using inefficient or otherwise inappropriate methods on a problem that they’re convinced they know how to solve. For example, students might continue using a table to graph functions rather than developing an understanding of how the terms in the equation affect the function’s graph. I’ve certainly heard the refrain of “Can’t I just do it this way?” many times, and while I sympathize with students’ desire to use a method they’re comfortable with, this sort of thinking can act as a barrier to developing a deeper understanding of the material.

Nuthall comments that “students’ minds are very busy making sense of multiple sets of concepts simultaneously during the course of a normal day’s work in a classroom.” This seems obvious, but it’s nonetheless a powerful message. I know I sometimes lose track of this insight and let the momentum of the class carry us past the point of meaningful learning. Maybe this isn’t a problem, but it does serve as a reminder that learning takes time. The “success rate,” Nuthall remarks, for incorporating concepts into long-term memory is “not especially high.” This, of course, makes it important to expose students to the material multiple times.

And to finish, here are a three quotes that I found meaningful:

  • “When we look at what students remember of their classroom experiences, we find the curriculum content wrapped up in the nature of the experience, which means that how students experience an activity is as much a part of what they learn as is the intended curriculum content.”
  • “Because of these individual differences in prior knowledge, as well as differences in the way students engage with classroom activities, each student experiences the classroom differently, so much so that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student; it is not learned by other students in the class.”
  • “Embedding information in different activities not only makes the information more memorable, but also enables students to revisit the concepts and ideas.”

Altogether, The Hidden Lives of Learners is a fascinating book. I’d love to read similar research that investigates student learning on an individual level. As much as I’ve tried to get inside the minds of my students, it’s painfully obvious that there is so much more going on than I can possibly know about. I’m not quite sure what I’ll take away from this book, but I do know that I need to work on providing students with more opportunities for meaningful interactions with the content and with each other.