To Ponder:

“And when fun is unleashed in the classroom, can learning be far behind?”  -Harvey Daniels, Literature Circles

Yesterday I came across this quote while reading Daniels’s book, and was struck. The author asks the question rhetorically, leaving no doubt about what he thinks the answer is. I’m a little less sure. I’d be curious to know what others think: Is fun a prerequisite for learning? Think about a time recently when you were learning something for the first time. Were you happy and enjoying yourself?


(Not) Speaking of Testing…

Having just written about quantitative tests as questionable means for assessing students and teachers, I was happy to listen today to last week’s episode of This American Life. It reminded me of an episode of another great podcast, American RadioWorks. Both podcasts reveal the research that has started to come out countering the effectiveness of policy initiatives like No Child Left Behind.

The secret to student success? Well, it’s really pretty intuitive once you think about it. Instead of test prep, kids need to learn “soft skills:” persistence, determination, resiliance. Or as one researcher calls it frankly, “grit.”

Listen to both of these podcasts for some very important ideas about how to think about and approach education.

Link to This American Life’s “Back to School”

Link to American RadioWorks’ “Grit, Luck, and Money”

Semantic and poetic meaning: a heart cleft in twain

“Poetry is truer than history.” -Aristotle

In a couple classes I’m taking, I keep running into the same competition of concepts: it’s the duel between the scientific and the artistic. The quantitative and the quantitative. Or as Kenneth Burke would have it, the semantic and the poetic. The difference, which I’ll explain in a minute, is in itself so interesting to me. Long before I knew the word “epistemology” I was curious about a human’s ability (or maybe lack of ability) to understand or describe an objective reality. But this left brain/right brain battle is particularly interesting in light of another issue that puts me in a fettle: teacher evaluations. Without going into the politics of whether or not teachers ought to walk out on their students as they have done in Chicago in recent days, I think it’s important to make a couple philosophical observations about teacher evaluations and the standardized tests that feed them.

But first, a word on semantic and poetic meaning. Semantic meaning is what any scientist worth his (and yes, that pronoun is deliberate) salt is after. They aim at “making true statements about the world” (Eisner, 1981). Put more colorfully, the goal is to “evolve a vocabulary that gives the name and address of every event in the universe” (Burke, 1989). A noble pursuit to be sure! Such pursuit involves a process of universalizing, or essentializing.

Burke offers the example of a chair. According to an “ideal semantic definition” of a chair, “people knew what you wanted when you asked for one, a carpenter knew how to make it, a furniture dealer knew how to get it, etc.” All the actual chairs in the world are but examples of this ideal “chair-ness;” from the particular we move to the general (and here of course we are floating into Plato’s realm). On the other hand, a poetic definition of a chair might be the chair I’m looking at right now– a stuffed velvet chair of golden hue, which I inherited from my dad, and which will always remind me of him and its spot in the apartment where I spent my teenage years. Or it could be the lovely wooden dining room chairs behind me, which, incidentally, my mother gave me. As you can see, my furniture is filled with meaning beyond the simply material. I associate with these objects memories and meanings, and even aspects of my relationships to my family.

In sum: while a semantic definition of a chair tries to “cut away, to abstract, all emotional factors that complicate the objective clarity of meaning,” a poetic definition of my chairs is all for the “heaping up of all these emotional factors… and [for] seeking to make this active participation itself a major ingredient of the vision” (Burke).

Where does this leave us in the messy world of trying to just come to some conclusions for godsakes? And why won’t these teachers stop forsaking their pupils and just get back to work? Good questions, all. But we have to look at what the teachers are protesting. While teacher accountability is of course a good thing, as all accountability is in a social world, we must ask: what are the methods by which teachers are being held accountable? They are being judged by measures of a purely semantic nature (and I’m using the term in a Burkean sense here of course).

Value-added modeling and other similar kinds of teacher evals are based on student standardized test scores. These assessments (of both students and teachers) seek to capture some kind of objective measure– represented by a measly number!– of student learning and therefore, teacher success. While it would certainly be convenient and scientific (because numbers are so unclouded by emotion) to be able to place the attainment of knowledge on an interval/ratio scale, anyone who has ever learned something can testify that what they know is not quantifiable– try counting the things you learned last year!

Indeed, teachers (and for that matter, students) are being assessed semantically for their expertise in a poetic phenomenon. Where we seek fact we should be seeking meaning. Do our teachers help students create meaning? I’m all for assessing that, though I don’t think numbers will play a very big role in the instrument. As one researcher elegantly frames this relentless attempt at quantifying truth, “Truth implies singularity and monopoly. Meaning implies relativism and diversity. Truth is more closely wedded to consistency and logic, meaning to diverse interpretation and coherence” (Eisner, 1981). Certainly, consistency and logic have their place. But how can you compare the millions of contextual factors that make every single teacher, every single classroom, unique?

Works Cited here:

Burke, K. (1989). On Symbols and Society. J.R. Gusfield (ed.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Eisner, E.W. (1981). On the differences between scientific and artistic approaches to qualitative research. Educational Researcher, 10(4), 5-9.

Fiction’s Far Shores

This is a neat animated video about how fiction can illuminate our lives. The narrator says– and I’ve always agreed with this!– that fiction can teach us as much about a concept, emotion, or time period as non-fiction can. If anything, it teaches us even more because a good novel grabs not just our brains, but our hearts.

Not just a theory

“Until lions tell their stories, tales of hunting will glorify the hunter.” -African Proverb

For our Literature for Adolescents class this term, we’ll be thinking about the teaching of literary theory in the high school English classroom. In her book Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents, Deborah Appleman makes a convincing case for it. And her reasoning is actually more audacious than you might expect. It’s easy to yawn and look at your watch when you hear the phrase “literary theory,” even if you have some experience with it. Isn’t using theory basically the practice of analyzing the life out of literature so that you can sound like some pompous academic? And if so, WHY would we put our high school students through that? Don’t we want them to read MORE, not less?

Well, Appleman reminds us, looking at literature through different theoretical lenses is a way to understand the perspectives of those who are different from us. When we do a feminist reading of The Great Gatsby or of Hamlet, peering into the inner worlds of Daisy Buchanan and Ophelia, we are learning how to see the world from the viewpoints of people whom society has conditioned us to ignore. When we deconstruct The Heart of Darkness we can see the other side of the colonial conquest, and begin to comprehend the experiences of the colonized. We learn how to refuse to take stories, and eventually, real life events, at face value – because there is always more than face value for everything.

But aside from increasing our students’ facility for questioning and for empathy, maybe using different theoretical lenses can actually help them get engrossed by texts that had formerly been closed to them. I for one have noticed that thinking about why Ophelia lost her marbles is a lot more interesting than thinking about why Hamlet lost his. Is it because I’m female? Who knows. But literary theory gives me permission to choose how I want to look at the play.

Appleman anticipates an objection to the politicizing nature of literary theory. She responds to those who just want to teach stories, and not get bogged down by all that conflict and politics, by saying: “Teaching is essentially a political act, a political stance– a stance that advocates for the literacy rights of everyone, a stance that acknowledges that when you give someone literacy, you give them power.” Basically, teachers may not ignore the fact that ideologies exist and conflict in the way that other professionals may. Still, maybe some are put off by the battle cry words of “political” and “power.” Think of literary theory in these terms then (and here Appleman quotes Shirley Staton, 1987): “There is no such thing as an innocent, value-free reading… People who deny having a critical stance, who claim they are responding ‘naturally’ or being ‘completely objective’ do not know themselves.” The stakes are high, it seems. But the lion could have told you that.