What’s in a meme? (part V)

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Welcome to part 5.  For parts 1-4 check out hereherehere, and here.

Conform: Intellectually and socially.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says that the virtue in most demand in society is conformity.  This sentiment is clear throughout the work of Transcendental writers: non-conformity leads to great things.  And their ideas have been used as inspiration for countless movers and shakers in our country and our world. These are the very movers and shakers (writers, politicians, activists,etc.) that we teach in our schools every day.  Surely we must be teaching students the importance of non-conformity.  Whether implicitly or explicitly in many courses we teach the importance and potential results of not conforming.

But the policies, procedures and actions of schools and individual teachers do not generally accept nonconformity.  After all, society demands conformity.  Society ostracizes and punishes (sometimes violently) nonconformity. We all know this.  Society has unwritten rules (as well as some written ones) as to how people are supposed to behave.   Schools are no different, which makes sense since schools are societal institutions.  Sure individual teachers may praise nonconformity and “thinking outside the box” from time to time.  But eventually even they have their limits and some actions may be too far out the box to be accepted.  In fact, we even teach our autistic population how to act in a “socially expected” way.

As I remind my students often, nonconformity may lead to great things, but it is not without its consequences.  It is a matter of whether or not the individual is willing to accept those consequences to act as a nonconformist.  I often argue that education is about finding a balance, which I’ve mentioned many times previously.  Issues of conformity are no different.  As teachers we need to nurture individuals and their creativity and ability to think outside the box while also teaching them the potential consequences of this.

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What’s in a meme (part IV)

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Welcome to my 4th installment discussing this meme.  Check out parts 1-3 herehere, and here.

Non-compliance is punished.

For most of these claims, there is a little bit of truth, but not the whole story.  I will fully admit that #4 is pretty darn accurate.  Non-compliance is punished in just about every classroom and every school out there, but this is because schools are a product of society–a society in which non-compliance is punished.  So many people already complain that kids and teenagers are disrespectful.  Could you imagine how much more these people would complain if schools didn’t, in some way, punish non-compliance?  Without going into the science about brain development and whatnot, students need boundaries and consequences for exceeding those boundaries.  Anybody who has actually worked with students knows this.

Many people are probably saying, but what about civil disobedience?  If a rule is unjust, unfair, or unnecessary, students should practice civil disobedience.  After all, we teach students (directly or indirectly) the virtues of civil disobedience.  In fact my students even read Henry David Thoreau’s piece called “Civil Disobedience.”  Aren’t I being slightly hypocritical for not practicing what I preach? Not exactly.  What often gets forgotten in that argument is that Henry David Thoreau wrote that while in jail.  He practiced civil disobedience by not paying his taxes to fund a war that he thought was unjust.  As a result he was punished and sent to jail.  As we talk about this, I constantly remind my students that civil disobedience comes with consequences.  Your non-compliance will be punished.

When one thinks about non-compliance and civil disobedience, the most prominent example is the work of MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement.  These people staged sit-ins at whites only counters, etc. and fought for what is just.  Many might argue that by punishing non-compliance in schools we are hindering these sorts of movements in the future.  Again, I’d point out that these civil rights activists were all punished-not just by being sent to jail, but also through physical violence.  I’d also point out that it is easy to say you’d be civilly disobedient, but much harder to actually do it when the time comes.  Martin Luther King Jr. actually trained people in how to sit at the counter and keep calm while being insulted and physically attacked.  I don’t know many people-nonetheless school age students-who could withstand that sort of abuse while remaining calm without the necessary training.

None of this is to say that students have no ability to question authority or school rules.  While I alluded to this in a previous post about this meme, in my experience schools (and individual teaches) have allowed students to voice concerns about policy.  For example, a few years back the dress code for one particular dance was made more stringent than it ever has been.  One member of the student government, with the guidance of the adviser, circulated a petition regarding this change.  This was a means to start a conversation that has been ongoing since though the dress code for this dance is looser now.

My point is that while non-compliance is generally punished in schools, there are means for students to question the rules and authorities.  It is easy to suggest that we are squashing free thinkers, but it is much harder to maintain an appropriate learning environment than non-educators realize.  We must strike a balance that helps and supports all our students.

What’s in a meme? (part III)

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Welcome to part 3 of my “what’s in a meme?” series. For part 1 click here and here for part 2.

Accurate memory an repetition are rewarded.

Ironically, number 3 on this meme seems a bit repetitive of number 2, so there may be some overlap in my discussion.  As I mentioned previously educators have moved beyond simply expecting students to repeat answers back to them, and we are working to hone this at a greater level.  I applaud our progress and commitment in this area.

Now as for the implication that memory is of utmost importance and worthy of reward the conversation differs some.  We talk often in education about the need for students to be able to apply various skills and ideas.  This is great.  For example, I want my students to apply their writing skills in order to produce high quality prose.  But in order to do this, they must first remember (ie use their memory) what those skills are.  The application of skills and knowledge cannot happen without having the memory first.  I’m not arguing for straight rote memorization here, but this statements cuts a rather broad swath here.

Even thinking beyond the need for memory for application, society expects our students to remember content.  Talking heads all over the media lament how culturally illiterate our students are.  An article I read recently decries the fact that only 38% of 17 year old students could accurately name Geoffery Chaucer as the author of The Canterbury Tales.  As someone who teaches this piece this number appalls me, but doesn’t really surprise me.   As a society we get all up in arms that students don’t seem to know basic things and look at it as an indictment on our educational system, while at the same time complaining that our educational system focuses too much on memorizing unimportant facts.  We can’t have it both ways America.  Anyone with any sense knows that memory plays an important part in learning.  Let’s not falsely demonize schools for this.

What’s in a meme (part II)

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Yesterday I began my breakdown of the points laid out in this meme  (for part 1 click here).  Today I’ll tackle point number 2: Intelligence is the ability to remember and repeat.

About 7 or 8 years ago, we had a guest speaker come and talk tot he department.  The first thing she asked us to do was write down the three most important things we want our students to be able to do.  Almost universally, we wrote down “to think independently” or something in that vain.  While the session was not very helpful over all, this stands out to me because I think it still holds true across not just my department, but the educational system as a whole.  As teachers, we want students who can think independently and critically (though we don’t always agree on what it means to think critically).

That being said, thinking and intelligence aren’t the same thing.  But I’m interpreting the statement to suggest that those who do best in school (i.e. the most intelligent) are those who can remember and repeat.  Quite frankly, that’s hogwash.  One of the first things any one learns in teacher school is Bloom’s taxonomy and pushing students to higher level reasoning through analysis and synthesis.  Bloom’s has given way to the cognitive rigor matrix lately, but that still stresses higher level skills.  There may have been a time in education when the top students were those who could remember and repeat, but that ship has sailed.  As educators we recognize the importance of asking students to do so much more, and we hold them to that.  Could we move further up the cognitive rigor matrix?  Absolutely.  But I am sure that classes everywhere have moved beyond simply remember and repeat.

As a quick caveat before I go on, remembering and repeating does have its place.  Teachers just need to remember to move beyond it.  Certainly students need to be able to remember and repeat things before moving on though.  I am still grateful that I was forced to memorize my multiplication tables years ago.  Could I take out a calculator every time I need to multiply something?  Sure, but by having memorized my multiplication tables, I am able to do far more in-depth math far more efficiently.  The same can be said for foreign language teachers forcing their students to memorize vocab and verb conjugations.  Memorization is a worthwhile skill and still has its place in schools.

Every time I ask students to write essays (which is often), read and analyze a text (again, often)  or conduct research, I am asking them to do much more than simply remember and repeat.  Yes, they must remember what a symbol is, for example, in order to analyze it, but they’re tasked with much more than just find the symbol and label it.  They must prod deeper into whatever they are given.  Some of the questions I ask my students include: Is Rev. Dimmesdale (from The Scarlet Letter) a good man?  Who is Death of a Salesman really about-Willy or Biff?  Explain the title The Great Gatsby.  None of these questions are simply remember and repeat sort of questions, and they are indicative of the types of questions students are asked throughout the country.  I know this because I routinely find these types of questions and assignments on the internet and through connecting with other teachers on twitter.

I imagine that many people who believe this statement though will point to standardized testing as their evidence.  Standardized testing is an entirely different subject, but bear in mind most people who rail against the remember and repeat fashion of standardized testing haven’t actually participated in any sort of standardized testing and are basing their opinion on outrageous examples spread through the media.  While I have plenty of issues with standardized testing, I am actually relatively impressed with how much the questions (even the multiple choice questions) ask students to do more than just remember and repeat.  For example, when the question asks about the writer’s purpose, the student must do more than just remember and repeat.  He has to be able to pull from the text.  The latest round of standardize tests that are aligned with the Common Core go even further and ask for evidence from the text to support the answer.

Remember and repeat may have been the way of doing things back in the day, but schools have evolved beyond this today.

What’s in a meme? (part I)

My brother recently posted this meme on facebook:

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And as an educator, it is hard to not respond to something like this, but his facebook wall just doesn’t seem like the right place.  The fact of the matter is that there is certainly some truth to these statements, but a meme never tells the whole story, so I figured I’d give a go at each of these statements in a series of posts.  And so, let’s have a go at the 1st statement:

  1.  Truth comes from authority.

Our curriculum (at least at the high school level) actually leads to the exact opposite of this statement.  When we teach the works of the great thinkers of the world such as MLK Jr. or Thomas Jefferson or Ghandi, we are teaching that truth doesn’t necessarily come from authority. We idolize these people and hold them up in schools as examples of people who questioned the authorities of their time and recognized that truth can be found elsewhere.  High school English curricula all over include dystopian novels which very often question the very notion that truth comes from authority.  George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 is not only about constant surveillance, but also very much about the problems with allowing authority to hold the truth.

The Common Core State Standards also disavow this statement.  One standard reads: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. And another says: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.  Both of these standards are asking students to evaluate information that they receive from “authorities.”  This is a cornerstone of my senior writing course.  This is an argumentative writing course in which students have to use research to support their claims.  They need to know how to critically evaluate information in order to determine if the authority is true otherwise their argument is going to be garbage.  A few years back I had lunch duty with one of my colleagues who also teaches the same senior writing course.  I distinctly remember discussing with him the need for our students to gain a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the information they obtain.

Now all that being said, the bigger question is: does our educational culture practice what we preach?  As teachers and administrators we do often try to stop students from questioning our authority.  Every school has administrative codes and discipline procedures for disrespect and failure to comply, and students who question teacher authority are often labeled as such.  In schools we have this deep rooted fear that all hell will break lose if we allow students to question our authority-that we won’t be able to maintain any sort of classroom management to make our way through the standards of our curriculum in time.

One piece of advice that I always give new teachers is to be willing to say “I don’t know.”  And yet so few of us as teachers are willing to say that.  We are afraid to open ourselves up to our students and be vulnerable.  We expect our students to accept what we say as truth.  Yes, learn about the importance of questioning authority, but be sure to question someone else’s authority not mine.  We can be quite hypocritical in this regard.

Through my years of schooling this is undoubtedly the message I received, and I still see it as I walk the hallways and talk to fellow educators.  But I also see this shifting.  Educational change moves at glacial speeds, but I am happy to say that I work with a number of people who are practicing what we preach.  The original statement from the meme isn’t entirely true, but it’s not entirely false either.

The power of relationships

Today closes out the first week of Summer School.  I have two classes with 4 kids in each of them.  I guess it’s a good thing that the numbers are so low-presumably students aren’t failing junior and senior English.  As I type this, these students are diligently typing up their assigned essay.  Throughout this week, I have asked them to read and take notes about the writing process as well as informational and literary articles.  I have also tasked them with various writings and responses.  In each class these 4 students have worked for two straight hours without a complaint and have produced high quality work.  In other words, they are doing everything you’d expect the stereotypical “good” student to do.  These are kids who are here because they didn’t pass English; they didn’t do work or they did it very poorly, and yet here they are producing pretty solid work without issue.  So what went wrong?

I’ve been teaching summer school for the past three years, and every year their first assignment is to answer in 4-5 paragraphs: Why are you here?  Their answers are honest and sometimes heartbreaking.  They accept fault and admit to work that they never completed-essays and assignments never turned in.  One student had to cope with receiving a diagnosis of a pretty debilitating disorder; while another had to deal with an abusive boyfriend.  But hidden in all these answers is a lack of a strong relationship with their teachers.

I know the teachers who taught the class these kids failed, and I know all of them to be solid and compassionate educators.  Had these students felt comfortable speaking with these teachers about their issues, I am confident that adjustments would have been made.  As adults, it’s easy to look at these kids and think it’s absurd that they didn’t tell their teacher their problems, but as a teenager these problems are difficult to disclose to your teacher unless you have a strong relationship with them.  I’ve spoken before about the power of relationships and the need for teachers to build and work on relationships with their students, but these summer school students act as further evidence for this.  These students are here making up English for  many reasons and there is plenty of blame to throw around, but there is no doubt in my mind, that had they had better relationships with their teachers, they would not need to make up the course.