For the last few years, I’ve been one of those “I just close my door and teach what I want” teachers. I’ve outright rejected the pedagogical norms of my school to pursue my own path. I’ve refused to create common assessments. My hermitude became a badge of honor. I saw myself as an outsider fighting the good fight.
It wasn’t until I began working on an essay with Julie Gorlewski that I realized the fundamental error in my thinking. The essay explored the dual roles of teachers: we are both and always agents of the state and agents of change. Closing my classroom door to the world granted me autonomy, but it alienated me and hampered my ability to work with others. I had turned my back on my colleagues and on my community.
So when this school year started, I decided to try and work within the system. This has meant a slew of changes. Some of the switches were small. For instance, I now begin every class by leading students through an “I can” learning outcome. Although I agree with Joe Bower and Jesse Stommel that fixed outcomes cut off authentic inquiry, my administration expects them. Other shifts have been more dramatic. For the first time in years, I’m now teaching what I’m officially supposed to be teaching. I even signed up to be part of a curriculum writing team. What better way to have the social justice and anti-racist curriculum I craved?
The process has not progressed as I thought it would. Faced with more academic standards than could possibly be taught with any level of depth, I’ve struggled with making social justice a priority. Our next unit is 3-4 weeks long. In it we’re supposed to teach students to use context clues; identify prefixes, suffixes, and roots; distinguish between fact and opinion; analyze persuasive techniques in media; identify organizational patterns; make inferences and draw conclusions; identify the main idea; and use text features to skim a text. This is on top of the general English Language Arts stuff of developing a love of literacy and reading and writing authentically.
It’s certainly possible to pursue these outcomes in a way that helps students read both the word and the world, but it takes a committed effort. It has to be the thing, not something extra. Butting heads with my colleagues has given me ample opportunity to reflect on Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy’s reminder that “Because dominant institutions in society are positioned as being neutral, challenging social injustice within them seems to be an extra task in addition to our actual tasks” (141).
Making the cognitive and perceptual leap from “we have to cover these standards” to “who benefits from these standards, who loses out, and how can we prepare for democratic citizenry?” is as difficult as it is essential. But until everyone in the room acknowledges the inherently political nature of teaching and learning, ‘finding room’ for social justice and anti-racism is all but impossible.
The way we discuss and envision critical thinking and democracy must also change. In my experience, schools tend to define critical thinking as the process of identifying problems and inventing solutions. This frames students as capitalists and problem solving as opportunities for entrepreneurship. In a social justice context however, critical thinking refers to “a specific scholarly approach that explores the historical, cultural, and ideological lines of authority that underlie social conditions” (1).
And when it comes to democracy, mainstream education casts schools as instruments to educate for democracy. Schools produce democratic citizens by informing students about history, the importance of peaceful protest, and the power of voting. In contrast to this, Gert Biesta discusses education through democracy. A continuous process of learning to value and exist alongside those who are fundamentally not like us (120). Schools can support society in this work, but they cannot create, sustain, or save democracy. And what this would even look like in a public school classroom, I have no clue.
Back inside the classroom, I’ve had a much easier time implementing aspects of culturally responsive/culturally proactive teaching. My students use a variety of discussion and response protocols, combine their out-of-school interests with traditional academic skills, and build knowledge through collaboration and discussion. But most of this gets at the how, leaving the what largely intact. And the what is what I’m interested in changing.
I don’t know how to reorient my classroom around social justice and anti-racist pedagogy, yet. For now, I’ll continue teaching the official units, working with the curriculum team, and looking for ways to exist in that interstitial zone between thesis and antithesis, as an agent of the state and an agent of change.
The call for proposals for the 2017 NCTE conference has been issued. The title for next year’s conference, Teaching Our Students Today, Tomorrow, Forever: Recapturing Our Voices, Our Agency, Our Mission, highlights NCTE’s commitment to speaking truth to power and championing the teacher as a change maker. I’m interested in how we can use theory to reclaim our voices and engage in our work with renewed focus.
To that end, I’d like to put together a proposal for a session on using theory as a source of vitality and inspiration. Here are some rough ideas. They all fall under the draft session title of
The Heart of Praxis: Using Critical Theory to Inspire and Guide Your Teaching
1. Drawing inspiration from America’s neoliberal turn of the 1970s and 1980s, teacher prep programs are training teachers to be data managers and technicians. Politics, history, and theory are of little value when all that matters is increasing test scores among gap groups. How can we draw on critical pedagogy to recenter teacher training on issues of critical literacy and social transformation?
2. The dominance of test scores and punitive systems of accountability create an atmosphere of distrust between teachers. Building a supportive network of teacher collaboration has become increasingly difficult. For many teachers, collaboration has become yet another mandate required by central offices, a standardized ritual focused on quantitative learning outcomes and Dufour/Solution Tree agenda templates. What does radical teacher collaboration look like? How can we use theory to replace false collaboration with meaningful exchange?
3. The rise of alternative assessment practices like standards based grading and proficiency scales harken back to the administrative progressives of the early twentieth century. Critical theory can help us understand how our language of learning sacrifices the democratic potential of education and figure out how to chart a course to a more relevant and uplifting form of learning.
4. All too often teachers experience cultural competency as a set of boxes to check off on their district-wide professional development regimens. Cultural competency can become what Leigh Patel describes as “parking lots for emotionality and white fragility.” By ignoring education’s historical role in creating and sustaining class stratification and material inequality, much cultural competency training fails to prepare teachers to ignite change within the classroom and the teacher’s lounge. How can critical race theory help us recenter our classrooms and school communities?
Again, these are just ideas. Please reply to this blog post or contact me on Twitter/email if you’re interested in putting together a proposal on these or any other theory related topics.
Grades, Modernity, and the New Administrative Progressives
The 2016 NCTE conference was amazing. Even though I was able to attend sessions on a variety of topics, I spent the majority of my time discussing grades. I took part in a round-table discussion focused on removing grades from secondary English classrooms. Most of our talk centered around what to do after getting rid of grades, quizzes, and tests. What do you put in their place? How do you make sure kids stay motivated? What kind of feedback do you offer? These valuable questions have been taken up by minds far sharper than mine, and I advise you to check out any of the blogs, books, and professional resources devoted to such topics. That’s not what this post is going to be about.
Instead I’m going to write about the gut-level unease that trailed me for the duration of my time in Atlanta, Georgia. The feeling began to gnaw at me during the round-table when I didn’t know how to field questions about removing grades at the high school level. As the teachers around me were right to point out, it’s much easier to throw out the grade book in middle school (where I teach) than high school. For most middle school students, topics like financial aid, graduation requirements, and college admissions don’t have teeth.
As for me, the single letter my district requires me to enter into the gradebook at the end of each quarter has little bearing on the educational trajectory of my students. I have structured my class so as to spend the absolute bare minimum amount of time thinking about student grades and points and rubrics. This is a privilege afforded to me by a trusting administration and a welcoming school climate.
So I sat at the round-table feeling foolish. Unlike the other round-table participants I did not come prepared to discuss feedback mechanisms and mastery learning. Nor did I have advice on setting up a gradebook or handling the paper load. I chose to spend the weeks leading up to NCTE feverishly typing up pages of notes on the history of grades. I’m not particularly interested in talking about why grades don’t work. Don’t get me wrong, I love to sit around and bloviating about the negatives of grades. I just don’t think it’s necessarily the most important part of the larger conversation about grades and measurement.
We know that grades don’t work. External rewards undercut intrinsic motivation and create situations where students/humans will do the least amount of work possible for the maximum result. Grades aren’t particularly effective proxies for learning, either. They’re crude symbolic abstractions of a complex and non-linear process. There’s nothing new to this assertion; educators have been speaking out against grades since at least the Common School era during the mid nineteenth century.
What struck me most during the anti-grading conversations I participated in at the conference was the ever present allure of efficiency. Behind the discussions about proficiency scales and standards-based alternatives to traditional grades lurked the human (and, in our case, distinctly American) desire to quantify and fix and stratify. In my mind, the Rob Marzanos and John Franklin Bobbits of education have begun to blur.
In his influential book The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, David Tyack details a new class of 20th century school reformers, a group he famously called the “administrative progressives.” Administrative progressives sought to centralize public education under a unified banner of social efficiency, scientific management, and mental measurement. The progressive designation had nothing to do with John Dewey. Instead, this new group of reformers saw themselves as mavericks, iconoclasts who would lead public education out of provincialism and old world traditions through modern science and technology.
While grading systems were common across schools in the early 1900s, they lacked any sort of standardization or uniformity. Some schools stuck to old-world grading methods (emphasizing individual competition, ranking, and behavior) while others favored a more modern approach (the belief that grades could provide objective data and distinguish between ‘classes of men’). Various titles, levels, and numerical systems jostled elbows, often times within the same district. As schooling became larger and more complex, schoolmen needed a universal metric of academic progress and intellect to link schools vertically and horizontally. By the 1950s the A – F system of grades the majority of us grew up with was well on its way to becoming the national standard.
Administrative progressives remain an important part of contemporary education. Top level administrators and superintendents continue to act as bureaucratic data-managers, technocrats expected to know more about managing inputs and outputs than instructing a classroom full of students. Appeals to the debunked factory model of education, a myth as potent now as it was one hundred years ago, fit right in with administrative progressivism: education is stuck and the key to progress lies in more efficient technologies of instruction.
I sometimes feel that current anti-grading rhetoric has much in common with the desires of the twentieth century administrative progressives. A cottage industry has sprouted up around alternatives to traditional grades. Much of the rhetoric behind proficiency scales and standards based grading seems to me to be taken from a Progressive Era playbook. The language of a proficiency scale provides more information than a letter or number, and standards based grading grounds a teacher’s judgments rooted in content objectives, but they still serve to reduce the complexity of learning into transferable terms. Such alternatives to traditional grading are, as a mentor of mine once commented, the best way of doing a bad thing.
So how can we get around them? What about high school where letter grades and GPAs play an essential role in admissions, graduation requirements, and financial aid? Or when students transfer between schools and counselors use report cards and test scores to make important decisions about class placement? Grades, and the national consensus of how an A differs from a B, are baked into every single layer of schooling. Parent meetings depend on grades, when basic assumptions of a child’s competency, intellect, and progress draw from letters and numbers. This isn’t anyone’s fault, and this post isn’t about pointing fingers. Because any teacher who removes grades must grapple with the institutional inertia behind traditional marks.
Mechanisms of grading, ranking, sorting, and transferring are essential to modernity. In Making the grade: a history of the A-F marking scheme, Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt situate grading as “…a key technology of educational bureaucratization, a primary means of quantification, and the principal mechanism for sorting students.” Removing grades can disrupt and draw attention to this. In our rush to find alternatives to assigning grades, we should be wary of implementing systems with similar functions.
Some questions of education can be answered through assessment technology. Tracking student progress and content mastery, for instance, benefit from any sort of standardized scale. More important questions of education, such as the what, the why, and the how, cannot be. We shortchange education discourse when the majority of our conversations stick to the former at the expense of the latter.
Why I No Longer Use Rubrics
Whenever I tell people I teach 7th grade English, I typically get three responses. The first is a sharp inhalation of breath. The second involves some form of apology. And then come the questions: How do I handle the hormones? What about the test prep? And all those papers? Teaching is indeed difficult work. Teachers must navigate a labyrinth of ever-changing standards while negotiating between children, their families, and administration. Rubrics attempt to help teachers by providing a way to streamline the workflow. Efficiency and equity all in one tidy sheet. This is a Faustian bargain, however. The gift of time is accompanied by a loss of professional judgment. The locus of control of our classroom shifts from the professional to the external tool. This essay argues for a reconsideration of the use of rubrics as the primary mechanism for writing assessment. After examining the historical context of the rubric, I attempt to make a case for the use of narrative feedback.
Contextualizing the Rubric
As America entered the twentieth century, our country’s society was in a state of upheaval. Unforeseen levels of immigration dramatically altered the landscape of our urban areas. Advances in transportation helped break apart the traditional small-town dynamics governing much of the country. And the rapid growth of print media provided America with massive quantities of information both relevant and hyperbolic. Social institutions such as public schools attempted to meet the changing demands of a culture in flux. What role should public education play in this new landscape?
Multiple interest groups spent the early decades of the Progressive Era competing for the right to answer that question. Whichever group came out on top would earn first crack at the ability to shape the national debate over schooling and frame education in their own image. The Humanists wanted to use education to carry on a legacy of Western classicism. School as a civilizing machine. The second group, the Developmentalists, was only interested in following the whims of the child. School as a playground. The final reform movement, the Social Efficiency group, pushed for a vision of schooling rooted in the economy and the language of business. School as training ground for work. As the 20th century wore on, the reforms pushed by the social efficiency movement became the dominant mode of thinking about education in this country. Many of the hallmarks of today’s public education, such as testing, demarcated bodies of knowledge, and teacher accountability rose to prominence during this time.
The social efficiency movement aligned itself with the growing scientific management revolution. Scientific management is a theory of organization that attempts to maximize efficiency and eliminate waste through the use of scientific techniques. Think rationally organized systems of production, external incentives, and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. Public education drew heavily from scientific management theory. Politicians consolidated power under the newly created superintendent, instituting top-down hierarchies of control. Information went from those in control to the workers: teachers. Administrators were in charge of navigating student data and issuing mandates to the classroom in a clear chain of command.
Rubrics align themselves with these values. They subordinate the complex, messy process of writing to the machinery of efficiency and standardization. Rubrics break down a piece of writing into discrete components such as punctuation, voice, character development, and organizational structure. Products (student writing) are sorted and ranked according to how closely they align with ambiguously defined perfection. Teachers then give directives to students who are expected to perform in uniform fashion. This classroom paradigm strips both teacher and student of agency and individuality. Everyone is expected to do what the person above them orders.
Fast forward to the 1960s. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 set off an intellectual arms race in the United States. Political education reformers pushed a ‘Back to Basics’ approach, calling for an increased emphasis on math and science in the classroom. With “soft” subjects like writing now under scrutiny, politicians expected schools to prove an academic discipline’s worth in scientific terms. For composition, this meant creating an assessment that was both valid and reliable. A landmark 1961 study sponsored by Educational Testing Services created what many consider to be the first rubric used by schools on a nationwide level. Many teachers and education scholars raised concerns over rubrics, arguing that such a lock-step assessment tool ignored important contextual and local factors. Despite these reservations,. ETS’ rubric became standard practice in classrooms across the country.
The prevalence of rubrics in today’s schools points to a continued cultural drive towards standardization, uniformity, and efficiency. Rubrics have also become a lucrative cottage industry. Educators like Robert Marzano have built careers on selling rubrics. Schools across the country use Ruth Culham’s 6 + 1 Trait writing rubrics. The point here isn’t that teachers have been duped into using a faulty assessment method. Rather that the rubric, an apparatus of standardization born out of the need for efficiency and uniformity, have become the accepted arbiter of composition quality.
The Promise of Efficiency
Cultural zeitgeist or not, the ubiquity of the rubric speaks to its ability to meet a specific need. Teaching is an extremely demanding task. Educators routinely report record levels of occupational stress. Misguided education policies pack more students into each classroom. Politicians require more of teachers while refusing to build in the time necessary to meet the additional demands. A relentless focus on education’s bottom line suggests that scores on a rubric carry more weight than a holistic teacher response. Rubrics promise to help composition teachers navigate these problems. They offer us the illusion of efficiency and equity. They streamline the complex and time consuming task of reading and responding by using a template built on assembly-line economics and standardization.
Reclaiming Our Professional Voice
The biggest sin of the rubric comes from its capacity to hijack and distort the rhetorical purpose of writing. We write to communicate to ourselves and to others and to document the human condition through written word. When we respond to writing through a rubric, we lose this rhetorical imperative. Our responses become fractured and piecemeal, jagged shards more adept at impeding a piece of writing rather than strengthening it. Our experiences have taught us to approach student writing as a technician. We read to diagnose and to fix. This isn’t how I read when outside of the classroom. At home I enter into a text with the hopes that I’ll enjoy what it is I’m reading. Reading and writing are meant to be fun. As teachers we need to revel in the joy of watching our young charges figure out how to express themselves. What do they want to say? How can we help them get there?
As professional teachers of writing, let us work to reclaim the rhetorical purpose of composition. We will suit our feedback to the writing, instead of requiring the writing to suit our predetermined feedback. We should be allowed to respond to student writing as a reader and professional teacher, not a technician. We do this through what teachers commonly refer to as narrative feedback. Narrative feedback comes in many forms. Regardless of the specific method, narrative responses to writing focus on three questions:
- What is the student’s writing goal?
- Where is he/she in relation to that goal?
- How can you help he/she reach that goal?
A rubric can play a role in this process, but what is gained in doing so? By ditching rubrics in favor of more descriptive narrative feedback, teachers are free to rely on their own understanding and command of composition. This type of feedback honors the teacher as a professional educator trained in reading writing. It gives teachers the freedom to grow, listen, and respond to their students. We can come to each piece with a sense of humility and wonder, eager to join each student in the rewarding process of committing thought to paper. Responding without rubrics helps us come home to what drew us to our profession in the first place.
Teaching to Learn
Today we get to hear from Peter Anderson himself. And as amazing of a blogger as you know him to be, doing a presentation and live blogging it simultaneously proves challenging–even for him. So this post comes at you from today’s lucky guest blogger, NVWP ISI co-director, and Peter’s “shoulder partner” Amber Jensen! Here we go!
The energy is high in the room as Peter informs us that he is going to “tell us the story of his classroom.” As we are all aware of his enthusiasm and deep thinking about his profession and practice, we are all eager to hear what he has to share with us. After a quick overview of the demographics of his current school, he asks us to begin by reflecting on our own situation.
Quickwrite: Imagine you have complete freedom to change anything about the way you run your classes. What changes might you make? What stops you from implementing them?
Yikes! How does he type the answers to these questions while blogging during these presentations? Um. If I could change ANYTHING, I would make the students the ones who make the decisions about what they are doing. I would want to make learning more of a process of students’ discovery, guided by the questions they bring to the classroom, and creating products that mean something to them and have an impact in the world. Luckily, I did find myself in a situation where I did have complete freedom to design a course without the constricting parameters of state-mandated POS standards (yes, the irony of that acronym is not lost on me — or anyone). Advanced Comp is exactly the course I would want to teach because it is truly student-run, open-ended, and driven by student response to student writing. My role in it is to get the ball rolling and to see what the kids produce. It’s the class that energizes me most because I am permitted to experiment, to engage with the students as humans, and this allows for the kind of learning that matters most. I understand, though, that not every teacher has this freedom, particularly in the era of common assessments, data-driven decision making, and standardized tests!
Here’s what other people had to say:
– No more SOLs! (this elicits cheers from the crowd)
– Creating portfolios to support writing, revision, and publication
– Student-focused study, not test-driven
– No more whole group novels; implement student choice (“so they can like to read!”
– Change the physical environment to remove the mindset constraints
And then Diane (hmm, Peter, was she a plant?) conveys a dream to get rid of grading! ” “Let’s talk about the problems I faced!” Peter says.
He shares with us the work he put in during his own self-study to learn about rubrics. The quantity and depth of Peter’s own investigation on his problem is what I admire most. He shares with us that rubrics are “historical artifacts” rooted in two times and places: the Progressive Era and 1960’s Positivism (Sputnik!). The mindset of quantifiable, measurable, empirical approach lent itself to quantifiable, measurable, and empirical assessment. Enter rubrics! ETS created a 5 point rubric and set the scope for the national rubric scene. The problem with this, though, is that standardized assessment promotes standardized writing! Rubrics compromise the rhetorical purpose of writing; students are writing to get a grade, not just to achieve a rhetorical purpose. The power dynamic between teachers and students is compromised by rubrics. So what to do with this information?
Peter then shares with us his evolution from standardized rubrics to process rubrics. “It’s essentially a recipe” – easier to get down to the business of writing, and the student is in charge of her own grade. Peter knew it wasn’t the end of his journey, but it felt better. Students could decide what grade they wanted to earn, and then could do the work correspondent to that end goal, leaving teachers and students to really discuss the writing itself. But…
Throwing out grades was a revolutionary move, one that he expected to be met with glee from students and, at the least, hesitation from parents and administrators. From what he expected — “Thank you teacher!” — to what he got — “This isn’t fair! How am I gonna know what I’m gonna get?,” Peter didn’t realize the response would be so strong. But by reading further, he came to understand that “to de-grade the writing classroom is to confront and reject the wider culture of being a compliant student as gateway to being a compliant worker.” He shares that he realized now why it was so upsetting – without grades, the students’ and teachers’ reason for being was now gone.
So he reached out to his students to reflect on the process. What came up again and again was that the high-flyers, the ones who had been rewarded for knowing how to play the game, were the ones who were most upset. Other students realized that this process was valuable — and, whether they liked it or not, it made them think! Got ’em!
The next step was to involve the administration. Luckily, when he shared with them his new plan, his administrators were on board. But Peter started to wonder how to know if students were learning. He reached out to the academics, emailed authors of the books he had been reading, attended a standards-based grading seminar (see a pattern in how he operates as a reflective teacher?). Now it’s our time to reflect:
Quickwrite: To what end do you educate your students? Job training? College? Democratic citizens? Lovers of reading and writing? The “real” world?
Well, I don’t know if I am successful at this, because admittedly, I think some of my pedagogical choices do reinforce the grade-motivated learning system. At least in my 9th grade class. Honestly, mostly with the standard-level students even though, ironically, they generally aren’t as grade-motivated as their advanced-level peers. While I do try to invest students in thinking about bigger world problems, to consider their own role in the world around them, and to be conscious change-makers, now that I think about it, I’m not totally sure that my curriculum directly supports that. I am familiar with the “but what about my grade?” conundrum. It happens even after we have a really engaging debate or discussion in class. I grapple with myself – so do I need to give them credit for participating? Or is it enough just to be here and experience it together? Ugh.
My Advanced Comp class is different, though. Grades are irrelevant. These students are being educated to work together, to find meaning and purpose in their goals, to identify problems around them that they have the skills to solve, and then to employ the right strategies to employ them.
WWJDD? What Would John Dewey Do?
Drawing upon philosophies that focus on inquiry-based learning, modeling, genre study, and student choice, Peter now introduces us to (drumroll, please): the ROLE system! This process gets students to think critically about the ways in which students engage with the questions they bring to the classroom. Students can choose one of four roles explore their questions. They can respond by taking on the role of a story teller, a poet, a change-maker, or a realist. And then they think about what kinds of products would make sense to respond to the question. Some of the topics that people were interested in producing included:
– A double-voice poem to understand students’ responses to test prep
– A fact sheet about how much money is being made by interim testing
This is bringing up some great discussion around the room. Questions like, “How do students know what options they have within each of their roles?” and “How do you scaffold the learning when students are all working on a different genre?” Peter promises to address these questions, but first, we get to practice on our own using our very own ROLE organizer sheets!
And now it’s on to the next problem:
And finally, Peter addresses everyone’s unspoken concern: what grade will he submit for students when that inevitable emails comes in from the administrator? He shares some student reflections to give us examples of how the students were able to reflect on their own progress, and tells us about how he conferenced with them individually to come to consensus on the grade that would go on their grade reports.
And for some final words of wisdom:
– You will need to find new ways to motivate good behavior aside from the language of grades
– You are implicitly making judgments about what other teachers are doing in their classrooms
– You are going to have to face parent-teacher conferences where you need to justify your
– You are going to realize how punitive the discussion around student progress is in meetings
So how was this lesson received? Well, to quote some of the ISI teacher fellows in the follow up discussion:
“I hadn’t realized before how much we as a society focus on grades and the quantification of things that you can slide yourself into a particular slot: I’m a B student, I’m the valedictorian, etc. I think the work that you’re doing is really brave and really challenging. We are all living in a bigger paradigm that you’re pushing against. It’s a really big thing.”
Dialogue Journal: Writing an honest dialogue/conversation with someone we know well. The process of writing the dialogue allows the relationship and aspects of the relationship to emerge and move forward. First step is make a list of persons you would like to have a dialogue with (Progoff said people die but relationships don’t.) This should be with someone who you know well enough to write their own stepping stones. Someone you’re familiar with. First step is to list people you’d like to have a dialogue with.
The point of making the list first is to have a menu to select from. So pick someone. My Uncle passed away yesterday; I’m going to select him. Next write a focus statement.
Focus Statement: Two to three sentences about why I want to have a dialogue with this person. Why did I choose this person?
I want to have a conversation with you, Uncle David. We never really talked or got to know each other. I know this sort of goes against the requirement of knowing the person well, but that’s OK. It’s my writing.
Arbogast talks about the difficulty of conversations. About how we are typically listening only to respond. An I-It relationship where we’re centered on ourselves. This contrasts with an I-Thou relationship that honors the other person. The trick in writing a dialogue is to get to the I-Though relationship. We do this by writing out the stepping stones for that person. Write them in the first person to get a sense of what it must have been like to walk in that person’s shoes.
I’m pretty sure the writing I’m about to do is an I-It relationship. I’ll do my best to follow the instructions.
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1960s. I graduated from college (where I had an amazing time) and moved out to Texas to work for a big company. I took care of my mom for a time. She came to live with us in Texas. She loved the pool. I married, had a daughter, and developed cancer. I spent the final chunk of my life battling the disease.
There’s one final step before we write the dialogue. We close our eyes, relax, and let the imagery present itself to us. Observe the Twilight Imagery and record it.
-Well greased hair
-Sadness, regret, loss
-My mother’s tears
-A big booming voice calling out ‘Pete’
Just use initials (to move quickly) and don’t bother with quotation marks. Imagine you’re in the presence of that person. Greet them and let the dialogue go wherever it goes. If it grinds to a halt, imagine that person is sitting with you to see if something emerges. Read back over that person’s stepping stones. Opening line: I Just read your stepping stones and it made me feel…
Into the silence
P: I just read your stepping stones and it made me feel, well, sort of empty.
D: Empty? That’s an odd thing to say. What do you mean?
P: Well, like, I couldn’t remember much about you. Or about us. Or about the family. Why is that?
D: You weren’t really around. I moved halfway across the country. And you know how much this family hates moving.
P: Yea, I don’t want to get off topic, but what’s up with that? It’s definitely a trait of mine. I don’t even like leaving the house past 7:00 pm, much less relocating my physical body multiple states away from home base.
D: I’m not sure. But I don’t think we’re here to discuss family migration patterns.
P: You’re right. But I’m not sure what I want to talk about. I don’t know you. I never really knew you. What invisible bonds does blood create? What tethers us together? Is a family characterized by distance and unknowing still a family? Now that you’ve passed, how should I feel? Last night I conjured up your face. But all I could think about was my mother. Her pain and sadness. The passing of her first sibling launches her into a phase of life that scares me in its finality. The regrets she has about never providing a close-knit extended family. This wasn’t her fault, of course. But I know, or at least can guess, at just how badly she feels.
D: So it sounds like you’re asking me if it’s okay not to miss me.
P: I guess it is. I’m sorry.
P: For never reaching out. For never taking the initiative to instigate some form of communication with my dying uncle. For thinking about you less than I thought about characters on a TV show. How do I remedy this? What penance must be paid for my willful ignorance, my turning away? How can I make this right?
D: You can’t. I’m gone.
P: I’m sorry.
This is intense stuff. We take a break to clear out some of the emotional charge still sitting on top of us.
Inner Wisdom Dialogue is the last activity we’re going to do. The inner wisdom dialogue is one in which we have a conversation from history or mythology or an ancestor or a deity or fiction. Someone who inspires us in a connection with a meaningful life. Make a list of wisdom figures. People who you want to speak with about the big life questions.
David Foster Wallace
Coach Taylor (Friday Night Lights)
Maynard James Keenan
Look at the list. Maybe you’re drawn to one. Maybe you’re pushed away from one (that’s probably the one you should speak with, btw). So pick one. As with the other dialogue, write a focus statement. A simple declaration of a need or a question. What do you want that figure’s help with? I’m going to choose Alfie Kohn.
Focus Statement: How do I sustain a progressive philosophy of education (and life) in the face of such overwhelming odds?
Imagine the figure is walking towards you. Greet them and let the dialogue unfold. The figure might change in the middle of the dialogue. If that happens, go with it.
P: Mr. Kohn!
A: Hello there! It’s so nice to see you. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog posts and your Twitter feed.
P: Really? That’s amazing!
A: What can I do for you?
P: How do I know what I’m doing is the right thing? How do I know I’m on the right path? I read your books. I read your blog. I read your articles. Yet I often feel like everything I experience day-to-day goes against your wisdom.
A: Join the club. I’ve felt that way my entire life!
P: But then how do you know what’s right? How do know that the opinions you’re giving aren’t misguided?
A: Well, why do you ask? Although I’m pretty sure I know the answer already.
P: Because I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know how to teach. Grade or no grades. Test vs no tests. Preparing students for life, for college, for vocational positions, for academia. These tracking systems we have in our society are so ingrained. How do I know what to teach each student?
A: Keep going.
P: What if I’m only doing these things because I think they’re right independent of studies and research and “best practices?” Isn’t that selfish of me?
A: I can’t answer these questions for you.
P: Why not?
A: Because the answers can only come from you. Like you said, this is your system of ethics you’re developing. Your personal philosophy of how education should work.
P: But I want to do what’s right. But what if rubrics are the best way to improve student writing? What if John Dewey was wrong? Or, more accurately, what if I’m only partially right? What if this tiny sliver of knowledge I’ve gleaned over the past twelve months is a misreading? Maybe I’m in over my head. Maybe I only have my own best interests in mind.
A: Do you think that’s true?
P: I don’t know! That’s what I’m asking you! I want a mentor. I need a mentor. I need someone to tell me that what I’m doing is the right thing to do. That I’m heading on a path of authentic experience. That I’m going to make a positive difference to something or someone outside of myself. Or maybe I’m taking this way too personally. I feel like I’m placing myself up on a pedestal of solipsism. A pedagogy of narcissism predicated upon masquerading my own interests as what’s best for students. I’m afraid I’m not good enough for all of this. That I just don’t have what it takes to carry on a progressive, learned approach to teaching and learning. That I have nothing to fall back on. That I’ll look back in five years and hang my head in shame at the misguided techniques I used in the service of some false progressivism I didn’t even know enough about.
A: Keep walking the path. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep thinking.
P: That’s it?
A: That’s it.
P: I had a feeling you would say that.
Phew! We share out. Tears galore! Mucous out the wazoo!
This is the raw stuff that becomes amazing writing. These journal prompts work really well with students. It helps them generate ideas to write about. Come back to it throughout the quarter and semester and year. Turn these ideas into fiction by changing names. Using the images and phrases to start and end poems. Personal narratives stemming from any of the stepping stones. Poems for two voices with the dialogue. Using the dialogue to help students write…dialogue. Use a literary character and write out his or her stepping stones. Keep recording! Mindfulness! To practice coming home to your body. To becoming aware of existing in a space.
Now we run, partially hollowed out by the emotional purge, to lunch.