Fiction-Literacy and Action

Considering my own book shelves  makes it clear that the concept of telling a story in pieces has a longer history- much pre-dating the blogging period.

Harriet Beecher Stowe so famous for the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in March 1852, first attracted readers when she published her pieces in an abolitionist newspaper- apparently as a 45 part series- imagine (!) the excitement for readers when the whole collection was bound and then shared as a complete volume  – actually a two volume book.  Today she is credited with helping to change public opinion globally about slavery- the books having been sold and translated and shipped across the world.  Charles Dickens is another author whose concerns about (1836 and on) social conditions also managed to attract a large audience through the newspapers- publishing his stories in serial installments and generating what today we refer to as  a “buzz” or word of mouth excitement – we tweet about our favorite tv shows/movie character/ musicians, references to the character’s exploits, and -perhaps- consider the situations in reference to contemporary social issues.  Both Dickens and Stowe knew that their stories would only work if readers could recognize the “truth” within the stereotype and character.  And today?  we bemoan the retirement of a TV personality like John Stewart whose regular satire allowed us as viewers to poke a bit of fun at ourselves, while being made aware of very real social issues. And in installments, with each episode capable of illustrating a current concern while the big picture “story” of recognizing social justice/injustice was never far from the scene. 

Perhaps news as “NEWS” – social issues horrific and frightening at times not only have become almost commonplace but require the distilling through a commercial lens.  Can we laugh at the horror? ought we too? and if not laugh, can we empathize with the struggles of others?  Dicken’s famous character Scrooge, epitomizes to many what may have been lost in terms of charitable feelings when people became commodities /objects at a factory and as dispensable or replaceable as any part in a machine – but the story holds sway and stays in people’s minds because we are presented with the three ghosts and the ideal of being able to change the future through present action.  Scrooge actually changes and while not a fairy tale, Dicken’s story provided for this awakening, this way to merge owner and worker, in this space we call humanity.  Harriet Beecher Stowe not only united many in the fight to end slavery, she also united women in an amazing cross cultural and cross economic fashion, when women signed a petition to become vocal on a political level, expressing their outrage at the continuation of practices that set one group of people against another.  Fiction then can change lives when readers have access to the story, and opportunity to care deeply, passionately about others.

But the books and authors mentioned also brought together their personal experiences and their ability to craft a story through researching the lived experiences of others- when teaching and analyzing novels with students it seems imperative to make clear that imagination isn’t either “out there” as a thing itself, or solely inside as a personality trait but is indeed an action, practiced, encouraged, developed and extended which each student is capable  of accessing within him or her self.  Some become better at the craft of sharing this trait- the ability to design in any fashion demands imagination what ever field- the ability to care? I would like to think it is innate if not always encouraged.

Music to teach by:

Early morning, and as light flashed through the blinds and the sounds of a new day began with the street rumble my brain kept hearing David Bowie singing “Ch-Ch changes”, and I found myself marveling at how the singer’s vocals had so captured the feelings of worry and confusion major changes might bring on.  The near stutter evoked palpable fear- and the lyrics continue to suggest why and how major social upheavals will produce this worry.  We have mottoes today such as “change is good” and websites “teaching” how to be a disruptor, yet if people were actually to follow a blueprint for disruption then the bandwagon effect of everyone doing pretty much the same thing happens, and little “ch-ch change ” actually occurs.

Technology and education go together and regardless of what age or grade level one may be  working with, most educators do make use of various forms of “equipment”- computer, phone, i-pad, smart board, digital cameras, and even the lesser in vogue today but which schools may have on hand, audiovisual equipment such as TVs, and overhead projectors.  But the change today is to almost insist that the students are the ones offering the lesson in order to have them demonstrate some understanding of subject matter.   Academics still demands testing, be it in the form of board wide generated formal exams that are meant to provide a summative overview of where a group of students may fit within the big picture perspective of “learning goals” ( formally called objectives) or in the everyone”must” first acquire testing that either welcomes or eliminates students from moving to new levels  (any pre – program assessment test from the SAT through the GRE).

So what really has changed?  The day to day encouragement which in some ways may be reminiscent of apprenticeships of old, with a slight slant.  Many of the younger generation are technologically “gifted” that is swift learners when it comes to using and applying new technology, however this technology to “make sense” of Academic goals is still applied as a “tool” for learning, rather than the end means in and of itself.  Learning coding becomes a new strand neatly placed alongside IT courses, when really it could be right up there with Language Arts- coding is a form of communication – not only do computers speak with one another, but the person versed in code understands a language as does the person using vocabulary specific to any field of study.  And like the acquisition of any new skill, some basics must be learned /applied/understood, before the “creative” aspect that leads to “ch-ch changes” or real innovation will be demonstrated.

Bowie’s  song with its direct appeal that we ought to “turn and face the strange”  continues to be of value- when listening to ( “but I”) “can’t trace time” , the clear concept of a younger generation not becoming a carbon copy of its predecessors but instead further innovating and adding to the picture as a whole is both “disruptive” and positive-the singer readily acknowledging that time itself  may change him-allowing for his own growing and changing, as a reminder that it is not mere rebellion but is new direction.

Has education really changed? Or are we merely participating in that ripple effect which technological changes create? Bottom line, as educators, we are compelled to encourage the students to question-when they do so -like Bowie-they too may “ch-ch-change” things up.

To Learn to question “Why”

Yes.  As Educators many of us have already become familiar with the idea that the pendulum swings back and forth and that “new” may not be as “new” a concept as current in vogue proclamations may suggest- what then may have happened in between the suggestion that questioning is basic to inquiry and the present full scale onslaught of “change in education” means “pursue inquiry”…on blogs, tweets, news reports etc- reminiscent  of the “new/improved”  labels on breakfast cereals; when DO the changes really- really- become “REAL” ?

Technology is great- and one of its best uses is the simply fast way it can connect so many of us, allowing for the spread of ideas (unfortunately negative ideas spread quickly too) and the rapid growth of online communities, sharing of resources, and ability to engage with people whom we may not otherwise have been able to connect with.  Professional Learning Networks (PLN) may indeed provide for cross cultural exploration of ideas, a chance to openly reflect on best practices, and provide support and encouragement in developing one’s own set of better practices.  For the concept of “best” practices is now a bit of a conundrum. 

      Engaging with a variety of students allows for different levels of reflection and interaction:

Elementary students learn: Albert Einstein suggested imagination may be more important than knowledge:  The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.   Albert Einstein    

However- lack of knowledge may make it difficult to apply one’s imaginary concepts…

-High School students made note of the following:

     Amazingly they did not feel hopeless in the face of such a discovery  -

and middle school students enjoyed this:

We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid. Benjamin Franklin   ( said the man attempting to understand electricity by experimenting with lightning and kites, among other things)

What then are we encouraging when the latest bandwagon suggests “teach inquiry”- wasn’t this part of the learning process before? If not- why not? When we share a bit of history rather than merely proclaiming newest is best- we automatically enable students to begin making connections and developing an inquiring mindset.  But if we don’t put the historical event into context we are only providing a series of facts – yesterday was “International Women’s Day” and it was truly exciting to read how many people cared to get involved and how across countries and cultures via the internet so many, male and female, could share their hopes for a future that allowed for the pursuit of knowledge on the part of ALL global citizens.  To me- that single word “ALL” becomes central- removing an “us versus them” gender bias, and replacing the goal with the hope that inquiry based learning- learning that indeed asks questions and admits to a lack of answers-  which is inquiry based learning at its best, will give voice to “if not- why not” thinking; thinking that would lead to action and possibilities for education.  Because one thing did become clear- the lack of p0ssibilites for what is seen as formal education was one of the reasons behind needing such an event as International Women’s Day in the first place.
Our students = the future, and their world will have new challenges, in ALL fields, and being allowed to question how something may be improved is as important as being encouraged to value the notion of questioning. 
Maria Montessori, best known for the schools that offer her name in their title, took seriously the purpose behind “learning through doing”:

asking “For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?

To borrow that inquiry and place it in today’s context: what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s opportunity for development lags behind?
Students recognize both purpose and potential and when we as educators discuss concepts such as how to engage a group we are really asking how can this lesson, this demonstration, this activity prove meaningful.  When a student (regardless of gender) sees no future use value from the inquiry that is when we as educators must worry- and question the social structure itself – a structure that has made thinking, questioning, caring, and potential for improving non existent to whole communities of people be it due to economic, cultural, or political issues.  Why?
(I have benefited from working with an extraordinary range of students and their communities, extending my own concepts of inquiry, and what it may mean to encourage curiousity)

Modern Women of Influence

Too often it seems the “classic” women of influence are early suffragettes and women who made a difference as “sidekick” to the men who in their time received the accolades.  So classes of students may “discover” that in addition to Watson and Crick and the DNA model there was Rosalind Elsie Franklin, molecular biologist, and then students may question what is meant by the term”sexism”.  My problem with any learning that appears to polarize rather than to unite is that reductive and reactive stance; men were credited- women were ignored.  Perhaps a change of pace would have some looking into the “men behind the women”, noting for example that although a writer like George Sand had to take on a pseudonym to first be seen as an independent author (and then read) being a ‘special friend’ to Chopin didn’t hurt her creativity or her career.  Or take George Elliot ( George appears to have been a popular choice of male name for female writers !) born Mary Ann (Marian) Evans, her biography reminds one that her positive relationship with philosopher and critic George (actual name- male) Henry Lewis may have contributed to her prolific writing and the novel Middlemarch.   

When we share stories of strong females, we have an opportunity to also speak about social change over time, to note where and when women had influence: ancient Egypt had a female Pharaoh, China an Empress dowager, and Britain (today and) in its history many a powerful Queen.

Fast forward to Madonna and Beyonce- female powerhouse singers, dancers, entertainers, breaking the financial barriers too!  Beyonce’s start was as lead singer with the musical group Destiny’s Child- a group managed by her dad – who apparently resigned from his job to manage the  group.  Madonna remains unique in her determination, and her quote: In 1996* she said: “I came to the realization that a strong female is frightening to everybody, because all societies are male-dominated – black societies, poor people, rich people, any racial group, they’re all dominated by men. A strong female is going to threaten everybody across the board.” ( *amybrown.net)

The quote in itself opens discussion.  Why should strength on the part of a female be threatening? When and where have societies embraced rather than obscured female talent? How do politics/economics/education and opportunity inter-mesh, and in what ways can history enlighten girls of today – offering both a form of mentoring (they did it!) and a timeline with potential for further changes. Of course not only history: sports, the arts, politics, economics, current leaders, modern technology; examples abound and females of influence may be found in each sphere. Please remember though- women and men make up the whole, and society benefits when both genders are open to communication; to fully celebrate women of influence let’s not create a further polemic and instead encourage mutual appreciation, and keep the whole class curious about invoking positive social change.

More time for the “Arts”

Movie watching.  144 minutes of complete entertainment and at the end an awareness that to share it in a school setting would require a tremendous amount of juggling between timetables.  Over two hours and each minute compelling, meant breaking it into 45-50 minute “chunks” would simply render the movie an antique, and remove the energy and enthusiasm and challenge the story itself presented.   In my “ideal” school design, there would be a viewing room where students would be able to have a deeper experience with the medium than the short and at times chopped up viewings that are often given to a class.  Many of the older films took seriously the concept that a story could be explored, even while allowing a viewer to come to one’s own conclusions about the characters- neither preachy nor in one’s face with action and special effects, the mood was capable of offering both the “escape” (from regular routine) and the challenge to empathetic response that the arts – participation in the arts- encourages.

For the record this wasn’t a film that I had watched before, nor was it in English- subtitles helped but the sounds of the language in which it was set made for extra enjoyment.  And Empathy with a capital E; first offered in the 1960s, in black and white, the “foreign” setting added to the tone, while images of high style juxtaposed with the very gritty, both romanticized and de-glamourized a life of crime.

The High School students I have worked with are often craving a change of pace and a chance to deeply explore ideas.  Going deeper suggests examining the layers of nuanced information, unpacking a story both for the content and for the way it was presented.  Project based learning, flipped classrooms, to test or not to test…back and forth the arguments are waged and emphasis placed on “real world” material- translation- will the learning later provide “work”?  Given that no singular style of classroom setting, no singular type of testing, no singular school environment has been proven to actually “guarantee” students a future with the possible exception of ‘apprentice’ style learning and then “owning” a mentor’s position, it seems relevant to suggest that instead of declaring “empathy” a needed character trait that schools are now to “teach” within programs variously labelled  and meant to promote Character Development – why not offer students a chance to debate, and care about others in situations beyond their personal experiences?  After all, empathy demystifies the “other” ,  recognizing instead the similarities over the differences.

STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, ART and Math- please don’t forget about the A.

Differentiated Instruction

A request came to elaborate on my last blog post, and clarify how a similar lesson was offered in different fashion to different students.  The Topic was the “Chinese New Year”  and I had mentioned in the last blog post how a couple of  students questioned the widely used title for the holiday- feeling the title had ignored their place of birth and own celebrations.

Together we discussed how families celebrate holidays, and looked at the skeleton of a human body.  The lesson moved on to talk about how skeletons may appear basically similar but the skin and outer garments of a person suggest both our similarities and our differences.  Then, we created an outline for the holiday itself- the Lunar Calendar, and using a combination of graphic charts, Venn diagrams, and reference material, on and off line, were able to highlight how and where the material – reference material- differed from the student’s personal practical knowledge.  His way of celebrating within his family- the specific traditions- became the focus of a written piece, the general traditions which appeared in common to the people of China and the other South Asian communities which we had looked up became affixed to a poster, and diagrams were extended to highlight how and where traditions may have changed, with reference to a timeline.

A simple question formed the basis of a full project, leading to a number of sessions while one aspect of inquiry encouraged deeper research and the review of geography plus history texts.  Given that literacy involves more than the deciphering of words on a page, the project enhanced literacy and began to involve math as well.  Statistics present in population charts, and cultural change over time brought us back to the present day, and the ways in which a topic may be extended.   Another student not of South Asian background had grown curious and was given the task of sharing one of his family customs- provided similar effort at understanding background and connecting the personal to the global would be shared.

The students were of different ages and at different grade levels- the expectation then was for the project work to demonstrate their different understanding of “how much is enough” – by not setting a page limit or restricting the amount they could share, the students “created”  work to share and were influenced by peer comments- questions and responses which I encouraged them to write down.  This was not a full class project – other students were working on other activities.  And it is only one example of how educators must become more open to what students may be asking, and when their students are craving some outside- of- routine work.

Much as I have put aside the assigned test prep packages and instead suggested articles in the Economist and other magazines to higher level students prepping for standardized  tests, and saw the test scores of said students jump – it was a pleasure to see the interest in the younger  students mentioned above, and to note that  when the standardized tests were offered, these students scored high as well.

Students had been encouraged to look for patterns, and to develop a personal set of inquiry based responses to their readings.  They were also encouraged to aim for accuracy over speed.

My personal pet wish: that the learning which goes into programming for students deemed “special ed”, be they remedial or gifted, would be training encouraged and expected for all new incoming teachers, so that differentiated instruction could become a part of programming across the board, and in large sized classes the movement among groups of students become more fluid.  Students themselves quickly absorb attempts to stream, and note which tables they are seated at, which work they are given, and which level they are expected to participate at.  Mind set and flow-two ideas that are meant to work together.

Multi-culturalism and learning

Young student to his teacher, ” Why do they call it ‘Chinese New Year’? I’m from Vietnam and I celebrate it too!”

Maps, look at population charts, find some of the history for both countries, discuss foods, customs, language, and what it means to celebrate in a “home country” versus in an adopted country.

Recall and share a comment from another student “Russia is part of Asia too!” – once again maps, populations charts, history…

What it really means to teach a “diverse group of students”.  It means to be aware, to be open, to respect cultural differences, to recognize family practices versus “global” ideals.  And to learn with one’s students.  When we learn together, we give each other “voice” and when we listen we move beyond words and expected understanding of the words to the personal and how each student may or may not “relate” to a concept.

Kindergarten through grade 12 and for many – a number of years in post secondary- that is really a lot of time in the places we label “school”.  As educators we need to be aware of how our own understanding of vulnerability is affected when children voice their confusion, and to join the students in their research and review of concepts that adults may be “taking for granted”.  Our purpose after all is to encourage their thinking skills, their curiousity, and their desire to learn more.  But first we do have to create a safe space wherein they may question us.  And if we do not have the immediate answer- or better yet if we ignore the immediate answer and instead join with our students in the search for answers, we just may be modelling what inquiry – makers, and doers, is all about.

To all who may be celebrating the Lunar New Year Festivities- Enjoy!