Sunday, October 21, 2012

Teaching Experience-based Reading: How to Resurrect a "Dead Frog"

A few years ago I was on the phone with one of the authors, Junot Diaz, who we have come to CITYterm to explore with students the idea of what it means to "author your own learning" in the context of writing and creativity. The students have read something the author has written, but there is no lecture or presentation; it is just students and the author asking each other questions. The trick is to get the students to have a experience-based relationship with the author's work, and "dead frogging" it--no matter how sophisticated or literary--doesn't get you very far with these authors. The reason is that they didn't write the book so that a bunch of high school teachers and students could analyze their work. However, given the way most of us were taught to teach literature, you wouldn't know that was the case walking into our classes.

On this particular occasion I was asking Junot whether he had finished the piece that he was working on. We had read Oscar Wao as a novella, but Junot had realized that it was really a full novel, and he was engaged in the painstaking process of making that happen.

He replied, "Oh, yes I am just about done. All I have to do is go back and put in the symbols."

This is Junot's way of giving me a hard time about teaching literature--so I found it hysterically funny. But if you tell that story to students, most of them will look at you quizzically as if to say, "Really? That is how they (authors) do it?" But his comment does not surprise most of them. And the fact that it does not is a  damning indicator that we do not teach literature the way authors write it. In fact, we invert the process. We talk about "author's intention," but we do it so that we can do literary-critical analysis on the text.

We do not teach literature in a way that allows students to understand what a story is saying to its author as well as its reader. We teach students how to perform sophisticated, incisive dissections on literary bodies that increasingly come to be seen as cadavers. We teach them how to perform operations on  a text. What I am wondering is whether we are so busy teaching them how to "talk" to a story - that we don't teach them how to "listen" to it. 

The other night another of our authors, Lee Stringer, and I tried an experiment with an activity that was based almost entirely on deep listening. He had students pick a word, and then after a brief introduction to the assignment had them write continuously for twelve minutes without taking the pen up from the paper. Then, he had people read what they had written while the listeners closed their eyes and, after the person was done, they called out specific words that had a deep impact on them when they had heard them. After that we spent some time with the author figuring out what the piece was about.

The trick is that the student/author realizes that they don't control the piece they wrote--twelve minutes is too long a time for the unconscious not to make its appearance. What the result of our experiment was that the group of thirty started to talk about the written text itself as though it were a living thing. And the student/author was right at the center because they wanted to know what it was about too--even though they had written it!

Vivian Gornick talks about this division by separating a text into the situation:  the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot or setting, or major characters -- and the story:  "the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say." The situation you can analyze; the story requires intense and deep listening.

Literary criticism certainly has a place as a technique of reading, but deep listening will get the reader to the place where they can resurrect any "dead frogs" they might have created by performing those more detached operations.

Early that day in class we had explored James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues." As I read this story, I think it gives us some clues about what really listening feels like. In the final  scene of the story the analytic, mathematics teacher/narrator describes Sonny playing with Creole's band, "And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny's face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn't with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for hm, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on short rein.

Up there, keeping beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing--he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water."

The great thing about the Lee Stringer evening writing was that we began to sound like Creole and Sonny's band. We were really listening to each other and, in some cases, we were learning that deep water is not drowning. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Problem with the Way We Teach Reading: "Dead Frogging" The Great Gatsby

One day I was walking to soccer practice with one of my Advanced Placement English Literature students who was also a crafty left-sided player on the soccer team. His name was Martin, and he had come from Switzerland. I think that gave him a kind of maturity in American eyes because he always seemed so calm, so above the fray, so, well--Swiss. And, for precisely that reason, he was a great person to approach, as young teachers often do, to get feedback on how a class was going--and to fish for compliments. It is something I find myself rarely doing now, but back when I first started there was nothing quite like the affirmation of a student like Martin to make you feel like you knew what you were doing. And that is precisely what I found myself surreptitiously doing with Martin as we walked to practice together.

We had just finished reading The Great Gatsby, and when I say read, I mean every phrase and every word and every syntactical construction. It was, after all, A.P. literature, and I was determined to have mined every piece of secondary literature on the novel, and to have read Fitzgerald biographies and letters. In short, I was prepared to spend over a month going page by page over what Fitzgerald had called his "masterpiece."

So, as we walked, I fished.

"So, Martin, I thought we really had some amazing stuff come out today in class."

"Definitely. Some really good connections."

Not enough. That was it? Really good connections? I needed more....

"I was impressed that we got the reference to the fresh green breast of the new world on the last page, and saw that it was a reverse of Myrtle's breast flapping after the accident. Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins, told Fitzgerald he thought he should take that out because it was racy, but Fitzgerald said no, it was essential."

"Yeah, that was pretty cool to see how he worked that in as a symbol."

This was not exactly the feeling I wanted from what had been a two month minute analysis.

"So, what do think about the novel in the end?"

A long pause as we get ready to enter the gym and head to different locker rooms.

"I guess I sort of feel like I do about my frog in A.P. Bio. I mean, I can tell you anything about the pieces of that frog. I have spent days dissecting that thing; I know everything there is to know about frogs, I think. But then I looked down at it the other day when we were done and I thought-- it was just a dead frog."

What ensued was yet another of my dark nights of the soul. Oh my god, I thought, I have "dead-frogged" The Great Gatsby.

But how had that happened? I was just doing the great literary-critical read of a book that rewards that kind of reading perhaps more than any other book I know. And wouldn't that, by the way, guarantee a "5" on the A.P. test?

Wasn't that what I was supposed to be doing? be continued.....

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Interesting Connection Between Posts?

Someone just pointed out to me that the most recent post on Success and Failure is really informed by and develops a previous post from two years ago on Stories and Anecdotes.

It is an interesting connection, and I can see how my thinking has moved in terms of adding "dialectical" thinking when addressing why "dichotomous thinking" is so dangerous for experience-based learning.

Thank you. for pointing out this connection.

Dialectics is a hard way to think but I believe it is what Baldwin was getting at in the last paragraph of Notes of a Native Son when he writes,

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair."

Not only is this one of my favorite essays ever by one of my favorite writers ever, he arrives at that "dialectical" conclusion in such a heart-breaking manner that it is breath-taking.
Or perhaps it is what Fitzgerald means in the oftquoted line, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

Monday, October 8, 2012

She Knows There's No Success Like Failure.....But Failure's No Success At All: From Dichotomy to Dialectic

My friend Jason said I should start writing some shorter blogs, so here is my first attempt. We shall see how this goes; short may be hard.

Teachers always say that they learn things from their students, and that is one reason why they teach. To be honest, I find that when I actually ask teachers what was the last thing they learned from a student, many are tongue-tied. But what I have noticed in some teachers, and it's certainly true for me, is that when they DO learn things from students, it is because the students have learned something about themselves. This is the kind of learning that often occurs with experience-based teaching, and it leads to some of the most insightful moments I have with students. For example, having just finished a weekend of writing cognitive profiles of CITYterm students for mid-semester narratives, I find that the self-assessments the students produce lead me to some of the most interesting strategies for cognitive growth.

Here is a line from the end of a student's college essay that I have been pondering for some time, and is an example of what I mean.

She writes at the end of her essay, "What I have learned at CITYterm is that true failure is what inhibits you from experiencing the serendipitous moments that reunite you with your imagination and redirect you toward your purpose."

What was so impressive to me was that she had arranged so many different  experience-based learning principles into a unique combination that was original-- failure, serendipity, reuniting as integration, imagination and purpose.

Of course, what is also so remarkable is that her statement is, in fact, precisely what this student needed to learn:  she was petrified of failure (she had never really failed before in school) and deftly avoided experiences she thought could trigger her sense of failure when she arrived at CITYterm. But she did a lot of work on herself during the semester and came out with something remarkable and memorable. I have found myself often thinking about what those "inhibitions" are; how many forms do they take?

My own thinking about failure was first informed by Bob Dylan when I was a freshman in high school with the release of "Love Minus Zero/ No Limit"--"she knows there's no success like failure, but that failure's no success at all." It took me a long time to really have this as a feeling, but to live that paradox deeply means that you come to understand a new way of approaching learning. (It is worth noting here that there are few statements that I have come across that generate as much debate and strong feelings as this one. So, for whatever reason, this seems to be a hot button issue in the world I inhabit. I would be curious to see what you think about Dylan's proposal.)

Failure, for people who are not experience-based learners, is the opposite of success. The two concepts--success and failure--represent a dichotomy that cannot be reconciled.  Most of the students I am around who are high achievers have not yet understood the wisdom of what Dylan was proposing. But as we have seen in earlier posts, dichotomies are dangerous territory for experience-based learning because they often frame the issue in overly simplistic ways.

I think that what Dylan is proposing is not a dichotomy but a dialectic. The difference is profound. Success and failure as a dialectic sees these two concepts as a yin and yang--forever intertwined in a whole entity that is dynamic, like a journey. People who "enter the paradox" through dialectical thinking are more effective in navigating the vicissitudes of life that we actually do not completely control--whether it is at home, or in school or on the basketball court. What a dialectical way of thinking does is give you an intentionality to aim yourself toward a goal, do your best to maintain focus and allow yourself to accept the outcome of your efforts--whatever they may be. I sometimes wonder whether there is a correlation between people who think in dichotomies and people who want to control the outcome of things.

So speaking of basketball,

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics legend, was probably the person who most exemplified the ability to embrace the dialectic of success and failure when I was a young teacher. (Not that Larry Legend would have described it this way, but click the link to watch Larry in the fourth quarter in the 1988 game 7 of the NBA semifinals and you will get a sense of what I mean.) Even though he was someone who was one of the best passers of the ball ever to live, he was always unafraid to take the crucial shot. It always seemed like he was on a journey that thrilled and excited him. He didn't get caught up in any fears about failure that interfered with his ability to just do his best at playing the game.

What I have come to realize is that turning the dichotomy of success and failure into a dialectic is one of the keys to becoming an advanced experience-based learner. I sometimes wish schools would think more in dialectics and less in dichotomies. This may be one reason that the schools I am most familiar with are dedicated to success and quite afraid of failure. Perhaps we should establish a top award for "dialectics in success and failure?" Or would that be too much "guerrilla irony?"

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A List of Criteria to Tell Whether My Feedback is Experience-based

When I was in graduate school doing philosophy courses, we used to pose these "thought experiments" as a way of opening one's thinking about a problem.

In the past, I have done experiments such as "Imagine a student you teach arrives home from the first day of school. His parent(s) meet him at the door and say, "How was school today?' How do you want her to answer then they ask about your individual class? Write out your answer on a piece of paper. Now, how are you going to design your class so that she says those words?"

Or, "Imagine that the state has outlawed grades as a mechanism for giving feedback because of the research showing that grading retards development and growth. You have to design a new form of feedback. What would it look like?"

So, what follows (and I apologize if this gets dense or boring--sometimes doing these experiments results in this happening but it is part of the process. Sorry. My advice,  if that happens?  Skip to what you find interesting) is an experiment answering this question, "How many statements can you make that you think are true about experience-based feedback?"

So, here are a couple of premises that I think are true about feedback that is transformational followed by a list of statements that I think are true.  You can tell me which ones you agree with or not. Please feel free to comment, the feedback would be fun.

The Purpose of Feedback

     The main purpose of feedback is to support learning.  Learning, however, is not just about technical skill development and product enhancement - it is also about making people engaged, motivated and empowered in their learning.  Feedback, therefore, focuses not only on what has been learned but also on how people learn.  In short, feedback helps learners know how to improve and it develops the capacity for self-assessment.  Feedback should encourage intrinsic motivation, give learners a sense of authorship and control, build learner’s confidence in their own learning, and enhance their strategic awareness of how improve.  Feedback that achieves those goals is truly “experience-based.”

The following are criteria to determine whether feedback is experience-based or not:

            Feedback must be timely—late feedback is virtually worthless.
            Feedback on assessments (papers, tests, quizzes, presentations) has an emotionally charged feature that is critical to developing intrinsic motivation. To not take that into account when giving feedback is negligent, short-sighted and harmful.
            Feedback significantly affects peoples’ motivation and engagement. If your students are not motivated and are disengaged, look immediately at the feedback you are giving them rather than at them.
            Feedback should foster “care” and respond to a “need” on the part of the author.
            Feedback should be used to support learning, not competition.
            Feedback is best used to promote learning, not to measure it.
            Feedback is the single dominating factor in motivation.  Motivation comes in four major forms 1) task driven (intrinsic) 2) ego (competition) 3) social (fitting in and pleasing people) and 4) as means to an end (extrinsic).  Only the first is “harm-free” and developmentally sound.  Feedback should focus on the task not on the student. 
            Students faced with continued negative feedback develop “learned helplessness” in order to protect their self-esteem.

            Peoples’ persistence is related to how successful they think they expect to be. How successful they expect to be is largely determined by the feedback they get.        
            Developmentally sound feedback recognizes that intelligence is “flexible” not “fixed.” (You have to read Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, for a fuller explanation of these ideas)
            Self-efficacy precedes, and is the foundation of, self-esteem.
            Formative feedback is more important for development than summative feedback.
            Feedback that feels like judgment will undermine development.
            Feedback should always be designed to increase confidence.
            Feedback should always have a meta-cognitive feature to it.
            Feedback should always be designed to increase the feeling of autonomy of the learner not dependence.
            Learning is a social activity that benefits from collaboration.
            Feedback should be based on the Vygotsky model of 1) performance assisted by teachers 2) performance is self-assisted 3) performance has become internalized and almost automatic 4) performance seeks out the DKDK zone and copes with uncertainty.
            Feedback should be seen as part of a “dialogue” between author and responder.
            Developmentally sound feedback fosters a relationship between the author and their work as well as between the author and the responder.
            Feedback has the greatest developmental impact when it does not compare work to other students work but focuses on specific ways the work can be improved and on improvements from earlier work.
            Feedback that is developmentally sound assumes that students have a clear understanding of the assessment criteria. This is often a bad assumption, and has to be re-visited by both student and teacher.
            Feedback that is purely technical is less effective than feedback that has cathartic, catalytic and coaching value that inspires hope and confidence.
            Feedback that focuses on the process of learning (“sustainable feedback”) rather than only the outcome or performance will improve learning and subsequent performance. (I like this idea of feedback that is sustainable because it links so nicely to the idea of meta-cognition and self-knowledge on the part of the student.)
            Developmentally sound feedback must be separated from grading in order to be effective.

            Feedback in the form of “reflective assessment” with peers has a positive impact.
            Self-assessment feedback encourages students to think about the criteria that should be used in judging their work rather than relying solely on teachers to determine that criteria. (Therefore, each piece of student work should have an "author's page" attached in which the student explains to the teacher what they want feedback on and what questions remain in their minds about their work.)
            Students can get better at a task not only by doing the task but by increasing their capacity to give developmentally sound feedback.
            Feedback must be put to use after it is given.
            Feedback is most effective when students are responsible for the organization of their work, keep a record of their activities and make their own decisions about future actions.
            Feedback is for the teacher as much as it is for the student.

So, this is my list so far. Please feel free to add to it. It is what I have come to look at whenever I begin to think I am not really giving feedback that will foster transformation.