Thursday, December 6, 2012

Which of the Kids is doing their own thing?: Patterns and Anomolies

Not long ago the teachers I work with and I had a chance to read Doug Rushkoff's book, Program or be Programmed, and then to ask him questions at one of our monthly Park Cottage sessions where we explore different aspects of how and why learning becomes "deep" or transformative and not simply surface or "strategic." But there remained a foundational central idea that we never really got to, and it has been with me ever since.

Rushkoff's book is structured as "Ten Commands for a Digital Age," but the pivotal concept is the idea that technology itself has bias--"a leaning, a tendency to promote one set of behaviors over another." If you do not acknowledge and understand the bias, you are doomed to be controlled by the medium. As Rushkoff writes, "Only by understanding the biases of the media through which we engage with the world can we differentiate between what we intend, and what the machines we're using intend for us--whether they or their programmers even know it."

Ever since that session, I have been thinking about "school" as the "machine we're using," and trying to discern what its biases are. So, for example, in the blog post about "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (which generated a remarkable amount of interest), I was exploring the idea that we are biased toward (and unaware of it) "hedgehog" learners, and that we have constructed a world that leans toward people who exhibit that trait in schools. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but a bias nonetheless, and a bias that we might want to re-evaluate in view of how many "foxes" we have as learners.

Right now, I am wondering whether there is another "bias" that we have--we are much more inclined to favor patterns in student's thinking over anomalies. And, furthermore, we favor students who exhibit pattern recognition over those who are inclined toward identification of anomalies.

I am thinking about this, in part, because I am presently teaching someone who is one of the most adroit anomaly identifiers I have come across in recent years. For example, when we are reading a short story she immediately spots the place in the text that does not fit the pattern that has been established. However, she does not do it by seeing the pattern and then noting something is happening outside it.

Look at this video, and then let's talk about what you saw.

I actually remember sitting with my children and watching this segment of the show when it would come on and really loving it. But, notice the bias. It is called "Three of these Kids" and then after identifying how the three kids playing baseball form a pattern, only then do we establish which of these kids is "doing his own thing." My student, however, would be the person who not only would not identify the pattern first and THEN go to the anomalous football player, she would just possibly identify that one of the kids is left-handed (the upper left) and all the others are right handed. She is also extraordinarily good at making predictions when it comes to guessing what will come next based on what has come before. I cannot tell, however, if this is because of her skill with anomalies or because she also happens to work intuitively as well.

This has caused me to start to monitor how many times I ask questions that are patterned-based rather than anomaly-based. How often do I work inductively where I start with observations of data, record them and then look for patterns? How often do I ask questions about a text that are really about connecting different passages because I am trying to establish a pattern that I think will promote understanding? And it will promote understanding! But, I think I need to take a tip from Doug Rushkoff and be aware of the bias that I have--and I think most of us have--toward pattern recognition. How does that affect the way we run our classes? How does it affect the way we create tests and other forms of assessments? I am not saying we should stop teaching pattern recognition, only that it would be good to notice that we have that cognitive and epistemological bias (just as we favor analysis over intuition) and that it may give us a clue about some kids who are "doing their own thing" in our classrooms.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Flannery O'Connor and Andre DuBus: Two Parables about Writing and Reading

We have been reading the manuscript of Mira Jacob's (remember this name, she has a great book coming out) new novel that was just purchased by Random House, and getting ready for our last authorship seminar of the semester. By this point in the semester we have established that there are, at minimum, three acts of "authorship" happening when someone is reading any text.

It is when students are reading in all three of these ways simultaneously that it creates a different kind of relationship to the text--one that is more transformational and life-changing.

The first is that we are reading what the writer wrote and looking at the craft--the conscious choices that any writer makes in practicing their talent--through an analytic lens. In this sense, we are using all the close reading techniques we have practiced and trying not to "dead frog" the text (click to earlier blog post for an explanation). We are also practicing our intuitive reading (more on this is an upcoming blog post) and making some predictions and guesses about what the author's need might be in writing this piece. What is it that the writer set out to explore, and how can you discern that need from the text they created?

And we have realized that there is a way in which the writer is "listening" to the story they are telling and are not in complete control of what is being written. In other words, that there is an "unconscious" quality to writing that happens, and that sometimes it seems to the writer like the story has a life of its own and the writer is almost transcribing what they hear the characters saying. And we have practiced that kind of "deep listening" with Lee Stringer (click to earlier blog post for an explanation). This idea of the story being "alive" was something I never really truly understood until I was teaching Native American students in Albuquerque decades ago. For them, in a way that I had never been exposed to before, some stories were sacred because they created something in their actual telling. In a sense, these stories had their own "authorship" independent of the writer or the reader.

Finally, we have realized that "to read a book is to author it," and that has created an awesome sense of responsibility and a commitment to a dialogic relationship with the text. This is probably the most revolutionary idea for most students. They are so used to being taught that authors are in complete control of their writing, and that everything has an symbolic intention that they forget what Paul Auster said to us once in an earlier authorship seminar, "reading is the only place where two strangers can meet so immediately and so intimately. Together the reader and the writer come together to make the book. I don't think of what I write as a book; it's a text. What I call a book is created when the reader and writer meet in the text."

Or, as novelist Danzy Senna put it in our seminar with her, “Once I have said what I have to say, then it is not as if I own the text anymore; the meaning becomes a joint venture (between the writer and the reader).”

This reminds me of two parables that relate to the act of reading and writing. One comes from my friend Buddy who relates the scene at a reading by Flannery O'Connor at UNC. O'Connor had finished her reading and was taking questions when one student posed what is perhaps one of the ultimate "graduate school" questions:

"Ms. O'Connor, I was wondering if I could ask you about the the symbol of the marble cake in your story 'Everything Rises Must Converge?' I was wondering if the swirling of the black and white parts of the cake that lightly touch each other but also remain distinct and separate, that were distinct in their own right, yet each partaking of the other as each of those colors do, acting as a kind of complimentary yet contiguous entity, forcing each to form boundaries yet not being able to ultimately exist without the other in order to form a whole, whether that was a commentary on black/white relations in the South, and that was what you were trying symbolize with that cake."


To which Flannery looked down and said, "Actually, my mother used to make marble cake; and it was always my favorite."

The second story is from a time when Andre Dubus came to visit the English department of the school where I first started teaching. The English department had read a story of his and there was a character, Anna, who did this very out of character (it seemed) action at the end of the story. As I recall, I think she robbed a grocery store.
My friend Frank, a hard core analyst of the highest order, opens the discussion with the following question after laying out his understanding of Anna's character prior to this action using copious textual references,

"So, Mr. Dubus, it kind of surprised me when she robbed the store at the end."

"That surprised you too, eh?" replies Dubus.

"What?" answers Frank.

"That surprised you, too, that she robbed the store?"

"Wait, what are you saying? You WROTE the story."

"Well, what are YOU saying, you READ the story. I was just listening, and she said she was going to rob the store."

And what ensued was a conflict about reading and writing that split the department concerning the act of reading between the "pro-Frank" and the "pro-Andre" teachers for the rest of the time I was there.

Now, I look back at them as two fabulous parables about teaching and learning.