Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hannah's Exploratory Essay: Mental Models of Reading and Writing

As I was writing the last blog post what some people in the experience-based learning realm call "the world speaking" occurred. When this happens, you end up receiving Facebook messages, notes, phone calls, even letters from all kinds of people in your past and present who are thinking about the same things you are. It is an exciting time where you feel like your "availability" (see earlier blog post) is very high in a good way. In this case, colleagues, friends and former students all seemed to have something to say about the last post on shattering mental models in reading and writing. So, I thought I would share some of what I received since it furthers the last post nicely.

The first piece I received was on the sad occasion of the death of my friend Lisa's favorite author, Eduardo Galeano. I first came to know him through his "history" of soccer-- Soccer in Sun and Shadow--where magical realism and spirituality capture the game in a truly unique way. But Lisa's quote came from another  of his books--The Book of Embraces--where Galeano explores why he looks at the world the way he does. Lisa sent me the following entry entitled Celebration of the Marriage of Heart and Mind:

"Why does one write, if not to put one's pieces together? From the moment we enter school or church, education chops us into pieces; it teaches us to divorce soul from body and mind from heart. The fisherman of the Colombian coast must be learned doctors of ethics and morality, for they invented the word sentipensante, feeling-thinking, to define language that speaks the truth."

Analysis dominates so unrelentingly the way we approach reading and writing in high school that is does, in fact, "chop us into pieces" or at least so it feels to many of my students. Galeano deeply understands something I have been consciously struggling with for a few years now--the integrity of the "feeling-thinking." This moment is what I was exploring in any earlier post related to the immersion theater piece Sleep No More, as well as the pre-verbal experience of "awe" that I had at Delicate Arch in southern Utah.

Then my friend Miranda sent me the following quote from the Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco that reminded her of her time at the Teaching for Experience workshop the previous summer:

"In every painting, as in any other work of art, there is always an IDEA, never a story. The idea is the point of departure, the first cause of the plastic construction, and it is present all the time as energy creating matter. The stories and other literary associations exist only in the mind of the spectator, the painting acting as the stimulus. There are many as many literary associations as spectators. One of them, when looking at a picture representing a scene of war, for example, may start thinking of murder, another of pacifism, another anatomy, another history, and so on. consequently, to write a story and to say that it is actually TOLD by a painting is wrong and untrue."

Orozco is reminding us that the reader creates the "story" from the idea that the artist has put forth into the world. Reading is the act of creation that parallels and even mimics in its need the writer's or painter's. To deny it is to miss the point of the piece of art.

Reading in experience-based learning is about the kind of integration and synthesis of reader and artist and text that Galeano and Orozco are describing.

What reading entails is one mental model we play with at CITYterm, but the other mental model we usually have to unsettle a bit with CITYterm students is the dictatorial power of the "five-paragraph, persuasive, expository essay" as the essence of their conception of writing. Paul Graham, for example, does a lovely job of introducing people to another form of essay writing in his The Age of the Essay. However, the real goal at CITYterm is to have students come to see writing as an act of discovery--as a technique one can rely on to understand what you think. (Kind of what I use this blog for actually).

This past week I received the following "exploratory essay" from my former student Hannah. She had been in the car on the way to a college visit and the following discussion with her present history teacher just wouldn't go away. So, she decided to write an exploratory essay for herself to see what she really thought. I find it not only to be a great example of using writing for discovery (and the successful transfer of it from school into someone's outside life) but also Hannah's own thinking about reading from the point of view of someone in high school.

When reading becomes experience-based, what does that mean?--some thoughts from Hannah. Thank you so much for sending this on, and I look forward to many more conversations about this and other things with you.

Is Reading Selfish? : An Exploratory Essay

A few days ago, I sat down and had a discussion with my history teacher. We talked a lot about reading, and having empathy for characters and authors. Then, in a state of elation of having found someone who understood my perspective on learning, I let something slip.

            “Reading is selfish!” I exclaimed. There was a silence in which I immediately tried to shrink into my chair.

            “Selfish?” My teacher inquired. “How so?”

I muttered something about having a class, and then hurried out of the room. The truth is, I had no reasoning behind my statement. The blurted generalization proceeded to follow me throughout the rest of the week, nagging at the back of my brain. Was I wrong?

My generation is famous for our self-obsession. We have Twitter to let everyone know what we’re doing, Facebook to prove how many friends we have, Instagram to showcase our privilege and photography skills, and Snapchat to show just how much we party. Whenever we use these platforms as outlets for self-expression, we are immediately tagged as selfish.

“Kids these days,” I’ve heard many an adult grumble. “So obsessed with themselves, always texting on their phones. Why can’t they pick up a book?” My argument is as follows: picking up a book, in some ways, is just as self-centered as posting a selfie on Instagram.

What I’m about to claim sounds very blunt, but I believe it to be the truth. When we read, we don’t read to find the author’s message. We read to find what the book means to us, and if any author thinks otherwise they’re kidding themselves. Reading gives us an insight into our own lives: we either love or hate characters based on what we see of ourselves in them, we empathize with situations similar to our own, we make judgments based on our worldviews. We each read through our own lens, and this lens distorts everything we view based on how it relates to us.

This is why there’s no consensus that Camus is more correct than Sartre, and no agreement on the symbolism of Gatsby’s famous dock. It’s the reason people both despise and adore Draco Malfoy, and explains the huge fan base of 50 Shades of Grey. We read to fill a need, and we get different things out reading based on our lives.

Most high school English classes teach us to read selflessly. We step back from a work and analyze the themes, motifs, and symbols, trying to find the author’s exact purpose. I’ve actually had teachers tell me to “try to see it in the author’s point of view, instead of inflicting your own opinions.” Being taught to discard your judgmental lens is discouraging to a student: the teacher is basically telling you you’ve been reading wrong your whole life.

For this reason, many people (myself included) start to dislike reading after they’re required to read for school. Even if we do continue reading for pleasure, we rarely enjoy the books we read for class as much as the ones we read for fun. This is because reading selflessly is not how reading is naturally done, and we can’t properly distance ourselves from the text without first understanding how we relate to it.

Writers are also selfish creatures at their core. David Dunbar, a teacher at CITYterm, told a story to our class. He had been talking on the phone with an author, and asked the author how progress on the book was coming. The author responded, “Great! I’m almost done, I just have to put in the symbols.”
David looked around, grinning, but the class responded with only a few uncomfortable chuckles. Was it a joke?

“Exactly,” David said, slapping the table. “It seems possible that he throws the symbols in at the end, because that’s how you’re taught to learn.”

In fact, the author in question, and most authors in this world, didn’t recall adding any symbols to the book. The “symbols” found in books are created by accident, in an attempt to express the author’s own values and beliefs. Does an author expect everyone who reads his or her book to extract the symbolic nature of a top hat or a rainstorm? No, simply because he or she didn’t even realize the things were symbols in the first place. Even the all-knowing writer is selfish in his or her writing: he or she has little regard for the meaning extracted by the readers. In fact, if a reader comes away with some meaning that the author hadn’t intended, it can be exciting and rewarding for the author. 

I suppose the next step is to clarify the implications of “selfish” reading. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s how readers are meant to read. If writers write out of need, and write through their lens on life, then is it so wrong for readers to do the same thing?

As long as I remain aware of my biases and background while reading, experiencing a book the way I want to experience it makes me relate what I read back to my own life, and thus think more about myself. Some may call reading like this conceited, but I consider it self-reflective.

Thus, is being selfish really so bad? The Webster definition of selfish is “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people.” Selfish reading does exactly that: readers prioritize what they get out of the book before what the authors put into the book. But would you rather have an army of students who understand exactly why Marx wrote what he did, or a group of individuals who can argue about how Marxist values relate (or don’t relate) to their own lives?
I’m not attempting to challenge the high school curriculum: I understand the value of analyzing a piece of writing from the perspective of the author. I’m also not giving kids an excuse to be on their phones all the time: reading is undoubtedly a more valuable type of selfishness than Facebook.

Instead, I want to embrace reading as an act of selfishness, and emphasize that maybe being “selfish” isn’t all that bad. If everyone recognized that what they pull from a book directly correlates with their identity, then reading selfishly would improve people’s self-awareness, which in turn improves society in general. Suddenly, selfish reading becomes a very selfless thing to do.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Part Two: Challenge and Support

Earl Weaver was once asked about the essence of the game of baseball. He replied, "A very simple game--you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball." But, of course, hitting a baseball has been documented as perhaps the hardest thing to do in sports. There was a time after I had been teaching for awhile when I began to think that teaching could be distilled down to one phrase, "Challenge and Support." But, like Earl Weaver's remark about baseball, while true, that phrase is such an unbelievably hard thing to do in real life and get it right.

When you are engaged in teaching in an experience-based model, however, there are very particular kinds of challenges (and supports) that bring the greatest possible transformation in the learner.  Put most simply, if you can effect a "paradigm shift" in someone's world-view, then you have added a level of learning that will be transformational. If you do it enough times, you may have the good fortune to have that person become someone who deeply understands and can effect their own self-transformation on a repeated basis. In other words, the very act of learning becomes a form of ACTIVISM that the learner uses to effect change in themselves and their world. Sometimes I think of it as service learning on yourself.  If you get interested in the psychology behind this, Bob Kegan has been my go-to person since his book The Evolving Self transformed my own teaching in the early 1980's.
But the book that really informed my thinking about paradigms (see the earlier blog post about the paradigm shifts induced by the experience of awe) was one I discovered while teaching a History of Science class:  Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was the person who had me first seeking out the valuable "anomalies" in my own teaching that would be the key to my own craft evolving.  In addition he got me to realize that if I could effect a "Copernican Revolution" in my student's world view, then I would be creating experience-based learning. So, you may ask, how do
we do this?

Like Copernicus, you first have to have deeply understand the world the way your students (or, in his case, Ptolemy) do. They have mental models of how the world of learning works and you have to know what they know--and HOW they know it. Years ago, I was on a federal government grant team studying "effective teacher behavior." I ended up staking my claim in that study that the number one teacher ability for effectiveness was "cognitive empathy." However, Kierkegaard probably put it best in his journal when he wrote:

"If real success is to attend the effort to bring a person to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find him where he is and begin there. This is the secret of the art of helping others.... In order to help another effectively I must understand more than he - yet first of all surely I must understand what he understands. If I do not know that, my greater understanding will be of no help to him. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and in the way he understands it..."

The act of cognitive empathy is perhaps the foundational feature of the experience-based teacher; it is what I think should be the backbone of teacher development. If you understand the world the way your student understands it, then you can design curriculum where the student's model will "fail" or not be sufficient to fit the situation they find themselves in. It is this "expectation failure" then triggers experience-based learning.

This epistemological "split-screen" teaching where you are conscious of not only the content of what is being learned, but also the cognitive skills that are being taught, is what allows the teacher to identify the "mental models" a student is unconsciously using. What I have found so encouraging for the future of experience-based learning is that this kind of thinking/learning/teaching is available to all teachers--those new to the classroom and those with years of experience.

But let me give you two concrete examples--one that effects the student's disposition and one that effects their worldview.

On the first day classes at CITYterm students have read an excerpt about "wondering and wandering" by Harvard professor John Stilgoe. The first day of class is actually a fabulous time to design something based on re-arranging the mental models that students come in with; it is prime time because you will have already established mental models in the students by the end of the first class. CITYterm students arrive having done the reading (maybe the night before) and ready to "discuss" the reading. Some of them are also waiting for an "expectations" sheet to be handed out including plagiarism and grading policies. But after a few minutes identifying the basic concepts of the reading the students and teachers head outside for the rest of the hour to actually DO what Stilgoe is writing about. They literally spend the rest of the hour making increasingly detailed observations about everything on the campus and generating questions and hypotheses about those observations. I know this sounds simple, but it has surprised me how memorable and defining this day becomes for students in their attitude about where learning occurs. What the faculty is trying to do is to have the physically felt experience of what they will do all semester in New York City.

The second example of expectation failure is a bit more complicated but is one of the most powerful Copernican Revolutions (paradigm shifts) that can happen where students learn to read in an experience-based way. (For those of you who follow this blog,  I have discussed this in an earlier blog post about the act of reading.) The other day in class I was telling the story recounted in an earlier post about the author Junot Diaz responding to my query as to where he was on his latest book project--"Oh, yes I am just about done. All I have to do is go back and put in the symbols." However, when I tell students this story virtually none of them ever laugh. In fact, one of them remarked, "that makes a lot of sense because it would be more efficient." That is because his quip fits their mental model of reading as being decoding books for symbols--cue the "green light on the end of Daisy's dock" from The Great Gatsby.

The other mental model that students generally hold is that the author's intention is what solely controls the creation of a piece of fiction. Therefore, they are stunned when an author whose book they are reading tells them that an observation of theirs makes total sense and is very interesting but that "they (the author) did not intend that and had never seen that in the text." Students are befuddled by that until they come to realize that, as the poet Cassie Pruyn writes, "a text is a living beast."
A large part of learning how to read in an experience-based way at CITYterm is designing experiences for students that challenge previously held mental models and force them to create new paradigms for themselves. Many of them, for example, come to a new model that believes that "to read a book is to author it." That shift changes the act of reading for them forever--it is truly Copernican. It also allows them to actively create their own personal understandings of what reading really is. I have found that once you get people comfortable and embracing self-transformation they become enormously creative at it.

There is an enormous amount of creativity and joy that goes into empathizing with students, coming to understand the mental models they hold, and then designing curriculum that forces paradigmatic shifts in thinking. It is when you provide this particular kind of challenge that experience-based learning becomes transformational. It also has the effect of bonding the faculty in wonderful collaborative design efforts that evince and even create a sense of common purpose in what school is supposed to be about--creating students that are their own teachers and teachers who are constantly learning about learning.

But what of support? To be sure, some of the most essential support comes in the form of personal and psycho-emotional awareness of what the student is going through. And there is a great deal written about to be effective in this manner. In the next blog post, however, I will explore what "cognitive supports" might be most helpful in these moments pf paradigmatic, transformational change.