Decolonizing Through Dialogue: Authentic Teaching in the Age of Testing and Common Core

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If you’re not careful, being a public school teacher can become an act of colonization.

 

This is especially true if you’re a white teacher like me with classes of mostly black students. But it’s not the only case. As an educator, no matter who you are or whom you teach, you’re a symbol of authority and you get that power from the dominant structures in our society.

 

Believe it or not, our schools are social institutions, so one of their chief functions is to help recreate the social order. Students enter as malleable lumps of clay and exit mainly in the shapes we decide upon. Therefore, as an educator, it’s hard not to fall into the habit of molding young minds into the shapes society has decided are appropriate.

 

In some ways this is inevitable. In others, it’s even desirable. But it also runs against the best potential of education.

 

In short, this isn’t what a teacher should be. My job in front of the classroom isn’t to make my students into anything. It’s to give them the opportunity, to generate the spark that turns them into their best selves. And the people who ultimately should be the most empowered in this process are the students, themselves.

 

But it’s easier said than done.

 

The danger is best expressed in that essential book for any teacher, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” where Paulo Freire writes:

 

“Worse yet, it turns them (the students) into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be filed by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.”

 

In most cases this means Eurocentrism – a kind of worship of all things white and denigration of all things black, brown and all pigments between.

 

We take the status quo and find every blind justification for it. In fact, this can become the curriculum, itself. Every counter-narrative, every criticism of the power structure then naturally becomes a danger. Revisionist history becomes history. European philosophy becomes the only accepted definition of rationality. Ideologies of empire become obvious and inescapable. White becomes the norm and racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia all become hidden and internalized.

 

You’ve heard the criticism of curriculums focusing exclusively on dead white males. This is why.

 

And not only does it silence minority voices, it reinforces a false view of the world. Folk singer Tom Paxton made that clear in this classic song:

What Did You Learn In School Today?”

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie,
I learned that soldiers seldom die,
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that war is not so bad,
I learned about the great ones we’ve had.
We fought in Germany and in France
And some day I might get my chance.
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned our government must be strong;
It’s always right and never wrong!
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

 

We can see why this kind of teaching is valued. It reinforces the status quo. But at its core education is essentially subversive. It supports new ways of thinking. It is by definition revolutionary. When you encourage students to think for themselves, some may come to conclusions that differ from the norm. This is entirely healthy and the only way societies can grow and change. But it’s inimical to the people in power who often are in charge of the educational system. They don’t want new ideas if those ideas will challenge their hold on the reigns of power. Socrates wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, after all, because his lessons supported the Athenian elite.

 

So we’re left with a real quandary. How do teachers remain free to inspire while being a part of a system that doesn’t value inspiration?

 

The natural forces of society work against authentic teaching like gravity pulling at a rocket. Unless you’re actively pushing against the ground, the most natural thing in the world is to just go with the flow. The textbook says this is the way. Teacher training programs often agree. Cooperating teachers who have been in the classroom for decades back it up. This is the best method. Just keep it up.

 

But it’s not. And you shouldn’t. There is another way even though it’s hard to see. And THAT’S often what you need to be doing for your students.

 

Let me pause at this point to make one thing clear: I don’t have all the answers.

 

I am no expert in how to do this. I have fallen victim to it, myself, more often than I’d like to admit. It may be next to impossible to avoid the accepted route much of the time. But if we want to be good teachers, we need to try.

 

If we really want to provide the best service to our students, their parents and the community, we have to break out of the mold. We have to allow our students the chance of seeing the world and not just our version of it.

 

The best ways I’ve found to do this are through selection of texts, use of Socratic Seminars and allowing as much choice as possible in assignments.

 

When selecting texts, you want to be as inclusive as possible. Provide students with the widest possible range of authors and opinions. In Language Arts, this means purposeful multiculturalism. It means authors of color being prized equally with the European cannon. It means women and transgender authors. It means authors subscribing to a wide range of beliefs and skepticisms. And it means accepting genres and forms that are often devalued like song lyrics, rap, Manga, graphic novels and anything that can be considered deep, substantial texts.

 

Finding such sources can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Unfortunately, not all schools permit teachers to do this to the same degree. Some districts mandate teachers only use certain texts already approved by the school board. Others provide a list of approved texts from which teachers can pick.

 

Each educator will have to find ways to navigate the system. It’s best if you can find support from administrators and in the community for what you want to do and go from there. But this can be a challenging road especially in our era of high stakes testing and Common Core which values authentic teaching not at all.

 

Another essential tool is class discussion. You may or may not be able to broaden the texts being discussed, but you can usually provide space for students to discuss those texts in class.

 

My 8th graders and I use the Socratic Seminar method of discussion extensively.

 

With almost every piece of literature, I write guided open-ended questions for the students to consider. The questions come out of the text, but I try to focus on queries that will get students thinking about how the text relates to their lives, gender and economic issues, questions of theme, race and opportunities to make connections of every type. Eventually, I even allow students to begin writing these questions, themselves.

 

The way I see it, my role is essentially an opportunity maker. It isn’t about finding an answer that will please me, the teacher. It’s about exploring the subject. It’s not about what I think. It’s about what students think. And that makes all the difference.

 

Finally, I’ve found it beneficial to allow students choice in their assignments.

 

There are many ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. They can write essays, take a test, create a collage, design a power point presentation, make an iMovie, act out a scene, etc. I try to expose students to multiple formats the first half of the year and then give them increased choice in how they’d like to express themselves in the second half.

 

Not only does this free students to think, it encourages the deepest kind of learning. It makes the lesson vital, important and intrinsic.

 

All of these approaches share a common feature: dialogue. They put the student, teacher and the author in a vital relationship. They take steps to equalize that relationship so that one isn’t more important than the others. It’s not just what the author, teacher or student thinks – it’s the interrelationship of the three.

 

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide the relative value of the results. Sure, they get grades. Sure, the system will judge students based on those grades. But the value of those grades isn’t as important as the resultant learning and the value students place on the experience.

 

To me, that’s the best kind of learning. And it’s the result of authentic teaching and dialogue.

 

It is the most inimical thing to colonization. Students are not enslaved to a system. They aren’t in servitude to a prepackaged group of ideas and norms.

 

They are valued and empowered.

 

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing for them?

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The Best Evidence Against Common Core

Classroom-Management2

There were hands in the air. Lots of them.

It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.

My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.

We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.

It wasn’t me who did it.

The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.

This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.

We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.

If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.

But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.

That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.

For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:

The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)1

Socratic Seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.

The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.

But hush. Destiny is speaking.

“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”

“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”

“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”

Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded like Gloria Steinem.

And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.

Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”

This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.

Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.

At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.

The co-author of the Common Core famously said, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.

So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.

Drawing from his deep zero years of training in the field of education, Coleman said:

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

This attitude is reflected in the standards Coleman helped write and Bill Gates coerced state and federal governments to force on our public schools.

It’s embodied in an emphasis on close reading – going over a text multiple times to squeeze every drop of intention from the author. It’s a fine way of understanding what the author may have meant. It’s not a fine way of teaching or even understanding the full scope of a literary text.

To be honest, this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff. It comes from the New Criticism of literary theory of the 1940s. Most schools of education replaced this outdated orthodoxy with Reader-Response theory thirty or forty years ago. Reader-Response sees the author as merely one of many factors making meaning in a text. Of equal importance is the world in which the author lived and the particular point of view of the reader.

Think about it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different book written during the Civil Rights Movement than had it been written in the 1990s. It’s important to know that many of the characters are based on real people in the author’s life. It’s important to know about the violence and civil unrest that came to a head at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, an inner city African American boy has a different experience reading it than a privileged white suburbanite.

Reader-Response criticism opens up the act of reading and allows for classroom activities like the Socratic Seminar. But Coleman wouldn’t know anything about that. He was an English Literature major, and when given the chance to write education standards, he paid no attention to what was most pedagogically significant. He simply favored his pet literary theory over those of more modern thinkers.

But if Coleman and the architects of Common Core could be in my classroom, they might see the error of their ways.

Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.

When we insist on strict adherence to the author’s message – and only that – we create a false objectivity. Language Arts is a subject that is at most times open to interpretation. But Coleman makes it a guessing game to get the “right answer.”

Literature is not math. We shouldn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.

This is why at the beginning of the year, my students take my innocent questions about the meaning of a text as an affront. They see me as just another adult trying to trick them. They assume I’m trying to get them to guess what I’m thinking – about what the author was thinking. There has to be only one true answer, they suppose, and if they haven’t been good at guessing it in the past, why try now?

It takes a while, but through lessons like the Socratic Seminar, I try to broaden their horizons, to show them that they have a vital place in this dynamic. Without a reader, a text is nothing but words on paper. Without a larger societal context, those words lack their full meaning.

Moreover, not all texts are created equal. By this I don’t mean that some aren’t rigorous enough. I mean that literary texts are richer and deeper if they come from a multitude of cultural points of view.

We used to know this. Schools used to encourage students to read works by the full spectrum of Americans – African Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. Now we shove all that under the carpet in favor of “rigorous” works by the same safe vanilla European Caucasian males.

Common Core doesn’t stop schools from using multicultural texts, but it doesn’t value them, either. There is no standard about the importance of reading diverse authors. In fact, the only diversity I see valued is that students should view diverse kinds of media!

Great! Read an essay, watch a video, play a song. But what about being exposed to diverse cultures and points of view?

Oh! I almost forgot. Coleman says no one gives a shit about that stuff.

My students do. When they read a work by an African American woman like Toni Cade Bambera, they can see themselves in her work. I’ve taught an awful lot of Squeakies in my years as a teacher. (I’ve even taught a few David Colemans.)

When you can open a book and see yourself looking back, what a motivation to read! But how unfair that we only value providing this experience for the white kids!

If we had truly high standards, we’d recognize this. We wouldn’t ignore the value of multiculturalism. We wouldn’t dumb down Language Arts to a simplistic and anachronistic formula designed to fail and humiliate.

Coleman and the Common Core designers would know that if they had ever led a classroom of students. But hardly any of them are educators. They’re bureaucrats, politicians and millionaire philanthropists.

They’re missing the true picture.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is denied them.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is in the classroom.


NOTES:

1 – Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

-For more information about Socratic Seminars, professional development and even ideas about how to extoll their Common Core benefits (lesson plans, people!) please visit Socratic Seminars International.

This article was also published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.