Category Archives: Musings about teaching

What Does it Mean “To Use One’s Mind Well”?

  • by Steve Roushakes                 

    The pedagogy and culture at The New School revolve around the belief that learning should be purposeful and that students should have choice and agency in their education. Our mission – to help students learn to use their minds well and take charge of their academic lives – captures this two-part belief in simple terms, although exactly what we mean by “using one’s mind well” and “taking charge” may not be self-evident. In his February 2014 blog, What is Educational Ownership? John Potter, our founder and headmaster, discussed this principle of choice in education, whereby students considerably shape their academic lives and begin to set high standards for their work. It’s certainly worth checking out. Here, I’d like to take a closer look at what it means to use one’s mind well.

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    Perhaps a good place to start is with criticisms of American education, which are not hard to find these days, and which seem to lament a general absence of dynamic thinking in school curriculums. Here are just a couple:

    One study…found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.
    –Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?” The Washington Post, January 26, 2015

    Don’t get me wrong—to study science, history, literature, indeed anything, one needs information. But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying questions, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply “inert knowledge”—to use the pithy phrase of the British American philosopher Alfred Whitehead.
    –Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future

    What these opinions and statistics point to, it seems, is an over-emphasis on the accumulation of facts at the expense of applied learning. Facts matter, of course, but they shouldn’t be mistaken as the be-all-end-all of learning, and the real heart and soul of a quality education – the really hard work, in fact – is applying what we’ve learned. “…analytical reasoning…” “a disciplined way of construing information…” This is largely what we mean at The New School by using one’s mind well.

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    It’s ultimately about asking the right questions. Ask a factual question (When was DNA discovered?) and you will get a factual, or “inert,” response (1869). When framed as a problem-based or essential question, however (How has the discovery of DNA benefited modern medicine?), you are asking the student to do much more than simply recall a fact; you are asking her to make connections, synthesize facts, and express and support an informed opinion. You are asking her to use her mind well.

    Compare these factual questions to their open-ended counterparts:

    • When was the telegraph created? / How did the invention of the telegraph serve European imperialism?
    • What are Newton’s three laws of motion? / How may Newton’s laws of motion help us understand, and thus improve, fuel efficiency of cars?
    • How many soliloquies does Hamlet give? / What do Hamlet’s soliloquies tell us about his character?

    Such open-ended questions are certainly challenging, yes, but they also invite the students to co-create the learning in the classroom. No sophistry: the teacher doesn’t have the answer. Rather, there are degrees of quality, informed answers, and students’ opinions therefore truly matter, because they are contributing to an open exploration. We all want what we say to matter, and students are no different. In my experience, too, students like to be challenged, so long as they see the purpose in the work, and it’s certainly fair to label such questions purposeful. I think many students feel alienated by their classroom experiences (I know I did) because the learning is so often one-directional and fact-based.

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    Great teachers indeed ask thought-provoking questions (and great schools let them ask those questions). But great teachers also ask questions that are meaningful to their disciplines, i.e., questions that train students to think as historians, scientists, novelists, etc. This is what Gardner means by “a disciplined way of construing information,” which is sometimes called habits of mind in education.

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    A similar, disciplined-based approach is to frame classes as “information in context,” whereby the class itself is an application of learning. For example, within the high school at The New School, we offer topical, or applied learning, classes within each credit requirement. Thus, rather than English 9, Chemistry 10, etc., students may choose:

    • 20th Century Social Movements through Music (U.S. History)
    • Art in the Context of the Self (Art)
    • The Chemistry of War (Chemistry)
    • Cryptology (Mathematics)
    • The Ethics of Capitalism (World Studies)
    • Roller Coasters (Physics)
    • The Search for Self in Literature (English)

    Teaching information in context allows students to see the purpose and real-world application of what they are learning.

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    There’s indeed nothing revolutionary about such a question-based / disciplined-based / using one’s mind well-approach to learning; it’s the foundation of liberal arts and sciences programs, not to mention most graduate programs. So why is such an approach so rare at the elementary, middle, and high school levels? The reason, I think, has mostly to do with the structural demands that standardized testing, such as the SOLs, creates for schools. There just isn’t enough time to stop and think. But for us at The New School and other like-minded schools, depth of thought and application of learning – using one’s mind well – always win over breadth of coverage.

    I think schools should examine their pedagogies by asking themselves, What are you trying to create? My answer to that question, as I think about our focus on using one’s mind well and students taking charge of their lives, is this:

    A New School graduate is an autonomous, skilled learner: an individual who owns his/her education, is self-aware and poised, and is fully prepared for college and a bright future.  

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    A Personal Reflection on the Seminar

  • by Steve Roushakes          

    My ideal learning structure is the seminar. I’ve always valued personable exchanges of thoughts, and I just don’t find larger learning structures energizing or rewarding. Put simply, I don’t like to be strictly on the receiving end of a conversation, and I suppose too, as an educator, I worry about educational models that disallow a dialectic between the teacher and students.

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    Growing up I disliked school, especially junior high and high school, I think because the learning was structured in such a one-directional way. The teacher spoke, and we, the students, sat quietly, took notes, and went to the next class. I remember liking several of my teachers, wonderfully bright and witty individuals, but I don’t remember ever speaking with them, either in or out of class. I did okay grade-wise, but I never felt my mind genuinely sparked; I never felt part of the learning or that I was adding value in any way by my presence.

    A case in point is seventh grade. I was at Thoreau (just a few miles from The New School), and a couple months into the school year I realized I hadn’t said a single word in any of my classes. Another month went by, and another – it became a game: how long could I go? – and in the end I went the entire school year without speaking in class. I must have learned something, but I honestly can’t recall any meaningful moments from my classes.

    A great change came in college, though, when I entered my first seminar course. For the first time I found myself engaged in a roundtable discussion with a small group of students and our professor. (I remember him perfectly, Dr. Rafeq, and I honestly believe he remembers me too.) We were a focused group, and, having never expressed my thoughts in a classroom setting, I felt uncertain. But I immediately appreciated the effect conversation-as-education had on my mind and sense of self – I also appreciated that I had a responsibility to be part of the learning – and I quickly found my voice.

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    I had never worked so hard preparing for a course. The demands and expectations were high, but I was energized by the work and looked forward to each class. I find it telling that I felt deeply challenged, yet happy and never anxious.

    The seminar was a real dividing line in my thinking about both myself and education, and I’ve never looked back. I found the learning purposefulinclusive, and humane, and I like to think that my own teaching, twenty years later, is still guided by these three principles.

    Attracting and Retaining Excellent Teachers

  • by John Potter          

    At The New School, the teaching environment is unique and rewarding, and our staff usually stay many years.  Only six out of 31 staff members have been here less than eight years, a striking piece of data by any measure.  Such longevity leads to a very tightly knit group working in a highly collaborative manner.  As a result, bringing in new faculty members is both exciting and daunting.

    Our faculty represent the heart and soul of the school.  New School teachers have freedoms that teachers in most schools would envy.  They create their own classes based on their interests and passions—consistent with our curriculum guide—and we encourage them to develop their own unique approach, always bearing in mind the highly dialogic nature of this environment.

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    On the flip side, being so small means we ask much of our teachers, all of whom wear many hats. They may have fewer students than teachers in larger schools, but they put an extraordinary amount of effort into their classes, their assessments and their relationships with students and their parents.  The effort they put into designing a course for a class of ten takes more time for our teachers because of the latitude they have.

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    As teachers in most small schools will tell you, our salaries can’t compete with the public schools or some of the wealthier independent schools, yet we attract amazingly talented teachers. Why do these talented, creative people choose to work here? And why do they stay so long?

    Juana Gomez-Diez has taught Spanish at The New School for 14 years, having turned down repeated offers of higher paying positions at big name prep schools in Washington, DC.

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    Students often stay with her for four or five years, and achieve a remarkable level of fluency. When asked what keeps her here, Juana says she is endlessly grateful for the freedom to create classes in her own style and the chance to work so closely with her students, with whom she develops a powerful bond. “I am not micromanaged,” Juana says. “I believe in mixing language instruction with cultural studies, often through film. In this I am supported and encouraged, not restricted.”

    So what do we do when an outstanding faculty member leaves?

    I have a system that might make some people wince, but it winnows the field very effectively so that I’m not inundated with responses from those who might well be less passionate.  More times than not, it has brought me excellent applicants. My teacher ads don’t simply ask for a cover letter and resume, they contain a challenging prompt to which the applicants must respond.  For example, a well loved, multi-talented humanities teacher moved to another country after being with us for several years, leaving a huge professional and personal hole in the staff. We had big shoes to fill.

    My ad for her replacement read, “Write an essay about what it means to be a Renaissance teacher.”  I received only ten responses, of which four were thoughtful and well written.Of those, one in particular stood out, and that was from Jacob Cholak, whom we ultimately hired. The ad didn’t include the name of the school.  Jacob was so intrigued by the ad that at first he thought it was a hoax placed by his friends to see what he would come up with. Here are a couple of excerpts from his essay:

    Real learning is an act of aggression. One must kill one’s own assumptions and then ransack the past… But there are fragments which, reconstituted, provide new life.”

    “My small apartment consists mostly of books. I try to read three a week. Sometimes I read four.  My students need me to know everything. I can’t and never will. But: Russian symbolism, German idealists, ancient Near Eastern poetry, Zoroastrianism, political economics, Chinese zen painting, paleolithic fertility icons, Ethiopian garage bands, and C# programming. I’m a young, old-fashioned generalist in an old, specialized world. I’m learning Akkadian. I rode through Asia on a motorbike.”

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    Great stuff!

    I also require an applicant to design and teach a class before I make the final decision.Jacob taught a class on the culture surrounding The Great Gatsby, using a film clip,pieces of art, a short reading and an analytical discussion with the class. The students ate it up. I hired him_I2A2194

     

    Echoing Juana, Jacob loves the freedom we’ve given him to follow his passions. As a film school graduate, he badly wanted to start a film program at the school, and he pitched it professionally. He now has the equipment and time to train students to use it, and is planning a film festival for February. He is actively collaborating with the rest of the staff to film exhibitions, unusual classes and school events. Half of his classroom is set up as a living room, with couches, chairs and lamps, over which hangs a large pull-down screen for viewing films.

    Jacob appears to have settled in for the long haul.

    Our new theater director, Steve Elm, had the task of bringing together six high school  students (no warning for them) to coach them into creating a cohesive production in 90 minutes (between 9:00 AM and 10:30 AM).

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    The result was nothing less than sensational.  Steve’s extensive theater experience is breathing energy and inspiration into the department and this is proving to be infectious.

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    We work extremely hard to find and retain people who will add to the richness of the mix we have. It is imperative that we hire people who will not only be successful teachers and mentors, but who will ultimately blend their own considerable strengths with those of the rest of the faculty as they grow into The New School community.

    Teacher as Coach in an Elementary Geography Class

  • by Mary Meurisse Richardson

    Aliens are attacking!  Join the EDF today!

    Yes, you heard right: the Earth Defense Forces (EDF) need willing and able recruits to help fight off invading aliens!

    Each new recruit must pass Basic Training in Planet Earth Geography—learning all the continents, oceans, lines of latitude and longitude, and time zone changes. Once they make it through Basic Training a recruit becomes a Private in the EDF.  To move up in rank they choose any of ten regions of the world to study. When they feel confident that they know the countries in that region, they face a challenge (quiz) on which they can earn between 25 and100 experience points.  As students complete challenges and earn experience points, they earn a higher rank and unlock new challenge options, such as presenting a project, choosing a theme for a region and investigating it, or making a map of their neighborhood. EDF members also earn experience points by being focused in class each day, completing a challenge every week, and working together on one region. They all want to achieve the ultimate rank of Planetary Commander!

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    To keep up the action, I roll the dice every day to find out if the aliens have attacked again.  If the answer is yes, I roll again to find out where and how strongly they are attacking.

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    On a large world map, alien attacks are marked with red flags and multicolored Planet Earth flags represent areas where students have completed challenges and thus beaten back the invaders. Currently, we’re winning, but who knows when or how strongly the aliens might attack! We have to keep learning and be ever vigilant.

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    At the beginning of the school year I had certain expectations based on past geography classes, but using this game format, I’m amazed by what the students are accomplishing. They choose regions to study based on a wide variety of factors, such as where they or family members have traveled, places they have heard of in games, or even places they don’t know anything about. They are mastering information more quickly than in a traditional class, and they often choose to work in pairs without my assistance. These kids are truly exploring on their own. I don’t have to do any “teaching”—I simply walk around and answer questions, help them find what they are looking for, administer challenges, and keep up with points and ranks earned. They’re so enthusiastic I sometimes have to push them out of the room to their next class!

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    We’re having a great time, defeating the aliens and learning geography in a way that is likely to stick with the students for years to come. Come by and visit any time—but be sure to bring your taser!

    Ode to the Math Department

  • by Eden Costagliola

    I have two pet peeves about the way people talk about math.

    The first is when people say, “Do the math.” Arithmetic is a very small part of mathematics, and many brilliant mathematicians are slow or inaccurate at arithmetic. From the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements we learned that we sometimes denigrate people in subtle ways through speech, and, for me, Do the math is a put down that discourages potential mathematicians.

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    My second pet peeve is the question, “When are we ever going to use this stuff?” Many students who struggle with math ask this question, which is often a veiled cry for help. Just as an eating disorder is not usually about eating, When are we ever going to use this stuff is not really about the application of math. I take the question as a sign that I need to analyze the situation and figure out how best to help the student, and, as the student begins to understand the math, he/she naturally begins to understand and apply it and therefore understand its value.

    Truth is, most mathematicians work entirely without numbers, and pure mathematics is truly an art form. A mathmatician is motivated by a kind of daydreaming curiosity and the beauty of mathematics, rather than some concrete problem. Students may never need to write a lab report in “real life,” but we still want them to understand the process and habit of mind of the lab report, because it’s the logical thinking of the lab report that they learn to apply in their lives. Higher level math is similarly about habits of mind, and traditionally these habits of mind begin with Algebra 1.

    With this in mind, I’d like to introduce you to The New School Math Department. While we teach traditional material in traditional sequence (i.e., Algebra 1 through AP Calculus), the methods by which we teach are examples of New School pedagogy in action. Our students give explanations and proofs both informally and formally; they teach and design projects that explore real world problems. Most importantly, we teach students how to think like mathematicians – to describe, visualize, represent symbolically, prove, check for plausibility, make conjectures, change or simplify problems, work backwards and closely re-examine problems.

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    The abstract concepts of mathematics are difficult for many students to grasp, but we teach our students to persevere. We find new ways to reach our students to build new and enhanced logical reasoning abilities. I often tell my students that the exercises they’re doing are stretching their brains to be capable of more complicated thought processes. This aspect of our classes cannot be undervalued, for that mental capacity is carried with them everywhere.

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    I like to believe we’re good at inspiring mathematical curiosity in our students. Our students continue thinking about mathematical ideas beyond class, and they sometimes come up with original ideas that they are curious enough to explore. Our math students also learn to appreciate the beauty of mathematical advancements, ideas, and logic in their historical context. Pure mathematics is an art form with a rich history and we share our love for that aspect with the students along with the practical applications.

    Engaging Students in Meaningful Dialogue

  • by Alan Villarreal

    I usually teach junior high English and history, but every year or two I like to step out of my comfort zone by teaching a high school class. I enjoy the high schoolers’ maturity and ability to deal with adult-level material, although they can sometimes be harder to win over, at least initially.

    This year I am teaching a US history course on the American West,w02_RA524337which focuses primarily on the 1800s and how various peoples have seen the West as a land of dreams, sometimes despite hard truths and messy realities. Our main “text” has been the PBS documentary The West (1996), produced by Stephen Ives. This is a remarkable documentary, not only because it is visually stunning and provides an easily accessible narrative, but also because it focuses on many different perspectives and individual stories. On most days, we watch a segment or two of the documentary, the students write impressions or questions in their journals, and we have short discussions about what we’ve seen. In addition, I often add background information and have them read and analyze primary source documents, usually in small groups.

    I planned and taught this class four years ago, and it went so well that I decided to repeat it this year. But as any teacher will tell you, every class has its own dynamics and develops its own identity, depending on the students who are “creating” it with you. Even the time of day and the room have their effects. This year, I haven’t had as many outgoing contributors to discussion, and so I have sometimes wondered how intellectually and emotionally engaged they have been with the material. And yet, something beautiful happened yesterday.

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    Little Big Horn

    During the previous class, we had finished watching Episode 6 of The West, which deals with the Indian Wars of the 1870s: the Battle of Little Big Horn; the forcible transportation of the Plains Indians to reservations, where they were dependent on unreliable government food rations and supplies; the flight of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull to Canada; and most moving of all, the story of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, one of the most memorable Indian leaders in history. For those who aren’t familiar with it, here is the story of the Nez Perc in a nutshell (Good Words).

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    The entire history of Native American contact with Europeans is a tragedy, and the events described in Episode 6 are particularly hard to take. If you care about people and human rights, and you also want to love your country, watching this part of the documentary is a punch in the gut. How could a country that professes to believe that all men are created equal, and which had recently freed its slaves, treat Native Americans like less-than-human aliens in their own land, destined to be swept aside, penned up, and forgotten? I could see the gloom spreading among the students, and I was worried about their getting too depressed to see what an amazing story of human resilience this was and how Chief Joseph’s life also represented hope for reconciliation.

    So I decided to begin the day by asking the students to recall the story of the Nez Perce, who after fighting well and leading the US Army on a wild goose chase across half of the West,

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    The Nez Perce’s ill fated flight to Canada and Sitting Bull

    were herded onto a train and sent to a bleak reservation in Oklahoma. I asked them to imagine what American citizens might have thought of these events if they had read about them in the newspaper. One student responded that the newspaper stories were probably biased, and so most people probably thought the Indians had gotten what they deserved. Another student said that he might have admired the way the Nez Perce fought, especially how they didn’t attack civilians or desecrate bodies, as other rebellious tribes had done. Then I asked them whether they thought some people might have felt that the Indians had been treated unjustly, reminding them that some Americans had joined Abolitionist groups prior to the Civil War because they thought slavery was immoral. A few people nodded their heads and said they could imagine that.

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    The Nez Perce delegation in Washington

    At this point, the entire class was awake and engaged. Next, I asked them to read a remarkable speech (IV) given by Chief Joseph in Washington, DC, two years after the Nez Perce had been defeated.

    In the speech, Chief Joseph says that he cannot understand why so many promises have been broken, and why, despite meeting the President and hearing sympathetic words from various government officials, nothing was being done for his people. He says he knows that the Indians must change, but that they ask for nothing more than to be treated as men, and to be judged equally under the law. After reading the speech, the students went off to discuss the document in small groups, and then returned to their desks to write a short interpretation of its meaning and significance in their journals. Finally, they shared their interpretations out loud and we had a general discussion.

    I was so impressed with the students’ thoughts. Here are a few of their responses:

    “This makes me so angry! This is my country, and this makes me so angry! I mean, we weren’t there when this happened, but the US was acting just like a bully–this is our land, and you Indians better get off it or else.”

    “Why haven’t we been taught about this? Why don’t people talk about this? We hear about the Civil War and slavery but not about this.”

    “I was shocked by how Chief Joseph spoke about equality and equal treatment under the law. I thought that’s what the US stood for, but the Indians weren’t treated that way and he’s pointing that out.”

    “Did this prick the Americans’ conscience? Was anything done after this?”

    “What’s happening with American Indians today? Are they still living on reservations? [Yes, but conditions aren’t good.] Well, they can leave, right?”

    There are good days and bad days as a teacher, but this was a good day. The true significance of these events was sinking in and having an impact on the students’ thinking. Tomorrow, we will watch more of The West and read a story entitled, “How Standing Bear Became a Person,” which is about the first time an Indian was recognized as having legal rights in 1879–ironically, the same year that Chief Joseph gave his speech.

    Moby Dick: “Then” and “Now”

  • One of the more striking discrepancies that I have encountered in the classroom caught me by surprise this quarter. It seems that my larger perspective on life is conflicting with the less complex perspective of my students…hard differences to resolve. Here’s the conundrum: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).  I have taught this class before, and the two primary tasks in the class are to read the Leviathan-like novel and to write a critical analysis research paper.

    The beauty of the novel, for me, as a reader and as a teacher, is that it is so full of symbolism that the reader cannot help but trip over foreboding clues from the Old and New Testament, find signs of American nationalism and discover multiple comparisons to the Romantic literary movement.  And, the book is just so beautifully written.  When Ishmael, in the Old Testament, is found wandering the deserts, whereas in Chapter 1 he is found wandering towards the docks, and when Rachel, in the Old Testament, is searching high and low for her son, while in the Epilogue the ship Rachel is found searching the seas for her lost crew and comes across Ishmael, wandering the seas alone as “another orphan,” there is not just a finality to the plot, but also closure to the symbolism. If there had ever been any doubt about Melville’s intentions, it is totally erased by now.MD This specific Bible referencing, by and large, works well in class. One of the students also pointed out that Ishmael of the Bible is an archer, and Ishmael of Moby Dick, though not a harpooner, is on a whaling vessel that employs harpoons. But some of the references are not as neat and clean.  Captain Ahab’s blood is not “licked by dogs” as it is in the Bible. Furthermore, is the non-Biblically named ship Jungfrau intended to mean virgin or young woman?  Fortunately, most of these inexact comparisons can be glossed over without class debate; students are willing to accept my take on Melville’s intentions, for better or worse. But, enter the Pequod,  Ahab’s ship. Named after the Connecticut indigenous Pequot people whose very existence was considered exterminated in the first half of the 17th century, the ship sails under a very dark cloud. Immediately on the scene is Elijah, the prophet, who warns Ishmael away from the despot Ahab and his “soulless boat.” OMG! What could possibly be more portentous? front Alas! Not so fast! My students discover that Wikipedia reports, “Pequot numbers grew appreciably—the Mashantucket Pequot especially—during the 1970s and 1980s.” So, the Pequot people were not decimated and their numbers continued to grow! They may have suffered at the hands of the English colonists as did all of the other Indian nations, but they certainly weren’t destroyed. How was I to explain that? I tried. After various, admittedly vague, attempts on my part, I found an answer that struck home. But to get to it, we had to go back in time, and in order to do that, we had to erase all modern-day knowledge and drill down deep to 1851: What did Melville know? What was the common belief?  Most importantly, how did Melville think the word “Pequod” would be interpreted by his audience of that time? Knowledge then was based on traditional or older, historical representations; today’s knowledge is often based on the most up-to-date findings about our current world. But where does one find the older perspective?

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    It takes extra work. The first set of search keywords often proves to be ineffective. After all, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has had 160 years to rebuild, reform and raise awareness of their current existence (http://www.mashantucket.com). Today’s information surplus provides too much data: students have to ignore information and the usual methods of inquiry they have come to rely upon. Only then can they use the historical data available at that time and take on the necessary perspective. It turns out that it is not absolute truth we are searching for, but relative truth. Easier said than done. But, things happened in class: it was discovered that the Pequot were believed to have been destroyed.  And, perhaps Melville’s use of the word Pequod is a slap at the early colonists’ unjust treatment of the group; after all, Nathaniel Hawthorne changed his name to spite his ancestors and alleviate his shame from their behavior in the Indian Wars of the mid-1600s. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to him.  Maybe that’s not so much of a stretch, for now we have letters between the two authors and the connection between them is solidified.

    But, our connections can never be as perfect as we want them to be. Each of us carries our own present-day baggage; it is next to impossible to leave it all at the door. Understanding the historical context and the intended interpretations of a work surfaces in all my American literature classes. Whether it is the satanic black horse and carriage in William Austin’s “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” (1824-27) that flies down the post-road at a supernatural 12 miles an hour, or the preacher’s trip from Boston to Salem in an impossible 15 minutes in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835),  today’s reader’s interpretations must be dependent on “then,” and not on “now.”

    Art… An Extraordinary Expression of Self

  • Self is the core of who we are.

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    Jehee

    It is an infinitely deep well of renewal, connection and creation. My creative process is the search for and exploration of my infinite Self, to know and be present to my Self. In knowing my Self I know how I am different from all others and how I am the same as all others. I am extraordinary and ordinary. Connecting the two is the creative process. It is expressiveness going extraordinary. I want my students to find their extraordinary expressiveness.

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    Dmitri

    To truly open to one’s Self the artist should resist judgments and categorizations, be curious, be moving, shift perspective, boldly go where they have never been before. We are held by gravity, which allows us, equally, to fall and to fly, just as a bird pushed from its nest takes flight from its falling.

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    Kamryn

    In building an educational art studio that harbors and encourages the creative process, I strive to give the young artist-students protection and armor from the judgments of others, positive and negative, benign and aggressive. I am realistic about the futility of suppressing such powerful human traits, but I am convinced of the necessity of struggling toward that safety, while at the same time flirting with the danger of being wrong and failing. Necessary and inherent in the creative process is failure and, simultaneously, the faith that I am, in reality, worthy and, ultimately, safe.

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    Wang

    How do I teach the creative process? I don’t. Being creative is inherent to humans. It does not need to be taught. I get out of the way. I protect the space. I give them time. I display faith. I patiently wait for them to do what is inevitable: be creative. Persistently and very gently I prod their creative process along.

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    I provide resources and media. When asked, I teach techniques. I remain curious about what the students are experiencing and what they are doing. I encourage them to doggedly go where their curiosity and excitement takes them. If they get joy from the process they will play long and hard at it. Their technical abilities will naturally grow and mature. They will work through the blocks and “failures.” The failures cease to be “failures.” The “failures” become information opening up directions, resources, and possibilities hidden by the students’ habits, assumptions, tendencies, reactions and finite vision. The creative process is a portal to the universe of infinite possibilities.

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    Types of Silences in Class

  • by Matt Willmott

    I like classes that have certain kinds of silences. In my own career as a K-12 student, I remember three main types of silence: the silence of a test, the silence that got covered by the sound of a movie, or, every once in awhile, the particular silence created when a teacher went silent and glared.

    But now, as a teacher, sometimes I experience other kinds of silence. One is the kind of silence that happens when I’ve successfully motivated a lesson and the students dive into an activity with undivided attention and start working. Sometimes I see this and think, “You have no idea, right now, that what you’re doing could be called work.”

    Matt 1

    The other kind of silence is the kind that happens when somebody has said something and everybody has gone silent because they’re just thinking about it. I think I may like this kind of silence the most. Last year, a local tragedy was announced at our morning meeting, and it seemed to affect students enough that I set aside part of my next class to talk about it. It was a math class, but we ended up taking the period talking about life, death, support, kindness, and the things that give life most meaning. Frequently, someone would speak and the room would go respectfully silent as students and I both just sat and thought. I admired that we were doing this, and I said so.

    The students appreciated the day, I believe, and several of them said so. In days that followed, one or two kept asking if we could have another day like that. But, of course, we went back to the math.

    This year I’m teaching a class about heroes, and it has had similar moments. The essential question of the class is “Do we need heroes?” I try to stress that each student is sovereign over his or her own opinion, but I also let them know what I think.

    One day recently we were talking about archetypes. The students identified archetypes like the hero, the comic sidekick, “Ma” and “Pa,” the trickster, the perfect romantic ideal (prince or princess), and more. Before long, though, the conversation started to orbit around particularly modern archetypes that were all darker in nature: the serial killer, the terrorist, the corrupt politician (perhaps not so new), and so on.

    I found the amount of investment the students had in these darker archetypes made me uncomfortable. I am aware that there is a lot of fear in our culture, and more than I remember there being when I was young. I am aware, too, that sociologists have developed a theory of a “mean world syndrome,” whereby it is supposed that people, ingesting scads of negative media, have begun to see the world as being a darker place than it actually is.

    So I pointed out, as I often do when a conversation turns to serial killers, that out of the approximately fifteen-plus billion humans that have ever walked the earth, only an infinitesimal 400 or so are known to have been serial killers. “If so, why, then,” I asked, “should we invest so much time and attention, and nearly endless hours of storytelling in them?”

    Dome-of-Blue-Mosque

    One of the students replied it was worthwhile to heed an archetype like that because the impact of a person like that is so great that we need to heed, and even fear, that person’s influence on society. Even a single one is so horrible, the student argued, that he or she deserves a lot of extra attention.

    Let me pause and be clear: I agree — to some extent. I do not think we should ignore the negative, the dangerous, or the potentially harmful. I think we should — to one of the somewhat wide range of healthy degrees — be balanced, clear-minded and candid. Period. But also: “mean world syndrome,” and Dexter, and The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad — and while I’m not outright hostile to any of these, I do note the pervasiveness of the anti-hero, and the temptations, in a complicated world, to be cynical and suspicious and afraid.

    As I was trying to figure out where to go next with the conversation, one of the students made a suggestion. “Maybe it would be interesting hear how each archetype makes people feel,” he said. “And see what that tells us.”

    “That’s a great idea,” I said. And we did it.

    The hero — “inspired,” “brave,” “happy.”

    The romantic ideal — “inspired,” “rash,” “longing.”

    The trickster — “suspicious,” “angry.”

    Then we got to the darker, “modern” archetypes, and the response to each was similar: “fear,” “anger.”

    Those two words, again and again. By the time we got through the end of the list of archetypes I knew how I wanted to drive my idea home.

    “Okay,” I said. “Here’s my point. Suppose you eat cookies all the time. How are you going to feel?” I paused. “And suppose you eat vegetables all the time. How are you going to feel?”

    I got the impression they were with me.

    “Okay, now,” I said. “Suppose these archetypes are a kind of food. Suppose they nourish us just like food. If so, then I just have two questions for you.

    “One: How do you feel?

    “And two: What is your food?”

    That was the end of the class. And the students left in what I took to be that certain kind of thoughtful silence.

     

    The Challenge of Putting “Technology” in Perspective

  •  By John Potter and Billy Pasour      

    “At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.”
    Paulo Friere

    In his important July 15th article, “Nothing Can Replace a Good Teacher,” Jay Mathews outlines the plight of Melvin Marshall, whose reading is four years behind grade level, and whose language arts class was taught entirely through the computer. Melvin had little to no interaction with his teacher on a daily basis, and recently a lawsuit has been filed on his behalf seeking to set right the flawed educational practice of “virtual learning.” We applaud Mathews for insisting that education without student-teacher collaboration is not, really, education.

    Billy-1

    Virtual learning “solves” two problems; it gives the teacher more time for clerical tasks, and standardizes assessment. Assessment is the real issue here. The argument is that standardized assessment acts as an early warning for ineffective teaching. Parents and politicians are deeply apprehensive of children’s minds being spoiled by overzealous or inept educators, so the methodologies of the teacher in the classroom become diverted from best practices and directed toward acceptable practices. In the case of Melvin Marshall, the teacher was diverted to the point of not actually teaching. This is the unintended and obvious consequence of policy based in fear.

    Learning is a human endeavor. It happens when two or more people with open minds convene in dialogue. Those in such a dialogue must recognize that their knowledge is incomplete, as is that of their dialogue partner, and faithfully work to integrate new ideas into their understanding. This type of dialogue is quite natural among friends, but is largely absent from our schools, where the knowledge conveyed by teachers, textbooks, and, now, software seems absolute and immutable. Learning becomes a matter of memory, yet memorizing is nothing like truly learning. Learning is to delve into the unknown and conquer it through reason.

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    Textbooks and their baggage

    To properly teach, teachers must be aware of their own ignorance, and accept that
    it is qualitatively no different from the students’ ignorance. The curriculum and methodologies in the classroom must support an exploratory approach that allows every member, including the teacher, to dialogue as equals, deepening each other’s relationship with the subject and other group members. In this setting, students are not locked out
    of knowledge by assessment, but rather assessment comes from the teacher herself, who best knows each student’s capabilities and contributions. Student and teacher alike are invested in the material, and the all-too-common question – when am I ever going to use this – doesn’t arise.

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    “People who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know” P. Friere

    Any educational aid which circumvents, rather than fortifies, the student-teacher relationship is not merely insufficient but altogether wrong-headed, and more attention needs to be paid to what we expect education to be before we try to design a solution to its shortcomings. As adults, former students fondly remember the teacher who touched their lives, not the worksheets that drilled information. What gives the art of teaching lasting value is a partnership between teacher and student forming deep intellectual connections that last a lifetime.