Category Archives: Essays/Readings

This category often, but not always, designates a piece of my own writing on a topic on a variety of topics. So, if you are interested in listening to me bloviate, click on this category! The Essays/Readings category may also include extended quotes from books, particularly on pedagogy, literacy, terms of art, and philosophy.

History

“History: A seamless web linking past, present and future.

Contemporary Western society attempts to limit history to the past, as if it were the refuse of civilization. Individuals who hold power tend to see history only as mythology which can be manipulated to distract the citizenry, but is not useful in itself.

Among the different humanist areas of, history has nevertheless survived best the pseudo-scientific reduction of non-scientific learning to theoretically objective standards. The other cornerstones of humanism—literature and philosophy—have been severely damaged by the drive to quantify and objectify everything in sight. Intellectual accounting is not a synonym for thinking. Driven by this vain search for objectivity, literature and philosophy have come to resemble the obscure and controlling scholasticism of the Middle Ages.

If the historical approach has been able to resist these trends, it may be because power structures require a comforting background of mythology and mythology requires a sweep of civilization. Thus, history is welcome as a superficial generalization viewed at a hazy distance.

Our technocracy is frightened by the idea that ideas and events could be part of a large flow and therefore less controllable than expertise would like to suggest. For them, history is a conservative force which blocks the way to change and to new answers. In reality, history only becomes an active force when individuals deform it into a weapon for public manipulation. By that process it ceases to be history.

The twentieth century has been dominated by a catastrophic explosion of ideologies of which communism and fascism have been the most spectacular. Neo-conservatism is a recent minor example. The fleeting success of these ideologies has been made possible in part by the denial of history—or rather, by freezing history into narrow bands of logic, the sole purpose of which is to justify a specific ideology.

This does not mean that history becomes a beacon of truth when it is separated from ideology. History is not about truth but about continuity, and not about a limited dialectic but about an unlimited movement. To the extent that ethics remain in the foreground, history cannot be grossly deformed. The ethics which Western civilization has attempted to push forward for two and a half millennia are scarcely a secret. If anything, they have remained painfully obvious as one set of power structures after another has sought to marginalize or manipulate them. It is in this context that ideology most typically seeks to fix our attention on a single, conclusive pattern which can be presented as inevitable and which therefore carries a deformation of ethics.

These destructive experiences illustrate the value of history as a guarantor of both stability and change. It is neither a conservative nor a revolutionary force. Instead, history is a constant memory and its value lies in our ability to make it a highly conscious part of our lives. In an age which presents abstract analysis—a method that denies continuity and memory—as the sole respectable method of exercising power, history is perhaps the sole intact linear means of thought.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Adrienne Rich: The “Newsworthy” Element of My Refusal of the National Medal for the Arts

“The invitation from the White House came by telephone on July 3 [1997]. After several years’ erosion of arts funding and hostile propaganda from the religious right and the Republican Congress, the House vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts was looming. That vote would break as news on July 10; my refusal of the National Medal for the Arts would run as a sidebar story alongside in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

In fact, I was unaware of the timing. My refusal came directly out of my work as a poet and essayist and citizen drawn to the interfold of personal and public experience. I had recently been thinking and writing about the shrinking of the social compact, of whatever it was this country had ever meant when it called itself a democracy: the shredding of the vision of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

‘We the people–still an excellent phrase,’ said the playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1962, well aware who had been excluded, yet believing the phrase might someday come to embrace us all. And I had for years been feeling both personal and public grief, fear, hunger, and the need to render this, my time, in the language of my art.

Whatever was ‘newsworthy’ about my refusal was not about a single individual–not myself, not President Clinton. Nor was it about a single political party. Both parties have displayed a crude affinity for the interests of corporate power, while deserting the majority of the people, especially are most vulnerable. Like so many others, I’ve watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in our incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusation against our teen-age mothers, the selling of health care–public and private–to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below-minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to working and poor people. At the same time, we’ve witnessed the acquisition of publishing houses, once risk-taking conduits of creativity, by conglomerates driven single-mindedly to fast profits, the acquisition of major communications and media by those same interests, the sacrifice of the arts and public libraries in stripped-down school and civic budgets, and, most recently, the evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts. Piece by piece the democratic process has been losing ground to the accumulation of private wealth.”

Excerpted from: Hunter, J, Paul, Alison Booth, and Kelly J. Mays. The Norton Introduction to Poetry, Ninth Edition. New York: Norton, 2007.

The Doubter’s Dictionary: Facts

Facts: Tools of authority.

Facts are supposed to make truth out of a proposition. There are the proof. The trouble is that there are enough facts around to prove most things. They have become the comfort and prop of conventional wisdom; the music of the rational technocracy; the justification for any sort of policy, particularly as advanced by special interest groups, expert guilds and other modern corporations. Confused armies of contradictory facts struggle in growing darkness. Support ideological fantasies, Staff bureaucratic briefing books.

It was Giambattista Vico who first identified this problem. He argued that any obsession with proof would misfire unless it was examined in a far larger context which took into account experience and the surrounding circumstances. Diderot was just as careful when he wrote the entry on facts for the Encyclopedie:

You can divide facts into three types: the divine, the natural, and man-made. The first belongs to theology; the second to philosophy and the third to history. All are equally open to question.

There is little room for such care in a corporatist society. Facts are the currency of power for each specialized group. But how can so much be expected from these ignorant fragments of knowledge? They are not able to think and so cannot be used to replace thought. They have no memory. No imagination, No judgement. They’re really not much more than interesting landmarks which may illuminate our way as we attempt to think. If properly respected they are never truth, always illustration.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Stephanie Ericsson’s “The Ways We Lie”

When the English teacher with whom I work recently introduced Stephanie Ericsson’s essay “The Ways We Lie” late last week, I’d never previously seen it. If you search it, you’ll see that it is evidently in use in a number of schools around the country. It’s not especially profound, but it does touch on some of the my philosophical issues that lying and truth-telling raise. Ms. Ericsson has enjoyed a successful career as a writer and and actor, the latter of which surprised me.

In any case, here is a copy of the essay itself along with a contextual and learning support that I composed to attend it. The essay is in Microsoft Word, though I didn’t render it so, so I cannot vouch for it accuracy or fidelity; the contextual and learning support I did write, and, as below, if you find any problems with it, please advise. I copy-edited it twice, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain lapses or errors. There is a reason why professional writers–which I am not, alas–use the services of their publishers’ copy-editing offices.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Review Essay: A Trove of Documents for the Beginning of the School Year

While I know I have posted most if not all of the documents in this post elsewhere on this blog, I wanted to publish them in a compendium for the beginning of the school year, which is upon us at the time of this writing. So, without further ado, I’ll start with this list of questions for the first day or week or even month of the school year. I wrote these witn an eye toward helping students gain some insight into why they are at school–mainly because students who know why they are doing something tend to engage more fully and rewardingly with it.

To get a sense of what students know, and perhaps more particularly, what interests students, I developed a series of interest surveys for a couple of reasons: to inform students early on that I am quite interested in what they know, and more importantly, what they have to say about what they know, and in a corollary, that they understand that I am interested in responding to these interests. (I’m also interested in getting them writing from day one of the school year.) So, here is a general interest survey  with four questions aimed at getting students started with thinking and writing about their own interests. To keep them engaged in thinking about their participation in their own educations, I use this survey for assessing prior knowledge for English Language Arts instruction. Similarly, I use this interest inventory for social studies to derive a sense of what kids know and how I can build on that knowledge–which is the essence of teaching, after all.

I took this learning profile questionnaire  from Carol Ann Tomlinson’s excellent book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2001). Once again, it will supply you with some valuable information about your student’s learning preferences while engaging them in an activity, and reassuring them that you are there to listen to them just as they are there to listen to you.

If you’re interested in equity, and we all should be now, then you might find this context clues worksheet on subordinate as a noun and adjective worthwhile. I introduce this word to help students understand that in my classroom, we work together on everybody’s education. I ask some pointed questions after students have defined the word, all based on one simple inquiry: are students the subordinates of teachers? I’ve always thought not, and so I use the discussion this worksheet prompts to talk about equity, self-advocacy, and the other kinds of things that we need kids to understand and actualize to succeed in life and the world.

Course agreements were a big part of the first days of school in the school in which I served the longest, in Lower Manhattan. I quickly ran afoul of the school’s administration by declining to use the boilerplate agreements they supplied. In my estimation, drafting a course agreement is a teachable moment, especially where self-advocacy is concerned. Accordingly, I conducted a couple of days of Socratic dialogue on what teachers and students can and should expect of one another. By the time I was done, I had an outline of a course agreement that students helped to formulate and in which, therefore, they were at least nominally invested. So, here is the basic course agreement template with which I begin these exercises, and another, more fleshed out template that contains what I consider the basics of an agreement between a teacher and his or her students. Here is the aforementioned Lower Manhattan school’s official course agreement for English Language Arts and another for social studies classes. I can’t remember if I played any role in revising these, but one thing–the injunction against eating in class–suggests that I did not. If I must choose between having a student arrive in class with a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich to eat in class, or having them stop to eat it in Zuccotti Park, where they were likely to cross paths with a fellow student, hatch a scheme of some sort, then disappear for the day, well, I choose to let kids eat in class. Finally, here is another course agreement that is at slight variance with the two preceding, but suggests a similar dictatorial posture towards students and parents.

Another thing I like to do to create a situation in which students are invested in their classroom, and by extension their own educations, is to call upon students to create posters to decorate classroom walls. To put this a little less politely, I find the kinds of posters and other decorations found in teachers’ stores leave a good deal to be desired–they are, in a word, inauthentic. Fortunately, I have several documents with text from which students can create posters for your classroom. First up, here is a short document of general text on taking credit for one’s work by identifying it with student name, date, and whatever else teachers want to see in a document header. Similarly, here are some quotes on learning that look good on classroom walls, and maybe better on hall-facing classroom doors. Primarily, at least in some years, I was an English teacher, so here are several documents with poster text for grammar and style, for concepts in English Language Arts, and for expository words that function across learning domains. Finally, here is a document with the verb to be conjugated, which I find useful on a classroom wall.

For social studies, here is a list of facts and concepts from the global studies and another of the same for United States history. As the latter document demonstrates, I spend vanishingly little time teaching United States History. I tended to teach what social studies classes that were assigned me as literacy subjects, using the content area to help students build their vocabularies and prior knowledge of history.

Finally, here (and I know I have previously posted this document on this blog) is a list of salutations I use in my classroom when preparing the board for the day. So, to use the first noun on this document as an example, the first item on the classroom agenda, recorded on the board, is “Good Morning Oncologists!” I generally begin with these materials further down the list, under outline headings XII or XIII, say with “hippies” (which generally excites remark, as does “haters”). After using a salutation, I cross it off the list. As the year progresses, I use a new word each day. Over the years of doing this, I measure the time it takes students to realize that there is a fresh salutation on the board every day. After that, it’s only a matter of time before this practice piques students’ curiosity, and then a much shorter time before they start asking what these words mean. Then you have a basis to start building vocabulary with only the slightest effort. And when students ask you, “What is an oncologist”? you can answer by telling them an oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer patients. Simple as that, they’ve learned something new.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Oxymoron

“Oxymoron: (Greek ‘pointedly foolish’) A figure of speech which combines incongruous and apparently contradictory words and meanings for special effect. As in Lamb’s celebrated remark: ‘I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief.’

It is a common device, closely related to antithesis and paradox (qq.v), especially in poetry, and is of considerable antiquity. There are many splendid instances in English poetry. It was particularly popular in the late 16th century and during the 17th. A famous example occurs in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo jests about love:

“Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.

Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

O anything! of nothing first create!

O heavy lightness! serious vanity!

Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!’

Other well-known examples are Milton’s description of hell in Paradise Lost:

‘No light, but rather darkness visible.’

And Pope’s reference to man in Essay on Man:

‘Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great.’

Goldsmith has some striking ones in The Deserted Village:

 ‘Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retired

The toiling pleasure sickens into pain.’

A particularly well-known example comes in Tennyson’s Lancelot and Elaine:

‘The shackles of an old love straiten’d him

His honour rooted in dishonor stood,

And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.’

Almost as well known are these lines in Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven:

‘I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constance,

In faith to him their fickleness to me,

Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.’

And a very arresting one in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland:

‘[She] Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:

The cross to her she call Christ to her, christens her

wild-worse Best.’

Probably the most famous instance of a sustained oxymoron is Sir Thomas Wyatt’s version of Petrarch’s 134th sonnet, which begins:

“I find no peace, and all my war is done;

I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice;

I flee above the wind, yet can I not arise;

And nought I have and all the world I season.’

Other English poets who have used the figure extensively are Keats and Crashaw. The Italian Marino and the Spaniard Gongora also had a predilection for it.”

Term of Art: Specific Language Disability

“specific language disability (SLD): A severe problem with some aspect of listening, speaking, reading, writing, or spelling, while skills in the other areas are age-appropriate. It is also called specific language learning disability.

The problems vary in focus and intensity, ranging from mild to severe. Some have severe problems with listening and reading (or receptive language) while others struggle with writing (expressive language); Other problems that often appear together with a specific learning disability include mild to severe organization problems and difficulty with directions.

Specific language disability may be a disorder of the left hemisphere of the brain, or a dominant right hemisphere.

Treatment Options and Outlook While there is no cure, the disability can be managed using educational methods and unconventional learning techniques. A multisensory approach is extremely important in teaching these students, making sure the person must hear, say, see, write, and use movement and feeling. For the reader with a specific language disability, this varied approach ensure that information will move from short- to long-term memory. This approach is called the VAKT (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Tactile) method.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Term of Art: Task Analysis

“task analysis: A teaching strategy in which a learning activity is broken down into small sequential tasks. It is an effective strategy used to teach students with a learning disability because it takes a large learning activity and breaks it down into smaller, more easily accomplished tasks. Task analysis is also used as an assessment tool to see precisely at what stage a skill breakdown is occurring. For example, if a student is given an assignment to define 10 vocabulary words, a task analysis might include the following steps:

  1. understand, record, and remember the assignment
  2. read/decode the vocabulary words
  3. use a dictionary/textbook
  4. paraphrase the definition
  5. write the definition

Breaking an assignment into the five steps can make a difficult and overwhelming project become more manageable.

Similarly, task analysis can be used for instruction where larger skills are broken down into subskills and each subskill taught until mastery.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Bob Moses: A Tribute to a Brilliant Civil Rights Activist and Educator, and His Message to Us

Diane Ravitch's blog

Bob Moses died on July 25 at the age of 86. He was noted for his intellect and courage. He was a leader of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), leading a voter registration drive in Mississippi at a time when violence against Black civil rights activists were at risk of being murdered, and no jury would convict their killers. In 1964, he led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which tried unsuccessfully to replace the all-white Democratic delegation to the Democratic National Convention. In 1982, he founded the Algebra Project, to teach algebra to underprepared Black youth. He received multiple honors for his work. He graduated from the elite Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Hamilton College (where he majored in philosophy and French), and earned a master’s degree at Harvard in philosophy.

One of his friends and admirers forwarded the following story:

It might be of interest…

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Term of Art: Sensorimotor Stage

“sensorimotor stage: A developmental stage in which a child had little ability with language or the use of symbols, but experiences the world through sensation and movement. It is the first of four stages in the theory of cognitive development as described by child psychiatrist Jean Piaget. The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth until about age two.

Infants are normally born with a range of reflexes that ensures their survival, such as sucking and grasping. As the infant adapts these reflexes over time, the child can begin to interact with environment with greater efficiency. By the end of this stage, the child is able to solve simple problems, such as looking for a lost toy or communicating simple needs to a parent or another child. It is also during this stage that the infant develops a sense of object permanence—that awareness that things and people continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived. For example, before the age of two if a parent hides a toy under a pillow in front of the child, the child will not understand that the toy still exists under the pillow. Once a sense of object permanence is developed, the child will understand that the toy hidden under the pillow still exists, and will lift up the pillow to retrieve the toy.

Modern technology was not available in Piaget’s time, so he often used motor tasks to test the cognitive understanding of an infant. With the availability of more advanced techniques that can track an infant’s eye movements or rate of sucking in response to stimuli, researchers now know that infants reach cognitive milestone such as object permanence.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.