Saturday, July 05, 2014

Writing, Teaching, and Vulnerability

As a writing teacher, I often place myself in a vulnerable position. In providing an example, whether it is a sentence or a string of sentences, I often choose to write about something that is in my head at the time; that is, a topic of interest or one I am passionate about. I expose some of my thinking about that topic, and thus I am susceptible to verbal or emotional attack. I must do this, as I am the model for the routines of the class.

I ask my writers, each week, to lay before us, the entire class, their most private and personal ideas in essays written about topics they care about. They read aloud their thoughts (which often have been placed on the paper as raw, absolute-zero drafts, perhaps from a free write during the previous class) as we all listen intently. This is the routine: reading aloud, listening intently, writing down some responses and listening and contributing to a discussion of each essay.

That routine is the core of the class. That kind of listening, applied to each student’s writing, leaves them vulnerable, so I can certainly spare a few sessions that involve my own vulnerability when we are working on sentence construction; that is how we fill any time left after everyone has read their weekly essay. By exposing my own thoughts and being willing to accept their suggestions for improving my sentences, I model what they must be able to do with their own sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

As the second and then the third week of such careful reading and listening go by, the practice takes on a ritualistic feel, so I must train carefully from the very first session. The sacrament of sharing our essays is not easily given up. Indeed, when I have on some few occasions split them into smaller groups to share their essays, it was always less satisfying, both to writers and to listeners. At the end of the semester, students cite the reading aloud and the listening, both from that position of terrific vulnerability (who wants to be the one to say where some cloudiness occurred, where something could be added?) as the single most helpful practice. They like to workshop sentences, too, but the reading and listening and discussing is where they learn best, or so they tell me.

And so I continue to refine the design of my writing class to center on that feature and marginalize all else. They write weekly essays, read and listen, turn them in to get my individualized comments, then revise each one. At the end of the semester, they have written pages and pages, all subjected to revision, especially at the level of sentences. They take three of the essays and revise them further at the end of the semester when they have learned the most. Centering my course on an activity that makes them all vulnerable means I have to acknowledge that and build in supports for it and think carefully about what I will say to each writer and to each listener who comments.

Comments must be observations that any of us might notice. They can not be judgments about the quality of the writing or of the ideas. Listeners must use their observational skills to say what they noticed about the effect of the writer’s words on their own listening mind, not to say what judgment they might pass, if they were the “teacher.” They are not taking on the role of teacher, but rather the role of listener and responder, one who is in dialogue with a writer.

We all feel the vulnerability of putting out our ideas and observations during a discussion of some topic. It is not any easier when we are in a group, a class for which we will receive a grade and some credit toward our next degree. It has become easier for me, but I still experience a twinge when I place some sentence on the board for analysis.

The issue that creates vulnerability is that I do not know what we will all discover. The writer cannot know, before listening carefully to her own and other’s words, where those sentences will take us. Writers bring essays to us which morph into different essays as we discuss them. The authors come to realize, by sharing and listening, where they really want to go with their words, or at least to understand that they did not go where they intended.

When I typed the word, “vulnerability,” at the top of this page, for example, and began to think and write, I did not know that I would end up here. This place, though, is valuable, and I now feel an interest in refining the raw ideas I have generated. The same happens to my younger writers. I must demonstrate that metamorphosis to them again and again if I expect them to realize what revision is about. I must let them see it happen with material they care about. And I must provide for the experience of dialogue about ideas and rhetoric if they are to understand that writing, as a system of communication, is dialogic.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Spring Meditation from the Back Porch

The day has finally arrived - the morning when the sun quickly warms the back porch and yard, the morning with no wind or clouds, with birds of all kinds cavorting in the air and gliding on the pond just behind our house. I can hear the chickens, the roosters, rather, crowing out to the sun, so I know that I will have to stop writing to walk over to the coop and throw open the doors. They may not come out yet, as the dew is still heavy, but they revel in the rectangular patch of sunlight on the floor, as do I.

I walk back across the grass, reveling also in each individual drop of dew with its suggestion of a rainbow. Each is revealed to me separately in its own glory, which is odd, because I know this summer will birth many crystalline, dewy mornings. The individual drops will not leap out at me as they do today, when I have spent several long cold dark months anticipating this moment. We have looked forward to watching the show that now spreads before us on the back acreage.
Surrounded by this natural theater, I worry, though, that something may have happened to the Canada goose hen’s clutch of eggs. She has been off the island nest, eating grass in the yard at my feet, for such a long time, watched over by her mate. Just now they are both floating on the water, retreating to it when I walked over to the coop and back. Perhaps they have hatched and she is able to be away longer. I have been thinking it was time.

Yet something about their quietness makes me worry. She should be swimming purposefully back over to the island, as I have seen her do many times, but she is not. Did the eggs meet an untimely end, from the beaver John’s been tracking, or a mink or weasel? I would have heard the commotion in the night - I am not a deep sleeper and the fury of the pair’s fight would have been notably loud. Perhaps the eggs did not develop in the usual way, and this pair has realized it, through deep instinct.

I have been watching pairs of Canada geese nest here on our pond or nearby for nineteen years. They bring the goslings to our lawn to feed until they are developed enough to fly away. A clutch of eggs on the island has not gone bad on my watch. I begin to anthropomorphize these two large geese, imagining that the low tones he is making in her presence are his grief and mourning and his attempt to comfort his mate.

She has spent so many hours on that nest. She was there during the icy pelting rain last weekend, during the snow the week before that, the frigid nights over the past month. She left only for short sessions of bathing and feeding, staying there alone when the male left to feed at the neighboring pond. Hers was an investment no less important than the nine months I spent nurturing each of my sons before their births.

Nature can seem cruel but I am trying to remember to take nothing personally. I invoke that ancient Agreement from the Toltecs and let go of my own disappointment, let go of the mourning I imagine for this mated pair. The cycle of birth and death sometimes involves death at unexpected points. The local habitat may not have needed more geese at this juncture. The eggs may have contained damaged genetic material not capable of conjoining to form strong viable goslings. Better that the geese try again next year, perhaps.

As I process my momentary grief and move on, I notice that the imagined island tragedy has not interfered with Rex, the resident redwing blackbird, and his morning routines. He has been clicking and singing since before six, a soundtrack for my pre-dawn dreams. As I sit musing, he flits from the top of the tall sycamore to the post by the bird feeder, and from thence to visit various nests hidden in cattails or skeletons of Queen Anne’s Lace, scattered around other sectors of the pond’s stage. He has mated with many, spreading his DNA and potential progeny across our three acres. If anything happens to one nest, he has another and another. Despite their number, he will still worry any crow who gets too close.

John puts forth another theory about the mother goose’s absence from the nest, which is in full sun just now. Perhaps she feels safe leaving the eggs in the sun’s warmth. If they have hatched (which we cannot tell from here, even when I fetch the binoculars) the sun may also warm them enough.

Flycatchers dart in wide circles, drawing my eye from the nest and from my thoughts. Chickadees and nuthatches chatter in the nearby bare branches of the Norwegian maple, cracking sunflower seeds they import from the feeder. Loud crowing reaches us from many points in the yard, as the flock has been freed to seek seeds and bugs. A kingfisher arrives with loud pronouncements to look over the pond’s surface from the tip of the island’s tall spruce tree.

John shares his haiku, written at the other end of the porch while I contemplated spring and death:

See the tapestry --
Branches holding new blue sky --

Monday, April 07, 2014

Technology, Ethics, and Education-- Ethical Issues in Education Reform: Privacy, Parents’ Rights, and Big Data

I spoke at a conference this weekend, as an education activist, because of ethical issues I faced in my public school classroom in the years following New York State’s inception of intermediate assessment. Here is part of what I told those who attended.

From 1998 to 2008, I saw my eighth grade students subjected to more and more testing.

An intermediate ELA assessment given to eighth graders in 1998 soon expanded to include ELA and math tests given to sixth and eighth graders, then tests given to seventh graders, and additional tests in social studies for eighth graders.

The cumulative science test of eighth graders was expanded to two different sessions where it had been only one before.

Our entire middle school faculty and support staff was enlisted to engage students in practice tests for each of these exams. Tremendous time and effort was spent to pin down the logistics of each practice test and then each official state assessment, as we provided testing modifications to suit all students’ needs.

Administrators insisted on seeing some form of test preparation, which they defined as practice tests and parallel tasks, in our classrooms. Then other teachers, of special subjects like technology, art, home and careers, other languages, and even gym class, were asked to contribute to that test preparation.

Time spent on test preparation and practice took away from time we could spend on activities that would increase my students’ skills as readers and writers. What we did in class each day no longer supported the curriculum and standards that had been in place for New York State already. Those standards had been developed by my professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, and adopted by the state education department, and rightly so. They were based on the very best research and scholarship into literacy development, but they went by the wayside.

Data-driven instruction took over our building and then our district. Administrators, trying to keep up with what they saw coming from Albany and from Washington, D.C., began to emphasize quantitative tracking of students’ achievements. Student writing achievement does not lend itself to quantitative measures, and I made my case to my principal, but my professional judgment was ignore in the face of tremendous pressure to attain higher scores on state assessments in any way that we could. Spreadsheets of vaguely-related information replaced attention to the details of each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. Michael Apple has used the term “de-skilled” to talk about what has happened to teachers’ professional status. I definitely felt de-skilled, though I had not read Apple’s work yet.

By 2009, I could no longer be in my classroom doing what I knew was not the best practice in my field of teaching. I left to study for my doctorate so that I could perhaps effect some changes in the policies that I saw a wrong. This was a moral decision. I was ethically opposed to what was happening. I chose a path I felt I could follow. Many teachers stay on because they can see no other path, but many still have doubts about what they are being asked to do.

After I left public schools, the emphasis on data increased. Our state’s involvement in Race to the Top meant our school districts had to enter into a new approach to data.

I am a teacher, one who acts as an interface between new technologies and students. I provide a classroom teacher’s professional perspective on this slide away from  caring about students into caring about data points. My career spans decades, and while I would not advocate a return to any sort of “good old days,” I would urge our state and its citizens to rely on educators’ professional judgment rather than the urging of corporations with data management products to sell.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

My opening statement for the Board of Regents interview:

Legislators, I appreciate the time you are taking to be here for these interviews. I’d like to introduce myself. I grew up in the southern tier of New York and attended colleges and universities around the state. I taught English to over two thousand individual students, grades seven to twelve, between 1978 and 2009. I also taught writing to many students in our state college and university system, and I have been teaching pre-service teachers about the best ways to develop students’ writing and literacy over the past five years. My work in the classroom and my recent study and research into the transition of writers from high school to college have brought me here for this discussion with you.

New York’s public schools are not broken. NAEP scores have mostly been leveling off over the period of years leading up to Race to the Top. Students from other countries flock to our schools, colleges and universities, and have for some time.

Although some nations may have higher test scores on internationally-administered assessments, the United States provides universal, inclusive K-12 education, and thus we test all students, where some nations restrict the test-taking, or perhaps even the opportunity for education, to only their top students.

Our schools are not the cause of a weak economy or a compromise to our national security.

Many if not most of the problems our educational system faces cannot be blamed on teachers or principals, but rather on poverty and segregation, which are far more complex problems we need to tackle as a society. Teachers are not in the profession to make money. They DON’T make a lot of money, which may contribute to other problems we are trying to solve.

Accountability is a requirement in every job: elected representatives know that as well as anyone. But evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is a flawed system. Teachers simply cannot control all the factors that affect student test performance.

All students, of differing abilities, from families with varying incomes, and from any school district, urban, suburban, or rural, should be able to attend a public school with adequate resources, with a staff that values learning rather than test scores. Not all learning can be measured by a paper and pencil (or computerized) test. We must rely on the informed judgment of professionals who spend time with our children as they are learning.

Policy makers must neither rely on Hollywood for information about schools nor encourage Hollywood to promote and disseminate erroneous educational narratives. Nor should we rely on those with a product to sell. Profit is not the bottom line in a school, nor is widespread, uncontrolled collection and storage of data about our children and their families.

Policies developed without consulting those who are in classrooms contribute to inequity. In the case of the increased testing that accompanied NCLB and now Race to the Top and the institution of Common Core Learning Standards, the increased time spent on testing and preparing students for testing situations reduces the time spent reading freely chosen books, writing sentences with original ideas, sharing those ideas with others, and pursuing in-depth understanding of topics in which they are interested.

As I talk to former students who are now parents, and other parents around the state, I find that their voices have been missing until very recently. The communities surrounding our local schools, our school officials, and especially students have felt trapped by the newest initiatives. Teacher educators, busy helping pre-service teachers negotiate an entry into real classrooms, are left out of discussions about teacher preparation. I would like to bring their voices into our discussions here in Albany.

When I began my teaching career, almost 40 years ago, New York State’s public schools were among the best in the nation. A Regents’ diploma was considered golden. I taught English classes using an excellent set of language arts standards developed and revised by teachers, informed by continuing research, over the years. I do not advocate a return to any “good old days,” but I hope to contribute to an informed collaboration between the Board and the legislature. Many eyes are on New York State, and I would like to help restore our system’s national reputation for the sake of all children across the nation.

Healthcare for new mothers and focused attention on early childhood education are excellent first steps. Involving experienced educators in all aspects of educational policy and practice will be another good step. Age-appropriate goals, smaller classes, access to a good library with a knowledgeable librarian, a balanced curriculum including physical activity, the arts, and a range of academic study every day: educational experts agree on these requirements. Involving teacher educators in planning will help us to prepare new teachers who can feel confident working in any public school. Time that is being spent on testing and preparing students for testing can be returned to children and their teachers for wide reading and thoughtful consideration of whatever they read about, to develop thinking, reading, and writing skills. Money that is spent on software, hardware, and printed material to support the tests can be given instead to principals who can make their schools marvelous places where students can become passionate about their learning.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

My dissertation is almost done.

Author’s Pain

(for all struggling writers navigating an unfamiliar genre)

Let the landscape
be smooth rolling hills,
fields of new-mown lawn
or green pasture.
But what I produce
instead are sharply chunked
wooden blocks in jagged
angled upheaval.

Words gasp out of me
falling on paper
like spent cartridges
rather than fertile seeds
hoped for.

Progress comes only
by stretching hamstrings,
scraping knuckles, elbows, knees,
tearing sleeves or pant legs
caught by hidden thorns
which harbor delicate jewels
of shining phrase
or flowing logic
not quite visible
almost out of reach
without exhausting

I fall asleep
each night to suffer
chaotic dreams
where the nightly problems
live long into the paragraphs

of the next day. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

First Snow Poem 2012

Afterimage     November 2, 2012

home through the first wet snow of the season
heavy with long lists of things to be done on another day
lists that spill off the small papers they might have been written on
as these swooping flakes spill out of the gray clouds above the road.

a long way off
spectacular days of remembered summer sun
light-shot columns of cloud that float airily across the blue
unlike these metallic gates of vapor.

those days will return but sorrow faces the winter, the lists,
the cold tedium of woolly layers and icy winds.

hypnosis of the swooping snow tracks:
I follow the myriad upward arcs meeting my windshield
more arcs, and more, and more -- how can there be so many?
along the lines of the hilltops, more, wave after wave
lost in them, as when
gazing up at stars on the cold August lawn
staring into sparking flames
stepping onto wet overlapping leaves carpeting the walk.

in my driveway, breathing slows
brows unfurrow
I close my eyes and many smooth arcs rise to meet the backs of my eyelids.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Campaign for our Public Schools

Dear President Obama,

Four years ago, when you were running for president, I was participating in a life-changing professional development program called Summer Institute, sponsored by the National Writing Project in one of its many local chapters near me in upstate New York. It was a heady time, exciting, galvanizing, and transformative. Twenty-some teachers of all content areas gathered to read and study and discuss and write their way to new understandings about teaching writing. It turned out to be life-changing for me, as I soon left my classroom career of 23 years to return to school for a doctorate in education. Now I train teachers at a state college.

While I was there, we wrote daily and shared our writing. One of the writings I shared was a letter to you in which I wrote about the problems NCLB had created with its misguided approach to education. Imagine how disappointed I was when you, too, relied on advice from non-educators whose recommended policies intensified the worst aspects of NCLB! The high-stakes testing, already in place in New York State before NCLB, increased and then with Race to the Top, took over the schools like an insidious terrorism. Data-driven obsession replaced thoughtful consideration of students' needs and best practices. I saw many students suffer setbacks in their intellectual development because of the changes in the school atmosphere. Because pre-teens and teens are resilient, some may recover from this scourge as adults, to overcome the culture of regurgitation and the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum encouraged by such a culture. Lucky for us - such recovery has brought us some of our most brilliant minds. But education doesn't have to be something to survive, and I believe we have made it an obstacle course with this emphasis on measuring learning in narrow ways.

It was also disturbing to watch as the teaching profession, not particularly honored or respected to begin with (certainly not when I began teaching in 1978), become the target of witch-hunters and nay-sayers in our society, on a grand scale. Yes, I know some teachers should not be teaching, just as some politicians should not be in office, some religious leaders should be removed from their churches, some shop clerks make mistakes with numbers. This denigration of teaching was intertwined with anti-union efforts, and though I have never been a huge fan of teachers unions, I have been a member for decades, and I have served when I saw a chance to increase the quality of our professionalism. Teachers should lead teachers to better practices and choices of self-improvement.

Yet we continue to be judged by non-educators. In fact, non-educators spurred this entire movement, in our country's history, to make schools the newest market, the locus of exploitation and profiteering. This velvet takeover of curriculum and instruction, out of the hands of the experts who have studied and prepared for it, into the hands of publishers and technology marketeers and politicians, is perhaps the biggest indignity. I pride myself on keeping up with what is best for children and helpful in my field, but my expertise was overlooked again and again in my 30 year career in public schools. Here it was overlooked by those who had no connection to schools except the desired connection to the funds that drive our schools. Those funds come from the people living in local communities, taxpayers across the state. The emphasis on testing and the control of curriculum by businesses funnel the funds from hardworking citizens to enormous business interests.

Business owners profiting from massive testing and accountability systems, and the politicians who partner with them, claim they must wrest control of schools away in order be competitive around the world. Even when the flaws in that argument are pointed out (the United States tests all its students, not just the children of the rich and well-prepared), you continue with these policies. These purported solutions will not, cannot be successful, until we solve the complex and difficult problems underlying our spotty performance on any standardized tests: the problems of poverty and inequity. You know that those problems are the knottiest; you spoke of them as you campaigned. For that reason I supported and voted for you, only to watch these problematic NCLB practices continue and worsen.

You stand by as the teacher-bashing continues, even as your daughters study in schools where poverty is not a problem, where teachers are considered the experts who should make the decisions about curriculum and assessment. Meanwhile, in most of the schools across the nations, power is taken away from children through the delivery of the shallow intense curriculum and the massive time spent on test delivery. They no longer have time to develop their literacy and numeracy skills in nurturing atmosphere that encourages mindfulness. The intensity of the pressure on teachers and administrators is passed on to them, and they associate school with all that is awful and anxiety-producing. They do not love learning and they will not be thoughtful, well-informed voters.

We will start to see all sorts of unintended consequences in our citizenry. I only hope that you will stop this madness so that teachers can be freed to prepare our students for active involvement in a democracy and discerning contributors to our economy.

Note: I have sent this letter to Anthony Cody ( who is collecting teachers' letters to submit to the White House on October 17 in a special effort to engage his attention. See Diane Ravitch's blog: .