Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bakhtin and Eagles

I found this in the drafts of my personal blog from 2008.  It's speaking to me today about writers.  

Last night I was lying in bed with the Braddock Essays freshly read on the heels of Bakhtin and Vygotsky at the end of a semester of reading in Rhetorical Theory. As I closed my eyes, I knew that today was the day to park myself in my chair and write/ wrestle with it all. And as I filtered through the ideas and theories streaming through my semi-conscious mind and gently probing for ways into the writing, for connections, for new ideas, I had the sudden image of myself hovering somewhat precariously on the edges of balance and strength in eagle pose.

The eagle is a tough pose for me. I consider myself a pretty strong person with a new found balance that I’ve cultivated over the past two years. Eagle has reminded me that one does not attack a yoga pose the way one attacks a hill sprint. You can’t gut out balance. The eagle must be approached with calm, peace, and respect. The scattered, racing mind will bring distain from the wise and regal posture. One must study the intention of the pose in her mind, think about arms, legs, core and what those muscles should be engaging without actually thinking of one muscle over the other. And then, she must totally relax, focus on a tiny dot of consciousness and hold her mind there, calm, assertive and at peace. The raw determination, pounding music, and thoughts of conquest and brute strength that propel a girl up a monster hill at top speed, beating the scattered mind into a state of exhausted submission are useless here. This is a new realm requiring new habits of mind and body, much like wrestling with theory.
My first real success with writing, and the piece that I am still most proud of, began with a metaphor of running and writing. At the time I was writing the piece (and running 4-7 miles a day) I felt that I had reached my pinnacle/ potential as writer, a teacher of writing. And then, a couple of years later, I found something new. I discovered that the writing that is most appealing to me and to my students is a hybrid of forms and genres. But as I began to attempt to write about it, the words, thoughts, ideas simply wouldn’t gel. “There is nothing NEW here.” I kept saying. “Multi-genre is not what I’m writing about.I didn’t even know that term when I started experimenting with this stuff. It’s the lyric essays and how they get kids to think that’s interesting.”

But Why? How? What?

And so began the process over the past year that had me hovering carefully and precariously in that calm assertive pose in my mind last night. But it is precarious because it is a calm that could shatter at any second if I listen to the voices in my head. The voices incidently, that so many of my students hear each time they sit down to compose school writing. And the voices that I hope to help them engage and transform.

What I’ve found and what I want to explore here is what happens when we respect the language practices and ways of knowing that our students bring to us as legitimate language practices that are useful and important to learning. The NEW ideas about language and literacy that can come from the bumping together of the institution along with all of the diverse things our students bring – from “playing” in the Vygotskian sense of the word with in the figured world of school and the improvisation that comes from that when “school” writing/ language meets “home” writing/ language.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tinkering with Failure

There is a poem, “Fire” by Judy Brown about space.
“Too much of a good thing” she says
“too many logs, packed in too tight”
will put out the fire.

This has me thinking of the space to fail.
But maybe failure is not what I mean.
Maybe I mean the space to tinker
to try out.

Success is a good thing and
I want my own children and my students
and myself to have it.
But at what cost?

When success is all that’s allowed
it becomes piled on
like too many logs
snuffing out the flames.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Read to Achieve

There are reports that prisons use third grade reading scores to predict how many beds they will need.   While this little factoid is not true, "there is a connection between literacy rates, high school dropout rates, and crime."
Hence the Read to Achieve Law passed by North Carolina in 2012.

The law essentially states that 3rd graders must pass the End of Grade Reading test (EOG) in order to move on to 4th grade.

Students get two chances to pass the EOG test at the end of the year. If they fail twice, parents can request that the student take the "Read to Achieve" test.  They also get the chance to build a portfolio comprised of 36 tests developed by the NC Department of Public instruction around 12 reading standards, Reading 3D reports and a Personal Education Plan if the student has one.  Students have 8 chances to pass 3 tests on each of the 12 standards.  If they do not pass a standard, they cannot complete the portfolio.

If students pass those tests, they can be promoted.  If all of that fails, they are required to go to summer school, or summer "camp" as our district is calling it, where they will take the "Read to Achieve" test again at the end and continue to work on passing the portfolio.  If they STILL fail the portfolio or the test, they go to a 4th grade classroom with a 3rd grade retention marker on their file.  The student will learn 4th grade material and be given intensive help with reading.  They will take the test again in November.  If the student still doesn't pass, they continue to receive help and take the 4th grade EOG test at the end of the year. Whether or not they pass that test, the school can then decide whether to retain the student or send them on to 5th grade.

Obviously students have many opportunities to pass the test and many measures are being put in place to help all students pass and learn to read.  That's a good thing.

The problem I have is that the ability to read is being solely equated with passing multiple choice tests. There is so much more to reading than that.  There is nothing here about love of story and love of books and information.  There is nothing here about reading for the sheer joy of learning something new. Much more emphasis is being put on teaching students to pass a test than actually teaching them to read and be life long readers.  While I think having a portfolio is a huge step in the right direction in this process, I'd like to see more project-based work that allowed students to show what they know at an individual level.  I want to see how students perform when they are engaged with texts that are interesting and important to them.  All of the testing equates students to widgets on the factory assembly line.  A project based portfolio would be more expensive and time consuming to assess, but don't our students deserve that time and investment?