Archive for education

On books and pretending to have read them.

Posted in blogging, books, education, ill effects of computers, memory, shyness, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by katekanno

I’ve always been inarticulate, particularly in groups when the social anxiety ramps up.  I have a tendency to lock onto some obscure, often not very meaningful detail, and wax incomprehensible. Summarizing is not a strong suit, and  I cannot, for the life of me, exude an air of mastery over anything so much as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Yet, what baffled me when I returned to the States five years ago, was how much that skill, online or off,  has usurped genuine knowledge. There seemed to be more value placed on knowing about something, more so if that thing could be dismissed with a clever reference to theory or more appallingly,  a wikipedia link.

Before the internet we called that jousting with a trashcan and a garden hoe.

Even worse is that it now gets the nod from self-help manuals like Pierre Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read,” which Tracy Seeley, a vanguard in the slow reading movement, sees as a more sinister sign of our fraying focus.

Agreed.

And it’s phony as all get up, too.

I’m the first to admit that I’m as insecure  as the next person, but I’d prefer to use that anxiety as a guide. What haven’t I read? Where am I woefully ignorant?  And then I’ll go out and pick up a book, try to gain at least a meager grasp over what I know I don’t know.  It’s not a very efficient system, a little too random, but more often than not the serendipity pays off in ways that I would hope are more creative than the simple art of name dropping.

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On Not Teaching Writing

Posted in education, literature, politics, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by katekanno

Just a little whining about Obama’s State of the Union, most of which I liked, except the Sputnik style push for more science and math. That one’s old.  It isn’t change, and it’s part of Arne Duncan’s corporatist agenda to hack apart the teachers’ unions.

No doubt.

Nevertheless, what kind of defense can the humanities mount when the ed schools themselves are doing such a great job of undermining its subjects.

I apologize for dragging you into the old cranky time tunnel of nostalgia with me, but when I was in high school, we wrote. And when I say write, I mean we picked up pens and made marks on the blank page, sometimes staring at it for a few frustrated minutes, before pressing on, but we wrote, sometimes churning out one, two –gasp!–  even three pages in the space of a fifty minute class period.

Today’s ed schools, however, train English teachers to do everything they can to stand between the kid and the page.  It’s called “scaffolding” a term taken from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which initially meant something more complicated, but has now been ham-fistedly tacked on whatever silly scrapbook, Disney video, or papier-mache monstrosity the writing teacher must first inflict on his or her students before allowing them to pick up their pens.

First, there must be ceremonial readings of the text, eased through with motivational gimmickry, after which there will be an all too brief prewriting session, one or two graphic organizers, then peer reviews in which peers who cannot write their way out of a cereal box critique one another’s essays, all of this until the students have gained enough distance from both text and prompt that they can’t remember what it was they were to write in the first place.

I should note that I’m sinking to a gimmick myself by typing out this entry on Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die site. I have twenty minutes to do five hundred words, because Dr. Wicked will not give me a graphic organizer, he will not dazzle me with visual aids, or that ludicrous mish mash of stupidity referred to as “scaffolding.” If I do not write, Dr. Wicked will simply start erasing everything I’ve done up to this point, and that will feel bad. Very bad. But you see, we cannot have that, because in this mighty land of hollow self-esteem, we cannot allow our students to feel pressure, receive censure, or encounter a consequence at any moment.

Also, for as useful as they’ve been over the past few thousand years, actual reading and writing have none of the flash of a good Powerpoint presentation, none of the razzle dazzle of faux research, and none of the spurious, reductive labels educational researchers like to slap on kids’ thoughts.

I could complain about the push for math and science, but I won’t. As a graduate of one of the nation’s top ed programs — a fact of which I am not proud– I’d rather call on reformers to divert their attention from so-called “bad” teachers and look, really look at what’s being peddled to aspiring teachers in today’s ed schools. If they do, they might finally find the easy answers they’ve been looking for all along.

Invasion of the Metacrats

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by katekanno

One of my favorite comic scenes takes place in Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer asks an attractive, well-coiffed couple about the secret to their happy relationship. The woman responds that she is “very shallow and empty…(has) no ideas and nothing interesting to say,”  to which the man adds, “And I’m exactly the same way.”

I recall that scene anytime I hear someone brandishing the word meta. There’s an enormous contradiction in self-consciously proclaiming one’s meta-tude,  a lack of self-awareness that Allen’s couple, who could pass for hipsters in today’s Manhattan, ironically has in droves.

My distrust for the word, however, has more to do with its sinister appropriation in corporatized education, where the ability to self-regulate has become a quickie route for educrats to violate personal privacy at the deepest level.

Take so-called cognitive reading strategies, among them “think alouds,” where students are told to verbalize their responses to a text while another student sits by and labels those thoughts from a predetermined list of categories. If the kid expresses boredom, he isn’t really bored, he’s “monitoring.” If he or she relates to a character, it’s not identification but “adopting an alignment.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Yet so-called literacy experts dare to tout these strategies as ways to help students become better readers, when such strategies force students to take what are most likely complex thoughts about a text, and filter them through awkward third grade phrasing: “What this means to me is…or…a golden line for me is…(note the emphasis on me, whereas most might argue that literature is a way to understand the other). It presupposes a lack of complexity in the students’ thinking, ignoring overlap, tearing out ambiguities, and forcing consensus on what kids might actually be taking from the text, dismissing entirely, as Jaron Lanier argues in You Are Not a Gadget, “the mystery of human existence.”

Lanier describes the elevation of the meta as a kind of digital Maoism, the mash-up being more powerful than the sources who are mashed, and in education this attempt  to label and compartmentalize each and every thought further devalues the humanities as a mere utility for a phony form of self-actualization.

Imagine if the genome project simply stopped at the last gene, attempting to diagnose every physical trait and disease, while ignoring the discovery that complex proteins play just as large a role in our biology. This is what so-called education experts wish to do. Only they’ve given those genes such ugly names, and they have no view as to how they work together.
Forcing students to sift their thoughts into categories such as monitoring, visualizing, and reflection — the latter a popular form of behavior modification in today’s ed schools —  denies a person’s individuality, his or her ability to think in manifold and complex ways of which we’re not anywhere near an understanding.

It’s a violation of our right to privacy and our right to name the terms of our relationship with the authors we read, and even more, it will backfire, because the educrats, having little understanding of the value of literature, and thus not a very good understanding of human beings, haven’t thought to factor in performance.

They will not be accessing young people’s thoughts, nor coming to a greater understanding of how to improve literacy, they will simply be instilling a kind of defensive performativity in their subjects, that denied a quality curriculum and the room to think, might translate to the real aim of all of this: conformity.

Exploitation vs. Exploration

Posted in blogging, books, education, lifehacking, literature, multitasking, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2009 by katekanno

Exploitation vs. Exploration.

Previously the former word brought to mind underpaid factory workers or at least those miserably lopsided friendships in junior high, whereas exploration has always drummed up that conscientious chap in the beat up Tee, making his open-minded, charitable way through a new place.  If exploitation was Saruman, hacking up the trees in Lord of the Rings, then exploration was Indiana Jones, knowledgeable, adaptable, and of course, heroic.

On a larger level, of course, this is still true. On a personal level, such thinking is the disaster that we inflict on both ourselves and the world.

How, you might ask, can trying new things, reading new authors, and meeting fabulous new people be a bad thing? It isn’t.
But my life, and I suspect the same is happening in those of many other people, is suffering from a glut of exploration, both physical and psychological. It’s what buries our living spaces in useless consumer junk, the books we don’t read, our time with mildly interesting pursuits and people we know only tangentially, and our brains with all of that digital information on which we, to use that ominously cutesy term coined by David Armano,  snack.

Take all of those indelicate act(s) of multitasking: What are they but pure exploration at the expense of exploitation? We listen to 30 new songs on Pandora while talking on the phone and attempting to cook that souffle via the step by step instructions that we’re watching on the Food Network. And we’re making a hash of it all, even the talking, which we’re reducing more and more to Malaprops, disjointed threads, and yes, grunts.

So this is the year I make a determined effort to exploit more and explore less. Exploit! Exploit! Exploit! I’m with you Saruman. But only when it comes to myself. Save the trees.

Because when you exploit on a personal level, you do save trees. Let’s take my book habit, because it’s come to me after spending five predominantly dull years in the world’s dullest town with nothing else to do but read like a maniac, how very rarely I’ve come away from a book feeling that I know it  to my satisfaction, that I have many of its ideas, characters, and underlying themes mastered, before I’m on to the next one. I’m not trying to beat myself up, or to argue that I’ve gained nothing for my efforts. But as a writer, I want to be better poised to use what’s in what I read both for inspiration and to strengthen my own abilities.

Exploitation project 1: The Reading Journal.

To this purpose I’ve been keeping a reading journal. I’ve been doing it for awhile, but haven’t really landed on a good system until now, my biggest problem being how to separate the writing I do for myself with notes or ideas taken from books. I’ve been using color coded tags from Mujirushi to separate pages of my own writing and the  journal, which is working out well so far. In the reading journal, I  draw a line down the page and note any words or concepts with which I’m unfamiliar, leaving random thoughts or quotes I want to keep on the other. Although I’m not a proponent of Gardner’s learning styles, which are finally, and thankfully being discredited, the act of writing things down rather than typing them up does seem to help me remember what I’ve read. It’s rote baby! There’s no magic trick or psychobabble that can make it any easier.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy's Guide for Helicopter Parents

Posted in books, eco anxiety, education, genre fiction, genre wars, science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2009 by katekanno

The film adaptation of The Road opens this weekend, perfect timing for post-Thanksgiving guilt and much easier than a long workout. I’ve never quite been able to take McCarthy seriously, which probably has much to do with an overabundance of road trips: the cowboy, sacred steer of middle class radio listeners was a common form of torture employed by my parents, who’d flip immediately to the Prairie Home Companion, or those utterly unfunny Cowboy Poets.

And then there’s McCarthy’s blatant misogyny. In the Road it comes through with the “Woman,” i.e. the bad mother, who kills herself – a sensible decision in this case – but before doing so spends two pages calling herself a whore: “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot. . Because I am done with my whorish heart and I have been for a long time.”

The Road’s sonorous prose and kiddy pool depth has also been a choice target in the genre wars: bald proof that literary fiction is at a loss for ideas as it rifles through the sci-fi candy bag, scarfing down undeserved critical acclaim. Once you realize there aren’t any actual ideas behind the chest beating, Bunsen burner cannibalism, and miraculous morels, you should rush out to read Canticle for Leibowitz or Parable of the Sower.

Ah, but there are! Maybe.

The popularity of McCarthy’s novel, you see, is not merely another sign that literary taste is a matter of conformity. Forget about climate change, meteor fears, or annihilation via nukes or Oprah, because that’s not what the book is about. It’s not about an archetypal father really either, but rather an archetypal helicopter parent: the “man,” who still finds the time and strength to sensitively minister to his son’s every physical and psychological need, despite starvation, cannibals, and an utter lack of hope. Just look at the guy, slavishly hovering over his child, lovingly scrounging for that Pepsi, and hacking up his lungs in bad weather rather than spending a few extra days in that food-stocked bomb shelter. The son — like two 18-year-old boys I saw being massaged by their mother at the library while they studied (creeped out yet?)  — does nary a lick of work in this bleak landscape.

Then there’s the pop psychology: “What you put in your head is there forever.” McCarthy plops this truism throughout the book, hoping it will magically gain weight, while the father, on top of the physical privation, still manages to shield his child from horror after horror, like some superhuman V-chip, although if he really wanted that kid to survive, he might want to own up to the frakked state of the world.

Leave it to those as naïve and jittery as a helicopter parents, who live in gated communities free from the terrors of working poor to believe it. Only those who trust the mantras of test scores and college resumes, who think that a prestigious degree means that one is “educated” would find depth in this misplaced nugget of therapy culture.

It all falls apart when one confronts the pesky reality outside the book, wherein millions of children in less cushy areas of the world live under not quite as awful conditions, but pretty damn close. Those children do not enjoy the luxury of such assiduous parenting in the form of covered eyes and stories about “carrying the fire.”  Much like kids in those generations muckraked by Dickens, they live and toil away in hellish conditions, without the luxury of someone worrying about what they put into their precious psyches.

There forever? I doubt it. And if so, so what? I much prefer a line from faux suburbanite Donald Draper — once again, TV trumps literary fiction: “It will amaze you how much it didn’t happen.”

I guess it’s not surprising that scads of terrified parents who’ve chosen to battle rather than to engage with their communities would find The Road appealing. The trials of The Road’s starved, embattled superdad provide the perfect ennobling reflection of their own daily squabbles with teachers, principals, and admissions officers, the piecemealing of academic resumes for their infantilized progeny. For as bleak as it gets, the book nevertheless  provides the delusion that even in such horrifying conditions, they might still micromanage our children’s lives, while in the real world protecting  them from the glaringly obvious fact that our progress on social and economic equality, not to mention that pesky climate, are in dire need of a reality check.

 

McCarthy’s book certainly isn’t one, but it’s popularity is just a sign that many have already given up trying. When I hear the term helicopter parent, the words overprotective and assertive rarely come to mind. Remember that helicopters after all, are a privileged means of escape.

 

Just watch any pre-Road apocalypse film. You’ll see.

Social Networking: Playing Sidekick to our Shadows

Posted in blogging, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by katekanno

I was listening to an excerpt of Patricia Bray’s workshop lecture on the protagonist. Bray is the author of The Chronicles of Josan and the Sword of Change series. Although she actually spent more time (at least in the clip) talking about the sidekick, she made some very interesting points that immediately pushed me into a few wild speculations on how social networking and the use of technology might be shifting the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Sidekicks, Bray states, are useful as they can stimulate audience interest in the first person while still acting as chronicler. She uses the Watson/Holmes model as an example: Watson narrates the story, taking care of all of the workaday details, while remaining in first person and thereby creating a gateway for reader identification.

Yet the sidekick narrator, she adds, also allows the reader the cushy position of superiority to Watson. We may identify with the good Dr, but we can imagine ourselves to be more like Holmes, the old “If I were like Watson, I like totally would have figured that out by this point.” And last and most obvious, the appeal in creating creating a sidekick , Bray states, is because multiple characters pick up a larger audience/readership.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Social networking applications also allow us to present a “real” version of ourselves that takes on the dual role of first person chronicler. Take the status update in which we can switch back from first or third person. “I am not happy that my cat has lobbed a hair ball on my lap,” or “Ryan is not happy that her cat has gobbed a hair ball on her lap.” This is both an act of chronicling and a call for identification.

Second, in creating these personas on Facebook or Twitter, its often the case that we try to project someone who is more Holmes than Watson — and this is a very loose comparison, by which I mean the role of a main protagonist — but the irony is that through our labors our real selves play sidekick to our own projection.

Third, no matter how little glamor or mystique our own profiles actually present, our voyeuristic tendencies mixed in with our ability to haze over reality, allow us, like the reader, to feel superior to those other personas that our “friends” project on the web. Think about how many times you’ve curled your lip ever so slightly at seeing your friends misspell a word or hearing that their movie plans include a second viewing of New Moon? That we rarely reflect on how asinine we may in fact look to others, insures that we remain busy pumping air into that puffed up and ultimately phony profile.

And as for attracting a larger audience through multiple characters, can you think of a better example than Twitter, where retweets from our collection of followees spawn an even greater of followers and so on until we can barely make out why we signed up in the first place.

There are arguments that social networking is in fact thinning out our personalities, making us hollower, flatter, and ultimately less interesting. I definitely agree that there’s something to that. But it’s even more unsettling when we remember that it wasn’t Watson who was performing all of those amazing mental feats. It was Holmes who kept his eyes and his mind trained firmly on the world, while we, pale shadows to that series of sparsely worded one liners, fabricate a weak reflection of what was once ourselves.

Blaming the Victim, American Style

Posted in education, narcissism, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2009 by katekanno

brightsidedLast year, while working in one of the roughest schools in one of the roughest districts of Orange County, I had a chance to see how the positive thinking/ self-help movement had slimed its way into public education. Each day at School X came with newly minted (and labeled) behavioral problems, expulsions, and cop cars, always cop cars. Many of the kids were flirting with, or had already taken on, gang membership, and during my last week a group of students caused a five car pile up by hurling rocks into passing traffic.

Despite the poverty and often abusive conditions under which many of these kids lived, the only remedy the principal could arrive with his fevered lack of imagination was chicken soup. Real soup might have been better considering the crap they were being fed at school, but no, I’m talking about Jack Canfield.

Yes, indeed. The school had made a deal with the Chicken Soup tripe spewing machine, and each week before their lessons for the day would commence, students were subjected to a three minute mini morals read in a cracked, schmarmy voice that made the After School Specials of the 70s seem weighty in comparison.

I remember standing in the classroom one post Christmas morning, the economy having just ground to a halt, when a story about a curtain salesman who screws up an order sprang forth from the loudspeaker – riveting, I know. The salesman, you see, had mistaken a customer’s order for Venetian blinds, but rather than owning up to it, he’d blamed the credit card company for his mistake.

I couldn’t help wondering what kind of loony, officious moron would think that a lie told by a terrified, eight-dollar-an-hour service rep, would be interesting to kids whose parents, in the age of deregulation, mostly like had one or more creditor’s hands at their throats. More likely, if they were listening at all, they would probably side — as I did — with the salesman whose foisting the blame on an industry responsible for so many of this country’s financial ills was less a character -damning lie than an act of resistance.

I tell this story, because it is exactly the kind of thing that Barbara Ehrenreich eviscerates in her book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.” Ehrenreich’s book explores how our Calvinist work ethic mingled with the new thought of Mary Baker Eddy into a gallimaufry of blind optimism and a blame-the-victim mentality just ripe for corporate manipulation. If I have one complaint, it’s that she doesn’t cover the education system; her descriptions of laid-off employees being cheerfully browbeat into submission were certainly a larger version of what this principal was doing to these kids.

It’s not your poverty, or your “language arts” teacher whose interest in the spoken work stops at the Michael Jackson slogans she’s pasted to her podium; it’s not the lack of art or music available in your school because your test scores haven’t met state requirements; it’s not the standards peddling principal who won’t let even your good teachers enjoy some creative freedom; it’s not the fact that your parents must work two or sometimes three low-paying jobs in order to feed you, and often must take you with them while they work. It’s not the two or three shootings that happen weekly outside your house, or the fact that you live in a motel or share an apartment with three other families.

Nope.

It’s your attitude, see?

Now, click your heels.