Archive for teaching

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.

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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.

Some thoughts on writers' workshops and today's ghost story

Posted in books, genre wars, ghost stories, literature, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2009 by katekanno

IMG_1251I’ve been reading a lot about the value or lack of regarding creative writing workshops this year. Most focus on whether or not “writing can be taught” citing publications and famous coteries that existed at pricey and difficult to enter universities. Few mention workshops for those who lack funds, connections, or academic credentials.

I don’t know, but maybe skipping out on life for a few hours in order to attend to writing for writing’s sake shouldn’t be a mark of privilege.

I’m not slinging any nastiness toward people in MFA programs, if anything graduate success rates turn those who enter them without today’s prerequisites into brave individuals. It’s the encroachment of professionalization into every branch of the humanities that worries me more. Why are MFAs cited on the backs of more and more books? Why are some writing conferences even requiring them, as if you have to have a resume to create?

We used to be a culture of writers. Just look back at those letters written during the Civil War, or by your grandparents, and you’ll see that it wasn’t just the gilded who could turn a phrase.

And maybe when people participate in a writing group or sign up for NANOWRIMO, or scribble poetry in their notebooks, it’s just a matter of doing what comes naturally. Think about it. In a year when public rudeness is being both celebrated and lamented on a massive scale, shouldn’t we be happy that a few people are quietly trying to bring a little more integrity and accuracy to their self-expression?

That reason alone should be enough to show that yes, writing can be taught, not necessarily as a path to book contracts or publication, but to the communication skills we’re losing as a result of being time starved and painted in corporate happy face throughout most of our waking hours.

Therefore, if you are considering joining a writing group, don’ t think about publication or literary success. Understand instead that you will never have a better opportunity to see your work, and yourself through other people’s eyes. It isn’t therapy. It’s more honest than that. For a few hours each week you get to throw your own idiosyncratic and vulnerable self, your fumbling vowels, and screwed up punctuation before a group of total strangers and see how they land. Take it for what it is and relish it. It’s an increasingly rare opportunity.

On to today’s ghost story. Here is Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest”. Originally part of the novel, “Guest” was published as a prequel after Stoker’s death. It’s a fantastic story and if you live in nearby, the Orange County Museum Contemporary Art sells mini bound versions of it in their gift shop for less than two dollars.

It’s free here.