Questions for close reading (graphic)

The main thing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) get right is the emphasis on close reading. ImageThe emphasis on reader response has led lots of students to think reading is a process of free association–they grab at any stray association that comes to mind and offer that as what the text “means.” But most texts do have meanings that we can ascertain through attention. Communication really is possible.

Practice at close reading is also essential to learning to write well. Close reading is a fundamental strategy of critical thinking.

Here’s a worksheet that may be useful for applying these questions to specific texts.

Adapted from The Art of Close Reading by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder (The Foundation for Critical Thinking).

The ALERT processes: student research beyond copy and paste

My last book is built on the framework of the ALERT processes.

Teachers should big and enduring questions during the initial phase of immersion in a topic. Later, students should be invited to reflect on new information and experiences in the light of those questions. In this way, local studies can be linked to the enduring issues around which good curricula are organized.

By upholding high standards for the writing that undergirds all final reports and presentations, student work is kept accountable to district, state and national standards.

Good writing projects are most often good research projects appropriate to a digital age that calls on students to add original research to the published record, rather than copying and pasting from previous research.

Narrative Environment: Two views of Virginia City, 1863

From “Better than myth” by Annick Smith, in The Last Best Place, Montana Historical Society, 1988, p. 260.
A real storyteller. . .speaks in a voice as individual and quirky and full of nuance as your own would be in your best dreams. Here, for instance, is Mary Ronan, remembering her girlhood in the gold-mining camp of Virginia City in 1863:

There were tall buttercups and blue flags in the valley. Up Alder Gulch snow and timber lilies bloomed, wild roses and syringa grew in sweet profusion and flowering current bushes invited canaries to alight and twitter. . .Robins, meadowlarks, bluebirds, blackbirds. . .bluejays, crows and magpies lured us from where men were ravishing the gulch.

And here’s what schoolteacher Thomas Dimsdale wrote in his famous Vigilantes of Montana about the same town in the same year. He is describing the events that led to the hanging of Captain J. A. Slade:

J. A. Slade was himself, we have been informed, a Vigilanter; he openly boasted of it, and said he knew all that they knew. . .He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing revolvers, etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into stores; break up bars, toss the scales out of doors, and use the most insulting language to parties present.

Can this be the same place? Which version is truest? What does “true” mean when you are talking about literature? And how has Mary Ronan’s experience altered our vision of gold camps and outlaws and vigilantes?
Beyond the voice of the storyteller, serious writing is about character and conflicts and the moral consequences of a person’s actions.

Leading students into engagement

Schools cannot be made great by great teacher performances. They will only be made great by great student performances. –Phillip C. Schlechty, Working on the Work

Phillip Schlechty suggests that the primary role of teachers is leader rather than of facilitator, as favored by constructionists, or coach, as favored by the Coalition of Essential Schools.

I think this is right. A high school teacher’s main problem in this age of mass education is a lack of authentic engagement by students. Once students are engaged, both coaching and facilitating—not to mention lecturing and assigning—can be quite effective.

To get what Schlechty calls “authentic engagement” teachers need to lead. He points out that the work of teachers has more in common with the work of other leadership professionals such as business executives, clergy, and military officers than it does with the work of diagnosticians or physicians. This is helpful to keep in mind as the medicalization of education continues apace.

The real work for teachers comes into focus when we consider the five patterns of engagement that Schlechty describes:

Authentic engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

“Authentic” comes to our lips so easily these days that thoughtful people will hesitate before uttering it, but Schlechty’s list is useful nonetheless. Many teachers, even those in very good schools, are content with passive compliance and ritual engagement. On some days, any teacher would be thankful to achieve a class that was ritually engaged. In countless well-managed classrooms most students are well-behaved and busy with productive work with few or no students authentically engaged. Indeed, honor students can learn quite a lot and do quite well on tests with these levels of engagement.

On some days or for some classes, this is no doubt enough. Our world puts lots of demands on us to learn things, and it’s only sane to comply and to get the rituals down. In the last week I needed to learn the controls of an unfamiliar digital camera, figure out how to use a new preloaded syringe to give myself medical injections, gather background on a political leader that circumstances have dictated I will be working with in the near future, and figure out why my website was taking visitors to random pages after they submitted an email form to us. None of this was done with great passion. I complied with my plight and went through the familiar rituals. It’s how we live now.

But as schools trend toward being ritual centers, they anaesthesize those within them. If young people hit the books only because they want to get into good colleges and get high-paying jobs, they may be deaf to the highest ideals of our culture. If students study only to register higher scores on competitive tests, they may be sleepwalking through the sublime realities less distracted travelers encounter in science and literature. And if we–the leaders–spend valuable class time coaching kids to score better on tests and writing assessments, we are contributing to a phony culture where trophies trump accomplishments. We are saying quite clearly that scores matter more than deep learning.

To get kids engaged in real work is a leadership challenge. In fact, getting good performances from others—helping them find their voices–is nearly always a leader’s most important work. Leaders inspire, coach, share information, ensure emotional support, arrange opportunities and resources, provide scaffolding for aspects of the performance that are still too difficult, facilitate associations with peers and mentors, and arrange recognition for accomplishments.

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course. It’s what good teachers have always done.

But we all know that it isn’t always done. We wouldn’t have to visit many classes in a typical high school to see lots of passive compliance.

What intrigues me about heritage teachers who consistently get high quality intellectual products from students is the skill with which they put before students work that engages them. I’ve noted several factors about that place-based research that students have said are important:

1. It is real work. The projects are organized with a final public exhibition as a mission. The need to have a complex finished product by a specified deadline gives the work shape and energizes the participants.

2. The work is important. Students believe they are preserving history that will otherwise be lost, or giving voice to people who would otherwise be silent. They believe this because their teachers and others aren’t shy about telling them what they are doing is important.

3. The work is social. Students get to be part of a team that has a mission—getting ready for a public performance. This gives them a reason for being together and things worth talking about. Since they are dependent on each other for how well things work out, what they do matters. Also, community mentors, parents and grandparents, and outside experts get involved with the work. People like being involved in things that lots of other people are involved in

We know that what students learn is affected by the effort they put into the work at least as much as it is by their intellectual ability. A great deal of attention should be paid to the quality of work that teachers provide. I believe that place-based research projects provide one of the most straightforward ways to engage students in real work—work that is inherently important, work that is inherently social, and work that has natural audiences beyond the classroom—and that heritage projects should be a part of the curriculum in every school.

True stories in an age of fictions

“No society can be just or good that is built on falsehood.” Stanley Hauerwas

watership_down___the_great_patrol_by_fisi-d4oy7xfI spent some of the day outside reading Stanley Hauerwas. He deals with some of the same concepts as Alasdair MacIntyre–the connection between narrative and social ethics, for instance–but his style is simpler and less technical. I think high schoolers in an AP class could follow much of his thinking. His essay “A Story-Formed Community” lays out quite vividly some basic ideas about communities and politics that would be useful for young people to discuss, but the essay is organized as a reading of Watership Down, so some familiarity with that novel would help. I’ll watch the film version, which I’ve never seen. Maybe that would provide enough background, given that Hauerwas uses extensive re-telling of the story to make his points.

He uses the novel because “the best way to learn the significance of stories is by having our attention drawn to stories through a story.” The significance of stories, for a polity, is fundamental. Communities are founded on stories, and they sustain themselves as members tell their personal stories, finding how they fit within and extend the founding stories. Arguments and political discussions “are subordinate to the ability of a community to live and tell its stories.”

It’s a useful balance in an age awash in policy discussions and multi-step plans. The stories people tell and the stories they believe they are part of matter more than any number of contests between wonks. Who we are will shape what happens, and we are creatures formed and driven by stories.

A story is true to the extent that it can accommodate the pressures of actual events. Societies whose stories can no longer accommodate that pressure do not remain communities, though they may produce Potkemtin villages and other forms of seeming. Seeming is the first refuge of a scoundrel. Hauerwas contrasts the society of Russia under Stalin with communities formed and sustain by religion: “It is well-known that Stalin responded to Pius XII’s condemnation with the taunting question about how many divisions had the pope. Most assume that Stalin’s point is well taken, for without divisions the power of the church counts for nothing. Yet in spite of all appearances to the contrary, Stalin’s response masks the fundamental weakness of his position. A leadership that cannot stand the force of truth must always rely on armies.”

That’s quite true. Lying and deceiving are forms of weakness, and when leaders begin lying they also begin arranging stronger methods of control than persuasion. Audits, maybe. Inquisitions. “Peace is bult on truth,” said Hauerwas, “for order built on lies must resort ultimately to coercion.” I would be more optimistic about our future if Americans seemed more attentive, more outraged, at the steady stream of deceptions and misdirections flowing from the current administration.

Justice is based on truth, and freedom is based on justice. The only real defense good people usually have against bad people is the truth. Systems of justice are always systems of ascertaining the truth–of figuring out amid conflicting testimony what really happened, of unmasking liars and shedding light on deceptions. There’s no other way to work at getting the right things done. Creating fog and confusion is the stock in trade of criminals angling to get possession of other people’s property. They don’t care that if we can’t keep what we’ve made and acquired needed for the way of life we’ve chosen, if we can’t keep the place we’ve created for ourselve and our fellows, then we can’t stay free.

The president’s chronic deceptiveness is necessary because people would not tolerate his designs if they were clear–good and just people may still constitute a majority.

One thing to do, as we wait to see what happens, is to tell and discuss the stories that lie at the heart of the better world that we’ve seen, sometimes in true texts, sometimes in daily life. Ultimately, stories are more powerful than armies. Caesar and Napoleon had far less impact on the world than Buddha and Jesus. The best story wins.