Allegory of the Educator

I have waited to post my final paper on my philosophy of education. If you are a philosophy geek, and an educator, you may enjoy the post. If not, don’t bother reading it, because it is weird. 

 The first day of class, my professor talked about the Allegory of the Cave. I was drawn to the story, partly because it is an extended metaphor, but mostly because it captures the essence of the human condition. I began writing a generic regurgitation of my personal educational philosophy. But, the images of the cave in reference to our current educational predicament inundated me. I often call my home office, my cave, because there are no windows, and I spend much of my time in there, writing and planning for instruction. So, from my cave, I wrote about the educational cave.

Thanks Daniel for the awesome sketches. Somehow, you captured what was in my mind. Wow.

Allegory of the Educator

Long ago, there was a school, nestled between a mountain and a river. On the side of the river, the sun shone directly into the library.  The view from the mountainside of the school was solid rock. The teachers on the mountainside lived in the school. The inside of the school was the only world they knew. Nothing else existed. And if anyone talked about a world outside of the school, they would create a new philosophy representing the idea of that made-up world. For ideas could exist without matter, and matter only existed because of ideas. Sometimes, the stories of the other place became myth and were re-told as fictional accounts.

The walls were always walls, and only ever walls. The floor could only be floor, and made only of floor. There was something they breathed in and out, but the true nature of that was somewhere in a book, found on the riverside of the school. It wasn’t important because the thing they breathed in and out would never run out, according to a story they re-told one another.

Many of the teachers had been chained to the walls of the school, because they thought that was what they were supposed to do as inhabitants of a school. They didn’t need mobility of mind nor body.

Seldom did anyone venture to the riverside of the school. The chains kept teachers in their respective rooms, and there was no need for books since everyone had memorized the curriculum.

The students had lost two and a half dimensions, and they became a generation of shadow students. The shadow students had smoke and mirror thoughts. All student thoughts conglomerated into one mass thought. At the end of the school day (when the lights were turned off) all thoughts evaporated. They turned into thought vapor, and when the new day began (when the lights were turned on) the thoughts would trickle down and return to the dim brains of the shadow students. The same thoughts were recycled daily. If there was a new thought, where would it go, and what would the teachers and students do with it? It wouldn’t fit anywhere, so why have it?

The atomic make-up of a shadow student consisted of percentiles, rankings, and standardized test scores. When shadow students were injured, numbers would leak from their bodies.  The school nurse would scoop up the lost percentiles, and attempt to put them back into the shadow students. Unfortunately, once a student lost a percentile or a ranking, it was almost impossible to put it back.  In order for the percentile to be valid again, there was extensive paperwork that had to be completed. It had to be stapled three times (one millimeter apart) in the upper right hand corner, be signed by fourteen school dignitaries, and be put in a red folder, with a tab in the middle (not on the left or on the right). As each number bled from the shadowy bodies, the students began to further fade. So, it was in their best interest to keep still, sit in seats, and stare vacuously at the stone walls.

On murky school day, after students learned about the philosophy of penumbra, took three hundred forty-five assessments, filled out sixty-two scantron sheets, and watched the nurse sweep up the numbers left by a faded shadow student (who met his demise with an errant pencil) a teacher realized her chains were broken.

She stood up and balanced herself on the cinderblock wall. She felt dizzy and unstable. She had been chained to the wall since the beginning. The beginning of something important. Long ago.

No one noticed as she stood up. They continued to sit; they remained chained to the walls and watched the shadow thoughts move through the thought cycle. The only noise in the classroom was the clanking of the chains when a teacher would re-position him or herself.

She looked beyond the classroom and saw a light curving its way into the thing outside the room. Later, she would learn the words hall, brick, mountain, block, learn, books, brain, chain, teach, learn, walk, ask, breathe, and choice. She limped to the door and peered to the left. She glanced to the right. She gazed straight ahead. She closed her eyes and felt that thing in her chest pound. She stepped outside of the room.

Her gait was unstable for she had been chained since the beginning. As she walked, the thought dust obscured her sight. She had only seen the classroom to which she was chained. Her brain couldn’t assimilate the new images bombarding her consciousness. Eventually, she found the room with the books and light. Beyond that room was a door. She could see outside the door and the stone was gone. She remembered the myth of the outside place. She was instructed to teach the shadow students that the pictures of the things in books were only a product of someone’s mind. They weren’t real. But, now she was looking at trees, sun, river, squirrels, and grass. The invisible thing (later she would know it as wind) was blowing in her face, and it moved through her hair. Had she found the truth? How could she trust what she saw? If she left, would those things still be there? What was REAL?

She ventured outside to see students with all dimensions intact. Each student had a thought bubble attached to his or her head. Instead of smoke and mirror thoughts, each child’s thought bubble was full of images of concepts they were learning. Some students were playing musical instruments, and others where playing soccer. The teacher with the students was wearing a shirt that read, I Heart Socrates.

The mountainside teacher heard the students’ conversations. They were working in groups to solve various problems. The students shared new thoughts. And the thoughts were original, unlike those of the shadow student back in the school. There was a sign on the grass that read: “Please frolic and play on the Dewey grass.”

The riverside teacher introduced himself to the mountainside teacher.

“Hello, I’m UTO P. IA. You can call me UTO. Are you a new hire? What is your name?”

The mountainside teacher stared at UTO. She had never needed her name before, but she knew she had one. She reached into her frontal lobe and pulled out her name.

“Hello. I’m..well. I’m PAV L. OV You can call me PAV.”

She touched UTO’s shoulder and flinched when she realized that he was not smoke and mirrors. She longed for the safety of the cave. As she wandered back inside, she pondered the term, ‘new hire’. The sounds of the multi-dimensional students faded and the light dissipated.

She knew she had to go back and tell everyone that they had been wrong about the ideas. The ideas were real. Or the things were real. Maybe they were both real.

On her way back into the school, she saw a small, plump man sitting in the middle of the hallway. He was bald and effortlessly smiling.  His t-shirt read, I’m Siddhartha. Just call me Buddah. She walked close to him and he said, “You have desired nothing, therefore you haven’t suffered. Now, you are experiencing the desire to learn about life, and share that knowledge. Well, now you will suffer.” He smiled and then he began to laugh. As he laughed, the word truth flew out of his mouth. With each breath, a new version of truth came out.  Some truths were small, some were large, some had fancy fonts, and others were looked as if a child scribbled them. Pav didn’t see any of the truths as they few over her, under her, and around her.

She walked past the little man, because she didn’t know how to respond. She was never taught what to do when a new sentence was uttered. And in this case, a new sentence with a new thought.

She found her way back to the classroom where she had been chained. The teacher in charge introduced herself.

“Hello. I’m UT O. PIA. You can call me UT.”

Pav had known UT since the beginning. UT ignored the faint bouts of recognition and decided that she didn’t know Pav. The thoughts weren’t real without words to support them.  Pav realized that UTO and UT had the same names. But the two teachers were polarized, yet very content. This confused Pav because she only knew one form of contentment, and that was the classroom cave.

Pav knew that she had to tell everyone about the outside place.

“UT, I need to tell you about something. It will change everything we do here on the mountainside.”

“Well, okay-go on. The thoughts have not completed their cycle yet. I don’t need to clean the empty thoughts off the floor yet.”

Pav was nervous for the first time.

“UT, I found the outside place. There were children, who were different from the ones here.” She pointed to the shadow students and they were still and staring.

“They didn’t just sit. They talked about the things they were learning.”

UT was noticeably shaken.

“Pav, stop there. You of all people should know that those alleged children out there are behaving as they were told.  This is what we know: It is our truth.

Pav thought of her words before speaking. She tried using her common sense to talk to UT, but it didn’t seem to be working. Their words were different now. Pav’s words didn’t mean what they used to (before she visited the outside place).

Pav wondered what was real. Was UT really there, or was she experiencing the idea of UT? Then, she began wondering if she was real. She wondered if anyone else saw her. Did she really teach?

“UT, don’t you want to know what is out there? Aren’t you curious? It’s real! We don’t have to continue to teach like this!”

UT looked at Pav, and she hesitated before she began to vacuum the empty thoughts from the stone floor. The empty thoughts looked like giant dust clouds as they retreated to the guts of the vacuum.

Pav had some decisions to make. Familiar things are easy. She could go back to teaching the shadow students, and perpetuating the smoke and mirror thoughts. But, the more she thought about the outside place, the more curious she became. What if she ventured to the riverside and learned that all that she knew was wrong? What would happen?

We run the course of philosophies during a teaching career. There is no one, set philosophy that lays the foundation for my instruction. Every day, I strive to be the teacher that students can count on. I want to be mentally aware, as I teach, not on autopilot. 

I may have lost the idealism I had when I began teaching. The invincibility shield has been tarnished. It isn’t the kids: It never is. It’s the quagmire through which we sift in order bring us close to the place where we felt we could change the world. That place is not lost; it is hidden beneath the years.

So, hopefully Pav will take the road less traveled and take a few risks to make that difference.

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Inquiry Science-Ten Questions or Fewer-L…E…S…S…

Thank you Publix for fixing all of your lessess to fewers. It is a step forward for all grammar kind. I felt pure joy when I saw these new signs. I looked at the people around me, and they were just counting their items to make sure they didn’t go over quota. I count mine too, and even have guilt when the eleventh item makes its way into my cart. Then there is always that poor soul who didn’t see the sign, and has placed sixty-five items on the conveyor belt thingy. We all know because not only do we count our items, but we also count the items in the cart in front of us. Again, this brings me to my thoughts on inquiry science and the manner in which instruction is changing.  It happens, over time-even if it looks and sounds unfamiliar, like the cadence of fewer versus less.

Publix-2-0012

One of the last classes I took to complete my specialist degree was physical science. The class was inquiry based-or what I call  McGyiver science.

My professor insisted that we never give students the exact materials for an experiment that will guarantee the desired outcome. Science is about trial and error, acknowledging variables, and persevering.  She asked us if we were expecting perfect results, or encouraging students to re-work hypotheses, collaborate, and discuss the work? It may turn out that the growth is in the mistake.

That summer was complete with my ill constructed foam roller coaster that had neither a loop nor a hill, a defunct lemon battery, and toy cars breaking down because the load was too heavy. It reminded me of my home economics class where my decorated cake looked like abstract art, and my A-line skirt was used as an example of what can go wrong in sewing.  The other day, I was faced with a vacuum cleaner and a bag. The vacuum mocks my inability to get the bag to ‘snap’ in. However, I did use that vacuum cleaner to fight a snake in my house-so I used what I had available.

This year as a gifted teacher, I have focused on inquiry science with my 3rd graders. Part of teaching inquiry is letting your personal control freak go. The first step is to admit you are a control freak teacher. Then it is time to let go a little, and let the kids do the learning.

Things are messy. Stuff spills. Students have odd ideas of what will and won’t work. They are determined that a pound of bricks weighs more than a pound of feathers.

I asked them what they thought about inquiry labs:

“You never know what is going to happen.”

“We can do things on our own.”

“We have to figure things out.”

“We got to use duct tape.”

I will say that if you add duct tape to any classroom activity, you will have the undivided attention of your class. I don’t know why, but it is true. Of course, we had the discussion about DUCT tape vs DUCK tape.

“How do they use this tape on ducks?”

Asking questions is an art of sorts. I have been asking questions my entire life, and I now find myself teaching my students how to ask questions. If I were to get philosophical, I would say that we could use the Inquiry method to drive all our life choices. We are given some random supplies and a task to complete. We try to figure it out. If it doesn’t work, we change something and try again. Getting upset over a failed outcome doesn’t help anything. We have to figure out what went wrong. Sound familiar? We are challenged daily. The results of our efforts don’t always come out the way we expect, even if we use all of our supplies.

Image

Design a boat that will float with 100 pennies.

The 100 penny lab was a great one to start with. Kids were given duct tape, tin foil, 100 pennies, a pan full of water, and a task to design a boat that would float with all 100 pennies in it.

I asked about the variables and the answers I got were very interesting:

“The design on the duct tape. The ink may weigh differently depending on how many colors are in the tape you choose.”

“How fast or slow you put the pennies in.”

“How smart the people in your group are.” (I admit, this was one of my favorites. )

I loved how these kids persevered until their boats floated. They were so excited, because THEY figured it out.

So, I became a little zealous.  The made duct-taped boats float, so they can build a bridge out of pasta!

“This isn’t working.”

“Are you sure you got the right pasta?”

We will be revisiting that activity with stronger pasta.  The kids did their own research on bridges that day. They told me what structures and shapes are stronger than others. They are re-designing the bridges for next week.  To think-I was ready to scrap the entire thing because it didn’t work out the first time. The kids assumed we would be doing the pasta activity again.

My students taught me my own lesson. Then I began to wonder how often I have scrapped something because it wasn’t turning out the way I wanted it to? We cannot teach without bringing these lessons home, because ultimately that is what we want our students to do. It is unlikely that a potential college or job will ask a candidate to build a pasta bridge.  But, isn’t it about the perspectives in which we perceive our obstacles?  And isn’t it great that eighteen third graders reminded me of this with their perseverance?

Here’s to using all the materials available to me (even if they aren’t the ones I wanted).

K

Where Do the Words Come From?

Writing comes from a blank space. There are no multiple choice options,  fill in the blanks, or answer keys. It is invisible until it manifests on paper or the computer. We arrange the words in various orders to convey thoughts. We move them around and shuffle them until they fall into  just the right spots.

words

I have been writing since I could hold a pencil. When I was younger, I didn’t talk much (which will be a surprise to those who know I won’t stop talking now). I remember just wanting to fade into my surroundings when any attention was focused on me. Just let me write!

In second grade, during show and tell (a school tradition that should be banned for good) my teacher asked me to get up in front of the class and tell something that happened over the weekend. I was already in trouble for having a daily “stomach ache” during math. I am convinced that my teacher believed that I got sick at the same time every day. Even if math was at a different time, I would suddenly fall ill. Who knew that skipping second grade math would haunt me for years to come?

I created a story where my brother was lost on a raft on the Chattahoochee River. I said he was wearing my mother’s dress, and we haven’t seen him for three days. I gave sensory details about the sounds of the water. I described the setting of the warm day and the sun beaming down on my brother, as he floated away into oblivion. I was on a roll. I wasn’t even self-conscious about the ‘pixie’ hair cut my mom insisted I get. Another blog. Another time.

I didn’t get to finish my story, because my teacher stopped me and told me to sit down. Later that day, my mom was called in to talk about my ‘storytelling’. I told them that my story was more interesting than what we really did that weekend. From that point on, my words came out of my pencil, not my mouth.

Many teachers have a story like this. A story where their spirits were lifted or bruised. A story where they had trouble with a subject and a teacher either helped them or didn’t notice. We all come to this job with a vision and a hope that we will do something to make a difference in someone’s life. I wanted to make sure that no child was made to feel that her words were unimportant.

The year I was asked to be the literacy coach at my school, I felt that I had an opportunity to give back to all of those teachers and administrators who held me up while making sure I had a safety net on which to fall. And when I did fall (which happened often) they were there without judgement and made me get up. They even overlooked my leprechaun trap gone bad project my first year of teaching. For the rest of the year, I was scraping green paint off the walls near the window where the leprechauns ‘escaped’.

This is my third year as a literacy coach. My first year, I just wanted the teachers to let me into their rooms. Other lit coaches told me suburban legends about how they didn’t visit certain halls, or how teachers had requested that they not come in. YIKES! I went into the job having been inspired by those teachers who kept me afloat my first couple of years of teaching.

My second year, I tried out lessons, implemented county initiatives, and got a global understanding of literacy from the view of the teachers and the students. Of course, there were many days I felt useless, and hoped to just inspire a student to write, or a teacher to teach writing with more confidence than the day before.

This year, I had a rather bumpy start because of some personal setbacks. I had a complete paradigm shift in my understanding of human nature. My suburban village was by my side at a very difficult time, and I am more grateful to them then ever. But, I tried to write, but I couldn’t find the words anymore. They danced around me, and I was unable to pick the right ones. If I couldn’t find my own words, how could I teach others to find theirs? Writing has always been so cathartic to me. This was more than writer’s block, it was a semantic void.

I taught writing in various classrooms last week.  The small people found all the words I was missing. They grabbed them from the air. They found them under their desks. They pulled them from their book bags. The scraped them from the floor. There were plenty to go around.

Not only did my words come back, but so did my spirit. After thirteen years in education, I still love my job. When we let our guard down, and the kids in-we can find all of our words.

K

Reed This.

I saw the cows who cannot spell as I was driving home from class. You know, the illiterate cows we see daily and just accept into our cultural norm? But somehow, it bothered me more than usual. I think my new label, Literacy Coach, makes me tuned into a multitude of literacy topics and issues.

Now, when I see the cows, I just want to pull over to the side of the road and teach them a few phonics lessons. I would suggest that they write in pencil before marker, and definitely before paint. I would ask: Is standing upright uncomfortable for a cow? Then I wonder if my personification lessons have gone too far.

I also noticed that they spelled EAT correctly. Why? Why not misspell all of the words? Why go half way? Or, two-thirds of the way?

I imagine the advertising team sitting at one of those long shiny tables talking about this great idea:

“Let’s make the cows tell people to eat more chicken.”

“YES! But, cows can’t read or spell. So…I know! We will misspell half of their words, because everyone knows that cows cannot read.”

“Great idea. But, we make them savvy enough to create this entire advertising campaign.”

I looked up the cow controversy. This happened because I was supposed to be doing my homework for grad school.

I didn’t realize the issues reached so many groups. Apparently, the cows do not like gay people. I found that the company supports literacy through giving free books away with the kids’ meals. ?????

Those same kids write in their daily journals about ‘reeding’, eating chikin, and wanting mor fries. No, it is true, I have had students spell like the cows.

Sadly, I didn’t find many articles from disgruntled educators and parents. I’m sure they are out there, but I stopped clicking at the third page. And if the article I’m looking for is to be found on any page other than the first one, it isn’t too important.

I am learning in my reading theory class that literacy has various definitions and criteria, depending on the community and on the culture. But, as I type these words, I have an advantage over many thousands of people, all over the world. I understand words. I speak words. I write words. I recognize words. I love words.

Illiteracy statistics vary. I believe this depends on the researcher’s definition of literacy. According to this map, the U.S. is less than 10% illiterate. For the resources we have in this country, that number is horrendous. I have worked with illiterate parents. They are savvy. They make their way through life, dodging words; but compensating with a myriad of techniques they have learned in order to hide their disability. Yes, I’m saying illiteracy is a disability. It is. I cannot imagine, living my life without understanding the words that saturate each and every experience I have.

This same theme has found me in various scenarios. Yesterday, in class, our professor had piles of children’s picture books for us to look through. We were to find passages that would lead to engaging writing activities.

I am fascinated with Eve Bunting, and I was glad when our group chose that pile of books. She is a topical author who writes picture books that deal with serious issues like: riots, homelessness, the Vietnam war, individualism, divorce, illiteracy, and many other relevant topics. Of course, my obsession with such heavy literature made me overlook a child copying the plot line to Corduroy during a writing conference, in one of my friend’s classrooms. Another humbling experience. Another story. Who has time for bears and kleptomaniac children when there are world issues to tackle?

The Wednesday Surprise, by Eve Bunting is a book about a child meeting with her grandmother each Wednesday. The nature of the meetings are kept secret until there is a birthday celebration for the girl’s father. He is floored when he hears his mother read, and learns that his daughter has been teaching her to read every Wednesday. I imagine in this fictional family, Grandma’s illiteracy was understood. Apparently, it took a small child to help fix this problem, while the parents looked the other way.

Lately, every spare moment of my time is consumed with labeling my “mentor texts”. These are the books I use to introduce writing lessons. It started slowly, then somehow, it has snowballed into stacks of picture and chapter books, piling up and surrounding me. I made bright pink labels for each book.

Some of the categories are:

  • word choice
  • sentence fluency
  • onomatopoeia
  • repetition
  • narrowing the focus
  • rhyme scheme
  • voice
  • conventions
  • figurative language (which can be further categorized, but I had to save myself)
  • developing ideas
  • coined words
By the way, not one of these books uses misspelled words as literary devices.
Another book that deals with illiteracy due to a disability, is written by another wonderful author: Patricia Polacco.

The girl in the story is brought up in a literacy-rich environment. But as she enters school, she finds that she is unable to read as easily as the other kids. She has dyslexia. She begins to hate school because of her reading difficulties, and the kids teasing her. She finally gets a teacher who cares, pays attention, and works with her. We find out that this is Patricia Polacco’s autobiography.

Every time I have read this story to a class, there is always at least one student who relates to the girl’s struggle. It is a powerful book. It reminds me that there is always the probability that there is a child, in my class, memorizing what they need to in order to “seem” literate.

So, what does this have to do with the cows?

I see the cow company using illiteracy as an advertising campaign. We don’t see other disabilities advertised in order to sell a product. What a horrible thought. Illiteracy is covert, the cows are cute, and there is no intended harm. I get that. But, when you have seen people struggle with those same words, it hits home more than it probably should.

Also, as a side note, the cows are everywhere. Ubiquity with the cows is overkill. Maybe, the next campaign could be the cows in school, overcoming their spelling issues. They can even put a smart cow teacher in there for good measure.

I’m not sure if I’m one of those, “EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON PEOPLE”, but I’m beginning to think that my hyper-awareness of people’s words can be a good thing. Maybe, the cow comparison is a stretch to some; but they still bother me.

Do you remember learning to read? Probably not, if you don’t have a reading disability.

K