Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

When you are a writer, inspiration for your writing can come from all over, suddenly, unpredictably, sometimes even against your will. Into my in box this past week came an email from the Academy of American Poets, with a collection a poems for the beginning of the school year. Most were familiar, including this one by the acclaimed American poet of the working man, Philip Levine. 

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School - Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
(from What Work Is, Knopf 1991)
What jumped out at me in this reading of the poem was the question the teacher asks: What have I done? 
What have I done? To me, this is an invitational question. The question invites speculation. The question invites a variety of possible answers. The question has no right or wrong answer. The question taps into each individual student's background knowledge, schema, conceptual understanding and for some apparently, mischievousness. The question invites talk.
As teachers we ask a lot of questions. Indeed questions may be the most important tool in the teacher's arsenal, but too often our questions are inquisitional, rather than invitational.
Inquisitional questions have right answers. They do not encourage speculation. They cut off talk. Literary theorist, Louise Rosenblatt, criticized these inquisitional questions in her seminal article, "What Facts Does This Poem Teach You.?" The title giving away what she viewed as the objectification of an art form through unenlightened questioning. 
Here are some inquisitional questions for the poem above:
What is the significance of the poem being set in early April?
How does the narrator characterize the student, Grace Bimmler?
What evidence does the narrator provide that he is not interested in what is happening in class?
I think it would be much better to approach this poem, and most reading material for that matter, with a liberal use of invitational questions. Here is a list to get you started. The first one is my favorite and one that was taught to me by my wife, Cynthia Mershon, a literacy teacher.

What stood out for you?
This question invites the reader to participate in a conversation with a fellow reader. You can't be wrong, because you are answering from your personal experience with the text. After this opening invitation, we might follow up with these questions:
Can you say more about that?
What makes you think that?
What does this get you thinking about?

Does that make sense to you?
What is another possible way of thinking about this?
How does what (another student) said square with your understanding?
In a world increasingly focused on the standardized test, it may seem counterintuitive to recommend these invitational questions as a way into reading comprehension. Doesn't the student need to be skilled at answering the inquisitional questions?
Well yes, but I would argue that the best way to help students develop their comprehension of a text is through first inviting them into the world of the text and then, through skillful follow-up questioning, helping them refine their understanding of the text. This is, after all, what all readers do when they read independently. In Rosenblatt's words it is that initial "lived through experience of the text" that provides the baseline for ongoing interpretation and understanding.
So as this school year begins, may I suggest that you redouble your efforts at refining your questioning techniques in such a way that will invite your students into the learning.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Teacher Tech Ambassadors: Engaged Professionals or Corporate Shills?

About 15 years ago, in my position as a curriculum director for a suburban school district, I worked with teachers, administrators and the Board of Education to introduce a new spelling program. The program was well researched and, we determined, would yield better results. The program would also require considerable rethinking and planning by all of our elementary teachers. One teacher, let's call her Lois, took the bull by the horns, and because she was a highly organized person who wanted to have this new program under control, she spent numerous hours laying out a year-long plan for using the new program. Lois shared it with me and I agreed it was excellent work.

"This is outstanding work, Lois", I said. "This will be helpful to all the teachers in the school district."

"Hold on there, Buster," she replied. "I did this work, and it was a lot of work, and I am not sharing it with anyone."

I was flabbergasted. The teaching profession has a long history of collegial sharing. For many years I had organized and/or participated in "teacher shares" where good ideas were spread around. As  a reading specialist, I always felt it was my obligation to share any knowledge I had or materials I developed for the good of all. The idea, I thought then, and I think now, was that no matter what we came up with, it was not about personal gain, it was about what would help children. The amount of teacher sharing that happens on social media sites like Pinterest would seem to indicate that this sharing is still a well-established expectation of the profession.

This blog is a way for me to continue that ideal. All teachers are free to use, or discard, my ideas free of charge and free of advertising. However, as I read in Sunday's New York Times, the monetization of public school teachers is reaching new heights with the incursion of Silicon Valley tech companies. Let's call them "Big Tech" since their business plan seems to be closely modeled on 'Big Pharma."

The article is titled, Silicon Valley Courts Brand Name Teachers, Raising Ethics IssuesThe reporter, Natasha Singer, tells the story of Kayla Drezel, a tech savvy third grade teacher, who has turned her classroom into a laboratory for educational technology and herself into a shill for various tech companies. She has negotiated a special contract giving her ten days off during the school year so that she can give speeches, attend tech company trainings and do workshops for teachers. She has an agreement with a clothing store to provide her with clothing in exchange for publicity for the store. As Ms. Drezel herself says, "It's like two full-time jobs."

I am sure it is. I also wonder what impact "two full-time jobs" has on Ms. Drezel's actual job  teaching third graders. But by all accounts, Ms. Drezel is a first-rate teachers, whose students love her and whose supervisors feel she has brought tech products and expertise to the school that they could not have possibly have afforded without her involvement and agreements with these tech companies.

What could be bad, eh?

Well, plenty. Public school teachers are public employees, not free agents. As such they are on very shaky ethical ground when they act as "ambassadors" for tech companies. Another word for ambassador would be consultant and as consultants for a private company they may come into conflict with their obligation to their employer, the school board. These positions certainly put the teacher in an ethical bind. Are teachers the servants of the parents and children or of the Big Tech companies? As former Attorney General of Maine, James E. Tierney, put it "Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in a public classroom without transparency, then that's problematic."

And then, of course, their is the issue of the continued privatization of the public schools. Why, do you suppose Big Tech is so willing to provide perks and pay to teachers who do product placement and promotion for them in the schools? Is it possible that they are taking advantage of the fact that schools are chronically under-resourced and are happy to accept the apparent largesse of Big Tech to get the technology their budgets won't allow. And how big a jump is it from there to renaming good old Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary as Big Tech Elementary.

It is understandable that teachers and administrators want the best for their children. Letting the Big Tech wolf in the door is not the way to go about this. One question that no one seems to be asking Ms. Drezel and other tech "ambassadors" is this: While you tech ambassadors are raking in profits from your tech work for various tech companies, what are you paying your students for serving as educational technology lab rats?
Here is what I think Ms. Drezel and others like her should do. Investigate a technology that will benefit her students. To begin with this is problematic since technological innovations have shown little impact on learning, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt. Write a grant that allows her to bring the technological innovation into her classroom. The grant would be exclusively for materials and equipment and training, not for personal income. Conduct an action research project to show the effectiveness or lack thereof of the technological intervention. Write a report and share with the administration and school board. If the technology is shown to be effective, seek funding through the regular budgetary process and then share with colleagues and assist them in using the tech in the classroom.

That is how professional teachers go about things. They investigate, they learn, they try out, and they share. The gains are personal, professional, systemic and intrinsic, not monetary.