The News From Poetry (Part 1)

                                           I looked up at her face,

                                          not wanting to read further, at least by prose:

                                          the hand shook that wrote that far on the page,

                                          and what weight formed each word, God knows.


            Those were the lines from William Stafford’s poem “At This Point on the Page” that got me through a maelstrom of despair last summer, when I tutored a student’s writing. “…such pain was in the crossing of each t…” the poem said, and so it was with my tutee.

            Sometime’s it’s poetry, and poetry alone that carries us through the schoolday. I feel for those who have no access to it when they need it. Stafford again, from his poem “Passwords”:


                                    Might people stumble and wander

                                    for not knowing the right words,

                                    and get lost in their wandering?


            Both of these poems are from his book You Must Revise Your Life. That theme of revision: appropriate enough for a classroom setting, right?

            While we may not die literally, our spirits are in danger every day when we can’t reach students, when bureaucratic mandates crush our hopes, when trust is shattered for whatever reason. Here, in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, is what William Carlos Williams claims:


                                                        It is difficult

                    to get the news from poems

                                  yet men die miserably every day

                                                         for lack

                    of what is found there.


            I buy it.

            So what might be some lyrics that can sing us up from our teacherly downswings?

            When we can’t reach students, try Wislawa Szymborska’s lines from “Under a Certain Little Star”:


                    I apologize to everything that I cannot be everywhere.

                    I apologize to everyone that I cannot be every man and woman.


            Those children who come to school worried, about passing tests, about where they’ll get their next meal, about their families in disarray, let the bluesman poet Furry Lewis sing to them:


                    Some people said worried blues ain’t tough

                    Some people said the worried blues ain’t tough

                    But if they don’t kill you handle you mighty rough


            I know more than one adult who during secret moments in their lives have curled up on hard floors and listened to such blues. (I might be one.) This allowed them to survive long enough for time to knit back their unraveled souls. Why keep this salve from the children?

            Walt Whitman pitches in on this theme in his poem “There Was A Child Went Forth”, after discussing both the love children feel from adults and the abuse and doubts that might be experienced (“…the thought if after all it should prove unreal…”):


                   The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time,

                              the curious whether and how,

                   Whether that which appears so is so,

                              or is it all flashes and specks.


            Yeah, that uncertainly of emotion, that harsh word from an adult: flashes and specks.

            In earlier days, when I was a wandering writer in the schools, I had students from a half-dozen schools combine their responses to “There Was a Child Went Forth” into a long chant, where they sang their multifarious experiences of the world. Inspired by the sections of Whitman’s poem, they wrote about nature, the world of the hopeful and dangerous city, home-life both light and dark, and landscapes. Here’s a stanza worth quoting:


                     I ride to the field, throw my bike on the grass.

                     Oh, how long the grass is – as long as my life.

                     I walk into the field as the rabbit passes by.

                     I hear a chipmunk in the distance.

                     I sit down, see wild strawberries.

                     How small, I think, smaller than a baby’s hand.


            Another kid, walking in the park, wrote:


                    When I go to the park I see children smiling as if someone

                                is smiling back like the sun smiling with its warmth.

                    I walk on and see jump ropes twirling around like snakes

                                trying to break free of their bodies.


            Wild strawberries smaller than a baby’s hand. Ropes like snakes trying to break free of their bodies. Don’t you think those dancing images are enough to lift the spirits of a sad child – or adult?

            The lesson here? It’s not only the salve of adult poetry that can ease the pain, but that of children.

            Here’s a fourth grade girl writing a poem to her mirror:


                    When I look in a mirror, do I see myself?

                    Or do I see a shadow of a person?

                    Sometimes I see a shadow

                    and other times I see a plain

                    little girl, which is me.

                    And this little girl is a good person.

                    Mirror, you are my reflection

                    when I’m sad or when I’m glad.

                    You are my life history when it

                    comes to being lonely all over again.

                     You are my hero when it comes

                     to looking nice and pretty.

                    When my hair is looking messy,

                    who helps me fix it up?

Continue reading


The Weight that Forms the Words

The August heat shimmered outside the freezing computer lab on the fourth floor of the comprehensive Bronx high school where I was working a couple of months ago. The building’s distinguished Deco stone work, wide halls and airy ceilings imparted a sense of noble purpose: to nourish the roots of democracy through universal education. Its high-minded pre-war architects could not have known when they designed it that it would meet a sad demise as one of New York City’s “phase out” schools. It was two years away from its funeral, now serving only a rump group of 11th and 12th graders.

My mission, though I am usually deployed as a consultant to teachers and school leaders, was to work directly with summer school students who had failed to pass their required New York State Regents Examinations in Global History and United States History. They would have a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) opportunity later in the summer. While supporting the students, I used the opportunity to develop methods I could later share with the Social Studies faculty: thematic rather than sequential approaches, self-guided packets, and small peer response groups.

The students who trooped in for help were widely varied in terms of their readiness and capacity to absorb the fire hose of facts and concepts that flowed through the courses they had failed. Most were of African American or Latin American origin, residents of the monolithic public housing building that loomed just beyond the windows of the computer lab. (Contrastingly visible beyond the dark and towering project were the bucolic acres of the Bronx Botanical Garden.) Some students, determined and courageous, attended every day. Others drifted in and out like shades in this bureaucratic purgatory, half-way between graduation and consignment to an ambiguous infernal educational zone labeled “failure”.

Through interviews and a practice tests I diagnosed the students’ challenges and set them on individual pathways of study. I organized response groups for them, where they could share their learnings and teach each other. I coached them on various skills in side-by-side tutoring sessions. I gave them feedback on essays. A ray of hope broke through the clouds for some, who were able to check off areas of content they had missed or organize essays that would get them over the scoring hump when they took their tests.

But for most, hope was a delusion. What was I to do with the girl who, looking at a map, couldn’t tell me which way was east, which way west? The many who couldn’t correlate the term “fossil fuels” with “global warming” because they had never heard of, or comprehended, these terms? Or the sweet girl who slipped clandestinely onto popular music sites whenever I turned my back. She was looking for a distraction from the pain of having been thrown out of her house by her alcoholic mother.

While externally I performed with the aplomb expected of a professional, internally I coped with an emotional battle royal: despair for the students, concern for the future of our culture, anger at the way the system had let them down year after year. I could follow the logic of the policy behind the high stakes tests looming like dragons in the near future, but hated how these exams laid waste to the childrens’ sense of accomplishment. I felt guilty that I couldn’t do enough to help them during this tiny window of time. It was, at bottom, an existential dilemma for us all. No matter what I did or how hard they struggled, most of these lost souls wouldn’t pass. Their lives would be permanently crippled.

Thousands of teachers endure what I was experiencing for just a few weeks that summer, only they go through it day after day, year after year, while policy makers grope for solutions. What could possibly save us from this pedagogical perdition?

Years ago I worked with Poet Carol Conroy, who passionately advocated learning poetry “by heart” (surely more soulful than merely “memorizing” verse). After sizing me up, Carol had also recommended to me that I read the poet William Stafford’s work. His poem “At This Point on the Page” came to me as I worked with a student in that summer program who struggled with her writing, which was a mare’s nest of syntactic and semantic confusions. The relevant lines from Stafford’s poem read:

I looked up at her face,

not wanting to read further, at least by prose:

the hand shook that wrote that far on the page,

and what weight formed each word, God knows.

I was able to quit focusing on the Gordian knot of grammatical flaws in her “thematic essay” and look her in the eye, appreciate the sincerity of her youthful face, celebrate the courage she demonstrated in being there, in trying, in opening herself to help, however useless in terms of passing an exam. This human contact, this knowing that someone was with her while she took a baby step in sentence composition was enough for that moment – for both of us, I believe. This would endure beyond any test result I felt sure.

7/11/13 A Voice From the Classroom: When Professionals Meditate on Questions

The website, Inquire Within” has inspired me more deeply with every blog entry. The multifarious strategies illustrate what happens when teachers go beyond formulas to create rich new methods in a spirit of inquiry. The ideas are so dazzling that it is hard to take one’s eyes from them and remember that this kind of unfettered professional exploration didn’t occur by accident. Somehow the blog authors themselves felt free to explore, take risks, even defy convention in their quests to inspire curiosity in their students. How does this happen?

Working as a consultant from AUSSIE/Editure with a group of teachers at the James P. Sinnott Magnet School for Health and Health Careers, a New York City public middle school in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, I took some risks of my own to answer this question. The school is located in a decidedly poor neighborhood and has struggled over the years to find successful ways to put its students on pathways to achievement. But it was now in the second year of leadership under a new and visionary principal, Mrs. Valena Welch-Woodley, who wanted her staff to bond as a true professional learning community. A group of about ten teachers had been meeting after school on Fridays to explore methods, share ideas, and enjoy each other’s company. Many had observed that their students seemed to lack the kind of curiosity that they needed to be able to engage and persist in their studies. As the facilitator of the group, I thought it might be productive to experiment with a “quote-based seminar,” as I had come to call the process, around the idea of questions. Maybe if we wandered for a moment from the constant focus on methodology to freely explore our own thoughts, we would come back with rich and surprising ways to solve our problem.

In our meetings, we had been routinely using “writing-to-learn” techniques such as free-writes, stop-and-jots, and sum-it-ups. The teachers were used to writing as an open-ended way to discover their thinking, to sharing their writing, and to responding to the “golden lines” (words, phrases and sentences of interest) in each other’s writing. For this activity, I presented them with four quotes on the topic of questions, and invited them to pick one of the quotes, write why they picked it, and select from the quote itself a word or phrase of particular interest to share with the group.

These were the quotes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. – Grant Lichtman, The Falconer

The difference between grappling and other forms of learning is that when the questions become the students’ own, so do the answers. – Sizer and Sizer, The Students Are Watching

Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit. – Clay Christensen as quoted by Jason Fried on “Why Can’t Someone Be Taught Until They’re Ready To Learn?” on Farnam Street blog

Great questions have legs. They propel the learning forward. – Ron Ritchhart in Making Thinking Visible and quoted by Edna Sackson in her “Great questions have legs…” blog post on What Ed Said

What the teachers shared astounded me. I am not sure I have ever heard such poetic language rise spontaneously from any group of writers in any other context. It was as though having the opportunity to forget answers and just focus on the deep nature of questions released some kind of untapped creative force. The effect on the group was tangible. They listened to each other with rapt attention, for a moment forming an almost – and I would hesitate to say this except for the fact that it reflects some of the teachers’ language – hallowed atmosphere. The feeling for me was similar to when I hear small orchestral groups perform in harmony.

I was not able to write down all of the words they wrote and read verbatim to each other that Spring afternoon, but here are a few of their “golden lines”:

“…reflection…aha moments that lead to wisdom…”

“…engages the mind on a quest to increase knowledge…”

“…great questions lead in several directions…”

“…a space in a puzzle…”

“…Socratic style leads to discussion, rapport – leads to other questions…”

“…you’re willing to work hard for a long, long time…”

“…answers that make you halt…”

“…like a snowball rolling down a hill…”

“…an answer that satisfies your soul…”

After a moment of silence, during which I think we all allowed ourselves to appreciate the music of our thoughts, we had a seminar-style discussion. Then we assessed the process itself. These are some of the words the participants said:

“Learning is a living thing.”

“I know in my heart I’m not satisfying their curiosity.”

“One thing done in a profound manner is worth so much more than….”

“Daydreaming to wish and hope.”

“When a culture loses its time to dream, it loses its soul.”

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in a letter of advice, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.” (Note this quote is used also in the earlier blog post: 12/06/09 Paragraph Six: Living With Questions.)

We adults certainly lived our questions that day in East New York, Brooklyn. I know the students will abide in theirs more deeply as a result.

6/07/11 A Voice from the Classroom: Reasons Not to Cry

Rock, folk, blues, country (oh, these labels!) singer Lucinda Williams has a lyric in her song “Reason to Cry” that goes, “When nothing makes any sense, you got a reason to cry.” The line’s been working my brain like a koan ever since I’ve heard it. I’ve been noticing a strong correlation between sensations of senselessness (does that make sense?) and crying, so to speak.

In school settings, you often see both figurative and literal tears shed by teachers who are, for whatever reason, having trouble making sense of the pressure they feel in the current climate of intense accountability. This pressure comes in many forms, and is worth a whole national debate over many years of time. Can sense be made in the meantime? Can teacher (and by extension student) tears be wiped away? Can didactic despair be transformed into pedagogical joy?

I have glimpsed rays of hope penetrating the canopy of our dark forest. All of them involve meaningful collaborative planning and ample classroom support. One of them in particular has recently captured my imagination as well as the fancies of nearly all of the teachers who have engaged with it: The International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IBPYP).

It’s been my recent good fortune to be able to pitch in with three New York City public schools in quest of accreditation by this progressive and visionary program(me). In every case, when I have worked with teams developing what is called their “programme of inquiry” and planning their “units of inquiry,” I have heard the healthy laughter of people finding meaning in their work. In our reflections at the end of a day’s planning teachers have written, “We got a lot accomplished. We expressed ourselves freely,” or “This was productive. We established solid foundations. The themes are great,” or “We worked well together. We agreed. We aligned the units meaningfully with the comprehension strategies and writing units,” or “I like working with colleagues on what the grade will be learning, as opposed to being told what to teach.”

One of my favorites, from 4th Grade Teacher Anna Luciano at PS 151 Q Global Communication and Foreign Language Magnet School, ran along like this: “This was fruitful, the first brick on a huge skyscraper. Everyone was enlightened on a different scale. We paid the utmost attention to detail, and to the wellbeing of the children.”

How do you explain such reviews? (And I assure you nearly all of the others are equally positive.)

The answer is not simple. The teachers are treated like professionals; the teachers collaborate in teams; a larger purpose pervades the work – these are the first notions that come to mind. It helps that the IBPYP requires collaboration and the empowerment of teachers, and the focus on a progressive mission, the center of which is the wellbeing of the children. It is also understood by all to be a long-term effort, a solid edifice, like that skyscraper to be constructed from one blueprint by many hands.

What are the details to which the utmost attention must be paid? Might our answer be found, like the devil, among them? Detail A: The school’s mission must be congruent with the International Baccalaureate’s mission of internationalism, peace, caring and compassion. Detail B: The Programme of Inquiry must be constructed of units that address six “transdisciplinary themes” that are explored and built upon each year. Detail C: Each unit revolves around a “central idea” (an “enduring understanding” in backwards planning parlance). Detail D: The summative task of each unit is usually a project involving student-generated action. Detail E: Each unit embodies foundational “key concepts” such as form, function, causation, change and the like. Detail F: The units are driven by carefully crafted teacher questions and “provocations” that set up student questions to be organized into “lines of inquiry….”

And these are just a few of the details. Plenty of hidey-holes for the devil here! Which is, indeed, why the utmost care needs to be paid.

The details come in many dimensions. To list them all would be to trivialize them. One dimension worth delving into, though, is the “student profile.” Planning is undertaken to assure that students become inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective.

Tellingly, the teachers are expected to exemplify and model these attributes. It’s much easier to make sense of things when you can ask questions, think for yourself, take risks and find balance in your life. So I reflect, anyway.

The unmentioned secret to all of this is that it’s often fun. A teacher “provocation” (known in the New York metropolitan area as a “motivation”) that I enjoyed imagining was the one where a classroom, to begin a study of earthquakes, was turned topsy-turvy, desks thrown over and books scattered about. When the students arrived and saw the disaster, they were shocked into the beginning of true understanding.

Another enjoyable aspect is the generation of student questions. Here are a few I recently gathered that would set anyone’s brain in motion: “Why is everything made in China?” “What is Spam?” “Did you know we have tiny little hairs on our tongues?” “How did the baby get out of her?”

Of course there is a disquieting side to this that must be addressed as well, no denying it. How does a teacher answer the question, “Will we get suspended for writing about someone getting stabbed?”

Wisely, I suggest. And not by answering, so much as by turning it into a “line of inquiry” into the roots of violence. Wouldn’t that be a sensible way for teachers to help the students handle their reasons to cry, and bring them around step by detailed step to healing action and the hopeful joys of learning?

4/3/11 A Voice from the Classroom: The Puzzle of Trust

Last year I was meeting with Mr. O- in his classroom in a high school for emotionally disabled children, when Tyreek (not his real name) slipped in. A slender kid with a serious, intellectual demeanor, he approached me and asked if he could have a look at the ballpoint pen in my pocket. New at the school, I was still naïve about the ways of the students, and felt it could only be a decent gesture to trust him. Bad move. He sidled to the other side of the room, began dismantling the pen, and, when asked to return it by Mr. O-, made his escape to the hallway.

            I gave up on ever seeing it again. I had some regret. It was a monogrammed pen with my name on it, given to me by a teacher a couple of months before. It wrote smoothly, the grip was just right, and I treasured it. Mr. O- looked out into the hall, warned Tyreek that he was on the verge of getting into trouble, and he finally gave it up, mangled, but all there.

            My next time in Mr. O-‘s classroom, Tyreek gravitated toward me as soon as he saw me and asked it he could see that pen again. This time I was prepared. I had stocked my pocket with a number of cheap ballpoint pens, and gave him one. He inspected it, kept it and asked me for a dollar.

            Asking for a dollar at this particular school is a ritual performed by many of the students. By persisting, they occasionally get one. I don’t begrudge them this. Most come from shelters, broken homes, group homes…they’re not the types to have allowances or be able to hold down jobs after school. Knowing some of the teachers strategically rewarded the students with small change when they behaved well, I felt it was okay to respond this way as well, but I wasn’t going to give the money away for free. “Write me a poem, and I’ll give you a dollar,” I said.

            Tyreek sat down and immediately composed a poem full of salty language, intending to get that dollar, but not to make me happy. But he had complied. I hadn’t set any standards. So I paid him for it.

            After the summer vacation, I returned to the school, and ran into Tyreek in Mr. O-’s class again, even though he’d moved on to another teacher for the year. He just felt safe and welcome with the gentle Mr. O- during his free periods. Before Tyreek could say anything, I gave him a ballpoint pen, and, as before, he asked me for a dollar. Thinking of the colorful results I’d gotten last time, I said I’d have to think about it. But Mr. O- and I were trying a little experiment with lesson planning: inviting kids in after their last class to help us plan in exchange for some snacks. (A practiced validated by the likes of Aristotle, Montaigne, and, more recently, research reported in a 12/10/2010 New York Times article, “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students.”) I asked Mr. O- if Tyreek could sit with us too, even though he didn’t teach him any more. Mr. O- agreed.

            I was a little surprised when Tyreek showed up. He sat with us and three other students for an hour while we discussed ideas and teaching methods and came up with lesson plans. He was surprisingly mature and articulate, given the way he’d presented himself to me so far. He had useful insights. I began to see him in a different light, not as a needy, misguided, disabled teenager, but as a responsible and interesting young adult. It further intrigued me when Mr. O- pointed out he was a talented piano player, and he confirmed it.

            At the end of our planning session, Tyreek asked for another dollar. By that time, only one of the other kids was left. He caught on and asked for a dollar too. Mr. O- and I agreed they could each earn fifty cents if they wrote a reflection on the planning session, which they both did. Tyreek’s was thoughtful. He earned his fifty cents.

            A few weeks later, I saw Tyreek in the hallway. As usual, I gave him a ballpoint pen, and as usual he asked for a dollar. Given how responsible he had been in the planning meeting, I went out on a limb and said I would pay him if he wrote me another poem. But it couldn’t be laced with obscenities, I said. It had to be a legitimate poem that could, say, be published in the school’s poetry anthology. And it had to have at least seven lines. He asked where I would be at a certain period, and I told him I would be in a teacher’s classroom. He showed up there and sat apart from the other students to write his poem.

            In a few minutes, with nothing on the paper, he called me over to ask what he should write the poem about. I said, “Something that’s important to you.” He bent to the task, and, in a few minutes, handed me a poem that spoke of his love for his family and friends, his desire to get out of school and go to college, find a good job, buy a house, have a wife and children. I took him out to the hall to pay him his dollar, not wanting other students to see this transaction and get any ideas that would break my bank.

            After I paid him, he slipped the pen I had given him back into my pocket, intact, a moment I enjoyed at the time, and have enjoyed every time I remember it since.

2/25/11 A Voice from the Classroom: Three Puzzles

Three puzles: (1) How can I continue this blog effectively when I’m too busy to write it well? (2) Do crossword puzzles belong in the classroom? (3) How can we find the best way to teach each student? I’ll tackle them one at a time, bringing up along the way the research I promised in my last post.

Puzzle #1: I can’t. That one was easy! Which is why this blog took so long to appear since the last one. I’ve lately been reading a book on wisdom called, well, “Wisdom” (with the subtitle “From Philosophy to Neurscience”) by Stephen S. Hall. He inscribed a note to me: “Dare to be wise!” I dare say it’s wise to take the pressure off, lead a more balanced life, and write when I can. (His book, incidentally, has many implications for teaching. I agree with him that wisdom can – and must – be taught in the classroom.)

Puzzle #2: A high school teacher who I coach was disappointed that her principal had forbidden her to use crossword puzzles in her US History classroom, on the grounds they weren’t rigorous enough. I concur with that position if the crossword puzzles are being used merely as fancy worksheets to keep kids busy. But in a December 7, 2010 New York Times Science Times  article entitled “Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving,” Benedict Carey says, “Puzzle-solving is such an ancient, universal practice… precisely because it depends on creative insight, on the primitive spark that ignited the first campfires.”

I want my students having creative insights and lighting metaphoric campfires, don’t you?

Carey says further that neuroscientists at Northwestern University discovered that test subjects were “more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.”

According to Carey, our puzzle-barring principal should not only let her teacher use puzzles, then, but lighten up and allow a few laughs, too!

Here’s another piece of research that backs up my conviction that crossword puzzles belong in a well-crafted curriculum: Sam Dillon’s article in the same edition of the Times, “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students,” discusses research that, surprise, surprise, students know what works for them in the classroom. I experienced this when a high school teacher at another school complained that her students didn’t do their homework. We designed a student questionnaire to see what they had to say about this lamentable situation. Among their recommendations were to give crossword puzzles as homework because (a) many students liked to do them, and (b) they could be done on busses. Seems the students spend a lot of down time on busses that could be used for study before having to work at jobs, or take care of siblings at home. Who would have thought of this but students?

In another of my classrooms, a teacher in a high school for emotionally disabled children created packets of differentiated materials so they could have something to focus on individually instead of fighting. (I was an eyewitness to these brawls. A hockey game would look tame next to her classroom.) The packets were an unqualified success. Though their pugilistic skills waned, students’ academic skills improved rapidly. This seemed a reasonable trade-off. One critical, and particularly engaging element of the packets? Crossword puzzles.

In “Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving,” Benedict Carey goes on to say, “This and other research suggests that the appeal of puzzles goes far deeper than the dopamine-reward rush of finding a solution. The very idea of doing a crossword or a Soduku puzzle typically shifts the brain into an open, playful state that is itself is a pleasing escape….” For teachers, an escape from boredom into learning.

So, opening the envelope to reveal my answer to Puzzle #2…yes!

On to Puzzle #3: I knew you didn’t really expect this one to be solved in the space of a blog post. But it is a question worth reflecting on, wouldn’t you say?

Before reflecting on the puzzle of teaching, though, I would point out something that is not in question: that we must believe in students and connect to them as fellow human beings, without prejudice. Once that little certainty is taken care of, we can get on with solving the puzzle of how to instruct them.  I defer to Leo Tolstoy on this point:

The best teacher is the one who can instantly recognize what is bothering a particular student. This ability in turn gives the teacher a knowledge of the greatest possible number of methods; the ability to invent new methods; and above all – rather than blind adherence to one method – the conviction that all methods are one-sided, that the best possible method is the one that answers best all the possible difficulties incurred by the student. This is not a method, but an art and a talent. – Leo Tolstoy, in “On Methods of Teaching the Rudiments,” quoted in “Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education,” ed. Bob Blaisdell, trans. Chris Edgar, Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

How lucky we are, as educators, to have such a puzzle to work on, shifting our brains into open, creative states with our art and talent. I just hope, for the students’, and, by extension, civilization’s, sake, that we can enjoy the search for solutions amid the pressures and fears we face in the profession today. How wise of us, if we can.

12/12/10 A Voice from the Classroom: The Learning Pyramid and the Chinese Room

Have you ever seen the famous (or infamous, depending on your opinion of its validity) “Learning Pyramid”? Its basic claim is that as a learner you retain 5% of what you hear, 10% of what you read, 20% of what you both hear and see, 30% of what is demonstrated to you, 50% of what you discuss, 75% of what you practice by doing, and 90% of what you teach to others.

It is a too simplistic explanation of how humans learn, and its research origins are lost in the mists of time along with the true identity of Shakespeare, what the Druids were really up to at Stonehenge, and which came first, the chicken or the egg. Even so, I find it useful when I’m trying to jump-start something interesting in didactic classrooms where students are falling asleep. I also find some truth in it for myself.

Take, for instance, what I retain from what I listen to. Even if I’m interested and dialing up my willpower to the pain threshold, I have a hard time keeping focus. My mind is just a natural wanderer. Even so, I am addicted to audio CDs of lectures from The Teaching Company, which I listen to on my way to schools, to plug the gaps in my own educational history. Lately, I have been listening to the esteemed Professor Daniel N. Robinson lecture me on The Great Ideas of Philosophy.

There’s irony to this, because when I was in college I tried listening to my philosophy teacher, Professor Jobes, without any retention to speak of. So why repeat the same learning modality? I’m older now and though my hearing is worse my interest has deepened. Also I can rewind Robinson to listen again, where I had no chance to rewind Jobes.

Even with the rewinding, 5% is probably the maximum of what I retain from the lectures, but it tends to be one helluva 5%. Without it, I would never have been able to contemplate, and apply to educational practice, philosopher John Searle’s “Chinese Room.”

Breaker of secret German codes in WW II, noted mathematician, and early computer theorist Alan Turing posited the idea that humans, as problem-solvers, are basically computational devices in fleshy form. In defense of our neural dignity, philosopher John Searle countered with his metaphor of the Chinese Room.

Imagine a windowless room inhabited by an English-speaking human being – say a NYC high school sophomore. She has a stack of cards with Chinese ideograms on them. She doesn’t know Chinese and has no idea which way is up, or the order in which the cards should be placed. A helpful person – say a NYC high school teacher – slips instructions in English to the student through the crack under the door. Following the instructions to the letter, the student posts the cards in the right position and order on the wall. Along comes a Chinese speaking person, who opens the door and is delighted to read Du Fu’s “On Visiting the Temple of Laozi.”

Would you say the student knew Chinese?

Searle’s point was that a machine could do what the student did, but it couldn’t do what the Chinese visitor did: i.e., make Wittgensteinian meaning of the symbols.

This idea of the Chinese Room has been a focusing notion as I travel through classrooms in my work. To what extent am I seeing, and perhaps inadvertently promoting, the production of artificial, versus real, intelligence? To what extent is the students’ experience a simulacrum, versus a real, learning experience? Is it bad to do “test prep,” where we provide students with algorithms and templates for Regents exams so they have something to hang onto when they fight the monster in the pit? Is this a version of “fake it ’till you make it” – teaching a form that they will infuse with meaning as they grow? Or are we teaching them not to think? What will they ultimately hang onto?

My convictions flare up like a chronic case of bursitis here. They nag me in the face of temptation to do the work of students for them. Even with the pressure to have high scores on the tests we can’t relent. This isn’t so easy when you get frustrated watching students struggle with their learning – as I would certainly struggle to learn Chinese. Still, we have to stick to it.

Convictions aren’t enough, however. We have to have strategies. In my last blog post, I mentioned a graphic organizer called a history frame, which allowed students to work in groups on different parts of the total picture. The various groups combined their puzzle pieces at the end of the class, teaching each other not just the facts, but also the meanings of the Battle of New York. The teacher had never believed in anything but chalk and talk practices. Now, with the evidence that the students could think for themselves as well as work together, perhaps her practice will change, a change in her convictions following on the heels of practice. I owe the designers of the history frame a beer for this possibility. A nice brew-pub stout.

So I try to act when my convictions nag, but my doubts linger. Am I sure the test-prep – the instructions slipped under the door – wouldn’t help? Mightn’t a higher score based on some handy artifice give courage to my struggling students (and some helpful lines on their transcripts)?

A couple of recent research studies, not to mention the Common Core State Standards, seem to back up my beliefs. I’ll delve into them next time. Meanwhile, I intend to deploy the intuitive and practical, if not the academic, validity of the Learning Pyramid, and keep enjoying “practicing by doing,” and “teaching to others” whatever I learn from examining classrooms through the metaphor of the Chinese Room.