Sunday, October 20, 2013

Literacy with an Attitude

Sadly, on many days at work I feel like this cartoon teacher. I truly do want my students to be independent learners, and innovative, creative, and critical thinkers, yet a host of issues makes it difficult to match my desire to how my classroom lessons role out. Patrick J. Finn has given me some answers to questions of school management and policy - and how an institutionalized cast system in education has been fostered in America in Literacy with an Attitude, Educating Working-Class Children in Their Own Self-Interest.

Finn says our schools educate working class and lower middle class students towards functional literacy that will prepare them for subservient jobs, while upper middle class and wealthy students are afforded an education that will empower them to be creative individuals and eventual leaders of society.  To combat this, teachers of working class students should engage in teaching that will empower students toward questioning the status quo and their place in society. 

According to Finn, who relates the research of Jean Anyon, working class students tend to be in heavily controlled classrooms with lessons focused on procedure, copying notes, reading from text books, and following rules without understanding them. The student's reaction is to resist. Anyon says these students are being primed for "mechanical and routine" labor. Middle class students receive an education similar to working class students; creativity is not a factor in either. However, middle class students have more exposure to "conceptual" ideas. These students are taught that hard work will benefit them. They are groomed for white collar low-level type jobs that do not call for creativity or critical analysis. Children of affluent professionals, upper middle-class students, attend schools that foster creativity via inquiry learning, independent learning and negotiation. These students are groomed to honor individualism and "humanitarianism" in their march towards gaining creative careers with "social power and high salaries." Finally, children of elite executives attend schools of academic rigor that gave them great freedom that is countered by an insistence on self-discipline. Students do not question the status quo because they are the beneficiaries of the system for which they are groomed: the eventual leaders of all aspects of society.

Finn suggests the only way to change this well ingrained educational cast system is to explicitly guide working class/middle class students to become advocates of change. This happens in classrooms focused on dialogue, realistic negotiations, investigations into power relations, and focusing on the relationship between real-world societal truths and the students' lives. One teacher, Robert Peterson, bases his classes on the work of Brazilian educator and social activist Paolo Friere. His classes "models social responsibility" where-in students learn not of "rugged individuals" but "groups of people who through collective efforts changed the system and became better off as a group."  Finn lays out a blueprint for change, which comes via seven steps: Curriculum and methods are grounded in the lives of students, Curriculum and methods are critical, they are designed to enable students to ask critical questions, Curriculum and methods are activist, Curriculum and methods are rigorous, Curriculum and methods are participatory and experiential, Curriculum and classroom procedures are hopeful, kind and visionary, and Powerful literacy and student discourse are taught explicitly.

Although Finn focuses on class struggle and not race, much of what he expounds upon mirrors previous authors read. In fact, he takes the foundations of Ira Shor's work, Empowering Education, which does not focus specifically on class, but that does note that "participatory education...can offer students a critical education of high quality, an experience of democratic learning, and positive feelings toward intellectual life" and expands these ideas by offering specific models of classrooms and teachers that focus on advocacy education. Also, Delpit says that in order for children of color to breach the culture of power fortification, children must be explicitly taught the skills and codes inherent in that milieu. This is true for white working class children as well.

This brings me to my current musings. The nation and Rhode Island in particular, have embraced the Common Core Standards and 21st Century Skills. But, is this only in theory, or more cynically, is our Commissioner of Education paying lip service to these brands? Both Common Core and 21st Century Skills-focused education are best achieved via Finn's seven steps, including inquiry-based learning, and activist-based, critical dialogue infused teaching and learning. The stated goals mirror the type of schools upper middle class and elite students now attend. Yet, our standardized-testing based curricula fits best with working class and lower middle class type schooling. There is a disconnect between the two.

Unfortunately, I, as a Providence-based teacher, have been forced into teaching a curriculum and format of the latter type of schools. Finn says that teachers cannot use the excuse of 'it's not in the curriculum' because he, with his wealth of experience, claims that "no principal or chair or supervisor ever asked me whether what I was teaching on a particular day was in the curriculum. Furthermore, curricula always have broad objectives such as 'learning to participate in a democracy." Clearly, he has not visited Providence, where we are obligated to follow a "Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum" and where administrative leaders often visit classes to ascertain if teachers are following the curriculum with fidelity.

Also, my school is controlled tightly - and for safety reasons it must be. It hasn't always been, but this year has seen a dramatic rise in students' involvement in unsafe and unlawful conduct. To combat this, students cannot leave the classrooms the first or last fifteen minutes of a class, and only bathrooms on one floor are open for their use. There are not enough available staff to monitor all bathrooms which have been used frequently as meeting places for drug deals and even for sex for hire acts. In fact, this year, the Providence police have been called to the school about ten times for gang related fights, thefts, and community-related infractions.

But, perhaps more importantly, my high school, which most closely resembles a working class model, is populated by immigrants or children of new immigrants who are not even working class students - most are welfare students who are not functionally literate in their first language or in English. They need to be taught basic skills explicitly, a la Delpit, before they can take the next steps: ownership of their own learning via lessons which might help them to develop implicit motivation.

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