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An Imagined Conversation with Four Educators
August 7, 2010 12:45 AM   Subscribe

"Every pernicious practice of modern education originates from the goal of trying to segregate and control the mischievous." A teacher tries to come to grips with the contrary advice of four prominent educators in an imagined dialog. Part I, Part II.

More on Alfie Kohn, Jaime Escalante, John Taylor Gatto, and (a tiny bit about) Frank Smith. (previously, previously)
posted by rouftop (47 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
One of the Universal Laws I have discovered in my life is about Education: "When you teach a child to Question Authority, you become the first Authority they Question."
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:51 AM on August 7, 2010 [12 favorites]


Whatever its dialogic virtues may be, I am still finding the format of these pieces really bizarre and questionable. Since when is it kosher to publish made-up interviews with actual people on the website of a newspaper? If all you want is to "illustrate the conflicting influences that teachers must deal with," as the introductory note has it, why not just name the characters/ventriloquist's dummies something else entirely?
posted by RogerB at 1:07 AM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


'Whatever its dialogic virtues may be, I am still finding the format of these pieces really bizarre and questionable. Since when is it kosher to publish made-up interviews with actual people on the website of a newspaper? If all you want is to "illustrate the conflicting influences that teachers must deal with," as the introductory note has it, why not just name the characters/ventriloquist's dummies something else entirely?'

Yes, welcome to Google snippet 'quotes' quickly used by journalists on a deadline in the future. Which can then be sourced to that new media, obviously. It's truthy!
posted by jaduncan at 1:19 AM on August 7, 2010


Didn't some old Roman or Greek guy do this sort of thing with some older Roman or Greek guy?

Sorry, my knowledge of old Roman or Greek guys is sort of shabby.
posted by KChasm at 1:47 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


What? Three of these teachers/researchers are still alive, and he's making up a dialog with them? I didn't see anywhere where he says they approved of the dialog; I think this is unethical.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:19 AM on August 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yeah, this format is outrageously unethical and I am astonished it got published. This better not be a glimpse of the future of journalism. "Next on Fox News: We imagine what Obama would say to Charles Manson in a secret communist reefer-den!"
posted by No-sword at 2:26 AM on August 7, 2010 [11 favorites]


I think you all are loco if you don't have the ganas to read this.
posted by goodglovin77 at 2:39 AM on August 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yeah, this format is outrageously unethical and I am astonished it got published. This better not be a glimpse of the future of journalism. "Next on Fox News: We imagine what Obama would say to Charles Manson in a secret communist reefer-den!"

Already done. See "The Obama diaries" by Laura Ingraham, in which she makes up diaries entries and published it. And, for some reason, the NY Times has it in their hardcover NONfiction category. Newspapers these days appear unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. I don't mean that in a snarky way, either.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:42 AM on August 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


President Barack Obama: Ah, Chuck, great to see you!
Charles Manson: Thanks for coming down, I wanted to thank you personally for the pardon. I thought I would die in prison for all those murders I orchestrated!
President Barack Obama: Not a problem, we all do what we can to move the country towards race war. So what's on the menu?
Charles Manson: They have some really excellent marijuana here, would you like to try the hydroponic? Remember, you are my guest, it's on me.
President Barack Obama: Thank you, my good man. Let's see, I am so used to smoking hydroponic marijuana, I think I will try something different today. Hmm, the Taliban Hashish sounds good...
Charles Manson: I hear the plants are fertilized with the blood of US servicemen.
President Barack Obama: How very excellent! I'll have an ounce, I am feeling particularly voracious today and I have built up a huge tolerance to marijuana from smoking it so frequently.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:48 AM on August 7, 2010 [49 favorites]


The following conversation is purely fictional. No such meeting ever took place. This is merely my attempt to guess what these four experts might say to me if I could get them all in one room at one time.

Her "attempt to guess what these four experts might say" might more accurately called "pretending my words (and prejudices) come from their mouths."

Newspapers these days appear unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

This is the new business model. Newspapers that print news go out of business. Newspapers that validate the views of their readers earn profits.
posted by three blind mice at 2:55 AM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Meatbomb you just made me spit my coffee out all over the blue screen.

Despite the mess, many thanks for making me laugh out loud.
posted by three blind mice at 2:57 AM on August 7, 2010


I think this is unethical.

Why? If he's not misrepresenting their written and spoken opinions, and has clearly labelled the piece as fictional, where's the harm? The Obama/Manson comparison isn't really apt, as that's an obvious attempt to defame. Why would this fiction require approval?

I thought the piece was interesting, and it made me want to read about what the referenced authors have written on the education system in America.

I too am a little nonplussed as to why it's in a newspaper, but still.
posted by Ritchie at 3:01 AM on August 7, 2010


"When you teach a child to Question Authority, you become the first Authority they Question."

One of my high school teachers had a Question Authority bumpersticker pinned over his chalkboard. He observed to me, once, that the proper internal answer to that statement should always be, "Oh yeah? Says who?"
posted by Malor at 3:10 AM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


I too am a little nonplussed as to why it's in a newspaper, but still.

That's why it's unethical. I have no problem with people undertaking creative writing exercises and making fictional dialogs. But in a newspaper it has the appearance of journalism. IF this were an journalistic piece, the author would have the responsibility to actually ask the living authors whether their work was being interpreted properly. That does not appear to have happened here.

It's not the work I have a problem with. As a scientist, I find "What would X say?" to be an immensely useful exercise (because X is possibly going to be a reviewer on my manuscript, say); it is the work in the journalistic context that I find troubling, as apparently you share my uneasiness.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:33 AM on August 7, 2010


Wow. This piece is almost totally worthless. There is no attempt at all to bring the salient points (misbehavior and claimed ineffectiveness of traditional methods) together in some kind of synthesis; it's just left hanging there after some really bad pretend dialogue. I expected something completely different here, actually justifying the interesting pull quote from the OP.

Oh, and about the Greek guy? Yeah, Heverly's not exactly on the level of Plato, and there's no real Socratic method here (drawing out the contradictions of a position by repeated questioning). The big hairy point is a wall-of-text assertion rather than something arrived at by the dialogic form.
posted by graymouser at 3:52 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


it is the work in the journalistic context that I find troubling, as apparently you share my uneasiness.

I'm not uneasy, I'm nonplussed. It's incongruous, but that's not the same as bad. Nobody is being misled. It's a little weird, but this is the internet: all sorts of weird and interesting stuff turns up in contexts where you wouldn't expect it. You could posit a hypothetical dumbass that is too stupid to understand that this is fiction, but authors generally aren't held ethically accountable for the misapprehensions of the terminally dim.
posted by Ritchie at 4:13 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not uneasy, I'm nonplussed.

I see. I misunderstood.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 4:36 AM on August 7, 2010


I have a deep, abiding, irrational, dislike of Alfie Cohn that I can't figure out.
posted by Xurando at 4:40 AM on August 7, 2010


I have to agree that this format is so deceptive that it becomes worthless. We can't make up words and ascribe them to others, even with a disclaimer that we're doing so.

That said, there is no single answer to the question "how do I teach these children?" I work with these kids every day, the kids that our local school districts have identified as disruptive, the kids they most want out of their building so education can continue for the balance of the students. I've been doing this for over 25 years. How do we reach these kids, how do we convince them to love learning and, even more important, resolve the issues that make them so disruptive? The answer is "with whatever means works". For some kids that's grades, for some kids that's relationships, for one kid last year it was letting him sit quietly by himself petting my dog after he had an emotional meltdown due to academic frustration. Whatever works.

The bottom line for any teacher is being willing to acknowledge that his/her favorite method of teaching just may well suck for a particular kid, and being willing to figure out what doesn't suck for that kid.
posted by HuronBob at 4:55 AM on August 7, 2010 [7 favorites]


Question Authority (unless they're giving you someone else's stuff)

[self-link]
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:34 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Holy Fuck. I was reading Meatbomb's dialogue in the mental voices of Obama and Charles Bronson. Which was cool but a little off, you know?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:46 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


The difference between Meatbomb and Laura Ingraham is that Meatbomb is funny. Incidentally, anyone who didn't see Stephen Colbert's smackdown of Ingraham should check it out; it was a thing of beauty. To her face: "I thought the President was pretty articulate, but this writing is terrible."

I do find this piece off-putting, since an actual journalist could have done something journalisty like actually contacting the three guys who are still alive and asking them what their real opinions of each other are. It's not quite the same as Neal Stephenson writing Alan Turing into Cryptonomicon since we all know Turing is dead and it's clearly a work of fiction.
posted by localroger at 6:12 AM on August 7, 2010


Sigh. I have a strong interest in pedagogy, so I went into this with a certain amount of interest, but greymousers's observation that Heverly isn't Plato is right: the thing reads more like a free-for-all between straw men with Heverly shouting "what shall be do with the bad eggs!?!" in the middle. Which, you know, not a dialogue.

What I think is the main theme, although obscured by the format, comes out at the end -- we need a way to identify troublesome students so that they can be removed from the classroom and allow the others to learn. Which is an excellent example of begging the question -- in a more normally-formatted essay, Heverly would have to establish that this is a significant problem in classrooms in general and that targeting and removing disruptive students is the only answer. Which he doesn't, and the inability of his "panelists" to address either his thesis or the underlying assumptions isn't all the surprising, since they aren't there, they are only Heverly's understanding of their ideas and experiences, and, if he had found the answer to his thesis in their ideas, well, he could write a normal essay.

So, can we make anything of that central idea? I'm not in a good place to answer this, since I teach at the university level, and I have a lot of options to deal with students that high school and grade school teachers don't, and I am pretty sure that most of the least-achieving high school students do not make it to my institution, much less my classes. I do deal with disruptive students in my classes, and they are a problem, but not anywhere to the degree that they are at other levels. I also have the advantages of a fairly limited class size (~25 students), so I can work individually with students to some degree, if necessary.

Any high school or grade school teachers want to weigh in on this?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:16 AM on August 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Actually, every pernicious practice of modern education originates from the goal of trying to segregate and control racial minorities, like just about every other pernicious modern institution.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:39 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Books about classroom management are useless. Not that they can't give some ideas, but it pretty much boils down to the teacher figuring out what to do in each tough situation.

In my experience (13 or so years in elementary school), the teachers who have great classroom management never asked for help or read books about it, except maybe when they were brand new. Others ask for help with every challenging child, and their classrooms are generally chaotic.

One of the Universal Laws I have discovered in my life is about Education: "When you teach a child to Question Authority, you become the first Authority they Question."

Working as intended.
posted by Huck500 at 6:46 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, every pernicious practice of modern education originates from the goal of trying to segregate and control racial minorities, like just about every other pernicious modern institution.

Which practices are pernicious?
posted by Huck500 at 6:49 AM on August 7, 2010


Meatbomb, you forgot to include his full name, "Barry" Barack HUSSEIN!! Obama-Kenya.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:51 AM on August 7, 2010


a free-for-all between straw men

Might as well go the extra mile, and make those straw men effigies.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:57 AM on August 7, 2010


Educational questions and situations posed in the hypothetical are all just straight-up bullshit. Useful observations about problems, even possible solutions, are rendered useless because most people who teach know the context of the classroom has endemic elements (systems, students, parents, etc.) that make change that will positively effect each student's learning impossible. I can always point out how one "technique" will work in a given situation, and then counter that point with an element of the same situation that will render the "technique" ineffective.

What seems, in these classroom conjectures, to be consistently the case is, if you know what you're doing, know your subject matter well, and do what you do, however you do it, with care, you will be effective for some students, and that will vindicate you. The article's format is itself a case in point. Plato can do it, because he does it well. Heverly, not so much.

Shit! I'm on holidays dammit! Why the hell am I drawn into this load of crap!
posted by kneecapped at 7:10 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was willing enough to go along with the format, but I couldn't help but be taken aback by the image of summoning from a man from the dead -- a man who died younger than he could have, I might add, because his vocation made him too poor for better care -- in order to "help [the author] become a better high school English teacher." There's a touch of existential horror in that.

That, and the fact that Heverly makes the creative-writing-101 mistake of inserting random Spanish words into Escalante's dialogue in order to make him sound appropriately ethnic.

The problem at hand is an enormous and complicated one to which I've given a good deal of thought lately. It's not very special thought, because I've never in my life been interested in education, or had anything but bafflement for teenagers who weren't as interested in learning as I was. Still, I am trying to catch up.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:19 AM on August 7, 2010


Which practices are pernicious?

Admittedly, not the best word, though the one used in the OP link. We talked about this a little in the William Julius Wilson thread but (borrowing his schema), educational institutions tend to be racialist in that they reinforce existing racial attitudes and hierarchies - poor schools tend to get poor teachers not because the system forces that arrangement (as it did in Jim Crow) but because, absent other intervention or incentives, good teachers will generally go to good schools. Lacking strong national standards hurts poor / minority kids because rich kids can, in general, succeed without them by supplementing their education through their parents. Lack of school choice hurts poor / minority kids because rich parents exercise de facto school choice when they move to a new neighborhood or lobby a principal to get their kid reassigned. The 180 day school year (which, by the way, was created so rich parents could take their kids to their summer homes) hurts poor / minority kids because rich kids supplement their in school education during the summer in all kinds of ways (travel, camp, etc).

All of these systemic failures were born of the legacy of Jim Crow, a set of policies designed specifically to oppress minorities. Failure to change the systen in positive ways to compensate is, to borrow Wilson's term, racialist.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:56 AM on August 7, 2010


Escalante used *candy* as reward in his classes?? Is this where this heinous trend comes from? Goddammit, too bad he's dead, because I'd shove that candy up his nose and make him inhale.

dammit.
posted by RedEmma at 7:58 AM on August 7, 2010


(As a substitute teacher, I can only say that this "candy as bribe" thing is WAY out of hand in American schools. Kids demand candy. Expect candy. And every teacher thinks they're the only ones, and so I've witnessed kids getting candy from teachers for pavlovian response four or five times a day. It's EVIL, IMO.)

yes, i am mean and crunchy granola. stuff it in your piehole, candy fiends.
posted by RedEmma at 8:00 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Candy is huge here in Korea, but I assumed this was a strange Korean thing (no experience in a North American context).

In my lessons, the carrot is "Meatbomb continues to treat you like a high functioning human". And the kids really seem to like that.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:09 AM on August 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: I have built up a huge tolerance to marijuana from smoking it so frequently.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:38 AM on August 7, 2010


Second HuronBob. The main issue i took with this dialog was the implicit assumption that there is some right answer floating in the ether waiting to be found. if you try to teach *from* a method, rather than *to* the student, you're gonna be in trouble.
posted by Makwa at 9:48 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


was created so rich parents could take their kids to their summer homes
I always thought the 180-day school year was a relic from a more agrarian society - so that kids could help with the harvest. Is that apocryphal?
posted by jeoc at 10:46 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I really liked this dialogue - it resonated with a lot of the struggles I have faced teaching low-income African-American kids.

I think it is a mistake to imagine that the portrayals of the authors need to be realistic to work - this is an imagined dialogue between the versions of these authors that exist in the writer's imagination, and as a teacher who is trying to do right by his students, he contends with these authors' imagined voices and criticisms of him every day. They reflect his own doubts about his teaching.

He admires a lot of what these authors have to say but is trying to put their ideas into practice in a way that works. It doesn't seem that he is wedded to a particular method - he seems like a thoughtful guy who is taking as his evidence what actually happens in his classroom.

I think the one of the most interesting points of friction here are between a teacher-centric view of the classroom that is more authoritarian in the sense that the teacher is in control, vs. a student-centric version that is more democratic. I grew up in a very democratic setting but I now teach more commandingly. Note that Escalante is the only one of these four men who has a record of success with low-income kids - the others are arguing from a more general perspective and not addressing class as explicitly. Escalante's words ring truer to me for that reason and based on my own experience, but Gatto especially is closer to the idealisms of my heart.
posted by mai at 11:35 AM on August 7, 2010


Oh, and I suspect the candy thing is an unintended consequence of teachers giving too much meaningless praise - "good job," etc. Kids will no longer be motivated by your approval because they suspect it's false. Candy is real and concrete and signifies approval deep enough on your part to motivate some material outlay. Plus it's sweet so there is the behaviorist reward aspect.
posted by mai at 11:39 AM on August 7, 2010


Reading all the way to the end of part 2 - this is the part that most resonated with the struggles I used to have at my old school. Some amount of skill, insight, caring, presence, can take you pretty far with almost every child but Haverly is right that there are always a few who are set on terrorizing everyone. These students tend to have emotional problems that are too great for a teacher to address during the limited time they are with a student at school, and our system offers way too few alternatives for them.

My current school allows me to send such students out of class when they are disruptive, which doesn't solve the problem but protects everyone else. Some of the disruptive kids eventually come around with time and some don't, and I spend many nights awake late in my bed wondering what to do with them.
posted by mai at 11:47 AM on August 7, 2010


I'm a little surprised that the responses here focused on this being a work of fiction about living people, or about it not being as good as Plato. Newspapers have always published things in the name of special interest (not to be confused with Special Interests). The author has already admitted to working 60 hours a week trying to do right by his students -- and spending his remaining time reading up on how to do better. It's hard to begrudge him for not actually organizing a conference with the three. And the columnist passed it on simply because he found it interesting and thought-provoking, and labeled it clearly as fictional dialog.

To me the point is that there are very different views of how to reach kids and help them thrive. The author is grappling with these contradictory approaches and using his own experiences as his yardstick. Given the wide audience it's received there will be ample opportunity for the three living educators to correct the author's impression of what they're trying to teach him. The author, and his students, would only benefit if they did so.

Comparing this to Laura Ingraham's blather is cute, but hardly apt.
posted by rouftop at 2:07 PM on August 7, 2010


Wait, WHAT? Teachers give out *candy* for correct answers now? I'm with RedEmma on this one. What a horrible, horrible idea.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 4:41 PM on August 7, 2010


To me the point is that there are very different views of how to reach kids and help them thrive. The author is grappling with these contradictory approaches and using his own experiences as his yardstick.

But to me the problem is - he goes on giving stereotypical pictures of what four people's philosophies of teaching are, and then interrupts it at the end with a tremendous rant, and doesn't actually attempt to synthesize the points or to pull something coherent out of it. That was why I compared it negatively to Plato, that the dialogues do not enlighten but merely relieve the author from having to actually present and defend his thesis, or more ambitiously to attempt to present some kind of solution wherein the education philosophy is served while dealing with the "mischievous."

I can understand this as an "I'm frustrated" piece but he doesn't get to any answers, he doesn't even find anything that leads toward answers. And even taken as a way to present some educational philosophies and then say "But I'm frustrated that they don't get at X" it is really terrible. Honestly I don't think it merits being published in the form it is, maybe it could be the basis for a worthwhile essay but it's not there yet.
posted by graymouser at 5:07 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I suspect the candy thing is an unintended consequence of teachers giving too much meaningless praise - "good job," etc. Kids will no longer be motivated by your approval because they suspect it's false.

This, very much this. Here where I do teacher training they will praise kids for being conscious and even minimally attentive to the lesson. "Genius" is a word that is used frequently.

T: Good morning class!
(no response)
T: Did you have a good morning?
(no response)
T: What did you do last night?
One marginally attentive S: Watch TV.
T, squealing like the Ss has just won a Nobel prize: OOOOooooh! Watch TV!!! You are genius, what an excellent student, watch TV!!!!!!!!!!!!! (showers S with candy)

And sadly, there's a good chance this will be the ONLY moment in a 40' lesson that any S gets the chance to actually express an honest opinion, say something true about their lives. The rest is converting sentences into third person singular and asking questions that everyone in the room already knows the answers to.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:19 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait, WHAT? Teachers give out *candy* for correct answers now? I'm with RedEmma on this one. What a horrible, horrible idea.

We are not allowed in our district to use candy (or other things not aligned with our Wellness Policy) as student rewards. Or for holidays, etc. Of course, there are still some teachers who do (the ones rules don't apply to, you know), and believe you me, the kids like candy as prizes/rewards much better than any non-food item I've ever come up with (except extra credit points, which they also like).
posted by lysimache at 10:59 AM on August 8, 2010


Wait, WHAT? Teachers give out *candy* for correct answers now? I'm with RedEmma on this one. What a horrible, horrible idea.

Some teachers do, although in my district it's against policy. If a new teacher starts at my school I let them know about the policy and then they decide for themselves (I'm the union rep so feel that letting people know when they do something that might get them in trouble is part of my job). Most choose not to give candy.

I use stickers for my first graders, usually the ones that smell like stuff. The goal, though, is to trick them into figuring out that doing things well leads to feeling good about yourself. I've had a few students refuse the sticker, saying, "I didn't do it for that." That's from a 6 or 7 year old.

In my experience, the stickers, for most of them, are just a way of showing off, to parents or peers. What they really like is the praise that goes along with them.
posted by Huck500 at 9:12 AM on August 16, 2010


This, very much this. Here where I do teacher training they will praise kids for being conscious and even minimally attentive to the lesson. "Genius" is a word that is used frequently.

Holy crap, where is 'here'? Every single thing in your post up there I knew not to do on my first day of teaching, and I didn't know anything.
posted by Huck500 at 9:18 AM on August 16, 2010


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