My Learning Story

I have just ordered my copy of Minds Made for Stories – How we really read and write informational and persuasive texts by Thomas Newkirk.  I am excited that a wonderful writer/educator has written to the heart of what I’ve recently been meditating on.

In a pd workshop I was doing last week, in a fine K-8 school, an eighth grade science teacher did a take down during my mini-lesson on getting ideas for starting narratives.  She was incensed that the strategies I was demonstrating would confuse students who had to analyze prompts.  Well, there was a mismatch on many points of our understanding and I patiently let her know the shape of a unit of study, agreed that there ought to be lessons on addressing prompts within any unit of writing, showed the progression of writing across the grades in Common Core and gave many reasons why narrative is important.  But I lost my footing and the “grand conversation” did not allow the rest of the teachers the precious writing time I had planned, so that they had their own work.  I wanted them to apply the next set of strategies to a piece of their own writing.  I learned that I could have defended the ELA teacher’s writing time and had a side conversation with the science teacher.

Her “hurry up and cut to the chase” attitude reminded me of my close read of David Coleman’s narrative for shifting language arts instruction. As David Coleman, architect of the Common Core and, coincidentally, president of the College Board, explains his position on his sixth, most critical shift in ELA:

Academic vocabulary is the language of power – the language that is in all in all texts — crucial vocabulary – not domain specific words — but words like “subsequent, hypothesis, theory, and evidence…If you don’t grasp those words, all of complex texts is unavailable to you.  I’d sum up the six major shifts of ELA common core as, “Reading like a detective, writing like an investigative reporter.” –  –YouTube

So I have taken the challenge of the 8th grade teacher as an opportunity to essay about the teaching of literacy, especially writing, with our ‘power language’ in place.

Subsequent

In Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid, the Story and Science of the Reading Brain, she explains the deep neural and cultural power of writing.

With the birth of writing systems, changes occurred in more than just the brain’s circuitry…the process of writing released an unprecedented ability to achieve novel thoughts….the new circuits and pathways that the brain fashions in order to read become the foundation for being able to think in different, innovative ways.”

Every recent research look into reading intervention discovers the power of writing in developing the student’s ability to read and to think.  And the way the brain maps experience and the primary way writing is produced is narrative in the sense of mapping and networks of experience.  Producing writing makes the neural demands on the reader that help fuse the cognitive, linguistic and affective processes required in reading.

Even with the known potency of writing, school writing instruction has generally been neglected or has been reduced to short cuts. It became error-based instruction with the teacher the sole audience and editor.

The formulaic teaching of the structure of writing in schools has been like the teaching of conventions:  Both are concrete and relatively easy to do. Teaching composing is not.  I think that explains in part why there is still the preponderance of teaching “school writing” as Don Murray terms it, rather than teaching writing the way writers create.

Those texts that real world authors write for real purposes [i.e. get published] are both narrative and creative nonfiction, both of which are hybrid texts.  Rarely does a “pure genre” publish. Only relatively small groups of educators, such as Lucy Calkins and colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York, have examined works by writers on writing, and pursued the challenges of having a writing practice to inform one’s teaching.  And even then, the TCRWP work gets codified and there’s little multigenre work in their approach.  Teachers get the idea that there are not just characteristics to a genre of writing, but real lines drawn between them as boundaries not to be crossed over.

Mostly, in the era of scripted reading programs, writing has been formulaic, focused mostly on structure rather than the thinking that has to face down the empty page.  Albeit some of that student writing is exceptionally banal and does not approach the exemplars of the writing text types in the appendix of the Common Core.

But reading and writing instruction ought to go mind in mind:  especially if the goal of our literacy instruction is communicative discourse and expert reading.  Nowhere does the reader get challenged to attend to layers of meaning than in literature and high-quality creative nonfiction.  In writing, producing a significant memoir or narrative nonfiction text will constructively assist the writer to be a more expert reader.

SUBSEQUENTLY, now that the Common Core has returned the ignored subject — writing — to the curriculum, ignored during the era of box store reading programs, and by the California State Standards test-driven school programs, it seems that some educators are merely glancing at “what’s new” in the national standards.  Or worse, because the Common Core is a baffling experiment of building an airplane in flight, many well-intentioned educators and administrators turn to the quick summaries (the heuristics of the Common Core). These shortcuts and prepackaged programs will not likely lead back to real composition, or to the time and facilitation of creative process that has produced not only literature, but innovations in science and technology as well.

Hypothesis

Watch David Coleman on YouTube [The Six Shifts in ELA] as he discusses standards as “battering rams” to be used on data such as flat scores for reading in 8th grade across 40 years.  He first admits that elementary schools have shown improvement in reading, but his first “shift” is PK-5 Balancing Information/Literature. Even with the K-5 improvement the “problem” David claims that elementary students only read about 7% nonfiction texts [a dubious stat] which David describes as “about the real world.”  In his narrative, stories that children read are not about the real world.  David proposes to have the elementary teachers “fix” the problems of middle and high school reading by building a coherent knowledge base and vocabulary using a stream of nonfiction texts throughout K-5.  Sounds like a simple solution, right?  This is a simple hypothesis.  For every problem there are answers which are simple, easy and wrong.  Let’s make undeveloped readers who are in their early teens, undergoing the neural equivalent of a brain dump, and bombard them with nonfiction, behave like expert readers, simply because they will have more information.

HYPOTHESIS: If what the elementary teachers are doing is working, why disrupt it?

Readers and writers develop.  While there are stages, there is no reason to arbitrarily divide writing into genres. M. Wolf points out that, “Children leaving the more concrete stages of thinking learn a great deal of comprehension in the realm of fantasy and magic….in this long phase of reading development, they leave the surface layers of text to explore the wondrous terrain that lies beneath it.”

Should I conclude that the key to high school literacy will be quantitative:  The measure of how much knowledge and information a student squeezes out of a “complex” text?  Never mind re-reading Dostoevsky because we can assume that colleges won’t care about that as the shift happens.

Mr. Coleman’s disclaims, “What the colleges care about is whether you can argue and convey complex information clearly.  Student voice and creativity – narrative is essential in elementary, but in high school the dominant forms are argumentative.”

Is “close reading” really anything new?  I wonder if it isn’t just rehashed 19th C rhetoric about how to rule the world?  Will this approach foster competent readers, really?

Theory

There appears to be an assumption, among educators wanting to be on the cutting edge of the core, that narratives [read or written], since they are not new, are not interesting. And because it is an “affective domain” genre, it is not properly linked to what experts and the elite in education consider authentic. The cultural pride in information is highly developed, a shiny 19th C. ideal, still pervading the onset of the 21st C. In any century learning skills cannot be reduced to a genre, but the business-minded approach assumes that argumentative and informational writing is much more important.  Narratives, especially, personal ones are not beneficial to preparing a student for “the real world.”

The belief that truth is derived merely from facts, distilled from those facts of concern to the national economy, is a great misunderstanding, I think, of the purpose of education.  There I go again, inserting the silly narrative of my opinions.    It is also a huge misunderstanding of how we know anything at all.  I keep intuitively thinking it’s all story.

Facts are in themselves nothing without a story, or narrative to communicate them.  The bazillion little particulars of our world, which can be labeled facts, or true and verifiable, are not in themselves very interesting or powerful.  There have been hundreds of thousands of research papers created and much knowledge categorized by scholars in the past century, but what makes any of that useful or accessible?

What the real world offers would be writers is a huge market for creative nonfiction. That is a true genre, not named in the Common Core.

The lead architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, who is also now president of the College Board, said that personal narrative and opinion need to be expunged from school because “As you grow up you realize that nobody really gives a sh-t about what you feel or think…” Well, Mr. Coleman, I understand that tough, suck-it-up position for overcoming the natural self-indulgence we all possess.  However, it is still a self-based discipline designed for you to get what you want, no matter what it costs another. And it has nothing  to do with how readers read or how writers write.  Without feeling I am very likely unable to finish reading a piece or remember what I read.

Such a preponderance of kinds of writing.  Even the genres are being renamed, but the underlying dichotomy in the Common Core is not new. Academics divide “expressive” writing [the early, immature form] and there’s “communicative” writing [the mature, teaching form] which is a false dichotomy.  In David Coleman’s view [business thinkers like shortcuts and dichotomies] schools have simply spent too much time in expressive writing — and David lumps the personal narrative in there.  Published personal narratives are really poetic [academically speaking] since they are well-crafted pieces.  Expressive writing is used mostly in quick-writing for the sake of sorting out thoughts and and for writing to learn; using expressive writing to come to terms with new material in science, math, history, etc.  David, go take a writing course.

I suspect underneath this “rewrite” of what David Coleman thinks reading and writing should look like for the highly overrated 21st Century, literary learning ought to be replaced by pragmatic learning.  This is not a new swing of the pendulum in education historically either.

The Common Core standards offer a chance to not only bring writing back into the curriculum, but also to dispense with much of what we’ve done in the stead of composition — toss out “school writing” as Donald Murray endearingly termed the myths about writing that are propagated in our school system by well-meaning, but untrained teachers.

THEORY:  A person cannot even read literature or research without entering the affective domain.

Evidence

I will argue for a world in which people possess compassion where they will develop or nurture their mirror neurons.  To understand something beyond a smorgasbord approach to the Common Core writing text types, one has to understand something fundamental about writing:  It is an art.  Composing is a high form of creativity, right up there with invention and discovery in the sciences.

Yet business-model types want short cuts.  So does our brain.  We are wired with the capacity to process and rearrange circuitry for the greatest efficiency.  Consider the act of reading this page, for example.  Yet, one reason we don’t like to study deeply and learn difficult things [listen up, business-model types who appropriate other’s ideas and paste them onto your existing plan] is that the brain is lazy.  Find the shortcut.  Do it cheap.

A perfect example of heuristics was provided on the YouTube shift discussion by the infamous architect of the Common Core.  “Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a “satisfactory” solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision.” — Wikipedia

Neuroscience has been exploring much about the human brain and information science is learning much about how knowledge is acquired and used.  There’s a layer, a network in our brain, that is “metabolically expensive” or in business terms, costly, according to Nova Next/PBS [Oct. 22, 2014] “What Schizophrenia Can Teach Us About Ourselves, “ an article by Allison Eck advances a scientific argument that the “understanding of a particular network in the brain is allowing neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists — even artists and writers — to understand each other in ways that wouldn’t have made sense ten years ago.  Called the default mode network, or DMN, it’s a set of brain regions that are typically suppressed when a person is engaged in an external task (playing a sport, working on a budget), [and I shall add, doing close reading] but activated during a so-called “resting state” (sitting quietly, day-dreaming).

“It’s an extremely important platform for any kind of thought that is disengaged from the ‘here-and-now,’ ” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. That includes processing other people’s stories, reflecting on our own lives, planning for the future, or making important decisions. Immordino-Yang says the default mode network is “metabolically expensive.” In other words, when your head is lost in the clouds, your brain is hard at work.

I’m thinking of some of the earliest forms of writing, like cave paintings of bison.  Drawing is the earliest writing.

A pictorial representation offers a story to be deciphered.  I think true information is captured in narrative.  In metaphor and the sticky wickets of literature and art, not in the repositories of information lauded as academia.  Brilliant astrophysicists and scientist in many domains turn to story to make their theories and understanding of complex knowledge like the evolution of the universe accessible to anyone.

If writing is going to be communicative, then it must be accessible beyond the confines of the sequestered, and elite practitioners who produce it.

Or, a less whiny, defensive statement can be found in Maryanne Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid.  [p. 220]  she asks in the conclusion, in the context of wondering about the effect of the internet on our reading brains, “Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself?”

And, in narrowing the scope of what is taught in reading and writing, throwing literature under the bus, for example, by a misinterpretation of the Common Core, we will perpetuate the terrible school practices of formulaic writing instruction [or none at all] and reduce reading to less than what elementary teachers have done successfully.  Maryanne Wolf wrote that “everyone involved in the education of the young — parents, teachers, scholars, policy makers — needs to ensure that each component of the reading process is sensibly, carefully, explicitly prepared for or taught from birth until full adulthood.”

There’s a narrative to what we’ve been learning about literacy.  There’s a narrative to the explicit teaching of writing workshops. It is an exciting story, even if fraught with difficulty and misunderstanding by educators looking at it from the sidelines.

I am more committed to finding ways to inspire teachers to leave the formulaic world of school writing and allow themselves and their students to venture into the rigor of composing real pieces for the real world. This is my ongoing story.

One thought on “My Learning Story”

  1. I will have to save and read your post over the weekend, for I want to give it the time and though it deserves. I do have to respond to that colleague, though, how rude! It looks as though she cost everyone some precious writing time.

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