Friday, March 5, 2010

Layer 260 . . . Finding Our Voices

As I was saying in the last blog, I don't want my children, or other people's children, to sound like automatons, androids, cyborgs, or brainwashed products of a quasi-military production system. I want them to develop their own individual voices which they use to articulate their own individual thoughts and feelings; and I want them to feel like individuals with minds, souls and spirits which they themselves understand and feel comfortable with.

I've recently returned to a book written by Lucy McCormick Calkins called "Lessons From A Child". The subtitle is "On the Teaching and Learning of Writing".

In her introduction she says,

Thankfully my first teaching experiences were in an urban high school where attendance averaged 60% and students weren't afraid to ask hard questions. "Why am I supposed to learn about Egypt?" they'd ask. "This is crazy stuff. Why are we doing this? So what?" When my year was over, I asked myself the same questions. "Why am I doing this? So what?"

In search of a vision, I began teaching first in Oxfordshire, England, and then in an alternative public school in Middlefield, Connecticut. Those readers who visited the British Primary Schools at their best will recognise ways in which their emphasis on collaborative learning, student initiative and craftsmanship have been re-discovered and extended within the context of the writing workshop. I agree with the great British educator, Charity James, who urges us to remember the roots of our innovations:

We are apt to think of our innovations as a new growth of the human spirit, which indeed they are, but this aspect in isolation can make the whole work seem too exciting, too perishable, for its own good. We must see ourselves also in this period as holding the line, as helping to maintain, through our new relationships with students and our new hopes for their learning, an older humanism which the march of matter, the parade of power, would otherwise destroy.

It was Donald Graves who showed me that beneath every research project there are human beings with stories to tell. "Every child has a story to tell," he often said, quoting Harold Rosen. "The question is, will they tell it to us?"

The answer was yes. Children, teachers, principals told us their stories because Graves showed us how to listen, how to see the significance in what others might think was ordinary.


So it's voices; it's speaking, and it's listening. Do we grade our students on the power, the clarity, and the expressiveness of their individual voices? Of course not. Thankfully not.

[We care only about the length of their sentences, the number of 'connectives' they use, and whether they deliberately use plenty of 'wow words' - designed to demonstrate a working knowledge of multi-syllabic 'colourful' and 'sophisticated' English adjectives and adverbs.]

Do we grade them on their ability to listen to one another, and their ability to respond and to feed back, and to engage in open and genuine dialogue? Of course not.

We don't value these things - and is it any wonder therefore that we're so useless at them? And the pity is that no-one even cares, or even thinks it matters.

We value what we can measure, and we measure the things that don't even matter. Not any more. That's if they ever did.

Write an account of life in ancient Egypt. Say why their religious and political systems were important.

Fuck off.

Write an account of this week's soccer international between England and Egypt.

Ah yes. Now you're starting to interest me.

Say why John Terry was booed, why he's been deprived of the captaincy, and what this says about our current value systems and so-called morals.

Mmmmmm. Quite interesting.

Write an account of life in a contemporary British city. Describe the variety of lifestyles, the points of difference, and why they exist.

Describe why you're pissed off with the pressure of constantly being tested and graded and told that you're not 'on track' to reach the 'expected grades' in tests and exams. Say why you're so fucking bored and angry with this waste of your life, and why you hate school and our exam system so much. Say whether you're writing as a member of an 'advanced' set or 'stream', or from the point of view of someone who failed to become a 'high achiever'.


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