Sunday, March 14, 2010

In which a lot of what we teach in school is conformity to the dominant culture.

The AVID program is a course of study offered in some public schools aimed at teaching college-preparatory study habits to poor kids. And a whole bunch of the stuff they teach centers on acronyms. My favorite is SLANT, which, with some slight variations depending on who you ask, stands something like this:
Sit in front.
Lean forward in your desk.
Ask questions.
Nod your head.
Talk to the teacher.
If this seems a little pedantic to you, you're not alone. But NPR recently interviewed a guy who has a pretty solid theoretical justification for an approach like this (props to Jonathan for sending this to me):
If you tell a kid to pay attention, and the kid doesn't do what you want them to do, and you say back to them, I thought I told you to pay attention, I think most teachers know that the answer is going to be, I was paying attention. [...]So you sort of lack the accountability piece there, if you don't make your directions observable. [...]

When directions are vague, there's a lot of opportunistic opportunistic off past behavior. And there's a certain number of kids who may not be following the task because they - we just weren't really clear about it enough as teachers. Students may not - the issue maybe what I call incompetence, which is they don't know how to do what you ask them to do. When you tell a student to pay attention, does the student know that that means sit up, get your eyes on me and put your feet on the floor?

So, if you give them more specific directions, sit up, get your eyes on me, put your feet on the floor, you're actually teaching the kids who don't know what to do. You're eliminating the ambiguity that let some of the kids sort of exploit that, and you're making it much, much harder - a kid really has to willfully decide that they're going to defy you.
Essentially, the argument is that there are legitimate sources of misunderstanding about lots of types of directions that teachers assume are perfectly clear. There's no a priori reason why "Pay attention" should have anything whatever to do with putting your feet on the floor, and if you want students to put their feet on the floor, you have to tell them that, rather than getting mad at them for not understanding that that was included in paying attention.

There are often significant cultural differences that contribute to misunderstandings between teachers and students. In many cases, you have a teacher representing a middle-class, white, formal, professional culture interacting with a student representing a poor minority informal home culture. And teachers often are totally insensitive to that cultural difference, assuming their own definitions to requests (or commands) that have multiple legitimate meanings -- and students often respond to their uncertainty about what's expected to them by doing nothing.

There's another legitimate angle from which to question this approach, though. The teacher is, in many cases, one thirtieth of the people in the classroom -- why are we so thoroughly privileging their cultural associations? If twenty-nine people think "pay attention" doesn't mean putting your feet on the floor, and one person thinks it does, why are we not questioning whether the feet on the floor are really an essential part of the classroom experience?

Although this interview doesn't give a full answer to that, Lisa Delpit does, in Other People's Children. A lot of the book is a critique of white liberal educational practices with regard to literacy, but they apply in lots of situations. Basically, white liberals realized in the past couple of decades that white culture isn't actually better than black culture, and started questioning whether it makes sense for us to so thoroughly privilege white culture in schools. They started realizing (holy shit) that black (and Latin@, and Native American) children felt alienated by being told the language of their parents, families, and communities was "wrong." They realized that kids were being driven away from focusing on meaning, because the pronunciations that they were being taught to associate with written words weren't the ones that they used to communicate.

So they started de-emphasizing the whiteness-specific parts of the curriculum -- they stopped teaching grammar, and started teaching creative writing process; they stopped correcting the silent "r" in "before" when kids were reading; they stopped using words like "Spanglish" as derogatory.

But the problem is, no one else stopped judging those kids for their language. The set of linguistic practices that had been assumed in schools were the ones that they were expected to use in the rest of the world -- they were part of what Delpit refers to as "the culture of power." And parents were pissed at the schools -- their kids already knew how to write and speak in black English, they already knew that black was beautiful, but they were sending them to school to learn how to deal with white people, and they were being cheated out of this.

Essentially, then, we do have an obligation to teach kids that "pay attention" means having both your feet on the floor -- not as an absolute, but as a part of the cultural system that gives you access to the mechanisms of power. And I wish Lemov had been clearer about validating the other ways of paying attention, and I wish more teachers were clearer about doing so in their classrooms. The way he talks about it, it really sounds like there's an absolute meaning of "pay attention," that the teachers are responsible for teaching to their students -- instead of that there are two different meanings, and teachers need to teach students a new meaning.

Kids are remarkably sharp about stuff like this. They really can understand it if you say, "When people say 'pay attention' in school, they usually mean something different than when people say the same words in other contexts. And when people say it in school, it's going to include things like having your feet on the floor, nodding at appropriate moments, and taking notes."

Another piece of this, though, is that asking simple, measurable things of students, no matter how arbitrary those things are in an objective sense, gets them used to the idea that you will expect certain things of them, that you'll teach them how to do those things, and that they'll be achievable. I think this is a really important step in countering a lot of the negative feelings students have about school, and getting them ready to put effort toward the things that do require effort. I also think it's important to set the expectation early on that this classroom is a place where people are mostly working together, and mostly interacting positively -- because students' initial impressions of a classroom atmosphere have a huge effect on their willingness to risk their time and their cred by cooperating.

I do worry, though, that it creates a top-down atmosphere, where students are being taught that their job is to respond to teacher directions, and expect positive teacher feedback for those actions -- rather than allowing them to feel like they're responsible for coming up with some of the direction, and most of the motivation, for their success. It's probably worth it, but you have to counter it pretty quickly by giving them opportunities to participate in decision-making for the class, contribute ideas and get some positive reinforcement from other students, and do things that aren't "for a grade."

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