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Archive for the ‘Teachers and teaching’ Category

I had a busy and interesting week last week. I went to a workshop with Nick Rabkin, an arts educator who speaks eloquently about the importance of arts in the schools. You can check out one of his columns here. Then I presented at the Fall Forum of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) in Providence. I love what CES is doing, and it’s a comfort to me to know there are educators who are really thinking through what makes a good school.

I’m no fan of No Child Left Behind, nor of Race to the Top. I’ve been in schools a long time and seen a lot of things, and I don’t think these programs are much of an answer. They don’t really frame the question right. This of course, deserves a longer discussion, and I’ll post more. But for now, I want to post a song I wrote a year or so ago about testing. It’s not on any recording and I don’t know if it will be. And this is just me and guitar. I wrote it after listening to one teacher after another lament the effect of high stakes teaching on their work. LIke I said, Race to the Top doesn’t really shift the focus much from No Child Left Behind. Testing has its place, but it’s no answer. And like I say in the song, it sure isn’t teaching.

Here’s the song. Hope you like it:

Click here - The Ballad of Janice Miller

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

There’s a point of no returning

There’s a point where something breaks

There’s a point where someone’s taken as much as they can take

There’s a point comes when you know that what you’re doing’s wrong

That’s the point where you say no and refuse to go along

My name is Janice Miller, a teacher’s who I am

I’ve never made much trouble, I’ve done the best I can

There’s a million more like me out there, I can’t speak for the rest

But I’m sick of what we’re doing, so I won’t give this test

©2012 Bill Harley and Round River Music (BMI)

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I have been informed by the powers that be that I should be doing a little promotion on my blog. Right. They’re right. Yes. Of course. In this case, it’s easy because I’m psyched, and I also get to talk about someone else’s work, too. My new picture book, Lost and Found, on Peachtree Press is coming out this fall and we just got some in our grimy little hands. It looks great, thanks to Adam Gustavson who has taken my little story and made it THE JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH – only it takes place in a lost and found box. Kirkus Reviews gave a nice advance review in which they say (ahem):

Storyteller Harley embodies a child’s fears with humor and sympathy… With stifling tension,  Harley has found the perfect emotional pitch to explore such universal childhood fears as visiting mysterious corners of the school or facing a terrifying adult. This story captures the essence of a brave child who confronts Authority. Within this child’s view of the world, full of questions and pressure and misunderstanding, wisdom comes—sometimes from the unlikeliest places.

And just to show you how together I am(okay we are, since, um ,this was someone else’s idea) , here’s a short video of Adam and me talking about how great we are. Okay, the book, I mean, the book. We are great only in so far as the book – oh forget it. Longer talk will follow. And    I kind of look like hell in the picture because twelve hours before one of my darling bees stung me right below the eye. Vanity, vanity -here goes

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From NY Times article I cite - hmm - dubious legality here


There’s a really interesting article in the New York Times today (Tuesday, December 27) about brain chemistry and kids of “middle childhood”. It affirms most things I’ve come to believe about this age and reminds me of what I like most about them. They’re smart and alert and interested and growing in a million ways at a prodigious rate. They’re making connections and gaining a sense of themselves and others that younger children don’t have. This is related to “theory of mind” which is the realization that other people have their own minds and thoughts and experiences that are different from one’s own.
Truth is, this age – 6 to 12 – is mostly where I live in my stories (and many of my songs). Alert and not jaded.Great sense of humor. Great sense of justice.
Picasso said that all artists create from a certain age, and that he was (if I remember correctly) thirteen. Put me a couple of years younger and leave me there.

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Me and Ed Murrow - and a thousand others....


I’ve been a fan of This I Believe since its reincarnation by the incomparable Jay Allison a number of years ago. That said, I never got around to submitting one. But finally I did, on the Rhode Island NPR station, WRNI, which has continued the program under the direction of Rick Reamer. My offering played last week. It’s very close to what I’ve been writing about in this blog for the past couple of years, so I thought it made sense to share it here.

Click HERE to hear the piece:

And here’s an Old Year’s resolution – before the new one starts: More blog posts. Honest. Let’s see how I do.

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I’ve come across several articles in the last month about technology and education that have got me thinking about where educators, schools, and society spend their energy and money. In one, a teacher shows how using youtube and online information has changed how he teaches. In another, the US government announces it is going to focus more on the use of digital technology in education.

In both of these articles, there is an inherent assumption that technology is a key to solving our educational problems.

I ain’t so sure.

I am, I guess, a semi-Luddite, in that I have a “prove it to me” approach to whatever the latest hot thing is. Technology (like computers, ipads, and, um, books) has its place. And something in the whole slew of new generation of software and hardware and connectivity has value. But figuring out which thing it is and how to use it isn’t that easy.

And there are other things that are important, too.

What would you expect from a storyteller? – a guy who spends most of his time in front of warm bodies, emitting intentionally formed bits of air out of his mouth.

But I’m no enemy of technology – as long as it’s considered. And I want to be careful and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But all this talk about technology in education has me thinking several things about its limits and problems.

First, in almost all the literature extolling the use of new media and technology, there is the underlying, still unproven assumption that all this stuff is going to do a better job at teaching students. We still don’t know if that’s true, but we are always attracted to what ‘s new, hoping it’s our savior. A recent article in the NYTimes about a district outside of Phoenix notes that their heavy investment hasn’t reaped the rewards they were hoping for. Defenders are quick to say that the testing used to measure student achievement doesn’t really measure what the technology is helping to develop – a new way of thinking. We artists use that argument against standardized testing too, but it’s a little surprising that technology rides in on a promise of raising test scores, and then shifts its argument. (And actually, the arts has proven their value that time and time again, to no apparent acknowledgement or effect on the part of the powers that be.) I’m no fan of standardized testing, but if we’re going to spend billions on something, it would be nice to know it works.

Second – there is no way technology would be everyone’s darling if it didn’t involve huge amounts of money. There is a lot at stake here, and it’s notable that the people who are crowing the loudest about its possibilities are those who have spent their lives designing and selling technology. Apple and Google run the workshops for teachers on how to use technology and in the Internet in the classroom. Should we be surprised that they see technology as the answer to our problems? Is it shocking that the Gates Foundation has found a way to influence the discussion about what American education needs? Education is a gold mine for corporations, and they spend a great part of their time lobbying everyone about its possibilities.

I’m not saying these people don’t have good intentions. Of course they believe in what they’re doing.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

National, state and local governments have bought in. Lobbyists help.

Schools spend millions of dollars every year on new technologies to help teachers. And the truth is, the companies that sell the stuff already have plans for something else that will make it obsolete in five years. When you buy a hundred computers, you know you’re going to buy a hundred more in a couple of years. Corporations selling it have that figured out.

You don’t make that much money off pencils.

Or teachers. Corporations don’t really benefit from developing skills in a teacher (unless it’s to use their product). I am left wondering what it would be like if we spent anywhere near the money we do on technology on working intimately with teachers on classroom management skills and group dynamics. Or (here it is…) on being good storytellers. Or on how to really foster good relationships between home and school and giving parents support. These things are teachable, but they’re not bright and shiny – they are actually kind of hard to do, and they have no glossy flyers and videos with pulsing beats that promise the moon and stars.

One result of the ever-increasing dependency and worship of technology as a teaching panacea will be an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. If you’re like me, you’re more and more upset about the widening rift between the haves and have-nots. I walked into a teacher’s room at a fairly well-heeled school a couple of weeks ago and saw all the teacher’s assistants (which means two adults in each classroom) sitting around a table – fifteen of them all with identical Apple laptops.

Not happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I think. Or most places, really. Most school districts will never be able to afford the luxury of the newest technology. Especially since we don’t really want to spend money on education for those less fortunate. And Apple donating computers doesn’t really solve the problem.

The more we praise technology and the latest development, the more we ignore those who will never see it. The more all this stuff costs, the more students we leave behind.

So I’m brought back to the notion that a lot of energy is being devoted to one aspect of learning at the expense of other things. Technology will not close the gap between rich and poor. Technology is not the answer to someone who does not know how to teach. And I don’t believe a video has the same impact as a flesh and bones teacher, well trained and familiar with the student, giving the same information. It may provide support, but not replacement.

I think we praise technology because we’re hoping it’s the quick fix. Tech purveyors want us to think that, too.

And the deeper, more long range truth, is that the growth of all this technology and continued production of more and more stuff is unsustainable. We can’t afford, in the long run, to depend on more and more. There is a reckoning up ahead, and it will probably force us to fall back upon some simpler approaches to communicating.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve talked with a number of teachers and principals about this. Several principals (and good ones, I think) noted that it’s not all or nothing – they are really figuring out how to incorporate technology into teaching so it’s a useful tool. That’s good. A good teacher has a wide array of resources and methods they draw on when teaching. And advanced technology, within limits, is a great idea.

Like I said, I’m a semi-Luddite. Until we use up the fossil fuel, we’re not going back. But I don’t believe the hype and promise. Because I’ve also seen what good administrators and teachers can do with more limited resources.

They need some attention, too.

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This past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with students in classroom settings trying to figure out how quickly I can get them up and telling a story. I’ve talked about some experiments in earlier posts. What strikes me over and over again is the difference between the word on the page and the word as it is spoken. When emerging readers read a story, it is very difficult for them to get those words off the page, into their heads, and then speak the story in their own language. This difficulty is something I’ve observed time and time again, and it seems to me this translation – into an image, and then through some alchemical process, into the speaker’s own language – is at the heart of a complete literacy and fluency with both kinds of language – oral and written. Children live in an oral world, and are making the transition to the world of literacy and it’s not an easy one to make.

I might add that as a storyteller who has passed my literacy tests (well, okay, I haven’t, but think I could if it was mandated, which it’s not) , I still have a very difficult time lifting a story off the page and making it my own. Many times I’ve read a story that I like and want to tell, but my performance of it always falls flat – it’s not alive yet. Then, sometimes, I hear someone tell the story, and I know how to do it. It’s my hearing the story that brings it to life.

I had a recent conversation with storyteller Donald Davis about this, and Donald observed that young readers are reading words, and that’s what they see when they’re trying to tell the story – the words they read, not the pictures in their heads. When they hear a story, they don’t see the words, they see the pictures. That makes sense to me. A lot of times, when I’m first learning a story from a page, I actually can picture where on the page that particular part of the story is – I’m stuck with the words, not the images.

But I continue to be fixated on the notion that if I could just get the kid to tell the story using images, not words, something is accomplished. Developing orality is important at any age, and contributes to literacy. And I’ve noticed that, like me, when kids hear me tell a story, it is exponentially easier for them to tell it themselves. Again, Donald observes this is because they have the images in their heads. More than that, though, I think that there is an affective component – the emotional impact of the story is greater when someone is telling it, and that’s where stories have a particular power – they’re both affective and cognitive. Emotional events have meaning, and meaning lodges in someone’s mind and heart.

So, back to my original question – how do I get a kid up and telling a story as quickly as possible?

In February, I was in Utah being filmed working with kids on storytelling. I came up with a process to try and get them telling as quickly as possible, so we could then work on their delivery and performance They were fifth graders, and responded stunningly well. Since then, I’ve used it effectively all the way down to second grade, with some slight modifications. Here’s the steps I used.

1) The teacher (storyteller) tells a story with a straightforward plot and clear episodes. Note that I say “tells”. This requires that the teacher learn the story and can tell it simply without the aid of a book. It might work as a reading exercise, but it’s the actual oral narrative – with no intermediary of the written word – that will facilitate the learning of the story. Tell the story simply – for the purposes of the exercise, a story five minutes long (or even slightly less) is good.

2) In the group, afterwards, have the group reconstruct the steps of the story. As each incident is recounted, write the events up on a whiteboard or flip chart in short simple sentences. Each event/scene should be captured in one sentence – don’t worry about small details – only the ones that are absolutely crucial to the story. The question, “What happens next?” is the prompt that leads to this simple outline.

3) Briefly go over the outline after it’s finished to help fix it in the student’s minds.

4) Have students pair off and let each person tell the story to their partner. If the teller gets stuck, they may get help from either the chart or a short prompt by their partner. When the first teller finishes, their partner then tells the story. Their telling will likely take longer than the teacher’s recounting.

5) Get back together in the group and debrief. Ask about what was easy and what was hard. Ask whose partner told the story well, and what they did that made it interesting. You will find some children are already experimenting with the story.

6) Give up your seat by the story chart, and ask for a volunteer to start the story, letting them take the “storytelling seat”. I find that sitting, initially, is a little easier and produces a more natural performance. Let that person start the story, and at a natural break (using the outline as a guide) ask for a volunteer to take over. Initially, look for a confident student (they’ll volunteer). If you know the students, you may encourage shyer students to try as the story progresses. You may gently guide the tellers if they need help or forget something.

7) When the joint performance is done, ask for a volunteer who thinks they can tell the story all the way through. Help them through the story. Discuss with the group what they liked about the telling.

This exercise will take 40 to 45 minutes. By the end they will have gone over the story (at least in outline) seven times, and will have it firmly in mind. Different approaches to performance will also begin to emerge.

Through all the years of telling stories, I’ve been only more and more convinced that if a kid can stand up in front of someone and tell a story, they’re going to be okay. I still believe it. This is one way to make it happen.

Any other ideas?

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My friend Willy Claflin sent me a link to this youtube video of a young girl telling a story. She’s amazingly eloquent (and wow, she speaks French…) and it presents a way to look at what happens when children are involved in story.

One of the most striking elements at first viewing is Capucine’s vocabulary – all the animals, all the naming of things in the world, and their descriptions. Her use of those words insures they’re going to be part of her world.

What’s even more striking to me is her ability to incorporate all these things into a narrative. This connecting of elements is really what the mind does in making a story. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, a witch, bats, and crocodiles have no relationship with each other outside of the story, but she wraps them together, into a story that also incorporates motifs found in many stories – lost babies, being eaten, going to heaven, “something going amiss”, gaining and losing magic, and death. There’s also a moral element that runs through the story – a concern for the “poor animals”, the conquering of the witch, the lion losing its powers, people being safe at the end. You can almost see her brain making connections, drawing on different stories and images, and even her immediate surroundings (her mother’s ring!). I’m reminded of Vivian Gussin Paley’s book on storytelling with kindergarteners, “The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter”, and Robert Coles’s work with children and story.

In watching this video, I have to put my critical mind on hold a little – the story lacks some narrative logic and if you start thinking about the lack of causality in spots, or the quick jumps, you miss the amazing thing that is happening. It’s a reminder that story is a way people work things out and it’s not always necessary for it to have water-tight plot points like a John Grisham novel.

And then, of course, there’s the mom – an open accepting presence through the whole story – I love her surprised “Oh!” when Capucine introduces a a twist in the plot. It’s this encouragement that lets the girl go on in her process of discovery. I think of all the times I’ve been with a kid who is telling a story, obviously making it up as they go along, and the adults in the room (me included) start rolling their eyes or say “Okay, how does it end?”. That’s fine sometimes, but adults who give themselves completely to a kid’s story-making are doing a great service.

This little girl is going to be very good at something, and a lot of it will be because of the ears of the adults around her.

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About ten years ago, I gave a talk to a group of teachers about the connection between home and school. I had been hired to tell stories, but instead wrote a series of letters back and forth between a mom and the teachers her kid meets along the way. It was an imagining of how teachers and parents might communicate, based on my own experiences as a parent and my work in schools. Over the years, I’ve read it in various workshops and people have always liked it.

Still, that was all I did with it. It’s my tendency to finish one project and just move on.

This past summer, Debbie (wife, president of our huge corporation(?), and now publisher) decided it needed to be a book and that we would do it ourselves. We sent it out to a variety of people – writers, educators, parents – for review and made some changes. Our longtime designer, Alison Tolman-Rogers, helped with the design of the book. I drew a rough of the cover illustration and she did the final artwork and design. We got some quotes from people we thought would like it, including George Wood, a first-rate principal and educator, and Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy”, who worked with me years ago at NPR. Everyone liked it.

After a lot of research, we decided to publish initially with the self-publishing branch of Amazon. Debbie worked with them very closely, sending proofs back several times to make sure they got it right. Since then, we’ve found a printer that does a beautiful job at a better price, so we have our own copies from that printer, and Amazon sends out their copies if someone orders it from them. (more about, um, Amazon in another blog).

So now it’s out, and it feels like we’ve touched a nerve. It’s a small, simple book, and can be read in one sitting. There is an underlying philosophy, but it’s the story of the mom and the kid and the teachers that reaches people. We’re getting orders from principals who are buying it for their entire staffs, and I’ve been asked to speak at workshops and conferences about the book and how the relationship between home and school can be strengthened. Parents are buying it as Christmas presents for their kid’s teachers. I got an e-mail from a teacher friend who said before she wrote a note to the parent of a student in her class, she thought about the book and how to best approach the problem she faced.

I am not an expert on teacher-parent relationships, but instead, someone who has given thought to it and tried to find a way to talk about it. I seemed to have found a way for everyone to listen and talk to each other. My expertise, if I have one, is in imagining how things might be, and then getting people to tell stories. As I say in the book, it’s the decision to keep communicating that is the most important thing.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long” – it may take a long time for something to bear fruit. Some small thing I did a number of years ago has taken years to bear fruit, and I never would have dreamed it could still be alive.

And then, I should add, you can order it here.

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This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.

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I’ve been spending time lately looking at an amazing book my dad gave me, The Deep by Claire Nouvian, a photo essay about the creatures that live down there where no one goes (except, maybe and unfortunately, certain oil companies). The pictures, like the one above, are astounding, and Nouvian makes clear that we have only scratched the surface of the type of live that exists in that world. One can’t look at those pictures without thinking several things.

First, are there not certain similarities between the things deep underwater and those deep in space?


Second, it seems to me that Nature (with a capital “N”?) is really willing to try anything. A creature with seven eyes – let’s see. One lung? A mom who carries her unborn babies in her mouth? (Some frogs). Many of these experiments don’t work, or don’t work for long. (Hmmm – humans?) The restrictions on what kind of life is actually supportable for any length of time condemn many of them very quickly, but nature (small “n”?) seems to be shrugging its shoulders, unperturbed by its many failures and then saying, “Okay, what about this?”, and coming up with something even more bizarre. Every once in a while, one of them works – for a while.

In short, humans spend a lot of time asking “Why?” and the universe seems happy to ask “Why not?”

Good science begins in wonder. So does a good life, I think. So along with asking why, it’s a good idea just to walk around with your mouth open at the millions of bizarre things the universe offers up.

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