Friday, January 26, 2007
Second Thoughts: Reframing the Question
One of the articles of faith that I have come to believe as a writer, and that ask my students to consider and to at least attempt to practice, is that the act of writing not just a means of expressing, but of generating thought. Some writing may be merely expressive or informational, but the writing that generally interests me more is writing that is explorational. I think that this is particularly true of blogging. I won't attempt to speak for others, but often when I sit down to write I do not have a clear idea or a clear end in sight, and the act of writing the words out, one after another, as I am doing here, is what allows the ideas to take shape. I have had to train myself to trust my first thoughts, even if on appearance they turn out to be pitiful weak little things. Because even pitiful weak little nestlings can grow into sleek, golden eagles. The beauty of writing is that it makes first thoughts visible and subject to further contemplation. First thoughts make possible second thoughts.
Yesterday I wrote about a question of balance that arose in a teacher's meeting. I've had one comment on the post already, and have had extended discussions with Mark about what I wrote, and have been turning over all of this fresh input in my mind, and, yes, I'm having second thoughts. The question I posed yesterday was the question that I was able to articulate yesterday. But Mark has encouraged me to re-frame the question, not as a question of balance, but as a question about message, which turns into another, broader question about what we are doing when we teach, and how we contextualize messages. I'm going to talk about this question in the context of our discussion about this particular sequence of texts, but I think that the question Mark is raising is much broader than that, and in fact gets to the heart of what it means to be a certain kind of teacher, whether we're teaching English or Physics or Web 2.0.
At the risk of mis-representing Mark's thinking twice in a row, let me say that what I now understand to be the question he is asking all of the teachers in this particular group to think about is "What is the message that we send to kids when we give them this sequence of readings?"
One message that we might be sending, and which I'm sure, unless we are very careful, the students will think we are sending, is the didactic, moralistic message that "You ought to be doing more." It's utterly predictable that many schoolchildren, particularly teenagers, will react with immediate and perhaps even subconscious resistance to a message which has embedded within a negative judgementalism, something that feels to them like a paraphase of "You're not doing enough" or "You're not good enough." I agree with Mark that this is not a good message to be sending to kids, explicitly or subliminally. But I think there are other ways to contextualize whatever it is that we are teaching that puts the whole enterprise in a different light. And the one I would like to advocate for (tonight, as I second guess myself, fully aware that by tomorrow I may be able to see this more clearly and in a different way—especially if one of you out there writes in to point out the glaring weaknesses in my current position) is linked to the idea of essential questions.
We do a lot of work with essential questions at our school, and I'm not going to get into the whole framework we use for doing that at this point. Suffice it to say that we ask students to look at or perhaps brainstorm lists of questions, ask them to make some discriminations about which questions are more important to them individually, and then encourage them to reflect on, write about, work through their thinking over time in regard to those questions.
This sequence of readings we've been talking about looks different if viewed through the lens of (what I would consider to be a pretty good example of) an essential question: "What is our responsibility to others?" The message sent by this question is a meta-message: it is a message that says "There are some things that are worth thinking about. There are some questions that are worth asking. This is one of them. What do you think?" In the context of this question, the readings present themselves as examples of various people—Peter Singer, Zell Kravinsky, Bill Gates, Muhammed Yunus—trying to work out the answers to these questions for themselves. Seeing what they think allows us to consider, or re-consider, what we think.
Whatever we teach, I think it is of critical importance that we ask ourselves, and answer for ourselves, and be able to explain clearly to our students, what the intended message is. If we're teaching students to use blogs, for example, are we doing that because it's supposed to be cool or sexy? Are we doing it because it allows students to ask better questions or get better feedback or access better information? Are we doing it because all of a sudden they're showing up in class with school-mandated laptops and we need to do something so that the parents won't holler? Are we doing it because it's going to help them develop writing skills or presentational skills or networking skills or technical skills? Are we doing it because we think it's fun and we want them to think so too? What is the message? And do the students know what the message is?
I'm new to blogging. In all likelihood I'm now raising questions that Will Richardson has already written three books about that I haven't even read yet. But the question applies to any discipline, and to any school, and to any group of teachers. I have thirty teachers in my department. There are eight teachers who teach Sophomore English, and though I like and respect all of them, I'm sure that at this point in time we would answer Mark's question the same way. We need to talk about that. And I'm quite sure that even after we talk about, we will still not have exactly the same answer to the question. That's life, that's human nature, that's teaching. But the question is always worth returning to, for second thoughts, third thoughts, seventy-eleventh thoughts. That's what makes it an essential question.
Posted by Bruce Schauble at 9:38 PM