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Archive for February, 2007


In a Midrash the Jewish sages said that prayer is like talking to a wall. The act of prayer, in this sense, is an anticipation, an act of anticipating that which has made itself absent. Prayer addressed to the absolute Other, the godhead, who is not present anticipates the presence of the godhead which is always already absent by choice. Deeply embedded within anticipation is the absence of the other. At the same time, absence is embedded deeply within the anticipation of the self.

In this sense, prayer is messianic at its core. Waiting for the messiah is the point upon which prayer turns. This waiting assumes the absence of the messiah, an absence that holds within it the promise of arrival–someday but not now! Hence, the need for prayerful anticipation in order to move the self closer to the other.

This dialectic plays itself out in terms of unfulfillable tensions that are always already present within themselves. From a theological perspective faith or belief provides a kind of synthesis, not one that resolves the issue but one that purports to provide meaning for the existence of the tensions that are always already present. Faith or belief resolves the underlying pressure that develops from unfulfilled anticipation by providing assurance, however unfounded that assurance might be, that there is an end, that the messiah will arrive, will come.

But, what if there is no synthesis, no resolution to the tension; that the tension is one that itself anticipates the tension of the dialectic. If there is no synthesis then there is no real purpose in the act of anticipation, of waiting for the arrival. Yet, this waiting is all there is. It is embedded within the text of language, within the text of human understanding. We are the waiting animal, the anticipating animal. We live in time, bound to the temporal bookended between two absented Others, two eternities. So no synthesis is not necessarily the case, rather, death allows us to approach the wholly Other, the eternal, by becoming eternal thereby ruining the tension of waiting.

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Examining the educational reform movement in England which, in many respects, resembles that of the United States in its reliance on standards and high-stakes accountability, Rustique-Forrester (2005) argues that the unintended consequence of excluding children led to inflated estimates of results in British schools. This is, it seems to me, no surprise. In the United States significant pressure to raise test scores have caused districts to both exclude children from testing and to under-report dropout statistics. Schemo (2003) reported that over half of the 5,500 students that left the Houston, Texas district that should have been declared dropouts were not. Haney (2000) reports that dropout rates for high school students in Texas have increased significantly since 1980 as pressure for standards and accountability have increased.

These are disturbing numbers, especially as one considers that the No Child Left Behind Act (the extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) (NCLB) is based on the standards and accountability system put in place by then governor George W. Bush.

There is additional evidence that adherence to standards limits the curriculum to technical aspects of reading and mathematics (arithmetic) while neglecting subjects like science, social studies and history, music, art, literature and physical education. Some have estimated that time spent in preparing students for high-stakes testing may be as much as 90 school days per year, a figure that amounts to one half of an average school year in grades K-12. This leaves precious little time for new instruction while focusing on ways to “beat” the test.

Marzano & Kendall (1998) estimated that if 3 days were needed to teach only national organization standards and 1.5 days were needed to then re-teach those standards, students would be in school from K through grade 22 in order to receive a high school diploma. This estimate does not even attempt to account for state and local standards for which students will be held accountable. Something is drastically wrong with a system that has so little regard for the consequences of the demands it places on teachers and students.

If we are not careful in the United States we will produce an entire generation of Trivial Pursuit players that will be lost forever to the joys of creative thinking and critical aesthetic reading. We are rapidly destroying the intellectual capital that drives the engine of our capitalistic enterprise. In the zeal to improve a system that is said to be broken, something Berliner and Biddle (1995) argue quite effectively simply is not true, Congress and state legislatures may just be the factors that break the American public school system to a point beyond repair. I hope I am wrong.

References

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Haney, W. (2000, Aug 19). The myth of the Texas miracle in Education. Retrieved July 22, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1998). Awash in a sea of standards. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

Rustique-Forrester, E. (2005). Accountability and the pressures to exclude: A cautionary tale from England. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 13(26).

Schemo, D. J. (2003, July 11, 2003). Questions on data cloud luster of Houston’s schools. New York Times.

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Standards in American education are the current driving force of policy discourse. Standards based education, data driven practice, research driven pedagogy and the like all spill out of the same well of mediocrity. While mediocre results are certainly not intended by those that foster standards as a solution to perceived failures in American public schools, the results of institutionalizing rather good ideas has the result of lowering the bar of expectation and forcing teaching into a routinized rut of compliance with external ideals that accompany standards, often in the form of performance rubrics.

I believe there are lessons to be learned from the work of Bakhtin and Levinas as the idea of standards are (re)examined as No Child Left Behind legislation is reviewed in Congress. While I am not optomistic that political solutions provide important insights into professional problems, I am hopeful that discussions about educational practice and an honest political discourse may have some influence on decision making.

Bakhtin (1993) argued that as an independent self, I am answerable to the other for my actions. Answerability is similar to the idea of responsibility for the other (Levinas, 1969; 1987; 1991; 1997). The difference between Bakhtin and Levinas turns on the to and the for where the to is a guilt driven obligation to act responsibly where the for is a pre-existing obligation to respond, to be response-able when the other is in need. The former is a more-or-less self-centered obligation where the latter is more-or-less self-less in its orientation. The fact, however, is that the distinction does not blur the ethical responsibility of the self to/for the other.

In terms of classroom practice this translates into an obligation of the teacher in the classroom to create authentic and engaging lessons, lessons not driven by theoretical constructs or outside/imposed criteria. To be authentic the classroom approach must have three essential components:

  1. The lesson must have value to the student beyond the four walls of the classroom.
  2. The lesson must be academically rigorous so as to challenge but not frustrate the student.
  3. The product of student work must have an audience beyond the teacher (Newmann, Byrk & Nagoaka, 2001).

By developing authentic lessons, teachers will create engaging classrooms, ones in which rigorous engagement is not replaced by the application of irrelevant standards and obscure theory. The engaged classroom is one that is alive and ethical and one in which there is no alibi (Derrida, 2002). It is only “without guarantees [that] one must directly engage with others and expose oneself to perspectives and feelings different from one’s own” (Morison, 2007).

As standards are currently applied, students are responsible to teachers who are, in turn, responsible to administrators who are, in turn, responsible to school boards who are, in turn, responsible to political agencies or legislative bodies or both who, in the end, are theoretically responsible to those that elect them to office or, through taxes, pay their salaries or both. In the final analysis, there is nobody that takes on the responsibility, in a Levinasian sense, for the students, the ultimate learner. Standards are imposed upon the system of public education from the top as they filter downward toward the ultimate consumer. By the time standards reach the classroom they have undergone an ethical change in the sense that they are now mandates rather than a part of an ethical conversation. Standards in the classroom become dogma not ideas to be subject to critical analysis. I agree with the concept urged by Applebee (1996), that standards guide curriculum only as far as they become conversation starters. Once they become absolute dogma they lose the ability to guide an inspired and engaged classroom practice.

References

Applebee, A. N. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1993). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Derrida, J. (2002). Without alibi (P. Kamuf, Trans.). Stanford,CA: Stanford University Press.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An essay on exteriority (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1987). Time and the Other (R. A. Cohen, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1991). Wholly otherwise. In R. Bernasconi & S. Critchley (Eds.), Re-readingLevinas (pp. 3-10). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Levinas, E. (1997). Otherwise than being or beyond essence (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Morson, G. S. (2007). Bakhtin and the teaching of literature. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 350-357.

Newmann, F. M., Byrk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J. K. (2001). Authentic intellectual work and standardized tests: Conflict or coexistence (Special Report Series). Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

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I have never considered myself to be a Luddite. I purchased my first personal computer over 30 years ago, an Apple IIe to be sure, and have been using technology ever since. But times have changed. My campus is being invaded by LiveText, a corporate attempt to respond to the current trend to objectify educational outcomes through technocratic, bureaucratic requirements of alignment to standards, accountability to standards, and assessment documentation. The idea behind all this is that unless one has objective, observable proof that external standards are being met, one cannot be sure that there is any learning taking place.

Max Weber (2002) argued that bureaucratic institutions, as impersonal entities, are without meaningful foundational support. Bureaucratic institutions ebb and flow by adhering to what is perceived to work, whether or not the perception is matched by the reality. Bureaucracies are heartless, without soul, inhuman places where decisions are made by objectifying the outcome desired and creating regulations to achieve the desired outcome. In education, bureaucratic thinking has gotten us into the event horizon of a black hole from which knowledge can no longer escape as the outcome of free inquiry.

LiveText, in the most arrogant manner, bills itself as the Single Source of Truth. The company states:

LiveText provides the most complete learning, assessment, and accreditation management solution™ available for all institutional stakeholders–from students to administrators–to meet and surpass these challenges and ultimately foster a learning environment centered upon evidence-based decisions and continuous improvement.

The claim of evidence-based decisions and complete learning, assessment, and accreditation management leading to truth
is absurd on its face. First, the claim endorses the epistemological claim that there is an objective, observable truth that can be discovered and analyzed if only we have the proper tools for that examination. The analytical, positivist posture is, however, not the only way of understanding the nature of truth. From Husserl (2006), to Heidegger (1962) to Derrida (2002) objectification of the external as a way of knowing is denied; one, rather, must reflectively examine the intentional experience of the Lifeworld, the world of phenomena and things, through an encounter with the interiority of the self in order to come to know anything. The assumption made by LiveText denies the latter in favor of the former position. By privileging the former LiveText attempts to compartmentalize knowledge without examination or reflection. Everything fits into the LiveText matrix thereby reducing knowing to a form.

Additionally, the claim of truth emanating from a single source oversteps the bounds of rationality placing LiveText in the metaphysical realm residing somewhere amongst the gods. Aside from finding this claim offensive, it is a claim that best resides in a seminary where theology is the topic on everyone’s mind. Claims of absolute truth are frightening and, perhaps, obscene as well. There is no room here for inquiry, creativity, or conversation–in spite of the claims of LiveText representatives that one can create tools that fit the needs of each user. If that were the case there would be no underlying code written to restrict the user to using the LiveText interface. With no underlying code, fully protected as intellectual property to be sure, LiveText would have nothing to sell and Capitalism would necessarily fail, leaving professors out there to fend for themselves.

It is not technology that alienates, rather it is the hubris of Capitalism and the lifelessness of the bureaucracy that alienates. I am alienated.

References

Derrida, J. (2002). Faith and knowledge: The two sources of “religion” and the limits of reason alone (S. Weber, Trans.). In G. Anidjar (Ed.), Acts of religion (pp. 42-101). New York: Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. New York: Harper Publishers.

Husserl, E. (2006). The Idea of Phenomenology. New York: Springer.

Weber, M. (2002). Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.

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A colleague and I are working with two classroom teachers in Chicago as they introduce their 1st and 2nd grade bilingual students to Color Coded Reading.  CCR is a strategy that focuses on students developing higher order questions, especially synthesis and evaluation questions, that relate to text being read.  The practice works for both content area text and narrative text making it one of the more flexible reading strategies.  More of this project to come in the next few weeks.  For now, let me say I am having a ball collecting data on this project.  I must be a really good geek to think that data collection is fun.

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Fern functions as a transitional character.  Her intital act of saving Wilbur is selfless but she is unable to maintain her selflessness.  As she grows up her human interests overtake her childhood interests and she is forced to make a choice.  So far as the novel is concerned, Fern foreshadows Charlotte but she is not Charlotte.  Her willingness to be selfless for Wilber has its limits, its far to human limits to be sure.

Templeton also undergoes a transition as he saves Charlotte’s egg sac; although not entirely selfless,  Templeton acts as selflessly as he possibly can act in this case.  Engineering the transfer of Charlotte’s egg sac back to the barn is, for Templeton, an act of complete selfless behavior.  There is nothing in it for him.

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As Charlotte and Templeton, for different reasons to be sure, work together to save Wilbur from the slaughterhouse, what is Wilbur’s role? Is he just the cute pig upon whom Charlotte can focus her selflessness or to whom Templeton can be responsible? I think not. Wilbur floats through the story as the object of response-ability on Charlotte’s part and the reason for responsibility on Templeton’s part, but he does not reciprocate, at least not directly or overtly. Wilbur is the beneficiary of Charlotte’s and Templeton’s goodwill but he does not give directly back. He never acts with either responsibility or as a response-able character. Oh sure, you say, but he was Charlotte’s friend. True enough, but being a friend is hardly enough. One can be a friend without ever being response-able for the friend. What did Wilbur do for Charlotte? One can also be a friend without acting responsibly to one’s friend. Did Wilbur ever do any self-conscious act to Templeton as a friend?

So what exactly is Wilbur’s role? On the one hand, he serves as the focus of the ethical imperative for Charlotte and he stands at the center of Templeton’s self-conscious efforts of responsibility to Wilbur. After all, without such a focal point neither of the two characters would have any reason to exercise their ethical choices. On the other hand, Wilbur must play a role beyond merely being a foil for Charlotte and Templeton. Here we must turn to Derrida. Wilbur is the other to Charlotte and Templeton but he is in the process of becoming, of growing into something new, of discovery through experience. Wilbur is never finished, he never becomes. He is always anticipating, waiting, wondering, seeking. He represents the doubt of Derrida’s aporia as he anticipates what is to come. Wilbur represents the alterity of the other in its fullest otherness–an alterity without bounds yet one that is bounded by the barnyard; an alterity that is only recognized by the likes of Charlotte and Templeton but not Uncle Homer and Lurvy, the true humans of the story. To the humans, Wilbur is just a pig but to Charlotte he is everything that is becoming and to Templeton he represents a reciprocity over which neither Wilbur nor Templeton has any control; it is, however, that reciprocity that drives Templeton’s self-conscious behavior toward Wilbur at Charlotte’s request. As the embodiment of the other, Wilbur need not do more. His anticipation is enough.

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