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For the purposes of this post, I define ethics as representing that branch of rigorous thinking that asks questions about human practice and behavior as that practice relates to the good. On this definition, two positions stand out as being at opposite ends of the same continuum. Bakhtin thinks of ethical interactions as being the state in which one is responsible to the Other. Levinas, on the other hand, thinks of ethical in terms of the face-to-face encounter in which one accepts responsibility for the other. The to/for distinction is found in the children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Three characters help me to think in terms of this distinction. Charlotte, Templeton and Wilbur, each for different reasons, are characters with whom one can draw on the to/for distinction.

Templeton, the rat, represents the to of Bakhtin. In Bakhtin’s sense, one is responsible to the Other, however, as one accepts this responsibility one is acting in one’s own self-interest. For Bakhtin, a personal reward, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is always attached to the act of being responsible to the Other. In the case of Templeton, usually at Charlotte’s urging, he accepts responsibility to Wilbur only when he is convinced that there is something in it for him. Charlotte, on the other hand, is purely Levinasian. She is responsible (better written as Response-Able) for Wilbur. On this stance, Charlotte accepts the idea that she is response-able even before the existence of the Other is known. Response-ability is a selfless act, pointing to the absolute imperative of action for the Other–even at the risk of one’s own existence.Ethical Space

Then there is Wilbur himself. In the story Wilbur is the one who waits. Wilbur is the recipient of Charlotte’s for and Templeton’s to. In a sense, Wilbur’s character provides the mediating tool allowing both Charlotte and Templeton to act to his benefit but Wilbur is not the agent of the to/for. He merely waits, anticipates what is to come. He prays without prayer while he lives his life within the boundary of (not)knowing. In a very real sense, Wilbur is us!

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Over the next few weeks I want to explore some of the implications of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) especially as NCLB impacts attitudes directly engaged with teaching and the image of teachers in general. NCLB is deeply problematic at many levels, not the least of which are the many tensions that are explicit within the language of the act itself. In this post, I want to explore the notion that highly qualified teachers, as defined by language in NCLB, are those with content area knowledge that can give their knowledge to their students.

The notion that content knowledge can be transmitted from teacher to student is one that professionals from many disciplines over the past 30 years have dismissed as being far too narrow and simplistic to be of any significant value for serious classroom consideration. Both teaching and learning are socially constructed, dependent on local knowledge, customs, and ideas, and deeply embedded in class, status and other cultural issues. Learning is not a matter of absorbing what another tells us, rather it is a complex pattern of acquisition of new and important ideas, finding parallels to one’s own prior knowledge, experimenting with ways of integrating that knowledge into new and meaningful constructions, and finally making the newly integrated knowledge public—only to repeat the entire process over and over again. In this sense, learning is a messy, contextualized process that is dependent on well informed and well educated teachers.

NCLB, however, defines highly qualified teachers as those that have content knowledge they can give to their students—to transmit their wealth of knowledge and experience to their students regardless of context, culture or other mitigating factors. This can and will be done by applying scientifically based methods (SBM) to the classroom because SBM is what works. In short, NCLB takes the position that just about anyone with adequate content knowledge can teach what they know to others if they are provided with the appropriate SBM to apply, sort of like a salve to an itch, in the classroom. This view understands students as a disease for which the cure is the SBM applied to them by content savvy teachers. The problem is that there is no SBM, no unbiased research to support this position. What little research there is that supports the NCLB position comes from think tanks that support NCLB. Relying on these results is a bit like parents relying on a study that points to benefits of delayed toilet training funded by the manufacturer of Pampers! Biased funders of what passes for research do not present reliable, trustworthy findings.

Classroom teaching is a complex, fluid experience as any experienced teacher will relate. The act of teaching is not guided by a single size fits all approach anymore than it is fair to assume that everyone would be pleased to sit down to a meal of fried grasshoppers. Teachers are adept at making quick and necessary adjustments to their teaching because they are constantly making informal judgments about the progress of their students in the classroom. Teachers gain this expertise in two ways. First, through professional training in schools that emphasize pedagogy, lead to effective practicum, clinical and student teaching experiences and finally to on the job experience. Secondly, teachers seek advanced degrees to improve their understanding of teaching and learning so as to be more effective in the classroom. Experienced teachers know, both practically and instinctively to be wary of those that introduce the absolutely perfect program, the one guaranteed to fix everything. They have seen it all before. They know that what works varies from day to day, class to class, year to year. What I did in my 1st period English class may or may not work in my 4th period repeat of the same content material. If I am not aware of that then I will fail my students in both the short and long terms. NCLB makes no room for this kind of reflection.

Just as an aside, I have been wondering lately why those who most ardently support NCLB and SBM tend to reject science when it comes to evidence supporting evolution? It seems curious that science is such a fickle partner!

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