This is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.
It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.
My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.
We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.
It wasn’t me who did it.
The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.
This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.
We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.
If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.
But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.
If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.
That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.
For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:
The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)1
In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.
The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.
But hush. Destiny is speaking.
“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”
“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”
“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”
Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded likeGloria Steinem.
And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.
Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”
This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.
Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.
At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.
So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.
Drawing from his deep zero years of training in the field of education, Coleman said:
Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”
This attitude is reflected in the standards Coleman helped write and Bill Gatescoerced state and federal governments to force on our public schools.
It’s embodied in an emphasis on close reading – going over a text multiple times to squeeze every drop of intention from the author. It’s a fine way of understanding what the author may have meant. It’s not a fine way of teaching or even understanding the full scope of a literary text.
To be honest, this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff. It comes from the New Criticism of literary theory of the 1940s. Most schools of education replaced this outdated orthodoxy with Reader-Response theory thirty or forty years ago. Reader-Response sees the author as merely one of many factors making meaning in a text. Of equal importance is the world in which the author lived and the particular point of view of the reader.
Think about it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different book written during the Civil Rights Movement than had it been written in the 1990s. It’s important to know that many of the characters are based on real people in the author’s life. It’s important to know about the violence and civil unrest that came to a head at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, an inner city African American boy has a different experience reading it than a privileged white suburbanite.
Reader-Response criticism opens up the act of reading and allows for classroom activities like the Socratic Seminar. But Coleman wouldn’t know anything about that. He was an English Literature major, and when given the chance to write education standards, he paid no attention to what was most pedagogically significant. He simply favored his pet literary theory over those of more modern thinkers.
But if Coleman and the architects of Common Core could be in my classroom, they might see the error of their ways.
Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.
When we insist on strict adherence to the author’s message – and only that – we create a false objectivity. Language Arts is a subject that is at most times open to interpretation. But Coleman makes it a guessing game to get the “right answer.”
Literature is not math. We shouldn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.
This is why at the beginning of the year, my students take my innocent questions about the meaning of a text as an affront. They see me as just another adult trying to trick them. They assume I’m trying to get them to guess what I’m thinking – about what the author was thinking. There has to be only one true answer, they suppose, and if they haven’t been good at guessing it in the past, why try now?
It takes a while, but through lessons like the Socratic Seminar, I try to broaden their horizons, to show them that they have a vital place in this dynamic. Without a reader, a text is nothing but words on paper. Without a larger societal context, those words lack their full meaning.
Moreover, not all texts are created equal. By this I don’t mean that some aren’t rigorous enough. I mean that literary texts are richer and deeper if they come from a multitude of cultural points of view.
We used to know this. Schools used to encourage students to read works by the full spectrum of Americans – African Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. Now we shove all that under the carpet in favor of “rigorous” works by the same safe vanilla European Caucasian males.
Common Core doesn’t stop schools from using multicultural texts, but it doesn’t value them, either. There is no standard about the importance of reading diverse authors. In fact, the only diversity I see valued is that students should view diverse kinds of media!
Great! Read an essay, watch a video, play a song. But what about being exposed to diverse cultures and points of view?
Oh! I almost forgot. Coleman says no one gives a shit about that stuff.
My students do. When they read a work by an African American woman like Toni Cade Bambera, they can see themselves in her work. I’ve taught an awful lot of Squeakies in my years as a teacher. (I’ve even taught a few David Colemans.)
When you can open a book and see yourself looking back, what a motivation to read! But how unfair that we only value providing this experience for the white kids!
If we had truly high standards, we’d recognize this. We wouldn’t ignore the value of multiculturalism. We wouldn’t dumb down Language Arts to a simplistic and anachronistic formula designed to fail and humiliate.
Because the best evidence against Common Core is denied them.
Because the best evidence against Common Core is in the classroom.
1 – Israel, Elfie. “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.” In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom. James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.
-For more information about Socratic Seminars, professional development and even ideas about how to extoll their Common Core benefits (lesson plans, people!) please visit Socratic Seminars International.