EXPECTATIONS FOR AN “EXPERT READING” RESPONSE AT THE GRADUATE LEVEL
Over time I have defined and refined an “expert reading” response criteria that I hand out to my graduate students at the beginning of the term. Perhaps aspects of this 8-step criteria will be of use to you? Check it out:
I. Introduction: There are 6 “Expert Readings” (ER’s) across this 10-week summer term. Of these 6 ER’s you can opt out of one without penalty. By the end of the term, you must have completed 5 out of 6 of the assigned ER’s. At 32 points each, these 5 required ER’s account for 160 points across the term.
I have a list of 8 specific criteria for completing a graduate level “Expert Reading”. Spend time familiarizing yourself with these criteria. The way I prompt you to successfully complete an ER is precisely how I will grade what you produce and turn in. And, by assigning/using the same criteria for many weeks, this should reduce surprises.
You should, steadily, become more efficient in producing these (2 page, 12 point font, double-spaced) reports as the term progresses. But, the broader purpose of an ER is to make you read the materials assigned closely and analytically. The goal is not to have you write about all aspects of each week’s readings, but to figure out what you want to focus on, why, and then conduct a focused analysis (that incorporates your experience/perspective and follow up research) on one, or two key ideas. Sometimes these are “open” ER’s. Other times, I offer prompts with some specific directions to take.
II. Grading Key:
“√” indicates that the expectation was met (with possible notes about under specific section).
“ø” indicates a point deduction, that there was room for improvement, and to see individualized feedback notes under the specific section.
III. Expert Reading Criteria:
Formally Incorporate Multiple Sources (4 points): Demonstrate your reading of the relevant materials by formally incorporating aspects of them (through summary, or quotation) into your analytical narrative. When doing so, make sure to follow up with the ideas that you include from others and explain, in your own words, what they mean. Use APA format –see Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister’s online style guide: http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/resdoc5e/RES5e_ch06_o.html.
In Your Analysis, Signal and Coordinate Between Multiple Perspectives (4 points):Analysis requires that you are able to pull in and work from and against multiple points of view. At key moments in your analysis, particularly when explaining your key points, make sure to coordinate your analysis between multiple sources and perspectives (including your own opinion). With this in mind, be sure to construct sentences that signal your emphasis and the hierarchy between ideas through the use of coordinating (and, but, for, yet, or, nor, so), subordinating (if only, unless, whenever, rather than, as though, as long as, etc.), or correlating conjunctions (both … and, not only … but, either … or, etc.). Or that particularly employ conjunctive adverbs like –however, moreover, nevertheless, consequently, as a result, etc. Consider the difference between:
A. I think “y”. B. If Bazerman (1998) is correct when he indicated that “x,” then it is difficult to believe Myers (2003) when he noted, “y”. Overall, it is likely the case that “z” because …
It is not that you cannot and should not include simple and direct statements like, “I think that …,” but make sure you strengthen your key points by recognizing multiple points of view and multiple arguments when possible.
Include Supplemental Research (4 points):Show the initiative to supplement what you have been assigned to read with some kind of additional research. Do additional research and incorporate it into your analysis and overall reflections.
Include Your Voice (4 points): Make connections between the readings and arguments to your own professional and personal experiences.
Work to Be Interesting, Even Surprising (4 points): Try to write about that which is not immediately obvious (to anyone that has already read the article). A key first step is to avoid excess summary. Include summary as background information, but make sure that information leads to a bigger point and serves to set up your own perspectives, interpretations, and arguments. Take control of the material and tell us something that we might not expect, or know (stated as the opposite, a poor analytical post only restates what an article clearly establishes). Explain why and how the points you want to make are worth our time and attention.
Revise Your Final Posts So They Are Focused (4 points): Follow through with the most important ideas you raise (do more with less). In other words, make sure to follow through and up on key concepts addressed. Focus on one, or two topics in your short, analytical narratives (or stated in the negative form, do not change topics abruptly and repeatedly between each paragraph). This often requires that you write your analysis in time so that you can revisit it and revise your work for overall coherence (often eliminating ideas that were not as important, or unrelated to your primary emphasis).
Focus on Presentation and Overall Document Design (4 points):Pay attention to document design and use headers/sub-headers, or some other method to signal the order and progression of content in your post. Make sure to include a descriptive title.
Edit (4 points):Edit your post to avoid excess spelling errors, or poor syntax.
Interact with Classmates’ and Their Work Each Week: Make sure you read and respond at least 3 classmates’ work across each unit. Include more than a simple comment. As indicated in the syllabus, this is required each week. And it is -2 off of the overall point total for each missing feedback post.
Total 32 points: 29 =’s approximately 90%; 26 =’s approximately 80%; 23 =’s approximately 70%; 20 =’s approximately 60%.
Many years ago in a junior high civics course, I remember being introduced to the idea of a democrat and a republican. In the requisite textbook there was a short, bulleted list of the respective platforms. Not long after, I was frustrated. The textbook offered no connective tissue, no explanation from one statement of belief to the next; neither did my teacher who clearly valued his role as a hockey coach more than that of our civics teacher. At that time, of course, I was not familiar with the divisions, the belief systems, or the issues that defined one party from another, but I had to memorize those short lists of what was a democrat and what was a republican for a test at the end of the week. My mind raced, “But why this and not that? Why that, and not this?”
The same thing happened to me fourteen years ago during my first weeks of graduate school. I was introduced to the history of composition studies in a class on theory. In those first weeks and certainly through that first year, I remember feeling what Bartholomae (1985) described. When introduced to the university, we mimic, we take on roles to gain entry. I was a ventriloquist, taking on the voices and beliefs of nearly every assigned reading. Everything, in bits and pieces made perfect sense. Everything was an equally viable contribution toward a greater understanding of an imposing discipline. Our professor, an excellent teacher, was not prone to handing out slogans, or given to simplifying matters. Looking back, I assume that he did not want to impose his perspective, or to short-circuit our messy journey of discovery between theories and their surreal authors whose names became, themselves, something to hold on to. Although I have gained critical distance in the more than decade since, my sense of the formidable nature of composition studies as a field has lessened, but not dissipated.
In those earliest, inchoate days I was only interested in the relatively carefree association of attending classes, enjoying the company of my small cohort, and occasionally demonstrating my knowledge in end of the quarter in essays written to my professors. At that time, I was primarily interested in the aesthetic gain of reading and talking about ideas-as-ideas. I wanted to make composition studies as a field “hang together” because it seemed to me a challenging, complex intellectual puzzle.
But, our relationship to knowledge and our perspectives on that knowledge within a field noticeably shift when we act in different circumstances and take on different roles. I recognize this in my own history, and it is emphasized by the fact that over the last twelve years I have played significantly different roles in five very different academic institutions. When I think about my time in and between these settings, a mash-up of William James’ title comes to mind –on “the varieties of English experience”. The degree of variety, the utter plurality of experience is inspiring. There are many ways to measure this difference –in focus, in purpose, in action, or between individuals, colleagues, departments, the universities themselves etc. For example, many good teachers care about knowledge only in as much as it can be applied to some advantage in their classrooms. Others relish the role of debating theory and pedagogy with departmental colleagues. Some, want to contribute to theory and knowledge in the field itself, publishing in national journals and attending conferences, etc. My own interests have changed at every stop, generally enlarging in ambition and scope. But a great deal has been learned through observation, and the willing adoption of local interests, which without much haste I typically came to share; I value, it seems common action. Perfectly defensible teaching-of-writing happens in many contexts; takes on many forms; and calls many guiding principles by different names. This is how, in the end I have come to this present task. My understanding of composition studies has advanced as much through my own personal growth across contexts as it has through the discovery and application of our formal literature along the way. It is the unusual nature of mixing the two that presents new difficulties even when some discovery seemed to convey resolution.
As Phelps (1988) noted, theorizing is autobiographical. And what I have come to understand about the field of composition studies neatly parallels what I have come to understand about myself as a professional within it. Upon entering the profession, I assumed that there was a center, that there was a conceptual place that I would eventually discover by which the broadest structures of the field would reveal themselves. After a bewildering introduction, I came as many peers did to take comfort in the phrase “process-approach”. But more so, I came to value it for its yin-yang relationship to “current-traditionalism,” or more abstractly stated –product versus process. In our age, even now, this easy dichotomy should not be dismissed; it played a useful part in my own development. During my first quarters teaching writing, I emphasized time for revision, multiple drafts, peer review, etc. These were things that I absorbed from somewhere. But whatever the details of my use of “process” in the classroom, my adherence to it along with colleagues afforded us a collective “in-ness,” a cache. Or at least we believed it did; we knew the “secret language” of good writing instruction; we knew what writing teachers did. That confidence, albeit temporary, was vital. The certainty of “process” however shallowly defined and imperfectly applied, was buttressed by our belief that there were teachers who did not know what we knew –they only graded final products. It was our shorthand. It offered us a reprieve from an otherwise imposing task –teaching– in an otherwise imposing field. But fashionable belief can, and does, eventually stunt discovery and curiosity. Every night doorman grows tired of the password.
And it does not take long to realize that under that thin surface, the forms that instruction takes and the institutional structures in place to support those forms regularly lead to vastly differing pedagogies. At the five institutions in which I have taught –comparing only the first year writing classes between them– I adopted the general conditions at each: Humboldt State University, critical cultural studies; Minnesota State University, literary-oriented pedagogies with a sequence of first year courses in composition taught with titles like “literature and poetry 102,”; Concordia College, a program-wide service-learning pedagogy; University of California, Santa Barbara, a writing-across-the curriculum pedagogy with an associated writing-in-the-disciplines curricular tributary; Allan Hancock Community College, a developmenal English curriculum on an Air Force base. Given this background and my sensitivity to it, it is perhaps not surprising that I am fascinated by studies of the history of English which focus on the nature of its trajectory and development within smaller, local domains. After reading Donahue and Moons’ (2007) Local Histories I have come, recently, to believe that most of us are imbued with at least two disciplinary histories –the local one in which we acteffectively if colloquially, and the “meta” one in which we theorize regionally and nationally. If there is cognitive dissonance, we regularly ignore it. If we are perceptive, we recognize potential in the symmetry and in the certain discontinuities; if we are diligent as individuals, we are not constrained by either.
For those that pay attention, this local-meta dynamic could be viewed as problematic (in some instances it is), but on the whole it is a vital source of friction that can replenish our desire to consume, and even produce new theory and research. For it is that –expanding move– the theories and theorizing as thinking heuristics, that often clarifies these sources of friction; or more formally, it is the research, as it accumulates, that acts as a potential corrective. However this mix of local and “meta,” of theory and research, of experience and intuition, of context shifting and role-taking plays out, we rely on both stability and uncertainty. The trick, of course, is to get the balance right.
The nature of “English” and how we attend to it depends upon a wide-range of shifting roles and interests in the individual who moves between contexts with different purposes and responsibilities. What we want for our discipline alternates between our ever-expanding and contracting allegiances to these different realms –our students, ourclassrooms, our specialized knowledge domains, our department, the university, national conferences, theoretical constructs of the discipline itself. Very often we work toward common gain in many areas at once; very often a quirk, or agitation in recognition of one will cause a ripple effect through the remainder.
David Stacey first introduced me to the teaching and learning concept of “textual interventions” in 2002. While taking a course titled, “Rhetorical Approaches to Writing” Dr. Stacey described Rob Pope’s work. Years later, I discovered Stacey’s (1995) review of the primary book through which Pope described the approach. See Stacey’s book review of Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literacy Studies at JAC Online (archives): http://www.jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol17.1/stacy-textual.pdf.
Put as simply as possible, a textual intervention requires that a reader change some portion of the original text and then determine the implications of that change.
For years, while teaching first year composition courses (that emphasized writing instruction through the study of literature and poetry), the “poetic intervention” assignment was always one of the most exciting units to teach. In most ways, I think it represented a chance for students to feel a bit rebellious. As most of us probably have experienced ourselves, the reverence and priorities that many teachers demand when assigning literature and poetry often obscures students’ own access to the texts. Interventions, however, offer a small, but meaningful opportunity for students to change that. When assigned, an intervention allows a student to invent a unique relationship to a text. At first they find it confusing, then liberating, and before you know it, they are explaining not just the changes they made to a given text, but how those changes differ from the author’s original work.
There is often a real excitement in the room when you tell students to weigh in to the margins of a revered text, or poem. But, this post is not about the method, or specific teaching strategies, etc. It isn’t a reinterpretation based on Rob Pope’s work, or a conceptual analysis of the practice; instead, I am sharing here one of the more successful examples that I created to introduce the practice and prepare students to conduct their own. Enjoy.
1. INTRODUCE THE POEM
Let’s read a poem together. At the end of it, I will introduce you to an exercise that you will eventually do on your own. But before we get there, let’s read a poem that combines mystery and love with reading and writing.
This is a poem, titled “Marginalia” by the contemporary poet Billy Collins.
Sometimes the notes are ferocious, skirmishes against the author raging along the borders of every page in tiny black script. If I could just get my hands on you, Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien, they seem to say, I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive – “Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” – that kind of thing. I remember once looking up from my reading, my thumb as a bookmark, trying to imagine what the person must look like why wrote “Don’t be a ninny” alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest needing to leave only their splayed footprints along the shore of the page. One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s. Another notes the presence of “Irony” fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers, Hands cupped around their mouths. “Absolutely,” they shout to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin. “Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” My man!” Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points rain down along the sidelines.
And if you have manage to graduate from college without ever having written “Man vs. Nature” in a margin, perhaps now is the time to take one step forward.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own and reached for a pen if only to show we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; we pressed a thought into the wayside, planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria jotted along the borders of the Gospels brief asides about the pains of copying, a bird signing near their window, or the sunlight that illuminated their page- anonymous men catching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds, they say, until you have read him enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often, the one that dangles from me like a locket, was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye I borrowed from the local library one slow, hot summer. I was just beginning high school then, reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room, and I cannot tell you how vastly my loneliness was deepened, how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed, when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears and next to them, written in soft pencil- by a beautiful girl, I could tell, whom I would never meet- “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
~Poet Laureate, Billy Collins
2. GIVE STUDENTS SOME TIME TO DIGEST THE POEM
General Script:Before we talk about this poem, take a moment (5 minutes) to look at the poem again and write down some of your reactions to it.
3. HAVE AN OPEN CLASSROOM DISCUSSION
Ok, now: What are your reactions to this poem?
Did you expect that ending?
4. PROMPT A TEXTUAL INTERVENTION (IN SIMPLE TERMS)
General Script: Now, instead of just admiring the poem, what if you jumped into the text and changed it somehow? What would you change?
But what if they did meet? (the one “whom I would never meet . . .”).
What if the book wasn’t ‘Catcher in the Rye’ but ‘_____’ instead?
What if the end-note hadn’t been “Pardon the egg salad stains” but a different sandwich?
5. AND FINALLY, INTRODUCE THIS PREPARED SAMPLE INTERVENTION:
General Script: Let’s look at an example. What if the final line of the poem:
Original: “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
Was actually this instead?
Intervention: “Watch out for the chocolate smear, but I dig this cat.”
A. GIVE A MOMENT FOR THEM TO THINK ABOUT THIS CHANGE
General Script: Take a moment (the next 5 to 10 minutes) and write down your immediate reactions to this change.
What kind of things did you jot down just now?
B. SHARE SOME OF THESE PREPARED REFLECTIONS
Immediately it is obvious, this change isn’t nearly as good as the original; however, this simple change to the text made me, for a brief moment, consider more just what I liked about the author’s original, “Pardon the egg salad . . .”. From this brief ‘re-considering’ I realized that we are not entirely sure what the girl is asking us to pardon her for, the egg salad stain, or the fact that she has fallen in love with Holden Caulfield, or perhaps both. In fact, by making it less than certain, she is incidentally suggesting that, “Hey, it is just an egg salad stain. And it is just a little bit of love. You can forgive me for this right?”
Love, in this manner, is partially equated with an egg salad stain. She is inadvertently saying that they are similar – pardon the egg salad, pardon the love. Implicitly then, love takes on aspects of an egg salad stain. Love, like an egg salad stain, is a bit messy. It is yummy.
And further, I would argue that it is legitimate to go a bit further, that egg salad is usually something that people eat during the summer time. And so, according to this assumption, we can assume the time of year. We can assume it is hot out. And because of this assumption, we can virtually imagine this young ‘beautiful’ woman bounding out of the library, back into the hot-summer world . . . full of this new found ‘Catcher in the Rye’ love-inspiration, ready to do something daring, brave, bold, adventuresome.
And speaking of Holden Caulfield, what if she had said, “Pardon the egg salad stain, but I am in love with Holden Caulfield.” No, no this is not nearly as romantic. It is her state of being-in-love that is important. It is the simple fact that she feels love that appeals, I believe, to the narrator’s sensibilities and hence eventually my own (the reader). For if she is just-in-love, the possibility exists that she could eventually love others, like “you”. But if she is specific, if she says Holden Caulfield – is it possible to feel jealous?, considering it is someone that the author has never met?
What if it was chocolate smear instead of egg salad stain? Well, chocolate doesn’t have the summer feel to it. It isn’t as fresh, or healthy. It is more something someone would eat because they are gluttonous. They are indulging. Chocolate leads, in this manner, to a whole different feeling about this person. And we do not get the same sense of a specific time of year that the egg salad implies.
“She was a sad girl, I could tell.” Again, different poem, right? Now, practice this with a poem of your choice.
When I teach online courses, I have come to value the benefits of including a relatively short, but direct statement in my course syllabi about the nature of online learning for my graduate and undergraduate students. Before enrolling, some (most?) students have considered the differences between face-to-face learning and online courses, but it is also the case that many have not. In many cases, students may be taking an online course for the first time. In other cases, even students that have taken online courses before may never have been directly prompted to consider the differences between online and face-to-face courses (let alone hybrid ones) before. In all cases, it is beneficial to remind everyone involved that the nature of a given learning environment (whether synchronous, or asynchronous) plays a primarily role in the processes of learning.
Over the last several years, I have been working on developing a statement that is simultaneously useful, but also general enough to include (without much revision necessary) in all of the online writing courses that I teach. Over time, I have moved this statement steadily up in the hierarchy of my syllabi so that now it generally sits in the first few sections. I now consider it as a key part of the introduction to the online courses that I teach and thus tend to place it immediately after my course description and course goals.
Of course there are many variables involved in drafting such statements such as the student population that you are teaching, the type of course management system involved (in my case BBlearn with some supplemental outlets), teaching styles, and the nature of distinct courses, etc. But, as of this particular blog post, here is what I have constructed and refined over time. Maybe it will be of us to you, or just as likely, you will have something similar in your own syllabi.
The relative success that I have had with versions of this particular statement stem from several characteristics:
It is written, ultimately, as an invitation to students prompting them not just to consider the nature of an online learning environment, but also how they must be active participants for success across the course.
It addresses aspects about not just being a student in an online learning environment, but also introduces the nature of my role as a professor across it.
The statement is short enough to include in a syllabus.
And the statement is general enough to include, without much revision, in any given online course that I teach.
HERE IS THE RELEVANT EXCERPT FROM MY CURRENT ONLINE SYLLABUS
III. About Online Learning in This Course:
This is an online course. I have come to appreciate the value of opening online courses with a simple and direct reminder: this is an online course. The differences between face-to-face and online courses are significant. Put simply, face-to-face courses and online courses ARE NOT THE SAME and they cannot be. It is not a matter of one learning environment being better than another (opinion is often divided depending on individual student’s circumstances, learning styles, and preferences), but it is a matter of being aware and intentionally adjusting, as a student, to the learning environment (in this case online) that you have chosen. As you will have experienced, or might expect, the convenience of working through technology and from a distant location has significant benefits and real trade-offs. Interestingly, what is a trade-off and what is a benefit in an online learning environment varies sometimes significantly between students’ preferences and learning styles.
The most important thing to realize, if you haven’t already, is that “meaningful” online learning environments often require MORE time and effort for both students/teachers than face-to-face classes. It is a common misconception that online courses somehow save time and are more efficient. But consider how the online “environment” only exists in as much as you interact with it. Or, put another way, in a face-to-face class, the classroom “happens” when you attend a given class; however, in an online course, it is your responsibility (as with your classmates) to “make things happen” one person at a time, one login at a time, one response at a time. This is the primary distinction whereby a face-to-face course is synchronous (occurring at the same time) and an online course is asynchronous (not occurring at the same time). Let me say it in another way. In a face-to-face class, discussion, lectures, etc. happen collectively and naturally because, in such a learning environment, everyone is present together for all such interactions. In an online course, however, everything is experienced with a delay. This is a constant battle for everyone in all online courses –teachers and students alike. There is a “shared space” online, but no matter how an online course is structured, it requires everyone as individuals from different locations (in both place and time) to create and leave something meaningful for others to find later. It can feel like lonely work sometimes, but with some patience it won’t feel like work done alone.
This corresponds directly to the second most important thing to realize (if you haven’t already) about working on a course from a distinct location –it requires you to be a more independent and self-motivated learner than when attending a face-to-face class. For some of you, this may fit with your natural proclivity. For most of you, however, you will have to work at it. In this course, you cannot be a passive learner and I will not simply be feeding you information (as you might have experienced in the past). In order for this course to work you will need to interact and to be a “knowledge-generator”. You will need to be responsible for constructing and managing your own learning. You will be both teacher and student. The success of this course (and ultimately your valuation of it) depends upon the work you are willing to put in –not just for yourself, but with and for your classmates too. This is why reading and responding to (at least 3) classmates’ work is required each week. Given this requirement others, of course, will likewise be responding to your work. In this manner it is important to understand that interacting and discussing, etc. is as much part of completing every assignment as a specific assignment itself.
My job, as your professor, is to provide a structured series of assignments/prompts with supporting mini-lectures, content, and materials that facilitate the realization of the course goals. In this capacity, my primary role is as an expert facilitator. But keep in mind that any given assignment and content won’t take on meaning, or “come to life” until you interact with it. More so, the electronic environment does not expand, nor become more interesting and rich until you add your reflections, comments, thinking, responses, ideas, beliefs, arguments, etc. The success of this course relies upon your steady, consistent, and active involvement. The success of your own learning across it does, of course, too.
“This article ultimately suggests that threshold concepts might prove a productive frame through which to consider questions related to writing and transfer, and also to general education more broadly.”
Following the lead of Bass (2009) and Robertson (2011), Linda Adler-Kassner, John Majewski and I have worked, with a recent CCCC presentation (2012) and a Composition Forum (2012) article, to help introduce and advance threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2006) as a flexible conceptual and research heuristic through which to study and describe the nature of transfer in writing.
We also presented our findings at: “Complicating “transfer” articulating thresholds for writing and learning across disciplines.” College Composition and Communication Conference (CCCC). St. Louis, Missouri, March 21st-24th, 2012.
In follow up research, I am currently using the threshold concept literature on liminality to identify and describe the tacit and discursive schemas-for-writing that graduate students, who also self-identify as working professionals, “carry” between their academic and workplace settings.
Bass, Randy. A Hitchiker’s Guide to Threshold Concepts, Student Learning, and the Teaching of Writing Within the Disciplines. 2009. TS.
Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: An Introduction. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. Ed. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land. London: Routledge, 2006. 3-18. Print.
—–. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Issues of Liminality. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. Ed. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land. London: Routledge, 2006. 19-32. Print
Robertson, Liane. The Significance of Course Content in the Transfer of Writing Knowledge from First-Year Composition to Other Academic Writing Contexts. Diss. Florida State U, 2011. Print.
“The threshold concept framework focuses on the identification of what is fundamental to the grasp of a subject and is essentially a transactional curriculum enquiry requiring a partnership between the relevant subject experts, educational researchers and learners.” Cousin, G. (2009), Transactional Curriculum Inquiry: Researching Threshold Concepts, In: Researching Learning in Higher Education: An Introduction to Contemporary Methods and Approaches, Routledge, Abingdon & NY, Chapter 13, pp 201-212.
I was recently inspired by the discovery and playfulness of a blog: <http://nathanmeunier.com/2012/06/22/shop-talk-freelance-workspaces-volume-1/> that invites writers to send photographs and brief descriptions of the settings and spaces in which they work. As teachers, researchers, and administrators of writing, we all spend endless hours in these spaces writing and working. Many publications in our field (like “Local Literacies” and “Worlds Apart”) investigate the literate settings of community activists, architecture students, etc. These are, of course, in-depth, serious publications.
But what of our own? What I am inviting here are playful, fun, and short “workspace snapshots” from fellow WPA’ers, teachers, and researchers of writing.
Open Invitation: Share your work space/place:
Include only one (JPG) photograph (which can be a mash-up, multi-panel photograph) of the setting/space in which you work and write.
Include the following information: name, what you teach, and the university/school with which you are affiliated.
And include a short description (no more than about 160 words) of what you find most interesting to describe/share about your workspace.
Workplace Snapshot 1: Damian C. Koshnick’s Workspace, [Teaches Professional Writing at Northern Arizona University]
Damian notes: It is a convenience to have a real home office. It is a space I share, as so many of us do, with a trusted pet who sits beside me without complaint for hours. The desk was a gift from my father, a big object and I’ve put the effort in moving it around the country as I have pursued degrees and teaching opportunities. I appreciate having “old” feeling things near me while I write -wood desk, and perhaps most particularly a vertebrae and a native rock scraping tool both of which I found while hiking. The vertebrae in particular reminds me, as the hours pass, that life is short. Ideally, this keeps me pragmatic about what I try to accomplish when I write. It doesn’t always work of course. And the rock tool reminds me that not everything happens on a computer.
This interview is part of a series of JMC interviews that follow up with winners of the James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research given annually by NCTE’s CEE and the NWP. In 2001, when John Creger won that year’s Moffett Award, then CEE Chair Janet Swenson wrote that “the panel deemed Creger’s proposal ‘the most representative of the thoughts and ideas that continue to make the works of James Moffett an invaluable resource for teachers of the English language arts’” (Awards). The award was given in recognition of the Personal Creed Project, a classroom-based rite of passage Creger created and has been refining with his high school sophomores for 20 years.
Preface to Interview This interview was originally created specifically for and by the JMC Ning http://jamesmoffettstudies.ning.com/. It is part of what will be a series of interviews that follow up with winners of the James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research that is given annually by NCTE’s Conference on English Education (CEE) and the National Writing Project. This award has been offered since 2000. It gives grant support for “teacher research projects inspired by the scholarship of James Moffett” (see http://www.ncte.org/cee/awards/moffett).
In 2001, when John Creger won that year’s Moffett Award, then CEE Chair Janet Swenson wrote that “the panel deemed Creger’s proposal ‘the most representative of the thoughts and ideas that continue to make the works of James Moffett an invaluable resource for teachers of the English language arts’” (Awards). The award was given in recognition of the Personal Creed Project, a classroom-based rite of passage Creger created and has been refining with his high school sophomores for 20 years.
Since receiving the Moffett Award, Creger has described the Creed Project and the approach to learning that is evolving from the project in California English (February 2002) and has published a guidebook for teachers, The Personal Creed Project and a New Vision of Learning, which has won him praise. He has also created two online spaces dedicated to teacher exchange, the first a site to support his book: http://www.universeWired.com. More recently he hosts a Ning discussion group athttp://englishcompanion.ning.com/group/pers “dedicated to deepening students’ engagement in learning.” He has seen his Personal Creed Project taken up at other schools and colleges by teachers across the country, and is now helping teachers in Canada, the UK, and Ukraine who are likewise adopting and adapting the project.
The National Writing Project website summarizes Creger’s Personal Creed Project as follows (edited slightly):
Briefly, the project asks a student to reflect systematically over an extended period on a) what people and forces have shaped his/her life in the past, b) what she stands for or values in the present (her personal creed), c) what qualities she wishes to develop in herself over the next ten years and d) how she might want to be making her life count for others at the end of that period.
The project consists of 1) a semester series of weekly reflections, and 2) a culminating two weeks of presentations in which each student shares the results of her Creed reflections: her best understanding of who and what have shaped her, what she now stands for, the kind of person she wants to become, and how she wants to enrich others’ lives. (see http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/336) This interview will be posted in three short serial installments over the course of the next week. This first serves mainly as an introduction. Please read, enjoy and offer your reactions, opinions, views and feedback.
September 1st, 2009
Interview Post #1 (of 3)
Title: Intuition and Enthusiasm in Teaching and Learning
Koshnick: Thank you for your time here and for your excellent work. First, what did winning the James Moffett Memorial Award in 2001 mean to you?
Creger: It’s my pleasure to talk with you, Damian. I’m glad you’re hosting this site, and appreciate all this effort to preserve and carry on Moffett’s work. Well, the Moffett Award was a huge surprise for me. For several years after the award came, the thought knocked the wind out of me every time it occurred to me. I’d never known Moffett personally, as had several of the people I’d been meeting over the past few summers when I attended conferences put on by NCTE’s Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, of which Moffett was the first member. I wasn’t deeply familiar with his early work, and had only recently read his final book, The Universal Schoolhouse: Spiritual Awakening Through Education. In Schoolhouse, Moffett lays out the most inspiring and comprehensive vision of education I have come across to this day. As the subtitle announces, The Universal Schoolhouse boldly links the spiritual with learning. It was a special mixture of boldness and brilliance, along with a certain mysterious familiarity I felt when reading his work, that drew me to Moffett, and still does.
Why was the award important to me? First of all it was important because my own K-12 experience as a student was an ever-increasing let-down. Elementary school was a succession of friendly classrooms. People seemed to care about each other and I was generally engaged and happy. But in junior high suddenly I felt almost an active disinterest from school for the sudden changes I was experiencing inside and out. I was never especially a loner or outcast. Still, I began to get the sense that school was not really much about me. In high school this impression became a sad certainty. School became a collection of forces I felt morally obliged to define myself in opposition to. By junior year my arms were folded in the back of most of my classrooms, and I had given up on formal education. My arms remained folded for a decade, and a piece of that anger was still with me when I rediscovered Moffett in my forties. This emotional scar tissue began to soften when in Schoolhouse I had read:
Years of not being allowed to relate humanly in class have taught apathy and alienation. Years of being herded, prodded, goaded, ordered, and otherwise manipulated have taught passivity and fatalism. This makes for a zombie on the outside and a terrorist inside. Whenever I tell teachers, “This is not education, this is child molestation,” they are not offended; they know what I mean. And when I joke, “If we did with their bodies what we do with their minds, we’d all be in jail,” they laugh ruefully in recognition of a truth that we both understand goes with a world we never made but are now guilty accomplices to. (57)
It’s sad to think about. But this set of abuses continues on an even larger scale across our culture today. What I would have needed to prevent my disaffection, I now realize, is for school to help me connect what I was learning with who I was becoming. For this kind of learning I would have to reach beyond formal education.
Only after high school was I able to begin in this. Working close to nature in rural New England as a carpenter during that following decade, I was forced to learn respect for the elements and forced to wrestle with my own limitations—physical, emotional, intellectual for and spiritual. In the wrestling I gained the beginnings of self-knowledge, and a nascent sense that a purpose in life would find me if I kept on its trail. Disabled with a back problem that ended the independence I treasured as a tradesman, I decided to give classroom learning another chance in community college.
This sense of discovering a purpose in life made an enormous difference in my attitude toward learning. My arms unfolded as I threw myself into reading and, most of all, writing. After a year at community college I found myself at the university. At Berkeley I was hungry to learn more deeply about why I was in the world. Discovering myself as a writer was part of this learning. Writing papers became part of my journey of self-discovery. I pulled weekly all-nighters happily. Shortly after I graduated, my writing had been published in five languages on three continents. More significantly, I was coming closer to discovering a direction in life guided by a deepening sense that I was here for a reason—and my education, strange to say, was heading me toward finding it. I had broken largely free of that abused feeling of being herded by other people’s agendas. My own purposes were fueling my learning.
Koshnick: When did you first come across Moffett, as an undergraduate, or …?
Creger: I had started my teaching career with only a surface exposure to Moffett’s ideas on literacy instruction as he formulated them in Universe of Discourse. But in my credential program I saw that his influence was everywhere. Perhaps it’s fair to say—certainly for literacy educators who began in the early 90s or before— that our period is the Age of Moffett. Many of us who started our classroom careers in those days, along with those in touch with the deeper currents in our field today, continue to be guided by Moffett’s belief that students’ own lives –and not an artificially imposed curriculum– should be at the center of their learning. This belief was certainly the guiding intuition of my early teaching.
After eight years in the classroom, in 1995 I took a leave of absence to attend graduate school. And while I hadn’t immersed myself consciously in Moffett’s work at the beginning of my career, when I first read Universal Schoolhouse during my leave I saw and felt a commonality between Moffett’s ideas and the ones I’d begun developing. I had started the Personal Creed project my second year of teaching, years before I took a leave, but in graduate school I found myself reflecting on my students’ enthusiasm for the Creed experience, trying to understand the marked changes I had seen come over entire classes during the week of Creed presentations. The project has been the first thing students seem to remember about their year in my class. Moffett’s book helped me see the work I had begun in the context of a much larger vision.
What has the Moffett Award meant to me? Before the Moffett Award there was no one I could talk to about all this. My colleagues were buried in their own work, especially at the end of the year when we culminated the Creed Project at that point, and I most needed to talk about what I was seeing. My wife was busy with our young daughters. Despite the increasingly deep and evolving caliber of my Creed presentations year after year, I had a strange sense of being an imposter. Who was I to think that what was happening in my classroom could help develop an approach to learning that could be of real value to others?
The award gave me a vote of confidence. Moffett’s writing, Schoolhouse and others I’ve read since, gave me permission to trust the intuitions I was having and the thinking that followed. The award gave me permission to share my work more confidently with colleagues. On a practical level, the award also gave my work recognition that led to a contract with Heinemann for my first book. The book, along with the opportunity to offer workshops for colleagues, allowed me to share the Creed Project with colleagues with whom I can now share experiences and perspectives. But emotionally, the whole idea of an award coming to me in Moffett’s name gave me chills for years.
What kept me going through the doubts I mentioned above was my students’ enthusiasm. That enthusiasm, and the uncanny transformation of one of my all-time most unruly fourth period classes after their Creed Project presentations, convinced me I needed to start keeping a journal and documenting what was going on in the classroom. So by the time the letter came informing me that I was receiving the Moffett Award—a letter dated September 11, 2001—I was already planning to write seriously about the Creed Project. Just as I had found my attitude and motivation to learn rejuvenated by the self-knowledge I had gained in my life experiences and increasing sense of purpose after high school, I was witnessing a similar effect of age-appropriate self-discovery on the 15 and 16 year-olds in my classroom. They too, in their own ways, were writing about breaking free of that abused feeling.
Koshnick: In my experience, many people have a hard time interpreting Moffett’s later work, but I see in your Personal Creed Project a concrete and innovative realization of some of his most critical, later publications.
Creger: I think you’re right that my work has been more influenced by Moffett’s later work, particularly by Universal Schoolhouse, in which he stepped out of the closet about the spiritual underpinnings of his thinking. One of the ideas that has influenced my thinking and teaching quite directly is his notion of the shifting foundation stones of education. Moffett sees the old “Flag and Dollar” foundations of nationalism and economics being slowly replaced during our times by two new foundation stones–culture and consciousness. For reasons I explain in my book and will probably bring up here later, I loosely translated these last two somewhat general and abstract terms into the academic and personal legs of curriculum as I now conceive them. I rely extensively in this portion of my book on ideas and quotations from Schoolhouse.
After devoting a quarter century to school reform, Moffett speaks ruefully in Schoolhouse of its limitations. Since he calls more for major reconstruction than for merely rearranging pedagogical furniture, I prefer to use the term renovation over “reform” to describe Moffett’s vision. A whole host of better connotations comes to my mind at least. [Editor’s Note: a summary of Moffett’s vision for 21st education appears at the beginning of Installment #3 of the interview with Creger.]
Koshnick: The foundational shifts that you mention from Moffett–from nationalism and economics to culture and consciousness–and your own translation of the second pair of terms, the shift, again, from nationalism and economics to academic and personal, all seem very relevant to this distinction between reform and renovation. Where do you think we are in our movement toward these grand shifts in action and consciousness?
Creger: Great question. I think we’re too close to the action to have a terribly accurate understanding of where we are in the shift Moffett describes. In general, my sense is that the late 80s and early 90s was a time of openness to new approaches and attitudes in education. This was a time of active evolution in culture and consciousness. Through the early 90s, the openness to a positive future accompanied by the sudden dissipation of the Cold War was also felt in education–the establishment by progressive educators of best practices and professional standards was an expression of this openness and confidence in the future. We can think of these trends as part of an evolution of culture as it was then expressed in education. But as the 90s went on, these initiatives from educators were co-opted by business and government, and by the late 90s, after Moffett’s death, the old Flag and Dollar forces of nationalism and economics had reasserted their dominance over education.
The late 80s and early 90s were also friendly to the development of consciousness. My first department chair and early mentors encouraged me to experiment in the classroom, which I found was a natural proclivity for me. The Personal Creed Project was born in this period–a classroom-based exploration and celebration of consciousness. During the 90s the Creed Project gestated quietly, flying under the radar as it slowly developed in my classroom, and by early in the 2000s had been recognized by NCTE and written about in California English. Fortunately, business and government have been little aware of its gradual spread in schools and colleges around the country, and the project, along with the principles and practices it has brought into the open, offers increasing numbers of students and teachers a tested, powerful way to nourish and evolve our consciousness, despite the continuing regressive influence of the high stakes period (even, it appears at this point, under the Obama administration).
The shift Moffett speaks of is an evolutionary transition that will probably require generations to show decisive fruition, and we can expect considerable backwards as well as forward movement. When I wrote about this transition in my book, I brought in perspectives from other sources–cultural historian Riane Eisler’s notion of the long shift from dominator to partnership societies, the Urantia Book’s vision of an inexorable transformation in human motivation from the profit motive to the servicemotive–to put Moffett’s discussion of the evolutionary shift in education in context. The flowering of culture and consciousness or, as Moffett describes it, the replacing of education’s foundation stones, is less about incremental reforming of existing paradigms, principles and practices, I think, and more about making fundamental shifts in our understanding of the nature and purposes of learning–and then renovating existing paradigms, principles and practices in accordance with our new understanding. I see the Personal Creed Project and its “offspring”–the Model of Workable 21st Century Learning, the Cross-Section of 21st Century English Curriculum, the Two-Legged approach to weaving deeper learning into our courses and programs as they exist today–as part of the theory and practice of renovation.
While this is a fascinating shift to contemplate, the fact is that most educators have little wherewithal to consider what we do every day in such evolutionary terms. When I began developing these approaches what I wanted was a way to move with my students in the direction of Moffett’s vision of education. Once I felt we were making some progress in this, I wanted to be able to share it as painlessly as possible with busy colleagues. What I realized is that we were very far from ready, in education, to talk in terms of the evolution of culture, let alone consciousness.
For one thing, we really have no consensus in our larger culture that the personal development of our students is a goal worthy of building toward. Certain classrooms and schools may emphasize students’ unfolding in different ways, but we have no real vision of this aspect of education in our ongoing conversation or curriculum. So rather than use the terms culture and consciousness, I decided to start with a term already enshrined–academic. Academic skills, many of which have to do with communication, do after all help us orient ourselves with respect to culture. Using this term, I hoped, would bring pretty much all aboard. Then I could graft in a new notion–that education should also concern personal development. Hence the idea of planning courses and programs on two legs–Academic and Personal.
There is a stealth aspect to this approach. I think most intelligent English teachers can agree that school should have strong, effective, research-based plans to help students grow as human beings, and not only plans for academic development. Such teachers, I think, could work with the two-legged idea, without necessarily announcing it to administrators or less-than-friendly colleagues. I hope these principles and practices that have been evolving out of my classroom and those of colleagues working with the Creed Project ultimately will become stepping stones in the direction Moffett pointed.
Koshnick: Moffett was a proponent of eliminating false barriers between school and home life, between school and community, between school and spirit. As you put it in your book, “we should begin much more seriously allowing students to integrate their learning experiences among school, home and their community” (61). To me, this is what your book accomplishes so well. You describe tested, inventive ways to lessen what for most kids, now, certainly seems to them like a disconnect between school and life, life and school.
With your Creed Project in particular, you prompt students to think–in a prolonged manner–about who they are and what they believe. You have said that your students’ culminating Creed presentations “are the most impressive and affecting classroom experiences I have witnessed in the 20 years since I became a teacher” (NWP, updated).
As a teacher and a theorist in these matters, you have intentionally placed the focus of your curriculum on students’ creeds, on students’ beliefs. Can you give us some examples of the ways in which your deliberate focus on belief helps both you and your students eliminate, or overcome the disconnect, or the non-integration between school and life that is a familiar aspect of so many people’s experience within education?
Creger: That’s another great question. Your phrase “overcome the disconnect” is picture perfect. I think the focus on belief or creed—I actually call it discovering values—overcomes the disconnect as you say first by going deeper than our present notion of learning can helpfully explain. What precisely does it mean to engage in deeper learning? Deeper in what respect? As reckoned by what criteria? Our present notion of learning offers no clear and useful way to think about depth in learning. So that’s one benefit of the approach I’ll talk more about in a minute. But the broad focus on discovering values also overcomes the disconnect by offering a way to complete a circuit that has been historically broken in school learning–the process of how we learn in real life. For these two reasons and others, we do not have a way to think about learning that works. This is a perfect time to introduce what I’m calling the Model of Workable 21st Century Learning.
The model begins at the center, with a provisional central aim of learning. In more than 20 years of education courses, seminars, workshops and my own teaching, I’ve never been part of a conversation in which a central aim of learning itself was introduced, let alone discussed at any length. When it developed that I would be writing a book on the Creed Project I realized I could not write a book about learning without identifying at least a tentative main purpose for … well … learning! What you see in the central triangle of the model is only the most recent version: Deepening Understanding of World and Self and Increasing Mastery of Human Capacities. This is an improvement over the previous formulation, which used the term “personality,” a term with too many diverging connotations. At some point, I hope a group of colleagues can come to a broader consensus on how to word this model’s central aim. For now, I offer this provisional one.
What may be the most useful aspect of the model is represented by the blue circular shape I call the Learning Continuum. My deeper studies, life experience, and long reflection tell me that I can perceive reality on three levels—the levels of fact, meaning, and value. In order to make sense of my experience I must ascertain the facts–of my own life, the lives of others, the world and universe: I am about to begin my 21st year as an English teacher at American High School in Fremont CA, USA, on planet Earth.
I must interpret those facts, constructing or construing them into interpretations that explain the facts in various ways—their causes and effects, their chronologies, their parts and wholes, and other ways, logical, emotional, musical, intuitive, in which facts can be interpreted. This is the level of meaning: Teaching English is rewarding because an English teacher gets to interact with dynamic people, read intriguing literature, and help people develop skills to understand themselves, understand the world and universe, and how they fit into these big pictures.
I also perceive reality, finally, on the level of values. Once I have ascertained a particular collection of facts and made an interpretation that follows from them, I can then decide how these facts or this meaning relates to what I stand for, or value, or what matters to me: My job matters to me because one of the things I stand for is helping young people create a safer, cleaner, more just world. An English teacher is uniquely positioned to make such an impact. I perceive my experience in life, then, as we all do in varying ways and to varying degrees, on three levels–the level of fact, the level of meaning, and the level of value.
When I share this model with students, which I’ll do only briefly, in connection with a novel or essay we’re discussing, I’ll show this graphic on the screen.
Then I’ll simply ask what the model seems to be saying. In the three years I’ve tried this, it’s never long before someone says the model is saying something about how we learn in school. “Excellent!” I’ll respond. “What point does it seem to be making?” If necessary, I’ll ask where most of what we do in school would fall in the model. Quickly, the class agrees that most of what they are asked to do in school is to master facts, the upper left hub (oval shape) in the Learning Continuum. In some classes, it develops, teachers guide them to make interpretations of those facts, the upper right hub, but not nearly as often as they’re asked to memorize and recall facts. Even more rarely, if ever, are they guided systematically to discover what they stand for, the lower hub of the Learning Continuum.
A main premise of the Workable Model is that we are intended to learn in the same manner in which we perceive reality—through mastering facts, construing meanings, and discovering values. We are meant to learn all around the continuum. Most of what we teach and learn in school, however, stays on the surface, in the region of the continuum that runs between mastering facts and construing meaning. This region, or dimension, has to do mainly with operations of our minds—ascertaining and interpreting facts and forming opinions.
The deeper parts of the continuum, centered around the Discovering Values hub, entail such issues as the formation of our identities, the education of our hearts, our relationships with others, discovering what most matters to us, which can include spiritual matters (undepicted). The region between the Construing Meanings and Discovering Values hubs, along the right side of the Learning Continuum, gets progressively deeper and personal as we move down. Somewhere toward the upper middle portion of this region we’d probably locate the cultivation of metacognition. Down toward the bottom, centered pretty much on the Discovering Values hub, we’d place the Personal Creed Project, since the project is completely about discovering our values. Somewhere in the region between Mastering Facts and Discovering Values, along the model’s left side, we might place service learning or volunteering in the community, since we choose to volunteer (or someone else chooses for us) because these factual activities are driven by values that affirm them. Educators will find much to discuss in exploring these two deeper “frontier” regions, or dimensions, of the Learning Continuum.
Getting back to your question about how a focus on our creeds or belief (discovering values) helps us overcome the disintegration between school and our real lives. One answer is that focusing learning all around the continuum requires us to learn along the two deeper dimensions as well as the shallower one. Students are hungry for self-knowledge they rarely gain in school, or even beyond school. We gain self-knowledge in the two deeper “frontier” dimensions of the learning continuum. I had to begin my journey of self-discovery outside school. Thanks to this model, I think, we can finally understand the notion of depth and apply it in teaching and learning as we design courses and programs. Now we can “go deep” solidly, staying integrated with fact and intellect without getting lost in the mere touchy-feely or esoteric. Students are hungry for this, and in fact cannot live satisfying lives without it.
Another answer to your question is that including the deeper parts of the continuum completes a broken circuit. If we are designed to learn around the continuum, but are only connecting with two of the three hubs (at best), our learning is quite literally broken. We overcome the disconnect by weaving the deeper regions of the continuum into our learning, which completes the circuit. We are intended to range widely and deeply in our learning, but have confined ourselves to a small region of that range. In addition to the rewards of learning more deeply and personally, then, completing the circuit is inherently liberating. In a portfolio reflection, Angelo, one of my sophomores last year, wrote of this liberating reconnection as it stemmed, he thought, from the Creed Project, the year’s most powerful experience of learning around the continuum:
I thought I didn’t have much to write about. After making the Creed Project write-ups, a bunch of new ideas flooded my head, and my imagination was once again let loose to run wild. . . . I feel that my writing has, since then, become a lot more fluid now that I am able to think more clearly, rapidly, and efficiently.
In recent years, as I study what I call my June “harvest” of snippets from students portfolios and course evaluations, I have seen more unsolicited comments about the appearance of voice in students’ writing. The most remarkable example so far came two years ago. My student Lorato had been coming to me asking for help in developing her own voice in writing. She was tired, she complained, of writing in the voice of an 80 year-old professor when she was only fifteen. I had been searching through the books in my office to help her, but all that seemed to help were some student models from my files. Suddenly, towards the end of the year, Lorato had a breakthrough. She wrote about it in her portfolio:
The Creed project was more than a step towards my goal of portraying voice in writing; it was a flying leap that crashed me through the wall that has been blocking me from showing personality in my writing. Overall, this project helped me to start to figure myself out and, as weird as it sounds, helped me to discover what I’m really like. This self-revelation made me much more secure and comfortable with myself; this, in turn, helped me show more tone. I think that before this project, I struggled so much with voice because I had no self-assurance, and didn’t really think I had anything meaningful or important to say. But through the Creed, step III especially, I found out that I actually have values, beliefs, experiences, and flaws that all combine to make one unique individual with a distinctive voice.
I would ascribe a significant portion of Lorato’s epiphany to the completion of a broken circuit in her acquisition of literacy—a reconnection between what she was learning and who she was becoming.
Many of the “false barriers” you cite Moffett decrying arise from our limited understanding of the nature of learning. To the extent that this workable model turns out to be a fuller understanding of how we are “wired” to learn–and I have collected an enormous body of evidence such as the two pieces above that seem to support this premise–teachers finally have a solid rationale to integrate learning on multiple levels, in three dimensions actually. We’ve discussed the integration of facts, meanings, and values in students’ learning. The integration of the deeper values regions of the continuum, of their bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits, is clearly made real by helping students also integrate home, school, and community in their learning. Does this help answer your question?
Koshnick: This might be a good time to set your work in context. We spoke earlier about where you think we are in relation to the vision of education Moffett lays out in Universal Schoolhouse. For those who haven’t read Schoolhouse, or who have wrestled with it, what would you say are the broad elements of Moffet’s vision, and how does your work fit in with it?
Creger: Moffett’s vision may be the broadest ever set out by a major figure in the mainstream of American education. In the preface to the Jossey-Bass edition he presents a preview. This is only a skeletal sketch. Through the book, Moffett explains in rich detail why he believes that these essential points will gradually come to characterize education in coming decades:
1) Personal development must be central, since all social problems can only be solved by enlightened citizens.
2) Far-flung community learning systems will replace schools as we know them, which focus too much on the needs of facilities and too little on the needs and natures of students. Schooling will become completely personalized, with few or no one-size-fits-all requirements.
3) Most social services will fall under the oversight of public education, since the wars on poverty or drugs can never be won as long as agencies depend for their survival on the continuance of the problems.
4) Education is decentralized to local communities, which receive only support from the various levels of government, with little or no oversight.
5) Control of public education will pass to private citizens, and from the control of politicians and business forces.
6) Spiritual development—the essence of personal evolution–will emerge as the prime goal of education.
In the unfolding of his narrative, Moffett’s boldness and brilliance are in full evidence, along with much that makes simple good sense. Again, without the context Moffett provides, this list will not adequately represent his vision. My work, to place it in the context of Moffett’s vision, addresses the first and last of the points in the list above.
Koshnick: How do you use this model as you plan your courses to make it real for your students–to help their learning run deeper and more connected to their whole lives?
Creger: I’m hoping to publish an article sometime soon that will deal with this question in some detail. So I’ll try to keep to the main points here. Before building on the same shaky footings which lie under too many of our assumptions about literacy—and literacy reform–the first thing I need to do is to translate the workable model into a conceptualization of a renovated English curriculum. Of course, the student’s unfolding is at the center (with another proposed wording). Literacy skills, which politics and business now force into the center of our work actually rightly belong at the edges. Reading, writing, speaking, listening, learning—the acquisition of these skills facilitate the purposeful unfolding of our students. Their fuller unfolding, in turn, is the only hope for the survival of our culture. As Moffett writes in Schoolhouse:
I argue that personal development must be central, because all solutions to public problems, no matter how collective the action, depend on mature, enlightened individuals to call for and indeed insist on these solutions. Democracy simply cannot function otherwise, and we will lose it if political leaders continue to have to pander to the selfish, childish, bigoted, and shortsighted elements of the electorate. So it is not only for the sake of self-fulfillment . . . but for the sake of the commonweal, which needs members who, in learning to think and do for themselves, can think about and take care of each other (xvi)
Skills, then, are a means to the end of our students’ personal unfolding, not an end in themselves.
[Note: Click on the Cross-Section of English attachment below.]
A key controversy in English education has always been how to conceive the place of literature in the curriculum. When I came into the profession, a literature-centered curriculum was regarded, in my district at least, as the cutting edge. While it certainly beats a skill-centered curriculum—in the high stakes sense anyway—a literature-centered curriculum seems to me built on the questionable notion that literature is the most fitting source of truth for everyone. This was questionable enough before the age of the internet. And yet few of us are ready to dismiss literature’s importance in helping our students discover themselves in their world and universe. Hence its position in the cross-section—second only to the main aim of students’ personal unfolding. The Cross-Section, then, provides the rationale for actively incorporating vibrant personal growth plans into existing courses and programs. How to actively incorporate such plans into what we now do in our classrooms? This is where Two-Legged Design comes in.
I wanted the design of the courses to facilitate their central aim: to help my students discover who they are. Thanks to the Personal Creed Project, in my classes this has come to mean helping them come to understand what forces and people in the past have shaped them as they are today, what they stand for today, and how they want to live in the future. Literature and literacy skills, as I’ve come to see them, are means to this end.
I couldn’t announce my real goal–to help students discover themselves–too loudly or widely in an era fixated on measurable results. Going back to my translation of Moffett’s culture and consciousness into academic and personal, I decided instead on a stealth approach. I would design my courses in two legs–one academic, the other personal.
[Note: Click on the Sample Two-Legged Design attachment below.]
The obligatory academic skills orientation I house on the Academic leg. Beginning in the fall with entry writing and reading diagnostics, proceeding through the year with literacy skill development and literary and language study, we close out the year on the academic leg with a portfolio intended to assess students’ development in these academic areas. Why couldn’t the Personal leg have a similar Entry-Through-the-year-Exit design–with its goal being to help students develop a viable personal philosophy of living?
I designed the Personal leg of the course to promote the development of my students’ wisdom. The study and acquirement of personal development, then, is the overarching theme of my sophomore English courses, both of which I title “Envisioning a Life.” We start the year with an Entry study of more traditional wisdom–the World Wisdom Project. We read, write, and talk about passages from the Bible, the Koran, Sufi stories and poems, Taoist anecdotes, Zen parables, Hindu tales, and short pieces of wisdom from whatever other traditions fit my students’ backgrounds, including the recent film Crash. This combined Academic and Personal project is my students’ Entry experience on the Personal leg of my courses.
As you can see at the center of the figure, we use a number of tools to weave the ongoing study of wisdom through the year’s themes, literature, and various approaches to skill-development, allowing us to periodically reinforce students’ evolving personal wisdom.
This Two-Legged design has proven an effective way to make room in an English course for real personal development. The Personal leg in my courses culminates with the classroom-based rite of passage we talked about at the beginning of our interview, the Personal Creed Project. To bring a semester-long series of written reflections to fruition, as we talked about, students stand before their classmates and teacher and “present their creeds.”
Koshnick: So what specific benefits does your approach bring to your teaching and, most importantly, to your students’ learning?
Creger: This summer I was reflecting on all this, and thought of seven “idiosyncrasies” of the courses I teach. While they may raise administrative eyebrows in many schools today, they are fully justified by the model of workable learning and cross-section of 21st century Engish curriculum. I’ll simply spell out six of these idiosyncrasies here, without much explanation. My forthcoming article will explain how each feature takes shape in our classes, and what students say and write about them.
❖ First, my students get to spend a year in a class genuinely centered on their unfolding as human beings. Adding to the district’s official “English 10cp” and “English 10honors” designations, I actually include what I see as our real course title, “Envisioning a Life,” on most handouts. The courses are rigorously academic. But when students begin to understand that working to develop reading, writing, conversing, and thinking skills helping them find out interesting things about themselves, and that robust self-discovery can make an English class more fun and interesting, they appear more willing to learn and engage in class activities. Harnessed to a developmentally and curricularly appropriate exploration of students’ greatest interest—themselves–academics play a more effective role than they can as ends in themselves. Beyond standards, these approaches to English curriculum and course design are themselves aligned with a model of learning that may help the entire enterprise of education in our culture become more satisfying and successful for all involved.
❖ The Two-Legged approach to course design also facilitates a balance for my students between academic rigor and personal development. This past year, for example, students’ course evaluations indicated general pleasure with the personal development aspects of the course, but suggested a need for more attention to analysis and language skill development on the academic side. After taking a San Jose Area Writing Project summer seminar from Jeff House, I am preparing to introduce several new types of analysis for my students, along with what may be some improved approaches to grammar and writing improvements. The Two-Legged approach allows for such tacking to maintain balance.
❖ The combined emphasis on personal and academic development justifies a series of strands in the course which, combined, I callUbiquitous Questioning. In one of these strands, students generate, update, and trace their own Big Questions through the course, considering their BQs when possible as they make choices of writing topics and reading selections. I also get to generate questions—Project Driving Questions for several projects we undertake through the year. Finally, we try to center our course on our school’sSophomore Core Question, which has been adopted by the school community. (Again, details will appear in article.)
❖ A second series of strands in the course I call Sustained Purposeful Reflection. This includes the longterm deep reflections of the Creed Project, short term in-class and at-home reflections on various topics, and reflections to prepare for class discussions like Socratic Dialogues. The intention is to keep reflection an ongoing force in students’ learning, their thinking, and their lives. Many comments in my June harvest justify the inclusion of this strand in the course.
❖ The course foundations in the workable model and the cross-section also lend themselves nicely to the ongoing emphasis on the study of wisdom. Beginning in the fall with the World Wisdom Project, students trace many of its concepts and terms through our literature and discussions through the year. The generalized study of wisdom comes home in the spring with the personal wisdom in the Creed presentations. This is another benefit to students—each is supported and guided to discover what he or she most values in life, and what kind of life he or she would like to live based on those values.
❖ Finally, the personal foundations of the course have provided ample justification for the practice of meditation, which claims seven to ten minutes of our time per week. Increasingly popular, valued first in many students’ minds as a prime timewasting opportunity, but slowly becoming an activity valued for the personal benefits it accords, our classroom “mindchilling” gives students regular practice in calming, detaching and focusing the mind, and nourishing the heart. I like to think James Moffett would have approved.
Koshnick: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Creger: Just that I invite anyone who has questions, comments, or related work to share to check us out on English Companion Ning. Students for a number of years have been telling me “the Creed” should “go national.” In the last couple of years I’ve seen pleas for it to go “global.” The ECN group has made both a reality. Great group of interesting folks from across the U.S., Canada and around the world. Thanks, Damian, for having me on and for the great work you’re doing here on the JMC.