Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Teaching and Learning Despite the Common Core: An Inside Job

Today, I work again with one of the most extraordinary students I’ve ever known.  I am tutoring “J”, and helping her to find her way around Juliet’s soliloquies in Romeo and Juliet, one of the plays read in many 9th grade English classes.

Like many ninth graders, J finds Shakespeare’s language to be challenging.   But unlike other ninth graders – she has not personally (yet) experienced love at first sight, rebellion against parents and authorities, and difficult friendships- some of the resonant themes in the play.  Learning about the world through literature is perhaps more crucial for J than other students: She is a captive audience. Her circumstances have made this so.

J has an infectious smile and a contagious laugh.  She laughs frequently, but she cannot speak.  She is in a wheelchair as a result of an illness that she contracted when she was three months old that has left her paralyzed.

She has minimal ability to move her head…but --she does have the full use of one shoulder, one arm, and one finger on her right hand.

This finger is usually painted with pink nail polish, and it is long and tapered, and gracefully finds a key on the keyboard in a way that my clumsy fingers can’t - I think of it as her Cinderella’s finger, in the same way that only Cinderella’s foot could fit into the coveted slipper offered up by the Prince.

As she cannot speak, I find myself doing my usual monologue- or soliloquy is more appropriate-as we’re reading Shakespeare.  During these soliloquies, I ask her questions, and make suggestions for what to do next.   She is beginning work on an essay about Juliet’s experience with romantic love.   I’m suddenly aware of the way my own voice sounds- and I try to temper the urgency I hear in it, because we are always trying to “catch up” to the assignment deadlines.  I don’t want to begin this session sounding stressed out already.  Nothing good comes from stress.   My job is to peel the layers from her packed assignments.

This assignment asks that she write a four-paragraph essay, using passages to support her thesis and claims.  This “boiler plate” essay requires concentrated effort from a student without disabilities. I’ve taught and coached many ninth graders through Romeo and Juliet essays.   But it frequently takes J twenty minutes to compose three or four sentences.

She is in a Special Ed program at a New York City public high school, on a local diploma graduation track, which is currently the only option her parents have, as they navigate the tangled forest of red tape in searching for a school that is a better fit for her.   In the meantime, J will stay in a holding pattern until a better placement for her materializes.  If that materializes.  

Public School Special Ed programs are now cinched tightly to align with the demands of the rigid Common Core Standards.  We’ll remember here the description of the implementation
of the CCSS by Karen Lewis, the Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers: “We’re flying the airplane as we’re building it.  So we’ll see. Who knows what it will bring?”

Okay then, since the idea of more rigor is touted by the Common Core “airplane” –it looks like J and I are in a two person plane of our own; maybe a little Cessna?

There’s a certain freedom in that, because students like J are so out of the running in “Race to the Top,” she’ll set her own bar, with my help.   But that doesn’t mean that rigor is not a part of J’s learning: Because of that, concepts of rigor, and conversations about it should be kept wide open.   Rigor is not a product of effort, and can’t be pigeonholed into a business model, as privatizers are attempting to do with standardization.  Rigor is a process.

For one thing, rigor takes on an entirely differently form for a student with J’s daunting challenges: In order to reach her curious mind, the essay first needs to be broken down into human bites.

Our process today, as with all days, is very slow.

We both need incentive here.  I move myself into her sight level so we can make eye contact.  Why do we write essays?” 

Because she cannot speak, I answer my own question. “We write essays to invite people into the way we see things…How does that sound to you?”

She gets it.  When she’s bored or disconnected, her eyes move away from me. But she’s looking straight at me now.  Her eyes send me volumes of information.  It’s true. Our eyes are the windows to our souls.

I’ve worked out a system to give J as many choices as I can think of as we approach writing projects. But it’s also important not to overwhelm her with choices: No more than two at a time. “Which of Juliet’s soliloquies do you want to use as your evidence?  Squeeze my hand once for the balcony scene. Or - squeeze my hand twice for her Act 3 “gallop apace” speech.”

With her “good hand”, she squeezes twice. “ Awesome choice. I love that one too.”

We’re both motivated now.

Her computer, her mechanical armrest, and the pillow tucked into her left side to keep her sitting straight are all basic equipment.  Simultaneously present on her computer monitor are layers of resources.  I have moments of flooding gratitude for those wise guys in Silicon Valley who wrote the ancestor programs, eons ago, of what is presently on her touch-screen.   Without this technology, J would have no chance to interact with the world that is beyond her classroom and bedroom.

The desktop is a collage of sites:  Juno, her homework program, Spark Notes with the play in Shakespeare’s language and in modern vernacular, Kurzweil, (Thank you, Ray Kurzweil.) which reads the characters’ lines back to her, Word Docs, in the wonderful case that J’s ideas are too big to fit into the little Juno boxes, and, her PowerPoint project that we might need to draw from for this essay.  The choices are breathtaking.

I ask her – “Which part of the “gallop apace” speech do you like the most?”

A moment or two pass. (I used to think that this indicated J didn’t understand my question, and I’d rush in to move us along to the next step: I’ve learned to wait.)  Then, like a conductor maestra in front of her orchestra of musicians, she lifts her finger high, and gracefully brings it down to the screen, clicks shut the Juno program, and peruses with her finger the multitude of other choices. She chooses the Spark Notes so we can revisit Juliet’s pensive moments in the dark as she awaits Romeo’s expected arrival.

On some days, this selection process may take J from 10-15 minutes.  In her mind, J is sorting and organizing all the information in front of her. She is classifying her choices.  This process cannot be measured by any big data quants.  Based on her eye movements, I can see that her mind moves faster than her finger.  Additionally, lifting her finger, and swinging it down to click on the correct program is often hit-or-miss.  She frequently hits the wrong one.  But she usually demonstrates an abundant amount of patience, and stays with it until she gets it right. This invites a new definition of rigor, especially on days when her one working shoulder aches from use. 

This next part is complicated, because Spark Notes doesn’t read itself the way Kurzweil or a Kindle can.

“Whoops. I forgot, could you copy and paste Juliet’s horse passage onto Kurzweil so we can hear it read?”

She nods, and, then gracefully conducts the Kurzweil to open.  She copies and pastes the soliloquy onto its page.  Sometimes I’ll read parts of the play, and try to change my voice so J can tell when I’m reading for (peevish) Tybalt or the (goofily effusive) Nurse. –  I usually cringe when hearing the Kurzweil robot woman reading Shakespeare in her stilted emphasis and inappropriate stress on the wrong words - as if this “voice” is having her own issues in wading through the molasses of Shakespeare’s language.

However -it’s important for J to have as much control and choice as possible.  She clicks the robotic read-back - It highlights as it reads, and this is how we roll up our metaphorical sleeves to wade around into the language of Shakespeare as read by this uptight little entity in J’s computer.  Let the music begin:  We listen and follow along:

“Give me my Romeo. And when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night.”

I’m astonished that the robot with all her vocal limitations is still managing in her staccato to utter the passage in all its beauty, urgency and energy.

“Wow. There’s your passage. You know what to do.”

With her Cinderella’s finger, she swoops it, copies, and then pastes it onto her Word Doc. This is growing the essay from the roots up.

“Terrific. Now give me a sentence or two that introduce that passage.”

Then, clicks up the touch screen keyboard, which then magically appears.    And, with her tapered finger, taps out a sentence.

Juliet is thinking about Romeo. She is waiting for him to come to her.

“Great. That gives some context to the passage – You need to carefully carry your readers so they can follow your thinking.” I’m thinking that we have a long way to go with further developing this paragraph.  But she has this work by herself.

But J is not finished.  With a flourish, she highlights the sentence, then changes the font to purple, her favorite color – this is her signature style.  These flourishes are sometimes dangerous for me because when she swings her good arm up, her metal arm support nearly hits me in the throat. I’ve learned to bob and weave as I sit next to her.  But at the moment, I’m flooded with gratitude to Steve Jobs for thinking of adding color to his calligraphic fonts, and this individual chance for Hello out there, I’m here! self- expression within a standardized technology.

“Ah, purple! Well done.” Her eyes move to the clock, and then back to me, which tells me she knows we’re done for today.

She’s produced half a paragraph to meet the expectation of a four-paragraph essay.  This took an hour.  It’s a rigorous session for us.  Her arm hurts more, and my side aches from leaning in.

“Before I go, I want to know how you think you did today? Did you stay on task or did you get distracted?” 

She pauses, and again, I wait. Dinner aromas waft from the kitchen as her dad prepares the family meal.  She moves her finger to her touch screen and calls up another instrument from her orchestra of programs - She opens her Talking Device – and, with her Cinderella finger, taps out some words:

The robot cousin of the Kurzweil entity reports stiltedly: I am proud.  I am proud.   J smiles.

“I’m proud of you too.” I find her hand with its curled fingers, and hold it up so we can do a fist pound.  

I’m always amazed at her spirited perseverance.  No matter what a student’s challenges or capabilities are – teaching is about starting with what a student can actually do, and cultivating those capabilities, as the student raises her own bar, creating her own standards.  Educators, parents, and anyone who works closely with children, understand that learning cannot be wrestled down to the ground and pinned and standardized into a preferred outcome, nor can it be measured by quants. They know that learning, with all its complexities and uncertainty, its three steps forward and two steps back - is  - an inside job.


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