Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Letter to Cathie Black

Dear Ms. Black,

It was just yesterday that your appointment as Chancellor of Schools was officially declared, and though I admit that I was not one of your supporters, I see no point in mudslinging or complaining. Now that you have been chosen, I only wish to make your term as fruitful as possible for students, teachers, and administrators of the NYC public school system. 

The first question you're probably wonder is "who is this person" and "why does she feel qualified to address me"? My name is Nicole Papaioannou, and I am doctoral fellow at St. John's University, studying English. I take classes as a graduate student, while teaching a section of the school's core writing class, a class filled almost entirely with NYC-schooled students. I feel that I am familiar with all of the positions in the education world, as I am student, a teacher, and a tutor. While working towards a Masters degree, I also worked for a Hearst magazine staff writer, meaning that I am acquainted with your business strategies, as well.

First, I would like to speak to you from the position of a student because that is the perspective you are least likely to find. Being only slightly removed from my own public school education, I am still able to remember it well. I began my very first year of school at a public Pre-K in Brooklyn, NY, and later moved on to the New Jersey public school system. Having several years of critical pedagogy studies, critical race theory, and even literary theory under my belt, I can now analyze that experience. 

What I remember most about school was the teachers. The best teachers were the ones who set the bar high, encouraged students to reach that bar by modelling excellence themselves, and helped us to learn through hands-on activities. In elementary school, I learned about my neighborhood by creating a "Marlboro project," where I had to go out and take pictures, interview locals, and create a book about my town. I learned to do addition by adding plastic teddy bears and playing math games. In high school, I learned about The Crucible through role-playing and keeping a journal through a character's perspective (I was the supposed witch, Mistress Hibbins). Even in biology class, I learned about genetics by partnering up with a classmate and sketching what our future child would look like based on genetic probability. 

I can tell you that I don't remember anything I learned for a test. For instance, I got an A+ on an Algebra II final during my junior year. I crammed for that test for a week, trying to learn everything that I couldn't figure out throughout the semester. To this day, I still have trouble doing anything more than very basic algebra. Even in English, my very best subject, I hardly remember the details of any of the books that I was tested on, but anything I learned interactively, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that we read aloud in class in silly voices, I remember almost entirely.

A better example, I landed myself in the 94th percentile on the Verbal Section of the GREs, which got me a spot in a graduate program. For the entire month before the GRE, I used the Kaplan book and CD-ROM. I studied vocab flash cards and copied over the top 400 words. If I retook the GRE right now, I can tell you, I would probably score half as well. I don't remember any of the words that I learned. Testing helped me, but really poorly represents me. I would have preferred that someone reviewed my portfolio and found me a worthy candidate.

Moreover, learning things out of context simply makes it boring. Students find a drive to learn when they see how their educations can be used to enhance their lives. Heavy testing, especially standardized testing, is one way to guarantee students will not want to learn. Testing only serves to generate numbers that result in funding or bragging rights. In reality, it does little to motivate or encourage children. When students see that they have scored low, they are not inspired to do better, but rather label themselves as dumb, underachievers, forever ruining their learning process. Many of my friends who scored low on the tests in high school never bothered to go to college; they figured they weren't cut out for it. Instead, you will find that students learn much when they are encouraged to self-assess and self-evaluate. Then, they begin to work to improve themselves rather then their scores or their ranks. 

Now, I would like to speak to you from the perspective of an educator. It was just last year that many of the students in my Composition course graduated from high school, and I have had the pleasure of having them in my classroom. They represent a rich array of cultures and ideologies. What unites them, however, is that almost all of them are the product of the New York school system, with a great majority from the NYC system. For their first assignment, they were asked to write a literacy narrative, their stories about learning to read and write. Many of them focused on evaluation. If they got an A, it improved their love of learning. Some of them talked about being multilingual, and their struggles with teachers and classmates who made them feel inferior, making them dislike school. 

Talking about these narratives in class and having a semester to learn more about them, I now see a common trend-- the Regents destroyed their love of learning. They all forgot how to really think and write. Instead, many of them began the year by writing papers that were in the 5 paragraph style, gave no thought to audience (other than maybe me), and had no idea how to organize a paper. They had very little idea about how to analyze texts or  use research effectively, and many of them were hesitant about using new technology, asking about a dozen questions before we could use a simple discussion board or file drop box. 

They are all really smart, though, and this simply should not have been the case. They were so worked up about making the grade, though, that they simply couldn't think innovatively. Regardless of whether its testing or simply memorizing strategies, I think students have been mislead by preparing them to meet specific tasks rather than teaching them to apply critical thinking. They all made it to a private university, and they are all doing well in my class. Even those who were falling off the wagon at the beginning have come around. But from honest conversations, I can see that they are jaded as to what "education" can truly offer. I would be too if that was how I was taught. Lucky for me, testing wasn't as big of a deal when I was in school, and my teachers were highly motivated, creative individuals.

I am lucky because I have resources at my fingers tips that most teachers do not, but I do not believe that technology or money will necessarily fix our school system, nor do I believe that slashing budgets and giving pink slips to teachers simply because they were the last hired is an effective strategy (unemployment is a big expense anyway). I really encourage you to think about how you learn, how you are motivated, and how you can make improvements to what already exists. We can't start from scratch and "reform" an entire school system. The system is too big for that. We have to make better what we've already got through professional development and collaboration. We have to have leaders who are willing to make the same sacrifices as those lower down in the chain, and we have to stop battling each other over every word launched by the media.

Finally, if you read nothing else, I pray that you will read these final four suggestions. To truly enhance your ability to lead a body of educators, administrators, and students, I ask you to consider the following:

1. Read pedagogy, race, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theory: Until you realize how deeply capitalism affects the way we think as Americans, I don't think you will be able to effectively lead a school system. Furthermore, I think that the underlying racism that is still very widespread in our nation would shock you, and with a school system as diverse as NYC's, it would be a major accomplishment if you were able to break some of these racial barriers. Reading pedagogy would simply help you understand how and why teachers are teaching. 

If you read nothing else, read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System. Understanding that our school system evolved from the model of our prison system will help you understand some of the conflicts education faces. 

2. Follow teachers on Twitter and see what they are doing in their classrooms: If you want to know what teachers are thinking, then read what they are writing. Thousands of teachers are working on innovative projects, blogging about their classroom experiences, involving themselves and their students in collaborative learning and global interactions, and doing self-motivated professional development. They are committing themselves to transparency and accountability in a way that "merit based" systems do not allow. In only 140 characters, you can find learn a great deal about these individuals. You would be a fool to overlook the voices of the people you will be leading.

3. Engage with students: Students aren't empty vessels. They come with their own knowledge and their own thoughts. Rather than trying to mold these students, why not enrich what's already there? If you want students to learn, it is better to interact with them on their level, then trying to indoctrinate them. Ask them what would encourage them to want to graduate, rather than assuming that you know these answers. The students will respect you for respecting them and be more likely to trust in your leadership.

4. Ask yourself what makes an ideal education: Ultimately, you will be at the head of many decisions regarding the education of the NYC youth, and while it is entirely impossible to please everyone and tough choices will have to be made, I encourage you to never lose the vision of a perfectly educated individual, outside of simple business terms. What is it that students should be able to do when they graduate, and is that truly what they are being prepared to do?

Sadly, through all of the controversy, I have heard little, if anything from your own mouth, though the media is all afrenzy. I am not sure of your plans for the NYC school system, but I truly hope that you will surprise us all and become a leader that we did not expect. I look forward to seeing a brighter future.


Nicole Papaioannou

Beyonce Got Divorced (#beyoncegotdivorced): The Power of Groupthink

Tonight on Twitter, #beyoncegotdivorced was trending, referring to a split between power couple Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z. People were responding with a mixture of disbelief and cocky "I saw that coming" comments. Men were preparing their "A game" to impress the newly-single Sasha Fierce, and women were ready to snatch up Jay-Z.

Funny thing is... the divorce never happened. The hashtag #beyoncegotdivorced was cooked up by a bunch of Justin Beiber fans (also known as "beliebers") as a Twitter prank. Now, while I think the spread of nasty rumors is not nice in any way, shape, or form, the fact that these kids could get together to make something "trend" worldwide is fairly impressive. It's also a great reminder of the power that children actually when they collaborate. While professionals struggle for publicity and pay the big bucks to promote their tweets, these kids got together and actually made something happen, and it all stemmed from a shared interest, loving the Beibster.

On the other hand, the fact that #beyoncegotdivorced was trending is also a fairly scary reminder about the power of groupthink. Reading through the #beyoncegotdivorced tweets, there are clear alliances being declared, and the sick obsession with the tween idol is really just over the top. But aside from the "I'm a Belieber" fan club, when things are trending, people naturally want to be a part of them. I rarely would think about the 90s flick Space Jam, let alone comment on it, but once it's trending, I want to be a part of the trend, and I find myself reading and writing about it. It's almost impossible to ignore the list of trends when you're using the social media network. Seemingly harmless Twitter is actually programming thoughts, telling you what to think about if you want to be "in the loop"-- scary.

It makes me wonder, though, what good we could do if we aimed at trending things like "donateadollartoASPCA," "writeyourcongressman," or "makeanewfriend" on an every day basis rather than #makemesick.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Chat with Dr. Dohra Ahmad

Dr. Dohra Ahmad
(picture from St. John's University site)
On November 23, Dr. Dohra Ahmad stopped by for a chat with Dr. Steve Mentz's Introduction to the Profession graduate class. Dr. Ahmad is the author of Landscapes of Hope and the editor of an anthology of vernacular literature-- the first of its kind-- called Rotten English, among other fantastic articles. Her work addresses the fine line between the individual histories of marginalized figures, the aesthetic nature of vernacular literature, and ethnographic interpretations as viewed by the mainstream, which often assume that the writing of an Othered person or the action of an Othered character stands for the experience of an entire group. She cautions against reading marginalized literature as "authentic" voices or representations of a native tongue or group sentiment. She also calls for the defamiliarization of the familiar as a powerful learning experience, especially notable in her article "Not Beyond the Veil: Muslim Women in American Popular Literature." 

Lucky for us, Dr. Ahmad decided to settle down at St. John's University after completing her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in 2004. Now, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses and acts as an advisor to the faculty teaching the university's "core" world literature course (my classmates and co-workers rave about her teaching). Her research and teaching interests include Postcolonial Literature, Vernacular Literature, American Literature, Ethnic and Ethnic American Literature, Utopian Literature, Critical Pedagogy, and Pop Culture Studies. 

I was fortunate enough to get to interview with Dr. Ahmad, who had some wonderful words of wisdom for my class.

NP: How did you decide that you wanted to become a scholar/professor?
DA: The reading seemed better than social work or education coursework, which were the other 2 graduate programs I most seriously considered. Any kind of teaching would have been fine by me, but this is definitely the most fun.

NP: How do you prepare to teach a course?
DA: Read a lot, look at how others teach similar classes (if there are any), and talk to people in related fields.

NP: What do you think are the keys to being an effective teacher?
DA: Be open to new ideas, listen to students, give students a lot of responsibility but don't be afraid to be directive as necessary.

NP: Which piece of scholarship are you most proud of?
DA: Rotten English, definitely. I far prefer to write for a general audience rather than a specialized audience.

NP: What goes in to editing an anthology like Rotten English?
DA: Read a lot, have a vision and stick to it, be committed to only including selections that you absolutely love.
Also, be prepared for the fact that dealing with text permissions is incredibly tedious and annoying.

NP: For those of us embarking on the journey to becoming a professor, what advice do you have?
DA: For one thing, do test out other options and don't be convinced that this is the only way.
Have a life, and try not to obsess too much. Don't be a perfectionist.
Give yourself a break.
As much as possible, try not to compare yourself to other people; just do your best by your own standards.

NP: 30 years down the road, what kind of impact are you hoping your work will have?
DA: Honestly, I don't think about things this way.

Before she left, Dr. Ahmad also reminded us not to let the drive for perfection or the drive for greatness stop us from writing and submitting our work to journals and conferences as graduate students and future professionals. Sometimes, one just needs to finish because writing will never be perfect.  Not that one should settle for mediocrity, but that every one should strive for the best that they can achieve at the moment instead of an unattainable ideal of what could be. It is better to risk letting something that is perhaps imperfect out of the bag, then to never to be satisfied and fail to seize opportunities. She also cautioned us that self-doubt can prevent us from doing many things and moving forward. Finally, Dr. Ahmad left off by reminding us that we are often our own worst critics and that sometimes our flaws and strong points stem from the same place.

Monday, November 22, 2010

National Day of Blogging for Ed Reform: How Would I Change Education?

My favorite tv teacher of all time,
Boy Meet's World's 
Mr. Feeny.
He was always interested in his students' futures
and took pride in his teaching.
According to my Twitter tweeps, today is the National Day of Blogging for Education Reform. Teachers across the nation are blogging about the improvements that can be made to change education for the better. Many are collaborating on Cooperative Catalyst, an education reform blog, to create an archive of changes we can implement to reform education.

Though the majority of the blogging teachers teach K-12 and are much more experienced than I am, I thought it was my duty as someone on both sides of the line to chime in (I left high school behind only seven years ago, and I am still taking graduate courses, working towards a Doctor of Arts degree). Plus, as a college writing instructor and writing center tutor, I get the products of their efforts. I get to see the end result of public education.

So, here are my top 5 suggestions for positive education reforms:

  1. Context-based learning
  2. Student-centered inquiry-based learning
  3. Collaborative learning
  4. Digital literacy
  5. Knowledge of politics

Context-based learning
As a student, I find that I learn the most when I can ground theory in practice. If I find a theory useless, I will ultimately end up either not understanding it or disregarding it. I also think that many people feel the same, which is why, as teachers, it is essential that we can show our students how classroom practice can be put to practical use. 

In my Composition classroom this semester, my biggest fear was that my students wouldn't see a need for brushing up their writing skills because most of them are intending to become Physician Assistants after graduation. Luckily, they are smart people with real thirsts for self-improvement, and this was never the case. I do, however, still try to actively make a connection between the types of writing we do in class and how they can use those skills in their future fields. Of course, context-based learning isn't necessarily occupation-related. It is, however, important to know what is going on the lives of students outside the classroom and to find a way to bridge the gap between classroom activities and real life usage. I try to give them writing tasks within the contexts of their lives: How did you learn to read and write? How do you define your beliefs? What are the changes you wish to see in the world? I think, though, that there are millions of ways to make class lessons context-based. Mine are not the prime examples.

Ultimately, by separating the "real world" from "school," we only cause a separation between learning and living.

Student-centered inquiry-based learning
This one is two-fold. First, the classroom should be centered around the students. The students should be leading discussions and doing self-assessments and self-evaluations. They also shouldn't feel that I am the great God of Knowledge, passing my education down to them. In some ways, yes, of course, I can give them tips and tricks to help them succeed, and I can share with them facts and stories that will enhance their learning, but ultimately, students shouldn't believe that they are empty vessels to be filled. They should believe that they are thinking, learning, acting beings who have a great deal to share. This creates more investment in their own educations. Furthermore, self-assessment and evaluations lead to greater self-motivation. Rather than doing things to improve their grades, students begin doing things to improve themselves.

I also believe that students learn most from being inquirers. I don't want my students to memorize the answers, I want them to learn them. I also don't want them to feel that just because they haven't mastered something, they can't talk about it. I want them to be willing to ask questions, investigate, challenge "common" knowledge, and synthesize. I believe that inquiry-based learning promotes critical thinking. Even if my students doesn't know how to solve a distance problem, I want them to know where to start looking for information and how to start solving that problem. In my writing classroom, that translates more significantly into analytical thinking, learning how to interact with discourse communities, and how to engage with texts and research.

Collaborative Learning
Learning simply does not happen in a vacuum. We learn everything we learn from other people, from the internet, from books, from our interaction with outside forces. We rarely happen to stumble on a truth by sifting through our consciousnesses. It takes conversation, or at the very least dialectic thought, to create new knowledge.

Collaborative learning really pushes the idea of dialectic to the forefront. First, collaborative learning is often more fun. Students like being hands-on and getting to socialize rather than sitting in isolated rows and being silenced. Second, collaborative learning allows students to participate in a democratic learning process, which is driven by challenges and negotiations. Third, collaborative learning can help students understand things from multiple perspectives. It allows for empathetic understanding, and also helps them discover the loopholes in their own logic.

Digital Literacy
The internet is an amazing resource. It is a place where you can fulfill almost every curiosity. Want to know about hippopotamus mating rituals? Google. Want to know about Angelina Jolie's latest film? IMDB. Want to make a kite? eHow. Furthermore, I think that we something forget that internet is also called the World Wide Web for a reason. It connects things, much like we do in conversation. You may start off wanting to learn about George Eliot, but eventually, you find yourself more interested in learning about Natural History, all because you clicked a hyperlink. There is more information on the internet than any teacher could ever possibly teach, and it's often available in ways that are way more fun to access than being preached to or reading in a dated textbook. Why not use that to our advantage as students and teachers?

Also, it is imperative that teachers enhance digital literacy because of all of the dangers involved. We want our students to learn to use the web responsibly and safely. We want to end cyberbullying and help our students avoid the overexposure of personal information. By showing my students all of the positive ways they can use social media and technology, I believe that they will be less likely to fall into these traps. If I show them that they can use podcasts, wikis, blogs, YouTube videos, etc. to help them change the world, they will be less like to destroy it or themselves.

Plus-- if you weren't sold yet-- employers find real value in employees who have mastered technology. If you can come up with a creative, up-to-date way to market a corporation's service or products, you become an asset.

Knowledge of Politics
This is probably the one reform that seems out of place on my list, but I promise you it is a vital reform. When I speak of knowledge of politics, I do not refer to asses and elephants, I mean something much deeper; I mean the politics of identity, language, and action.

Teaching students to recognize the underlying politics of their own behavior or of the behavior of others can really change how they view the world around them. This is especially important in our Digital Age, where students' digital footprints will represent them to unknown audiences and stand as a record for quite some time. By teaching them the politics of their actions, students will no longer see things as simply black and white. They will begin to understand that a kissy-face picture on Facebook says one thing and choosing to ignore the internet all together says another. They will understand that calling something "gay" when it is uncool promotes homophobia and that telling someone to "stop acting like a girl" promotes sexism. Most importantly, they will see that these seemingly small and arbitrary choices may reveal much more than intended.

Though this complicates things, sometimes in confusing or even hurtful ways, it is really the basis of reform. If we want students to make educated decisions on the big issues then we should teach them to make educated decisions about the seemingly smaller issues, the ones that they have control over right now, their own representations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

New Semester, New Tricks

Though this semester isn't quite over, the new semester is just around the corner. I've been dabbling in lots of digital writing venues and social networks trying to find out what works best, what's the most fun, what's going to inspire engagement, etc. in my college composition classroom.

I've also been thinking about alternatives to boring old Blackboard, trying new types of digital writing (like scripting podcasts for iTunes or documentaries for YouTube), and addressing the digital humanities in my classroom. We use the discussion board, digital dropbox, and chat features on Blackboard, but those seem so basic when there are so many more creative options out there!

Here is a list of some things I've been playing with:

Social Networks

1. This site lets you build your own social network, akin to Facebook. It has tools to add wikis, file sharing, video chat, and comments. You can also choose themes and run multiple networks. Very nifty!

2. GoogleWave: The feedback on Google Wave hasn't been super positive, and it looks like it might be on the way out. While it exists, though, I'm willing to give it a shot. I've never used it myself, seeing as I don't have most of my friends' Google contact information, but the concept is very cool. I think it could, perhaps, be a useful tool for online tutoring or writing conferences with students. 

3. Twitter: My new favorite toy! As a teacher, I have been using Twitter to develop a PLN (Personal Learning Network). I follow chats like #edchat, #ntchat (new teacher chat), #engchat, and #eltchat. It's amazing what you can learn from 140 characters of writing from a teacher somewhere across the globe. 

Digital Writing Venues

1. Blogger & Wordpress: Though I clearly stuck with Blogger for my own blog, both of these websites offer fairly similar traditional blogging options.

2. Tumblr: Tumblr is also a blog site, but it seems to be geared towards producing photojournals rather than predominately text-based blogs.

3. Glogster: Is it a blog or is it a poster? Need I say more. I think Glogster has some really interesting potential for students. You can create hyperlinkable posters, complete with sound, video clips, images, and clip art. Very cool. It could make an interesting e-portfolio homepage. I think it could also work well as a first-day introduce-yourself-to-the-class type of assignment. 

4. Wikispaces: I didn't use a wiki for the course I teach this semester, but I am trying to use one as part of a graduate course project (though I'm not using wikispaces). It's an interesting process, and I think I'm learning as I go along, as are my collaborating classmates. I'm curious how teachers are using wikis in their classrooms!

Some other cool resources

1. Wozaik: Wozaik is one of my new favorite tools. Wozaik creates web mosaics of bookmarks. You can clip out images from pages or thumbnails, and Wozaik complies them into lists that you can see and click. It's great for compiling resource archives, blogrolls, or just sharing favorite websites with others. You can share the lists via Fb, Twitter, or email, too.

2. Xtranormal: Create animated videos from text. I saw someone use Xtranormal to work on arguments and counterarguments. I think it has some really interesting possibilities for classroom use.

I'd love to get some input from teachers about technology they have used in their classrooms. What are some of the technologies you are using in your classrooms? Which did you find to be the most successful? Was anything a total failure?

I'd also love to hear from students! What would you be interested in using in a writing class? What do you already use? Is there anything that sounds absolutely ridiculous to you?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What is an adult?


For class this week, my students read Bonnie Morris's "When I Was a Teenage E.R.A. Activist." Morris's article talks about her experiences as an 18-year-old activist-intern, going door to door in a wealthy middle-class suburb in the South, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. The article is chock-full of thought-provoking narrative, including whether or not women's rights have been fully realized, how those campaigning adopted the very strategies of dominance they were rallying against, and how education seems to play little part in curing people of ignorance. The one question, however, that stirred up conversation in my classroom had little do with Feminism and much more to do with liminality.

Despite Morris's overt Feminist critique, her definition of womanhood was the one thing that caused blatant disagreement among my students. Morris writes, "At eighteen years old, I was old enough to vote, have sex, and get married-- three very significant and historically complex embodiments of American womanhood...." (169). In general, my students felt that this was not a sufficient definition of adulthood. Though it is clear that Morris was trying to do Feminist work here and was less concerned with the notion of adulthood than with the notion of womanhood, I thought it was interesting that my students were struggling with her definition in those terms.

As a result, I pushed them to think about how they defined "adult," and why Morris's definition of an adult woman was inaccurate. They listed off the usual: age, maturity, wisdom, independence, bills, responsibility, a consciousness for the ways actions affect others. One student pointed out that Morris's definition wasn't really a definition, but a list of rights.

Still, their definitions were somewhat run of the mill. What I found most interesting is that, when I asked my class, "Do you consider yourself an adult?" There was a generally confused silence. No one really said no, and no one really said yes. At best, I heard some incoherent mumbles. Stuck in the liminal space of being a college freshman and being either at the very beginning of adulthood at 18 or the very end of childhood at 17, most of my students didn't seem to embody either anymore.

image from
As a graduate student, I couldn't help but empathize with their confusion (and perhaps this is where Morris is most correct in her assertions). Though I am well beyond 18 years of age, I struggle to define myself as an adult. Saying, "I am a woman," is a difficult thing for me. I still call myself "girl." Woman evokes an image of power and of inspiring females to whom I am not prepared to claim myself equal in rank, though I can't help but wonder why this is so.

I would say it's a Feminist issue, but I think men have it just as rough. Though they consciously avoid being defined in the feminized state of childhood by identifying themselves as "boys," they often get stuck in "guy," rarely accepting "man." Unless, of course, it is to jokingly declare, "I'm the man!"

What is it about our culture that makes adulthood so hard to define and so hard to identify with? 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Monster at the End of This Book: Life Lessons for Teachers & Students

The whole text, including illustrations, can be found here:!
When I was young, one of my very favorite books in the whole wide world was the Little Golden Book The Monster at the End of This Book, featuring the adorable Grover from Sesame Street.

The book starts off with Grover freaking out because the cover says that there is a monster at the end of the book, and he is scared of monsters. He spends the next several pages trying to get the reader to stop turning the pages so that the end of the book is never reached. First, he simply begs. Then, he goes through more elaborate set ups like nailing the pages down and building brick walls. It is all very cute.

When the reader arrives at the end of the book, Grover realizes that he is the monster at the end of the book, just "lovable, furry old Grover." There was nothing to be scared of all along.

Like I stated in an earlier post about Fraggle Rock, I think there is much that we can learn from children's literature. In this simple book, which is all of 20 pages of pictures and speech bubbles, great life lessons are revealed:

1. We cannot stop the unknown. No matter how many walls we build, we will eventually be forced to face it. Inquiry is better than resistance or blind persuasion. Grover would have done better to ask about the monster rather than to immediately try to persuade us against turning the page. Likewise, he learns nothing from his resistance. It is us, the readers who are curious, who continue to turn pages, who manage to help discover the truth about the monster at the end of the book.

2. Stereotypes are often wrong. Grover mistakenly believes that all monsters are scary, but he finds out that it's possible for them to be furry and lovable. This happens in real life all of the time, and we have an obligation to remind our students and our selves of this fact.

3. The things we fear the most are often pieces of ourselves. What is scarier than knowing that we have the potential to become something people dislike? Bullying, for example, often arises from a fear of being outcast; they outcast others so that they will not be recognized as outcasts.

4. Embrace your inner monster! Grover, once he gets to the end of the book, is not ashamed of being a monster but embraces it. Helene Cixous says something similar in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. She says that good writing requires us to reveal the worst about ourselves, and not simply to confess it and let it be washed away, but to own it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

ABC's What Would You Do? and Social Justice

ABC's What Would You Do? is really difficult to watch. For one, you want to jump into the television and do something. You sit there judging people, saying "How could they say that?" or "Why didn't they tell off the store employee for being a jerk?" or "How could they possibly buy their goods there?" You want to scream at the by-standers who do nothing. You are disgusted by bigots, or maybe freak yourself out a bit when you realize that their arguments are logical or even compelling.

Once the actionless by-standers are interviewed, however, you are forced to see yourself, which is, perhaps, the most difficult thing about watching this show. Many of those who remain bystanders (though perhaps not in this clip) weren't sure it was their place to "get involved." While we all would like to believe that we would step in and do something in the face of social injustice, possible child abuse, fraud, etc., in reality, many of us would just surrender to the fear of being turned into a victim or outcast ourselves. Would you step in against a gang of kids threatening to beat up a gay peer on the boardwalk? Would you stop a Muslim father from dragging his daughter out a restaurant by the arm? Would you hinder a drunken parent from driving their kid to a soccer game? Against the ideas of "minding your own business" or "not getting involved," it is often difficult to do the right thing. "Not getting involved" is often the "American" thing to do. We are pluralist, so we have to let others live their lives as they want to, even if we believe that way to be wrong. We let injustice go by everyday for those very same reasons that are meant to promote justice and liberty.

Sadly, injustice often must escalate to extremes (as it does in the video about teens harassing a gay peer), before others will step in. This undercover camera program shows what goes on during an average day-- though there is an obvious bias in favor of those who are tolerant of other ways of living and those who get involved. I think it's a wonderful show, not only because it promotes tolerance, but because it reminds us that when we see injustice, no matter how small, we should be willing to get involved. We shouldn't have to let it escalate to real physical harm or illegal discriminatory acts before we take a stand. A psychologist who appears on the episode about antisemitism (I can no longer remember her name) states that once one person speaks up, often that is enough for others to join the cause. It only takes ONE person to make a difference.

As my own students begin to work on their Writing as Activism projects, I think that this is a sentiment that they would find encouraging. Though I see that they are not convinced that their projects can make any difference, I think the idea that their voice could inspire others to speak up would help them to find purpose and confidence. As a student myself, I know that is what I am taking away from this series. Maybe the world isn't what I want it to be right now, and maybe I see problems in the future, but I know that I have the potential to create positive changes, if only by being the first voice.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

George Eliot: Composition Theory/Writing Studies Teacher?

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In conversations between those teaching writing, debates often ensue about whether there is a Standard English, Englishes, or simply English. In general, the coded nature of language is something Comp. people, writing instructors, writing center tutors, and students are both fascinated by and agonize over.

Of course, I thought the idea of Standard English was a 21st century theory. It seems the very eloquent George Eliot, however, was laying out Composition Theory lessons way back in the 19th century. In her lengthy novel Middlemarch, Eliot directly addresses language, language acquisition, and authorship. 

For instance, in Chapter 11, Rosamond, Fred, and Mrs. Vincy speak on the subject of slang. Eliot writes:

‘Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?’ said Rosamond, with mild gravity.

‘Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.’ [said Fred]

‘There is correct English: that is not slang.’

‘I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of the prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.’

Here, Eliot shows the relationship between the dominant class and language. The “correct” language is the one of the upper class (prigs), but it also belongs to the authors—the historians and the writers—far more than the common man, the simply wealthy man, or the politician. Is this not still happening today? This brings into question multiple Englishes, accented Englishes, regional Englishes, etc. Who are we to say which is correct? Should we say which is correct?

The list of language quotations certainly doesn't end with this brief snippet, but for the sake of brevity, I will leave you to ponder only one example