Friday, July 6, 2007

“Because it meets an abiding human need” - Last entry on Haberman's book

Yesterday I spent quite some time poking around in a large university library, enjoying the fact that I could find again books I'd read in high school and college at another time, in another place. The rows upon rows of books, many in worn cloth binding, the titles upon titles about matters of which I know nothing, in languages that I do not understand, the characteristic scent of old paper, and leather, and print, the hush of the place – it's electrifying.

While I was a high school junior I discovered that my school's library would allow us to order books from libraries in other cities if we needed them for projects. One book I ordered turned out to be from a university's Biology library. The very idea – that there could be an entire library devoted to just one subject! A Biology library! That implied that there might be entire libraries devoted to other areas too. There might be a Mathematics library. A History library. A Philosophy library! That blew my mind.

Another memory, from freshman year in college, is of picking up a book ordered from a distant library (Popper and Eccles' The Self and its Brain, for the curious), and realizing that my heart rate was increasing and my palms sweating as I checked out the item. There were other books like that, books that commanded full attention and emotional involvement, and that changed my ways of thinking.

I'm wondering about how such a disposition can be taught, or kindled, or inspired, or instilled, or fostered, in my students. The string of metaphors is there because I don't know which description would most accurate. I am also wondering whether this even is an appropriate goal. It seems very old-fashioned.

These past two years I have kept my math- and science related books, and also a number of books on educational politics, civil rights matters, history, some science fiction, in the classroom – and until I got used to it I was bemused by the students' complete lack of curiosity about the bookshelf. A couple of the brightest kids inspected the shelf the first year. During the second year, in a school with much more low-performing students, no-one did - with the exception that my dictionary, which was for communal use, disappeared. My English teacher colleague thought I should consider that loss a positive thing.

We should not, I guess, equate curiosity and a love of learning with bibliophilia, because so much learning can happen without books. Maybe it even must happen without books, just because reliance on weak reading skills would severely limit access for many students. This past year such a large fraction of my students were unable to read comfortably. They could decode text if they had too, but it seemed a deliberate and laborious task, not much like that immediate and unconscious process whereby meaning springs from the page to a fluent reader, where the very presence of text triggers comprehension of the message before the words have even consciously been read.

However, even without conflating indifference to books with indifference to learning – and at the risk of simply demonstrating lack of insight and understanding about my students – I'd assert that they displayed remarkably little intellectual curiosity, and further that it would be better – for them – if they did have more. Again at the risk of merely demonstrating prejudice and patronization, I am wondering how they can be 'taught' (for want of a better word, and certainly not intending to imply that such 'teaching' is anything other than nurturing an existing disposition) to take more interest in more aspects of the world.

Teaching learning by modeling it

Pitting “Learning” versus “Job Training,” Haberman introduces the chapter titled “What Stars Think They're Doing” by holding that
Star teachers conceive that their primary goal is turning kids on to learning – i.e., engaging them in becoming independent learners. This doesn't mean that they don't care about student learning, but that they use learning as an opportunity to create this higher goal of engagement. On the other hand, some teachers see the achievement of specific learning objectives, connected with future employment, as their major purpose. The difference is not that one group values learning more than the other, but that stars see learning as a much broader goal. (p. 15)
As with other chapters of Haberman's book, I find myself alternately musing that his views are beautiful but overly romantic – and compelled by how closely his descriptions of low-income kids and their schooling experiences seems to fit what I saw this part year.

Haberman claims that Star teachers "recognize that children can and will be naturally 'turned on' to learning - not because it is always fun, but because it meets an abiding human need (p. 33)" and that their strategy is to convince the students of this approach by modeling it. In particular, these teachers do not attempt to justify students daily lessons in terms of their utility for future employment:
The elementary teacher who tries to motivate children by telling them, “You will need to know this someday to fill out an application form to get a job” or “You need this to make change at the grocery” is dead in the water as a generator of interest. ... Young children – and even adolescents – are not turned on to learning by the notion of future employment. ... How can a job be used to rationalize learning something about Andrew Jackson, the rivers of California, or the distinction in the usage of that and which in the fourth grade? Exhortation by elementary teachers who seek to make learning relevant to children's future occupational lives will not work because it cannot be done. (p. 32) (emphasis added)
A common sentiment is that the relevance of schooling and hence student motivation can be improved by offering more vocational classes, and Haberman is very skeptical to this approach, almost fiercely so. While I am personally puzzled by the low status frequently accorded to vocational education, and feel that the notion that offering vocational education reflects “low expectations” reveals more about the snobbery of upper classes than it does about the actual level of skill and knowledge required to perform these jobs well, Haberman does offer a strong case that high-poverty children in particular should be exposed to a broad liberal education and to a culture where learning is valued because “it feels good, it is right, it is natural, it can be enjoyable, and it is what we do here (p. 18)."

Children in poverty, Haberman explains, are unlikely to have "out-of-school models who are practicing chemists, language interpreters, writers, or others who can serve as models of knowledgeable people who derive great well-being as lifelong students," people who need no extrinsic reward to be driven to learn more about their field. “Children in poverty rarely, if ever, see such people, even on television.” And what are they missing out on?
... the joys of learning, learning for the sake of learning, the pursuit of a subject in depth because one has become addicted to it, the well-being that is unique to the knowledgeable learner, the sense of accomplishment that comes from hard study and application to a field, and most of all, the endless questions that pursue and tempt the individual who was learned enough to ask. (p. 31)

Only very knowledgeable and intellectually curious persons can become star teachers, first because they impart these dispositions by modeling them: “Star teachers get children to believe in the intrinsic value of learning because they believe in it themselves and are lifelong learners of various subjects, skills, and fields of study (p. 18),” and second because their project of tailoring assignments that students will become engrossed in requires a broad knowledge base: “children's learning can be made relevant to their present lives, but that takes teachers who know sufficient subject matter to connect it with children's daily lives and real problems (p. 32).”

Reading these passages leaves me wondering how they would apply to an Algebra classroom, as Haberman barely mentions either math or high school. I'll take the risk of getting an earful for suggesting that early high school math may not be interesting enough alone to be a great vehicle for teaching the love of learning - I think working up too much enthusiasm for the math can make the teacher appear a blinkered alien rather than a role model in curiosity. Interestingly, mrc and Dan both write about bringing extraneous interests into the math classroom, whether for journaling prompts or for a regularly scheduled show-and-tell session or in any other contexts that allow for it. And this is done deliberately to model eclectic interest and generalized love of learning, presumably under the assumption that the time lost in not working directly on math is nevertheless wisely invested this way.

Learning for lifers

Graduation at San Quentin was last week, and this event is a high point for students and teachers alike. Seven of the graduates were from the college program and earned AA degrees, the remaining 40 or so mostly earned GEDs or vocational certification. Keynote speaker Joe Loya congratulated the students on their achievement, and told them that in seeking an education,
You've moved closer to the world. And at this moment, the world has moved closer to you.
Why do inmates want, or need, an education? In a comment to my previous entry, Marco Polo asks about the students' incentive for working hard, and there are of course layers and varieties of motivation. An AA degree on your parole application looks good, chances of employment after release are significantly higher, and your freedom of movement within the prison can be increased as a result of your demonstrating positive attitudes and activities.

But there is more to it than that. Quite a number of the students are serving life sentences, and they seem no less diligent about their studies. But then, why would they be? In the words of Jody Lewen, who is director of the program,
Why would a person who might be in prison for a long time or even forever, why would that person need an education? I mean, I can't imagine that that person wouldn't need an education. What I guess it shows you, really, is the way we're programmed culturally to think about education, which is basically job training in the most sterile sense. In an educational sense, often they arrive starving...
(my lame transcription, with somewhat random punctuation, from the multimedia presentation on the front page of the Prison University Project's site.)
What happens when students do, for whatever reason, enroll in these college classes is that they - often for the first time - get exposed to an environment for intellectual inquiry, for expanding vocabulary, drawing distinctions, debating, writing. They thrive in it, often to their own surprise. Instructors whose day jobs include teaching free college students on the UC campus often remark on how much greater interest the San Quentin students display in their courses, how much more intensely they get involved.

But then, why wouldn't they be engaged? We should not ask for explanations for this fact, but rather wonder at the expectation that they would not. Most candidates for incarceration are severely undereducated, and learning meets an abiding human need.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Teaching Math at San Quentin

Any mention of teaching behind bars tends to elicit a degree of interest and even respect that is quite disproportionate to the task performed. In response to questions, here's an account of a typical evening of teaching inmates. Be warned, though, that this will be quite prosaic. Adrenaline-charged teaching happens in urban high schools. Teaching in prison is relatively uneventful.

There are, of course, a lot of security measures. Instructors sign in and show ID cards three times on their way to the classrooms, and on your first trip the clanging gates and metal detectors do make a bit of an impression. Soon all of this recedes into the background, however, and your mind focuses on the "teacher lounge" chatter as you wait in line after line. You discuss the evening's lesson, your plans for the weekend, the weather. The cs geeks wrap themselves in an incomprehensible exchange about some arcane programming issue and you laugh at them or ignore them (all the instructors are volunteers, and most are grad students at nearby colleges, and many are friends from the same research departments). The most exciting thing that ever happens is that some newbie gets caught for having absentmindedly brought in his or her cell phone and has to return to the car with it and go through each gate over again.

Once all security checkpoints are passed the Corrections Officer (CO) who supervises the building unlocks the classrooms. You pick up the box of materials for your class from the locker, take out the sign-in sheet, and start writing the agenda on the board. Students trickle in, and go about doing what they're supposed to do: they sign in, sharpen their pencils, take out their materials, and take notes or do practice problems or take quizzes. You lecture or tutor, as the case might be, and give students feedback on their work. The students ask questions and hand you answer as best you can. After about an hour there is a break, and the "close custody" students leave. You have about an hour after that for more teaching, but out of consideration for the students that must leave early you avoid covering new material.

When class is over you pack your materials back into the boxes, put the boxes into the locker, and troop to the first of three checkpoints to sign out. The discussions among the instructors on the way home are often similarly mundane: Why are fractions so hard for the students? What's a better way of explaining the Ruler Postulate? Is the pacing of the course appropriate? How can we improve communication among instructors who teach on different evenings? And do we want Mexican or Thai food for dinner?

You read all the way to the end? I told you it wouldn't be terribly exciting. You get on with teaching math and afterward you go home and sleep. Actually, I'm lying a bit: the instructor team, predominantly made up of Ph.D. students in Math or Science, is a pretty agreeable bunch to hang out with. I mean, if you're a public school teacher you've got to love a group of remarkably bright people whose strongest interests include Math or Science and equitable access to education. The dinner discussions after class can be really entertaining, and on one occasion we built a fire on the beach and toasted marshmallows under a starry sky before going home. So there's that. As far as level of pedagogical and interpersonal challenges go, however, it does not compare with high school teaching at all. In fact, the students' level of focus, interest in the material and general politeness make this teaching a pleasant and relaxed summer vacation activity.