Monday, June 18, 2018

#Ranciere18 - Part of Your World - A Guest Post by Nick Dressler

It’s kind of fun to do the impossible
-Walt Disney

I’m not the kind of teacher who works for the summer, but don’t get me wrong: I like a good vacation.  Two weeks is about right.  Just enough time to take the family somewhere nice, see some sights, try some new food, maybe—procure a little inspiration.  Then it’s back home for summer school, a couple enrichment camps, and a little gardening before the term starts back up again in August.  Perfect.
This year, my wife and I found ourselves a little antsier than usual, so after school let out for the summer, we jetted off to the UK.  That’s right, reader: London, England.  The capitol of Western culture.  We hit the streets as soon as we landed and enjoyed a quick drink on top of some Yorkshire fish and chips.  Delicious.  When we finished, though, my imploring glance toward my wife was met with a silent riposte and furrowed brow that said it all: “This isn’t up to snuff; let’s get out of here.”  I’m not one to say no to my wife, so we moved on to France, straight away.  Paris, more specifically.  The capitol of Western culture.  Enchantee, Paris.  Immediately, we did the Paris café thing.  Dark coffee, magnifique.  The crème brulee, tres bonne.   Absolute paradise, it was; my little family seated under an umbrella beside some old-looking red brick streets, my little children wiping their cute little mouths of croissant crumbs with cute little napkins, not a care in the world; me—as we speak—drawing my laptop from my backpack for a hasty blog about education.  On my left wrist: a handy, ironic eighties calculator watch that most people think is a Walter White thing, or maybe an homage to that kid from Stranger Things, but the truth is it’s the same watch Ryan Gosling wears in Half Nelson; I bought it immediately after I saw that movie, when Bryan Cranston supported Frankie Muniz and those Stranger Things kids’ parents were seeing off the very decade the show would reference some two decades later.  That’s right: I out hipster the hipster, everyone.  I was there first.  On the other hand, literally, on my right wrist, I sport a blue, rubber Micky Mouse Magic Band with which I can purchase anything at any of the parks, eyes blinded to the bloody cataracts of capital streaming from my wallet.  It drips quietly, the money.  Gone without a whimper.  It also opens my hotel room door.  I am quite the contradiction, nowadays.
Oh, did I forget to mention?  By London and Paris, I meant their miniature, Mouse-sanctioned simulations, as featured at Epcot Center—my family and I are in Disney World, of course; we didn’t even need to cross the Atlantic and we were hand-delivered the highlights of Europe right to our faces, right to our eyes, right down our distended gullets.  Eliminated are the inconveniences of international travel: no extra flight, no unnecessary walking, no dirt or grime in the streets, no pesky foreigners, and no awkward fumbling through un petit peu de francais.  I don’t even need to crane my neck to view the top of the Eiffel Tower as the good people at Disney have condensed it down to just a third of its actual size. What we have is all we want, just a distilled version of England and France right here in the culturally comfortable humidity-hug of sun kissed Florida, USA.  Disney has even shipped in some incredibly qualified English and French citizens to work as waiters in these countries.  Anything for authenticity at Disney World; anything in the name of fun.

All disingenuity aside, I have to admit this Disney World is, if anything, creative, even if it triggers night sweats in Baudrillard.  I consider the different rides and shows and architecture examples of some very innovative people bringing worlds of fiction to life, which is, for me as an English teacher, part of the daily challenge of my job.  These guys, though, they’ve got it down.  Every single detail. Before we left for the park this morning, for instance, we took a dip in our hotel’s Finding Nemo themed pool where my six-year-old son heard audio from the movie piped into the water itself only to be heard when a swimmer dips his head beneath the surface.  Incredulous, he returned to my pool chair.  “You were right dad; Disney world is awesome!”  Just wait, my son, you haven’t even seen the parks yet.  It was like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” all over again: I can try to describe it for him, but until he experiences it, he will not—he cannot—fathom my description. 
And here is where my two current ventures—Disney vacations and Ranciere texts—intersect (I’m the only one reading Ranciere at mini-France, believe it or not).  Disney world, with all its creative magnificence, stupefies us, which, as Kristen Ross explains, “implies a sense of wonderment or amazement” (7) to the point of inaction.  Disney is attractive, sure, and to the right audience, it can be inspirational.  I imagine, for example, a select group of young visitors go on to lead creative lives after sampling the Disney wares and might even offer their trip to Disney World as a formative experience.  But for the vast majority, Disney World is the goal in-and-of itself.  It’s not a starting point; it’s the end—save up enough money to get the family to Disney, swallow the oily spoonfuls of their fully ripened creative juices, return home, repeat.  For these, Disney world is not creative emancipation from the shackles of possibility that it might be for some.  No, Disney World is the illusion itself—that fetishized social opium that keeps the masses content, quiet, and, more importantly, homogenous.  The people at Disney don’t want my kids, their customers, to go on to lead creative lives, they want my kids to come back to Disney World, to watch their programming, to develop a sense of brand loyalty so my kids buy into the product Disney offers.  Going to Disney World alone becomes a sort of American Dream—a carrot just large enough to galvanize we languid mules through the drudgery of our quotidian lives, be it school or that inhuman rat-race known as the working world.
© BANKSY - photomontage of Napalm Girl by Nick Ut 
This is the problem with capitalism.  Not only are there winners and losers, but these positions are entirely liquid.  Winners don’t have to stay there de jure as they did by virtue of being born into the upper classes during feudalism.  Winners in a capitalism must necessarily become conservative to protect their spots at the top.  Generation upon generation legally exploit the lower classes of their product—their economic capital, their social capital, their creative capital—sometimes stupefying but always stultifying the ambitious proletarian to inaction, failure, and conviction of personal futility.
As part of the capitalistic superstructure, then, our schools must do the exact same thing, only we the teachers take on the role of Disney World and our stakeholders the park-goers.  Our job is to make the content stand on its head.  We’re supposed to interpret it, jazz it up, decorate our rooms with it, relate it to the lives or our students, to contemporary events—we spoon-feed material to our students the same way Disney stuffs our faces with their productions, and, trust me, they learn to eat it, and ask for more if need be.  And although some of our students go on to use what we have taught them to enhance their lives morally and materially, the vast majority learn to play our game simply to graduate to the next grade until they are eventually finished with the ordeal altogether, school being nothing more than a necessary obstruction to the commencement of their actual lives when they graduate from the university. 
I don’t think we teachers do this consciously, so don’t take this as an accusation, as such; however—and Ranciere is clear here—teachers who explicate, despite positive intentions, do nothing to raise their students and, in fact, create a stultifying gap between their intelligence and their students’ the same way Disney World does between their “cast-members” and their fans.  Disney claims only to show, to entertain, to present, not to encourage or improve.  They don’t want you to match their levels of creativity, they want you to hemorrhage bucketfuls of capital into their mouse-eared buckets because you cannot and never will be able to do what they do.  And you know it.  And after you spend your year regenerating your capital, they want you to do it again.  Same goes for schools.  Pay us to enrich you.  Take a break.  Go to Disney World, for crying out loud.  See France and England while you’re there.  See Morocco.  But after that, you come back and do it again and again.  Always come back to school, the unending circle of power from which there is no messiah and no redemptive nirvana.
From Sir Ken Robinson's Changing Education Paradigms
So what do we do?  Even if Ranciere provides what proves to be the perfect recipe for success, it’s not like our school system is in any shape even to absorb such a teaching philosophy—not when grade point averages, standardized test scores, and college scholarships rule the roost.  After all, Ranciere admits that, while Jacotot’s method proves students can and will learn anything they want to, what they want to learn might be nothing at all.  I don’t know about you, but if my students learn “nothing at all,” I am out of a job, and my progressive philosophy of teaching statement will do nothing to hinder the executioner’s ax.  So, again, what do we do?
I recommend starting small.  Winston Smith small.  We can’t expect a total overhaul of the school system at once; it’s the little rebellions that lead to reform.  Change what we can in our classrooms.  Pick one assignment if we have to—one activity, one policy, one discussion.  If we really believe what Ranciere says, we need to get the momentum moving in the right direction, and change will come.  Organic food hasn’t always been available at local chain grocery stores, has it?  But it is now.  Something changed for the better, and the results are there for all to benefit.

This has been a post by Nick Dressler (@nick_dressler) for the #Ranciere18 reading project. Go here to see the google doc, and go here to join the group.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

#Ranciere18 - Check out Nate Green's post "Why I don't Teach Content Anymore (joking, but not really)"

Nate Green from Flint Hill School posted a reflection on his blog today for the #Ranciere18 reading project. The title of his post is "Why I Don't Teach Content Anymore (joking, not really)", which can be found here. Check it out and leave a comment.

Want to join the #Ranciere18 project? There's still time; go here to view our google doc. Message me on Twitter (@jcolley8) or email me ( if you'd like to be an editor to the doc.

You can sign up for the group by going here, and don't forget you can always follow parts of the conversation on Twitter at the hashtag, #Ranciere18.

Upcoming blog posts:

Nick Dressler will be posting something here sometime tomorrow.

I plan to post something as well sometime this weekend on the differences between Jacotot's and Socrates' methods when it comes to instructing pupils.

Next week, we'll be reading Chapter 3 "Reason Between Equals" with more blog posts to come.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

#Ranciere18 - One Student, One Intelligence: A Case for Making Learning Personal, A Guest Post by Nick Dressler

My dog died yesterday. She was a thirteen-year-old epileptic basset hound on whom we spent an ungodly amount of money, first on an MRI to rule out a brain tumor as the cause of her convulsions, then on a surgery to remove a grapefruit-sized tumor from the base of her tail, and then on two medications that worked well to assuage her initial tremors but failed to control the fifteen or so consecutive seizures that saw her euthanized just eighteen hours ago. She brought us a lot of happiness over the years, Margo, and she led a full life surrounded by an adoring extended family and some creative, energetic children—neither of which makes the loss any easier, but both of which have generated memories more indelible than even her ashes in my mother-in-law’s backyard—Margo’s favorite place in the world.

I tell you this for no other reason than because I can hardly write anything anymore without some kind of personal anecdote as a lead-in. On one hand, such reflection plunges me into that concentrated mode of introspection necessary to disinter the amorphous abstract muck lurking somewhere between my subconscious internal dialogue and my primitive animal instincts. It puts me in the writing zone, so to speak: it’s like the squint and gaze needed before you view one of those Magic Eyes from the nineties (Remember Magic Eyes? Remember the nineties?). Just look past the picture—the thing—pull it away from your face, and there it is: the radically three-dimensional hidden image. Yes, the personal anecdote unlocks my ability to communicate from the depths whether or not there is even an audience to read what I write, and it ensures the authenticity, I find, of whatever comes next in the manuscript as the eventual subject of the piece rises from the same place as the memory of the actual experience that has formed me—whatever I am, whatever “I” is. Secondly, the personal story transports the reader from their real-life into the abstract thesis of the manuscript by creating a space in which writer and reader—the two parties in the transaction—find the common ground before splitting hairs later in the essay. You are human; I am, too such an introduction implies, and, as far as I’m concerned, that is the commonality required for the intercommunication of our deepest, most nuanced ideas. It’s a little bit like mapping out the exact longitude and latitude to set sail for a potentially lucrative undersea treasure hunt as opposed to selecting some random spot, jumping in, and having a look around. The sailing? Not the point, and it requires a different set of skills than does diving, but without it, good luck excavating that wreck—you won’t even make it to the diving, even though that’s what you set out to do in the first place.

I’ve taken a substantial amount of criticism for this habit over the course of my formal schooling. Less so in grade school, of course, but the disapproval increased in direct proportion to my progression through high school, undergraduate, and grad school. Don’t use a personal pronoun, obviously we’ve all seen that one, but also it’s a solipsism to assume anyone cares about your personal experiences. Wow. That’s quite a charge. I do see where the comment comes from: overreliance on the personal anecdote can imply a certain self-importance, I suppose, as if to suggest all of the writer’s individual experiences matter toward the discussion of some, perhaps, more important, more socially relevant discussion of literature, or philosophy, et al. However, this is true only for the idealist, who insists his ideas reign supreme over the natural world. The materialist, though, claims no power over the world around him and, as such, his experience is only an effect or symptom—one possible result—of the sum total of his external stimuli instead of some Romantic, magical idea he implemented of his own, God-given volition. I view each person as a puzzle piece in a larger, ever changing truth: we each have a bit of a picture on our front (our perspective), and the solipsism would be in believing as the guards in Plato’s cave do that said image is the total truth. In reality (again: whatever that is), these perspectives matter only when fastened together with their neighbors’ to unearth the larger, more complete picture—human nature, our species-nature, as Marx would have it. I see a lot of good, in the personal anecdote, maybe even a great necessity in sharing individual stories as toward the goal of communal understanding and so insist when a teacher chastises a student for sins against the old covenant of writing or history or what-have-you, that teacher fetishizes intelligence and divides society into those who have (the teacher himself, in this scenarios) and those who lack (the student)—convenient enough for the teacher: the only one who can give what he has. The student, in this case, pursues the approval and then the endorsement of the teacher in order to have learned the material, thus rendering powerful the teacher, the one who gives what he has, and leaving powerless the student, the one who takes what she has not. Good teachers subvert this relationship.

But how to do so? I’ve long theorized that our traditional school system creates two mutually exclusive versions of the same student—one who learns skills and content in school for school’s sake, and another who feels free, acts naturally, and learns life skills outside of the classroom. The first version switches on at the beginning of the school day and enters hibernation at the final bell; the second one, the real one, takes over during all the other times, the fun times, the authentic times, the times that involve emotion and common sense and personal growth and heartache and success. The second version actively switches to the first only to as a means to an end: a college admission, graduation, and reception into the workforce—exactly when the second version takes over full stop and real life can begin. When first version disappears so do the knowledge and skills it acquired as part of traditional schooling. Up in smoke. Floating around the atmosphere like the rocket that propels the shuttle through the Earth’s atmosphere before detaching itself never to return. And yet, for as many Marxist and/or Structuralist philosophers and cultural critics I’ve studied in my day, I never have come across someone who pinpoints a similar argument as the one I have limned here until I met Ranciere in The Ignorant Schoolmaster who suggests, “There is not a popular intelligence concerned with practical things and a scholarly intelligence devoted to abstract thought. It is always the same intelligence at work.” Right on the money. In other words: the classroom must be a place in which the school teacher encourages natural behavior from the students—the same behavior the student exhibits outside of the classroom. The student should bring herself as she is into the room every day and should practice skills each period that directly affect that authentic person.

To use a sporting analogy, since I used to play and coach basketball: one of the coach’s biggest challenges when designing a practice session is to engender the same intensity from the players that they naturally exhibit in the game so the plays and skills and techniques they learn in practice may be applied when the chips are down and each play actually counts toward the result of a contest—the reason the players play in the first place. It serves neither the coach nor the players if the coach creates two versions of each player—one who practices and one who plays the game—for the second version will not perform the skills of the first when the chaos of the game obfuscates the lessons learned in practice. One player who performs at the same intensity all the time, that’s the type who succeeds. The same is true for the student: one kid, one set of skills, one sense of humor, one subjective experience. Not two. Two only muddies the water. Encourage their authenticity in the classroom—practice equality as Ranciere encourages us to do—and the knowledge and skills they encounter and perfect will serve to ameliorate exactly that authentic person, and that person alone.

This has been a post by Nick Dressler (@nick_dressler) for the #Ranciere18 reading project. Go here to see the google doc, and go here to join the group.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

#Ranciere18 - Why I'm Done with Paper Prompts (kind of joking, but not really...): An Imagined Conversation with Jacques Ranciere and Lucy McCormick Calkins

A group of us are investigating and discussing Jacques Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster (go here so see the Google Doc and go here to join the group), and this is the end of our first week. Starting Monday, we'll be reading Chapter One "An Intellectual Adventure." You can also find more activity at the hashtag, #Ranciere18. However, I'm also reading other materials for various projects, which brings me to Lucy McCormick Calkins's seminal study, The Art of Teaching Writing, a work I decided to return to this summer for two reasons: I'm beginning to revisit our writing curriculum at The Oakridge School, and I'm starting to prep ideas for a deep dive session on the topic that I'll be facilitating with Joel Backon at OESIS Boston this October. This is just one more reason my stack of summer reading has already become a sizable collection of titles, and here's what's on deck (Please! Any recommendations on the topic of teaching writing would be much appreciated, just leave a comment below!):

Last night, I reread the opening chapter of Calkins's The Art of Teaching Writing and immediately I had to close the book. The connections to Rancière were overwhelming. Perhaps I'm a hammer who can only see nails right now, but the parallels were undeniable. Each thinker was making a radical claim about how we should see students as equally capable from the outset, no matter their level of performance, and each writer was raising concerns about how schools can sometimes get in the way of seeing students for who they actually are. Consequently, we confront the problem of passive students who resist learning.

A quick overview of core principles for Rancière's project:

So why bring this up in a post whose title calls for the abolition of paper prompts? And how does it relate to Calkins's opening chapter in The Art of Teaching Writing?

Consider the following two quotes:

The ignorant schoolmaster exercises no relation of intelligence to intelligence. He or she is only an authority, only a will that sets the ignorant person down a path, that is to say to instigate a capacity already possessed, a capacity that every person has demonstrated by succeeding, without a teacher, at the most difficult of apprenticeships: The apprenticeship of that foreign language that is, for every child arriving in the world, called his or her mother tongue (J. Rancière's "On Ignorant Schoolmasters" from Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation).

Human beings have a deep need to represent their experience through writing... But in our schools, our students tell us they don't want to write (Lucy Calkins's The Art of Teaching Writing).

Step back for a second and observe these two fundamental truths about all humans: (1) we learned to do one of the most difficult, complex tasks without the aid of explicit, direct instruction: we learned to speak "the mother tongue" and (2) we have a deeply ingrained need to tell our stories, but schools have a way of making students forget that.

Why is there a disconnect?

Calkins makes the case that, while we're good at stimulating/motivating students to write on certain occasions, we have a much harder time "helping young people become deeply and personally involved in their writing," such that we cultivate the skills necessary for empowering lifelong writers who no longer resist the invitation to write for themselves as well as for others.

Unfortunately, much of what we do with students when it comes to writing in an academic context amounts to inauthentic writing occasions where "we set up roadblocks to stifle the natural and enduring reasons for writing, and then we complain that our students don't want to write" (Calkins 4). It becomes all the more dismal when teachers accept the students' resistance to such occasions as a natural reaction. Rancière would counter such a scenario proclaiming, "we [cannot] accept this passivity as the inevitable context of our teaching" (Calkins 4). All students, says Rancière, are equally intelligent; all students have something to say. Therefore, all students can (and want to) write.

So how do we prompt students to reawaken what we already know to be unmistakably in them, namely the desire to write?

One of the roadblocks that stifles student writing is our tendency to want "to make them into writers" - to assume they're not there yet, but a worse hindrance to our cause is a certain assumption we must unpack that often comes with the good, teacherly intention of providing students with "writing prompts." Consider what Lucy Calkins writes when reflecting on the idea of "motivating writing":

I was being patronizing. In Rancière's terms she had assumed the role of "explicator" which "stultified" any natural inclination on the part of the student to take responsibility for his/her equal capacity to say something and thereby be heard by an audience of equal intellects.

We as teachers know a lot, and can craft a plethora of paper prompts to verify it. However, "our children are no different. They, too, have rich lives. In our classrooms we can tap the human urge to write if we help students realize that their lives are worth writing about" (Calkins 6), which gets me to the title of my blog post. I need to write less paper prompts and start listening more closely to my students' uniquely rich experiences. I need to empower them to learn how to construct their own prompts, albeit ones that satisfy two demands of our vocation. First of all, students need to relate their learning to their personal experiences in ways that make it relevant for them, and secondly, they need to learn to write for informal and professional audiences that demand them to bring their experiences outside themselves and in contact with a world that's beyond their wildest imaginations. This is one way we can make a step in the right direction when it comes to getting students more deeply and personally involved in their writing, but we have to treat them as writers from the outset. It's not a goal: it's a human reality, a natural capacity akin to early language acquisition.

Someone once asked Lucy Calkins What is essential in teaching writing?, to which she responded, "For me, it is essential that children are deeply involved in writing, that they share their texts with others, and that they perceive themselves as authors" (9). I. couldn't. agree. more. We have to write a lot about things that matter to us, and we have to have authentic audiences (beyond the teacher and classroom peers), but for Rancière the third point may be the most essential: Students have to perceive themselves as authors.

When reading this, I was reminded of a passage from The Ignorant Schoolmaster where Rancière discusses the notion that all humans have the capacity to be painters (an obvious analogy to his claim about the equality of all intelligences). Provocatively, he asserts, "It's not a matter of making great painters; it's a matter of making the emancipated: people capable of saying, 'me too, I'm a painter,' a statement that contains nothing in the way of pride, only the reasonable feeling of power that belongs to any reasonable being. There is no pride in saying out loud: 'Me too, I'm a painter!' Pride consists in saying softly to others: 'You neither, you aren't a painter'" (66-67).

There is no pride in saying out loud: 'Me too, I'm a painter!' Pride consists in saying softly to others: 'You neither, you aren't a painter'
Me too, I'm a writer! That's what I want to hear from every student who enters my classroom. And never will I pridefully say to a student: "You know. Maybe writing is not your thing." What I will be saying more to students is write about something that matters to you. What story do you want to tell and why? But this means I need to write less paper prompts and think of ways to inspire students to frame their own questions.