Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Apollo vs. Dionysus: Is teaching (and teacher evaluation) an art or a science?

"The universe divided
As the heart and mind collided
With the people left unguided
For so many troubled years
In a cloud of doubts and fears
Their world was torn asunder into hollow hemispheres"

                                   ("Hemispheres," by Rush)

I failed a college class once.  I was a high-school senior, sixteen at the time, and for some reason I decided to take a typing course at a local community college (Ohlone College in Fremont, California).  I was pretty sure it would be an easy A; I mean, it was… typing.  Duh.

I know, I know, shades of Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club. [Note: If the video doesn't work, the script's key lines are beneath the viewer. Sorry. If anyone finds this scene online, shoot me a link?]

But after a couple of weeks of “A-S-D-F, J-K-L-sem,” I couldn’t take it anymore. I started to lag on my touch-typing practice assignments.  I couldn’t focus.  Other students in the class were racing ahead of me.  I was… I was… struggling.

I stopped coming after week 6 or 7 and never went back. I got the “F” on my grade report in the mail. It was strangely surreal.  It almost felt like a rite of passage.  Or perhaps that’s all in historical retrospect.  Yeah, when it happened, at the time, I was pretty rotted (bit of Newfoundland slang courtesy of my Newfie wife).

I’m a pretty decent typist.  Even then, I wasn’t terrible.  I would clock in at around 40 words per minute (I think I’m probably around 50-55 now). My error rate wasn’t too bad either because I would always look at my fingers when I typed.  “Hunt and peck,” my teacher called it derisively.

I always wanted to be able to touch-type without having to look at what I was doing.  My mother, when I was in intermediate school, had a secretary who was an absolute whiz at typing – she could type 90-100 words per minute, and she didn’t even need to look at her fingers.  It was mesmerizing to watch her, much as I felt when would watch early MTV videos of Eddie Van Halen playing guitar. I was watching a master at work.

Try as I might, I was completely incompetent as a typist if I tried to do it the “proper” way.  But somehow, I had gotten it drilled into my head, in the short time I was in that class, that the “proper” way was what mattered.

I feel much better about myself now, and am a happy 50-wpm hunter and pecker.  Oh dear, that didn’t come out quite right…

I bring this up because I currently tech in a discipline – Composition – where process is everything, perhaps equally as important (to some, more so) than product.  But when I was an undergraduate, I never learned the Writing Process. In fact, the process of writing I developed for myself and subsequently engaged in would be scorned mightily by any modern-day college Comp teacher.  I think back to my Psychology 415 seminar at Cornell University, “Concepts, Categories and Word Meanings,” with Frank Keil, in which one 5-7 page paper was due each week.  We would be assigned a mountain of reading – good stuff too: language acquisition, philosophy of language, epistemology.  And then we would have to write a summary/review/critique, of sorts.

My “writing process” at the time consisted of the following steps:
•    Do the readings;
•    Think about them for a few days;
•    Go to a computer lab in the morning of the paper due date (class was at 1:15 pm);
•    Sit comfortably and spread my sources our around me in a grand parabola ;
•    Take a deep breath, reflect, and crack open a Snapple Cherry-Lime Rickey (why did Snapple ever stop selling sodas, anyway?);
•    Crank out a 5-7 page essay in 3-4 hours;
•    Go to class;
•    Get an A!
Somehow, my mind, on its own, always seemed to have conjured up a general sense of what I wanted to write, and an organic flow; my essays all had what I now recognize as the basic chunks of an essay: introduction, body, conclusion.  My transitions were seamless, and my wording punchy, erudite and with a definite personal "voice." How did I do that, without actually deliberately doing that?  I recently paid someone a small fortune to crack the corrupt hard drive on an ancient computer of mine, and I recovered all of my essays from that 1989 class and re-read them, as well as my 25-page final essay, "Towards a more defined theory of children's responses to transformations upon natural vs. artifactual kinds: A literature review and research prospectus," also written in the same fashion.

Not bad!

If you had asked me then, I might have told you that all of the traditional formative steps in the so-called Writing Process – organizing the information, brainstorming, pre-writing, even drafting – I did in my head.  I would never teach one of my Composition students that this was okay.  Do as I say, not as I do?

One size does not fit all.  So is talk of "process" just bunk?

Another anecdote.  When I lived in California, I used to frequent a particular Borders Bookstore in Milpitas (just south of Fremont and north of San Jose). One day, they had students there from a local massage school offering free massages, in what I can only imagine was that particular institution’s version of fieldwork for credit. I selected a practitioner and flopped down on the table for 10 minutes of bliss.

It was awful.

At various times during the “massage,” I signaled (first subtly, then eventually not so subtly) that it wasn’t working for me. It was mechanical, brutal, unpleasant.  She dismissed my concerns, and said she knew what she was doing.  As most of my massages up to that point had been of the, uh,  “amateur” type, I gave this “professional” a little leeway.  But soon, I had to terminate the massage.

The woman became upset with me, saying that what she was doing was supposed to feel good because her textbooks had told her so.  She had learned a fixed way of performing massage, and clove to it, and in the process, had formulated the opinion that if a client didn’t like it, it was the client’s fault.

I’ve seen this behavior many times since, primarily in two places: 
1.    In the delusional behavior of floundering chefs and restaurateurs (let me be very clear – there is NO SUCH WORD as restauranteur) given emergency attitude adjustments by such culinary heavyweights as Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine to save their failing establishments;
2.    In the equally delusional behavior of high school administrators who observe and evaluate teacher performance, and who seem to feel that: if teachers do not have exquisitely detailed daily lesson plans that indicate exactly what they plan to do; if teachers do not have their chalk/white boards partitioned into exactly the same prescribed sections (date, "essential question," objective, do-it-now, agenda, key terms, ticket-out-the-door); if teachers do not, over the course of a 50 or 55 or 75 minute-lesson, physically behave the same (usually, in lockstep adherence to whatever the administrators believe “the research” tells them teachers should be doing); then that teacher is de facto a “bad teacher,” and is evaluated as such.
With regard to the former, I will only say that despite the assistance provided by Chef Ramsay, something like 90% of these failing restaurants fail anyway. Why? They hold fast to their illusory prescribed norms instead of listening to the customers, the community, and common sense. With regard to the latter, I can only say that this madness is allowed to continually be perpetuated because it is imposed top-down by administrators who are desperate to “demonstrate” accountability.

Please note that “demonstrating” accountability is actually not the same as “being accountable." High school administrations concern themselves only with the most superficial indicators of teacher performance (does a teacher appear to be following certain prescribed “recipe” for teaching performance, whether or not s/he is actually producing good teaching is irrelevant), much as they concern themselves only with the most superficial indicators of student performance (test scores). When my evaluators would come to the classroom, they would not attend to the lesson itself; they barely even listened. Instead, they would have a lengthy checklist of clearly visible indicators to look for. If they were all there, that was all they needed, and they could comfortable make the leap of assuming that since all of the required components were there, the teaching was robust.

In 2000, I was observed by an assistant principal in my Spanish III class. The class was taught entirely in Spanish. The administrator spoke no Spanish. He had been a math teacher for 20-something years. Oh, we had a Spanish-speaking administrator on-staff – in fact, she was credentialed in the same three areas I was: English, Spanish, ESL – but staff evaluations were assigned by some mysterious process and that was just the way it was. Being a 3-level Spanish class, I conducted the entire class, start to finish, in the target language. The class went pretty well. Student participation was good. We reviewed homework. There were some class notes and discussion, a little guided practice. I assigned homework.  Everything went smoothly. I was pretty pleased.

Not my observer. Because I did not have clearly written objectives and an agenda on the board, he says, he was never able to get a clear sense of what that day’s lesson was. A lesson had to have a discrete start and finish, with some kind of assessment, and those phases had to be clearly discernible. Each days’ lesson should accomplish one defined measurable objective. Mine did not, as far as he could tell.
“Uh, but Sir, you do not speak Spanish. The whole lesson was in Spanish.”
“Good teaching is good teaching. It’s evident. I know it when I see it.”
Like pornography, huh?

If you are not familiar with the awesome and wonderful scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams's Mr. Keating first meets his class, now is a good time to familiarize yourself.  Go ahead, view for a few minutes. I'll wait right here.  Good teachers are Mr. Keating. But Common Core, NCLB, Race to the Top, and the school administrators mindlessly enforce their mandates and embrace them as gospel are all Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD.

Hold on, now.  Maybe I’m going too far, being too simplistic.  

Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts, deflated some of the out-of-contraol romanticization of, and schooled me but good in, my post Dead Poets' Society teacher-worship when he wrote in 2009: “In the end, the extreme rationalist and the extreme romantic are more alike than they know.” Damn. I hate to admit it, but that's sage advice right there.

“The great pendulum is poised to swing back from the heart to the head, but as this movie confirms, we poets and nonpoets alike are “dead” inside unless we honor both,” he added.

So there is, or must be, some kind of middle ground. There must be some science mixed in to the art of teaching, and by extension, teacher evaluation. A little bit of Apollo mixed in with the Dionysus.

But how?

I’m just A.S.K.ing…

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