Saturday, March 24, 2007

the notion of exceptionality: pros and cons

The penultimate lines of Robert Frost's "Directive" read as follows:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.

Frost is referring here to a curious passage in the Gospel according to Mark that reads:

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times."

Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding'; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!"

(Mark 4: 1-12, text from the New International Version)

Scholars in the Jesus Seminar think the parable is probably genuine, although the interpretation Jesus gives to this parable shortly afterwards (the birds are Satan, the thorns are "the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things") probably not.

The focus in this gospel on what most readers would acknowledge to be a bizarre interpretation of this unusual four-episode parable, and the insistence this places on the effect of Jesus's speaking in parables so that "the wrong ones . . . can't get saved," embodies one of the most resonant and memorable examples I know of the notion of exceptionality.

The Jesus Seminar scholars believe the interpretation segment of the gospel was probable written in about 80 AD, when the early Christian church was facing severe persecution by the Romans, and believers who openly prefessed their belief were putting their lives at peril. This makes sense to me. One way to keep the faithful true to their faith is to convince them that they can hear what others were not meant to hear, see what others were not meant to see.

And of course there is tremendous power in this notion of exceptionality. It fairly leaps off the screen in the altogether arresting portrayal of Erin Gruwell by Hilary Swank in the movie "Freedom Writers." For exceptional teachers like 23 year old Erin Gruwell to overcome the barriers that administrators and long-practiced school routines place before them, they are almost required to believe in their own exceptionality: able to "hear" what others cannot hear, "see" what others cannot see. Where else could they derive the strength and peserverance to continue their uphill climb against odds that have crushed so many other initially idealistic and hopeful young teachers?

And yet there is a downside to this understandable and perhaps necessary notion of exceptionality. It's become apparent to me in the last few weeks because of the difficulties our Writing Project has experienced forming a long-term partnership with a charter high school in our area.

The mission of this high school is extremely ambitious: to take students, mostly Latina or Latino, who are scoring in the bottom third of their 8th grade classes and to prepare them, by the time they reach the 12th grade, for entrance into one or another of the campuses of California's "top tier" public universities. To bring them, in other words, from the bottom 33% to the top 10% in four years.

It's no wonder, given such an ambitious and altogether laudable a mission, that this school tends to attract young teachers who are a lot like Erin Gruwell--convinced of their exceptionality, convinced that their personal mission is to do what older and more "veteran" teachers have long given up on, or perhaps never thought possible at any time in their teaching lives.

But such singularity of purpose comes at a price, it seems to me. When we've tried to encourage this young group of teachers to join with us "wisened veterans" in working collaboratively to improve our students' academic writing abilities, they've looked on us with a more-than-skeptical eye. "What would you know," they seem to be saying, "about taking ninth grade students with 2nd to 5th grade reading abilities and whipping them into shape over a four year period for entrance into UC campuses."

And I have to all but bite my tongue to avoid responding that in fact we know very little individually, but quite a bit collectively.

"And you?" I'm tempted to respond. "What about you?"

Monday, March 12, 2007

dirty dog david: reflections on "whole class intelligence"

Lewis Thomas has a rather remarkable essay, I believe in Lives of a Cell, that he calls simply "Living Language." He starts the essay, quite improbably, by recounting some recently conducted research on the nest building abilities of termites.

It seems that termites have the most advanced building abiliities in the animal kingdom. Outside of humans, of course. Termite nests in South America can run up to ten feet in diameter and several feet deep. That's about the size, Thomas notes, of New York City, relatively speaking, to the size of an individual termite. And these dwellings are not simple structures. They have sleeping rooms, food storage rooms, a room for the queen and her retainers, and so forth. Yet individual termites have a miniscule brain--the original pinheads. So how do they know how to build these elaborate underground structures?

To answer this question, a researcher studied smaller and larger collections of termites under laboratory conditions. Turns out that when a few termites were placed in a small dish with soil and pellets, they would rush around moving their pellets randomly from place to place. More termites, more random moving about of pellets. But when 25 or so termites were placed in the dish, they'd start building columns of pellets, and when these columns were built close enough to one another, the termites would connect them with a neatly finished off arch. And that arch, of course, was the basic "building block" of their elaborate underground edifices.

Termites could not build these edifices individually, the researher concluded. There had to be certain number of termites before they could "discover" their collective intelligence. It's like the English language, Thomas muses in his essay. There is no one author of this magnificent "acheivement"--it's the product of many many individual intelligences working collectively, feeding intellectually off one another.

I think the same thing is true of classrooms of students. Certainly we all have had classes where one or two students stood out as particularly gifted or talented in one way or another--most often linguistically in English classes. But what's far more impressive to me is how intelligent classes can become when they are encouraged to perceive themselves collectively rather than as a random collection of individuals.

I play a "name game" with my students at the beginning of each semester. Every student must not only tell the class his or her name, but must repeat all the names of all those who have already said their names. To enable students to do this, I tell them to the class their first name, then follow this with something they like or dislike that begins with the sound of their first name's letter or letters. So Diana dislikes dinasours, Lizzie likes lizards, and so forth. The next week I have them do the same thing, but now with an alliterative phase or pair of words that begins with the sound of the letter or letters of their first name.

In week two of the methods class I'm presently teaching, Diana began the Name Game by telling us she disliked dirty dogs. They are smelly, she explained, and they make a mess of your carpet. The class nodded, and proceeded. We came round to the final student--an older student named David who had informed us a week earlier that he enjoyed hiking in Denali National Park.

"I'm David," he told the group, "and I AM a dirty dog."

Classroom intelligence/