Becoming with books

If you have never done the homework you assign your students, you really should. While we don’t have the time to do all of the work we assign our students, there are times where we really should. This seems the best way to make sure that the work we give them is really good for them, or if it is assigned because that is what we are supposed to do.

Recently, I had my AP English Language and Composition class read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” For a pre-reading activity, I asked them to complete the following writing:

Describe your early experiences with reading. Spend some time examining your history with reading. Do you still enjoy reading for fun? Are you a victim of letting school get in the way of your reading for pleasure (my many apologies for allowing this class to get in the way of your enjoyment of our readings from time to time (a very sad irony))? What are some of the earliest books you read? What do books mean to your family (feel free to include pictures if you have a family library)? If you have never enjoyed reading, why is that? How do you acquire stories? And whatever else might pop into your mind.

I figured I would do this one with my students. A bit long, but it is below. Happy reading, and feel free to share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments. Again, my thanks for reading.


If you were a member of my family, you read books. From the moment my brother or I could hold a book, our parents put one in our hands. Once we could sound out words, we were reading to our parents. The moment we could read larger books, we were given access to our parent’s library. The library was a room so sacred, food was not allowed, this in a house where ash trays were primary decor, a house where stacks of books lay in piles to be read, piles to be returned, and piles to be put away. The library was the only place my parents came close to consider putting out a cigarette or cigar. Close.

In 1974, we moved to Albuquerque from Alexandria, to a neighborhood where my parents were the lone east coast liberals in a place full of defense contractors. Hailing from New York City, my parents had grown accustomed to having dwelling with only living space, the idea of a garage was foreign to them. When they bought a house with a two car garage, they immediately set to remodeling. They got rid of the garage and turned it into a library. The walls were lined with built in book shelves, In the middle  of the space was a reading couch and a desk. They set aside space for my dad’s stereo system and his dark room for a photography business that never quite turned out. 

My parents read with abandon. Anytime they were still, which was frequent, they had a book. If they were watching TV, they had books. If they were sitting outside, they had books. After my father cast his fishing line into a lake, he placed his pole in a nook in his chair, and with his bobber floating many yards away, he sat back in that chair and read. My father hated going into the stores, so while mom did the shopping, he sat in the car and read a book. Sometimes I would stay and read with him. Those quiet moments with my father, sitting in the car with the windows rolled down, a cross breeze running through the car carrying the scent of his cigar, and the only sound was that of pages turning, those are some of my fondest memories of books. And my father.

• • •

My first real book was Watership Down. It was all the rage in 1977. My brother read it. My best friend read it. His older brothers read it. My parents read it (likely because we were all reading it, though they drew the line with sharing our books when we all started reading Tolkein’s books). Watership Down is the story of a warren (I distinctly remember looking “warren” up. If you’re in a house of readers, there will likely be an honest love and respect of words – which means there are several heated arguments over the meaning of words, which ends when someone consults the large family dictionary – which I did to learn the meaning of the word “warren.”) of rabbits. The warren is destroyed and the rabbits are forced to leave and reestablish their lives elsewhere. As they do, they are confronted with a variety of struggles from within their warren and outside of it. It is a delightful story about foundations and redemption told thought a bunch of anthropomorphized rabbits. Everything an eight year old boy could want.

LibraryOne of our family jokes was that if either my brother or I walked in and our parents were not reading, then we likely would have walked out of the house in horror, fearing we had entered the wrong house. So present were books and reading in my family, thus, when I stopped reading in middle and high school, there were quiet threats of disowning me. I would like to blame this stoppage on the death of Greg, my best friend, but that seems too convenient (though likely the real cause). Reading  provides a delightful escape from reality, so why wouldn’t I use it after Greg died? Perhaps because Greg and I read books together. There is an innocence there. An innocence of two young boys sitting on the couch reading books and talking about them. If he and I were not outside, we were reading in one of our perspective houses. When he died that summer between fifth and sixth grade, coincidentally, so did my love of reading.

After both of my parents died, my brother and I had to decide what to do with those books. My parents had outgrown their library as the weekly trips to The Menaul Book Exchange, the used bookstore of choice, had gotten the best of them. The house burst at the seams from thrillers, rose books, garden books, history books, mysteries, philosophy, essay collections, comedies, and whatever may have grabbed their attention on their weekly pilgrimage to that book store. I say their pilgrimage, but when my brother and I were younger, our weekends involved at least one trip to the library and often The Menaul Book Exchange. My parents did not hoard, unless it came to books. A trait which I have inherited. When it came time to clean their house, 24 years since I had moved out, books had moved in to occupy the spaces my brother and I had once occupied. When we cleaned the house, we divided the books into three rooms: books we wanted to keep, books to give to the New Mexico Rose Society, and books to donate to charity. I didn’t take that many. I have since become a different reader. I wanted the love and memories reading those books carry with them to be shared with another who needs to share in their scent and their words and their love.

My reading moratorium lasted until college. Sure, I read books for classes, but not for love. Not to learn for myself. Not to grow as a person. Not to inquire as a thinker. I read because I had to. I didn’t absorb my reading to my own knowledge base, I didn’t take that shared knowledge and make it personal. I almost hate to admit this, but I started reading for pleasure again because of girls. I realized that the girls I liked, liked guys who could read a book. So I began the process of rediscovering my love of books and the power of the written word. And I have not left it since.

So here I am, 30 years since resuming reading, four years since my mother died, more than 45 years since I started reading on my own and aloud to my parents, and I now have a library of my own. When I remodeled my house a few years ago, I made sure I had a space dedicated to mine and Felicia’s books. Included is plenty of space for Zoey, Felicia’s daughter, to have her own books alongside our books. The room is a space to sit, listen to music, read, and talk. It is a space to grow. It is a space to learn. It is a space to become. For that is the power of books and the power of words: we can become.

Design your ideal school: Using skills to complete a task

I have two PBLs going at the moment. This week, I will explore and reflect on the progress of the one in me senior English class. Mind you, these students are those that are quite disengaged with the whole school process. These are the kids who have not found much meaning in school. We go back and fourth about the purpose of school. What I have come to realize form these conversations is that they (and maybe us to a certain degree) mistake “skills” for tasks.”

They seem to think school should teach them menial tasks: write a check (When they say this, I draw a blank check on the board, show them what goes where, remind them that they likely will write fifteen checks a year, and ask if they will never again mention that writing a check is a skill.), how to change a tire (I show them a video on YouTube), how to do this and do that. The list goes on. And in the end, we have a talk about tasks versus skills.

Completing a task takes skills, skills that school teaches through the completion of given tasks. What many schools don’t do well is communicating the skills being used to complete a task and how those skills are used outside of that task.

My first PBL with these students is to design their ideal school (click and you will have access to the assignment and all necessary documents). If you look through it, you will see I make heavy use of the LAUNCH model. LAUNCH-CycleI chose the ideal school so that we could begin the year with an honest conversation about what they expect from school. Especially as they get ready to leave it. I want them the have an opportunity to realize the skills they need and use and have used in order to complete tasks of any levels are skills they will need as they move on.

Part of this is a language issue: I use the words “skills” and “tasks” at every turn with my classes. Along the way, students and schools seem to have confused the terms “skills” with “tasks.” Anyone can complete a task, it is a skill that requires refinement and development. Schools exist to facilitate the learning and acquisition of skills. It is up to the teacher and the school to remind students that the curriculum is naught but a vehicle to teach and utilize and reinforce a skill that can be used beyond math, history, science, art.

In my district, our superintendent has asked that we reinforce what he calls Jeffco Generations. These are closely related to 21st century skills, which many states and districts are tying into a variety of capstones and projects. What’s difficult is many schools continue to focus on “what” in a world increasingly dominated by “how.”  This is where so many of my frustrations come from: when we focus on content and not the skills, many students feel disengaged and lack empowerment.

Types-of-Student-Inquiry

I just handed this PBL out a couple of weeks ago. While the PBL’s inquiry is quite structured, so far students are mostly engaged. Many are demonstrating the skills I hope to see. When I have to engage them in some activity outside of the PBL, they moan that they are not working on their ideal school. However, they have realized that the activities outside of the PBL are designed to support their PBL by providing necessary context in order to provide a more solid foundation for their inquiry. Moreover, these activities assist in the skills they should be using to complete the tasks both inside and outside the PBL.

As it wraps up in a few weeks I will post my reflections. Until then, please take a look at the assignment and let me know what you think. Is there anything I can do better? Please let me know in the comments.

 

Writing to reflect: For the Horde!

Confession: I drive a Subaru Forester. In Colorado this is about as common as a lodgepole pine tree is in our forests. I would be lying if I said I never walked up to another Forester and wondered why my remote wasn’t working to unlock the door. After one last frustrating moment of trying to locate my Subaru in a forest of Subarus (don’t even get me started on trying to find my car in an REI parking lot), I decided mine needed a marker of sorts. Actually, Felicia suggested I should mark it.

Felicia drives a Honda Pilot, which is not as common as a Subaru mind you, but common enough that she has walked up to the wrong car, and has been sitting in her car when another person mistook Felicia’s Pilot for her own. An awkward situation to say the least. So Felicia put a “Sailor Moon” window sticker on her car so as to easily mark it.

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Felicia’s Sailor Moon sticker

This has done wonders for both of us in locating her car in crowded lots. Each time it has been used or each time we would have difficult time locating my car, she would bring it up and tell me I should get a something to mark my car, too. However, I have always had a no sticker policy on my cars, which drove my deceased wife nuts, especially during political season.

But my policy has changed. After a frustrating moment trying to find my car in a forest of Foresters, I decided enough is enough. I spent a few days trying to decide with what to mark my car, and I decided on the symbol for the Horde from World of Warcraft (WOW). 

Before explaining why I chose the decal I did, I need to step back for a moment. I do my best to teach my students that writing to reflect is a process we do in order to arrive at a better understanding of a situation of an issue or ourselves. As our students are young, they have so little upon which to reflect. When we ask them to reflect, it is often thin and superficial at best. We have to remember they are still in midst of deciding their truths and their opinions. I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines that you can’t write about Paris while you’re still in Paris. I still have a difficult time writing about my deceased wife as the experience is still being processed. Don’t get me wrong, I have written a bit here and there, but nothing I am still working on arriving at some truths and realizations since her passing four years ago. In other words, I am still in Paris.

So, when I decided it would a Horde symbol to mark my car, I thought and reflected on what my years of playing WOW did for me as a teacher and as a person. WOW provided me an opportunity to explore myself as a writer and a thinker. One of my former students, Ben Kendrick (he has no idea the debt of gratitude I owe him), would become a mentor for me as a writer. He was an editor for Gamerant, a website dedicated to video games. Over a few drinks at a mutual friend’s wedding, I told him that I played WOW and shared an essay I had written about it. A few months later, he asked me if I wanted to write a weekly column about the game for Gamerant. I took his offer and for a few years, I wrote a weekly column called World of Warcraft Wisdom (hence my Twitter handle).

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Is there any question as to why I need a sticker?

Those years writing that column shaped me in so many ways as a writer and a thinker. It gave me a platform to explore my thoughts and ideas on culture and the role games play. It helped me hone my skills as a writer. More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach to my students.

There is so much that goes into personal reflection and reflection writing. In so many ways, what makes it difficult for students to find the meaning in their experiences and their views is that they are still in Paris. For many, they hold their opinions and ideas on their sleeves with so little consideration as to where they came from because they are still developing these opinions and ideas. Our students can tell you what they think, but they have a difficult time exploring why they think what they think.

The set up for reflection writing is very important, so much of it comes from the questions we pose as teachers. It’s not enough simply to ask our students to write about a significant experience. I often structure reflection writing through a series of small questions that become larger, open ended questions. After some pre-writing activities and their answers in mind, they are free to put it all together and discern the significance and meaning from whatever it is they are reflecting.

In this essay, for example, consider the questions I have asked and answered about why I chose a World of Warcraft decal to mark my car. From the very simple (When did you play WOW? What side did you play?); to a bit more reflective (How did you get the writing gig? Why did you need a sticker?); to a bit more open ended and thoughtful (Why did you change your no sticker policy, anyway? You’re 49 years old, why the heck are you still identifying with a video game?). And these questions do not even include the meta aspect of this writing!

When I ask my students to write reflective essays after a project or an essay they have written for class, I often use a Google Form to collect their responses and thinking. Each question they answer on the Form gets progressively open ended. The assignment will dictate the questions I have them answer (either for pre-writing or post activity reflection). When they are done and we have conferred on their responses, they are ready to find the meaning of whatever it is that I am asking them to find. They are, in short, ready to arrive at a better, more clear and personal understanding.

When I finally decided that it was time for a decal, I had my choice narrowed down to two decals: the Horde and the Colorado Avalanche hockey team logo. The debate in my head was not too long. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Avs. In the hockey world the Avs are the good guys, everyone else is ok (and then there is the wild (I refuse to capitalize their name), who are just plain wrong). But when I think about what has played a more significant role in shaping who I am today, there was a clear winner. Mind you, I have not played WOW in quite sometime, but I still consider those years writing and playing formative in my understanding as to how popular culture functions in our lives and beyond us. I came to realize just how significant popular culture is in shaping us as individuals and as a people. I often wonder about the interplay between popular culture and reality and the push and pull of those.

In part because of World of Warcraft, therefore, I came into my own as a writer, a thinker, an observer, a writing teacher.

Tell me, how do you encourage reflection in your students? Leave a comment below.

The check box syndrome and why we value the process over the product

A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton. I hold season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (a great value, actually) and this season’s package included Hamilton. For the past two years, Felicia and I have been to many shows and this one seemed a bit more crowded and busy than normal. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was as we had been to many other sold out shows since we started going on a regular basis.

Before the show, there was a larger than normal number of people taking selfies (any picture taking in the theater is forbidden). Mind you, these were not your run of the mill selfies. They made sure they covered all of their bases to prove where they were. They had selfies holding the program. They had selfies with the stage in the background. They had selfies with anything Hamilton in there.

And I asked in my head, how many of these people were at the show so they could do the metaphorical check list of things to do before one turns in this mortal coil. I wondered how many people that evening missed out on the full, honest experience of going to a show in order to check going to Hamilton off their list. As my classes tend to be on my mind more often than not, I wondered how many of my AP students are in the AP class in order to check taking AP English off their list and end up missing out on the experience of completing a project or a class.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you have been rushed past the Mona Lisa. In doing so, perhaps you missed the Titian piece hanging behind it (this from the days when she was not in her own room). When we do something because it is what we are supposed to do, we often miss out on the honesty of the experience. By honesty of the experience, I mean that idea of taking it all in, doing something because we truly want to, not because it is what we are supposed to do. When I wrote my post regarding colonization, part of the question in my mind is if my students take my AP class because that is what they are supposed to do, they don’t seek the experience of growth, they seek the badge of AP. They seek the credential, the grade. All of this takes that metaphor of colonization a bit further.

This harkens back to my struggle with grades and grading. I have been working with my students this year to focus on the process and not the product. And for many students (and teachers) this is a tremendous leap in thinking and understanding (again, for both students and teachers). They have been brought up in a system that focuses primarily on the end product and the content. I am working the help my students realize that their education should be more about the process and the skill acquisition, not the product or the grade.

This is brought up by George Couros who quotes A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s book Empower:

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

This is where focusing on process and 21st century skills comes into play. By keeping our students and teaching focused on these two items, the hope is that students will see that school has relevancy beyond the classroom door. While I freely admit to my students they will never, ever write a literary analysis beyond the confines of a classroom (unless they become English professors or literary critics), they will, however, use the reasoning and critical analysis required to complete that writing throughout their lives in any endeavor (I will engage my students who work at Wal-Mart into role playing with me as the customer and they are helping me to decide a product. The rest of the class will explain the deductive and critical thinking skills the student went through to compare and contrast products). The same goes for math. The same goes for history.

Ask yourself as a teacher, what are the skills your students need to complete an activity and where are those skills used beyond your content and your classroom. How are those skills necessary in the process?

If we focus on skills and process, I hope that no class becomes a check box for a student. I hope that when they leave my class, they realize that it was about the experience. I hope that they are willing to look around when in the midst of checking a box to realize that there is so much more happening around them. As nifty as it was to see the founding documents at the National Archive this past summer, it was so much more fun to try and find those damn eagles placed around the room (I think Felicia and I missed one or two before we were forced out of the room).

What are some ideas you have in helping your students focus on the process? What do you do to focus your classes on the process and not the product? Let us know in the comments.

PBL in TOK: reflection and what to do with the knowledge you created

I have been working on adding a project based learning (PBL) component to my theory of knowledge class (TOK). The easy part in developing PBL in TOK (if you are in an IB school, acronyms are part of the process, and this last sentence is normal. If you don’t teach in an IB school, my apologies for the acronyms) is coming up with project ideas, the difficult part has been designing effective plans to meet the needs of TOK and provide robust, authentic projects beyond a presentation that lead to TOK thinking.

TOK makes up part of the core of the IB Programme. In order for a student to receive his or her IB diploma, that student needs to succeed in TOK. It is a class where students ask questions about knowledge as knowledge arises from real life situations. In doing so, students ask: What knowledge means, where it comes from, how it is acquired, created, produced, and so on. TOK, therefore, is a class that revolves around epistemology.

While I have been working out how to implement PBL in my TOK (and all of my classes, for that matter), I have borrowed heavily from John Spencer and  A.J. Juliani, their book Launch, as well as the Buck Institute for Education. In the process, I have been putting together a unit planning template from all those resources that also brings in IB requirements. I think I am finally nearing my first use of it all.

As I have been working on PBL in TOK, there has been a nagging feeling that something was missing. I have come to the conclusion that education is most effective when students take the necessary time to reflect on what they have done, what skills they used, and the impact those skills might have in and outside of class. This is essential in IB, as one trait from the IB learner profile asks that students be reflective. And so when it comes to PBL in TOK, I have realized the TOK thinking must happen in the reflection process.

Here is the way I see this happening: present students with a a problem as it  arises out of a real life situation (this is TOK language) from the world outside of school. Have the students use knowledge, information, and skills from one of their content classes to address the problem, go through the LAUNCH process, design a project, implement, present, and reflect. While this does not look so different in any for of PBL they would do in history or math (for example), TOK, therefore, must happen in the reflection and presentation. It is here where they will address the knowledge issues  they encountered during the completion of the project.

IB asks for students “to consider the world” and their “own ideas” in the reflection process. In addition, students are asked to reflect on their “strengths and weaknesses” in order to support their “learning and development.” Imagine asking students to add this to their reflections: “What can you create outside of TOK (or whatever class you might be using PBL and reflections) with the knowledge you have acquired from this project?”

And there it is. Without any real warning sign, I feel ready to implement PBL in TOK. The necessary reflection, which will include necessary ideas for TOK, such as an exploration of the knowledge issues they encountered in completing the project and other TOK themes.

What kinds of questions do you ask of your students when they reflect on a unit? How do you use this information? I look forward to an exchange of ideas in the comments.

Gamer culture

Currently, I am taking a class to get my certification in teaching ESL kids. Here is an essay I wrote for the class. The topic of the essay is about dealing with culture shock. Rather than go the normal route, I decided to write about my introduction into gamer culture through World of Warcraft. Happy reading!


A friend of mine who is more than half Sioux told me that a person who speaks two languages is two people, it is an expression he learned from his grandfather. Travis told me this during a set break when I was sitting in on guitar with his band. That line of his has stuck with me since he laid it out there for me and the universe to hear. He used it to illustrate the significance of having been raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation speaking Sioux and English and the struggles he had when he would visit family who lived off the reservation. I have processed this idea over the years, and I feel that stage four of culture shock (Brown, 1982) gives it the foundational understanding I have struggled with since that night: it is through language that one can be fully acculturated and can be both the person in this culture and that culture. I have said many times that after a few months totally immersed in French culture that anyone, French or American, would have had a difficult time in recognizing that I was American. However, what’s more is this culture transition from shock to assimilation is just as significant in my introduction and foray into gamer culture.

I don’t quite remember the year, but I remember the sensation of logging into World of Warcraft for the first time. It was not unlike going to a new city or country. I was ‘surrounded’ by new sights, new languages, new sounds. When a player enters a massive, multiplayer, online game (MMO) such as World of Warcraft for the first time, he or she enters into a new world and new culture. A world full of virtual ‘newness’ that can be so overwhelming to the ‘noob.’ I remember feeling the “excitement and euphoria” that one often feels when entering a new culture (Brown, 1982). While there are many MMOs and video games out there, there is a common culture and language at the foundation of gamer culture.

I wandered this new world and I began to feel a sense of forlornness. In all MMOs, there are manners in which players can communicate. As for World of Warcraft, there is a general and trade chat where everyone in that part of the realm can see what a player says. There is the private chat between two people, there are small group chats between players in a small group, and there is the guild chat (players in World of Warcraft organize themselves into large social groups called guilds). My first few weeks had me looking to the internet to translate the language I read. Words like noob, pwn, lawlz were foreign to me, as were a variety of acronyms (irl, lfg, afk, brb, ftw) that also sent me to the internet for translation. Asking for help in the general chat could result in mockery, so I found a guild of older players like me, and I would go to them for help or assistance in navigating the communication and traditions I saw happening in the game. Similar to the second stage of culture acquisition, the people in my guild provided necessary support that one often needs when immersing into a new culture (Brown, 1982).

Adjusting to a new culture is difficult, regardless of that culture. Gamer culture is no different. While adjusting to gamer culture through MMOs is certainly not as difficult as adjusting to a new culture in reality, but it highlights various differences in the two worlds to which gamers need to adjust. The “culture stress” described in stage three appropriately notes that as we adjust to our new surroundings we can “accept the differences in thinking and feeling” which surround us (Brown, 1982). With some experience, the ‘noob’ in the game begins to shed some of her innocence of the culture as she begins to use new language and begins to seek out companions for her adventures in the game. As she loses her innocence, she can more easily relate to “natives” and fit into the culture of the game a bit more comfortably.

There comes a moment in every transition from one culture to another where the individual reaches “assimilation or adaptation” (Brown, 1982). I realized I had fully adapted and assimilated into gamer culture when I could easily talk to my gamer students. When I engaged in some of the traditions of the game. When I could easily navigate my way in World of Warcraft. When I could easily enter a new MMO or conversation about a video game. I am truly bilingual and bicultural as I speak the language of gamer culture as easily as I speak my native language. I recognize myself in and out of gamer culture.   

So I come back to Travis and the idea that a person who speaks two languages is two people. The person I am in gamer culture is very different from the person who played with Travis’ blues band that night. Both rely on language particular to that culture, and both utilize words that might be recognizable to those not a part of that culture, however the true meaning of those words are predicated on fluency within that culture. I have to consider the implications on my students. Every new school year, students have to adjust to micro cultures with new teachers and new classrooms. Each teacher seeks to create a culture in his or her room that suits the course and the teaching/learning style of the teacher and, hopefully, meet the needs of the students. Every year I see over 100 new faces as they struggle to adapt to the culture I seek to create in my classroom. Eventually, many develop fluency in the language of my room and my classes, and when they do, they become two people: the student inside my classroom and the young adult outside of it. Until they develop fluency in the language of my room, however, they work to adapt. It is upon me and others familiar with the culture in my room to help the ‘noobs’ as they go through the four stages of culture shock. And when they are able to assimilate, hopefully true learning can happen.

Source:

Brown, H. Douglas. (1982). Sociocultural factors. In Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 193-196). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Colonized by the grade book

Modern education has been fully colonized by the grade book. As any colonizer, the grade book imposes its values as truth and reality over those whom have been colonized. This is not an easy process as these values often are in direct opposition with the colonized‘s previously held values. Eventually, however, with force and other methods of control, these values will be seen as the only way forward and will not to be questioned. When this shift happens, the colonizer’s ideology becomes reality and the colonized see no other way but that way of life.

My AP class just read George Orwell’s, “Shooting an Elephant.” Every time I use this essay in class, I am reminded why I sympathize with the speaker when he is compelled to use his rifle, which he calls a”magical,” because it transforms him to a man of power and authority.  While I do not have a magical rifle, I have a magical grade book. And like the speaker in the essay, I am forced to use it. And sadly, due to the process of colonization, sometimes that is all the students, like all colonized, understand.

A quick summary if you are not familiar the essay: The speaker of the essay is a British police officer in Lower Burma. As such, he is a representative of the colonizing force from England. The speaker admits early in the essay that “imperialism was an evil thing” and was doing what he could to get away from it. One day, however, the speaker recalls a “tiny incident” which he claims reveal the true “nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” He was called to do something about an elephant running amok in the bazaar. The speaker does not want to hurt the elephant, but with the collected wills of the local population, he is compelled to use his magical rifle and shoot the elephant.

Much like the speaker I am compelled to confront my own elephant, which I do with my magical grade book. My students understand in the abstract the meaninglessness of grades and test scores. They understand that the only people who care about their grades and transcripts are them, their parents, and (to a certain degree) their college application. But the values imposed by the colonizer is quite different. The colonizer seeks to supplant the will of the colonized with the will of the colonizer. This is not an easy process and one that has to be done over and over again, lest the colonized’s will resurge. And so my students focus on the magical grade book.

Every time I read this essay, it seems that the colonizer, too,  must be re-colonized in order to inflict the colonizer’s will upon the natives. The speaker realizes that what he is doing is not the right thing, regardless, he continues with it. He continues to use this magical rifle. He continues to enforce the colonizer’s rules and impose their values.

Just like I continue to enter and ‘value’ grades. And spend the first few days back from summer break looking over SAT, PSAT, IB, AP, and other test scores (I don’t mind data, what I do mind is not allowing my students to be individuals). In doing all of this, I break the will of my students a bit more so that they are fully under the spell of the colonizer.

To push this metaphor of colonization one step further, there is a time when learning is about joy and fun. When the grade book does not matter. A time when school is about exploring. But then enters the test. Enters the venerated test maker. Enters the person who has the fucking audacity to ask if your first grader is college ready? Here, the kid leaves and is replaced with a data point or, worse yet, the stresses of being adult.

I find myself playing into the game. I find myself pulling out my magical grade book. I listen to the crowd of thousands making sure I use it.

As we started to discuss “Shooting an Elephant,” I presented this idea to my students. The irony is they agree. They agree that they are the elephant and the system (through me and the grade book) is taking their will very slowly. They agree that their thoughts about school and education have been fully colonized and they cannot see anything beyond the ‘significance’ of the grade book. They agree that the first question they are concerned about is if an assignment is being graded and how many points it is worth. It seems the more it is worth, the more work they will put into it.

And so I work to combat it. I work to find the balance between satisfying the needs and wants of the colonizer and making sure my students leave my classes with their wills mostly in tact. To be honest, in order to function as a society, we must give a bit of ourselves up, I have no problem with this. What concerns me, however, is the lack of desire for many of my students to learn for themselves in school, to put themselves into their learning. That if we want them to become lifelong learners, then we have to confront the incentive for learning in school. We have to confront the process of colonization through the grade book.

I will be spending some time over the next few posts as I explore some of what I am trying to do to combat this process colonization by the grade book in my classes. Right now, I am experimenting with the grades themselves, I am including some PBL approaches to learning, and other ideas. But I wonder about you? What are you doing in your classes to try and get your students’ focus off the grade book and on the learning? Please share some ideas in the comments.