Sunday, 15 November 2009

Pat Conroy has enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers

About eight years ago I read a book about teaching which I haven't forgotton. It's called THE WATER IS WIDE and is Pat Conroy's memoir of a year teaching poor black kids on Yamacraw Island about a world they didn't know existed.
The first thing I learned when I got there was that fourteen of the seventeen kids in grades five through eight read below the first grade level. Five of the kids did not know the alphabet; five of the kids also did not know how to add one and one, two and two, things I thought rather basic in the education of most people.

It was a year that changed Conroy's life. Read it if you can get a copy.

I remembered the book when I read this letter about book censorship which is a beautifully eloquent homage to English teachers:

A Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteenstory building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye fortyeight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because bookbanners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works– but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against–you’ve riled a Hatfield.

pat conroy

Friday, 13 November 2009

Results of testing won't be used for league tables?

We seem to becoming more obsessed with tests and and easy comparisons. Julia Gillard, Australia's Education Minister, says there will be no league tables.

We've heard it all before.

Recently a meeting of principals in Canberra warned a new website that provides information on schools around the country could lead to the creation of league tables even though the website has been designed to stop that happening.

Are exams bad for children? The Telegraph, UK, quotes Greg Watson, head of OCR, one of three main exam boards, as saying that the system of league tables and Ofsted inspections piled pressure on teachers to get results at all costs.

In a speech, he suggested that “exam factories” were being created, potentially damaging children’s education.

The article is written by By Graeme Paton, Education Editor of The Telegraph. He says that the comments are a latest in a series of attacks on the way the UK Government uses exam results to hold schools - and pupils - to account.

Two of England’s main teaching unions – the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers claim the exams, which are taken in the final year of primary education, skew the curriculum and force schools to “teach to the test”.

Exams are not in themselves bad for children - what is bad is an exam the results of which "indicate the school's performance", making the school teach to the exam to improve their rating - together with financial incentives.

I remain sceptical when our politicians say the they are being transparent and that league tables won't happen.

At the Canberra principals meeting Ms Gillard insisted after the launch ''there is no part of this website that can be sorted into a league table by using sort functions on the computer. That is simply not possible''. clever - It's not us that will create the league tables.

League tables won't be created? Yeah, and pigs might fly.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Learning slowly according to Manfred Spitzer

Gary Woodwill reviewed a book about learning, thinking and acting. The title grabbed my attention "The Importance of Learning Slowly". The book is by Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net: models of learning, thinking, and acting.One of the comments Woodwill makes about the book is that:
While a single event can have an impact, it usually takes many events to have a relatively permanent change in the brain (aka “learning”) and to extract general features and generate rules from experience ... and according to Spitzer "It must learn quickly for obvious reasons, but it must learn slowly in order to generalize in a way that will produce the optimal solution without oscillating around it or forgetting it because of some other stimulus.”
(p. 53)

Woodwill continues

We often find our models of understanding the world in the latest technologies available to us. Piaget developed his multi-stage theories of learning from observing his own children, and then applying the dominant mechanical metaphors of his day. In the 19th century, Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer, coined the term “the average man” based on the pendulum (Piaget’s “equilibrium”), while Herbert Spencer wrote a psychology of adaptation using the newly created thermostat as his model (Piaget’s “adaptation and assimilation” within set limits).

In the second half of the twentieth century, two models of computing competed for dominance. One model was artificial intelligence, based on a model of inputs, storage, processing, and outputs - in other words, a factory metaphor. The other model was that of neural networks, modeled on what was then known about the functioning of brains in humans and other animals. In the 1950s, AI became the darling of computer science, leaving neural network development far behind in terms of funding and attention.

Manfred Spitzer’s The Mind within the Net is one of the best non-technical narratives on how minds work using the neural network model. Some of these explanations are startling, while others reinforce positions of strong advocates of individual freedom and the power of informal learning, such as Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Jay Cross.

Spitzer also believes that children can and need to learn more quickly than adults. Children need a rough and ready view of the world while adults want to increase their depth of understanding. Spitzer relates this to the pace of change in today’s society. “The old master violin building makes better violins than the young student of the trade. If, however, all of a sudden the customers want music synthesizers, student will adapt to change more readily.”

The importance of feedback is apparent in both brains and neural networks. Neural networks have a technique called backpropagation of errors that simulates feedback loops in the brain that slowly change the hidden layers between input and output. This means that learning is much more to do with practice and observation than being told what to do. “Children learn from examples,” says Spitzer. The brain stores its learning in “self organizing feature maps.”

Spitzer is a psychiatrist in Germany, so it is not surprising that he has a chapter entitled “The Disordered Mind” in which he discusses autism and oppression. Most of his conclusions are on the best way to raise children, making this book less applicable to the adult learning. However, there are so many insights going through it that I highly recommend it to everyone in education and training.

I’m looking forward to reading it.