Sunday, October 19, 2014

Literacy with an Attitude: Doing To or Doing With?

Finn's retelling of his first teaching job at Carol Jason Banks Upper Grade Center in the excerpts from Literacy with an Attitude haunts me. I wrote "Holey moley" in the margin where he described the explicit sorting of students according to reading scores, with 8-1s as the highest, 8-15s as the lowest, and extra space in those lower level classes for the "troublesome students" who needed to be dumped from the higher level groupings. He describes how he was charged with the 4 lowest classes because he had exhibited so much success: his students were always quiet and always working (p. 3).

He acknowledges, however, that this was a success in handling students - what he and Shor both consider "doing to instead of doing with" (p. 5). Control was always at the forefront of his planning, leading to a domesticating rather than an empowering education.

Finn goes on to retell the story of Jean Anyon's study of five elementary schools from very different social classes. Though the findings were not surprising, I was appreciated how thoroughly the differences were laid out. Of course, her findings were generalized in this article, but several rang true in even just my brief experience as a teacher in what I would consider middle class and affluent professional schools. For example, the middle class school I worked at required passes at all times in the hallway and knowledge was seen as "a matter of gaining information and understanding from socially approved sources" (p. 13). Specifically, several of my students balked when we tried to create our own meaning of situations and begged to just be told the "right" answer so that the class could move on. This year, in the "affluent professional school, passes are no where to be found (except as an anxiety-reducing strategy for a special education student) and there is an emphasis on discovery, rather than memory of facts in science (p. 18).

From all of this, as well as the detailed description of Freire's process, my question is, where does my classroom fit into this spectrum of domesticating and empowering education? How much do I "do to" rather than "do with?"

Right now, I feel like my answer is closer to the "doing to" rather than "doing with" side...

Hearing the stories of Peterson's, Bigelow's, and Christiansen's classrooms was inspiring, but also overwhelming. Taking elementary school students to a protest rally and setting up a shadow day at a neighboring high school are experiences that I would love to design with my students. But as Finn's grad students recognize, this type of teaching is scary for so many reasons. It is controversial. It doesn't fit the traditional view of the curriculum. It might cause trouble (p. 178-179). And, another concern of my own, how does this work with special education students? This is my first time working with such a large population of students with IEPs and it's challenging enough to facilitate dialogic conversations with the majority of my students, so how can I scaffold for the IEP students' needs as well? My special education teacher is amazing, but also swamped by the emergency situations that keep popping up on team. I love that Bigelow and Christiansen work together. And I think that is a contributing factor to their success.

I guess it comes back to Finn's idea that "Teachers are supposed to teach, not blame children for what they don't know how to do. But when the make-believe school model is in effect and resistance is the dominant theme, don't expect this to be easy. Get ready for the 'enormous struggle'" (p. 175). This is hard to do when you feel alone in this attempt at something new. Sometimes I feel like I just want the kids to "figure it out" and "just be respectful" or "just make good decisions" because I was "nice enough" to allow them freedom and choice in their work. However, this usually ends in sour disappointment and frustration. So I immediately revert back to more traditional methods of teacher directed learning.

How do we balance these two? As a beginning teacher, with still so many questions, I get stuck on this all the time. I guess that's why I'm here...


While I poked around online to follow some threads from the article, I found this link to a Rethinking Schools article by Linda Christiansen for a series of lessons on "The Danger of a Single Story." She uses Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk to discuss the Trayvon Martin case and help her students go beyond the single story of their own high school experience.

I also looked into the Study Circles mentioned on p. 168. Their website include information about how to organize dialoague, recruit participants, and work for for change.


  1. Brittany,
    Sometimes I feel just how you describe here: unsure...I feel that we, as newer teachers, may feel stuck because we have to take risks and chances to see what our students can do, and how things will go. Scarier yet is the fact that if this involves the community or someone outside of the regular classroom, we want our students to make a good (great) impression, because we know that will inevitably reflect our teaching. I guess that's why we are here, together, to consider these tough questions and come up with answers and methods that lead to an empowering classroom. We can empower one another.

  2. I like the quote that you pulled out. "Teachers are supposed to teach, not blame children for what they don't know how to do. But when the make-believe school model is in effect and resistance is the dominant theme, don't expect this to be easy. Get ready for the 'enormous struggle'" (p. 175). It seems like this quote may be extremely overwhelming. Brian said, when you step into a teacher lounge, "negative conversations can be poisonous", in fact infectious-- and can be challenging to get support when you are in dire straits. Never feel alone, Brittany. Like Tina said "we can empower one another"-- We all have great ideas, feel free to use us as a resource. Get creative even if you are standing alone, you may feel that others will stand with you.

  3. I also feel unsure and overwhelmed sometimes too. But on the other hand, to play the devils advocate, don't we need to know how to follow social protocol, don't we need to know how to follow the rules, isn't that part of living in a society. I guess I had a bit of a hard time with this reading because I am a person who likes to find the answer, I like knowing the right procedure, I like knowing what comes next and the schedule of things. I do not know if this is a product of my education as a middle-class person, or it's my personality. I think that if we could mix the teaching styles of all four classes, and try to create a balanced education we would produce students that would be able to take their own place with in society.

  4. I have always been sure, at least until SED 561. For many years in Central Falls, students have been able to just go along and get along. The quiet student who follows directions, and copies off the board has generally been passed along without ever being required to actively participate, think critically, or connect meaningfully what they are learning to practical application. I have heard so many teachers complain about disinterested students, and those who refuse to learn, or accept what they are given. I have really no idea what I would do if I were asked to teach in a school of affluent students, I'm truly not sure I could reach them and challenge them. I am glad though, that you mentioned the "enormous struggle" because that has been the one constant in my teaching experience so far. I greatly desire the "enormous struggle" I have pursued it in class, consistently for the last 13 years, and it has led to my greatest moments so far. The only caution with choosing to struggle, is it has to be purposeful, and planned, not random, that is the only way to be consistent and stay strong with it.