California English Journal
A graduate school professor once told my Literary Criticism seminar this anecdote about I.A. Richards, the influential professor, critic, rhetorician, and poet: Richards completed a good deal of graduate work at Cambridge, but never completed his doctorate, allegedly asking with disdain, "Who would examine me?" In retrospect, given Richards' historical importance and substantial contributions to the development of critical theory and thought, his question might not have been as arrogant as it first seems. When considered together with other stories of great thinkers whose thought processes or work habits didn't fit commonly accepted standards of the time and place, Einstein's failing math in school and the ridicule heaped upon the work of the earliest Impressionist painters come to mind, Richards' question gives me pause. Apocryphal or not, the story points toward a long standing and intensifying dilemma for me and, I suspect, for most teachers: grading and credits.
In an era of standards, or at least an era in which the notion of standards crops up in every element of the educational conversation, what are we to do with students who can meet or have met any and every standard, but reject or ignore the need to fulfill checklist requirements for advancement or graduation? I suspect everyone has had a student or twenty who are voracious readers and natural and enthusiastic writers, who read what they want rather than what they're assigned, and write from their hearts without regard to the demands of a given assignment or course. They might be alienated or just non-conformist, refusing to grade grub for philosophical reasons, or doing no homework out of sheer laziness: the Sidney Cartons, Ferdinand Tertans, and Holden Caulfieds of contemporary schooling. In some ways, such students are why I got into teaching English in the first place; often (when they happen to have done last night's reading and, sometimes, even when they haven't) they spark discussions to deeper, more complex levels, and all of us in the room learn in ways we wouldn't have otherwise. Their love of words and ideas and learning can enthuse other students and change the intellectual tone of a class. But when grading time rolls around and points are toted up, such students are often in danger of failure or loss of credits. To phrase the dilemma in its starkest terms, then, my question is what the awarding of grades and the awarding of credits represent. If goals and standards are the centerpieces of twenty-first century schools, should a student who reads widely, writes fluently, clearly and with authority, but has only turned in four of the eight required essays fail, and another student who has wrested meaning from Cliff and Monarch, and dutifully turned in all assignments, but cannot put together a clear and coherent paragraph much less an entire composition, pass? Since statewide testing results and APIs suggest that our real problems are with students at the lower ends of the literacy continua, my concern may seem trivial; but to me it raises a central question of our free public educational system: what is the purpose of schooling?
At 6' 4", Alex was immediately noticeable in any crowd of his high school peers, but he also stood out in ways having nothing to do with his height. He was an outstanding swimmer, a featured performer in his senior year production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, scored well over 1500 on the SAT (including a perfect 800 on the math portion), more-or-less ran the school's computer network and the library's computer lab, and, not infrequently, corrected my Latin. "I think you mean 'e.g.' and not 'i.e.' on this handout, Mr. Kammer," he'd begin, and then go on to patiently explain the difference. "You see, id est, meaning 'that is,' is used to introduce ." Other students would shake their heads and roll their eyes, but he clearly enjoyed such intellectual one-upmanship, which also set him apart from his contemporaries.
If he was sometimes pedantic, Alex was also insightful, wonderfully well read, talented, and, often, charming. He was certainly among the most able and best-prepared high school students I've ever encountered. And yet his performance in my class led me to crystallize my thinking on an ethical dilemma that has troubled me since I began my secondary teaching career, in the waning days of the Carter administration. While he clearly knew more than and could out-read, out-think, and out-write most if not all of his fellow students (and quite a few of his teachers, including me), Alex was constantly in danger of failing and, since it was a senior English class, in danger of not graduating. His situation caused me, for perhaps the thousandth time, to rethink the issue of the purpose, application, fairness, and, yes, ethics of grading and credits.
What are grades, after all, and why are they such an important part of school? What do they measure? On what are they based? At whom are they aimed? Whose interests do they serve? How important are they? How, and how closely connected are they to standards? How comparable are grades in what it takes to earn them from year to year, classroom to classroom, school to school? What are teachers' obligations, ethical and otherwise, to students, parents, schools, employers, and universities for impartial and consistent grading? Once students have left high school, do their grades matter to anyone, ever again? If so, why? These and other, related, questions occur to me periodically, when my grades are due, if not otherwise. But the grades must be tabulated and assigned, the sheets bubbled, the transcripts updated; under the intensive pressure of semester or year's end, the"why" of grading all too often takes a back seat to the necessity of having grades, of handing in computer sheets and printing report cards whatever those grades are, however accurate they are.
Alex continued to hug the edge of failure through the fall semester, his grade hovering in the 55-58% range, a solid "F+." He did just enough of the assigned work that was graded to stay in contention for a passing mark, but never actually reached a passing level. Then, the last few weeks of the semester, we did a senior class-wide poetry unit, and Alex's interest and involvement increased enough for him to pass the class . On the day of the final exam, he did a wonderful job on the presentation assignment which was a portion of the final; he showed up without the accompanying journal and poetry collection, however. We talked at the end of class, and after some half-hearted attempts at excuses, he told me to just go ahead and flunk him. We talked a bit longer and worked out an agreement by which he would turn in the required work the next day, before my last final. He did, the work was exemplary, and I gave him a D- for the semester, a grade that I gave him with many qualms.
One Merriman-Webster Dictionary definition of "ethical" is, "conforming to accepted, esp. professional standards of conduct." But what are the ethical, that is the accepted professional standards, relating to grading student work, to granting or denying credits for it? "Ethics" and "ethical" come from the same Greek root as "ethos," meaning, according to Merriman-Webster, " distinguishing character, tone, or guiding beliefs." This suggests that there exists a set of guiding beliefs about grading that infuse any school's grading systems. Yet none of the three schools in which I've taught had such a system, at least not one spelled out explicitly enough to be both workable and fair. Teachers, perhaps under the "standard" of professional autonomy, individually chose how to weight factors such as quality vs. quantity of work, class participation, etc., and set their own requirements about late and make-up work, grading for groups, and so forth. In the dictionary definition sense, I wonder, is it strictly ethical to allow such discrepancies? Is it ethical, much less fair to students that two classes, both named "Senior Academic English," be taught by two teachers with very different ideas about expectations and rigor, where comparable amounts and quality of work might earn a student in one class an "A-," and a student in another class a "C+"?
Alex eventually failed his last semester of English, though he showed up and participated, in his way, through the last day of the semester. He told me several times not to worry about him, that (no disrespect intended) whether he passed my class or not wasn't important and would have no effect on his graduation. He needed to pass a junior college class for which he would receive concurrent credit, a year's worth of high school English credit for a semester of j.c. work, in fact. That would allow him to make up for the lost credits from my class as well as for a class he'd failed his sophomore year. As it turned out, he failed to complete the j.c. class also, and, for good measure, failed his high school government requirement. So Alex, perhaps the most able English student in his class, finished high school without a diploma, leaving me with many more questions than answers.
This was the second time through a round of lit. circle meetings for my freshmen. Now November, they were familiar with the roles and routines of meeting in lit. circles from their September experiences. For this second round, I introduced a new twist: a focus on active listening.
Surveying my classroom I saw my ninth graders actively engaged in their four different lit. circle discussions. Five girls in one corner were discussing Drew Barrymore's Little Girl Lost. Rebecca's straight black hair swung forward as she leaned in to touch Victoria's forearm, exclaiming, eyes wide, "I know!" In another group, Muizz, a Passage Master, read aloud from Frankenstein as his groupmates followed along with open books. Muizz huffed and puffed upon finishing, exaggerating his breathlessness after "such a long sentence." Opposite them another group was talking about Go Ask Alice. "The Prodigal Son? Well, that's when " Laughter was erupting from the Golden Compass group. "But, but, but "Archana was saying. Her earnest expression hinted she was getting their attention to make a serious point. It looked as if their lit. circle meetings with an active listening focus had been successful, even enjoyable.
I hadn't expected them to love it, but I certainly thought most would find it worthwhile.
Though not entirely successful, this teaching day had stuck with me. I had reflected on it for part of my National Board portfolio and shared it with colleagues. It wasn't until responding to this issue's call for manuscripts, however, that I came to some of the more important insights I will discuss.
I found my ninth graders were willing-though reluctant-to try verbal behaviors they didn't use with their friends in the halls. I considered how active listening in an academic setting differs from active listening in other settings, such as at a concert or with family. I was reminded that when introducing a lesson, it is crucial to establish a context that students can relate to. Finally, I was reminded that a good lesson deserves the chance to grow into a great one. Helpful colleagues and time to reflect can make all the difference in this regard. Mushrooms may spring from the earth by themselves overnight, but sound, successful lessons often need more time and nurturing than that.
for the Active Listening Focus
I have found it useful, at times, to give my lessons two kinds of objectives, one for content, and one for process. Since we can't possibly teach all the content our students need for life beyond high school, we can wisely teach processes that will help them digest new content. I saw the lit. circle meetings as a fitting place to focus on the process of active listening while they dealt with content they, for the most part, enjoyed and found easy.
I didn't want them brainlessly parroting "active listening" phrases, but neither did I want them slouching and only reading aloud from their Role Sheets, as had sometimes happened in previous lit. circle meetings. Before a lit. circle meeting, each student views the pages read for that meeting though a particular lens, his or her Role. Some students focus on pivotal passages (Passage Masters), others on the various settings in a book (Travel Tracer), others bring music that could accompany the pages read, (Music Maker), and so on. These different perspectives are meant to spark discussions that will quickly move beyond their prepared Role Sheets. But if students don't actively listen to one another other, their discussions can stall. I figured that a process of focus of active listening would bolster the content focuses of their lit. circle discussions.
I left note-taking space for students to copy example behaviors and phrases we came up with as a class. Since I wanted to raise their awareness of active listening behaviors in action, I left space for them to make tally marks under each umbrella category. They were to note/mark when someone exhibited that category of active listening behavior. I excused them from tallying examples of Using Positive Body Language, however, because I figured there would be continual evidence of that.
*Definitions of respectful listening often differ among cultures. Most white Westerners, for example, are brought up to make eye contact when listening to their superiors ("Look at me when I'm talking you, young man "), while Asians and Latinos are often taught to look down to show respect.
Comment; Different Kinds of Active Listening
One student's comments, however, really puzzled me at first. David, an athletic boy with sun-bleached blonde hair, often wrote about wakeboarding or snowboarding in my class. He wore t-shirts with rollerblade equipment-maker's logos, smiled easily, and sought to stay out of trouble and my attention. David's comments about the active listening focus for the lit. circle meetings caused me to reconsider the context in which I introduced the lesson. David wrote:
Personally the active listening thing doesn't work for me because I have to move around constantly. If I don't I'll just fall asleep or something. So I didn't follow the guide [my handout] very closely. I tried to follow the guide but it did not alter the fact that I listen just as well doing something.
For David, the term "active" listening must have seemed like an oxymoron. "Active" was wakeboarding, or grinding down some handrails in rollerblades, not sitting with face, shoulders, and knees toward the speaker, asking a clarifying question. What kind of "active" was that? His personal definition of "active listening" probably looked quite different from ours. Was he picturing an MTV pastiche of his peers as they stood around chewing gum, bouncing superballs or kicking a hacky-sack, and slapping each other on the back as they actively listened to each other? In contrast, we had listed "keeping still" among our Using Positive Body Language characteristics. To David, our tame phrases must have seemed designed-like much of school perhaps-to keep him from moving around, from "doing something."
But David hadn't struck me as someone who would find active listening difficult. If David felt that way, how about other students who really can't sit still? Some say the numbers of students with ADHD are growing. How could I broaden the context of my active listening lesson to be more inviting to all?
I already recognized that being able to participate in academic discourse effectively is one of educated/privileged society's gate-keeping skills. I wanted to ensure my students access to such settings. But David's comment set me thinking. Was there a "standard" way of active listening? To what extent is teaching my definition of active listening like teaching standard English to students who speak nonstandard dialects at home?
What if David represents students who need to be "doing something" [moving, fidgeting] no matter what environment they are in? How could I address their needs? The class could talk about how there are many ways to listen actively, not just four umbrella categories. By educating ourselves, we could make everyone more open and accepting of different ways of listening. We could also talk about ways such "non-standard" listeners could educate their group members about how they most effectively listen. They could learn to say, "I just want you to know that even though I'm drawing, I'm listening to you. It helps me concentrate on what you're saying." Doing so could keep non-standard listeners from being judged in ways that might limit their access to certain settings. It could also prevent them from having to subvert their personal listening style in favor of the standard one, reducing their listening effectiveness. Best of all, perhaps, it might give them the power of conscious decision-making. They could decide that in certain settings the trade-off between personal listening efficiency vs. fitting in with the dominant behavior style is one worth making-or not.
Up in Order to Move Forward
them Up for Difficulty: Tallying as they Talked
I could have altered my objectives for the lesson. Rather than have all students both analyze and use the active listening strategies at the same time, I could have had one group discuss as another group, or even the rest of the class, watched and tallied. This fishbowl arrangement works well for a variety of purposes. Or I could have had one member of each group observing and tallying. This observer-tallier position could rotate every five minutes so that everyone got to do it during the same class period. It might give the groups a "musical chairs" quality for the day, but there might be some advantages in that. A tallier noticing an adroit use Taking the Idea a Step Further with an Example or Counter-Example could then jump in and try it themselves with her own example/counter-example. A different format would short circuit the meeting from turning into a competitive tallyfest. Some of the boys in the Frankenstein group got silly. Albert reported that "Every other word we heard was 'Huh?' [ostensibly an example of asking for clarification] and Tom ended up with sixty-something points." Since when had the tally marks turned into points?
group revealed their desire to have a lengthy, meaningful discussion
rather than focus on using the active listening strategies. Michelle
sometimes we get rigid in how we want learning to be acquired. I know
it sometimes happens to me. I often expect my students to do everything
I direct them to, for the entire period of time I allot. I saw some
groups stop tallying and toward the end of the period I let them go,
but part of me was disappointed that all of them didn't follow it through
to the end (though one part of me acknowledged I had asked for the
moon). Sarah's reflection reminded me that students don't have to do
100% of the activity to learn valuable lessons from it. Students will
also learn more than we expect them to learn. We need to leave room
for this, not micromanage. Sometimes we need to allow them to fail.
And always, helping them reflect on learning events is important. Sarah
Listening to My Students
finally, what I learned about active listening: if my students felt
listened to, they were willing to accept what I was trying to teach
them, even if the lesson didn't go as I had planned.
at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Writing
Reviewed by Jerry Camp
full disclosure. Jim Gray changed my life. Of course hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of teachers could say the same thing, but in my case it
the first point I would like to make is that the book is pure reading
pleasure. When considering writing the history of the writing
In my view,
the book is really three books. The first part of the book is Jim's
reflection on his early years as a teacher. It details the influences
he didn't write a book at the time, this is what Jim had been doing
in his classrooms in the fifties. He began leaving the anthologies
have liked this part of the book to be longer. Once Jim gets started
telling teaching stories, I want him to go on and on. Readers who
book within this slim volume describes the origins of the Bay Area
Writing Project itself. Again, it is great reading, not because it
chapter here is "A Year in the Life of the Writing Project." By
tracing each of the events in the project's year, Jim shows how, step
As a witness
to these early years, I wish Jim had given a little attention to one
thing that helped make the project the revolution it was. He talks
part of the book shows the growth of the writing project from BAWP
to the California Writing Project and, simultaneously, the National
Writing Project. It is this growth, from a single local project to
178 sites at universities in every state that makes this book an essential
document. The writing project is clearly an idea that changed the face
of education, and this section records the way that happened and the
educational leaders who were able to perceive how revolutionary the
writing project idea really was. Jim identifies many supporters who
were crucial figures in the project's growth. Among these were Roderick
Park, Vice Chancellor, Provost, and Dean of the College of Letters
and Sciences at the University, and Paul Diederich, the dean of evaluators
in the field of English and the author of Measuring Growth in English.
If these evaluators had not understood Jim's vision and contributed
their support to its dissemination, it could never have had the impact
it had. The history is enlivened for us less historical-minded readers
by Jim the storyteller, here borrowing stories from other National
Writing Project pioneers. Mary Ann Smith tells the
(objectively, of course): this is a great book that should be read
by all teachers, all actual and potential writing project site
I want to quote Ken Macrorie, one of the most influential writing teachers
of our time: "TEACHERS AT THE CENTER" is the most brilliant
California's English Language Arts Standards feature two full pages describing listening and speaking skills. I wonder how many of us have read them. By the tenth grade students are expected to "formulate adroit judgments about oral communication and deliver focused and coherent presentations of their own that convey clear and distinct perspectives and solid reasoning." Can the 15-year-olds at your school do this? Most of mine struggle with focus, peppering their speech with "really" and "very" and "ya know" even in relatively formal presentations. Listening and speaking are essential skills that deserve much more curricular attention than they currently receive.
In many ways oral and aural skills are more applicable to the "real world" than any of the other standards. I worry, though, that since listening and speaking don't feature in any of our current tests they are being given short shrift. Imagine if students were expected to memorize a poem and deliver a dramatic reading as part of their standards-based assessment. Or if their electronic portfolio included a video clip of students engaged in small group discussion of a piece of literature or controversial issue. What if students were asked to listen to a famous historical speech and then write about the speake'¹s use of rhetorical devices? While the cost of such assessments is likely to prevent them from ever becoming part of our state test repertoire, listening and speaking need to be taught.
In truth, most kids want to be heard. But with 36-37 students in the typical California classrooms it is hard to find time for every voice. Who does most of the talking? The teacher, of course. Students listen with half an ear and their eyes on the clock. On the following pages you will find essays by CATE president Aaron Spain, Ron Featheringill, Carrie Holmberg, and Lola Brown which offer ideas about how to make listening and speaking an integral part of your curriculum. They also explore the reasons why it is so important to help students listen with head and heart as well as speak their minds.