Principles of Principals

[Dr. Rana Surkhi describes a workshop series that she and her colleagues have developed for building leaders in Palestine. Rana is Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Al-Quds Bard College in East Jerusalem.]

The Master of Arts in Teaching Program in cooperation with the Center for Teaching and Learning and in coordination with the Palestinian Ministry of Education launched a continuing education workshop series for 25 school principals among its graduates. The series consists of 5 day-long gatherings during the 2017/2018 school year. Among the attendees were school principals from the various directorates, MAT faculty, and a representative from the Palestinian Ministry of Education Main Supervision Department. The first workshop, titled “Effective leaders: exploring first assumptions about the principal’s role,” focused on creating a community of learning and sharing among school principals. Activities focused on the “principles of principals”, seeing themselves and their teachers as continuous learners, and how to promote a growth mindset among their staff.

This series of workshops comes under the effort to create a “Continuing Education” component planned in alignment with the Palestinian Ministry of Education qualification systems. Under the CTL this component will work with MAT alumni after graduation and will be designed to promote further work with alumni in the field as well as interested teachers/supervisors/principals from other programs.

“My Last Duchess” in Fiction and Classroom

[Molly Schroeder writes about Margaret Atwood, Robert Browning, and the EngageNY lesson plans for “My Last Duchess.” Molly plans to be an English teacher and is a graduate student in literature in the Bard MAT Program. Her essay was a response to an assignment in Victorian Spaces, an MAT literature course.]

Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess,” from her 2006 collection, Moral Disorder, is not only an example of a contemporary space based on one of our Victorian texts, Robert Browning’s poem. Atwood’s story is also eerily connected to our conversations on teaching poetry in high school in the context of EngageNY’s eleventh grade lesson plan.

Essentially, “My Last Duchess” is about an unnamed, female narrator’s experiences being taught the famous Robert Browning poem by “the best English teacher in the school,” which also includes her navigation of the tumultuous world of adolescence (4). In the context of learning about Robert Browning’s famous poem in her high school English class, the narrator describes the pressures of students in an exam-focused school environment (the exam scores of students would be published in a newspaper, and Browning’s poem “was an important poem, worth…a full fifteen marks on the final exam” (5)). The narrator mimics the rhythms, distractions, and dread of high school classes with keen accuracy, reminiscent of a student’s meandering mind during an afternoon class: she glances over “the brand-new classroom,” dives into tangential meditations, which are interrupted by Miss Bessie’s fear-inspiring questions and the narrator’s own note-taking (1). The narrator’s journey with the poem is not only limited to the classroom; it also affects her relationship with Bill and prompts her to consider the limits and restrictions of her environment. She is attuned to the gendered expectations of her town as well as the notion that excelling in education is a way out: “The boys were expected to become doctors, lawyers…As for us girls, we weren’t sure where we were headed. If we didn’t go on [to university], we’d have to get married, or else become old maids; but with a good set of grades, this dismaying fork in the road could be postponed for a while” (5). While the narrator is aware of her aptitude for literature, this capacity is qualified by Bill, her boyfriend, who says that the narrator is “really, really smart, in that way at least” (7, emphasis mine), and also by herself. Whether it’s because of the stress of Miss Bessie’s classroom or the narrator’s own insecurities about her somewhat radical interpretations of the poem, she never speaks up in class to offer her own reading of Browning’s work. In fact, the only instance of her discussing her opinions of the Duke openly ends in an argument and subsequent breakup with beloved Bill (13-14).

This story is particularly interesting in light of the EngageNY lesson when considering Miss Bessie’s motivations and tactics in teaching her students. “Nine times out of ten she simply answered her own questions,” but other times she would wait for a response to her hanging question, and the narrator describes “the suspense, the looming danger – the threat of being pounced on, called by name, forced to speak” (2). Miss Bessie is demanding, exacting, and has extremely high expectations for her students with the clear and repeated goal of preparing them for success on the ever-looming, fate-determining final exams. “Line by line, she hauled us through the poem,” the narrator writes, just as is required in the EngageNY lesson plan (5). Test-focused, emphasizing objective analysis and “correct” answers, Miss Bessie’s method is comparable to the state-mandated lesson plans. “She described our task of learning as a race, as sort of obstacle course” that she expertly ushers the narrator and her classmates through and is considered an exemplar teacher for her efforts (4). However, her methods aren’t totally sound, as Bill is completely frustrated by the poem while the narrator is dissuaded from offering her own insights into the poem because of the limitations of the intended purpose of the lesson.

Bill and the narrator contrast hopelessly in their reactions and interpretations to the poem, perhaps foreshadowing the end of their relationship, but certainly demonstrating two different kinds of students who were both failed by didactic methods of English instruction. Bill “wanted everything to be clear-cut, as in algebra, a subject he was good at,” and naturally finds frustration and difficulty in juggling the multiple meanings and complexity of Browning’s poem (7). Meanwhile, the narrator breezes through Miss Bessie’s questions in the safety and privacy of her notes and, upon further and deeper meditation on the poem, reaches interpretations of the poem that go further than the readings of her classmates and some that are not at all supported by the majority. While Marilyn suggests that the lines “as if she were alive” suggest that the Duchess is dead, the narrator surmises that the Duke “bumped her off,” integrating her own interest in detective stories in her Victorian literature lesson (3). The narrator also becomes sympathetic to the Duke upon further investigation. She compares the Duchess’s smiling to “girls at school who smiled at everyone in the same earnest way…usually coming to rest on some boy” and justifies the Duke’s reaction to the Duchess (10). She rejects the accepted view “that the envoy was horrified by what the Duke had told him and had tried to rush down the stairs first in order to get away from such a twisted nutbar” and argues the Duke is “merely showing consideration to the envoy” to pass along the message to the new Duchess about how she should act (11). Her unpopular interpretation has “all three of them in cahoots – the Duke, the envoy, and the Count,” demonstrating an awareness of the larger patriarchal structures demonstrated in the poem (11). The climactic final scene of the story – the argument between the narrator and Bill – demonstrates the limitations of Miss Bessie’s teaching and the goals of English instruction: Bill cannot enter the poem because of its immoral cruelty and his personal objections to authorial intent and choice, while the narrator cannot escape the poem because of its complexity and her inability to effectively articulate her interpretations to others. Even though the narrator is a model student, her intellectual abilities are stifled by such restrictions, just as Bill is stifled by feeling pushed out of the poem.

Atwood’s story suggests the potential benefits of allowing students to respond to a focused freewrite invitation: imagine what the classroom discussion would have been like if the narrator was allowed to freely associate with the poem, as she demonstrates in the narrative structure of the story, and then read those findings aloud to the class. It is not clear if her interpretations reached anyone other than Bill, and the finality of their argument suggests that she was discouraged from pursuing them further. While Miss Bessie was certainly an effective teacher, the narrator understands the limits of such teaching; in recognizing these limits, she begins to understand her own role and agency in her learning. In questioning why Browning’s “My Last Duchess” was chosen by Miss Bessie and other teachers, as well as other texts that feature “hapless, annoying, dumb bunny girls” the narrator states, “They got together, they had secret meetings, they conferred, they cooked up our book list among them. They knew something we needed to know, but it was a complicated thing – not so much a thing as a pattern, like the clues in a detective story once you started connecting them together. These women – these teachers – had no direct method of conveying this thing to us, not in a way that would make us listen, because it was too tangled, it was too oblique. It was hidden within the stories” (15). The short story is the narrator’s, and presumably Atwood’s, attempt to articulate that “complicated thing”, by examining the narrator’s reaction to the poem in her specific context of being an adolescent girl in a gendered and patriarchal society. Atwood’s story suggests that the reason for the persistence of Browning’s poem and of Victoriana in general in the English curriculum lies not only in its instructional value, but also in its ability to engender useful resistance and multiple interpretations for students: to encourage students to take on different perspectives and to make these isolated texts somehow relevant to the lived experiences of the students who study them.




Altered Books

[Bard MAT graduate and high school English teacher Bridget Ryan shared examples of her students’ Altered Books Project. Bridget writes, “After reading three contemporary novels that exhibit postmodern techniques (Song of Solomon, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Things They Carried), my students had to create their own postmodern works. For this project, they made an altered book version of one of the works that we studied during the year. The works ranged from Much Ado About Nothing and The Awakening to the more contemporary works.” Bridget teaches at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, NJ.]

Writ in Water

Denise Maltese teaches English Language Arts at Onteora Middle School in Boiceville, New York. She is also a mentor teacher for the Bard MAT Program and a fellow of the National Writing Project–both the South Coast Writing Project in Santa Barbara and the Hudson Valley Writing Project in New Paltz, NY.  Denise believes that the best way to help her students overcome their anxieties about studying poetry is to have them read and interact with a wide range of poems. During National Poetry Month, her students chose a line of poetry and represented it visually in an ephemeral medium. The goal is to interpret the line by both the choice of medium and the way the line is visualized. Some fine examples are in the gallery below.

 from “Mongrel Heart” by David Baker


from “My World Within” by Erin Hanson



 from “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy


from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” by T.S. Eliot




from “Offering and Rebuff” by Carl Sandburg


 from “Death Dragoness” by Jess C. Scott




from “Mountain Stream” by Karl Stuart Kline




from “Darling Coffee” by Meena Alexander

On Grit

[Nicholas Wright reviews Angela Duckworth’s study of “grit.” Nicholas is a graduate student in the Bard MAT Program in New York and teaches for the Bard Prison Initiative.]

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016. 333 pages. $28.00.

We have all achieved something in life, but few have thought deeply about the topic of accomplishment. Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, William James, and Angela Duckworth represent that second category. In the 1860s, Galton suggested in Hereditary Genius that overachievers or “outliers … are remarkable in three ways: they demonstrate unusual ‘ability’ in combination with exceptional ‘zeal’ and ‘the capacity for hard labor’” (qtd in Duckworth 20-21). When Galton’s cousin Charles Darwin read the above findings he expressed surprise, writing “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference” (qtd. in Duckworth 21). In the 1900s, William James wrote “The Energies of Men” and posited that “the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum” (qtd. in Duckworth 23). In the 2010s, scholar Angela Duckworth updates and complicates the topic of achievement.

Instead of referring to high achievers as outliers, she calls these people paragons of grit, a characteristic that melds being passionate with persevering. She also replaces the idea of ability, zeal, and hard labor with a belief in that magic that happens when talent and effort work together. Yes, Duckworth thinks, “talent—how fast we improve in skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skills. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive” (42, italics in original). Grit is a blend of biological determinism and social construction; also, grit changes with age and the cultural era we grow up in. All paragons of grit have four psychological assets: they have interests; they practice to a level of mastery; they believe their passions are purposeful; they have hope that circumstances will improve (90-91). So closes Part I “What Grit Is and Why It Matters.”

Part II, “Growing Grit from the Inside out,” explores how we learn, acquire, and cultivate each asset. I found Duckworth’s writing on mastery most appealing. In the seventh chapter, we learn that gritty people practice differently: They create a stretch goal, “one narrow aspect of their overall performance” (121). Educators could easily adapt this approach when we discuss grades and goals with our students. We can discourage them from just wanting to do better in our classes and encourage them to find a specific way to improve. Is it by participating 25% more? Is it by writing longer and more thoughtful extended paragraphs? Is it by completing more mathematics problems in a shorter time?   Gritty people, then, practice, observing the 10,000 hours dictum. Educators might need to take this wisdom in spirit, not in law, showing students how fifteen minutes of intense and focused practice over a month can improve any skill. The math here works out to 450 minutes or 7.5 hours of dedicated practice. Lastly, gritty people seek feedback from experts who emphasize, “what they did wrong—so they can fix it—[over what] what they did right” (122, italics in original). Here too is a chance for educators to modify the approach, because offering praise is equally important to criticism. We would need to learn about our students’ temperaments to best get them to continue to be gritty people.

In Part III, “Growing Grit from the Outside In,” Angela Duckworth offers some practical advice. We must be authoritative and supportive. We should encourage students to try an extracurricular that interest them and follow through by doing it for at least a year. Duckworth is most brilliant when she explains her Hard Thing Rule. In her household, everyone chooses something difficult to do, everyone can quit at a “natural stopping point” (241), and everyone picks the hard thing for herself/himself. Educators can model this behavior by talking to our students about the challenges we still have in learning and choosing a goal. For me, I always do the writing assignments along with my students and offer to show them my progress as I work on the project. I also try to teach at least one to three new texts each term, telling them about this explicitly and making my lessons during those times more of a workshop in how one scholar approaches a new text.

If we encourage our students to practice the Hard Thing Rule, we can change the way they think about genius. “If you define genius,” Duckworth writes on the last page of book, “as being able to accomplish great things in life without effort, then he [her father] was right: I’m no genius, and neither is he. But if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being—then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, … and, if you’re willing, so are you” (277).

With fluid, coherent, and cohesive prose Duckworth presents her findings. Her technique with the rhetorical model of multiple examples and illustrations, though at times overdone, helps readers understand the various theories she presents. Overall, Grit deserves the praise it has received.

Observing and Understanding the Child

[In this essay, Courtney Kaufmann writes, “Arguably, we live in a society in which people—teachers included—listen to respond rather than listen to understand.” Courtney is a graduate student in the Bard MAT Program in New York. She wrote the blog for the course Language, Literacy, and the Adolescent Learner.]

Early in the week, I sat in my one-year old son’s bedroom, leaning against the crib, watching him play. I couldn’t help but glance at my phone and browse Pinterest. After all, I was throwing his very first birthday party in just a week, and there was still much planning to be done. Besides, we had been at this for an hour and a half. How many times could I repeat, “Wow! Great book, Oliver! Look at the animals. What sound does a cow make?” without hearing any sort of response? The conviction had left my voice a while ago. As I was browsing pins full of DIY instructions for making snowflakes and high chair banners (whatever that was), Oliver came running to me with a red square-shaped block in hand. He pointed to the accompanying box, with a top that had shapes cut out of it. He knew that the square block went into the box, but he couldn’t figure out how.


I took the box from him and put the square block in the square hole. “See, easy peasy!” I said to him, then kissed him on the forehead. Try as he might, he could not figure out how to align the square block with the its matching hole and let it go of it. Instead, he put it in sideways, or tried to put the block through the star-shaped hole. I slowly got distracted again by the website, but the moment he caught me looking away, he would tug on my shirt and thrust the block at me once more. With all of the patience I could muster, I would show him how to do it again before turning back to party planning. We went back and forth like this for some time.

Later in the week, I was at work at the Writing Center at a local college where I tutor students in writing, when a familiar student walked into my office and requested a session. I recognized her from the semester before. She requested help on an assignment for her first business class. Her group was supposed to write about the company Target and analyze its role in the retail industry in various ways, and she was given ‘politics’ as her category. She had already submitted the assignment to the professor, but he gave the students an extension after he realized that he never mentioned that they should look at the retail industry as a whole, and to his dismay, the students did very specific case studies on their company. Despite the fact that her essay was nearly complete, the girl had a worried look on her face. “I want to talk about the Trump administration, and NAFTA. But I don’t want to get political. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh no, Trump is going to deport me,'” she worried.

I smiled politely, but asked myself, “How do you write about politics without ‘getting political’?” As we began to piece the paper together, adding outside information about the retail industry as a whole, the effects of both foreign and domestic policies, and the entire policy that is North American Free Trade Agreement, she kept repeating, “I don’t know if I should get political.” After some time, I honestly began to panic because the clock was ticking. I felt that we did not have time to worry about getting political. Honestly, her writing was good. She just needed some help refining her ideas. I told her that, very simply, she needed to describe the policy, its potential repercussions economically, and then what kind of changes the industry itself or a particular company would have to make if the Republican administration were to abolish NAFTA. After describing this, I suggested we pick up the pace and move to the conclusion of the paper.

I could not help but reflect on these two experiences and question my role as a teacher in both as I read the writings of Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori for homework in my education class at Bard College. Simply put, these educators believed that the teacher cannot help the child learn and succeed unless he or she understands the child. In his work, “Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins,” Malaguzzi explicitly says that “there’s a difference between the environment that you are able to build based on a preconceived image of the child and the environment that you can build that is based on the child you see in front of you — the relationship you build with the child […]” He also suggests that in order to create success, adults should create an appropriate image of the child that fits the child and not the adult. The combination of these two elements create a customized experience for the child, rather than, as Malaguzzi describes, the standardized experience which consists of “rapid assessments, tests, [and] judgments.” Finally, Malaguzzi suggests that the educator should attempt to strike a balance between assisting the student and encouraging self-learning.

I found these ideas particularly useful when looking back on my experience with the freshman student. Why hadn’t I alleviated her fears of being ‘too political?’ This notion is elementary, and was a perfect excuse for me to teach her how to approach the difficulties of appropriately portraying politics in formal writing. Why didn’t I tell her what I was thinking, that she had to be political to a certain extent? I pride myself on building relationship with students, especially ones like this girl, whom I have seen multiple times. How could I have helped her learn her material even better, rather than imposing my edits on her paper in order to complete the assignment within our allotted time? Understanding her needs, alleviating her fears, and creating a safe space to talk about these issues could have helped her more than a completed paper would have. I am sure that either I or one of my colleagues would see this student back for the same kinds of issues.

Malaguzzi’s philosophy was also eye-opening in relation to my experience with my son. Specifically, Malaguzzi asserts the idea that children need adults to be present all the time, and not just in the final results of their success, but in their journey. From the perspective of the child, he writes, ‘“If only you had seen all I had to do.’ The child wants this observation. We all want this.” Many of the parents that I have talked to with small children worry about similar things in today: ‘Do I work too much?’ ‘Am I on my phone too much?’ ‘Am I not involved enough?’ While it is both difficult and exhausting to engage with a little human who has limited language skills, it is important, as Malaguzzi says, to be constantly involved, and to observe the child all the time. Oliver looked to me for the exact response that Malaguzzi identifies; he did not just want me to show him how the block went into the box, he wanted me to watch him try. He wanted me to see whether he succeeded or failed. If I had only put the phone down and observed him, I would have, as Malaguzzi says, drawn an image of my child, one that is appropriate to him and not to me or my ideas of him. I did not truly consider his capabilities in this action. Rather, I assumed I understood them. By observing him more often and putting in an effort to truly understand him, I can become a better teacher, a better parent, and a better learner myself.

Finally, this brings me to Montessori. While her piece, “Methods for the Teaching of Reading and Writing” is perhaps more of a case study on the effects of her approach to teaching reading and writing to young children, Montessori assumes something that Malaguzzi is attempting to instill in the reader: she already understands the child. More importantly, she acts as a sort of in-between, between the world of the child and the world of the adult. She is a translator. In the first paragraph of her piece, she regards the vertical stroke as the first one practiced in writing. She regards this stroke as entirely pointless. In fact, she compares the notion of children learning strokes before they learn letters to studying “infinitesimal calculus” in order to seriously consider the stars. She recognizes that children this age heavily rely on sensation, and uses this tactic in order to teach them both reading and writing before the age of six years old.

This observation and understanding of the child is not only something that applies to younger children, but to older ones as well. Arguably, we live in a society in which people—teachers included—listen to respond rather than listen to understand. In an effort to maximize the child’s knowledge in a set amount of time, perhaps the teacher loses his or her way. With this mindset, it is easy to drown in one’s own voice. Rather, if one were to build relationships with and observe the child, he or she could better customize a lesson and identify key problems that the child is having. This does not just mean that one should be aware of certain theories, such as Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development. In my education class, we have talked about how, sometimes, the role of the teacher and the parent seem to have a blurred line. Understanding older children, especially, requires walking that blurred line in order to, ultimately, help an individual self-learn and become entirely autonomous. And, as Malaguzzi suggests, we might just realize how little we actually know.

Review of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood

[Nicholas Wright reviews new work by Christopher Emdin. Nicholas is a graduate student in the Bard MAT program and an instructor in the Bard Prison Initiative.]

Emdin, Christopher. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Beacon Press: 2016. 220 pages. $25.95

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education is a mouthful title by Christopher Emdin, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. His thinking brings to my mind no other writers about urban education or reality pedagogy, even though I am certain his thoughts connect with Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1968]) and American thinker bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress [1994] and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope [2003]). These texts wonder about the relationship among student and teacher and society, education as the practice of freedom, and what mindsets work in the classroom to end racism. Emdin’s basic premise that guides For White Folks is as follows: “Students have to first connect to a classroom/school that welcomes their brilliance, celebrates it, and makes them realize that they have a natural ability [by virtue of their neoindigineity] to be academically successful” (176).

Since Emdin is cautious about using jargon in his twelve chapters that run on average fifteen pages, readers need to understand only the meaning and differences between neoindigineity and indigineity. In creating his neologism neoindigineity, he reminds us of the Carlisle Indian School in the 1870s and cites the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Neoindigenous people, according to this record, “see themselves as, or hav[ing] been positioned as, separate from those who are politically or socially in command of the region” (8). Indigenous people meet this qualification and are “people whose existence in a certain geographic location predates the region’s conquering or occupation by a colonial or imperialist power” (8).

His early chapters offer a few more foundational and simple concepts. Emdin reminds teachers that we tend to be more comfortable with students who conform to our ideas of particular virtues, making those conforming students in a sense visible. We will also not give these students a hard time because they reflect our own schooling. This practice is problematic for many urban youths, making them invisible. Emdin gives the example of the different ways that urban students and white teachers perceive being on time for class. To see students—to make them visible– he suggests allowing students to articulate their understanding of how walking toward the classroom door as the bell rings is for them being on time. That is, he is calling for a reversal of roles, a linchpin for reality pedagogy, and differences of understanding. In “Courage,” Emdin tracks the damage the “don’t smile until November” imperative creates. It assumes that students are innately unruly and must be civilized by fear, a similar situation to the historical period when “Europeans settlers in their first interactions with the indigenous, shar[ed] observations of their unrefined culture and violent nature” (33). Emdin argues that we need courage to engage students, to deliver creative, quirky lessons, to unpack our own indoctrination to schooling and race. Refusing to smile simply pushes students away. By practicing camaraderie and courage, we help students find value in their education. Emdin does some impressive thinking in his third chapter, “Chuuuuch,” where he encourages us to think about how Pentecostal preaching’s preference for call and responses exchanges is like teaching. I leave it to you to discover the details.

Before concluding, I must mention where Emdin’s work on reality pedagogy and urban education falls short. First, I think new readers to this topic would benefit from an appendix or two that describes the research endeavors he mentions throughout the two-hundred odd pages, as well as a brief history of reality pedagogy as a practice, alongside a set of objectives for this type of teaching. Cohesion arose as my next concern when I saw the helpful epigrams, helpful to me at least, fall to the wayside after the first chapter. Since I am approaching this form of pedagogy with fresh eyes, as I imagine many are, those distilled quotations gave me something to mull over, think, and write about before reading the chapter.

Lastly, the organization of chapters four through ten—“Cogenerative Dialogues,” “Coteaching,” “Cosmpolitanism,” “Context and Content,” “Competition,” “Clean,” and “Code Switching”—needs an overhaul. Since one of Emdin’s goals in studying reality pedagogy is for teachers, young and old, to practice his concepts, it seems best to place the easily implemented techniques (tweeting, metalogues, and videos) well before more authentic practices (cognerative dialogues, considerations of aesthetics, and allowing students to teach an entire lesson) would be feasible. With a new organizational strategy in place, I think Emdin would succeed quicker in answering these four commonly asked questions of him: “How do we get disinterested students to care about themselves and their education? Why are our students not excited about learning? Why aren’t they adjusting well to the rules of school? Why are they underperforming academically?” (2).

All in all, Emdin’s work deserves space next to other new pedagogical considerations like Angela Duckworth’s 2016 Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and Monique W. Morris’s 2016 Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. With new insights, short sample lessons, and authentic student-teacher exchanges, Emdin not only theorizes “reality pedagogy” but also offers practical steps to improve urban education.


Race, Science Fiction, and the Classroom

[ How might studying science fiction encourage students to examine their assumptions about race?  “Monstrosity and the Majority: Defamiliarizing Race in the University Classroom” by Clayton Zuba helped Ian Taras think about that question. His review of Zuba’s essay was an assignment for Victorian Spaces, a course in the Bard MAT Program. Ian is a graduate student, preparing to teach English at the secondary level.]

While I suspect a number of the texts we read in “Victorian Spaces” could be successfully taught in a secondary education classroom, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells stands out as the most likely to be well-received by an audience of young adult readers. Not just for its accessible language and straightforward plot, but for the intrinsically interesting topics it causes us to consider–both at their surface level (e.g., futuristic technology, alien invasions, the threat of human extinction, etc.) and for the social and philosophical questions they raise (e.g., how do we define human progress, organize socially, and justify our prejudices?). In this regard, Wells’s text is emblematic of the science fiction genre, which often couches charged political and social commentary in thrilling and outlandish subject matter. Done well, this clever recasting of our social conditions can throw fresh and startling light on issues whose apparent intractability leaves many of us complacent or defeated. Of course, not all storytelling needs Martians and ray guns to help readers gain new perspectives on the social ills to which many of us, unwittingly or not, contribute. But the heightened use of allegory that is the province of sci-fi is at a unique advantage to introduce young readers to the ways literature defamiliarizes our everyday experience—making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. In so doing, it can alert us to our blind spots and, at its best, disabuse us of our sense of powerlessness over improving the everyday experiences of all.

In his article “Monstrosity and the Majority: Defamiliarizing Race in the University Classroom,” published in Pedagogy’s April 2016 issue, Clayton Zuba, a literature professor at Arizona State University, offers an inspiring case study in how literature (and science fiction in particular) can be used in the above described manner. Zuba was especially interested in using sci-fi texts to help students interrogate issues of racism and white supremacy. With bell hooks’s pedagogical maxim that teachers motivate students “[to] learn to think critically and analytically, not just about the required books, but about the world they live in” as his lodestar, Zuba tailored a course that would guide students to approach racism from the unexpected vantages science fiction affords. He chose to begin his reading list with works of 19th century British sci-fi, given their historical coincidence with the “twin booms in Western global imperialism and scientific innovation” (359). Both events had serious and lasting influences on our thinking about race and imperial conquest, and Victorian writers were around to observe, record, and contemplate their effects as they were occurring.

In his first year composition class, “The Monstrous and the Human,” Zuba sought to make defamiliarization the central pedagogical tool. Having taught composition courses at several universities whose student ethnic populations varied considerably, he identified among middleclass white students a troubling deficit in their understanding of how destructive ideas about race remain deeply entrenched in present times. Zuba clued into this urgent need for remediation while conducting a routine visual literacy exercise during his first term at a largely white, middleclass college. He had tasked students with analyzing how the composition of images in advertisements “uses rhetoric and symbol to influence” consumer choice (357). While most students excelled at this visual analysis initially, Zuba observed that their skills fell abysmally short when faced with an image from the cover of a top tier fashion magazine featuring a famous black male basketball pro alongside a white female model. With one arm dribbling a ball and the other wound possessively around the model’s waist, the basketball player “bar[es] his teeth in an ape-like facial expression” (358). At the time of the issue’s release, the magazine disclaimed any suggestion of racial stereotypes on its cover, and, to Zuba’s disappointment and concern, this was how the majority of his nearly all white class had decided to view it. Their reaction, he notes, was in stark contrast with that of a more ethnically diverse class he taught at another university. Among a class of mostly Latinx and black students, the image’s offensiveness was instantly recognized. The white majority class, however, had proven alarmingly unreceptive to this point even when Zuba challenged them with well-reasoned arguments. This experience became the catalyst for his idea to approach issues of race indirectly, specifically through defamiliarization (358).

A vital concern when Zuba designed the course was to ensure that students would be blind to his intention of using the texts they would study to obliquely tap into ideas concerning race and imperialism. To that end, he wrote the course description free from any language that would suggest its ultimate goals. Rather, the stated aim would be to use reading and writing to respond to the following questions: “How do our stories define the monstrous and describe the human? Where do these apparently opposing categories converge or invert” (360)? By way of these prompts—broad yet undeniably relevant to “the foundations of Western racism and imperialism”—students would indirectly examine “racially constructed discourses of savagism and civilization used to justify genocide and enslavement of Native Americans and Africans in North America or orientalist discourses used to justify European global imperialisms” (361). Ideally, students would come away from the course with “insights about…the language and thinking underlying problems of race without confronting the issue of race in American society directly” (361).

The class began by studying three seminal examples of early sci-fi: Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Students were instructed to identify and consider how these texts characterized monsters, with particular attention paid to the ways they were distinguished from humans (361). Through in-class discussion and group work, students generated lists for each novel, as well as a master list, recording common traits authors used to establish a monster/human dichotomy. Essential course questions were also addressed through written assignments, which featured prompts such as: “Some of our class discussions have questioned whether monsters have essential, static qualities that make them monsters, or if they develop into monsters. How do The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde answer this question” (362)? Zuba sees these questions as offering alternative access to “the topic of racial representation…point[ing] students toward an awareness of the problems of race that these science fiction texts sought to explore beneath their generic surfaces” (362). Through such discussions and short analytical essays, students gained a gradual awareness of how monsters were differentiated via superficial attributes and, crucially, otherwise shared many similarities with humans. Moreover, they began to understand it was often human characters in these novels who behaved most abominably. For instance, one student remarked on Dr. Moreau’s “pointlessly cruel” experiments, while another questioned whether Frankenstein’s monster would have acted so reprehensibly had his human creator, Victor, treated him humanely (362-3).

Having grasped a basic understanding of how monsters were conceived of and represented in 19th century British literature, the class moved on to more recent examples of American literature that borrowed from conventions of the Gothic and Victorian eras in their own treatment of race as a “social construction” (363). Zuba assigned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which examines racial attitudes and mores of the rural 1930s American South, as well as Sherman Alexie’s story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A central topic of Alexie’s text is the internalization of attitudes about “racial authenticity” by Native Americans (364). Through frequent discussions, students drew thoughtful connections between the texts from the different units; for example, noting Lee’s inversion of the monster-like Boo Radley–viewed among the townsfolk as frighteningly “pale, reclusive, and mysterious”–into a heroic savior, and comparing the hateful behavior of the novel’s white villain, Bob Ewell, to Wells’s wicked Dr. Moreau (363). This juxtaposition of genres helped students recognize tropes, dramatically more visible in later literature, that Victorian authors had used “to repress and displace anxieties over contact with racial others” (364). Finally, Zuba had students study two contemporary examples of science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott’s 1982 cinematic adaptation of it, Blade Runner. Both works complicate the meaning of humanness by blurring the lines between humans and futuristic “synthetic human beings” called “replicants” (365). Tying in the visual literacy exercise that inspired the course’s creation, Zuba’s students performed close readings of scenes from film adaptations of texts they had studied, in which they identified and analyzed how filmmakers “used image and sound to portray monsters” (365).

To assess the effectiveness of his use of defamiliarization to help students better understand the role of race in society, Zuba asked the class at the end of the term to share their thoughts on possible reasons for reading the texts in the order they did. While he does not include every anonymous course evaluation in his article, he highlights some very favorable feedback. One student, for example, wrote about how it was not until her latest reading of To Kill a Mockingbird (in Zuba’s course) that she grasped Lee’s use of monster motifs to illustrate racial categorization or the prominence of “issues of racial purity in establishing white family lineages” in the novel (366). Another student compared the plight of the replicants in Blade Runner to the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves in the antebellum American South. Still others, while not drawing such salient connections, expressed that they felt their critical thinking skills honed and their interest in literature measurably increased.

Defamiliarization has been a critical tool in our own close readings of the texts we covered this term. We have used a familiar geographical or domestic setting as a novel point of entry to investigate the prevailing anxieties and obsessions of Victorian culture. And while we have also tackled issues of race, alienation, and othering head-on, we have noted how authors themselves have employed defamiliarizing tactics to puzzle over their own ideological questions and concerns. The War of the Worlds is the most obvious instance of such, in which Wells confronts readers with a vision of imperial rule from the perspective of the colonized. He repeatedly draws comparisons among humans, animals, and other life forms, illuminating the surprisingly porous boundaries between these categories, much like authors did in the texts of Zuba’s “The Monstrous and the Human.” At first, I was skeptical of the defamiliarizing technique. It struck me that most college and even high school students would be sensitive to the roles race and imperialism–topics so intimately entwined one cannot fairly address one without other–hold in contemporary society and receptive to a forthright conversation about them. But Zuba’s presentation of the evidence has convinced me that a more innovative method is warranted and chastened me to reassess the value of a purely didactic approach—especially when interacting with learners from an ethnic and socioeconomic background similar to my own. Perhaps this is what I respect and admire most about Zuba’s effort. He observed a troubling event in his own classroom and sought to create, through reading and writing, a socially responsible way to rectify it. In short, he’s offered those of us seeking to become professional teachers something to emulate and aspire to.


Dollars, Tests, and Common Core

In popular parlance, “common core” has become synonymous with “testing” rather than “curriculum.” There appears to be good reason for this slippage, as well as for parents’ and teachers’ concerns that business increasingly controls education under the Common Core.


In “Smart Money? Philanthropic and Federal Funding of the Common Core,” Kornhaber et al. demonstrate that far more philanthropic funding was allocated to testing systems than to curriculum development and support. Nearly a third of federal aid–in the hundreds of millions of dollars–went to assessment consortia. Traditional public schools and districts received very few of the philanthropic dollars tied to Common Core, and even federal aid allocated to states and districts often ended up in the coffers of education vendors, who supplied varieties of “support” for the implementation of Common Core in schools. Meanwhile, of course, strong research evidence of the effectiveness of the Common Core and the standards movement has yet to emerge. The sobering conclusion of “Smart Money” is worth quoting in full:

An analogy to the Gold Rush may be useful here: The claim stakers are the federal government and philanthropies that have staked out the Common Core for public policy. To work that stake, they incentivize states and school districts to mine the Common Core and get higher measured achievement. To do so, the miners need equipment. The vendors who sell the equipment profit in the short term, even if their tools rarely enable the miners to get the sought-after results. In essence, those who set directions for the Common Core and those who provided resources for its implementation have benefitted, even as potential benefits to schools, educators, and students are elusive, and the entire claim may ultimately be empty. (Kornhaber et al. 26)

Articles of Note


For more than a decade, school reformers have promoted alternative certification programs as the equivalent of or superior to teacher education programs as pathways into teaching. However, in “Easy In, Easy Out,” a new article in the American Education Research Journal, Christopher Reading and Thomas Smith demonstrate that alternatively certified teachers are more likely to leave the profession early than teachers who received their credentials through a degree program at a college or university. According to the research, alternatively certified teachers are less likely to have had significant practice-teaching experiences or courses in methods, and they are more likely to report being unprepared for the classroom. These findings are doubly distressing because many alternatively certified teachers are placed in the neediest public schools. Interestingly, even when Reading and Smith control for factors such as these–weaker preparation, placement in tough environments–the gap remains. It seems that however the data are sliced, these new teachers are less likely to remain in the classroom than their peers who entered the profession through “traditional” paths.


In a series of blog posts in response to teachers’ questions, Timothy Shanahan demystifies a term that should not be so mysterious: close reading.  The Common Core is partially responsible for this return of the repressed. But many educators are inexplicably baffled by the concept, and the education marketplace has begun to respond with numerous new titles purporting to offer recipes for close reading. In plain terms, Shanahan reminds his readers that close reading is not a strategy. Rather, a close reading is usually an interpretation that follows from careful attention to the language and form of a text. It’s possible to close read many different kinds of texts, but whether a text warrants close reading depends in large part on the quality of the writing and thinking. Shanahan’s advice to teachers is not to buy a how-to manual for close reading. Rather, if you’re unsure how to do it, he suggests, take an English class. We agree, and it’s one reason that literature courses are essential to the MAT curriculum for preservice English teachers. What more important time to study literature than when you’re learning to teach it?


Finally, we’re excited about the publication of Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools For LGBTQ Students, by Michael Sadowski. Michael teaches the course “Identity, Culture, and The Classroom” for the Bard MAT Program and is director of the Bard in Hudson Civic Academy. His new book challenges educators to move beyond “safe” to create educational spaces and curricula that are truly inclusive.