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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1999
Vol. 56
No. 8


Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice

Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice, Martha Stone Wiske, editor, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998
During my 25 years as a teacher and an administrator, my friends and I would often complain about how far removed university research was from our "real worlds"—our classrooms. If university folks really wanted to help us, we declared, they would help us plan our lessons and even teach a few of them.
Researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a group of dedicated teachers accomplished just that over a six-year period. Their purpose was to test the theoretical foundations of what Harvard investigators call the Teaching for Understanding framework by applying it in several content areas and across a range of settings. This book describes what researchers and teachers learned from one another and from their students.
The first chapters concisely describe contemporary educational issues within historical contexts and suggest how these issues pose challenges for the future. Next, the authors define what it means to "understand" in a way that is refreshingly straightforward and easy to comprehend: "the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows." In their view, a teacher can determine whether students understand by their ability to "perform" the understanding. I appreciated how they contextualized each part of the definition with numerous classroom examples.
Several chapters link the framework for understanding to curriculum and instruction for mathematics, history, physics, and English. Examples of student performances in each area are evaluated according to each dimension of understanding. These illustrations enable teachers to apply part or all of this framework in their classrooms.
This book is equal parts theory and practice. It is a superb example of what educators in universities and schools can accomplish when they engage in sincere efforts to benefit students.
Published by Jossey-Bass, 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104. Price: $29.95.
—Reviewed by Brian Bottge, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

Teaching for Social Justice

Teaching for Social Justice, William Ayers, Jean Ann Hunt, and Therese Quinn, editors , New York: The New Press, 1998
After a presentation about the importance of social justice teaching, a preservice teacher raised her hand: "But if I try to teach about racism and homophobia and anti-Semitism and stuff, won't I get in trouble? I mean shouldn't I make sure I teach both sides of racism?"
Teaching for Social Justice welcomes us into this critical dialogue. What is the difference between teaching and indoctrination? What happens when a teacher's consciousness-raising project bumps into divergent parental or community values? How can we teach students to be active citizens involved in making a difference and not just classroom-based critics, aware of the problems but despairing or cynical about possible solutions?
The book is a compendium of teacher narratives, profiles of teacher activists, and descriptions of classroom projects. An extensive resource section includes a mother's description of a school's lack of responsiveness to a racial incident; a high school curriculum focused on race and racism through literature study; a lesbian student's description of the discrimination she's faced; and a lesson plan about welfare developed by adult literacy students.
Jean Ann Hunt says that teaching is "an audacious act of faith that the ways things are is neither inevitable nor immutable" (p. xiv). Maxine Greene writes that teaching for social justice is teaching to communicate a sense of agency, that people working together might "invent a project of remediation, palliation, repair" (p. xxx). The book reminds us that the biggest obstacles to social justice teaching are not injustice and prejudice, but isolation and despair. We can join the "real teachers" doing this challenging work.
Appropriate for anyone eager to find teaching soul mates, this book is especially useful for those who ask, What does teaching for social justice have to do with teaching math, or classroom management, or whole language, or site-based planning? Filled with ideas, energy, and hope, it reminds us why we became teachers: to make a difference in children's lives. Encouraging social justice is the biggest difference we can make.
Published by The New Press, 450 W. 41st St., New York, NY 10036. Price: $18.95.
—Reviewed by Mara Sapon-Shevin, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

A Life in School

A Life in School, Jane Tompkins, Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996
Reading this book definitely provokes reader response. My responses were explosive, vivid, piercing. I vacillated between the states of irritation and recognition. I groaned and hissed and remembered my own schooling. I put the book down in disgust, then picked it up again, curious. After I read it, I put it away for a month to see whether my emotional response would calm. It hasn't. Now I wonder whether other teachers' responses will be similar.
Jane Tompkins was a normal kid who grew up with two loving parents. She went to school and then moved on to Bryn Mawr and Yale for her undergraduate and graduate work. She struggled through two marriages and the tenure process, situations that were resolved when she ditched the second husband (the day before the bar exam) to run away with the third. The book is about her life in schools from kindergarten through graduate school and beyond, as a professor of literature. The basic problem is that school has been and continues to be hard on her. It's hard on everybody at times, I yelled. You Milquetoast. You self-indulgent so and so, I shrieked. You privileged little . . . of course, that explains it: Only privileged people have the time to write about their personal history and only really privileged people think that others would be interested!
Tompkins describes how in her early years what she hoped for from school and what she got were two different things. Reading meant flash cards and Dick and Jane, even when she could read much more sophisticated stuff. Teachers were alternately kind and terrifying, leaving her confused and ambivalent about her own authority. Ah, the trials of the gifted and talented, I thought. Who needs to read this? Then came my own memories, prompted by hers. I remember being so bored that I literally fell asleep: the teacher's voice droning and droning. The radiator clanking, banging, pouring out hot air until no air was left for ideas or imagination. The struggle to stay awake as my eyelids went down, then up by sheer will, and then down again. Eventually, I just plain fell asleep. The teacher tipped me out of my chair in front of everyone. I was horrified and embarrassed.
As a faculty member, she discovers that her students are largely disengaged from the subject and are paralyzed into a learning game that has them stuffing themselves with information and rearranging it for professorial consumption—an unhealthful diet for both parties. And so she begins to experiment. OK, I think it's worthwhile for students to take responsibility for the course content as long as the teacher uses some judgment.While reading Beloved, the students planned a field trip to a plantation. They picked cotton. I think that's terrific—a field experience to go deeper into the experience of the character. What? You didn't grade them? And they roasted you on the student assessments for not pulling your load? What are you, stupid? Students want their professors to know something and to participate in their own growth and development. Please, please don't tell me it hurt your feelings—it's too sickening.
My reactions to her experiences in school swooped and swung between my memories of my own schooling that either contradicted or paralleled hers and my experiences teaching at the college level and in public school classrooms. I didn't like the book. But it certainly provoked me and made me think again in important ways about what it means to teach and learn. I wonder whether it will rile you up the way it did me.
Published by Addison Wesley Longman, Reading, Mass. Price: $12.
—Reviewed by Patricia Wasley, Bank Street College of Education, New York, New York.

The Book of Learning and Forgetting

The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith, New York: Teachers College Press, 1998
Frank Smith contrasts two views of learning. The classic, or natural, view holds that learning is effortless, enjoyable, and ongoing. This view explains how meaningful experiences stay with us for a lifetime. He argues that central to learning is the "company we keep," the groups or "clubs" with which we identify. Literacy learning requires becoming part of the "literacy club."
In contrast, the "official theory of learning" says that learning must be hard work, an unrewarding chore. Smith traces its origin to Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied how people learn nonsense syllables. Ebbinghaus's influential ideas joined behaviorism, which was built on experiments that had lab animals carry out activities "meaningless even for the animals." These theories led to teaching and educational materials that were based on fragmentation and reinforcement. Smith argues that when coupled with testing practices that focus on isolated bits instead of on meaningful understanding, the official theory has helped create a dysfunctional system of education.
Classic, or meaningful, learning is rarely forgotten, whether the message is positive or negative. Children learn to love reading or they learn that they cannot do mathematics, messages that are hard to dislodge. In contrast, Ebbinghaus's work on forgetting established a "law" of forgetting that showed a steep drop in retention following that effort to learn.
Although Smith's rhetoric is often strident, many K–16 teachers will resonate with his criticism of the official theory. Teachers and administrators will find some helpful suggestions for combating its impact in their teaching settings.
Published by Teachers College Press, New York, NY 10027. Price: $17.95.
—Reviewed by Mary Diez, Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Things Get Hectic

Things Get Hectic, Philip Kay, Andrea Estepa, and Al Desetta, editors, New York: Touchstone, 1998
When "things get hectic," kids mean that they are facing more than a busy day. In Corona (Queens), high school student Juan Azize tells why kids dread weekends: I feel like I am in a battle zone. Before trooping it out to a jam, I always have to make sure I am rolling with my little crew in case things get hectic. Most of the jams I've been to end up with a shootout or a rumble. (P. 23)
If readers think the crisis of societal or school violence is diminishing, they need only accompany Juan, Natalie, Mohamad, or Robin as they express their reality in these brief, student-written essays. These young writers are in search of pain, longing to "defrost from loss" long enough to replace life's anguish with a moment of joy or even grief. Numbness is the legacy of their violent neighborhoods where a blank look in the eyes, a consolidated type of detachment, is the norm. The themes of overcoming reflexes, of slowing down enough to think and to find feelings, and of searching for an awareness of consequences permeate their words. Readers who can endure the raw emotion and knee-jerk reactions will be rewarded with a rich fund of understanding for kids who are, at heart, snagged in a cultural net.
Researchers would save time and money by starting with kids' analyses of societal violence, especially the role of the media. Student J. Slade Anderson notes that hard-core rappers are angry: Their families are poor, their neighborhoods are infested with drugs and violence. . . . The people who listen to them feel powerless too. . . . These angry poets give people a mental crutch for their damaged egos, a way to feel invincible, if only for a few minutes. (Pp. 89–90)
Elixirs like rap, Nintendo, and violent movies both relieve and excite. Some immature listeners, Anderson observes, may take these messages too literally and commit acts that devastate others and are memorialized in more songs and new movies. Danger permeates the worlds of the young, who further trap themselves when they relinquish control for a moment of even surrogate revenge through rap, graffiti art, killer movies, or point-and-shoot games.
Although the students write unfalteringly of a world in which most middle- class adults could barely survive, they also find hope when they have a sense of purpose or direction. Hectic but positive activity, the students relate, helps them not to follow "the crew" or participate in mindless crimes. Having a goal, feeling respected, seeing the relevance of what they learn, and possessing good reason for hope are all they need to turn away from gratuitous violence. When they have and believe in a future for themselves, their minds begin to "defrost" and their spirits rise. Says Lisa Frederick in a rap on why young men should respect women, "We dignified, full of pride, classified, bona fide and refined. . . . Just think of us as royalty in jeans" (p. 166). Things Get Hectic is compelling reading for anyone who wants not only to understand but also to feel the world of young people in poverty and to support their road to hope.
Published by Touchstone, Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Price: $13.
—Reviewed by Vicky Dill, Haberman Educational Foundation, Midwest, McPherson, Kansas.

Teaching the Commons

Teaching the Commons, Paul Theobald, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997
Much of the rhetoric for improving education in our times comes from corporate and political leaders who clamor that competition must be the prime motivator in a global marketplace. Paul Theobald offers a thoughtful but contrary view to such rhetoric. He reminds readers that inquiring into our own communities offers a significant chance to renew our schools. After all, can we embrace the world without having a sense of our own community?
Theobald suggests that the rural United States is now the crucible of contemporary community renewal and can bear witness to renewal for urban and suburban communities. In the spirit of Wendell Berry, Theobald raises the problems associated with "placelessness" in our times. Placelessness, he argues, causes "an undue focus on the self in our society, and the predictable result is disintegrating neighborhoods and a vanishing sense of community" (p. 120).
Theobald continues, The rural and inner-city places that have suffered the most can no longer afford to be among the purveyors of this brand of individualism. Concepts like commitment, allegiance, and obligation must re-enter conversations concerning the fate of these places. All communities have needs, and we must begin to enculturate youth into an ethic of shouldering responsibility for meeting these needs. This can be a large part of the educational agenda all across the country, but it has the best chance of catching on in rural America, where size is still manageable and where lingering vestiges of a sense of community yet remain.
Theobald does not back away from the difficult question—How do educators change the status quo and educate for community renewal? He answers 0by quoting John Goodlad, Ted Sizer, Seymour Sarason, and Michael Fullan, whose theories of school-focused reform connect to a keen interest in the daily lives of those who inhabit schools. Theobald also enriches these school-reform resources by drawing from cross-cultural perspective.
Rural educators have long understood the beauty and power of place and community. Sadly, little scholarship on rural education has made its way into the mainstream conversations about school reform. Teaching the Commons is a long-overdue contribution from rural America to educators, policymakers, and committed citizens wishing to restore community, place, and democracy to the daily lives of our children. Indeed, Paul Theobald dares to remind us that students in our public schools are the future decision makers in this country. . . . Our high school graduates (and our dropouts, for that matter) are not, first and foremost, factory hands or dentists or professional baseball players. They are citizens living in a democracy. (P. 133)
Teaching the Commons can give educators the necessary moral boost—grounded in the pedagogy of place—to preserve community and democracy.
Published by Westview Press, 5500 Central Ave., Boulder, CO 80301. Price: $22.
—Reviewed by Don Ernst, ASCD, Alexandria, Virginia.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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