A desk of one’s own

It is an honor to be guest-blogging here along with Rachel Levy and Michael E. Lopez, two of my favorite education bloggers.

There’s much discussion lately (and not so lately) about what can be done to make teaching an elite profession. Some of the suggestions focus on teacher preparation; others, on teaching conditions. I will propose something that I haven’t heard mentioned: to improve conditions substantially, in a way that will encourage good teachers to stay, give each teacher a desk.

By this I mean a desk of one’s own (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf), a desk that no one else uses, where items don’t get taken or shifted around; a desk in a relatively tranquil room, where one can work and think.

Why is this important, and why is it rare?

First, a disclaimer: I am not complaining about any particular school. Everywhere I have taught, there has been shortage of space, and teachers have had to share desks, use tables as desks, or go without a desk entirely. In my first school, one of my colleagues regularly did her work in the auditorium, in an audience seat. (It was possibly the quietest room in the building.)

I don’t think many people would question a teacher’s need for a desk–but I’m not sure they deem it especially important, either. For instance, they may consider it acceptable for teachers to share desks or to work in noisy classrooms. But many private schools have teachers’ desks in department offices, outside of the classrooms. This is both because they have space and because they recognize the importance of a desk.

Sharing a desk has all kinds of complications: your scissors disappear, your Gumby eraser walks away, your Machiavelli goes into exile, etc. Beyond that, a shared desk becomes, in the mind of the school, a shared desk. Anyone may sit at it.

Noisy classrooms can make it difficult to get work done, unless you have noise-cancelling headphones or can block out the sound. You end up doing most of your work at home.

There are also reasons that go beyond the practical. When you have a desk that’s reliable, you are able to do intellectual work–reading, lesson preparation, grading–during the school day. This affects the school’s atmosphere; there’s greater respect for the quiet work that goes on at the desk, since room is made for it. Like urban planning, a school’s allocation of space reflects its priorities.

Also, because this work does take place at school, it can give rise to interesting discussions. How different the conversation is between two teachers who have been thinking about Oedipus Rex, and two teachers who are running past each other in the hallway in search of a room or supplies. (I have had both kinds of conversations, with or without a desk, but there’s more room for the former when I have a place to work.)

Why, then, is it a rarity for each teacher to have a desk? [Read more...]

Solitude of time

Ted Leach, an English and journalism teacher with a blog, posted a piece recently about the quiet of the early morning. He explains how he started the habit of rising at 5 a.m:

This is something that I’ve been doing for years, so long that the original reasons for it no longer hold true. When I first started teaching, I had about an hour drive to work, and I found that I wanted to ensure that I was awake when I got behind thewheel of the car. I thought the other drivers would appreciate it as well. So I started intentionally waking up, having breakfast, and getting on the road at 6 a.m.

And you know what? I came to like this time of day.

There’s a quiet to this time of the day, broken only by the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard.

I came upon the piece when doing  some, er, “self-searching.” I have enjoyed Leach’s blog before and am glad to return to it. I’ll be a more regular reader now.

In his treatise De vita solitaria, Petrarch describes three kinds of solitude:

that of place, with which my present discourse is specially taken up; that of time, as in the night, when there is solitude and silence even in public squares; that of the mind, as in persons who, absorbed in deepest contemplation, in broad daylight and in a crowded market-place, are not aware of what is going on there and are alone whenever and wherever they wish.

Many people think of solitude in terms of physical isolation. My book, Republic of Noise, focuses mainly on solitude of the mind. But solitude of time has a special quality. It is place, mind, and time at once.

When I was in high school, I used to arrive early in the morning so that I could enjoy the quiet of the halls. I would sit in my homeroom or walk around, and listen as people started arriving and the voices mixed and multiplied.

There’s solitude of season as well. In college, I liked to stay near the campus over the holidays. (I lived off campus after freshman year, so I didn’t have to clear out.) Walking through the courtyards alone, entering buildings and hearing nothing but the echo of my footsteps, I seemed to be in dialogue with the place.

In some way, these quiet times of day and of year are important to education, but how? They allow not only for untrammeled thought but for a different view of a familiar place. One recognizes gradations of light and sound. These gradations are important for study as well; you come to welcome those hours when you hear the book’s words more clearly.

And essential for teaching, from a practical standpoint, if you have a long commute or wish to get to school early. I like to have half an hour (ideally) at school before the first bell rings. For that, I have to leave home no later than 6:30. This is fine, though; I get to enjoy the long, sleepy train ride, where few people talk and there are usually empty seats. 

I first “met” Ted Leach on his blog when he criticized my article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.” I responded to his criticism, and we ended up having an interesting and enjoyable exchange.

Power to the introverts

Our culture is designed for gregarious team players, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet, in this TED talk on The Power of Introverts.  Schools require children to work in groups, “even in  the most solitary of assignments, such as creative writing,” she complains. Students need the chance to think and learn on their own too. “Solitude is the school of the soul.”

Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise also criticizes the mania for group work, collaboration and “groupthink,” rather than solitary contemplation.

Twitter, text, talk, but no time to think

Everybody’s connected all the time, “sharing” every 140-character observation, updating each other on their latest cup of coffee, tweeting and texting. But there’s less time to think, writes Diana Senechal in her new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

An English teacher quotes Senechal’s critique of the stress on group work and collaboration.

“Our public schools, which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the movement, have instead caved in to the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy. Convinced that the outside world calls for collaboration, school leaders and policymakers expect teachers to incorporate group work in their lessons, the more of it the better. They do not pay enough attention to the ingredients of good collaboration: independent thought, careful pondering of a topic, knowledge of the subject, and attentive listening.

“One oft-touted practice in elementary school is the ‘turn and talk’ activity, where a teacher pauses in a story she is reading aloud, asks a question, and has the students talk to their partners about it. When they are done, they join hands and raise them in the air. Instead of losing themselves in the story, they must immediately contend with the reactions of their peers. Many districts require small-group activities, throughout the grades, because such activities presumably allow all student to talk in a given lesson. Those who set and enforce such policies do not consider the drawbacks of so much talk. Talk needs a counterbalance of thought; without thought, it turns into chatter.”

I memorized a sonnet by Wordsworth in the 10th grade. Forty-odd years later, it stills comes to mind: “The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . . “

Compulsive tweeting and checking of e-mail is harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes, according to a new study.

Putting group work in its place

My book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in November and is already available for pre-ordering. In the book, I discuss group work, the folly of the “big idea,” pitfalls of “mass personalization,” and more, with references to literature, philosophy, and mathematics.

It is unclear what the future of group work holds, but I hope that it will be given its proper place–that it will be used when it actually serves the lesson and not when it doesn’t.

The Common Core State Standards seem ambivalent over the matter. The English language arts standards state, for instance, that third-grade students will “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” The emphasis here could be either on clarity of expression or on the range of collaborative discussions.

Group work has its place, but its place has been greatly exaggerated by proponents of various “workshop models,” Balanced Literacy, “21st century skills,” and so forth. People often forget that its quality depends on the contributions of its members. To contribute something substantial to a group, you have to do a great deal of work alone.

Working alone is not merely individualistic or competitive. It allows one to sift through thoughts, absorb information, commit information or literature to memory, think about it in different ways, try out ideas, slow down, speed up, and return to something one has learned or read before. For many, it is the happiest and most fruitful part of learning, along with the instruction itself.

When group work becomes a mainstay of instruction, it can limit the lesson and even the subject matter. The most common complaint about group work is that some students do much more work than others. But there are many more problems.

First, because students lack perspective on the subject, they are likely to disregard opinions that don’t make immediate sense to them. They may focus on those points of view that help them finish the task quickly. If someone in the group sees a problem with the entire premise, that person will likely be ignored.

Second (and related), because group work tends to focus on a task, the group members may not take time with questions that require time. They may take the shortest route to the goal, which for some topics and subjects is not the best. [Read more...]

The need for solitude

This guest-blogging has been a great experience. Thanks again to Joanne Jacobs for inviting me, and thanks to all of you who commented. I will post one more piece this evening, on the subject of returning to one’s old school.

In the meantime, you are welcome to read my Education Week Commentary, “Solitude: A Flashlight Under the Covers.”