I have seventeen trees in my back yard. It’s October. These trees are evacuating copious amounts of leaves. So many leaves. Here a leaf. There a leaf. Everywhere a leaf-leaf. What’s a poor boy to do?
When I make it big, I’m going to pay somebody to rake my leaves. I haven’t made it big, yet. I’ve made it pretty small. Especially if you measure bigness by whether your bank account is winning or losing. Mar-a-Lago? More like student-a-debto.
That doesn’t rhyme? You don’t rhyme!
Forgive me. I don’t mean to alienate you. But I do want to tell you a funny story about alienating your audience.
I was performing in an improv set a few weeks ago. It was a dramatic group, and so I was trying to play a serious character. This character had serious issues. He was coercing his wife into dropping out of art school. The tuition was too expensive. He was also cheating on his wife with a sleazy gold digger. Think Mar-a-Lago. Anyway, I must have played the character convincingly, because the audience began to hate me. In one scene, my character said something particularly mean and obnoxious to his wife, and somebody in the front row booed. In character, I turned to the audience and said “fuck you!” I then returned to the scene.
What an aggressive soliloquy!
Anyway, I was writing about leaves. It’s fall in Pennsylvania. The leaves are turning colors. The mornings are misty and it gets dark earlier. We’ve had to turn the heat on already. The seasons are changing.
I’ve spent all sorts of time in elementary classrooms over the last five years. Literacy education professor, PhD. Early elementary and preK classrooms out here in Pennsylvania, and I imagine this is true across the country, are obsessed with the changing of the season. Fall is pumpkins and leaves. Winter is snowmen and blizzards. Spring is April showers and May flowers. I get it. These themes are innocent ways to select books or science lessons. The life cycle of an Apple? I imagine 95% of the curriculums out here include such a lesson. How’s that for standardization?
Solomon is two months into Kindergarten. He’s digging it. Currently, he’s participating in Reader’s Workshop. Teacher’s College, specifically one Lucy Calkins, have cornered the market on Reader’s Workshop. They gobbled up research from the last thirty years and packaged it for school districts. Good ‘ol Lucy, also a literacy education professor PhD, has made a killing scripting elementary curriculum and pushing it all over the country.
On the one hand, I really like Reader’s Workshop. The essence of the program is great. Kids choose their own books and read independently. The teacher coaches them on certain reading skills. Children get to engage authentically with real books. I like all of that.
Still, teachers are expected to read verbatim from a script during the opening mini-lesson. And they follow a scripted process everyday, every week, every month, etc. I don’t like that. There’s little to no flexibility or autonomy in how the teacher in Calkins’ scripted version of Reading Workshop teaches reading. It’s standardized to the point that the presence of the teacher can be rendered almost meaningless. Teachers aren’t able to design their own curriculum. Children in Albuquerque are reading the same mentor text that children in St. Louis are reading. Solomon can tell you all about Three Billy Goats Gruff in the same way that any other Kindergartner in Reader’s Workshop across the country can tell you about Three Billy Goats Gruff. Teachers have very little autonomy in Reader’s Workshop to create more fluid, personalized, or improvisational curriculum. Lord knows I couldn’t teach by reading from a script. Calkins’ Reader’s Workshop Seems boring and disingenuous to me, even as I acknowledge that it does engage children in authentic reading.
Here’s one thing I know about teaching: It’s easy to follow a script. Harder to make the script as you go. Harder to improvise. I’ve found it is almost always more meaningful when a class comes together and improvises a way forward together. Writes their own script. Unique people having a unique experience together. For me, that’s the heart of education.
It seems to me that much of teaching and learning in schools is about following scripts. Elementary has a particular script. It’s Fall so we’ll talk about pumpkins. It’s September, the school purchased Lucy Calkins’ Reader’s Workshop, so we’ll read Three Billy Goat Gruff. Meanwhile, the social realities that surround us (and the texts they produce) remain in constant flux, and continue to be shaped by and shape powerful interests. And our children bear an often passive witness to the way that social discourse is formed and imprinted on them. I have to imagine there’s ways to teach children to be more critical consumers of text and reality, and that challenging scripts is part of such an endeavor. This seems at the core of the project of democratic schools, democratic society. Challenge and think critically about the scripts that are given to you. Learn to make your own script. To improvise. Literacy seems to me to be at the heart of this.
More and more people spend more and more of their time reading and producing texts. How so? Look at your phone. Or your computer. We are reading and writing an increasingly virtual world. A world informed by all sorts of powerful discourses. Algorithms meant to script all sorts of realities. Algorithms that, more often than not, are concerned with producing clicks and therefore cash for an increasingly small percentage of wealthy and elite people across the globe. And making sure that all of our children know the life cycle of an apple or understand Three Billy Goats Gruff will never challenge the order of things. The scripts that produce small people and big people. Small bank accounts and big bank accounts. Mar-a-Lago.
Gosh, that got radical. Apocalyptic, even. I was just writing about leaves. Just improvising with a theme. Taking it in new directions. I’m as surprised as you are by where I ended up. Always am. But I keep at it. As Paulo Freire wrote, we’re always reading and writing the world. I choose to do this work improvisationaly. There’s worst things to do.