October 7, 2014

When you use Socrates as your classroom mentor rather than Bill Gates

Steven Singer, Gadfly on the Wall - There were hands in the air. Lots of them.
It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.
My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.
We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.
It wasn’t me who did it.
The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.
This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.
We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.
If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.
But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.
If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.
That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.
For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:
The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly.
Socratic Seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John DeweyLev VygotskyJean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.
In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.
The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.
But hush. Destiny is speaking.
“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”
“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”
“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”
Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded like Gloria Steinem.
And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.
Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”
This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.
Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.
At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.
The co-author of the Common Core famously said, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.
So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.
...Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The late Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer science prof at MIT, didn't think much of the idea of machine intelligence (usually called "AI" or artificial intelligence -- computers that can think).

So to demonstrate how ridiculous it was, he wrote a little text-matching program that gave canned responses to someone typing at a terminal. It looked, if you played straight with it, something like a Rogerian therapist (the late psychologist Carl Rogers pioneered and promoted what he called "non-directive" therapies).

Ol' Joe was scandalised when people started treating his little program as though it actually demonstrated intelligence.

He was a pretty smart guy in his field, but as a psychologist he was self-embarrassing. He hadn't a clue that most people are so desperate to be listened-to that they'll even talk to a computer that crudely appears to listen to them. Anything is better than nothing, to them, and why shouldn't it be?

The program is called "Eliza" and can be found in a number of places on the web, for those who'd like to try it out.