Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Subversive Teaching and Jewish Vampires

Teachers know their kids better than anyone else in the education system.  They know what academic strengths and needs each student has.  They know where their interest lies and how to bridge student curiosity to academic goals in order to make learning meaningful and fun.

When teachers receive guidance from above, from site or district administration or from state and federal governments, they embrace this guidance if it meets two conditions.  First, the guidance needs to be congruent with what the teachers know is in the best interest of their children.  Second, the guidance needs to allow for teachers to be flexible and creative, engaging their students in meaningful learning and igniting their passions and their sense of wonder.

“Mr. Orphal,” a fourteen-year-old freshmen began.  “What if a Jewish person turned into a vampire?  Would that vampire be afraid of a Star of David like regular vampires are afraid of a cross?”  That question launched a ten-minute conversation about the concept of vampires in legend and their use as a literary device, so popular in modern novels, television and film.   We talked about the purpose of vampires in 18th century literature as monsters that story-heroes can fight and defeat.  We talked about the evolution of vampires into darkly sexual creatures, and eventually into social outcasts trying to fit in with everyone else.

The conversation ended with me encouraging the student to write that story.  As the author, he could decide how the non-Christian vampire would react to religious iconography.  Through his story, he could explore his thinking about religion and the nature of God.

A short story like this would be a wonderfully entertaining way to assess this boy’s current mastery of language.  What vocabulary would he choose to use?  How would he describe the setting of the story?  Who would be the protagonist?  What perspective would he use? How would he use grammar and diction to make his story compelling?  We could even look at his spelling and his editing choices.

A short story like this would also be a great way to examine his ideas and his critical thinking skills.  What choices would he make about his Jewish vampire?  Would he choose to affirm an exclusive rightness for Christianity, keeping with traditional notions of vampires and crosses?  Would the Jewish vampire cringe at a Star of David?  If the vampire did fear Jewish religious symbols, what would this mean? Would this mean that he had shifted exclusive validity from Christianity, as in many traditional vampire stories?  Alternatively, would he choose to explore an idea of morality and universal goodness where Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim vampires would cringe at symbols from the religions of their previous cultures?  Would these vampires even try to negotiate their current undead reality in light of a religious morality the characters were trying to maintain?  Each idea becomes an intriguing path to deep and critical thought.

Unfortunately, I doubt this student’s English teacher will be more than superficially supportive of his idea.  This should not be read to cast blame and shame at his teacher.  Rather, this should be seen as an example of how teachers, especially teachers of English and mathematics, are hand-tied by the need for their students to score well on up-coming high-stakes tests.

It takes a subversive teacher to engage in such meaningful and fun learning these days.  A teacher would need the courage to forgo her district and state mandates to allow this child to explore his ideas.  A subversive teacher may be able to treat district mandates as a sort of “paper work game” as Linda Darling-Hammond describes in The Right to Learn.  In her book, she quotes one such teacher, “A lot of the goals of the school district can be taken care of by putting some words on paper and then going ahead and doing the things the way you want to.”

Current education reforms such as former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee would tend to argue the words of the above-quoted teacher, but not the intent.  She would say that accountability guidelines are meant to give good teachers exactly the kind of flexibility I describe in this essay and reflected in the teacher’s statement.  She would say that great teachers do exactly this; they use frameworks to build rigorous, engaging learning experiences for their children.

Where her argument runs off the rails is the moment the high-stakes tests come into play.  Creative writing, deep thinking, and wonder are not assessed on any of the current testing tools, and they are unlikely to be so in the next generation of assessments currently being designed.  This is because deep thinking and creativity are really hard to test.  Instead, current exams measure low-level sub-skills that translate well to bubble-in-the-answer questions.  They look at questions where there is one right answer that can be hidden among three red herrings. 

Unfortunately, it will be the score on such a test that will be used to judge the student, teacher, and school.  The student’s score, compared to what Value-Added statisticians imagine he would have scored with an “average teacher,” will be used to label his teacher as effective or not.  If Ms. Rhee has her way, this score would then be used to decide whether or not the teacher remains in the classroom.  Under such pressure, it is hard to imagine a non-subversive teacher allowing hours to be spent exploring vampirism in non-Christian communities.

This is too bad.  I wish Ms. Rhee and other reformers would be willing to read some essays by this child from last year and then read the story of the Jewish vampire.  I can imagine these pieces of data would point to some great learning on the part of the student and some great teaching on the part of his teacher.

Until then, so-called reformers will continue to point at test numbers.  They’ll do so because test numbers are easy to point at, not because they even remotely reflect the totality of so complex a process as learning.  The story of the Jewish vampire will have to wait until after school.


Anonymous said...

Right there with you David. I'm a friend of Melia F.s - she sent me your link.

I feel almost guilty taking the time to deeply probe what students think 'matter' really is, how they know. And then wondering if I really should take the time to let them play with slime as they explore states of matter.

Standards IF WELL WRITTEN can be incredibly helpful. Our Ca standards in science at least, are not. They intentionally get in the way of critical thinking and that's reflected in the texts that must teach to standards. Texts are what really drive curriculum in probably the majority of science classes. Would love to chat with you more about increasing critical thinking across the curriculum, especially using project based learning. You can see the kinds of things I'm up to at


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