Prison, Queer Eye, Vygotsky and iSchool

My friend Mr. M, having walked out of an abusive situation as a newbie teacher in an inner-city middle school, is now teaching high school in a prison and blogging about it. I have to admire his bravery, both for taking the job and for letting the world know what it’s like. I only hope he doesn’t get dooced.

There are so many gems in his blog that I want to link to all of them. There’s his use of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a teaching tool — in a prison! Truly the forces of homophobia are in retreat, despite what the red-staters say. There’s his link to an Onion article straight from his first job, “Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic Studies Major.” There’s his idea to produce videotaped read-alouds by people who look and sound like his students, rather than their white Middle-American teacher. (Any amateur video producers in the New York area want to help him with that? Or help him webcast the results?)

But what prompts me to post about him here, rather than in my other blog, is some of the things that he and his commenters have to say about teaching methods. One of them asserts that teaching should be boiled down to the Vygotskyan method:

1. I do, you watch.
2. I do, you help.
3. You do, I help.
4. You do, I watch.

There’s not really a lot of doing or watching in the program I’m in — with the exception of public speaking, which may be the most useful specific skill we will all share by the time we’re done. Is there a point at which learning by doing becoming less important than learning about doing? Or is that a classic fallacy of advanced education?

This relates to an interesting discussion of whether learning specific tools should be part of our curriculum (that link is the tip of an offline iceberg), but more on that another day.

3 thoughts on “Prison, Queer Eye, Vygotsky and iSchool

  1. Wait a second…what program are you talking about? Are you taking master’s classes in education? I haven’t been keeping up with your blog.

    As for doing and watching and watching and doing: I recently browsed a book at the B&N entitled “Common Sense School Reform.” In it the author mentions a phenomenon he calls “the aluminum bullet.” I’d never heard of this before, but it’s really an apt metaphor: one school discovers a teaching method that works phenomenally well, then the Board of Ed picks it up and attempts to propagate it around the city with little regard for the specific circumstances that gave rise to its effectiveness in the first place.

    Since NYC schools are in such a shambles, there’s an ongoing frenetic scramble to find a cure-all pedagogical method. Because each new method is presented to other schools in the form of mandates, not suggestions, they have a tendency to fail because the people who institute them are incapable of adapting to local variables. (Each program, by the way, is replaced every two years or so. I have seen huge volumes of books and classroom materials turning to dust in the closets because they no longer conform to the pedagogical vogue.)

    Veteran teachers have become masters at doing what works while giving the outward appearance of conforming to the pedagogy-du-jour. It’s really a matter of knowing how to do a little song and dance. I’m not so good at the song and dance, which makes the prison a much better fit for me: they’re so happy to have someone there willing to put up with the students that they leave my ass alone to do whatever I see fit.

    One of the distinctions I’ve learned in my mostly-drivel graduate coursework is the idea of “enduring understandings.” And enduring understanding is what we want the children to remember twenty years from now. Twenty years from now, who cares if they know the capitol of Kazakhstan? What we want them to take from the experience of learning about foreign countries, for exampe, is the idea that the world is a big place, that there are people who looks and sound radically different from us but who are people all the same with similar wishes and fundamental values, etc. An enduring understanding can help a teacher understand more clearly the true aim of instruction.

    I’ve been reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” One of his precepts goes something like this: “Arouse in other person an eager want. He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.” I feel that education only takes place in the presence of a desire to learn, and if that desire is absent, all hell will eventually break loose. Master teachers know how to arouse a passionate desire to learn because they themselves are passionate learners and skilled communicators and negotiators. With this in mind, I’d say teacher training should take place not in universities, but at Toastmasters, Carnegie public speaking courses, etc. Attitude and the ability to communicate firmly yet respectfully is really everything in this job.

    “A person does not need to go to college to learn facts. He can get them from books. The value of a liberal arts college education is that it trains the mind to think.” – Einstein

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Einstein

  2. I’ve been thinking about that too Alex — “If we could take pills to learn something would we?” But what would that thing be and who would make the pilled-up knowledge? There would be no trusting it. And the ability and desire to learn are tied up with the ability to make critical judgements. Perhaps the pill-knowledge (or jacking into a matrix, or wearing a headset for a night, or whatever insta-technological learning method) would settle into our brains like fuzzy pictures that need focusing by our critical-judgement focus knobs. Or would be unnaturally sharp and “instinctive” and what we’d be working to do would be to fuzz up the picture.

    I see my grad school profs not trusting my “way of knowing things” since I’ll google something and answer right in front of them. What year did Yeats write “The Second Coming”? If I knew — or if I had it in a physical book in front of me – the prof would be comfortable with that kind of knowing. But they flinch when it gets insta-googled right in front of them, a little how I’d flinch as my grandkid might blank out his gaze and twitch for a second while he accesses his internal hard drive or his “pill learning”.


  3. Prentiss,
    Think you for the link to his blog. I am reading it and loving it, sadly there is no way of letting him know (no comments or email). If you see him, please tell him I think it is great.

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