“Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say,
Maintowners are well-prepared for the questioning they experience at their schools: factual
questions, “reason” questions ...
them to write off school as “having nothing to do with what they want in life” which to them was
their father’s fledgling ...
a conscious, political level, and therefore, they must relate literacy to their students’ struggle for
citizens’ rights, i...
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Synthesis Of Finn March 2010


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Questioning for Powerful Literacy

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Synthesis Of Finn March 2010

  1. 1. “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, Why not?’” When, as a young girl of eight, I first heard Robert F. Kennedy speak these words at his brother’s funeral, I embraced their rhythm and their power. They echoed over and over again in my head… for days, weeks and many years since, shaping me in ways that were not clear to me at the time. Interestingly enough, I never questioned their origin. Like millions of others who listened to JFK’s eulogy, I attributed them to the speaker and only learned many years later that George Bernard Shaw was their author. That truth, in itself, has taught me to not accept all I heard or saw or read as without asking questions, even about words that I found transformative and magical. Questioning is at the core of Finn’s Literacy with an Attitude. From the outset, Finn describes education in the traditional era as one that “did not permit, let alone encourage children to generate ideas, or to argue about the truth or value of what others had written. Teaching from a catechism discourages questioning, interpreting, or reflecting on the significance of what was presented.” (Page 28). Despite attempts at “progressive education” by Joseph Rice and John Dewey, Finn asserts that 80% of America’s schools, whose students are children of middle and working classes, are still traditional with a “softened pedagogy.” Dewey had proposed a more democratic, holistic, inquiry-based approach. Experiential learning that was geared to student readiness, interests, and experience presumed that the students were actually asked about these things and they, in turn, were asked to generate questions for inquiry, to make guesses about what they thought was truth and to test that knowledge for validity. The unintended outcome, unfortunately, was a system that was reduced to streaming kids into high, medium and low groupings, further entrenching them into inextricable social strata. Today, almost a hundred years later, Dewey’s philosophy has been resurrected as a response to the changing marketplace which demands analytical, reflective, innovative and creative thinkers who can solve problems in unexpected situations. In fact, all of the revised curriculum documents in the province of Ontario emphasize this inquiry based approach as the best way to prepare our students for citizenship in the ever-changing information landscape of the 21st century which will call them to question the media messages that bombard them and to be problem-solvers in local and global capacities. “I am not a citizen of Athens or Greece, but of the world.” (Socrates and the Cosmopolitan Tradition) One would have thought that Socrates had read Finn when he spoke with such attitude. I find it a bit funny that the term “Socratic method” has devolved so much over the years to actually mean the domesticating literacy that Finn and Freire condemn rather than the powerful literacy they and Socrates agitate. Today, when teachers are labeled “Socratic,” they are viewed as mere lecturers and quizzers of facts. Knowledge is not related to thinking. Owners of elite literacies, they dispense the “old basics,” teach to the test and forget the rest. To them, learning is skills-based, a de-contextualized system for determining winners and losers. Yet, Socrates, Freire and Finn are like-minded in their agitation for a type of learning that originates in powerful questioning of cannon – not for individual gain but for collective good. Finn points out, however, that questioning even for display purposes has a huge payback. “Maintown” mothers use questioning half the time that they speak to their preschool children. Eventually, the questioning evolves to asking about activities at Sunday school, then to book talk questions about a story’s content, followed by questions such as “How do you know?” Children of
  2. 2. Maintowners are well-prepared for the questioning they experience at their schools: factual questions, “reason” questions and finally “questions of feeling.” These three types of questions are what are assessed in our own provincial reading assessment: reading for explicit meaning, reading for implicit meaning and making text- to- self and text-to-world connections. Pre- schoolers whose primary discourse matches that of the school have an easier time of things and even if they aren’t particularly bright, most of them “do all right in school and in the affluent professional and executive elite world for which their classrooms prepare them.” (110). Just the other day, I looked back at my earliest teacher evaluations and felt a small surge of pride in reading the superintendent’s comments about my questioning techniques. He noted that the questions I asked provoked debate and challenged students to defend their opinions or refine their thinking. I think I instinctively morphed into that kind of teacher as a reaction to traditional schooling I had in my elementary years. The parallels between my student learning experience and my teaching learning experience always intrigue me. My immigrant family had descended upon a very Anglo-Saxon community in the late 1950’s and, although we owned the corner grocery store (or probably, because we did), we always were made to feel like intruders, particularly at school. The principal appeared every Friday morning to check if our fingernails were clean. We lined up in the freezing cold weather until the entire student body was silent and filed in, the quietest class first, to marching music. I was immediately placed in the slowest reading group. My older sister, gifted with artistic talent and brains, surprised everyone with the highest marks of her graduating class even though several of her teachers had actually voiced that they believed the scholarship would be wasted on her. As was common practice for the time and place, learning was rote and rewarded with red, blue or gold stars. The purpose of our schooling was clear to the youngest of us: to make us “un-Italian” and fast! Finn describes this approach as “differential schooling,” referencing Anyon’s study of a method by which “poor children are prepared to become poor adults and rich children are prepared to become rich adults, and that although this is done to a certain extent through different content being taught in different schools and “high” and “low” classes in the same schools, it is accomplished largely through the way classes are conducted.” (Finn, 208). Indeed, we were managed, not taught and our parents were fine with that. I still remember my mother giving permission to the teacher to discipline me if I didn’t pay attention. Ogbu describes us accurately as the “immigrant minorities” who go to school to learn mainstream ways. My illiterate parents willingly relinquished our cultural traditions to this greater need. Similarly, my first teaching experience, 20 years later, was in a predominantly Anglo- Saxon suburb that hoisted the Union Jack in celebration of those roots. Newly-“wealthy” Italians had just landed there from the Jane and Finch area and soon dominated the sub-division. They opened up Italian bakeries and grocery stores, threatening that peaceful agricultural hamlet. Turf wars ensued…literally…the “wops” vs. the “mangiacakes.” Unlike my own non-Italian teachers, though, I was hired to teach there because of my Italian roots (little did they know how un-Italian I had learned to become!). I joined the other teachers in trying to “domesticate” those Grade Eights, especially the boys. We were “gatekeeping”. We applauded students whose efforts at language and writing matched the mainstream: all commas and semi-colons in their appropriate places. Like “the Lads” these kids were told that learning grammar had “credential- purchasing power” We pushed the “Meritocracy” platform, telling them that, if their immigrant parents had managed to make good by making something out of nothing in this great country of ours, they owed it to their parents to do the same. And like the lads, most of them saw that their primary discourse was at odds with the secondary discourse of school. Italian dialects are rife with implicit language and we kept pushing the opposite. Consequently, it wasn’t unusual for
  3. 3. them to write off school as “having nothing to do with what they want in life” which to them was their father’s fledgling business and a Camaro Z28 for their 16th birthday. This was a type of oppositional identity even though they did not fall into Ogbu’s description of an involuntary minority. They smoked in the ravine, stole school supplies and drove their mo-peds illegally in the subdivision, despite many, many warnings by the police. I recognized in those students, almost immediately, my older brothers who struggled with their “immigrant” identities at the same age. Instinctively, I abandoned the “holy grail” of textbooks and catechisms and challenged the students to use their own experiences to make meaning of the subjects I was trying to teach them. It was hard work…much harder than referring to the teacher’s manual that had been thrust into my hands. Instead of the Baltimore Catechism, we learned “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and even held a Seder Supper. That raised some eyebrows, I can tell you! We looked at contemporary issues in the context of our geography classes and they learned about percent by relating to mortgage and interest payments, a common topic at their own dinner tables. But, I’m not applauding myself because after reading Finn and Rowan, I question whether I did enough. Yes, we connected the curriculum to the students’ lives and they co- constructed knowledge. Still, the experiences remained mostly individual, that is, they never really breached the borders of our Grade 8 community. The students definitely saw themselves as part of a collective with problems in common but the solutions were pretty much curriculum- based and never really challenged the social hierarchy or the status quo. Which is so very, very surprising to me at this point in my career when I look back to that time and notice my short- coming. I’ll never forget one student who routinely forgot his gym clothes. I would dock him marks for that, but he never seemed to care. That was an anomaly because otherwise, he enjoyed all our other classes. Eventually, I discovered that he wouldn’t wear shorts and a T-shirt because he didn’t want to reveal the bruises from his father’s beatings. Another boy was struggling in Math. His Mom begged me to tutor him, promising to cook for me and my husband in return, as long as I didn’t send home a bad report card because she feared the harm her husband would inflict on their son. Then there was Louis with Tourettes and Adriano, who ended up, as many of us feared, in prison for attempted murder because of the rage that overcame him so often. How was it that I was content to not go further? Was it fear? Granted, I was a new teacher and had my hands full with all this and more. If I could do it over again, would I have the courage Like William Bigelow and Linda Christensen (Finn page 205) who “involve[d] students in probing the social factors that make and limit who they are and…help them reflect on what they could be?” I know that I fell shot of broaching that “collective text” exercise that would make it possible for them to understand their personal problems “as societal problems and act with others to solve them.” Had I done this, an explicit lesson would have been learned that “fundamental change is possible and desirable.” Instead, I think I reverted to the meritocracy mindset that if they worked really, really hard and saw how interesting school could be, they would have their ticket to success – personal success not “conscientization” that leads to becoming “collective actors’ and “agents of civic courage.” Today, my role as a literacy resource teacher empowers me to finally take that courageous step. It is easier today, than ever. Web 2.0 technologies can facilitate Freirean motivation and are clearly a basis for lessons in reading, writing, and other subject areas. These technologies are familiar territory to our students. It is quickly becoming their primary discourse with many of them interacting with their parents, from an early age, through texting. Moreover, it is more “natural” than traditional literacy (putting pen to paper). When they create a blog, a webcast, a podcast or a YouTube video, students make hundreds of decisions while expressing their views about a societal issue that holds importance to them. Finn stresses that “the students must want the knowledge and that teachers must make their students aware of what’s at stake on
  4. 4. a conscious, political level, and therefore, they must relate literacy to their students’ struggle for citizens’ rights, including social rights.” These technologies focus on student voice, rather than on gatekeeping. But Finn exhorts us: “If you’re not taught powerful literacy, you’re not likely to acquire it.” If we do this right, perhaps we will see that traditional values, like scores on standardized tests, will also respond in a positive way. Why not try? Why not ask our students what issues in science, geography, or civics concern them? Why not ask them what they think is needed to correct an injustice? Why settle for schooling that stops at informing? Why not opt for authentic inquiry based learning that can transform pretend schools into real schools? Why not?