Fascist Formulae

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Ralph Maltese PhotoBy Ralph Maltese, PA STOY 2002

Before we had our first child, my wife and I, both possessing Masters degrees in English, adhered to the belief that you can prepare for anything through the power of reading.  After all, there were books on just about everything:  managing your weight, improving your muscle tone, installing a light bulb.  And read we did.  We gathered books on swaddling, crib preparation, and nursing.  Somewhere in the backs of both our minds lurked the truth about all this, hidden in the shadows of doubt and the unknown.  Generals know that they can prepare like crazy for the upcoming battle, but once the first gun is fired, events are in the hands of the frontline troops and the finger of fate.

Months before the birth of our child, my wife was “encouraging” me to finish the nursery, spackling, painting, hanging curtains.  As the due date came nearer, the encouraging became more frequent and intense.  Of particular focus was the assurance that the layette would be organized and completed.  I would have willingly devoted my energies to preparing the layette if I had the slightest notion what a layette was and its importance in greeting my newest son or daughter. One of the brochures distributed at the birthing class we took advised that chest drawers can become cuddly cribs.  I knew our child, room unpainted and curtains unhung, would still experience better than my sock drawer.  I could not understand my wife’s concern that the nursery was unfinished.  What was the newborn going to do?  Take one look around and say, “I’m not living in this dump!”?  In an aside moment, I asked our obstetrician about this worry about the nursery and he explained it this way.  “The nesting instinct is a way of imposing some sense of order and expectation over an event which is fraught with uncertainty.  What will the baby look like?  Will it be healthy?  What will the experience be like?  Some things are out of control, so you sink your energies into those things you can control.”  I finished the nursery in time.

Later, when we had our second child, we retreated into the sanctuary of the written word, hoping that through all the how to’s and do’s and don’ts we could ward off sibling rivalry.  We how to’ed and did and didn’t until we felt fairly safe to have escaped any demonstrations of hostility by our oldest, Christie, directed at our newest addition.  Secure in our ability to override thousands of years of evolution involving sibling conflict, we sat in our family room one day, watching television as my wife nursed our younger daughter, Becky.  Suddenly Christie appeared and stood next to mother and child and placed her hand around Becky’s head.  We both watched as Christie remained motionless, her small hand barely encompassing Becky’s dome.  Finally I asked her, “Christie, what are you doing?”  Christie turned toward me and replied, “I am trying to crush her head.”  Oh.  Our smugness evaporated.

When Becky, who managed to escape having her head crushed in babyhood, had her first child, we were fortunate to be with her in the hospital.  Our grandchild was presented to us, swaddled in a pinkish hospital blanket.  Within minutes of being cradled in my arms, Layla started crying.  No amount of rocking and cooing could stop her little outburst.  My son-in-law took Layla from my arms, cradled her in his, and started “shushing” into my granddaughter’s ear.  “Shush, shush, shush.”  Layla stopped crying.  My daughter said, “They taught us that in childbirth class.”  I was impressed, and wished I had known that when we had our four children with their outbursts.  The new parents smiled at us, as if to say, “See, we are on top of this.”

Two weeks later, Becky called, and the frenzy in her voice was evident.  “Layla has been crying for twenty minutes, and we have been shushing like crazy but she won’t stop.  Any ideas?”  The prescription for eliminating the crying of babies had somehow fallen short.

Perhaps this is simply a western world propensity, but it seems to me that we tend to prescribe just about everything, and we hold to this belief that everything is measurable….everything can be broken down into discrete packets, classified, measured and assigned the proper cubicle.  “If you simply do this, then that will happen.”  I think that is the current trend in education.  We delight in advertising that we are “data driven.”  It’s the quantum theory of education.  Every student is composed of quantum packets of skills and content, of needs and strengths and weaknesses.  We simply need to examine those items in detail, develop appropriate interventions, and presto, the student is on the way to becoming a proficient learner.

Take the skill of reading.  We pride ourselves on the ability to create reading subskills and on the ability to measure the student’s adeptness at those subskills.  As the student reads a work of fiction, does she make connections to the events in her real world?  Does the student stop to look up a word she does not know the meaning of in a dictionary?  Does the student ask questions as she reads?  Does the student comprehend explicitly stated ideas?  Does the student comprehend implicit ideas?

Having all this data is good.  What I think is not so good, is what I call the “Fascist Formulaic Approach” to learning.  The philosophy that states, “If you simply do this, the child will improve.”  The corollary to this axiom is that, to be a good reader, the student must master all the subskills.  I know of a case in which Johnny’s teachers agonized over Johnny’s failure to improve the reading subskill of looking up words that he did not recognize as he read.  The fact that Johnny was a fast reader who identified the main idea and was particularly good at making connections between situations and characters in the book with scenarios and people from real life did not prevent his teachers from developing an intervention for helping Johnny stop when he came across a word he did not know and look it up in the dictionary.  The ultimate problem with the Fascist Formulaic Approach is its failure to recognize that not all students are widgets on the assembly line of learning.  We often identify good reading ability as the mastery of subskills exhibited by good readers without noting that not all good readers exhibit all of those skills.  The list of subskills is a composite of skills demonstrated by a variety of good readers.  Not all good readers, for example, stop their reading to look up a word in the dictionary.  They infer the meaning from context or they simply move on, preferring to maintain the rhythm of their reading rather than stopping and consulting a dictionary.  A second difficulty with this prescriptive approach is that it assumes not only that each student is fundamentally the same, a conveyor belt hamburger that simply has to be seasoned properly, but that the subskills are non-contextual.

I think this is the proper occasion to share a fact I have not touted in over fifty years.  In my third grade class I was identified as the fastest reader in class.  460 words per minute.  And I achieved this blinding speed with no interventions or enhancements proffered by my teacher.  I liked to read, especially those books that offered up their stories of pioneers and Native American conflicts and biographies of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and other martyrs of the Alamo.  I carried this mantle of achievement and superiority until I opened the first pages of my junior high chemistry book.

Like the self-help books that prescribed ways to deal with childhood behavior, “If you do this, your child will sleep through the night!”, I suppose the Fascist Formulaic approach to education gives us the unfounded security that we are in control of things.  The standardized test mania is all about that.  If all students are properly prepped then all students will answer all the questions on the state test correctly.  They will all be, like the fictional inhabitants of Lake Woebegone, above average.  Then what?  What does that mean?  Does it mean that they will graduate as creative problems solvers?  This ability to solve problems has long been a point of pride among American educators—at least until the emphasis on test preparation began to dominate classrooms and threaten our geo-educational niche.

Our fascination with data has to be tempered with the realization that not everything that can be measured is of value, and not everything of value, like love and empathy and perspective, can be measured.  Identifying each molecule on the surface of the tree is a tremendous capability, but an understanding of the forest as an interactive entity is more important.  Students, unlike machines, interact with their environments.  Shushing does not work with all children at all times in all venues.

Ralph Maltese, Pennsylvania’s 2002 Teacher of the Year, received his B.S. in Education from Villanova University in 1968 and his M.A. in English from Indiana University in 1970.  In that same year he began teaching high school English at Abington Senior High School, Abington, Pa, where for 38 years he taught English, humanities, cinema, and just about every other configuration of language arts.  A turning point in his career occurred in 1989 when he won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to participate in a summer workshop for teachers. This experience helped him view teaching as the art and science of engaging students in the learning process and helped him implement the tool of collaborative learning to facilitate that engagement.  Ralph believes that the best teachers are always in the process of becoming the best.  To continue expanding his teaching horizons, he participated in a Fulbright Memorial Fund Program.  For three weeks he toured Tokyo and Okinawa in order to study Japanese culture and education.  He concluded his career at Abington with two years as a technology coach, implementing the Classrooms for the Future vision, where teachers create dynamic projects using the latest Web 2.0 tools.  This commitment led to Ralph’s part-time, post-retirement position with the Pennsylvania Department of Education as a Coach Mentor, working through intermediate units in the northeast region and helping direct the state’s commitment to technology in education.  He still feels the “thrill of the classroom,”  and believes that teachers are the true world shakers.  In his upstairs hallway, he proudly displays a poster with a quote from Mark Twain, "From the public school grows the greatness of a nation."


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