Action Research in Action
Select the link below to read and respond to action research in action blogger Peter Richmond!
from Yale '76, was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard
'88-'89, and, in between, dropped out of auto-mechanics school. After teaching
ninth-grade English and history at a private intermediate school, he became
interested in education and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching
as a fellow at Moravian College, where he also serves as an adjunct professor.
His first Young-Adult novel, Always a Catch, was published by Philomel Press,
an imprint of Penguin Books, in September. He has published seven books, and
his work has been featured in 14 anthologies, including Best American
Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century.
For each post you will see a forum topic for joining the discussion.
Action Research in Action
As I re-read some of my students' research papers this past summer, I found myself asking: How could a lifelong professional journalist (me) have failed to instill, if not a love, at least a like of inquiry in the writing classroom? How could I have not passed on to the students my passion for research?
I compiled a short list of where I'd come up, well, short.
The first mistake? Bringing into the classroom my inherent biases against the instruction of formal papers.
Background: My three years of teaching ninth-graders in English a few years earlier (my first venture into teaching after a lifetime of writing) had convinced me that if there were one way to take the passion out of writing, it was to ask a student to compile notecards so that she could string bits of history together, then bind them together according to a formula -- the end result of which is more or less guaranteed to sap the writer's voice completely out of the picture.
Isn't "writing," I thought, much more than the formulaic crafting of words? Isn't writing, in a very real way, just another word for "expressing"? And developing a "voice"? Doesn't "writing" take a myriad of forms? Isn't "writing" something that can be done freely as well as with structure?
When I reflected a little further on the previous class, I identified a second failed strategy: Knowing how much many students disliked "the research paper," I'd spent a whole lot of time telling that class not to stress about it -- a motivational ploy that, in many ways, backfired.
The more I said, in the first month, "Yes, this thing is due at the end of the term, and counts for a considerable part of the grade, but don't get worried," the more the subtext the students heard was, "This thing he's trying to play down must be heavy. Otherwise he wouldn't be talking about it so much." To a student just out of high school, "research paper" is a synonym for "term paper," and if something takes a whole term, it must be important -- and therefore something to avoid getting to as long as possible.
I'd also installed early deadlines for choosing a paper topic -- "The sooner you have your topic, the more time you'll have to research and write the paper" -- which, of course, produced a low-simmering panic at the very start.
A third area where I'd come up wanting? I'd assumed that the average college freshmen would be able to easily identify a subject that would interest her, making the research-paper writing process fun for one and all. In early-term one-on-one interviews, I'd discovered that some students had written research papers the previous spring in high school -- but didn't even remember the topics, because they had not been of their own choosing. So, I figured that, freed up to pursue a study of something that interested them, they'd jump to work.
But soon I discovered that, with the rare exception of the student who had been happily visited by a passion for something early in life, they'd never had to identify a field of particular interest. And why should they have? Isn't one of most wonderful features of adolescence that a whole world of possibilities awaits? That you won't have to "specialize" for a long, long time? Isn't asking a student to focus on one thing, and pour months of work into it, in a social-media environment where they learn new things every day, sort of counterintuitive?
And so, as the new school year began, I followed a new blueprint. In the first week, as we went over the syllabus, I stressed that one of the best parts of our class was a research paper, a project where they'd explore something they liked or cared about. They'd surround the subject and become an expert. The paper would be an organic part of the process of their experiences over the course of the term.
The following week I suggested that if anyone came up with a topic, if they wanted to share it with us to help others along in their own search, this would be welcomed. Two students happily announced their topics. Two weeks later, one month into the semester, each student had a topic. By now I sensed that not only was this class far ahead of the game compared to last year's group, but I was, too. The early, initial research-paper-writing process seemed in a good place.
But I didn't know for certain until, a one day few weeks ago. As usual, I entered our classroom a half-hour early, to write the day's agenda on the board, before going back to my office to fine-tune my preparations for the class.
Not as usual, Avery was already at work at her usual spot at the conference table.
"Avery," I said. "What are you doing here?"
"I was working over in the library," she said, "but I thought, `Why not just come here to work?'"
When I asked her what she was working on, she said, "I've started my research paper."
I almost said, "Really?" But I didn't. Avery's topic had hooked her. She was already deeply into the researching and writing. And as I reflect on that small but significant piece of data -- a single student diving into a project due in, for most 18-year-olds, an unfathomable distance away -- I allowed myself a thought:
That when it produces tangible results, no matter how seemingly small and qualitative the data, researching our past practice in order to improve it is not only satisfying...but essential.
I recently ran into a former colleague from a traditional private school where I'd taught a few years back, a voice/piano teacher who'd been quite set in her "I sing, you parrot," pedagogy, which always led to a few frosty moments when I was directing the musical and she was the musical director. I'd been less than pleased at her stern style with my cast of fifth-to-ninth graders. Similarly, she wasn't too approving of the way I directed. In the end, we always put on a good show, though.
Now, in the aisle of the supermarket, we caught up. When I told her that after publishing a couple of books I was now back in academia, as a candidate for an MA in Teaching and an adjunct professor, she failed to hide her surprise.
"Never thought you'd go back to teaching," she said, with an expression that didn't convey a whole of congratulations.
I tried to explain that my field wasn't actually "teaching," that I was learning in a program whose curriculum had taught me over the last couple of years that the word "teaching" didn't really apply to our craft. It was more like research, I said: "..Action-research."
She was entirely confused: "Meaning...?"
Very good question. How to explain action research in a supermarket aisle? If I'd said, "I examine my practice every day," it might imply that she didn't (although she doesn't). If I'd said, "I observe, reflect and take action to try and redefine the classroom dynamics and make it easier for them to learn," it'd sound as if I were reciting some rote formula.
What I came up with didn't make much more sense: "It's kind of a way to let the students help me learn how to help them learn.."
"Interesting," she said. Then, after a hurried goodbye, she skittered on to the produce section.
It was a good "teaching" moment: as an action-researcher, I have not yet found a way to effectively summarize, for friends and colleagues, the philosophy that guides my work. And considering that my peers are of a generation that, from Woodstock on, has always prided itself on questioning the status quo and finding new ways to effect meaningful change in the world, I walked away from the grocery store questioning myself: How to explain to others what happens in a teacher action-research classroom?
And then, a few days later, skimming Ben Franklin's autobiography, I came across a paragraph describing a regular gathering of colleagues that Franklin organized in 1726, at the age of twenty, to exchange ideas, debate the day's issues and generally give their brains a happy workout.
The members, other than our favorite kite-flyer? A copier of deeds; a self-taught mathematician; a surveyor; a joiner; a shoemaker; a merchant's clerk and a wealthy young man of no particular talent other than his charm and love of puns.
Franklin summed up the rules of protocol for the salon -- or, as I began to see it, "classroom" -- in a single paragraph:
"Every member in his turn should produce one or more queries on any point of morals, politics or natural philosophy, to be discussed by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory."
It was pretty hard not to immediately see the parallels between the dynamics of Franklin's group and those of the action-research classroom.
"Queries on any point of morals, politics and natural philosophy."
Isn't examining "morals" a given for any instructor engaged in action research? Taking stock of the ethical compass of a classroom cohort is a good way for laying the groundwork for meaningful discourse. Nor is an instructor who imposes his or her own moral framework in a classroom likely to find a receptive group of students.
Politics? Perhaps a little out of a student's realm (unless the discussion dovetails with current events) but what discussion, no matter what the topic, doesn't benefit from exploration of each of our places in "nature"? Isn't it paramount that an action-researcher try and learn each student's "nature?
In a more literal sense, Franklin's sense of "philosophic nature" would eventually find expression a century and a half later in the writings of Emerson, Muir and Thoreau, which are as relevant and necessary as they've ever been in a world that seems to have lost or ignored our relationship to our natural world.
But if the relationship among members of a classroom feels "natural," isn't that an excellent foundation for learning?
"Produce and read an essay of his own writing on any subject he pleased."
In an action-research language-arts classroom, "writing" is as much a means of writing-to-learn as it is of expressing oneself in a specific stylistic fashion about a specific subject. When we assign topics for "writing," wouldn't it be more instructive -- if the writing is a tool with a larger purpose -- to let the writer use the tool in whatever manner s/he gets the most satisfaction from?
Our debates were to be under the direction of a president...
Well, someone has to be the traffic cop...it might as well be the facilitator/scaffolder!
...and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth,
Doesn't this sentence describe action research to a tee?
Without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.
Finally, isn't a teacher who feels the need to "win" -- to drill his own message into a student's mind -- falling into the trap of ego-gratification that Franklin saw as counterproductive to true learning? Doesn't real learning happen in a setting where the stakes are not "winning or losing," but learning freed of agenda?
Perhaps Franklin has started me on my way to an answer to the question, What's action-research?
How about: "It's conversation among people who have come together in the hopes of learning. It's an exchange of ideas that are continually being questioned by everyone involved in the process. It's a regular gathering modeled on the natural discourse, exchange and curiosity that mark our everyday inquiry outside of the classroom."
Or maybe just this: "Action-research? Talking, listening and learning with some colleagues."
Better yet: In the spirit of action research, maybe I'll ask my colleagues what their answer to the question is this weekend in Toronto! It's been a year since my home school hosted our last gathering at Moravian, and I look forward to exchanging thoughts and ideas in person in Toronto! Too bad Ben Franklin can't join us, but I think he'll be there in spirit...
When I hit the "send" button, finally whisking the final draft of my action research study off to my graduate thesis committee, at first I couldn't understand why, at that moment, the exhilaration I felt dwarfed any emotion I'd ever felt when I'd hit the "send" button on the first drafts of any of my six non-fiction books.
I did know, with an unusual certainty, that even if my thesis might be proven to have come up flawed and unacceptable, the satisfaction of the journey I had taken could not be erased. It had been a gloriously Buddhic voyage; the joy had been in taking the path, not in reaching the finish line.
When I'd sent off the first drafts of my books, I'd invariably been quivering with anxiety. When I sent off the action research study, all I could think, strangely, -- me, my own harshest critic throughout a life of journalism -- was, "Well-done."
Writers of trade books aren't wired to feel good when we send in a finished manuscript. We're supposed to remember everything we'd done wrong, and panic in advance at what our editor will find failing.
Then why the satisfaction this time around, as I submitted a piece of writing to a team of academics? Because this time around, in producing my study, I'd used an intellectual rigor, and an action-researcher's precision, that I'd never applied to the research of the other works. I had been precise in my analysis of my data. I'd been thorough in my reflection on what the data suggested. Over the course of the semester of my study, I had taken sound actions in direct response to prompts from the data.
Even in the case of the two popular biographies I'd published, no editor had ever suggested that I examine my findings as I researched the books. Why would they? In the commercial-writing world, a writer proposing a book earns a cash advance on the strength of the initial thesis: That your subject was the best female singer in the Forties. That the team you're writing about was the best football team of the Seventies. That the football game you're writing a book about was the best football game ever played (to mention a few instances close to home.)
Make no mistake: Many, many writers of non-fiction books do rigorous research. But a whole lot more come up woefully short. It was only until I'd action-researched and written my first complete study that I realized that if I'd applied that same exacting degree of action-research to the books, they'd have been more proud-making.
"If you feel that everything is going as you wish," Jean McNiff wrote in 1988, in Action Research: Principles and Practice, "you need to produce evidence to show why this is so. If you feel it is less than satisfactory, you need to do something about it and explain what you are doing." I wish I'd come across those words when I started my first book one year after she'd written hers.
Soon after I hit that "send" button this time, I told a friend, "I'm convinced: Every author out there in the popular marketplace should be required to write an action-research study before they research their next book" -- if only to realize the their obligation is to the truth, not to their original book-pitch.
It's hard not to wonder, this week in particular, how things could have been different had the writer and editors of Rolling Stone magazine, once revered for solid journalism as well as music journalism, listened to McNiff and all of her colleagues who mandate that the examination of one's own practice is as essential as the study of the subject of a magazine article.
In a nutshell: last November, Rolling Stone ran an extensive expose of a woman having been being sexually assaulted on the campus of the University of Virginia in 2012 year. Its publication resulted in universal outrage, as it should have -- had the account been true.
It was not. The writer did not verify her sources' claims. She did not question the veracity of what she'd been told by the alleged victim. She did not seek out members of the fraternity involved in the alleged crime. She never questioned her source, or her own methodology as a researcher.
This week, after a Columbia Journalism Review panel issued a scathing report on Rolling Stone's investigative protocol, the magazine admitted that they'd gotten it wrong, and retracted the story. The UVa. fraternity that the magazine had maligned in the story has vowed to sue the magazine, which will have difficulty in ever regaining our trust, as a source of fact, finding or truth.
Action research is much more than a valuable methodology for writing a graduate thesis, but if is only confined to the academic setting, the opportunity for the "popular media" to regain long-lost trust is being squandered.
Whether we're writing for our academic peers or for commuters browsing the bookstore in Grand Central Station for something to read before they board their train, we have an obligation to question, to be skeptical at every step of the way, and to eventually come up with findings that are meaningful and supported.
That's not only the educator's mandate but that of anyone in this information-sharing age who presumes to publish. And when we do so, as I've now discovered, the certainty of knowing that our work is sound is the highest reward we can receive.
Of course, as action-researchers, we know that the reward is only fleeting, because our findings are now to be re-examined again -- which happily means that, as we begin the next the cycle of research, there are other moments of proud satisfaction yet to come.
You're at the opening reception for a friend's show at an art gallery, looking at one of the paintings when someone sidles up and looks at the same canvas. You nod at each other, and return to examining the work.
What happens next? Maybe you ask him what he thinks of the painting. Maybe she [keeping it gender neutral lol] gives an answer that intrigues you, then asks for your own opinion. Maybe your answer prompts a nod of agreement: "I see your point."
Next? Maybe mutual introductions...followed by an exchange of questions: How do you know Jane? What do you do for a living? What other artists do you like? Within a few minutes, you've each learned some new things about the art world, as well as your new acquaintance, and his or her own fields of interest. Perhaps you discover that you have several things in common, and schedule time to have lunch.
How and why did you each make a new friend? As James Paul Gee would have it, you found an "affinity space" -- a metaphoric place where "people affiliate with others based on shared interests, activities and goals."
And how did you create the space? By inquiry, which had been prompted by the most natural of human instincts: curiosity.
Now, consider what would have happened if you'd asked the stranger what she thought about Jane's painting, and in return , what you got was a one-way lecture about art, art theory, color, perspective and the use of brushstrokes. You'd have politely backed away, bored to tears...and no one would have learned anything - other than the obvious: that one-way discourse is no way of learning about anything.
Or, try this scenario: You've attended a reading by an author, and the host at the bookstore opens the floor up for questions. A half hour later, you've all gained new insight into the author's world, her craft, his process, and his or her methods of research. How did it happen? Because questions were asked, in the spirit of both "learning" and natural social interaction.
Now, consider what would have happened if, instead of asking for questions, the host had asked for "comments," and several members of the audience had stood up and told the author and the audience what they thought of the book, in no uncertain terms.
A dud of an evening!
We're social animals. We want to learn, and we learn by asking questions. That's why I have always asked so many of them, in my one-on-one interviews with students in college for the last two years, and ninth-graders for three years before that. The only way to gain "evidence of what the student is thinking," in Gee's terms, is to ask for permission to find a window into the place where they're doing that thinking, and then using that knowledge to create a more effective learning environment for the student.
And that's just a start. If the questions are the right ones, and the person being interviewed has respect for the questioner, then a new plateau might be achieved, and when the person being interviewed is a student, that student has the opportunity to know that the instructor genuinely cares about the student's well being.
There’s something mighty important I learned as I conducted extensive research for books about two of the most professional successful coaches in history— Phil Jackson, whose 11 National Basketball Association championships represent the highest total in history, and John Madden, who retired from the National Football League with the highest winning percentage in football history.
What did the old school, folksy Madden have in common with Jackson, a scholar of Buddha, Ouspensky, Jesus Christ and Jack Kerouac? The interviews. Whenever a new player joined their team, they made it a habit to get to know everything they could about each and every player on their roster: their lives, their styles of learning, their passions and their troubles.
Listen to what journeyman basketball player Jud Buechler, who made the final cut on Jackson's Chicago Bulls roster one summer after playing for three other teams, told me. “Phil called me in for our first meeting. I’m scared to death. I was ready for him to criticize my foot speed, or my jumping ability. And his first question was: `How’s (wife) Lindsay? Settling in?’
“I thought to myself, `Excuse me?’ Then he says, `Have you found a place? Is she making friends?’ I was blown away. None of the coaches I’d ever played for even knew I was married, or cared." Buechler? Became a favorite Jackson player, and helped him win another championship that year, playing the best basketball of his career
And Madden and his Raiders? “I liked them,” Madden told me - as if this way of coaching wouldn’t be self-evident, a given. “I liked all my players. I made a point of talking to every player every day. I’d walk up and down the locker room and talk to them as they’d come in, going into the training room, because I liked them. They’re people."
The result? To a man, those Raiders told me they would have gone to war for Madden -- well, figuratively, anyway.
And for those of us conducting action research with students, I think there’s much worth considering here. Does every student respond well to being asked if they'd be comfortable sitting down with you to get to know each other better? Nope. But most do -- if, in my experience, after the first several classes of a semester, they sense that you are honestly committed to them. If they believe you're doing it for their benefit, they'll be comfortable -- and, sometimes, eager.
Is every instructor comfortable with playing the role of questioner? Obviously not. Some of us aren't wired to be social. Some of us never ask a question after the author reads from her book. But then, going to an author's reading is a no-fault recreation. What we do in the classroom has more significant (and satisfying, hopefully) implications. And it's been my experience, over five years in classrooms, that no student doesn't appreciate being treated as a person, which would logically hold true whatever the content.
The ground-rules for my own sessions? The same protocol I'd use as part of any action-research data collection plan: careful observation, reflection, a new action. But in this case, the most meaningful data will emerge if the questioner uses the same methodology he'd use at the art gallery: the rules of social interaction or data within a relational context.
Are my own methods of interviewing/interaction reflective of my many years of experience as a professional journalist? Of course, but, then again, only to a degree; Journalists, like action researchers, need to build upon a base of curiosity. We all know how to question if we can only learn to listen.
First and foremost I try to find a comfort zone. If the student wants to talk about family -- as most do -- then it's a chat about what's going on at home, or what their childhood was like. If they want to talk about their sports team, that's where you head. If they want to offer opinions on how the class might improve, I'm always all in, because it's always constructive criticism: the cycle of action research.
It's not always as easygoing as my 90-minute talk with Jeanette a few weeks ago, when this ever-smiling first-year student plopped down on a chair and said, "Where do I start?
“At the beginning,” I said -- and the floodgates opened. She took me from the day her house burned to the ground when she was nine, through the phase when she was bullied -- an experience that strengthened her -- right up to the last few minutes, when she grabbed her phone, called her dad and asked him to send her those photos of his grandfather, an engineer, from the top of the George Washington Bridge...and holding the base of the radio tower atop the Empire State Building - a quarter-mile above West 34th Street. She grinned as she showed me the shot, which her dad had sent over instantly.
Jeanette's pride in her family, and her first-hand account of her gradual ascension to confident, happy student gave me insights that will not only help us find our "affinity space," but help me find out the optimum way to support her learning.
Equally valuable is the practical insight to be gained vis a vis particular learning styles -- as when George, a wonderfully talented[C1] and curious kid, confided, "I never liked learning history from someone talking for a half hour and you have to take notes, I take terrible notes."
Sometimes you have to wait to see what s/he wants to talk about, like when I asked Bethany about her dad. "Dad? Hm," she said, pausing for effect. "Hasn't been in my life that much. I don't even know his name...I get a few phone calls every two to three years. The last time I spoke to him was the day before I was coming here. He said, `I'm getting you a car,' and I said, `Right. That's going to make up for every birthday you missed." This, then, was a student carrying a burden. And now I knew that our affinity space would be very different from my space with Jeanette.
But I knew that we'd have one. In the outside world, everyone has their own affinity space with everyone else, and so why should it be any different with the students from whom we learn so much? They, like John Madden's players, are people, first and foremost. I try to never forget it. And they seem to appreciate it.
"The teacher's thinking is authenticated only by the authenticity of the students' thinking." -- Paulo Freire, "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed."
"Cogito, ergo sum." Rene Descartes' seminal pronouncement of what makes us who we are has long been at the foundation of Western philosophical thought. We think, and so we exist, because we know we exist.
But wouldn't an action-researcher tweak this axiom, in her/his ongoing questioning of his practice? Wouldn't he (if he were versed in Latin!) offer another axiom: "Dubito, ergo sum"?
I doubt, therefore I am?
To "doubt" doesn't have to infer that what has been established as "real" isn't real. It can mean that after you've established a basis for "reality," you can now question the truth of the reality. You can seek a real-er truth.
And that's how I took some action in my Young Adult Novel literature class this semester: by questioning existing reality...and discovering some truths about an essential part of my own practice: The way I arrive at a curriculum.
Sometimes I find myself forgetting an obvious axiom: that to facilitate effectively, we need effective and innovative tools -- a truth that was first driven home seven years ago, when I was teaching ninth-grade English at a private intermediate school in Connecticut.
We'd read "Catcher in the Rye," and I polled the class of a dozen or so 15-year-olds: Should next year's ninth-graders read this book? The "no's" won out. I was surprised. Wouldn't J.D. Salinger's tale of adolescence be relevant to 15-year-olds -- affluent, and familiar since childhood with Manhattan? But Holden Caulfield's episodic exploits were of their time, and not compelling. Salinger's dusty Manhattan held, for them, no magic.
The next year I taught The Great Gatsby instead, with its myriad of syntactical challenges, but a more universal theme. The students enjoyed it. The children of the One Percent, they were compelled by a plot with which they could identify. The worlds of the monied, with their peaks and valleys, will always provide for great storytelling.
Flash-forward to this past January. In the second class of our YA novel class (for whose syllabus I'd tossed out a few old standards and inserted some new ones, after surveying my freshman English class in the autumn). I asked the 28 freshmen and sophomores to pair off and interview each other about what their favorite and least favorite books in high school were. Then each partner told the class of her or his partner's choices.
When one student offered, "Kim's least favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird," I was a little taken aback. Harper Lee's 1960 novel about race relations in the Deep South is ingrained in the cultural conversation -- well, my cultural conversation, anyway. In fact, three weeks earlier, on vacation, my wife and I had taken a side-trip to Monroeville, Ala., to visit the museum named for the book in the local courthouse. This was one novel that had stood the test of time. Or had it?
"What was Kim's reason?" I asked.
The student checked her notebook, and said, "She said she thought the writing was boring."
A few minutes later, another student said, "Jessie's least favorite book is The Kite-Runner." Again, I was a little surprised. This tale of an Afghani child and his father was topical, had a dramatic story arc, and was a New York Times bestseller for two years,
"It was padded." Jessie said. Jessie is a pretty savvy critic: the novel was, indeed, first a short story, rejected by two major magazines. But perhaps Kim was equally astute in her harsh judgment of Mockingbird. If it bored her, whatever the reason, then this was the wrong text to spark a love of reading and writing in this very smart student.
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, Lee's novel has been read as much as The Bible. But continually passing a work on down through generation after generation because it resonated with past readers: is this a diligent way of deciding whether it should be on any and all reading lists?
It's been 55 years since Lee published her book. The relationship between the races has changed. American students are thoroughly well-educated from elementary school on about the sordid history of race relations in their native country. Maybe Mockingbird has run its course. Maybe another book should take its place.
If one of the reasons to assign book-reading to adolescents is to engage them in the world of literature in hopes of boosting their love of reading, and its exchange of ideas within every text, shouldn't we constantly be examining and revising our syllabi and reading lists? Is it time to ask ourselves whether we continue to teach the adolescent classics because we ourselves loved them so much, but are remiss in exchanging ideas with colleagues in the field about what the newer classics are?
In literature classes, of course, my tools are pretty different than a math or science or history teacher's. But no matter what the discipline, wouldn't a critical, questioning, doubting eye be a useful tool in finding new, relevant and compelling texts? Classroom tools and models and technologies? Ways of fostering curiosity about the subject matter? In an age which is exponentially more able to summon old "knowledge" in a heartbeat, and might respond to a more relevant curriculum?
At the very least, shouldn't we question whether the tools that have been handed down to us are still useful in stimulating young brains to question, to be curious, to want to learn? I'm by no means calling for a "throw out the old!" ideology. But I am doubting that the way I learned should automatically be the way my students learn.
"Action": a word with many meanings. To the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, everything we did in life was the result of either "action" or "passion." For Spinoza, the results of all of our "actions" in life strengthened our quest for what he called "perseverance in being" -- striving for greater perfection. This was a given. "Passions," on the other hand, with their suggestion of outside forces dictating your state of mind, could impede our quest for bettering ourselves.
To Paolo Freire, the word "action" is inextricably linked to the notion of "intentionality." If you "intend" -- that is, you have planned a course of action -- you've rationally weighed the consequences of the action you plan to take, and the outcome will be a productive -- no, in Freire's worldview, necessary -- one.
To fans of American popular culture, "action" might evoke "Action Comics" -- title that, in 1938, introduced a character named Superman (whose actions have proved to have some staying power).
In modern society? To "take action" implies seizing the day. An "active" lifestyle is beneficial. "Actions" speak "louder than words."
Then why should it be any different in the classroom? Why should our culture promote "action" everywhere you look, but rely on a one-way method of instruction? When someone stands in the front of a room scrawling historical facts and dates on the board, is he taking action? When, to get a good grade, the students must take those factoids in, and parrot them back, is that action? Or passivity?
Riding in an elevator early one morning last month I overheard a conversation between two young women. "Did you study?" said one. "Three hours," said the other. "I don't remember any of it." In my own classroom more recently, one of my students was cramming dates into his head on file cards to get ready for a history quiz. A few days later he admitted he didn't remember any of it.
The definitive judgment came from George, an advisee, and a history major. Not long ago, I asked how his classes were going. "My history class? It's so bad I skipped it a few days ago -- and I'm a history major!" he confided. "He just lectures, and puts up notes to copy. I go to class and wing it, but it's not really history. What's important about history isn't in the notes."
For George, history should be alive: part of Dewey's experiential continuum: Past, present and future, inextricably intertwined. And it was with the future of my students in mind that, after some reflection, I took a little action last week in my Young Adult literature class.
We'd just read two novels about dystopian futures: Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and Veronica Roth's "Divergent." Referring to last spring's syllabus, I saw that for the assessment for this mini-unit I'd asked them to write a traditional "compare and contrast" paper. And I remember distinctly how unambitious the papers had been
This year we'd had lively discussions about each book's strengths and weaknesses, its themes and subtexts. Why just repackage what we already knew? What assignment might engage them, with the books now behind them? Well, one of the most common themes in my individual interviews with students is their future: what shape they want it to take, hope it will take, expect it to take, expect that it won't.
And so this year, I asked them to write about a future. It could be theirs, it could be society's, it could be real, it could be fantasy. They turned in their stories today. They are not only thorough and extraordinarily lengthy; they're lively, personal, fun, insightful, relevant to their own lives. Some are dark and pessimistic, a reflection of the bad hand of cards we've dealt them. Many, though, are hopeful. "The media would no longer report on celebrities, but on random acts of kindness," wrote Sarah. "Everyone in my future gets to make their own decisions," wrote Carla. "In my future, everyone can be themselves."
Just the wild idealism of college students? Partly, yes. But is it "wild" to think that reflecting on our practice, then taking action to allow students to engage more fully in the learning process, is a way toward a stronger, livelier, "active" classroom? How might our actions help lead them toward the more optimistic future? How might our actions help to mitigate the likelihood of the darker and more pessimistic futures still envisioned by some?
"I didn't like any of the articles you assigned, Mr. Richmond. Who cares about a homeless guy in a canoe? Or the director of a movie I'm not going to see? Who cares about old grass? How about stories that matter to an 18-year-old? Like student debt? New Yorker? You have to do better. I am declaring an `interest challenge.' Publish a story that matters to me and I'll buy up every issue of that magazine."
Edward's honest response to my assignment was a shot across my bow. In de-sanctifying the text of my literary holy grail -- The New Yorker! -- Edward had confirmed what I'd come to suspect as the first month of class progressed: That what I considered great "journalism" was, for some of them, about as enjoyable to read for some of my students as a hymnal, the words on the back of a cereal box, or the assembly directions for a guided missile.
The stories I'd been asking my first year college writers to critique came from a thorough and widely praised anthology that revered the reporting and researching and writing of the likes of Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Tracy Kidder. My people...back in the day. Some of the class liked reading these classic examples of "long-form narrative journalism." But some didn't.
How had I forgotten that it had been just a few weeks earlier that I'd been chatting with a sophomore who was bemoaning all the Old Lit (see Dickens) he had to read? It wasn't that the language was too difficult, he said; it was that it was "unfair" to ask college kids to wade through plots that held no relevance or hook to their own experiences.
So: It was clearly time to take action. It was time to find readings for my classroom cohort that would spark their reading/writing fire. It was time to scratch that amazing New Yorker story of the kid who was falsely arrested spent three years in jail...because Rikers Island is a long way from the daily realities of Northeastern Pa., where the student has an off-campus job, and both of his parents have a job, and they will learn to love to read and to write when those transactional processes matter.
And so, after Edward's essay, as I interviewed the students one-on-one as part of my data collection for my action research master’s thesis, amid questions about family, upbringing, school; life, favorite music, I now added this one: "What kind of journalism would you want to be reading? Why?"
"Things that we care about," was one answer. It resonated. As a writer, I'd been blind to the lack of any overlap between my own experience and my students' experience.
And so it was time to take action again: to find texts and topics that would engage my eighteen students. To use Freire's banking metaphor, it was time to stop depositing my ideal of the brilliance of Hemingway's war reporting in their brains and start finding well-written journalism that would engage them so that they could have a Rosenblatt moment. Where the text belongs to them: to react to, to be excited by, to learn from in a way that will endure: for the student, for we, her/his eventual pupil.
Where am I now on the action-research cycle, in terms of my journalism class? Adapting. I am now paying more attention to modern and current and relevant-to-my-students journalism: The Daily Beast, and Huffington Post, and Vice.com, and Slate, and Moyers & Co.: the authentic daily journalism digests that cater to a newer way of thinking about journalism: good writing, good reporting, and the encouragement of thinking.
And by encouraging free-flowing dialogue in class (free-talking: the parallel track to Elbow's free-writing) I'm discovering the topics that matter to them: the topics that will engage their journalistic brains. And produce writer/readers who will change our world by means of the power of their words.
And the action-research lessons of the story? By taking action as inquiry, I identified the flaw and am modifying the syllabus to better engage the students, guided by Dewey's belief (in Education and Experience) that "There is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education."
Yes, Edward, for me to be an effective teacher of writing, I have to take new action each and every time. Would you agree, ARNA web visitors? In my next blog, I’ll review the etymology of action and why it matters to me.