About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: An Advanced Placement English Class

Over the last three or four months, I’ve been presenting portraits of people thinking – teachers and students mostly, but laborers and a surgeon too – with the intention of demonstrating the richness and variability of cognition.

I’ve done this because there are so few examples of people actually using their minds in contemporary educational policy literature or in media treatments of schooling. We don’t get inside classrooms very much, and rarely see good teachers at work or students thinking things through. This absence is not accidental. To talk about learning (not “learning outcomes,” but learning) or pedagogy in many policy arenas is to be seen as soft, off-topic, beside the point. As for media, learning and pedagogy don’t fit typical media story lines about education: educational politics, funding, or the human interest portrait. We live amid constant talk about education with minimal attention paid to the experience of being educated. It’s telling how many of the readers’ responses to the portraits have addressed this experience. I think a lot of us are hungry for such talk. In my next entry, I will focus on readers’ comments over the last few months.

Now, let’s spend some time with Steve Gilbert, a wonderful teacher I wrote about in Possible Lives, from which this portrait is drawn.

The last portrait I presented of teaching was of the two teachers in an ungraded primary (June 11, 2009). Here we go to the other end of the K-12 pipeline, an Advanced Placement English course in Chicago.

I am especially taken with this teacher’s skill in forwarding inquiry, in pushing thinking, and his admirable ability to be rigorous and supportive at the same time. He listens closely and uses what a student says to frame the next question that will nudge the discussion along. As he does so, he creates the conditions for students to be intellectually adventurous, to wade into uncertainty, and to risk being wrong. This risk-taking is something that sadly has been schooled out of many honors students.

So let’s listen in as Steve Gilbert and his students think their way through William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I’ll begin by briefly setting the context and summarizing the book, then I’ll let the discussion unfold.

I apologize for the length, but I don’t know how else to give you a sense of how Steve and his students work with this difficult novel.

* * *

Before I arrived, the class had read Fathers and Children and Brave New World, two books with an omniscient narrator and traditional narrative structure. As I Lay Dying provided a radical jolt. It was published in 1930, drafted, Faulkner claimed, in six weeks while he worked nights at the University of Mississippi power plant, written, when the furnaces permitted, on the bottom of an overturned wheelbarrow.

The novel consists of fifty-nine vignettes told by fifteen characters, most of them poor rural Southern Whites, some of whom speak in a direct and uncomplicated manner—though in regional dialect—while others speak in a mix of direct address, recollection, reverie, and stream-of-consciousness.

The story is this—though it by no means emerges this readily. Addie Bundren is dying and has asked her husband, Anse, to bury her in Jefferson, her place of birth, some forty miles away. She has asked that her oldest son, Cash, a carpenter, build her a proper coffin, and that he build it outside her window, in her line of sight, so that she can be sure of its quality.

Once Addies dies, the journey to Jefferson begins—Addie’s coffin resting unsteadily in the Bundren’s old wagon—only to be disrupted by a washed-out bridge, where the coffin is almost lost, and a barn fire that nearly incinerates it. The journey provides multiple revelations (and takes so long that Addie’s body begins to decompose), and by the time the family reaches the graveyard, we realize that many of the family had their own private motives for accompanying Addie to Jefferson.

Addie has five children, Cash, the carpenter, takes a craftsmen’s pride in building his mother’s coffin, and is compassionate in a reserved, literal-minded way. Trying to save the coffin in the flooding river en route to Jefferson, he breaks his leg, and, with bones held roughly in place by a makeshift and mutilating cement cast, rattles along in silent pain atop the box he has built for his mother.

Darl is keenly observant and introspective. Though he and Cash share some feelings, we gradually discover that two of the three siblings, Jewel and Dewey Dell, hate him. He is the most frequent speaker, and, at times, seems to be telepathic, becoming almost a central narrator. At the end, however, he is declared insane for torching the barn in which is mother’s body was temporarily stored.

Jewel, the third son, is physical and harsh, but in truth is fiercely devoted to his mother and speaks of her in a language of violence and protection. Dewey Dell, the only daughter, about seventeen, describes things in a sensual and enticing way, but is not wordly wise and is secretly pregnant. Vardaman, a child, is retarded and prone to simplified and confused associations. Fearing his mother is suffocating in the coffin, he drills holes in the top and into his dead mother’s face. Because Addie died on the same day he caught and killed a huge fish, he gradually comes to believe—in a moment that sent Steve’s class over the top—that “my mother is a fish.”


“I like,” Qisha was saying, “the way people aren’t what they seem to be.”

“Can you give us an example?” Steve asked.

“You take Darl,” Qisha continued. “He seems to be the only one who has a lot to say, and we kind of come to rely on him, and then he’s declared insane!”

“Qisha,” Steve said, “given the point you’re making, this would be a good time to return to something you said earlier. You said that As I Lay Dying was not like a traditional narrative, was more like real life. Can you say more about that?”

“Well,” she answered, “there isn’t somebody in your life telling you what to think, someone to organize what you see, what you hear. And, like that, this book just gives you pieces of thought.”

Steve glanced from Qisha to the rest of the class, panning the circle. “One thing we do all the time,” he said, “is tell each other stories. We organize experience into narratives. So if we don’t have a single story, if we have a series of stories, how do we determine truth?”

Ayana, quiet up till then, looked over at Steve, touching her glasses. “We compare the stories, try to determine accuracy that way.”

“OK,” said Steve. “Let’s find a good example.” And he began flipping through his copy of the novel—which was heavily annotated—and read contradictory selections from Darl, from Cora, a sanctimonious neighbor, and from Jewel himself on the topic of Jewel’s feelings for his mother. “Now,” said Steve, “how do we come to the truth about Jewel?”

“What Cora says, that’s just heresay,” Anyana continued. “She’s a busybody. But Darl, he was there.”

“Was he?” asked Steve. “Or are we getting his perception?”

Ayana pondered that. “No, actually, he sees Jewel through is eyes—and he has a funny relationship with Jewel.”

Steve came to class knowing that, at some point in the day, he would go to the board and ask the class to list all the things they thought they knew, the events they felt sure of. And at that moment, when Ayana was pushing on the provisional nature of so much in the novel, he uncurled himself from the desk and palmed a piece of chalk.

“Let’s make a list of what we think we know,” he said, turning to the board to become the students’ scribe.

“Well,” said Brian, “we know Addie died.” Steve wrote “Addie died.” “Dewey Dell is pregnant,” ventured Tequia, speaking for the first time.

“They’re taking Addie to Jefferson to bury her,” Raina said. But, as Steve was writing, Qisha interjected: “Wait, isn’t that a difficult question—I mean, what do you mean, ‘What we know?’ Do you mean what people tell us or what we finally think happened? I mean, people have different reasons for taking Addie to Jefferson—so what each one would know is different.”

“Absolutely right,” said Steve, appreciating Qisha’s tough-mindedness. “Good point. So maybe the best we can do is continue this list provisionally, listing what we think we know.” The class continued: Addie’s body is decomposing; Cash breaks his leg; Addie’s body has holes in it; Darl sets fire to the barn. Steve was keeping a watchful eye on the clock, and just before the bell, he held up his hand, palm outward, and said, “OK, nice going, class. I’d like us to test these ‘knowings’ over the next two weeks.”

And as the bell rang and everyone was wedging books into stuffed backpacks, Brian laughed and asked, “Yeah, but does anyone know why Darl set the barn on fire?”


Fast-forward a few class meetings.

Steve began by asking for someone to “indicate what he or she thinks a central theme might be.”

Brian: “Truths are subjective.”

Steve: “OK, how would you support that theme?”

Brian took a moment, started to page through the book, looked up, and laughed. “Ah, let me get back to you on that.”

Ayana: “How about the fact that Darl and Anse give us different versions of certain events?”

Qisha: “Also, there’s the different reasons they’re going to Jefferson.”

Steve: “Fine. Now let me ask you this. Is there a better way to summarize those examples than saying ‘Truths are subjective?’”

Alastair: “Everyone has their own version of truth.”

Brain: “People perceive reality differently.”

Steve: “OK, not bad. Let’s come back to that. Any other themes?”

Alastair: “It strikes me how religion is depicted in the book. I mean, there’s Addie and the minister; when Cash broke his leg the first time, he fell off a church; some of the townspeople talk piously but are hypocritical.”

Steve: “That sounds promising. There’s also Addie’s belief about deception…”

Alastair: “I’m not sure that’s religious.”

Steve: “All right, good point. Ethics, maybe. Can anyone see a theme developing?”

Alastair: “Some of the people who act religious aren’t religious at all.”

Steve noticed that Tequia wanted to speak. He also knew she was a religious person. “Tequia” he said, “I want to bring you into this discussion. Any thoughts?”

Tequia: “Well, Cash is faithful to carpentry.”

Steve: “What’s he say about carpentry?”

Ayana: “Regardless of the materials you have, you should do it well.”

Tequia: “It’s a kind of philosophy.”

Steve: “Who is the most famous carpenter we know?”

Aisha: “Jesus.”

Tequia: “Some of the other characters don’t realize it, but for Cash, carpentry might be a kind of religion.”

Steve: “So different characters might express religious feelings in different ways? Fine. Other themes, people?”

Qisha: “How about ‘Blood relatives don’t guarantee love.’”

Aisha: “There might be a simpler way to say that.”

Steve: “Give it a try, Aisha.”’

Aisha: “I’m not good at this.”

Steve: “That’s OK; try it.”

Aisha: “Love is tainted by obligation?”

Steve: “That’s very interesting. Can you say more?”

Aisha: [pausing, looking for words] “All the characters in the novel seem to classify their love…uh…I don’t know.”

Steve: “I think you’re on to something.”

Qisha: “That there is no simple way to define love or emotion in general…I mean, usually you can only do certain things that will be thought of as love.”

Steve: “Going back to Aisha’s word classify—is it easy to classify or categorize the emotions in this novel?”

Qisha, Brian, Aisha, Raina: “No.”

Steve: [looking at Brian] “Remember you were talking about truth being subjective?”

Brian: “Yes.”

Steve: “Well, another way to talk about that might be to say that there aren’t easy slots or categories for truth or, for that fact, for emotions. Some of the characters may feel and express something that could generally be called love, but it wouldn’t fit traditional definitions of love. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Qisha: “It’s as though emotions between family members don’t follow guidelines.”

Steve: “OK, but push yourself, Qisha—‘guidelines’ is not the best word there.”

Chris: “How about ‘Emotions can be defined with different vocabularies?’”

Steve: “That’s promising. How about what Brian was working with?”

Brian: “Appearance is not really reality?”

Aisha: “This is really clichéd, but, ‘Nothing is the way it seems.’”

Steve: “What’s wrong with that?”

Aisha: “It’s too broad, I think.”

Tequia: “Maybe ‘It’s impossible to know other people’s reality.’”

Chris: “It’s impossible to know the entire truth about someone’s life.”

Steve: “I think we’re developing some major themes, and they all seem to deal with the subjectivity of knowing, of truth, with appearance versus reality…That was wonderful.” [Turning to me] “Wasn’t that just wonderful?”

And the bell rang.


  1. Mike,

    Thank you for this, thinking and writing like make me proud to share the same avocation as your self. (Reading these accounts makes me stay up the extra hour to work on craft.)

    As I read, I stopped a few times to think. The description itself made me halt, it’s rare that a text can do that. I have been doing some reading on the subject of “citizenship.” In the course of study, I came across a book by Avishai Margalit entitled “The Decent Society.” The book is informative, at times intriguing. But there is a chapter on citizenship that I think is worth mentioning. Margalit talks about something called “symbolic citizenship.” Margalit is concerned with identifying the criteria by which a society can call itself “decent.” For Margalit, a decent society—its institutions to be more exact—must not humiliate those it considers citizens or those worthy of citizenship. (I take this to mean de jure and de facto citizens.) The core of this notion is that a decent society does not set its symbols against any sector of the citizenry (broadly construed). To the extent a society does this, it cannot call itself “decent.” Another aspect of this notion is that a society provides broad and democratic access to its canon of symbols, so that citizens may grow to use them. (Margalit does not say much about adding to or altering this storehouse of symbols.) But I want to try and pick up where Margalit leaves off: this idea of access to this symbolic commons or at least the potential for a symbolic commons.

    Like in the account from this English class, things happen in this (theoretically) open symbolic field. Democratic things to be more precise. Like the give and take in and through Faulkner and the assumptions people hold about each other as they interact. Or like the questions people ask of one another. (In certain contexts, we only ask difficult questions of people we respect.) It is these kinds of things, democratic things, intellectually difficult things; things that tend toward the indelible that rightly excite us.

    To end, I want to paraphrase Frederick Douglass: learning “unfits” a person for second-class citizenship. How so? My educated guess, my pragmatic guess, is that experiences like the kind described in the English class prove exceedingly difficult to extinguish or erase. That, maybe, is what “unfits” you, the act and then the memory of the act. Maybe reading Faulkner (or any text) in this way can be thought of as kind of an ally of forming a democratic society, not only because Faulkner’s text is widely acknowledged as a Great Book, but also because of the decency people need to enact to get through it in some productive manner.



    PS: Chicanos love Faulkner también. In English or Spanish.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I just wanted to share that I have been following your blog for a while and your recent post particularly resonated with me. It took me back to an AP English discussion that I will never forget. My poor teacher at the time, Mr. Hurst, had been trying for more than a semester to engage the class in a literary discussion that went beyond single-sided question and answer. Up to that point, we had read many texts, including Richard Wright's Black Boy, Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior. Although I thoroughly enjoyed them, none generated a discussion as deep or powerful as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. For one reason or another this novel created a buzz within everyone in the class, from the stereotypical "overachiever" to the quiet group that dominated the back corner of the room. All of us contributed to the conversation. We talked about the literary devices that Marquez employed to illustrate the complex structures upon which families are built, the dichotomy between love and hate, the beauty of death and sacrifice, and the way in which many of these "themes" rested on a continuum - that each's relationship with respect to the other was not absolute.

    Even as I reflect on that moment now, it remains unclear what the "trigger" was, but the experience definitely mirrors the portrait that you described. All that to say I really enjoyed reading your post and it is instrumental in helping those interested in education and education policy to start thinking about the context in which learning moments can occur and be fostered.

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  4. Mike, I really like this post. Don't apologize for its length. It needs to be long to present what you want to present.

    I have been reading your book, Lives On The Boundary. In both your book and this article I am sometimes not sure just what your point is. I may be missing your point, or some important parts of your point. However in your second paragraph you do make it clear that your perspective has a great deal in common with my perspective. The common ground that I am talking about is the importance of description in the study of education. You say, "We don’t get inside classrooms very much, and rarely see good teachers at work or students thinking things through." I agree. Indeed I have an article on my website that expands on that idea, The Lack Of Description In The Study Of Education. I argue that we need a lot more plain simple description if we are going to analyze teaching and learning, and the analysis of teaching and learning is the place to look for educational improvement.

    You also say, “I think a lot of us are hungry for such talk.” I’m afraid I can not agree with you there. I wish we were hungry for such talk. I am hungry for such talk, and have been for many years. But the education world in general seems not to be. Rhetoric seems to be enough. We seem to have fallen into a deeply ingrained habit of accepting empty rhetoric (all children can learn, the “soft bigotry of low expectation“, excellence, etc) as the appropriate response to anything to do with education. We may not care much for empty rhetoric, and indeed we may individually disparage it, but, since it is appropriate for any and all situations, we trot it out at the slightest cue. But if our hunger for such talk is depressingly weak, surely it will grow if we nourish it. And surely it will grow if we can make it productive. So I applaud your efforts.

    However, as I have also pointed out in my article (at least I think I did, and if I didn’t I certainly should), applauding the existence of a description does not mean that it is a good description, or accurate, or helpful, or anything else. And certainly it does not mean that it is not subject to criticism. Description is simply a necessary starting point, with heavy emphasis on the “necessary”.

    So, since you have provided a good starting point, let me extend the discussion with a bit of criticism, or at least a few

  5. questions.

    Is this an accurate description of a typical day in Steve Gilbert’s class? This is not an accusation disguised as a question. I have no idea if it is or is not accurate. Intuitively it sounds accurate. It trips no alarm wires in my brain. But I have never tried to do anything like Steve Gilbert is doing here, so I have no personal teaching experience like this to draw on for perspective. A doubter can find much to question. Where are the discipline problems in this class? None are described. Are there none? I remember the discipline problems that so bedeviled me as a young teacher in public schools, though that was half a lifetime ago. The suggestion that discipline problems were whitewashed out of this description finds ready acceptance in my mind. But then I realize I also have good grounds for accepting that no discipline problems exist in this situation. I teach math to college freshmen, and discipline problems are practically nonexistent in my job. It’s pretty easy to accept that Steve Gilbert’s students in this English class are very little different than my students. They’ve left the junior high mentality far behind them. They may have many faults, but wanting to cut up in class is not among them.

    So I have two hypotheses in mind about discipline problems, or their lack, in this description. Hypothesis one is that this description is whitewashing at least some discipline problems. Hypothesis two is that these students are pretty much like my college students. Discipline problems are rare. The description is accurate, at least in this regard.

    But between these two hypotheses there is a possibility that could be very important. Perhaps if I walked in to that class and tried to do what Steve does I would be frustrated within days by the development of discipline problems. Perhaps Steve knows what to do right from the start of the year, and has done those things right from the start, that lead to his pleasant lack of discipline problems. Perhaps those students will act for Steve like my college students act for me, but would act for me more like the seventh and eighth graders that caused me to leave teaching many years ago. If this is the case then I really want to know what Steve does that I would not know to do. For me it is idle curiosity. I don’t expect ever again to set foot in any high school classroom as a teacher. But for others it is not idle curiosity. Others will enter the classroom, idealistic new teachers bearing good intentions like a coat of arms, and, for many of them at least, naivety like a sign on the back that says “kick me”.

    So your description, Mike, is much too short. How about describing what Steve has done, and what he does everyday, to maintain such a happy state of affairs. And, of course, go beyond description. Analyze. Don’t just tell us what Steve does and has done to smoothly manage his class. Explain it. Or let Steve explain it.

    Can Steve explain it? If not, why not? I guess those are rhetorical questions, though they certainly should not be. Probably Steve cannot explain it. I have long maintained that many good teachers are no good at all at explaining what they do and why they do it. They know and act intuitively, and are successful. But that doesn’t help me. I need words. I need explanation. And so do a lot of others, though they may not recognize it.

  6. I need explanation about another thing also, not about classroom management this time, but about knowledge. I realized when reading this description of an English class that it is very different than teaching math. It seems accurate to say that Steve is using the “discussion method”. I don’t pretend to use anything like a “discussion method” to teach math. It seems neither intuitive, sensible, nor promising. Indeed for most of my life the term “discussion method” seemed purely empty rhetoric. One doesn’t actually “teach” anything by the discussion method, it has always seemed to me. One may engage students in discussion, they may be actively using their brains and they may be enjoying it. They may be learning something, something worthwhile even. But somehow all of that hardly rises to level of what it should mean to “teach”. (The “fallacy of engagement” is thinking that if students are engaged they are being educated. My view is that simple “engagement” is a long way from being educated. Engagement may be necessary to being educated, but falls far short of being the same thing.)

    Discussion, whether it's a “method” or not, is obviously prominent in what Steve Gilbert does. But it’s quite different in math. I am painfully aware of the ideas my students need to learn, and painfully aware of their difficulty in doing so, and of my failure to accomplish what I want. Engagement is easy enough to accomplish, at least in class, but learning is not. Success, in a math class, is relatively easy to define and to recognize. It is just hard to attain. Discussion, in the way you describe Steve Gilbert’s class, has a very limited role in the typical math class. In discussion it sounds like anything goes. No answer is wrong. There are no predetermined ideas to be transmitted, so success and failure have little meaning. That does not at all fit into a math class.

    But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there is something to discussion that I am missing. Perhaps it should be used more in math. But that general idea is not enough for me. I want to nail it down. I want to understand it in my terms, analytically. You have described, and that is a very important first step. Another step is to analyze and explain what is going on in that English class, and how it relates to what we do in math classes. Is knowledge somehow fundamentally different in an English class than in a math class? Is that why discussion is prominent in an English class but very minor in a math class? Or is knowledge fundamentally the same, but the route to that knowledge is somehow different? Or what?

    Or maybe I’m asking the impossible. Maybe math and English teachers can never understand each other. Instead of asking for an understanding of what an English teacher does in analytic terms, maybe I should turn that around, and try to understand what a math teacher does in terms that an English teacher can understand.

    I don’t quite know where this leads, but I do feel, both analytically and intuitively, that description is a necessary beginning. My questions in the last several paragraphs would not even arise without good description.

  7. At one point you say, “ . . . . he creates the conditions for students to be intellectually adventurous, to wade into uncertainty, and to risk being wrong. This risk-taking is something that sadly has been schooled out of many honors students.” I understand the point about risk taking. Everyone is aware of the risk of being wrong. I try hard to create in my class an acceptance of being wrong. I tell my students that mistakes are what we learn from. I tell them about that marvelous invention on the other end of their pencil - the eraser. I tell them about a wonderful tradition we have in mathematics - we don’t mind being wrong. But, of course, students are still inhibited by the risk of being wrong and appearing foolish. I understand that. But I don’t understand that part about risk-taking being “schooled out” of them. Is that a serious remark, or just a bit of rhetoric? If serious, expand on that point.

    Your article is not too long, not at all.

  8. Brian,

    I usually wait and respond in a general way to readers' posts, but you raise a specific question here, which is an important one - so let me respond now. I spent roughly two weeks in Steve's class and did not witness any event that would typically be tagged as a behavioral problem. What I present here was typical of the two weeks I witnessed. As you point out, these young people are all seniors and are seriously engaged in difficult study, so there's not a lot of disruption going on. To be sure, they are still teenagers, so before class or after they gab and joke and all the rest. But when class begins, they dive in. The further analysis that you desire is in the Chicago chapter of Possible Lives, the book from which the portrait is condensed. I felt that this piece was already way over the blog limit, so I kept it to a slice of the activity itself.