The cover image for my new book: Rembrandt’s ‘Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer’

Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_Google_Art_Project

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam)

This is the image we’re using for the cover of my book Imagined worlds and classroom realities, to be released later this year or early in 2015.

I saw this painting a couple of years ago, in the Met in New York, and the first thing that struck me was the deep thoughtfulness in the philosopher Aristotle’s eyes as he reaches out and rests his right hand on the bust of the storyteller Homer. He seems more than lost in thought. He’s also full of feeling, wondering perhaps about the place of poetry and mythology – with their evocations of beauty, love, courage, truth and the good – in his thinking about the world.

Then I remembered that Aristotle was a teacher. In fact we can just see the image of his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, on the medallion which hangs from the chain around his neck. Aristotle’s left hand is touching the chain, a gift from Alexander, representing (perhaps) Aristotle’s connection to the world of action, power and the everyday.

These two – the mythopoetic represented by Homer’s bust and the political represented by Alexander’s chain – are the teacher’s worlds. We necessarily pay attention to everyday necessities and realities – the bells, routines, timetables, expectations, demands, complexities, resistances, power dynamics and so on. We try to stay in touch with the values that brought us into teaching in the first place, and which animate our best moments in the classroom.

The stories in my book are attempts to represent this ‘living in two worlds’, this reaching out to stay in touch with what we care most deeply about amidst our classroom realities.

 

 

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The siren song of the explicit outcome

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper… we must steer clear of the Sirens,

their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers …

… you must bind me with tight chaffing ropes

so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot,

erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast …

[The Odyssey, Book 1217—280 Fagle translation]

 

So Odysseus commands his crew as they approach the Sirens and their ‘urgent song’. They obey and they all survive.

There’s a siren song that we English teachers heard some time ago, but unfortunately we  listened and got waylaid. It was the song of the explicit outcome.

This is taking longer than she thought it would. Filling in a plan for the poetry lesson seemed like such an obvious and helpful thing to do, especially given the warm and encouraging supervision of her mentor teacher. But she kept getting stuck on the ‘Lesson Outcomes’ box.

‘It’s important,’ her mentor had advised, ‘that the outcomes are explicit and measurable, otherwise you’ll have no way of knowing if you’ve achieved your aim, no way of knowing if the students have learned what you want them to learn.’

It seemed so reasonable, so useful, this advice. She had a tendency, she suspected, to get lost in her love of stories and words, and maybe the students didn’t learn anything particularly useful as a result. Being explicit should help.

But what was it that she wanted her students to learn? And did she want Sophie (who loved their present text and wrote poetry herself) to learn the same things as Brad (who thought English was a waste of time and was desperately trying to get by to please his parents)? Did she want Ayati (who was struggling with the language) to be learning the same as Desheng (who wanted to be a doctor, was a high achiever, but who struggled to see beyond the literal)?

‘The students will respond to the text in various ways,’ she wrote, but immediately scribbled it out. She could hear her mentor saying ‘too vague’, and ‘not measurable’.

‘The students will understand that poetry can open our eyes to the previously unseen.’ She liked this. It was what Maxine Greene had always said about the function of literature. But how would she measure it? She giggled inwardly as she imagined a test which said ‘describe what you you could see before and after reading this poem’. Desheng would go ape.

Perhaps, she began to think, the problem was with the assumption that lurked beneath the whole idea of outcomes, the idea the English teaching was entirely to do with teaching what can be made explicit and what could be measured. What had her own English teacher done, she wondered. How had she become someone in love with the English language and the stories it continually tells?

Her mind drifted back to her own school days and lessons spent where the students read their favourite poems, where they played with language (along with her teacher) in ways that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, where the school librarian would bring each Tuesday a box of books (different genres, different lengths) for the students to choose from. Were these the keys to her love of English? Or was it the friendship group, and the time spent listening to Alysha? Or perhaps it was the work they all did on preparing a school play?

English, for her, was more about engaging with the world through language – something she now realized she’d been doing from the moment she’d been born. Birds fly, fish swim; people language.

Outcomes were a distraction, a siren call. Could she tie herself to the mast and resist it?