12 Winters Blog

An Interview with John Paul Jaramillo: Little Mocos

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2017

I’ve known John Paul Jaramillo for several years. Shortly after my first novel, Men of Winter, came out, John Paul interviewed me for a video journal that he edited. He also had a book out, a collection of stories titled The House of Order (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011), which, I discovered, had garnered John Paul much praise and several accolades. Fast forward to, I believe, 2014. John Paul shared with me a manuscript for a book he’d spent quite a bit of time writing and revising (and revising). It was a novel of sorts, comprised of more than thirty interconnected stories and vignettes, a complex family saga that unfolded over decades and multiple generations.

John Paul’s main interest was getting my feedback on the manuscript. I had relied on John Paul’s opinion and expert eye more than once, sharing my own work with him as well as work by some of the authors I was publishing via Twelve Winters Press. I was interested in doing more than giving him feedback on his book; I very much wanted to publish it. I think he was genuinely surprised. We were having coffee at Wm. Van’s Coffee House in Springfield, Illinois. It was summertime so we both had a bit more time on our hands than we normally would during the academic year. We sat there over our coffees talking for a long while.

My sense was that John Paul had worked on the book for so long and had received so much advice, so many critiques, he wasn’t sure any longer quite what he wanted the book to be. So I asked him to take a few months, perhaps enough time to let some of that advice fade away, and figure out exactly what he wanted to publish. The book did go through some changes, including a title change, before he submitted the more or less final version of the manuscript, which I then assigned to one of the Press’s talented and dedicated editors, Pamm Collebrusco, who worked with John Paul to finalize (now) Little Mocos for publication.

I fell behind the publishing schedule I’d hoped to adhere to, but John Paul was consummately patient. We finalized a book cover this past winter; then this summer we were able, at long last, to make available to the world Little Mocos, a novel in stories, available in hardcover and digital editions.

LITTLE MOCOS -- DIGITAL COVER 1000

It’s become a tradition that when I publish an author’s work, I also give them some interview questions. What follows are John Paul’s unedited responses.

My sense is that Little Mocos had a long gestation. When you and I first discussed the manuscript it had a different title, and you talked about a few incarnations of the text. Would you talk about the writing and development of the book?

I’ve been working on this particular book Little Mocos and a grouping of stories for five years I believe. I have always known my writing process is incredibly slow and meandering. I often say it is a mis-perspective that writers have an ease with words and language, because I feel it is the opposite—writers struggle to capture the right words and structure. I have an idea and I like to give myself the time to follow that idea and see where the language or my thoughts take me. I don’t think I am the kind of writer who just sits and executes the outline, premise or story—I have to take time and find the story arc and premise and find the surprises. I have to think and re-think and find the ideas rather than drive them. Also I think I am the kind of writer that is always looking for the better angle into the story in terms of means of perception. So there are drafts on my computer in third person and first person and just different experiments to find the right way to approach the stories I want to tell. Drafts that include or exclude different characters. Fragments that fail and fragments that succeed. Writing and drafting a book is incredibly difficult, and taming that and coming to terms with that takes a long while. Also an editor friend and mentor of mine Jennifer C. Cornell has given me advice and guidance to tweak the book to the current organization. I always need help and I am always second-guessing the manuscript as well as my choices.

At one point you were calling the book “a novel” and then altered that to “a novel in stories.” As a writer I’ve been struggling a bit with those labels myself on a particular project. What do you think the difference is, and why did you ultimately decide on the latter label?

John Paul 1I feel as though I work in a way to send stories out to get feedback from editors. So my work is intentionally worked out in bite-size chunks. Also I think I am a minimalist so always trying to do more with less. And most publications or lit websites I admire are looking for short pieces—one needs to be a bit more experienced and known for a novel excerpt I believe. I usually label something a short story rather than a chapter though I believe a chapter and a short story are similar in many ways—they both have a beginning, middle and end. I also seem to float back to the same “universe” of characters and that keeps them together. I often say the material comes how it comes and I follow it. I hear stories or read stories about Colorado and just try and get them re-imagined and down into bite-size chunks for publication. I’ve always advised my students to create relationships with editors who publish similar work and I’ve tried to submit and gather feedback from Latino lit publications to help with revision and these aesthetic choices. I guess simply the label “novel-in-stories” or “composite novel” or even “novella” comes back to the writer’s decisions and style.

I mean I’ve always known I have a sort of disjointed sort of style. I have always written smaller stories following the same characters, and I’ve always felt these smaller stories as “complete and autonomous.” Interrelated enough yet at the same time creating a complete whole. Creating a story arc the way a novel would. And I’ve never liked fiction too on-the-nose. I like a rougher feel to the writing. Like punk music or something. But as it comes down to the wire on revisions and I get closer and closer to turning over the manuscript to the publisher I struggle with labeling the work a novel-in-stories, composite novel or just plain stories as well. Making decisions is difficult.

The one guiding organizational principle to the book is thematic but also follows the same characters and quite nearly stays in a similar place. The family I am writing about has a family tree that is broken and winding and shattered and so the structure should mirror that. Astillarse, one character describes in the book, or splintered.

My book features a composite structure from what Chapter 1 from The Composite Novel—a book I read once by Margaret Dunn and Ann Morris—classifies as the following: Setting—(all my work takes place in the old neighborhood); Protagonist—I follow the Ortiz family; Collective protagonist–the family and neighborhood in different time periods and perspectives; Pattern/patchwork—identical or similarly themed stories focusing on trouble, problems, work/joblessness, etc.

I know some of the elements of the book, for example the character Cornbread Vigil, are pulled directly from history, while others, I presume, are purely fictional. In your writing process how did you negotiate history and fiction, and I suppose those gray areas in between?

Cornbread Vigil is a character based on a man named Ray Baca who is pretty infamous in Colorado—his name appeared in the newspaper quite often. He was a local criminal from my old neighborhood of Pueblo, Colorado, who folks often talked about. Mostly they talked about how they were afraid of him. My Grandfather talked about him since he robbed some local places. He was a person who had multiple crimes attached to him and he was the kind of person who always seemed to get out of trouble—petty crimes and thefts. He became somewhat of a local infamous character but also a weird folk hero/character. In my mind he represents the complex place I was raised and also the moral problem young Latino males perhaps face growing up. The violent expression that is sometime nurtured. I had so few literary or teacher heroes growing up but my heroes were “around-the-way” kinds of heroes at least when I was very young.

I think in much of my writing I try to take these stories from the paper and try to imagine or re-imagine them. To try and make sense of them, especially the darker or the more senseless stories. It felt as if this Baca criminal was from the same place I was from and I always found that to be very interesting. He always represented the myths and flavor of Colorado, and I wanted to re-create and re-imagine his story and how it merged with some of my own family.

You and I have discussed some of the difficulties presented by using Spanish and Spanish slang in the text, particularly when it came to dealing with editors and finding a publisher. Could you discuss some of the issues that you encountered?

I try to create relationships with Latino lit publications—with editors more sympathetic to the use of Spanish in a manuscript. This seems to be a very American issue. I always try to write the way folks talk in Southern Colorado and they speak Spanish and I guess Spanglish would be the term. A blending of Spanish and English—incorrect Spanish and incorrect English. But I have a collection of emails and responses from editors who were pretty aggressive in wanting me to take out the Spanish or to make the stories somewhat of a caricature of how folks speak in Colorado. Perhaps it was my fault for not knowing the publication well enough. There are so few Latino publications. I guess I want to represent but not sell-out anyone from my old neighborhoods.

Also though there is a professional dimension where Latinos who speak fluent Spanish will question my decision to omit or to use italics with Spanish in the stories. One writer I admire has Spanish italicized in all of his work and yet criticized me for my decision to italicize in my last publication. The idea being the language is not foreign so one shouldn’t italicize it. Until only recently I have become confident enough to edit what I choose in my own manuscripts and fight for more of my aesthetic choices. I see the whole problem as just working with presses who are sympathetic or understanding of these representation issues or not. I’ve received complaints from some editors and emails from some readers who say I’ve captured the way folks in Colorado speak accurately. So perhaps this is also an issue of representation of place as well as representation of the Spanish language in stories.

Little Mocos covers similar territory to your first book, The House of Order. In fact, one of the stories in Little Mocos is titled “House of Order.” How do these projects connect? In what ways does Little Mocos extend or perhaps complicate some of the elements in The House of Order?

The House of Order was a collection of stories published in differing publications and collected in somewhat of a linear narrative structure though missing quite a bit of backstory to the families and relationships. Little Mocos is the fuller story. Readers of The House of Order didn’t read it as a collection of stories but read it as a novel and this book is the novel bringing in many similar stories that have been tweaked to act as a portion of a larger story rather than to just act as a standalone story. There is more time and room to explore the family and legacy only hinted at, I think, in the collection of short pieces. I wanted to tell the fuller and larger trajectory of the story here. I very much see this novel as a continuation and sequel of sorts to that earlier book.

Little Mocos is divided into six parts which vary considerably in terms of length. What was your organizing principle in determining how to fit the various stories together? Ultimately do you feel satisfied with the structure of the book, or is there anything that still nags at you in the middle of the night?

I have a hard time telling a linear story. Also like many other writers, Leslie Marmon Silko as the greatest influence on me, I wanted to tell a story that was not linear but more at liberty with the timeline. The timeline or the structure is circular almost. Later in the book the narrator is criticized for overly thinking on past events in the story and I think that is similar to me. I am drawn to family stories and family history and my mind is rarely in the moment but racing in time to backstory and I wanted that feel in the book. I like to recreate moments of simply sitting and recounting the past. I am not so much interested in linear stories, I guess, but stories that represent the complexity of past and present relationships. I feel that I carry my family with me and the movement in time from section to section is my way to recreate that in the structure. Also I am more and more interested in this idea of legacy and family spirits that mold an individual. I feel I carry my Uncle and Father who have passed away with me in my everyday decision-making as well as in the genetic similarity of appearance and personality. Family trauma is always at the heart of my stories and the stories I like to read and so again this is my way of re-creating that familial dimension to a daily life.

I do very much feel satisfied with the structure though I’m drafting new stories all the time I wish could’ve found their way into the final manuscript—drafts that fill-in certain characters’ back story. I’m always drafting and note-taking on the Bea character and the Tio Neto character though I know they won’t find their way into the fuller story because of deadlines for turning in drafts. I guess what keeps me up would be exploring more stories with these characters and including all of them in one manuscript.

I know your teaching takes up a lot of time and energy. How do you balance teaching and writing? How does teaching and working with your students inform and energize your writing?

I teach composition and literature and I keep a blog on teaching and writing, so this is something I think all writers who work in schools may struggle with—the balance of time. I teach many classes to pay the bills and also teach creative writing. And I think all of my classes represent my thinking about the written word and also books I admire. I think as a writer I am perhaps a bit more skilled to teach about form or structure of writing as well as meaning. I have an MFA in creative writing instead of an MA or PhD and so I feel I might speak differently about writing and reading than say someone who studied literary criticism theory. I often say I have a degree in writing rather than in the study of writing since I see myself as a creative writer first and foremost, rather than as a researcher, teacher, or critic. Writers rarely think about meaning or theme and yet most classes and most instructors lecture on dominant themes and dominant interpretation, and I am more interested in how the writer or the character is represented in the work. I think there is a large distinction between what a work is saying and how the work is constructed. As a writer I am rarely thinking about what I am trying to say and more and more interested in how to construct a more dynamic experience for the reader. I like the idea that perhaps I can bring a different perspective on writing as a writer than say a lit scholar.

Other than finalizing Little Mocos for publication by the press, you’ve been done with the book for quite awhile. What else have you been working on? Is writing fiction your only interest, or have you explored other modes of writing?

Little Mocos in many ways is a love letter to my father’s side of my family. The last story in the book is about my mother’s family. While Little Mocos is an entire book about my father and his relationship to his brother and father, I have a whole manuscript of material I’ve been working on that follows the relationship between my mother and her father. Again I am interested in family legacy and family trauma. This manuscript is tentatively titled Monte Stories or Mountain Stories as my mother’s side of the family is from the San Luis Valley in Colorado and that is where most of these stories take place. I am more and more obsessed with my mother’s father and his life in the San Luis Valley. Recently I’ve had a story from this manuscript featured at La Casita Grande Lounge—a website for Chicano and Latino literature.  I have a good dozen of these stories I am slowly hoping to build into another book taking place in the same Colorado universe of characters.

I have also been working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays. Most of my favorite fiction writers are also my favorite essayists. I hope to turn more of my blog post son teaching and writing and on the Colorado steel industry into essays. I am also hoping to write more memoir-styled essays. Essays that read as short stories but driven more by facts. I have always written little fragments of reviews and recounting of experiences on my blog and I hope to conduct more interviews and also gather more of these essays for a non-fiction collection. I am interested in the steel industry in Colorado and its history as well as the subject of being a Latino male in the teaching profession.


John Paul Jaramillo’s  stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Acentos ReviewPALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art and Somos en Escrito. In 2013 his collection The House of Order was named an International Latino Book Award Finalist. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. Originally from Colorado, he lives in Springfield, Illinois, where he is a professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College. (Author photo by Polly Parsons)

 

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Destroying Public Education for Dummies

Posted in April 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 28, 2015

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

It’s the iconic line from the 1976 film Network in which news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is pushed beyond the breaking point and implores his viewers to get mad, go to their windows, open them and shout: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” — and people do . . . by the thousands.

This is essentially the message of Williamsville (Illinois) school superintendent David Root in the District Dispatch he sent out yesterday in which he writes: “So, want to destroy public education and prevent people from wanting to teach? Not a problem. It’s actually pretty simple.”

David Root

Superintendent David Root

 

Root uses the metaphor of the how-to books “for Dummies” to say that the dummies in charge of state government — recently elected governor Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly as a whole — have managed, without breaking a sweat, to destroy public education and the morale of educators by slashing funds, mandating a litany of pointless tests, and demonizing and demoralizing teachers. One of the points I especially appreciate alludes to the Danielson Framework for Teacher Evaluation and how its adoption by the state is part of a scheme to make teachers in Illinois look ineffective (and thus, I say, pave the way for the lucrative privatization of schools) — an argument I’ve been making for months, especially in my August 17, 2014, post “Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s army.”

Please read superintendent Root’s superb jeremiad in its entirety here. (Or you can also access it via the district’s webpage here.).

Some people were surprised at Root’s vitriol, even though it’s been building for some time, and suggested that perhaps Mr. Root should have held off sending it out until he’d calmed down a bit. But I unequivocally disagree: I say we are long past the point of civility. We need more — all! — administrators, teachers, school board members, parents and students to raise their windows and shout: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!

And we shouldn’t stop our raging against the “education reform” machine until public schools and public educators receive the support and the respect they deserve. Because, ultimately, our students deserve no less.

Bravo, superintendent Root! I too am as mad as hell!

Here’s my beef with PARCC and the Common Core

Posted in August 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 9, 2014

Beginning this school year students in Illinois will be taking the new assessment known as PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which is also an accountability measure — meaning that it will be used to identify the schools (and therefore teachers) who are doing well and the ones who are not, based on their students’ scores. In this post I will be drawing from a document released this month by the Illinois State Board of Education, “The top 10 things teachers need to know about the new Illinois assessments.” PARCC is intended to align with the Common Core, which around here has been rebranded as the New Illinois Learning Standards Incorporating the Common Core (clearly a Madison Avenue PR firm wasn’t involved in selecting that name — though I’m surprised funds weren’t allocated for it).

This could be a very long post, but I’ll limit myself to my main issues with PARCC and the Common Core. The introduction to “The top 10 things” document raises some of the most fundamental problems with the revised approach. It begins, “Illinois has implemented new, higher standards for student learning in all schools across the state.” Let’s stop right there. I’m dubious that rewording the standards makes them “higher,” and from an English/language arts teacher perspective, the Common Core standards aren’t asking us to do anything different from what we’ve been doing since I started teaching in 1984. There’s an implied indictment in the opening sentence, suggesting that until now, the Common Core era, teachers haven’t been holding students to particularly high standards. I mean, logically, if there was space into which the standards could be raised, then they had to be lower before Common Core. It’s yet another iteration of the war-cry: Teachers, lazy dogs that they are, have been sandbagging all these years, and now they’re going to have to up their game — finally!

Then there’s the phrase “in all schools across the state,” that is, from the wealthiest Chicago suburb to the poorest downstate school district, and this idea gets at one of the biggest problems — if not the biggest — in education: grossly inequitable funding. We know that kids from well-to-do homes attending well-to-do schools do significantly better in school — and on assessments! — than kids who are battling poverty and all of its ill-effects. Teachers associations (aka, unions) have been among the many groups advocating to equalize school funding via changes to the tax code and other laws, but money buys power and powerful interests block funding reform again and again. So until the money being spent on every student’s education is the same, no assessment can hope to provide data that isn’t more about economic circumstances than student ability.

As if this disparity in funding weren’t problematic enough, school districts have been suffering cutbacks in state funding year after year, resulting in growing deficits, teacher layoffs (or non-replacement of retirees), and other direct hits to instruction.

According to the “The top 10 things” document, “[a] large number of Illinois educators have been involved in the development of the assessment.” I have no idea how large a “large number” is, but I know there’s a big difference between involvement and influence. From my experience over the last 31 years, it’s quite common for people to present proposals to school boards and the public clothed in the mantle of “teacher input,” but they fail to mention that the input was diametrically opposed to the proposal.

The very fact that the document says in talking point #1 that a large number of educators (who, by the way, are not necessarily the same as teachers) were involved in PARCC’s development tells us that PARCC was not developed by educators, and particularly not by classroom teachers. In other words, this reform movement was neither initiated nor orchestrated by educators. Some undefined number of undefined “educators” were brought on board, but there’s no guarantee that they had any substantive input into the assessment’s final form, or even endorsed it. I would hope that the teachers who were involved were vocal about the pointlessness of a revised assessment when the core problems (pun intended), like inadequate funding, are not being addressed. At all.

“The top 10 things” introduction ends with “Because teachers are at the center of these changes and directly contribute to student success, the Illinois State Board of Education has compiled a list of the ten most important things for teachers to know about the new tests.” In a better world, the sentence would be Because teachers are at the center of these changes and directly contribute to student success … the Illinois State Board of Education has tasked teachers with determining the best way to assess student performance. Instead, teachers are being given a two-page handout, which is heavy in snazzy graphics, two to three weeks before the start of the school year. In my district, we’ve had several inservices over the past two years regarding Common Core and PARCC, but our presenters had practically no concrete information to share with us because everything was in such a state of flux; as a consequence, we left meeting after meeting no better informed than we were after the previous one. Often the new possible developments revised or even replaced the old possible developments.

The second paragraph of the introduction claims that PARCC will “provide educators with reliable data that will help guide instruction … [more so] than the current tests required by the state.” I’ve already spoken to that so-called reliable data above, but a larger issue is that this statement assumes teachers are able to analyze all that data provided by previous tests in an attempt to guide instruction. It happens, and perhaps it happens in younger grades more so than in junior high and high school, but by and large teachers are so overwhelmed with the day-to-day — minute-to-minute! — demands of the job that there’s hardly time to pore through stacks of data and develop strategies based on what they appear to be saying about each student. Teachers generally have one prep or planning period per day, less than an hour in length. The rest of the time they’re up to their dry-erase boards in kids (25 to 30 or more per class is common). In that meager prep time and whatever time they can manage beyond that, they’re writing lesson plans; grading papers; developing worksheets, activities, tests, etc.; photocopying worksheets, activities, tests, etc.; contacting or responding to parents or administrators; filling out paperwork for students with IEPs or 504s; accommodating students’ individual needs, those with documented needs and those with undocumented ones; entering grades and updating their school websites; supervising hallways, cafeterias and parking lots; coaching, advising, sponsoring, chaperoning. . . .

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a scholar as well as a teacher. I believe in analyzing data. I’d love to have a better handle on what my students’ specific abilities are and how I might best deliver instruction to meet their needs. But the reality is that that isn’t a reasonable expectation given the traditional educational model — and it’s only getting worse in terms of time demands on teachers, with larger class sizes, ever-changing technology, and — now — allegedly higher standards.

Educational reformers are so light on classroom experience they haven’t a clue how demanding a teacher’s job is at its most fundamental level. In this regard I think education suffers from the fact that so many of its practitioners are so masterful at their job that their students and parents and board members and even administrators get the impression that it must be easy. Anyone who is excellent at what she or he does makes it look easy to the uninitiated observer.

I touched on ever-changing technology a moment ago; let me return to it. PARCC is intended to be an online assessment, but, as the document points out, having it online in all schools is unrealistic, and that “goal will take a few more years, as schools continue to update their equipment and infrastructure.” The goal of its being online is highly questionable in the first place. The more complicated one makes the assessment tool, the less cognitive processing space the student has to devote to the given question or task. Remember when you started driving a car? Just keeping the darn thing on the road was more than enough to think about. In those first few hours it was difficult to imagine that driving would become so effortless that one day you’d be able to drive, eat a cheeseburger, sing along with your favorite song, and argue with your cousin in the backseat, all simultaneously. At first, the demands of driving the car dominated your cognitive processing space. When students have to use an unfamiliar online environment to demonstrate their abilities to read, write, calculate and so on, how much will the online environment itself compromise the cognitive space they can devote to the reading, writing and calculating processes?

What is more, PARCC implies that schools, which are already financially strapped and overspending on technology (technology that has never been shown to improve student learning and may very well impede it), must channel dwindling resources — whether local, state or federal — to “update their equipment and infrastructure.” These are resources that could, if allowed, be used to lower class sizes, re-staff libraries and learning centers, and offer more diverse educational experiences to students via the fine arts and other non-core components of the curriculum. While PARCC may not require, per se, schools to spend money they don’t have on technology, it certainly encourages it.

What is even more, the online nature of PARCC introduces all kinds of variables into the testing situation that are greatly minimized by the paper-and-pencil tests it is supplanting. Students will need to take the test in computer labs, classrooms and other environments that may or may not be isolated and insulated from other parts of the school, or off-site setting. Granted, the sites of traditional testing have varied somewhat — you can’t make every setting precisely equal to every other setting — but it’s much, much easier to come much, much closer than when trying to do the test online. Desktop versus laptop computers (in myriad models), proximity to Wi-Fi, speed of connection (which may vary minute from minute), how much physical space can be inserted between test-takers — all of these are issues specific to online assessments, and they all will affect the results of the assessment.

So my beef comes down to this about PARCC and the Common Core: Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent rewording standards and developing a new assessment that won’t actually help improve education. Here’s what would help teachers teach kids:

1. Equalize funding and increase it.

2. Lower class sizes, kindergarten through 12th grade, significantly — maximum fifteen per class, except for subjects that benefit from larger classes, like music courses.

3. Treat teachers better. Stop gunning for their jobs. Stop dismantling their unions. Stop driving them from the profession with onerous evaluation tools, low pay and benefits, underfunded pensions, too many students to teach to do their job well, and ridiculous mandates that make it harder to educate kids. Just stop it.

But these common sense suggestions will never fly because no one will make any money off of them, let alone get filthy rich, and education reform is big business — the test developers, textbook companies, technology companies, and high-priced consultants will make sure the gravy train of “reform” never gets derailed. In fact, the more they can make it look like kids are underachieving and teachers are underperforming, the more secure and more lucrative their scam is.

Thus PARCC and Common Core … let the good times roll.

 

Fatal flaws of the Danielson Framework

Posted in March 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 23, 2014

The Danielson Group’s “Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument” has been sweeping the nation, including my home state of Illinois, in spite of the fact that the problems with the Group, the Framework, the Instrument, and even Ms. Danielson herself are as obvious as a Cardinals fan in the Wrigley Field bleachers. There have already been some thorough critiques of the Danielson Group, its figurehead, the Framework, and how it’s being used destructively rather than constructively. For example, Alan Singer’s article at the Huffington Post details some of the most glaring problems. I encourage you to read the article, but here are some of the highlights:

[N]obody … [has] demonstrated any positive correlation between teacher assessments based on the Danielson rubrics, good teaching, and the implementation of new higher academic standards for students under Common Core. A case demonstrating the relationship could have been made, if it actually exists.

[I]n a pretty comprehensive search on the Internet, I have had difficulty discovering who Charlotte Danielson really is and what her qualifications are for developing a teacher evaluation system … I can find no formal academic resume online … I am still not convinced she really exists as more than a front for the Danielson Group that is selling its teacher evaluation product. [In an article archived at the Danielson Group site, it describes the “crooked road” of her career, and I have little doubt that she’d be an interesting person with whom to have lunch — but in terms of practical classroom experience as a teacher, her CV, like most educational reformers’, is scant of information.]

The group’s services come at a cost, which is not a surprise, although you have to apply for their services to get an actual price quote. [Prices appear to range from $599 per person to attend a three-day workshop, $1,809 per person to participate in a companion four-week online class. For a Danielson Group consultant, the fee appears to be $4,000 per consultant/per day when three or more days are scheduled, and $4,500 per consultant/per day for one- to two-day consultations (plus travel, food and lodging costs). There are fees for keynote addresses, and several books are available for purchase.]

As I’ve stated, you should read Mr. Singer’s article in its entirety, and look into the Danielson Group and Charlotte Danielson yourself. The snake-oil core of their lucrative operation quickly becomes apparent. One of the chief purposes of the Danielson Framework, which allegedly works in conjunction with Common Core State Standards, is to turn students into critical readers who are able to dissect text, comprehending both its explicit and implicit meanings. What follows is my own dissection of the “Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument” (2013 edition). For now, I’m limiting my analysis to the not quite four-page Introduction, which, sadly, is the least problematic part of the Framework.  The difficulties only increase as one reads farther and farther into the four Domains.  (My citations refer to the PDF that is available at DanielsonGroup.org.)

First of all, the wrongheadedness of teacher evaluation

Before beginning my dissection in earnest, I should say that, rubrics aside, the basic idea of teacher evaluation is ludicrous — that sporadic observations, very often by superiors who aren’t themselves qualified to teach your subject, result in nothing especially accurate nor useful. As I’ve blogged before, other professionals — physicians, attorneys, business professionals, and so on — would never allow themselves to be assessed as teachers are. For one thing, and this is a good lead-in to my analysis, there are as many styles of teaching as there are of learning.  There is no “best way” to teach, just as there is no “best way” to learn.  Teachers have individual styles, just as tennis players do, and effective ones know how to adjust their style depending on their students’ needs.

But let us not sell learners short: adjusting to a teacher’s method of delivery is a human attribute — the one that allowed us to do things like wander away from the Savanna, learn to catch and eat meat, and survive the advance of glaciers — and it is well worth fine tuning before graduating from high school.  I didn’t attend any college classes nor hold any jobs where the professor or the employer adjusted to fit me, at least not in any significant ways. Being successful in life (no matter how one chooses to define success) depends almost always on one’s ability to adjust to changing circumstances.

In essence, forcing teachers to adopt a very particular method of teaching tends to inhibit their natural pedagogical talents, and it’s also biased toward students who do, in fact, like the Danielsonesque approach, which places much of the responsibility for learning in the students’ lap. Worse than that, however, a homogenous approach — of any sort — gives students a very skewed sense of the world in which they’re expected to excel beyond graduation.

In fairness, “The Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument” begins with a quiet little disclaimer, saying in the second sentence, “While the Framework is not the only possible description of practice, these responsibilities seek to define what teachers should know and be able to do in the exercise of their profession” (3). That is, there are other ways to skin the pedagogical cat. It’s also worth noting that the Danielson Group is seek[ing] to define — it doesn’t claim to have found The Way, at least not explicitly. Nevertheless, that is how untold numbers of legislators, reformers, consultants and administrators have chosen to interpret the Framework. As the Introduction goes on to say, “The Framework quickly found wide acceptance by teachers, administrators, policymakers, and academics as a comprehensive description of good teaching …” (3).

Teachers, well, maybe … though I know very, very few who didn’t recognize it as bologna from the start. Administrators, well, maybe a few more of these, but I didn’t hear any that were loudly singing its praises once it appeared on the Prairie’s horizon. Academics … that’s pretty hard to imagine, too. I’ve been teaching high-school English for 31 years, and I’ve been an adjunct at both private and public universities for 18 years — and I can’t think of very many college folk who would embrace the Danielson Framework tactics. Policymakers (and the privateer consultants and the techno-industrialists who follow remora-like in their wake) … yes, the Framework fits snugly into their worldview.

Thus, the Group doesn’t claim the Framework is comprehensive, but they seem to be all right with others’ deluding themselves into believing it is.

The Framework in the beginning

The Introduction begins by explaining each incarnation of the Framework, starting with its 1996 inception as “an observation-based evaluation of first-year teachers used for the purpose of licensing” (3). The original 1996 edition, based on research compiled by Educational Testing Service (ETS), coined the performance-level labels of “unsatisfactory,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “distinguished” — labels which have clung tenaciously to the Framework through successive editions and adoptions by numerous state legislatures. In Illinois, the Danielson Group Framework of Teaching is the default evaluation instrument if school districts don’t modify it. Mine has … a little. The state mandates a four-part labeling structure, and evaluators have been trained (brainwashed?) to believe that “distinguished” teachers are as rare as four-leaf clovers … that have been hand-plucked and delivered to your doorstep by leprechauns.

In my school, it is virtually (if not literally) impossible to receive a “distinguished” rating, which leads to comments from evaluators like “I think you’re one of the best teachers in the state, but according to the rubric I can only give you a ‘proficient.'” It is the equivalent of teachers telling their students that they’re using the standard A-B-C-D scale, and they want them to do A-quality work and to strive for an A in the course, but, alas, virtually none of them are going to be found worthy and will have to settle for the B (“proficient”): Better luck next time, kids. Given the original purpose of the Framework — to evaluate first-year teachers — it made perfect sense to cast the top level of “distinguished” as all but unattainable, but it makes no sense to place that level beyond reach for high-performing, experienced educators. Quite honestly, it’s demeaning and demoralizing — it erodes morale as well as respect for the legitimacy of both the evaluator and the evaluation process.

Then came (some) differentiation

The 2007 edition of the Framework, according to the Introduction, was improved by providing modified evaluation instruments for “non-classroom specialist positions, such as school librarians, nurses, and counselors,” that is, people who “have very different responsibilities from those of classroom teachers”; and, as such, “they need their own frameworks, tailored to the details of their work” (3).  There is no question that the differentiation is important. However, the problem is that it implies “classroom teacher” is a monolithic position, and nothing could be further from the truth. Thus, having one instrument that is to be used across grade levels, ability levels, not to mention for vocational, academic and fine arts courses is, simply, wrongheaded.

As any experienced teacher will tell you, each class (each gathering of students) has a personality of its own. On paper, you may have three sections of a given course, all with the same sort of students as far as age and ability; yet, in reality, each group is unique, and the lesson that works wonderfully for your 8 a.m. group may be doomed to fail with your 11 a.m. class, right before lunch, or your 1 p.m. after-lunch bunch — and on and on and on. So the Danielson-style approach, which is heavily student directed, may be quite workable for your early group, whereas something more teacher directed may be necessary at 11:00.

Therefore, according to the Danielson Group, I may be “distinguished” in the morning, but merely “proficient” by the middle of the day (and let us not speak of the last period). The evaluator can easily become like the blindman feeling the elephant: Depending on which piece he experiences, he can have very different impressions about what sort of thing, what sort of teacher, he has before him. Throw into the mix that evaluators, due to their training, have taken “distinguished” off the table from the start, and we have a very wobbly Framework indeed.

Enter Bill and Melinda Gates

The 2011 edition reflected revisions based on the Group’s 2009 encounter with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) research project, which attempted “to determine which aspects of a teacher’s practice were most highly correlated with high levels of student progress” (4). Accordingly, the Danielson Group added more “[p]ossible examples for each level of performance for each component.” They make it clear, though, that “they should be regarded for what they are: possible examples. They are not intended to describe all the possible ways in which a certain level of performance might be demonstrated in the classroom.” Indeed, the “examples simply serve to illustrate what practice might look like in a range of settings” (4).

I would applaud this caveat if not for the fact that it’s embedded within an instrument whose overarching purpose is to make evaluation of a teacher appear easy. Regarding the 2011 revisions, the Group writes, “Practitioners found that the enhancements not only made it easier to determine the level of performance reflected in a classroom … but also contributed to judgments that are more accurate and more worthy of confidence” (4-5). Moreover, the Group says that changes in the rubric’s language helped to simplify the process:  “While providing less detail, the component-level rubrics capture all the essential information from those at the element level and are far easier to use in evaluation than are those at the element level” (4).

I suspect it’s this ease-of-use selling point that has made the Framework so popular among policymakers, who are clueless as to the complexities of teaching and who want a nice, tidy way to assess teachers (especially one designed to find fault with educators and rate them as average to slightly above average). But it is disingenuous, on the part of Charlotte Danielson and the Group, to maintain that a highly complex and difficult activity can be easily evaluated and quantified. In a 2012 interview, Ms. Danielson said that her assessment techniques are “not like rocket science,” whereas “[t]eaching is rocket science. Teaching is really hard work. But doing that [describing what teaching “looks like in words”] isn’t that big a deal. Honestly, it’s not. But nobody had done it.”

It’s downright naive — or patently deceptive — to say that a highly complex process (and highly complex is a gross understatement) can be easily and simply evaluated — well, it can be done, but not with any accuracy or legitimacy.

Classic fallacy of begging the question

I want to touch on one other inherent flaw (or facet of deception) in the Danielson Framework and that is its bias toward “active, rather than passive, learning by students” (5). Speaking of the Framework’s alignment with the Common Core, the Group writes, “In all areas, they [CCSS] place a premium on deep conceptual understanding, thinking and reasoning, and the skill of argumentation (students taking a position and supporting it with logic and evidence).” On the one hand, I concur that these are worthy goals — ones I’ve had as an educator for more than three decades — but I don’t concur that they can be observed by someone popping into your classroom every so often, perhaps skimming through some bits of documentary evidence (so-called artifacts), and I certainly don’t concur that it can be done easily.

The Group’s reference to active learning, if one goes by the Domains themselves, seems to be the equivalent of students simply being active in an observable way (via small-group work, for example, or leading a class discussion), but learning happens in the brain and signs of it are rarely visible. Not to get too far afield here, but the Framework is intersecting at this point with introverted versus extroverted learning behaviors. Evaluators, perhaps reflecting a cultural bias, prefer extroverted learners because they can see them doing things, whereas introverted learners may very well be engaged in far deeper thinking, far deeper comprehension and analysis — which is, in fact, facilitated by their physical inactivity.

And speaking of “evidence,” the Introduction refers to “empirical research and theoretical research” (3), “analyses” and “stud[ies]” (4) and to “educational research” that “was fully described” in the appendix of the 2007 edition (3), but beyond this vague allusion (to data which must be getting close to a decade old) there are no citations whatsoever, so, in other words, the Danielson Group is making all sorts of fantastic claims void of any evidence, which I find the very definition of “unsatisfactory.” This tactic, of saying practices and policies are based on research (“Research shows …”), is common in education; yet citations, even vague ones, rarely follow — and when they do, the sources and/or methodologies are dubious, to put it politely.

I plan to look at the Danielson Framework Domains in subsequent posts, and I’m also planning a book about what’s really wrong in education, from a classroom teacher’s perspective.

tedmorrissey.com

’Tis the season–to traumatize young teachers

Posted in March 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 7, 2014

Illinois has many seasons–bow season, shotgun season … and every March is “traumatizing young teachers” season as school administrators across the state dismiss nontenured teachers, and they’re not even required to give a reason for the dismissal, hence, often times they don’t. Teachers are left devastated, humiliated, and profoundly confused about whether they’ve chosen the right professional path after all.

A few years ago the Illinois legislature, in one of the opening salvos in its campaign to destroy and demoralize educators, expanded the length of time that teachers could be let go without cause to four years, which means that young professionals (or older ones entering the profession later in life) can be dedicated, hard-working teachers who are establishing themselves in their communities and developing collegial relationships for one, two, three and even four years when they’re blindsided by the administrator’s news that they won’t be coming back the following year.

Sometimes, of course, there have been issues raised, and the teacher has not corrected them to the administrator’s satisfaction; and sometimes the school district’s desperate financial situation has led to the dismissal. Too often, though, the young and developing educators are sacked without any warning whatsoever–they’ve fallen prey to the caprices of an administration that has no one to answer to, excerpt perhaps school board members, who tend to know only what administrators tell them since they rarely have direct contact with the teaching staff.

The situation has been exacerbated in the past year by the state’s mandate of a new model for evaluating teachers. It is more complicated and more labor intensive than the tools most district’s had been using. The increased complications and time commitments have not led to a better approach to evaluation, however. They’ve only opened the door for even more nebulous assessments of a teacher’s performance. Teacher evaluation is a rich subject in itself, too rich of a subject to discuss here–but the bottom line is that teaching is far too complex an endeavor to be reasonably evaluated by a single rubric that is used across grade levels, disciplines, and teaching assignments. In fact, it’s insulting to the profession that so many people believe such a model can be devised and successfully implemented. Physicians, attorneys, engineers, business professionals–and politicians!–would never allow themselves to be evaluated the way that a teacher’s worth is determined.

But no matter how simple or how complex the evaluation process is, its usefulness and fairness depend on the sagacity and integrity of the evaluating body. Unfortunately, sagacity and integrity are not prerequisites for becoming an administrator or a school board member. There are good administrators out there, of course, and well-meaning board members; but administrators and board members come in all stripes, just like the human population as a whole. Yet there is no check-and-balance built into the process. Young teachers who are dismissed unfairly, and the professional associations who represent their interests, have no recourse. No recourse at all.

In other words, there is no evaluation of the evaluator, whose sagacity and integrity, apparently, are assumed by the Illinois General Assembly … in all of its sagacity and integrity.

When there is an unfair and unwarranted dismissal, a shockwave goes through the faculty and the student body almost as palpable as an accidental death. Other nontenured teachers become like deer in hunting season and worry that they’ll be next–if not this spring maybe the next, or the next, or the next, or the next. Tenured teachers are angered, saddened and frustrated by the loss of a valuable colleague and trusted friend. It greatly diminishes their respect for their superiors and their good will in working with them. It disrupts students’ focus, and it teaches them a hard lesson about the perils of choosing a career in education. And once a district becomes known as one that mistreats young professionals, word spreads virulently and the best and brightest don’t bother to apply.

Who, in their right mind, would want to work for an administration and board that will dismiss them without reason after a year, or two, or three, or four of hard work and dedication? Who, in their right mind, would chance subjecting their spouse and possibly children to the trauma of a lost job beyond their control?

Young teachers have mainly debt (nowadays from colossal student loans) and very little savings. It’s frightening to be jobless, especially when it’s due to no fault of their own–at least, no fault they’ve been made aware of. Yet teachers must continue to teach for the remainder of the school year, while also looking for new employment. They are often–magnanimously–given the option of resigning instead of being dismissed, but it’s likely a thin disguise that fools no one in their search for another teaching job. They find themselves in very difficult situations when interviewing elsewhere because the question must come up “Why did you leave such-and-such school?” What, then, do they say that won’t compromise either their honesty or their chances of landing another job?

The fact that we as a society allow this devastating unfairness to be visited on our young teachers every spring is just another indication of how little we value education, educators and–for that matter–the children they’ve dedicated themselves to educating.

tedmorrissey.com