Tidal Arguments

“Write the book, will ya!”

For a while now, many colleagues and friends have urged me to write a book.

You know this type of book. Narratives about my experience as a teacher of so many young people in such vastly different urban contexts: secondary public (charter, magnet, and test-based selective enrollment), Catholic, and Yeshiva; community-based writing workshops for adolescents; and university courses for future educators. Some posts within Hansel and Gretel, like “Antonio and Annie, meet Alfie,” contain that type of narrative, where the narrative offers a perspective.

For many reasons, I am noncommittal.

The exhorters hope that the various strands of my narrative might somehow help stem the empiricist tide in education, might somehow help bring the individual learner back to the center of education. Maybe they are just dog-tired of swimming against the tide of empiricism, where numbers wash over and over the breath of their desire to teach and influence the lives of young people.

Or, maybe these colleagues and friends are just tired of hearing it from me? “Could you just write it all down, for Pete’s sake…”

Experience as a teacher (and parent!) continues to teach me that what adolescents learn is largely inconsequential to them unless they develop meaningful connections to that learning. Thus, the single most important role of the teacher: establishing human connections with the learners, helping each learner to establish meaningful connections with his/her learning. For twenty-eight years, I have endeavored to teach with the individual learner at the center of the learning process — not the curriculum and certainly not the test.

One friend, not keenly in favor of the book idea, probed my own resistance. “You really haven’t seemed like someone who wanted to write an education book before. So, why would you consider it now?”

That is true.

I never really wanted to write that kind of book, one implying as much “truth” as a book of nonfiction about how prevailing educational policy affects young people might. Real life needs escape, needs fiction to lighten the load, not more deliberation on its many challenges — other people do enough of that.

Nonetheless, the unyielding tide of empirically-driven public education resists the gravitational pull of humanist sensibility.

And so, while I remain noncommittal to the book idea, I do know why I am considering it.

Most simply, because I do believe everything in life is an argument. Through this perspective, everything you and I do in our lives can be understood as some sort of an argument expressing who we are.

I do mean argument in the rhetorical way, where one offers a position to oneself and to others; I do not mean argument in the way two people who are angry with one another might choose to express that anger.

Our choice of clothes in the morning expresses such an argument of who we are, as do our choice of pen colors, our choice of restaurants, friends, and even toothpaste. And words — maybe most especially our choice of words! The car (or cars) we choose to drive, the music we choose to listen to, the movies we choose to watch – all express “arguments” of who we are.

Like every teacher, each day renews the argument into the classroom and school. Over twenty-eight years of teaching, my core value, or argument, about teaching and learning has not changed much: the student remains in the center.

But, America’s argument surely has changed.

And, so dangerously so, where a collection of test-based numbers have come to mean more than the individual human’s development (as an example of one human struggling through the learning process, see Deno’s Senior Project).

So, with all the gusto of an argument long content to express itself within the classrooms and schools I have taught (and, for a few years now, within Hansel and Gretel), I am considering the exhorters’ argument.