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Dr Seuss and Dartmouth
03-06-2016, 08:02 AM (This post was last modified: 09-08-2016 03:28 PM by gparr.)
Post: #1
Dr Seuss and Dartmouth
During our writing time in this most recent stella2.0 workshop, I was curious to find out more about the famous Dartmouth College. Was there something particularly fertile about that educational institution in the 1960s that supported rich and subversive professional conversations between English teachers at opposite sides of the Atlantic? The story goes that these ‘Dartmouth conversations’ changed the face of English teaching in these two continents, and that their influence continues to be felt 50 years later across the world.

Well, yes, I am encouraged and inspired by the kinds of documents that came out of Dartmouth, and yet I am not persuaded by the narrative that suggests a coven of wizards and witches concocting a brew (and a spell?) from which emerged something remarkable … something that changed the world of English teaching. What else was going on at the time that is left out of that narrative? I hoped that my curiosity would help to unearth another story.

As I roamed the pages of the Dartmouth College website, I found that its alumni included such notables as Theodore Seuss Giesel, author of the Dr Seuss books. Right. Now I was getting somewhere. Given the time and space that stella2.0 offered for reflection and for creative possibilities, I wondered whether Dr Seus might have been wandering the manicured lawns and linoleum corridors of Dartmouth College when a certain English seminar was taking place in 1966….

Yes, indeed. It might have been. My pulse quickened. I began to think of the Dr Seus books that have been an important part of my own literary education, if not actually my teaching. The Lorax came quickly to mind. The lorax! When was it first published? Ok. 1971. A mere five years after the Dartmouth seminar. A compelling narrative began to form in my mind.

It’s not beyond the realms of the possible that Giesel began sketching out some ideas for The lorax five years earlier, in 1966. Perhaps, as he strolled through those Dartmouth parts where the grickle-grass grew, he overheard the sounds of excited and sometimes agitated English educators engaged in robust professional conversations about English teaching and learning. And he was intrigued.

He approached the room, and snaffled a chair from an adjoining seminar room. Quietly positioning himself behind one of the wood panelled walls of a certain seminar room, he sat down and opened his spirax notepad.

He heard English teachers with decidedly different accents telling alarmingly similar stories of pupils holed up in schools manically preoccupied with parsing sentences, completing dull and repetitive language exercises, and churning out imagination-sapping essays. And he heard inspiring stories of another way of thinking about English curriculum and schooling, about young people and their remarkable potential. Woven between the words that he was recording on his spirax notepad, he began sketches of a world gone mad through manic preoccupation with ‘stuff’ that didn’t really matter… and the tragic consequences of this. And from these sketches sprouted truffula trees, brown barb-ba-loots in bar-ba-loot suits, and Thneeds….

I began to think differently about the ways I could read The Lorax. I thought about the Once-ler’s entertaining tale about the production of Thneeds, which ‘everyone needs’, as not just a prescient piece of advocacy for the natural environment that was, even in the 1960s in serious danger of being denuded and destroyed. Perhaps, it’s also a cautionary education fable – speaking for English teaching's truffula trees that were (and are) being comprehensively cut down in order to create … not Thneeds but standards - standards, which (we’re told) everyone needs. I’m pleased to relate that this stella2.0 workshop and the writing time we shared in that workshop, prompted me to read again The lorax, to my great delight. I saw the Once-ler’s tale offering a fresh line of critique about the current enthusiasm for standards factories, about the growing but uncritical enthusiasm for standards, for biggering standards, and for biggering the factories that produce the standards….

This most recent season of stella2.0 workshops has reminded me once again of the inspirational and professional work of English teachers in all of their diverse contexts. And every time I sit down with colleagues in these workshops I am reminded anew of the importance of writing and dialogue in our professional learning lives. This last workshop in particular (and my idiosyncratic imaginings of Dr Seuss at the Dartmouth Conference in 1966) have reminded me of the importance of setting aside some time for curiosity and the imagination in our busy working lives.

I thank my colleagues at the stella2.0 workshops for prompting these reminders, and for their collegiality in the face of biggering standards.
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03-10-2016, 07:55 AM
Post: #2
RE: Dr Seuss and Dartmouth
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your musing, Graham, around possible relationships between Dartmouth conversations of 1966 and Giesel’s construction of The Lorax with its Truffula Trees and Thneeds. Your writing caused me to reread The Lorax from a different perspective as well – again, an activity I thoroughly enjoyed.

That exercise prompted me to return to another book in the Dr. Seuss series, 'The Digging-est Dog', which became a favourite of mine when it helped a ‘struggling reader’ in Year Six become interested in reading for the first time “since about Grade Two”. At that time I did quite a bit of "Reading To” with students in the middle years to introduce them to different styles of text as well as help those with reading difficulties access language, vocabulary, concepts and ideas that they had trouble accessing independently. This particular student developed a real fondness for 'The Digging-est Dog': he loved the story, the way the rhyme worked to tell that story, and he was extremely fond of dogs - so it all seemed to come together for him over that particular book.

Upon rereading about the adventures of Duke (the dog who was the most digging-est), I began to draw parallels between his adventures with digging and my considerations of creativity and how it is framed, or perhaps constrained, in the contemporary education environment. I also thought about creativity in the light of the ‘schooling’ trends I’ve noticed during my own, continuing journey through education. Could it be that the “bare, hard floor of stone” on which Duke found himself in the pet shop, is a metaphor for the constraints on creativity imposed by pre-Dartmouth classroom practices? So that led me to think, when the constraints were reduced, like Duke, students’ and teachers’ attempts at working creatively may have faced early difficulties as they entered uncharted waters. It may be that there was unsteadiness and stumbles as teachers explored creativity (digging) and what that could look like for teachers and students in day-to-day education settings.

And when the creativity really ventured ahead to discover new ways of ‘doing things’, like Duke did with his digging, did that become too challenging for existing understandings and expectations? Once Duke started to disrupt existing human spaces and expectations – by digging up gardens and roads – his version of digging was seen as unacceptable and bothersome and had to be contained. His activity had to be removed from the important human town-living narrative and consigned to the fields where he could cause little damage. In fact, he was seen as helpful to humans in this new space as he now dug neat rows of trenches – ploughing the fields.

I wondered, at this point of my reading, whether the neatly defined trenches can be seen to represent the clearly defined and delineated standards that ‘guide’ us in our daily teaching, with depth, width and length of each trench pre-determined and unnegotiable. Perhaps there are those, prominent in the education landscape, who provide instructions for how to dig each trench, prescribing the order of trenches to be dug and ‘guaranteed’ ways of meeting all the set specifications. Maybe trench digging is too important to leave to the discretion of each teacher, as that may end in variations from the accepted specifications. There may be the trench of genre writing, one of essay writing and perhaps a really important, deep and wide trench of ‘passing NAPLAN’. I could see so many links now.

Perhaps that hard, stone floor is, once again, firmly in place to contain those possibly inclined to a little random or uncontrolled digging that may disrupt the complex road systems and neat gardens dominating the current thinking and conversations around schools and schooling. I hear questions asked in our discussions about what might happen if the hard floor stays in place so long that there will be no-one left who wants to, or even knows how to, dig randomly and disrupt the dominant rhetoric to create unique things that are impressive, stunning and awe inspiring. What can be done to work against such a possibility?

When I’m set thinking about questions related to ‘what next?’, or ‘where does this reminiscing and musing take us?' I consider the value of continuing to envision something different, more diverse and creative, even though there is little space for that in the realities of daily schooling. I truly believe that it is really important to continue to discuss and write about other possibilities, other ways of digging, what other holes in the ground can look like and what they may mean for the broader landscape of teaching and learning. Such conversations can throw a lifeline to those who want to continue looking for options and vary practice, want to continue to develop the creativity of their students and themselves as teachers. By ‘biggering’ the conversations around alternative ways of ‘doing things’, we keep those alternatives alive as possibilities. Otherwise, we may end up with the belief that there is only one way to dig trenches and that more knowledgeable others are the only ones with enough wisdom to tell us how to do that in a failsafe way.
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