Teaching and leading schools in a #posttruth word of #altfacts

General Hux's speech in The Force Awakens (reddit.com)

General Hux’s speech in The Force Awakens (source – reddit.com)

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ~ Oxford Dictionary

To my continued astonishment, we are living in a post-truth world. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. The Trump administration in its first week seemed to impersonate the Star Wars totalitarian First Order when it claimed that it was not lying but providing the public with ‘alternative facts’. Then, gag orders were placed on a number of government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. (Hurrah for whoever tweeted rebelliously about inauguration crowds and climate change from the National Parks Service ‘Badlands National Park’ account.) 

For a Western government to blatantly deny reality is at once baffling and terrifying. Hello, propaganda. Hello, the invocation of untruths (sorry, ‘alternative facts’) to smother any unfavourable actuality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The misuse and abuse of language and facts is something that dystopian and speculative fiction has been warning of for decades, and something that history tells us has the ability to tap into the hive mind and rally societies around a common, often chilling, cause or leader. 

In this post I’ll explore the notion of a post-truth world of alternative facts and empty emotive rhetoric, around two arenas in my own life: teaching English and Literature, and my new role at my school, which encompasses in part engagement with research across the school.

First, to teaching in a post-truth world …

With the school year beginning next week, my Year 12 English team are finalising the texts to be taught and studied this Australian academic year. We’ve been tossing up between two contemporary texts about modern issues like gender, sporting culture and bullying, but every day the news and my social media feed give me a nagging feeling, a tugging at my literary shirt sleeve, a whisper to pause, take stock, listen. And dig out a dystopian classic.

Last year we taught the 12s Fahrenheit 451, a text that portrays books as dangerous threats to government control and societal compliance. This year perhaps we should teach Orwell’s 1984. Its Ministry of Truth, that falsifies historical events, and Newspeak, a language that restricts freedom of thought, are more relevant than ever. In fact, Orwell’s novel has this week rocketed to number 1 on the Amazon best sellers list.

A more recent text also comes to mind. Lionel Shriver’s 2016 The Mandibles, set between 2029 and 2047, is an economic dystopia that imagines the USA’s collapse. In her novel, the bungling US government has little respect for its citizens. First world problems like gluten intolerance disappear as violence and poverty rise. It is Mexico that builds an electrified, computerised, constantly-surveyed fence to keep desperate Americans illegals out.

Of course as a teacher of English and Literature I teach versions of reality and multiplicity of perspectives, but that plurality doesn’t stretch to bald-faced lies for the purposes of propaganda, banning scientists from speaking, or removing language like ‘climate change’ from government policy and websites. Language matters. It shapes thought. It wields power. It’s our job as teachers to elevate our students’ capacities to engage critically with their world. To be sceptical consumers of what they see, hear and read, and to be empowered to use language as an agentic tool.

Next, to school leadership in a world of alternative facts …

I am also coming to terms with how schools might respond to this post-truth world. This is especially relevant to me as I have just begun a new role at my school (new to me and new to the school). It is a senior leadership role that encompasses the use of evidence and research to make informed decisions from the classroom to the boardroom, as well to underpin and frame pedagogy, professional learning, performance review processes and capacity building across the organisation.

In this paper published online on 18 January, Brown and Greany (2017, p.1)—thanks to Gary Jones, whose blog is a great resource in this space, for sharing it—write:

Educational evidence rarely translates into simple, linear changes in practice in the ways that what-works advocates might hope. Instead, … evidence must be combined with practitioner expertise to create new knowledge which improves decision making and enriches practice so that, ultimately, children’s learning is enhanced.

This focus on what Brown and Greany call ‘what matters’ as well as ‘what works’ resonates with me. As Jon Andrews (channelling Marilyn Cochran-Smith) reminds us, teaching is unforgivingly complex. If we schools and educators are to really engage with research, then we need to honour our own contexts and value our own wisdom of practice. Teachers and schools can and should engage with research. I’m grateful that my school is able to create a role like mine in order to elevate evidence and research, execute research initiatives, and further embed scientific thinking and data analytics into the fabric of the school a culture. I’m grateful that there are schools around the world bringing evidence, mindfulness and crticiality to their decision making and pedagogy.

In a post-truth world, how do we balance a respect for truth, evidence and reason, with an honouring of plurality, multiplicity and praxis? How might we use literature or research as vehicles for respecting perspectives, while exploring challenges and possibilities?

Words on New York: Manhattan through authors’ eyes

from Candace Bushnell's 'One Fifth Avenue'

from Candace Bushnell’s ‘One Fifth Avenue’

In a previous post I shared my New York fiction reading pile, as I prepare for a professional trip to NYC, which will be my third visit to the city but my first for work. As I make my way through the pages of my NewYorkspiration, here are a few quotes from some of those books.

“Possibly there were two tigers, the famous and chaotic one that lit the tabloid frenzy, and this more dignified one, who showed itself to us alone. It was after all moving along Eighty-fourth Street, toward the block where Brandy’s Piano Bar and Perkus’s old apartment lay condemned. Perhaps this was the tiger that put things back together instead of destroying them … it regarded us or didn’t, shone its light on us and then shut it off again, and was gone, leaving only claw prints and, with its tail, an inadvertent serpentine signature lashed into a parked Mayflower van’s snowy windshield.” Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City

“The bridge had been the first disappointment. Looking at it from the roof of her house, she had thought that crossing it would make her feel like a gossamer-winged fairy flying through the air. But the actual ride over the bridge was no different than the ride above the Brooklyn streets. … New York was disappointing.” Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 

“I wonder how she’ll find New York,” Enid said. “Having been away so long.” / “Exactly the same, Auntie,” Philip said. “You know New York never changes. The characters are different but the play remains the same.” Candace Bushnell, One Fifth Avenue

Two weeks til takeoff. Carpe NYC!

art journal page: I heart New York

art journal page: I heart New York

 

New York anticipatory reading

Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time. ~ E. P. Whipple

NYC Books by @debsnet

Here is my little pile of NYC reading.

I have collected actual books! I have a Kindle which is much more practical for travelling, but I still like the sensory experience of reading: the look of a book cover, the feel of paper, the smell of the page and the sound of it turning.

In amongst professional reading, book club reading and PhD reading, I will read some of these before I go and some while I am away. The ones that come away with me will be ‘paid forward’ to people I meet along the way, so that they can find new homes … and so that I don’t need to pack them for the journey home.

My picks are quintessential novels of New-York-ness: Kerouac’s On the Road (ok, so only minorly relevant to NYC, but a key text in American travel and psyche), Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Lethem’s Chronic City, Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Cunningham’s The Snow Queen and Bushnell’s One Fifth Avenue.

I am starting with The Snow Queen, a book named after the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale which also inspired the animated film Frozen.

It’s been coming down since midnight. Snow eddies and tumbles as the point of equinox passes, and the sky starts all but imperceptibly turning from its nocturnal blackish brown to the lucid velvety gray of first morning, New York’s only innocent sky. ~ The Snow Queen

What are your best NYC reads?