Keeping retirement weird. What does it mean to be literate?


Sketch by Richard Feynman.

Chicago teachers were justifiably pissed when Governor Rauner’s secret emails related to the SUPES scandal were ordered released to the public by a judge.

The five year old emails were part of a policy debate among members of the Chicago Public Education Fund. The fund is made up of Chicago’s power elite like Ken Griffin and Mellody Hobson. Rauner was also a member when he headed GTCR, a hedge fund, before running for Governor.

The Fund’s support for a program called SUPES eventually led to the $20 million dollar kickback scandal and the indictment of the CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Rauner argued that half of Chicago teachers were illiterate and Chicago principals were incompetent.

That is, of course, a lie.

As I pondered this statement for a while I began to wonder if the Governor thought those numbers were a feature or a bug.

Do education reformers like the Governor and the rest of the Chicago Public Education Fund  want our students and our teachers to be literate?

As an Art teacher for 30 years, I taught skills. More than that, I taught visual literacy. 

I defined visual literacy as the ability of my students to make and use images as a language that makes meaning of the world. To to be fully present. I wanted them to improve the quality of their own image-making. I wanted them to become more informed at making judgments about the quality of the images they saw. In the words of Art educator Elliot Eisner,  I wanted them to be critical connoisseurs. More than that, I wanted them to use Art to be actively engaged in their world.

The great physicist Richard Feynman wrote about learning to draw from an art teacher,

He literally describes how teaching is both art and science.

I noticed that the teacher didn’t tell people much (the only thing he told me was my picture was too small on the page). Instead, he tried to inspire us to experiment with new approaches. I thought of how we teach physics: We have so many techniques—so many mathematical methods—that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, “Your lines are too heavy.” because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines. The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical problems.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as a “continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

It is more than decoding the letters and words on a printed page, just as visual literacy is more than having someone show you how to draw a picture.

So, when the Governor declared Chicago teachers (and by extension our students) illiterate what kind of literacy was he talking about?

Decoding letters and words? Or fully participating in our society?

Nothing about the corporate education reformers suggests that they want teachers and students who are active participants.

To be literate.

They want that reserved for themselves.

When the Governor said teachers were illiterate, was he complaining, bragging or wishing?

3 Replies to “Keeping retirement weird. What does it mean to be literate?”

  1. Rahm’s table? millionaire elites. Rauner’s rhetoric? A bastion of racist underpinnings designed to purport to the masses of IL that Chicago’s school children, overwhelming minority, are not impacted by the unending cycle of poverty and disengagement in their communities. And, those of us who choose to work in these communities, are unqualified, lazy and have no impact. This says everything about Rauner and nothing about the committed teachers within CPS. “But we laugh, and eat well, and grow strong.” L.H.

  2. I spent the first seven years of my teaching career teaching art, visual literacy. I spent the next twenty-seven years teaching English/Language Arts. Howard Gardiner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences lists more than those two forms of intelligences and even gives insights into what literacy means in out world. I once heard Gardiner speak and then purchased his Frames of Mind which I often return to for my own edification. It is a well stated series of examples intended for a general audience of people willing to learn. The simple minded and hugely profitable state mandated high stakes tests would have been laughed off the face of the earth if we had all been made aware of Gardiner’s work.
    For years I used to visit the Art Institute of Chicago as often as once every week or two. Entry was free and then changed to a low price which was voluntary. That was before the Rahm era of $20 per person plus obscenely high street parking prices.
    Why did I go there by myself and also with my wife and daughter? The art spoke to me. The art spoke to them as well in a language and meaning that differed.
    Griffin uses the Art Institute of Chicago, as do other super wealthy friends, as a free parking place for his investments, art objects, which are housed and insured by tax funds, the public and the other sources of support from the AIS.
    Yes, he and others want to keep that the AIS for themselves, but I am not certain about their visual literacy. I am, however, positive that their destructive, unhindered greed compels them to want everything for themselves.
    Everyone under the age of one hundred-fifty should have free access to the Art Institute of Chicago, as its original charter demanded, to have the art speak to them. This is simply another form of freedom of speech that leads to a greater form of literacy.

  3. What makes this arrogant, wheeler-dealer money mover with his current title of “governor” an educational expert, especially in teacher evaluation? I didn’t teach in Chicago, but he likely had every public school teacher in Illinois, maybe even beyond the state’s borders, in mind. Whether or not he only meant to target Chicago teachers and principals with that ignorant comment, makes no difference, I took deep offense. As long as he’s in office, this arrogant slob is a daily affront to every man, woman, and child in Illinois. Apology not accepted!

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