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Ira Shor (1945- )

Biography

Ira Shor is a professor at the City University of New York, where he teaches composition and rhetoric. Coming to the City University in 1971 after completing a literature PhD at Wisconsin, he experimented with critical literacy, taught Basic Writing for 15 years, and still teaches first-year composition as well as other courses. He started the new doctoral program in Rhetoric/Composition at the Graduate Center in 1993, where he directs dissertations and offers seminars in literacy, writing theory, critical pedagogy, whiteness studies, the rhetorics of space and place, and working-class culture. He also serves on the English faculty at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, where he teaches courses in writing, literature, and mass media as well as graduate classes for schoolteachers.

Born in 1945 in the South Bronx, he attended mediocre public schools for New York City’s working-class children until winning admission to the selective Bronx High School of Science where knowledge became a serious undertaking. In the Jewish South Bronx of the 1950s, he grew up in a rent-controlled apartment among all-white Eastern European families, descendants of immigrants, his being Russian. Shor’s father was a sheet-metal worker with a bawdy sense of humor who dropped out of school at 15, learned his trade from a family friend, built battleships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in two wars, and failed miserably in his own small business. His mother was a zany bookkeeper for small businesses who finished high school but could not afford college, which broke her heart, and turned her into a lifelong lover of Italian opera and Shakespeare.

After graduating the elite Science High, Shor attended the University of Michigan(BA, English, 1966), then the University of Wisconsin(MA, 1968, and Phd, 1971), both sites of student activism in the 1960s. His dissertation was on Kurt Vonnegut whose intense ethical stance against exploitation, violence, war, and cruelty drew Shor to this author.

Work

His influence in the field of critical pedagogy has been profound. Starting with his seminal book Critical teaching and Everyday Life (1980) he has been a consistent advocate and champion for student-centred education and critical pedagogy. Critical Teaching and Everyday Life was the first book-length treatment of Freire-based critical methods in the North American context and had a profound effect upon my own teaching practice. The book grew out of Shor’s literacy teaching for Open Admission students in the City University in the 1970s, where he helped build an open-access writing program recognized then as one of three successful efforts in higher education by the NCTE.

His 9 published books include a 3-volume set in honour of the late Paulo Freire, the noted Brazilian educator who was his friend and mentor: Critical Literacy in Action (college language arts) and Education is Politics (Vol 1, k-12, and Vol. 2, Postsecondary Across the Curriculum). Shor’s work with Freire began in the early 1980s and lasted until Freire’s unfortunate passing in 1997. He and Freire co-authored A Pedagogy for Liberation in 1986, the first “talking” book Freire published with a collaborator. Shor also authored the widely used Empowering Education (1992) and When Students have Power (1996), two foundational texts in critical teaching. In his book ‘When Students have Power’, Shor takes the concepts of student centred learning and sharing power in the classroom to new heights.

In this book Shor describes his students, mostly from working class areas and first generation to go to college. In his class Shor permits students to determine their classroom rules, the syllabus, course planning and how they will evaluate. Students also sign a contract for the grade they want to receive. Shor also established an After Class group that was responsible for critiquing the previous class and provided input for planning the next class. In addition they discussed with Shor curriculum changes and so practiced democratic power relationship. Shor says ‘this democratic disturbance of the teacher–centred classroom confirms a primary goal of shared authority: to restructure education into something done by and with students rather than by the teacher for and over them”

Shor frequently uses the questioning technique to ‘backload’ student’s responses and to push them into futuristic thinking. He constantly tries to reach his students who sit in what in calls ‘Siberia’ in the furthest away point in the room as they need to be a away from the authority figure of the teacher. He suggests that schools and colleges are teacher centred systems and are not student centred, and believes that many traditional teachers and lecturers don’t have the confidence to use other models of teaching.


He and his wife are raising a son, little Paulo, born in 2003.
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