“But that was the thing that I was born for.”

marlinWhen I taught English as a Second Language at a middle school in Brooklyn (from 2005 to 2008), I had my students read The Old Man and the Sea, which they adored. One of our liveliest debates was about whether the old man enjoyed being alone; they found that a single textual passage could serve as evidence for either side. Moreover, they found it possible that he could like being alone and not like it at the same time.

For a side project, I had students select and illustrate a favorite quote. This illustration (pictured here) moved me; the student told me I could to keep it. The quote reads, “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.” Here, in the drawing, you see the skeleton of the marlin against a desolate beach, with driftwood and a restaurant table and chair. The scene looks desolate and broken, but there’s something grand about it too: the marlin’s skeleton looms much larger than the tiny furniture; there’s something here beyond what humans know and see. Another interesting thing here is the juxtaposition: the quote occurs well before this near-final scene. (The final scene, if one can call it that, is of the old man dreaming about the lions as the boy watches him.)

As I looked at this picture again, I began thinking about my students’ work over the years. They have made some remarkable things. I mention here the few that have links.

There was my students’ production of The Wizard of Oz in 2006.

One student wrote a terse, gorgeous poem that I quoted in full (with her permission and her mother’s) in my book, Republic of Noise.

When I began teaching philosophy at Columbia Secondary School, I found myself learning from (and sometimes roaring over) my students’ work. One line I recall often: “What have we here? It appears that I have arrived at exactly the perfect time. For the perfect time is always now.” (Context: the hermit from Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” walks into a scene based on Gogol’s story “The Nose”; Epictetus and Erasmus’s Folly are also involved.)

Most recently, as readers of this blog know, my students created a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, and had a great celebration in May. We look forward to an exciting second issue; in early fall, the editors-in-chief will call for submissions and announce contests.

These are all published things, known things, or soon-to-be-revealed things. Much more happens every day–in discussions, on homework assignments, on tests–that goes back into the mind, where it becomes part of other shapes and thoughts.

Why does the approaching new year bring up memories? I think a new year has a way of doing that–especially when it comes at this time of year. I remember my teachers too.

 

Note: I made an addition to this piece after posting it.

Don’t Criticize–Retire!

One of the most disturbing traits of our era is what I would call “age nationalism”–a belief that if you do not support the more recent innovations, whatever they may be, you are out of step with the times and should go away.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Conn, a professor at Ohio State University, criticizes colleges’ current tendency to hold students’ hands and tell them exactly what they need to do to get that A. He cites the “writing rubric” and the endless “learning objectives” as examples of this trend.

I support his viewpoint. The pros and cons of rubrics aside, I was struck by the snide tone of many of the comments on Conn’s article. Their attitude was, “Rubrics are what we do now, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be teaching.”

Here’s a quote from one such comment:

It’s not exactly clear why he went into teaching. –Sounds more like he wanted to get paid for reading his favorite books and discussing them with students who can process those books unassisted. The (educationally) rich just get richer.

Dear me. So a professor who expects students to come to class prepared–who expects them to be able to read and write and study–must be elitist and spoiled?

Here’s another comment (quoted in full):

I found myself, by the end of the article, hoping you would retire soon from teaching.

A rubric sets guidelines and documents expectations. It’s not an “outline” nor is it there to promote grade inflation. What you confuse as helicopter teaching is sound practices. A rubric provides the student with an assurance that you are organized.

If you were employed outside your safe ivory tower, and in the real world, you would see that the rubric you so disdainfully snub as making soft students is really management by objectives (MBO). It’s how people retain their employment.

What is this? A professor who doesn’t think in business terms (e.g., “management by objectives,” or MBO) is supposed to retire from teaching? Who will question the jargon, then? Apparently no one–for in this person’s view, the “real world,” or his version of it, has the final say.

There are many more in a similar spirit–and others that are more courteous, and still others that corroborate the author’s points. But what stands out is these commenters’ insistence that someone who questions the current trend should not be teaching at all. The reasoning, apparently, is as follows: “Teaching is X; Professor Conn does not seem to exemplify X; therefore, Professor Conn should not be teaching.” They do not stop to ask whether teaching really is uniformly X, and whether they can judge, on the basis of an op-ed, whether or not Professor Conn exemplifies X.

Long before rubrics entered higher education, there was a difference between small liberal arts colleges, which prided themselves on their nurturing atmosphere, and large universities, which emphasized scholarship. Many institutions sought and found a middle ground: a research institution with support systems for the students, or a college that fostered outstanding research.

When I was a high school student considering colleges, I wanted anything but a college that would coddle me. I applied to two universities, early action (Harvard and Yale); got into both; and chose Yale on the basis of visits, course syllabi, conversations, and instinct. I stumbled at various points in college–but that was part of growing up, intellectually and emotionally. Those were not grade-crazy days; getting a C on a college paper was considered a worthwhile experience.

Today we hear a lot about “grit” and the “importance of failure”–but students also hear that a B in high school–or any kind of lopsidedness–will limit their college prospects. They are told to take risks, but–as a recent fifth-grade test passage put it–to learn to be “smart” risk-takers, weighing the pros and cons of the risk in advance. One can try to avoid senseless, ill-conceived risks–but there’s really no such thing as smart risk-taking. It’s a contradiction in terms. A true risk involves the unknown, sometimes a lot of it. I remember, about 18 years ago, when a friend was going to Bulgaria for the summer. At a sendoff dinner, someone asked him what he hoped to get out of his trip. He replied, “I don’t know. That’s why I’m going.”

One has to have seen a different era to recognize that many students today are afraid of being on their own, afraid of anything less than an A, afraid of not knowing exactly what is expected of them. Not everyone is afraid; I see some students forge ahead with less concern about their grades than about what they learn. But they come under continual pressure to think and act on others’ terms.

The comments quoted above show hostility to intellectual independence–both that of the professor, who is putting forth a legitimate view, and that of the students. I do not mean that that any objection to his view is hostile. It is possible to defend rubrics without telling him to retire, or without insinuating that he is out of touch with the “real world” and clinging to some fading dream.

The “real world” is not what any particular group decides it is. It is continually tested and approximated. Those who put forth unpopular views, or who question current trends, are themselves affecting the real world by stretching the bounds of the possible.

 

Note: I previously referred to the professor as Steve Conn–but see that his byline is actually Steven Conn. The error is now fixed.

Homophonia and Parekbasiphobia

This is now a well-known story (and no hoax): Blogger Tim Torkildson was fired from his position at Nomen Global Language Center, Utah’s largest private English as a Second Language school, for posting a piece about homophones on the company’s website.

Homophones are words with like sounds and different meanings, such as where/wear, or/oar, and pair/pear. They may have the same spelling (for instance, rose/rose).

A post about homophones is entirely appropriate for the website of an ESL school. But Clarke Woodger, Nomen owner and boss, told the Salt Lake City Tribune that “people at this level of English … may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.”

Well, and so what if they did? They are learning English, correct? They would soon learn what “homophones” actually were. In addition, they could learn the meaning of the prefix “homo-.” Part of the point of learning a language is learning what words and their parts actually mean–not staying stuck in what you think they mean.

If you avoid the very sounds of words because of their possible associations, you will end up in a verbal noose. But that’s only part of the story. Woodger’s greater concern–as reported to Torkildson and to the Salt Lake City Tribune–was that Torkildson was going off on too many tangents in his posts, and that he therefore couldn’t be trusted. This post on homophones–a wild digression, in Woodger’s view–was “the last straw.”

If we look at this story in terms of a fear of tangents and digressions (which I will call parekbasiphobia, as parekbasis is Greek for digression), then Woodger’s complaint is typical of a larger tendency in education.

Since my entry into public school teaching in 2005, I have seen widespread distrust of digressions. Teachers themselves understand the value of digressions–allowing a conversation to take an unexpected direction for the sake of larger understanding, or even for sheer fun. But policymakers and teacher trainers see it otherwise: to many of them, if you stray from the point for even a few seconds, you are wasting precious instructional time. You may be robbing children of the opportunity to meet the stated objective and thereby to achieve measurable progress.

One of the first “inservice trainings” I attended included a presentation about sticking to the point. “We want our lessons to go straight to the objective,” the presenter said, “not where our own imagination takes them. We want to be like this”–here she made a gesture of straight motion–“and not like this” (a gesture of a zigzag).

One of my greatest teachers, the poet John Hollander, showed us in lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar, what digressions could do. There was no imitating him–in no way could his teaching be a “model”–but I would not trade a single one of his lectures for something that stuck strictly to the point. For Hollander, the point itself was multifaceted; to understand it, one needed to take excursions into etymology, history, architecture, music, and more.

Now, how do I reconcile a defense of digression with my insistence that focus is essential for learning? On the surface, it seems that these two principles contradict each other, but they do not. There is a big difference between digression and all-out distraction. If one is attentive to the topic at hand, one can move this way and that within it. How and when one does so will depend largely on the situation. Not all digressions are helpful, but some may open up insights into the lesson’s central questions. You can miss the point by sticking too rigidly to the point.

By contrast, what doesn’t count as focus is a willful inattention to a lesson or topic–a preoccupation with one’s iPhone, or with the latest social gossip, or with the homework for the next class. Now, some would argue that such “distractions” should be made part of the lesson–that instead of battling them, teachers should welcome them and search for their inner meaning. On the whole, I disagree. There is a simple practice of setting aside one’s own immediate preoccupations for the sake of something else. If students (and teachers and schools) do not develop this discipline, they will be at the mercy of their urges and impulses.

But once the general focus is established, there’s room for a great deal of adventure. Just how much, and when–that’s a matter of judgment, and judgment is at the center of a teacher’s practice. Take away judgment, and you take it all away.

In fretting over Torkildson’s “tangents,” Woodger may seem ridiculous–but he represents a current of our time.

The School of Deep Understanding

Teresa Stanbury used to be a Common Core skeptic—until she stepped into a Common Core math classroom where deep learning was taking place. What she saw, struck her into Core dumbfoundedness.

The teacher, Gideon Pelous, buzzed about the room like a shimmering dragonfly while the children—second-graders from the deep inner city—discussed the essence of numerals in small groups.

Before the Core, students would be taught that two plus two equals four, but they would never know why. They would go through their lives not knowing how to explain this basic mystery. Now things were entirely different. The moribund learning of the ossified past had been exhumed and cast away.

“I just had a realization,” said Shelly Thomas, arranging four rectangular blocks in front of her. “I used to think that numerals were quantities. I was trying to figure out what the curve on the 2 meant, and what the double curve on the 3 meant. I even tried measuring them with my ruler. Then I had the insight that numerals aren’t quantities, but rather symbols that represent quantities.”

“You mean to say—“ sputtered Enrique Alarcón as he seized a crayon.

“Yep,” she continued. “This 1 here represents a unit of something. It can be a unit of anything. Now, when we say ‘unit,’ we have to be careful. That’s another thought that came to me, but I haven’t figured it–.”

“I have,” interrupted Stephanie Zill, banging on her Curious George lunchbox. “We use the word ‘unit’ in both a contextual and an absolute sense. That is, a unit is unchanging within the context of a problem, but it may change from problem to problem. Also, certain defined units, such as minutes and yards, have a predefined size that doesn’t change from one context to the next—until you consider relativity, that is.”

“Oh, I get it,” said Enrique. “So, this numeral 1 represents one unit, which could be a unit of anything, but within a given problem, the word “unit” does not change referent unless we are dealing with more than one kind of unit at once. Hey, what color crayon should we use: magenta or seaweed?”

“Magenta,” said Shelly. “So, moving on with this problem, let’s say the numeral 1 represents one of these blocks. The numeral two represents two blocks.” She set two blocks aside to emphasize her point.

“Fair enough,” answered Stephanie. “But how do you get from there to 2 + 2 = 4?”

“OK,” Shelly resumed, swinging her braids. “So, you have these two blocks, and you want to add another two blocks to them. But two blocks, you see, is actually two of one block. So when you add two blocks, you’re actually adding one block twice. Now if you put twenty single blocks together, you get twenty blocks, which isn’t the same as two blocks, but it can be, if you divide those twenty blocks into ten groups of two each. Just try it and you’ll see what I mean. But here we want four blocks, not twenty, so that means that instead of dividing the pile into ten groups of two each, we should divide it into five groups of four each. So we do that. Then we take one of those groups of four and line up the blocks, like this. Then we take our original two blocks and match them up to these four blocks. It turns out that we can do so twice. This means that we are taking two blocks and then two blocks again, which is the same as adding two plus two, and this turns out to be four, which once again, or maybe for the first time, because this is all super-new, is represented by the numeral 4.”

Stephanie and Enrique nodded, rapt. “That was deep,” said Enrique.

“Deep understanding,” Stephanie agreed.

“That’s just the beginning,” said Shelly. “In the old days, we would have left it like that and gone back to dealing with abstract representations of quantities. But thanks to the Common Core, we get to apply this equation to numerous real-life situations. So, say you have a pair of socks and another pair of socks. How many socks do you have?”

“Two pairs,” said Orlando, who had just wiggled his way over from another group that was taking too long to arrive at insights.

“Two pairs, but how many individual socks?”

“They aren’t individual. They’re pairs.”

“But let’s pretend that they’re still individual, even as pairs.”

“Does it matter if they don’t match?”

“No.”

“Wait,” interjected Stephanie. “I thought you said the units were supposed to be identical.”

“This leads us to question what identity really is,” rejoined Shelly. “Any object in the physical world has a set of attributes. If you consider only certain attributes, such as general shape and purpose, this object may be identical to other objects that otherwise don’t resemble it. However, if you focus on the attributes that differ, they you find yourself confronted with unalike and incomparable objects.”

“I see,” Orlando sighed. “So, if we’re just considering the sockiness of the sock—that is, the property that makes something a sock and not some other object—then we have four such socks.”

“That’s more or less on the right track,” said Shelly. “There are some subtleties that need to be taken into account, but since group time is up, we’ll have to leave that until tomorrow.”

Mr. Pelous called the class back to attention. “Mathematicians, what did we learn in our groups today about two plus two?”

“It equals four!” the students cried.

“Yes, and why?”

The room erupted in voices—all saying different things. Suddenly Orlando began waving his hand frantically.

“Orlando, do you have something to tell us about why 2 + 2 = 4?”

“Yes—if it didn’t equal four, then life would be absurd, or at least very, very strange!”

“And who’s to say it isn’t?” shouted a student from the corner.

“It can’t be that strange, or we wouldn’t be trying to explain it through math,” Orlando said. The bell rang.

Teresa Stanbury thanked Mr. Pelous and wandered dreamily out of the school, marveling at the Common Core and the wonders it had wrought.

The Elephant in the Reform

Elizabeth Green’s recent article and book excerpt “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” has drawn keen responses from Dan Willingham, Robert Pondiscio, and others.Still, one problem needs more emphasis: the lack of focus in the classroom. Math, like most other subjects, requires not only knowledge, but concentrated and flexible thinking, on the part of teachers and students alike. With this in place, a number of pedagogical approaches may work well; without it, pedagogy after pedagogy will flail. The ongoing discussion has upheld a false opposition between old “rote” methods and (supposedly) new methods devoted to “understanding.” It is time to see beyond this opposition.

By “focus,” I mean concerted attention to the topic at hand. This is not the same as perfect behavior; I have known some “wiggly” students who were clearly thinking about the lesson. Nor does it mean passive intake; to the contrary, it can involve a great deal of questioning, comparison, imagination, and so forth. Such focus is largely internal; in this way it differs from what people commonly call “engagement.” A student may be highly focused while doing nothing physically; a student may be visibly active (in lesson activities) but not thinking in depth about the subject.

After leading into her discussion with a story, Green asserts that reforms such as the Common Core will fail if teachers have not been properly trained to implement them. “The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work,” she writes. Improperly trained teachers will turn them into nonsense or, at best, a set of rote procedures:

Most American math classes follow … a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it a cultural script. Some teachers call the pattern “I, We, You.” After checking homework, teachers announce the day’s topic, demonstrating a new procedure: “Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

Green contrasts this with a “sense-making” method used by the elementary school teacher Magdalene Lampert:

She knew there must be a way to tap into what students already understood and then build on it. In her classroom, she replaced “I, We, You” with a structure you might call “You, Y’all, We.” Rather than starting each lesson by introducing the main idea to be learned that day, she assigned a single “problem of the day,” designed to let students struggle toward it — first on their own (You), then in peer groups (Y’all) and finally as a whole class (We). The result was a process that replaced answer-getting with what Lampert called sense-making. By pushing students to talk about math, she invited them to share the misunderstandings most American students keep quiet until the test. In the process, she gave them an opportunity to realize, on their own, why their answers were wrong.

Like many others, Green confuses the outer trappings of the pedagogy with its internal intent and sense. A teacher at the front of the room, doing a great deal of the talking, could push the students’ thinking much more than a teacher who has them struggle on their own. Within each of these approaches, there can be variation. What makes the difference is the teachers’ and students’ knowledge of the subject, their willingness to put their mind to the topic at hand, and their flexibility of thought. (Willingham does address teachers’ knowledge and flexibility–but more needs to be said about the students’ own attitudes toward the lesson.)

The “elephant in the room” is our devotion to damage control in the name of something lofty. We are trying to repair situations where students are not doing all they can to master the material. Likewise, we are shaping the teaching profession to be more managerial, athletic, and social than intellectual. There’s a lot of mention of “collaboration”–but nothing about thinking about the subject on one’s own.

If students in a classroom are all putting their mind to the topic at hand (not because the teacher has “engaged” them but because this is what they do as a matter of course), and if the teacher knows the topic thoroughly and has considered it from many angles, then the learning will come easily–if there is a good curriculum, and if the students have the requisite background knowledge. That sounds like a lot of “ifs,”–but it comes down to something simple: when you enter the classroom, you have to be willing to set distractions aside and honor the subject matter. Honoring it does not mean treating it as dogma. It means being willing to make sense of it, ask questions about it, and carry it in your mind even when class is over.

If the above conditions are absent, then that is the problem, period. It is not a question of who is doing the talking, or how well or poorly the teachers have been trained.

Suppose I am a math teacher. (I am not and never have been; I currently teach philosophy.) Suppose I am teaching students to solve a problem of the following kind: “A train travels an average of 90 miles per hour for the first half of its journey, and an average of 100 miles per hour for the entire trip. What was the train’s average speed for the second half of the journey?” First I must establish that by “half” I mean half of the distance traveled. Then I must start to anticipate errors and misunderstandings. (Someone will likely offer the answer “10 miles”; another might offer “110 miles.”) I must be able to get other students to explain why these are not correct.

Then how to proceed? I ask the students what information we have, and what we are trying to find out. We know that the journey consists of two equal parts. It doesn’t matter how long each one is, since we are looking at speed, not distance traveled. So, we will call it d, but we are not going to try to find out what d is. It does not matter here.

Let t1 designate the time taken (in hours) by the first half of the trip; t2, the time taken by the second half, and t the total time.

So, we know that d/t1 = 90 mph for the first half. Thus, t1= d/90.

We don’t know what d/t2 is for the second half, since we don’t know the train’s speed, or rate (r) for the second half. Thus, t2 = d/r.

We know that 2d/t (total distance divided by total time) = 100 mph. Thus, t = 2d/100.

We know that t = t1 + t2.

Thus, t = 2d/100 = d/90 + d/r. (One could call on a student to perform this step.)

Thus, 2d/100 = (d/90 + d/r).

Thus, 2/100 = 1/90 + 1/r. (Divide both sides by d.)

Thus, 1/50 = 1/90 + 1/r.

Thus, 1/r = 1/50 – 1/90.

Thus, 1/r = 4/450. (Some students might arrive at 4/45–important to be alert to this.)

Thus, r = 450/4 = 112.5 mph.

As I lay this out, I can see some of the misconceptions and confusion that might arise. Some students might remain convinced that we need to find out what d is. Some might assume that t1 and t2 are equal. Some might grasp the steps but not know how to go about doing this themselves. Some might not know how to check the answer at the end.

But if I go to class prepared to address these issues, and if the students continually ask themselves (internally) what they understand and what they don’t, then even this amateur lesson will get somewhere–unless the levels in the class are so disparate that some students don’t know what an equal sign is. Of course, doing this day after day is another matter; a teacher needs extensive practice in the subject matter in order to prepare lessons fluently.

I am not proposing a magic solution here. Attention is not easily come by, nor is flexible thinking. Nor is curriculum or background knowledge. (Math teachers will probably point out errors of presentation and terminology in my example above.)

But if we ignore students’ obligation to put their mind to the lesson (in class and outside), teachers’ obligation to think it through thoroughly, and schools’ obligation to honor and support such thinking, we will continue with confused jargon and hapless reforms. Moreover, classrooms that do have such qualities will be dismissed as irrelevant exceptions.

 

Note: I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

Blogging abroad

graduationI won’t be posting here over the week or two (or more), because I’m wrapping up the school year, getting ready to teach at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, and guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs, along with Michael E. Lopez and Rachel Levy, two of my favorite education bloggers.

As of yesterday, I have a piece up on Chalkbeat about my students’ CONTRARIWISE celebration, which took place on May 18 but returns to mind time and time again. (Time played a big role in the event, as you will see.)

My school had its historic first graduation yesterday, in Lerner Hall at Columbia–a great and beautiful event, with a reception (pictured here) outside the library. Tomorrow’s our official last day of school (for students in grades 6-11).

I will be back before too long with some thoughts and posts. In the meantime, here’s a second piece about CONTRARIWISE. Also, see the July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times).

A “Good” Common Core Lesson?

In a recent NPR article titled “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” Anya Kamenetz takes the reader through a “good” lesson as explained by Kate Gershon, a research fellow at EngageNY, which develops Common Core instructional materials for New York State. Unfortunately, this lesson exemplifies curricular confusion, misunderstanding of the nature of intellectual work, and a dogmatic approach to pedagogy. Kamenetz picks up on none of this; her reporting is unskeptical and cheerful

The lesson–the very first in the year for a ninth-grade ELA course–focuses on a short story by Karen Russell: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Students begin by reading and discussing the pertinent standards–then spend most of class time circling and looking up unfamiliar words.

Russell’s story looks promising–but the rationale for its inclusion makes me shake my head. According to Gershon, it meets the standards’ criteria in four areas: complexity, “canon” (in that the author was a Pulitzer finalist), contemporaneity (the standards use the phrase “contemporary authors” in numerous places), and diversity. What about its inherent quality., though? What about its form and meaning? What about its relation to the other works in the unit or course?

To be fair, Gershon does mention that this is a “gorgeous text by a young, brilliant writer”–so it would be a stretch to say that she (or the curriculum writers) ignored inherent quality. But shouldn’t that be the first consideration: offering the students something worth reading and rereading over a lifetime? The other criteria–complexity, canon, contemporaneity, and diversity–should be subordinate to this first consideration. (In addition, one might include works for their importance–because other works allude to them, or because they do something unusual with their genre or form. That’s related to “canon” but not identical to it.)

Moreover, a curriculum as a whole should have coherence and meaning. A ninth-grade literature course may well be a survey course–but the works can still be selected to combine in interesting ways. I can’ say for sure that this isn’t the case here–but it’s curious that the article doesn’t touch on curriculum. Without a literature curriculum, a Common Core lesson quickly turns into a lesson on reading skills. That may explain why, on the very first day of the school year, the students begin by reading and discussing the standards, and then turn to their main activity of circling and looking up words.

If this were a literature course, the teacher would give an overview of the works, questions, and problems to be considered. The students might well read something on that first day–in order to start thinking about the substance of the course. The teacher might take them into a passage–reading it out loud, pointing out subtleties, and posing questions. Strangely, the current lesson is based on disparagement of such activity. It rests on the premise that the teacher is not supposed to present much at all, lest her “performance” make the students lazy.

This leads to the next problem. Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work. According to Gershon and others, students will be hard at work under the Common Core. Teachers will no longer be making things easy for them, as they did in the past when they presented literature to students.

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

That’s a caricature of literature instruction–and I’ll get to that in a minute–but what strikes me here is the assumption that if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work. Now, this might be true, if the teacher’s explanation is reductive–that is, if she is handing students basic plot points and other takeaways. But there are many other ways to take students into a text, ways that will get them thinking.

Thinking should be  the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure. Students learn to discern when they do and do not have something to say; in the former case, they may speak up; in the latter, they may listen. Such discernment will serve them well in college and beyond.

Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

Just as the lesson misconceives intellectual work, so it misrepresents teaching.

Common Core advocates are zealously repeating the mistakes of their predecessors: they insist that in the bad old days (or backward regions of current days), the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read. What forgetfulness! For years under Balanced Literary, teachers were told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” But teaching is much more complex than these crass oppositions allow. Back to the NPR piece:

[The Common Core's emphasis on actual reading] sounds obvious. We don’t go to school to be able to recite the plot points of an arbitrary short story.

Yet in practice, English teachers often spend their time in conversation with “the three or four highest-performing students in the room,” Gerson says, while others, at best, passively absorb the main ideas of a text.

[...]

One major strategy the standards introduce is for teachers to get out of the students’ way and not to make it too easy on anyone. “It’s very common to want to protect, advocate, support and ensure the comfort of students that are struggling,” Gerson says. “What all the research is telling us is that we must create content where there is a productive struggle … where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else.”

Now, a teacher in dialogue with several students isn’t necessarily ensuring comfort at all. True, if she spoke only with those students for the whole year, a dreary kind of comfort could take over. But often a dialogue like that can inspire others to join. Or a teacher can involve others deliberately–or give them ample time to puzzle over difficult questions. A teacher at the front of the room may be giving students the challenge of their lives. Let us not assume that she should “get out of the students’ way” or that she takes anything away from them by teaching them.

In his essay “Former Teachers” (in his 1943 collection Philosopher’s Holiday), Irwin Edman recalls his English teacher Mr. Michael Kelleher, who “gave us the contagious impression of so liking poetry that he simply had to tell us about it.” Edman may not have known how blessed he was that no one told his teacher to get out of the way.

 

Note: I made some revisions to this piece after posting it. One of these is a correction: Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist, not a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Standards Count as Complex Informational Text, Says Leader

Green Lake, NY–In response to schools’ complaints that they have not yet received a viable, affordable Common Core curriculum with actual texts, district superintendent Mike Vnutri announced that the students should be reading the very standards. “It’s informational text, and it’s complex enough,” he said. “Plus I have it from higher up that everyone’s supposed to be reading the standards several times in every class, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. Sorry about that metaphor; I happen to like birds.”

In a recent model Common Core lesson for a tenth-grade literature class, students spent a lesson reading ELA standard RL.9-10.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).”

Although this is not in itself a literary text, every literary text should be paired with informational text anyway. According to sources, it is even acceptable to leave the literary text out. This standard satisfies complexity requirements; when fed into text analyzers, it shows an eleventh-grade level and could thus be considered a “stretch” text–too hard for struggling readers, but within reasonable range for many others.

In order to ensure that all students leave the classroom with an understanding of the text, teacher Ernesta Pourtous announced, at the start of the class, that the goal of the lesson was to understand all of the words in the standard, which she then read aloud. She then asked each student in turn to repeat the goal of the lesson. She noted where they stumbled over words.

“Now,” she said, “when you encounter an informational text that has difficult words, there are several strategies you can use. One is to look the words up in a dictionary. That’s not the strategy we’re going to practice today, because we don’t have dictionaries in the classroom. Instead, I am going to teach you a four-step exercise: Identify, Predict, Align, and Define. You can remember it as IPAD.” There were giggles in the class.

For the next activity, she had students copy the standard from the board and carefully circle the words they didn’t know The circles had to be complete (or they would have to start over), and any student who did not circle “figurative,” “connotative,” or “cumulative” would lose a point. She circulated the room, taking photographs so that she could document that every student was hard at work. At the end of the ten minutes, she told students to hold their sheets of paper in the air. Circled words abounded.

Next, she took a minute to touch base about how it felt to succeed at an activity. Tessie Moran, a tall girl with dark bangs in the corner of the room, spoke quietly about how she now knew that she could do it. (There were hidden microphones n various locations.)

After this, Ms. Pourtous instructed them to turn to their partners and predict the meanings ot the words. “At this point, you are allowed to say what you think they mean; there are no wrong answers,” she told them. “But I do want to see everyone talking.” Soon the room was filled with noise. Five minutes later, she called for silence again. A student raised his hand.

“Yes, Jose?”

“Why aren’t we reading a sonnet or something?”

“It’s no use reading a sonnet if you don’t have a Common Core-aligned goal. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get your goals in place. That will make you college and career ready. If you want to read sonnets, you’ve got to do the hard work. Which leads us to the hardest part of the lesson: alignment.” She explained that now their task was to align their definitions with those of their classmates. First, they would compare notes in small groups. Then they would rotate to other groups–three times. Once they had completed all of these alignments, everyone would have an identical list of definitions. Through group influence, she said, these definitions would become more accurate over the course of the activity.

She then circulated as students conferred excitedly on the meaning of “connotative.” “I think it’s like a suggestion,” one student said; the others nodded and copied him. “Now, how do you turn that into an adjective?” Pourtous asked the group. Once they arrived at “suggestive,” she moved on.

At the end of the class, she had them all post their identical definitions on the walls. They had defined “figurative” as “imaginary,” “connotative” as “suggestive,” and “cumulative” as “piled up.” The room was now decorated with words and their approximate meanings.

“You see,” said Superintendent Vnutri, after displaying the video at a principals’ meeting, “every single student was involved in this lesson, and every single student walked out with a better understanding of the standard. Do you see how it was all in their hands? This is vastly more productive and student-oriented than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and yap about Shakespeare, or engage in dialogue with just three or four students.”

“I’d like to hear about the Shakespeare, myself,” a principal ventured.

“Sure you would,” Vnutri retorted. “You’ve just got to remember that this isn’t about you.”

 

Note: I made some edits to this piece after posting it.

 

Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core–that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different–so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value–but instead, they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy–of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument–nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites–because you could focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.

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