How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What?” Experience

how the other half learnsA few days ago I wrote a response to Robert Pondiscio’s terrific book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Here are some more thoughts, this time about the “so what?” question.

Before reading the book (but after reading many reviews, summaries, and excerpts), I wondered if I would be left nonplussed, even if I enjoyed and learned from the book. If part of the book’s message is, “The Success Academy is not for everyone–students, parents, or teachers–but insofar as it serves some students and families extremely well, it should be recognized and supported,” doesn’t a similar message apply to all students, parents, and teachers? That is, shouldn’t all of us seek out a place that works for us, leaving the rest alone except to acknowledge its value for others? If I, as a teacher, do not like the Success Academy model, then isn’t it my right (and responsibility) to seek out a place that does suit me, as have done over time? And if this is so, if it is on us to find the place that suits us, then who cares about a larger picture, except insofar as it offers each of us a place? Why should I care what’s going on at another school, if it’s not my type of place to begin with? But this conclusion dissatisfied me; there are reasons to care what is going on in other schools, and as it turned out, Pondiscio’s book brought them to light.

I found myself rooting for the students as I read about them–from Adama, whose parents were continually pressured by Success Academy to transfer him to another school (and finally gave in), to Darren, who shot up the waiting list and was finally admitted, to  Luis, who passes an informal reading test and blurts out to his class, “I’m Level L!” Even when I disagree with the admissions procedures, teaching methods, and more, I want things to go well with these kids–and I want to keep up some kind of discussion about what is important in education. Even if different approaches work for different students, even if different kinds of schools can, do, and should exist (not only among charters, but within the public school system itself), there are some universal goods and ills worth considering.

Take the instance of Luis becoming a “Level L.” Setting aside the business of calling oneself an L or a P or a 2 or a 3, I see at least two sides to the issue. On the one hand, despite my many criticisms of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (which Pondiscio gives a good shaking), I recognize that moving up the levels represents some kind of progress in reading, especially if the instruction is good, the texts are worthwhile, and the student practices continually at school and at home. And when a little boy reacts with such joy and pride to his progress, I want to join in. I want him to get to level Z and beyond–into good literature and other texts worth reading for their own merits.

On the other side, the Fountas and Pinnell system has even more problems than Pondiscio discusses (particularly on pp. 230-236). In addition to its misleading measures of text complexity, in addition to its flimsy basis in research, Fountas and Pinnell has given rise to some terrible writing. There is an industry devoted to writing children’s books and texts to match the F&P rubric exactly. If you read these texts (the ones written to match a particular level), you find something canned about them, and for good reason: they are canned. There isn’t a Curious George or Winnie-the-Pooh among them. In fact, many classic children’s books have been rewritten (i.e. simplified, distorted, and re-fonted) to match this or that reading level. In some cases they don’t even make sense.

Beyond that, the insistence on precise levels is inherently limiting. Any books worth their salt, including children’s books, contain a mixture of levels. In school, students can learn phonics systematically while also being exposed to texts, many texts, that they can’t read entirely on their own yet. They can learn background information that will help them understand texts on specific topics. They can learn to read a book several times, with more understanding each time. That way, they will not only progress gradually but amass concepts, words, and structures that allow their understanding to take off.

I didn’t learn how to read at school; according to my parents, I taught myself, at ages 4 and 5, and began writing before reading. But that had to do with having a lot of literature in the air. I can’t describe how I learned, since I don’t remember any more. But when it comes to learning languages, I have benefited from struggling with difficult works, works well above my level, works that I would want to reread many times. I persist with the first reading, and before I know it, I understand much than when I began, as a result of noticing roots, grammatical structures, syntax, and more. It has consistently helped me, rather than hurt me, to go beyond my level.

Not everyone benefits from the same approaches. Nor is mine foolproof, even for me; one weakness is that I have missed or sidestepped some systematic instruction along the way. For instance, I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary by the end of our year in Moscow, when I was fifteen, but I didn’t really learn how the Russian verbs of motion worked until late in college. I used them correctly enough to make myself understood, but my speech and writing must have been filled with mistakes.

All this said, it’s worth bringing up the weaknesses of Fountas and Pinnell, even while recognizing that it has done some good. At the same time, I can appreciate teachers who wholeheartedly encourage students in their progress (as did Luis’s teacher), even if the content and measures of said progress are flawed.

So, yes, the book affirms that it does matter what’s going on at other schools–because the fads and other weaknesses are worth criticizing, the strengths are worth learning from, and kids (at any school) deserve support and guidance. They want to learn, they want to make progress, they want to know what this means and why it matters. It is possible to hold two sides of the truth at once: that we’re all different, with different needs, and yet that we have something to do with each other, even if our paths never visibly meet.

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Why I Like Robert Pondiscio’s Book (and Why “Main Idea” Is Duke, Not King)

how the other half learnsAfter reading many reviews and summaries of Robert Pondiscio’s outstanding book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, I worried that I already knew too much of the gist and wouldn’t have much left to enjoy or think about. The worry was unfounded. I read it this weekend in several sittings, unable to stop for long. I was drawn into the descriptions, the characters, the daily life of Bronx 1 classrooms, the pedagogical and curricular details, and Pondiscio’s subtle, surprising observations along the way. That very experience–of enjoying the content of the book–points to what I see as its main blind spot. In the book itself, the “Main Idea” is not king–so I am wary of pedagogical approaches that insist that yes, it is.

Granted, I am writing from a high school and college perspective, as I usually do. Elementary school and high school differ profoundly; when people do not acknowledge this, they often end up talking past each other. Some of the greatest misunderstandings in education discussion come from failures to specify what we are talking about. Pondiscio’s book comes to life, and to meaning, through its specificity. He is talking about elementary school–and not elementary school in general, but elementary school for very poor kids whose parents are determined to give them a foothold. Elementary school is where students should be learning certain basics–and the “main idea” is surely one of them.

The refrain “Main Idea is king” rings throughout the book. It’s what the teachers tell the students over and over, and exemplify in their classrooms, at Bronx 1 Elementary School, which Pondiscio visited for a year. Bronx 1 belongs to the Success Academy, a network of charter schools, founded by Eva Moskowitz, that has won both fame for its test score success and rebuke for perceived creaming and overhype. Pondiscio argues that the Success Academy schools don’t cream students; they cream parents. Is this fair? It depends on how you look at it. But for now, back to the Main Idea.

Revering the main idea will help you, up to a point, with reading comprehension. (For instance, if there is a main idea in a text, and if you can identify it, you can then figure out how the different parts of the text support it.) Such regal treatment will also help you with ELA standardized tests, which almost always include questions about the main idea. It will not help you with the kind of discussion that you find at private high schools and in college. In many texts (Pondiscio’s book included), the main idea is only the foundation, if even that; the really interesting stuff is to be found in the subordinate clauses, the observations, the connections, the hesitations, the contradictions. This is especially true with poetry and fiction, but it applies to nonfiction as well.

The main idea of How the Other Half Learns might run as follows: “While controversial in its approaches to admissions, instruction, and discipline, and perhaps impossible to scale, the Success Academy charter schools bring their students to academic success–in terms of test scores, college admissions, and more–and therefore deserve recognition and support.” I don’t need to read a whole book to get that point–but the book did much more than argue it. I was drawn into the description of specific lessons, walkthroughs, leaders’ and teachers’ meetings, hallway activity, Pondiscio’s meetings with families, and characters so vivid that I saw and heard them in my mind.

The Success Academy’s emphasis on the main idea–and other concepts important to the standardized tests–goes hand in hand, I think, with its avoidance of “teacher talk.” For if students are supposed to be doing most of the work, and teachers are to limit their talking, then students must have specific, recognizable tasks to perform.

Third-grade teacher Steven Madan has the children continually involved in tasks, continually (in Pondiscio’s words) “engaged and on their toes.” From p. 46:

“The best learning we get in the classroom comes from other scholars, because we learn from each other,” Madan tells his students, a notion that Success drills into teachers during the network’s summer Teacher School, or T School. The feedback new staffers hear most often is “too much teacher talk.” The standard remedy is to “put the lift on the scholars”: Don’t do the work for the kids. Don’t be afraid to let them struggle. That’s how they learn.

I have heard this many times before, in public schools: that if the teacher talks, she is “doing the work” for the kids. This does not have to be so. Students should have opportunities to work out some problems and puzzles on their own. But listening to the teacher is a demanding challenge in its own right: you must focus closely, figuring out what makes sense to you and what does not, formulating questions, and finding words for disagreements, hesitations, or extensions.

Yes, I am thinking in terms of high school and college, but elementary school students can do this too, and if they can’t, they should begin learning it gradually. This does not mean that teachers should talk all the time, talk needlessly, or strain their students’ attention beyond what they can handle. But “teacher talk” should not be deplored; not only does it have an important place in lessons, but students unused to it will have great difficulty later, not only in lectures, but also in seminars, where they also need to sustain their listening and deal with complex ideas.

I will come back to the “Main Idea” shortly–but want to comment on the “Math Lesson” chapter, if too briefly. Pondiscio states that the teacher’s (Kerri Lynch’s) math lesson, “with its push to get students, not teachers, to do the thinking, and its almost complete lack of direct instruction, bears the hallmark of Success Academy’s approach and a focus–nearly an obsession–of its teacher training” (p. 142). The actual lesson is lively and productive; students figure out, among other things, that 7/8 is greater than 3/4, and arrive at a clear explanation. But what happens with a student who understands, right off the bat, that this is so, and can explain why? What challenge is left? One way to challenge such a student–and others as well–is for the teacher to present an extended solution to a problem, ask the students to pay close attention to it, and then question them to see whether they understand it, can explain it, and can take it in new directions.

For instance, in a geometry class, you might ask students how they would bisect a segment, without using any numerical measurements. They may use the length of the segment itself and the lengths and angles on a right-triangle ruler. But they may not actually measure the lengths and angles.

If they can’t figure it out, give them a helping start: Create an isosceles triangle with the segment as the base. From there they can probably figure out that all they need to do is drop a line from the vertex opposite the base down to the base, at a perpendicular to the base. If they can’t, there are ways to offer hints without giving the solution away. When they finally get it, have a student explain it from start to finish; if he or she gets stuck, others may help out.

Once they have explained it, ask: So, how do you trisect a segment, using the same tools? Let them puzzle over it for homework, part of homework, or extra credit; welcome them to work on it together if they wish. The next day, see who has figured it out; if someone has, ask for a presentation, and ask questions along the way about the steps. If no one has figured it out, give a helping start again, and see whether they can take it from there.

This example still has the students doing the majority of the work–but it is possible for the teacher to present something without turning the lesson into a sequence of procedures or robbing the students of insight. To the contrary: they must learn how to make sense of what they see on the board–not only make sense of it, but take it farther.

Or take poetry. So many poems have been ruined by lessons that insisted on a main idea or relied entirely on student discovery. What do you do with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“? On the surface, the poem is about taking a few minutes of quiet–but in each stanza, the quiet is subtly disturbed. Even the title, “Stopping by Woods…” suggests a temporary stopping, not a permanent one. You do not have to summarize all of this in a single statement; you can instead look at and listen to the different pulls in the poem.

I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that the Success Academy high school’s initial difficulties had to do with the elementary and middle schools’ extreme focus on reading strategies and their stance against “teacher talk.” (Pondiscio states bluntly, when describing the high school’s beginnings, that it was “a disaster.”) Students’ difficulties with seminar may have stemmed, in part, from not knowing how to listen to others at length or how to explore a text or topic on its own terms. This might not have been a matter of classroom discipline alone. It might have had to do with intellectual practices.

This does not mean that teachers should abandon group work or paired discussion (I include both in my lessons). But there is a case for teaching something directly to the students. First, they may not know it; second, it can give them some ideas of how to think about the topic; and third, it can open up discussion at a higher level than would otherwise be possible. The main idea comes up in such instruction and discussion, but it is rarely the goal.  Rather, teacher and students focus on the text’s motion, details, digressions, and uncertainties. The students come to see more than they saw before. The main idea still matters, but it does not merit a crown. Let it be duke.

Pondiscio’s book demonstrates this unwittingly. It is a bracing pleasure; it raises memories, ideas, questions. It holds much more than a main idea. What’s more, it comes from an author with experience, insight, and a gift for writing. It could not have been achieved through turn-and-talk alone.

Note: Robert Pondiscio is a good acquaintance/friend (whom I have not seen in person for some time). I have been reading and enjoying his writing for years–and contributed many guest posts to the Core Knowledge Blog when he was its editor and lead author. 

Also, after posting this piece I realized I should refer to him, after first mention, by his last name rather than his first–since this is a review, not an informal comment–so I made the change.