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).

Why “Turn and Talk” Instead of “Pause and Think”?

A recent New York Times article describes a classroom observation in which a teacher supposedly made good transitions between “turn and talk” activities and lecturing. (She was criticized, though, for not asking more open-ended questions.)

I commented on this article, despite being unable to access it from my home computer (I’ve exceeded my limit of free NYT Digital articles) and having great trouble with my iPad’s touch keyboard, which seems to invite typos. I criticized this new evaluation system for being very much like previous ones—for emphasizing processes and activities over the content of the lesson. I asked, while I was at it, whether “turn and talk” was a worthwhile activity in the first place.

Of course its value depends on its relation to the lesson topic—and, to a large extent, on how it is conducted, if it absolutely must be conducted. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’ll explain why I think “turn and talk” should cede at least some space to “pause and think.”

A “turn and talk” activity usually goes like this. A teacher poses a question of opinion or something else that’s easily answered. Then she says, “Turn to your partner and talk about it! Come on, let’s hear everyone talking!” Then she circulates to make sure they are “on task”—that is, talking about the subject. Within thirty seconds or so, she stops the discussion and maybe asks students to “share out.”

While the “turn and talk” is going on, the room is full of noise. You can’t hear yourself think. Also, you know that anything serious you begin to say will probably be cut off in midsentence. It is better not to bring up an idea that you care about. It’ll get lost in the rush and tumult.

Also, the chances are fairly high that your “turn and talk” partner won’t do anything to challenge you or push your argument a few steps further. The point is not to work with ideas, but to show that you’re talking, period. Supposedly talking is good, even if you aren’t saying much.

Then what? After a “share” or two, the whole discussion is swept under, as though it didn’t matter. The lesson moves on to the next activity.

“Turn and talk” is meant to draw out shyer students who wouldn’t necessarily speak out in class discussion. But is this hubbub an improvement? For some, it might be; others, however, might want to run out of the room. Proponents of “turn and talk” ignore the possibility that a student who stays silent in class discussion may actually be thinking.

Yes, it is possible to be intellectually active without saying a word out loud! In fact, whole-class discussions allow students and teachers many possibilities. A student might stay silent on some days and speak up on others; the teacher might leave her alone one day and call on her the next. Yes, some students may feel intimidated speaking up in front of the whole class—but if the focus is on the subject, and not on the social relationships, many students will participate. (I include silent participation in this.)

Why should anyone be forced to talk before he or she has something to say? A few years ago I audited a physics class; on the first or second day, the professor posed a question and had us talk to our neighbors about it. I knew that I didn’t know the answer to the question; it seemed my neighbor did, but the activity concluded before she could explain what she knew. I would have loved to listen to the professor’s explanation in that instance.

I favor whole-class discussions and lectures because they allow one to focus and build on an idea, and because they suit my subject matter (philosophy). It is true that other classes in other subjects (such as languages) might benefit a great deal from “turn and talk” and similar activities. It is also true that most subjects could use “turn and talk” sparingly. The problem arises when everyone is supposed to incorporate “talk activities” in the lesson.

Also, it does matter how the activity is conducted. At its best, “turn and talk” resembles the Jewish practice of hevruta, or studying religious texts with a partner. Such “turn and talk” is not frenetic or noisy; it allows for pauses and silence and lasts longer than thirty seconds. Hevruta has substance because it is about something substantial; the same could be said for a good “turn and talk” session. (If I were to try to institute good turning and talking, though, I’d give it as an assignment, so that the students could go off to a quiet place with their partners and discuss a topic without rush. But then, where is that quiet place, and when are the students not rushed?)

On the whole, I consider “turn and talk” activities painfully superficial and wasteful, but I recognize that they, like so many other oversold procedures, have a time and place.

Note: For the sake of consistency, I kept “turn and talk” unhyphenated throughout this piece. There’s a good argument for hyphenating it when it functions as an adjective, but that seemed too jittery.

The Key to Creativity?

While one must walk through much of life alone, one also draws on the wisdom, experience, and practical assistance of others. Books (including literary, religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts) address many of our persistent questions. Their guidance has a place;  we would be stranded and parched without it. We seek out books not only for insight, but for help.

But if there’s a futile quest for assistance, it’s the quest for a “key” to creativity–some some way of life, some practice that others package up and that (supposedly) will release our creative powers. When I read articles about how to become more creative, I ask: why don’t people allow creativity its idiosyncrasy, and why do they covet creativity in the first place?

The answer to the second question seems obvious. Who wouldn’t want to make something original, something that involves both imagination and skill? Who wouldn’t want to write a truly good poem, song, or play, or invent a needed (or utterly useless but amusing) device, or give a memorable speech? Who wouldn’t want to do this day after day? It sounds like the happiest possible life–making a contribution to art, literature, technology, and other fields.

But it is not entirely happy. If you think differently from others, if you see untried possibilities in the material before you, then you may find yourself questioning what other people take for granted. You may never feel that you “fit in.” Now, fitting in is not the most important thing in the world, but outsiderness takes courage and some sacrifice. You grow used to seeing things differently and verging, moment by moment, on offending others, hurting their feelings, and losing your place among them. (This sense of outsiderness is especially acute in a culture of group thinking and group “likes.”)

Moreover, a creative life takes time and work. You don’t just go around bubbling with ideas; you have to sit down and pull them off. This means setting aside blocks of time–time that could be spent with others, or at work, or in relaxation. If you have a job on top of that, and a family, you may end up with no time for pastimes and insufficient time for anything else. You may be continually torn between necessary things.

In addition, such a life has disappointments. One has ideas that don’t pan out or that, when brought to completion, are not as brilliant as they seemed. One comes to see flaws in one’s own work; very little of it ultimately seems good, even if others praise it. (In addition, good work often goes unrecognized.)

Now, many people involved in creative work (including myself) have accepted the demands and letdowns of such a life. They would not give it up permanently for anything (almost). I say “almost” because generalizations of this kind tend to prove false at some point.

That leads to the first question: why don’t people want to allow creativity its idiosyncrasy? In each person it takes a different form, and each person practices it in a different way. There are certainly good habits (such as regular practice), and conditions that can make those habits fruitful. But where one person may work best in dim light, with no sound, another may prefer brightness and music in the room. One may work regularly, in the mornings; another may snatch time whenever it comes. Moreover, there are probably as many kinds of creativity as there are personalities; the creation of a sonnet is profoundly different from the creation of an advertisement, even though both work within constraints of time and space.

Thus I was puzzled last month to see a New York Times article suggesting that the buzz of a cafe can boost creativity. It cites a study in which subjects brainstormed product ideas with varying levels of background noise. Now, why would anyone equate “brainstorming” (especially of ideas for products) with creativity overall? Certain kinds of ideas may come more easily when there is a background hum–but that does not apply to all ideas, nor is idea generation the whole of creativity. Some writers spend part of their writing time in a cafe, among others, and part of it alone. Some prefer to spend all of their writing time alone (but take in conversations and sounds when out on a walk).

Granted, such studies can teach something when put in proper perspective. Annie Murphy Paul cites and discusses a study (originally published in Creativity Research Journal) suggesting that those who show creativity are marked (in the interpretation of cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman) by “a tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, engagement, openness to experience, and self-expression.” Paul speculates that these qualities may account for the “flaky artist” stereotype. An artist (or other seriously creative person) may be inherently “flaky” in that he or she works flexibly with a range of possibilities and projects.

Yes, I can see how that could be so. But an artist also needs a counterbalance to the flakiness in order to do anything well. The proportion of spontaneity and discipline will vary from person to person and from field to field. Some focus intensely on one project or idea at a time (but may toy with thousands of possibilities within it). Others may test out divergent projects until one takes hold. Some may stick to one medium throughout their lives; others may experiment wildly. Some may work assiduously on a project (and not touch any others) until it is complete; others may prefer to move back and forth between projects.

Where do creative ideas come from? Recently I wrote an essay about how a good curriculum can stimulate creativity by combining and juxtaposing works and ideas in interesting ways. I emphasized, though, that such a curriculum does not “produce” creativity (such as the student’s piece cited in the article), nor does creative work “result” directly from it. Creativity does not lend itself to mass production.

It’s difficult not to be intrigued by creativity. (I wouldn’t be reading articles about creativity if I were uninterested in the subject.) Many of us many have a speck of Dr. Faustus in us; we may want a secular devil, unaffiliated with hell, to sell us creative brilliance. or at least a sliver of it, in appealing wrapping. It would be a tantalizing offer. (This may explain why people don’t allow creativity its idiosyncrasy: they may hope to acquire it somehow.) There may even be something in such an offer–a helpful suggestion or insight, for instance. Artists (and other “creative” people) have a great deal in common–temperament, habits, interests, even pain–and can offer each other advice and understanding. Beyond these shared attributes, though, their distinctive trait is their ability, even when learning from others, to find their own way.

Note: I revised this piece (for flow and clarity) after posting it.

What David Brooks Doesn’t Get

In his New York Times op-ed “Testing the Teachers” (April 19), David Brooks warns that “an atmosphere of grand fragility” hangs over America’s colleges. The grandeur, he says, comes from the colleges’ increased application rates, new facilities, and international reputation; the fragility, from increased tuition combined with uncertain results. What must we do? Hold colleges accountable for results—through value-added testing. That’ll show who’s teaching and who isn’t!

Brooks is wrong. Accountability systems would drag down our colleges. The best would be made mediocre, and the worst would rise to mediocrity at most.

Having put forth the idea, Brooks waxes dreamy about it. “There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t,” he muses. “There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.”

What Brooks doesn’t understand is the difference between accountability and responsibility. It is the latter, not the former, that will help and sustain colleges.

Responsibility is an internal sense of duty; accountability, an external show. The professor who who puts full thought into lesson preparation, corrects student work, holds office hours, challenges students in class, and takes them, day by day, into the subject—this professor has a deep sense of responsibility but may or may not “produce” test score gains. A professor who focuses on showing results to outsiders (an accountable professor) may be less immersed in the subject, less concerned about navigating tricky points—but may raise test scores. If schools must foster the latter sort of teaching, they will glide into a monotone.

But why should accountability and responsibility be at odds? They are not always opposed, but there’s ongoing friction between them. To honor one’s best thinking and conscience is not the same as to do what others want and recognize. The best instruction does not absolutely and consistently produce test score results.

For one thing, course content may not match the content of standardized tests (and it would be dreary if it did). Second, if students take especially difficult courses, they may go an entire semester without showing visible progress. A grade of “C” may be honorable in such cases. Third, each subject has its language, structure, and logic; these are not always easy to convey to those outside the field. In their presentation “Assessment on Our Own Terms,” delivered at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, Mark Wait and Samuel Hope draw attention to the difficulty of translating “musical logic” into “speech logic.”  Fourth, the higher the level of study, the more complex the assessment becomes. (That’s not to say that assessing kindergarteners is a straightforward matter.)

This leads to another flaw in Brooks’s suggestion. He assumes that it is the colleges’ duty to “produce” visible signs of learning. But even today, with the tuition hikes, many students go to college to be challenged, to explore many subjects, to dedicate themselves to a major, and to work on something of beauty. Getting top grades isn’t necessarily their first priority. Some would rather take more courses, or more difficult courses, at the risk of lower grades than take easy courses and get all A’s. Some find themselves immersed in a particular course or subject and let the other ones slide a bit. Some follow an idea or a project only to discover that they are on the wrong track. This is their prerogative, and they must take the consequences.

True, not all students are so serious–many  skip class repeatedly, go to party after party, and fret over relationships. If they slip too far, a good hard “F” can shake them up. Deans and advisors should watch for students in danger of failing, but students must learn to make choices and take responsibility for them. It does not help students—especially college and graduate students—to make someone else responsible for their performance.

Now, of course I am assuming a liberal arts college or school of art (or music or drama), and a high-level one at that. I am not referring here to colleges where most of the students need remedial courses. Nor am I talking about vocational and technical schools, whose mission is to prepare students for a concrete profession or trade. These are colleges with specific, standardized goals—and they should make good on their promises, provided the students do their part.

But it is not nostalgic, romantic, or naive to insist that college also be about something else: about pursuing interests, enjoying a life of the mind, making and learning from mistakes, being around intensely knowledgeable and interesting people, studying a subject at a high level, and yes, allowing for imbalances between receiving and giving. Education is a gift in a troubling sense, a sense that recalls Robert Frost’s lines about a star, “It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height.” This is no trivial demand. Students, receiving a fine education, do not immediately show the height required. Sometimes this takes years, even decades. Sometimes we think back on something learned long ago and see how it honed our thinking and our lives. That’s a result worth defending to the end. We must not treat such learning as a lie.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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