Wednesday, October 10, 2012

If You Get Any Closer, You'd Be Me

I'd just read The Sound and the Fury and The Hamlet, and then started Wise Blood because I'd read an excerpt that was one of the funniest things I'd ever read. Those Southerners, you know. (I'm reading my way through my own Southern gothic course now--I'll continue with Faulkner, then more O'Connor, and go from there. I also want to read a biography of O'Connor, partly because she was such a strange person and partly because I'm interested in her Old Testament theology, being as I was brought up in that tradition myself.)

My daughters had read the excerpt, the part about Enoch Emery meeting the gorilla. The eldest by five minutes, the one who finished reading Anna Karenina in two days (she liked it so well she didn't want to stop reading), went on ahead and did her own thing. She's busy making up a list of classics she wants to read and then ordering the books on Paperbackswap. It's an ambitious list. She generously said, when I eyed the list with envy, that she'll loan me any book I like.

The other, my youngest, wasn't sure she fully understood the excerpt, or at least not enough to write the essay I'd asked her to write, so we talked about it.

As we talked, we kept looking back at the text for evidence of what we were thinking and saying. We started from a reader response perspective--How did she feel when she read the excerpt? What did she like about it, what did she not like? What in the text created this or that effect for her? What did she think the author meant by this or that?--and moved to comprehension and making inferences--What did she think about Enoch? Why was he so different from other people? How did that difference manifest? What did he want? Why?--and then talked about patterns and motifs and style:
  • the use of color (especially the black/white)
  • the animal motifs (the umbrella handle is the head of a fox terrier, the gorilla)
  • how seemingly harmless, everyday things transform into weapons (the joke box of peanut brittle, the landlady's cast-off umbrella)
  • the funny things--how Enoch never sets out to do anything without eating first; how Enoch is always thinking of something else the moment Fate is "drawing back her leg to kick him"
  • the economy of writing--how O'Connor gives so much information about Enoch without any heavy analysis of his character, instead letting the reader feel smart and draw those conclusions

The more we talked, the more we liked the writing.

There was so much there to talk about, and the conversation led to one about the bigger meaning, that of transformation and of the human desire for connection and to be loved--how Enoch had intended to provoke the gorilla with some obscene insult, but then the touch of the gorilla's hand, even in this sort of perfunctory handshake, awakened in him a longing to be close to someone--anyone! even a jerk in a moth-eaten gorilla costume-- and how it's impossible to transform oneself simply by making some superficial outward change, just as it's impossible to find a shortcut to being loved or to force people to love you, that the only way to be loved is to be lovable, and so Enoch's attempt is doomed from the start.

This is what close reading looks like.

This is what the CCSS require, that students move beyond basic literal comprehension to an analysis of the elements in order to make connections between the text and culture, history, our personal experience, and, ultimately, to its greater universal meaning. All the while, the students must return to the text for evidence. What did the author say? Why? Why this word, why this gesture, why this action. Why why why why why. 

Although we'd begun the conversation because my daughter had said she didn't really like or understand the story, by the time we were done talking, she liked it so well she wanted to read the whole of the novel.

(I couldn't remember if I'd read Wise Blood before, so I read it again. It's so good, and one of the funniest books I've ever read, especially in the first 100 pages or so--the woman on the train who, upon seeing the price tag still stapled to Hazel's suit, feels comfortable because she believes that places him, Hazel's insistence to all that he's not a preacher when he's clearly Jonah fleeing the voice of God, the sly asides--"After a few weeks in the camp, when he had some friends--they were not actually friends but he had to live with them--he was offered the chance he had been waiting for; the invitation"-- but the end is so horrifying and sad, I'm not sure my daughter will want to read it. I told her that, and she'll make up her own mind. Neither am I sure it would be as interesting to someone without a pretty solid understanding of the Old Testament, but maybe I'm wrong about that.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

File Under: The Law of Unintended Consequences, Cross-Referenced to Undesirable Outcomes

From the National Bureau of Economic Research, hat tip to Inside Higher Ed, an indication that overtesting is a no bueno.

Ian Fillmore and Devin G. Pope of the University of Chicago studied student performance on the AP exam and found:
. . . strong evidence that a shorter amount of time between exams is associated with lower scores, particularly on the second exam. Our estimates suggest that students who take exams with 10 days of separation are 8% more likely to pass both exams than students who take the same two exams with only 1 day of separation.
This is of particular interest to me for a variety of reasons. Since the passage of NCLB, testing in grades 2-12 seems to occur at an astonishing frequency. Not only are there state tests in ELA and math and, in some grades, social studies and science, but there are usually some kind of interim (benchmark, call them what you will) district tests administered once (or more) per quarter in both ELA and math, along with the classroom teacher's tests and quizzes in every content area, and then there are other supplementary tests administered in programs such as Accelerated Reader (please don't consider this mention as an endorsement, more on this later).

Testing is not instruction. It seems obvious, but it needs to be said. When kids are being tested, they're not learning.

If you asked why all the tests, teachers and district personnel would say that they need to test in order to find out if kids are learning. Which might be true if they weren't testing quite so much.

The more testing, the less instruction, the more homework. The burden for instruction is offloaded to the children. They're supposed to be teaching themselves. This, in spite of a growing body of research that tells us how ineffective homework is:

The results of national and international exams raise further doubts.  One of many examples is an analysis of 1994 and 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data from 50 countries.  Researchers David Baker and Gerald Letendre were scarcely able to conceal their surprise when they published their results last year:  “Not only did we fail to find any positive relationships,” but “the overall correlations between national average student achievement and national averages in [amount of homework assigned] are all negative.

(No one likes hearing that about homework. A teacher I know tells me that when she assigns less homework, parents complain. They worry their kids aren't working hard enough. As a parent, I was often astounded by the amount of homework expected from my children. Clearly no teacher ever sat down and worked his or her way through the material, or the teacher would have discovered that the time on task was excessive.)

Not to mention the other obvious problems with such a scheme--I mean, have you ever launched some ambitious self-study program? To muster up the wherewithal is daunting enough for a grown-up of strong will, and yet, we expect this of a child who 1) lacks the body of knowledge and skills required for such self-study and 2) has yet to develop that kind of self-discipline.

What's sad is that the overtesting deprives kids of the joy of demonstrating what they've learned. When teaching is sound and kids are learning, they can't wait to show you what they know. That's when we know that the instruction is working.

Fillmore, Ian, and Devin G. Pope. "The Impact of Time Between Cognitive Tasks on Performance: Evidence from Advanced Placement Exams." NBER. National Bureau of Economic Research, Oct. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. 
Kohn, Alfie. "The Truth About Homework." The Truth About Homework. Education Week, 6 Sept. 2006. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. 
"The Impact of Time Between Tests | Inside Higher Ed." The Impact of Time Between Tests. Inside Higher Ed, 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. 

UPDATE: fixed a bad copy-cut-paste.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bad Teacher

You may have heard the gotcha NPR story about lighting a fire under teachers by giving them a bonus and threatening to take it away if students didn't show measurable improvements in math:
The teachers were given a bonus of $4,000 upfront — but it had a catch. If student math performance didn't improve, teachers had to sign a contract promising to return some or all of the money.
If you threatened to torch a teacher's car if your kids' math scores didn't improve, the scores would probably go up. What does this really tell us? Nothing that we didn't already know. People are averse to loss.

How silly is the premise of this study. Samuel Johnson said no one but a blockhead wrote for money, and I'd say this is twice as true of teaching. It's not a high-roller game.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average yearly salary of a full-time teacher is $56,069. This is significantly higher than $44,402, which is the average salary where I live, and slightly lower than $57,574, which is the median household income in Ventucky Bakersfield by the Sea Ventuckywood this coastal California town.

To put this into perspective, here are average salaries in other professions:

attorneys: $112,760
blackjack dealers: $20,260
dentists: $146,920
funeral directors: $54,330
garbage collectors: $22,560
paramedics: $30,360
personal financial advisors: $64,750
police officers and detectives: $55,1010

(Information courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

That and summers off make teaching look all right, I guess, in parts of the country where the cost of living is less than it is here--and yet, anyone who's spent more than five minutes in a (noisy, paint-splattered) classroom might understand that teachers earn their pay. (Many of them. Not the ones who spend the period painting their fingernails while students are supposed to be reading, or texting or emailing while students listen to audio of textbooks, or even talking on their cell phones while students run amok, and yes, I know of what I speak, these aren't idly selected hypothetical scenarios. Although to be fair, the fingernail-polisher was a substitute teacher; the others were all classroom teachers of many, many years' experience.)

But how many teachers do you know got into the work because of the pay? Is money really what motivates them?

Hardly. Money isn't the best motivator; what's best is "to pay people enough to take money off the table." When not worried about money from a survival standpoint, people are far more interested in challenge, mastery, and the chance to make a difference in the world, says Dan Pink in this talk for the RSA:

 Speaking of what doesn't work, I don't see that publishing reports of teacher performance evaluations will serve any useful purpose. Incompetent or willfully mediocre (or worse) teachers who got lucky and are established in schools in affluent communities where students tend to be high-performers will continue to teach badly and will point to high test scores to justify themselves. And then public humiliation won't transform the bad teachers into good ones, although it might be the final gnat-like annoyance that inspires a good teacher of at-risk, low-performing students trotting off to seek employment in another field.

My friend and colleague Carrie, who works at a test publishing organization, sent me this, from the NYT, about whether we expect too much from teachers:

Last year, at an Aspen Institute conference, the education historian Diane Ravitch was asked her wish list to improve schools. At the top of her list: universal prenatal care — which, of course, has nothing to do with the classroom. Or so it would seem. 
Of course, Ms. Ravitch wanted to make a point. As we slash services in deeply impoverished communities and reduce school budgets, how can we expect that good teachers alone can improve the lives of poor children? Poverty, of course, can’t be an excuse for lousy teaching. But neither can excellent teaching alone be a solution to poverty.

The problems in education are so much bigger than the person standing in the front of the classroom. But that's overwhelming and makes us feel bad. It's a lot more comfortable to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and stick teachers with the blame.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kick'em When They're Up, Kick'em When They're Down

. . . in the immortal words of Don Henley.

Attacking poetry is nothing new, though back in the day it seemed like it might have been a fair fight.

When Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," poetry was still a brawny contender. Rich brewers might have snickered at Shelley behind their hands, but probably most educated people nodded as solemnly as my dog when I talk to her (she doesn't speak English, which limits her participation in the discussion, but she's agreeable company and likes the sound of my voice) whether they understood him or not. Then, to be a poet--to be a man or a woman of letters--was a goal worth aspiring to.

Now, says Adrienne Rich,
poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together - and more.
So useless is poetry that the notion that business folk might learn something--anything--from reading Wordsworth is greeted with incredulity:
It may sound like a nice day out in beautiful surroundings, but can walking around Lake District sites synonymous with Romantic poet William Wordsworth really offer business leaders and local entrepreneurs the crucial insights they need?
Without having heard the whole of the interview, it's difficult to know whether the professor who teaches the course is patiently explaining or limply defending his work when he provides a "rationale" for the study of Wordsworth's poetry (I'm guessing the former). That the associate dean begins his defense with "Although some people laugh at the idea of learning from poetry" makes you suspect that he is one of those some people; why else introduce that which has no credence? Who laughs at the idea of learning from poetry? Tell me their names.

These who sitteth in the seat of the scornful are probably people who never learned critical thinking, because, as Martha Nussbaum says,
students exposed to instruction in critical thinking learn at the same time a new attitude to people who disagree with them. They learn to see people who disagree not as an opposing sports team to be humiliated, but instead as human beings who have reasons themselves for what they think....
Just as ignorance leads to fear of and contempt for what we don't understand, Nussbaum says that learning to examine another's perspective leads to creating a foundation of mutual respect:
And this is important not just for the individual thinking about society, but it’s important for the way people talk to each other. In all too many public discussions people just throw out slogans and they throw out insults. And what democracy needs is listening. And respect. And so when people learn how to analyze an argument, then they look at what the other person’s saying differently. And they try to take it apart, and they think: “Well, do I share some of those views and where do I differ here?” and so on. And this really does produce a much more deliberative, respectful style of public interaction.
If we laugh at the idea of learning from poetry, why read poetry at all? Why do we expect children to begin reading poetry in first grade and continue through high school and into college? Why indeed, as Martha Nussbaum asks, do we study the humanities? And what will be the consequences when we stop?

I see it as a sort of Mad Max meets mud wrestling. In contrast to the inner world Shelley describes, one that can be transformed by reading:

Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things. It transmutes all that it touches, and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life; it strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.  
All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know.

Coalson, Robert. "'There Is No Values-Free Form Of Education,' Says U.S. Philosopher." RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty, 21 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
Nussbaum, Martha. "Educating for Profit, Educating for Freedom." ABC Religion & Ethics. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 19 Aug. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. .
Reisz, Matthew. "Businesses Pay British Professor to Teach Them about Wordsworth | Inside Higher Ed." Businesses Pay British Professor to Teach Them about Wordsworth | Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Education, 9 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. 
Rich, Adrienne. "Legislators of the World." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2006. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. 
Shelley, Percy B. "A Defence of Poetry." A Defence of Poetry. Percy Bysshe Shelley. 1909-14. English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard Classics., 10 Apr. 2001. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Where Ask Is Have

That meaningful conversation about the Common Core Standards I was asking for?

Here it is, by Freddy Hiebert, of TextProject and the University of California at Santa Cruz, in her blog Frankly Freddy:
Acquiring knowledge is the raison d’etre of the Common Core. In the digital-global world, the “haves” are the ones who have knowledge and know how to acquire more knowledge. When you know something, you can build on this knowledge and in this way knowledge grows. Knowledge begets knowledge. The “have nots” are the ones who depend on others to filter their knowledge through talk radio, television shows, and conversation. (Hiebert, 2012)
The problem with the latter is obvious, for the boredom factor if nothing else: all those recycled opinions with no facts to back them up. The more you learn, the more you're curious about, the more you want to learn.

And so early access (or obstacles) to knowledge can change a kid's destiny:
In one sense the economic forces that have improved the lives of all minorities in America make the educational disparities more dire. The economy has become and is likely to remain “knowledge- driven”; making a living increasingly requires most individuals, regardless of race or gender, not only to pursue higher education, but to draw fully upon its resources to develop the kind of skills needed to compete and thrive in the job market (Hershberg, 1998; Murnane & Levy, 1997). Individuals unable to attend or finish college are, more than ever, at risk of being left behind (Fullilove & Treisman, 1990). The apparent irreversibility of the knowledge-driven economy underscores the importance of addressing the per- sistent underachievement of underrepresented minority stu- dents at all levels of schooling. (Fried et al, 2001)

At our house, we're constantly looking things up. Last night, we were walking the dog in the canyon. It was a starry night, and so we were talking about the stars, and the names of the constellations, and how these came from myth, and how none of us knew the real story of Cassiopeia. When we got home, we looked it up.

We look up ridiculous things, too. Yesterday morning, we were reading the New York Times online, and saw the great video by Bill Cunningham about shoes, and got interested in Fashion Week in New York, and looked it up.

Another night, the dog and I were walking with my youngest-by-five-minutes daughter, and she was telling me she wasn't good at English and writing.
Me: But you scored in the advanced category of the STAR test. You must know something.
Daughter the Second: I guessed. I don't understand it.
(Not that I believe that a test score is the final determination of what a kid knows or doesn't know; it is, as everyone in the industry agrees, merely a snapshot of student performance at a point in time. But I did think the score was a piece of data that I could use to bolster my argument.)

Then we agreed that for both of us, even if we know something about something, we don't feel like we really get it unless we have a thorough understanding of how it works.

We talked about it more. I told her the 7% story. I asked her if she felt she lacked the capacity to understand English and writing, if her brain worked in some way that prevented her from understanding it. She thought about that for a second, and then said, no, she probably could learn it.

Which brought us to talking about how so much information is available now, and which brings me to a favorite poem by Christopher Smart, "A Song to David":

A Song to David

   Sweet is the dew that falls betimes,
And drops upon the leafy limes;
      Sweet Hermon's fragrant air:
Sweet is the lily's silver bell,
And sweet the wakeful tapers smell
      That watch for early pray'r.

   Sweet the young nurse with love intense,
Which smiles o'er sleeping innocence;
      Sweet when the lost arrive:
Sweet the musician's ardour beats,
While his vague mind's in quest of sweets,
      The choicest flow'rs to hive.

   Sweeter in all the strains of love,
The language of thy turtle dove,
      Pair'd to thy swelling chord;
Sweeter with ev'ry grace endu'd,
The glory of thy gratitude,
      Respir'd unto the Lord.

   Strong is the horse upon his speed;
Strong in pursuit the rapid glede,
      Which makes at once his game:
Strong the tall ostrich on the ground;
Strong thro' the turbulent profound
      Shoots xiphias to his aim.

   Strong is the lion—like a coal
His eye-ball—like a bastion's mole
      His chest against the foes:
Strong, the gier-eagle on his sail,
Strong against tide, th' enormous whale
      Emerges as he goes.

   But stronger still, in earth and air,
And in the sea, the man of pray'r;
      And far beneath the tide;
And in the seat to faith assign'd,
Where ask is have, where seek is find,
Where knock is open wide.

   Beauteous the fleet before the gale;
Beauteous the multitudes in mail,
      Rank'd arms and crested heads:
Beauteous the garden's umbrage mild,
Walk, water, meditated wild,
      And all the bloomy beds.

   Beauteous the moon full on the lawn;
And beauteous, when the veil's withdrawn,
      The virgin to her spouse:
Beauteous the temple deck'd and fill'd,
When to the heav'n of heav'ns they build
      Their heart-directed vows.

   Beauteous, yea beauteous more than these,
The shepherd king upon his knees,
      For his momentous trust;
With wish of infinite conceit,
For man, beast, mute, the small and great,
      And prostrate dust to dust.

   Precious the bounteous widow's mite;
And precious, for extreme delight,
      The largess from the churl:
Precious the ruby's blushing blaze,
And alba's blest imperial rays,
      And pure cerulean pearl.

   Precious the penitential tear;
And precious is the sigh sincere,
      Acceptable to God:
And precious are the winning flow'rs,
In gladsome Israel's feast of bow'rs,
      Bound on the hallow'd sod.

   More precious that diviner part
Of David, ev'n the Lord's own heart,
      Great, beautiful, and new:
In all things where it was intent,
In all extremes, in each event,
      Proof—answ'ring true to true.

   Glorious the sun in mid career;
Glorious th' assembled fires appear;
      Glorious the comet's train:
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;
Glorious th' almighty stretch'd-out arm;
      Glorious th' enraptur'd main:

   Glorious the northern lights a-stream;
Glorious the song, when God's the theme;
      Glorious the thunder's roar:
Glorious hosanna from the den;
Glorious the catholic amen;
      Glorious the martyr's gore:

   Glorious—more glorious is the crown
Of Him that brought salvation down
      By meekness, call'd thy Son;
Thou that stupendous truth believ'd,
And now the matchless deed's achiev'd,
      Determin'd, dar'd, and done.

Aronson, J., Fried, C. and Good, C. (2001). Reducing the effects of negative stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Hiebert, Elfrieda. (2012). It's not just informational text that shapes knowledge acquisition; the critical role of narrative text in the Common Core State Standards. Text Project.
Smart, Christopher. A song to David. Poetry Foundation.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


There was some point in junior high school when I stopped understanding math. I kept attending class, did the homework, and got good grades. In high school, I took algebra and geometry and then scored well enough on the PSAT, SAT, and ACT to have been recruited by colleges thousands of miles away from my home in the Appalachia of the West. What the.

Except for geometry (which I loved, I know not why), I did not understand a bit of anything having to do with numbers (as previously discussed here). How did I continue to do okay at something I did not at all understand?

Maybe my happiest moment in college was when I found out I never had to take another math class again ever, not ever, never. Years passed. I graduated. More years passed. I had a bunch of bad jobs, from hostess at Denny's to secretary at an auto repair shop (previously discussed here) to scheduler at a home health agency (where my biggest responsibility was bringing my supervisor a cup of coffee from the stand on the corner and then sitting in her office and listening to her talk about how the divorce was going). I never needed to know more math than what I was pretty competent with, i.e., adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and finding percentages. Whew.

Then after three years of working in the criminal justice system, I decided that crime-fighting was not for me, and decided to return to my One True Love: English. Which would mean grad school, which would mean taking the GRE. I wasn't worried; I'd always kind of liked taking standardized tests, probably because it gave me a chance to do my favorite thing in the world: sit in a corner and read with no one talking to me. That the reading material wasn't always of the finest didn't trouble me. Like gutter winos who drank Night Train, I'd read whatever was available. (Still do. Yesterday while waiting for my daughter at the orthodontist's, I read Alaska Magazine, FORTUNE, and some other rich people magazine.)

So the first time I took the GRE, I did as well as one might expect on the verbal reasoning and analytical writing, and about as poorly as anyone could possibly do on the quantitative reasoning. I was no longer able to pass as someone with a minimally adequate understanding of math. I did so poorly that when I took the GRE a second time, I bubbled randomly for the quantitative reasoning and improved my score by 7%. I don't mean to mislead anyone; this made no significant improvement. If there had been a cut score for far below proficient, that is where my score would comfortably have settled like a little toad in a pond.

I was thinking about this because my daughters' CA STAR test scores came in the mail yesterday. And because I read this, about a grown man who submits to taking the SAT.

As a side note, I'd like to say that one might think this math handicap extends to data analysis, but it don't. I love data. Love it. I love the patterns--sometimes there is even a narrative.

I was reviewing longitudinal test result data for a high school and saw some patterns that might tell a story: a strong majority of incoming freshmen scored in the advanced category, but that there was a steep downward trajectory, with about half as many grade 11 students scoring so well. I have more investigating to do to be able to draw any meaningful conclusions--is this typical of all high school students in the district, state, country, or is this just this school? Could the difference partly be explained by a large influx of lower-performing students at grade 11? What other factors might influence these results?

These might be numbers, but there is a narrative, there are characters, there's a plot with conflict, action, and, one hopes, resolution.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Free Education for All

Did you know you can take free university courses online?

At MIT Open Courseware, there are more than 2,000 classes available. For free. This is simply amazing. (Maybe you knew about this and it's ho hum to you.) Students can learn about anything, about everything, can build their own program of study.

MIT Open Courseware even offers classes designed for high school students.

More resources for online learning, all free:
200 Free Online Classes to Learn Anything from Online Education Database
500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities from Open Culture
Stanford's Free Online Courses from Stanford University
Open Yale Courses from Yale University

It's like someone just giving you thousands and thousands of dollars

Friday, September 7, 2012

What I'd Like to See

. . . is some kind of real discussion of the Common Core Standards, instead of something like this:
"One thing that the Common Core addresses is quality versus quantity," said Dr. Nicholas Jankoviak, coordinator of federal programs for Paragould School District. "With Arkansas Frameworks we're talking about student learning expectations, with Common Core, we're talking about standards." Jankoviak said Common Core would also better prepare students for college and career readiness and would provide a national standard for students who may move from one state to another. "So what you have is a child from Michigan coming to Arkansas and in Michigan they have a set of standards they're working with," Jankoviak said. "Then when they move to Arkansas, they find that it is much more rigorous here. So that child in Michigan was not adequately prepared for what takes place in Arkansas."
Or this:
". . . the program will be tougher and more comprehensive, and is expected to better prepare students for life beyond the district. “It’s a more rigorous program, and the standards are designed so all students, when they graduate from high school, will be college and career ready,” Smith said. “People around the state are very excited about this because it is a strategic commitment to raising the standards and bringing consistency to the educational program."
(Both mentioned by Catherine Gewertz in Curriculum Matters at EdWeek.)

Rarely do I see anyone write about or hear anyone talk about the Common Core Standards who has read through not just the standards themselves, but all the ancillary materials.

Do the Common Core Standards actually address quality over quantity? No, not really. Does alignment with the Common Core Standards guarantee a more rigorous or even just a more consistent educational program? No, not at all. That would be impossible.

It's all in the implementation. Even the best, most comprehensive standards are meaningless unless sound instruction lays a solid foundation and sound assessments are used to evaluate progress. A thoughtful approach to curriculum and assessment design could address quality over quantity. A haphazard, just-get-it-done approach will not. 

As far as rigor goes, I'm thinking that one can't transform oneself from TV-watching, chip-eating, pajama-wearing couch sloth into superfit triathlete overnight. It's a mistake to demand rigor simply so we can say that our programs for students are rigorous. It's a mistake with serious consequences for the students most at risk. We need to keep our intention in front of us at all times. In this case, our intention may be to make sure that students "will be college and career ready."

To make that happen, we have to determine where students are in their learning and identify where we think they should be. Then we figure out which are the gaps that prevent them from attaining that destination and think about strategies--as many and as varied as possible-- to bring students from where they are to where they should be.

Every teacher, school administrator, district superintendent, and school board member should read the Common Core Standards just to be informed, just to know what the conversation should be about, just to be able to review curriculum and assessment materials. Parents should, too.

The Questions We Need to Ask

We go along in our lives and sometimes happen upon a revelation that changes our perspective, our understanding--it might even radically alter the whole of our inner landscape. We find that the world as we know it is not, all previous appearances to the contrary, the world as it is.

It might be a spiritual awakening:

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.  And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. Acts 9:2-9
It might not be.

The revelation might be sparked by word from a friend, the observed action of a daughter, a principle you come to understand. A story, a poem, a painting. A piece of music. A car accident. It could be beautiful or ugly, subtle or dramatic, horrifying or not.

What matters is to be open to the possibility.

What seems dangerous is the tendency of the mind, once it's been made up, to harden into concrete. Even if the concrete is formed into beautiful statues, what good are they if nothing new can be created? Life is growth and change. There has to be the flexibility to allow for learning. To allow for admitting the possibility of having been wrong. To welcome new ideas or different perspectives, even if they prove one wrong.

We all know the danger of assumptions. And yet we cannot stop ourselves from not just assuming but acting on our assumptions. Constantly.

We assume that we know what someone is going to say and we stop listening. We assume that we know better and we stop listening. We assume that the person lacks credibility because of how he or she looks or speaks or because the person has this particular role and we believe that all people in that role are crazy or stupid or wrong, and we stop listening. That stopping is the concrete, and then communication is impossible. There may be concrete on both sides.

It's a worthwhile exercise to keep asking questions. So what if you think someone is ridiculous or crazy or stupid or mean or biased or overly critical? What would the cost be to step back, be willing to consider the other person's perspective or point of view, and ask three meaningful questions?

I see this sometimes in working with writers, that for a few, the pain of receiving editorial feedback is so great that they will do anything to avoid it. The most common strategies are to explain why they wrote as they did, even while the editor is telling the writer the problems in the writing, or, taking the opposite approach, to immediately agree with the editor, interrupting the editor and taking the floor instead. Both strategies are effective short-term solutions: the editor shuts up, and pain is avoided. They create a bigger problem, though, as how many editors are willing to continue working with writers who don't listen? 

A more effective strategy, one that would serve the writer professionally and personally, would be to say, "Can you tell me more about why you think that?" or to ask some other questions ("Are there other examples of that mistake in my work? Can you tell me how another writer might have handled that differently? Do you have suggestions for how I should address that problem? Is that a pattern you see or an isolated error?").

Everything is everything. These problems in communication--in connecting with other humans--aren't limited to the professional arena. When my daughters were in the 4th grade, I needed to talk with their principal about a problem I noticed at school. The moment I opened my mouth to speak, I saw a change in the principal's facial expression. Her eyes narrowed and her lips tightened into a fake smile (I was doing a lot of research on Paul Ekman's work on microexpressions at the time, and so was paying particular attention to facial expressions). As soon as the principal realized that I was going to tell her something she didn't want to hear, she stopped listening. Her response to me showed me that after registering that I was making what she perceived as a complaint, she hadn't heard anything I said.

I have so many examples in my life, examples in which I am pouring the concrete. None of us is immune.

The concrete may serve us if we are dependent on being right or on maintaining the existing state of affairs (however crumbling). Not so much if we want to make anything better. Certainly not so much if we want to develop common ground with other humans. Or even just with ourselves.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Knowledge Is Power

I have the distinction of having once, very early in my career, before I knew better, created a writing prompt that became the basis of a lawsuit. At the heart of the litigation was the question of how much privacy students may expect at school. What kinds of questions may students be required to answer?

The prompt was part of a mandatory writing assessment for a statewide testing program. I can't discuss the details of the prompt for two reasons: such discussion is not only prohibited by the non-disclosure agreement I signed as an employee of Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company, but is impossible due to the effects of the passing of time on my memory. I mean! Since 1993, I've written hundreds of writing prompts and thousands of test questions.

I do remember that the prompt had to do with the kinds of questions typically given candidates at job interviews, and then asked students to answer some kind of similar question, probably something like this:

During a job interview, candidates may be asked to discuss a difficult situation they handled successfully. Write an essay in which you describe an obstacle you have overcome or a difficult situation you handled successfully. You may write about real life or you may make up a situation for your essay.

That last line is important, isn't it. The point wasn't to gather personal information about students, but to give students a chance to demonstrate mastery in writing. No one cared what the content was, really; students could have written about learning to tie their shoes or training a puppy or choosing between different brands of sneakers. I don't know how the lawsuit turned out.

However, what happens when the purpose is to gather personal information about students in order to "get to know students better"? What happens when the questions are administered in two packets that total 33 pages for students to complete on their own, and the questions have to do with the most private of private personal and family matters? What happens when teachers are asking students--without having built a relationship with the students, without having observed any pathology, behavior disorder, or any other dysfunction in the students--whether they or any family members have ever been depressed, abused alcohol or other substances, relied on unhealthful strategies to cope with stress?

A lot of parents may not know this is happening at school. I do, because I look at every page of my daughters' schoolwork.

Some parents may not care--but I wonder how those parents would feel if a stranger walked up to them and asked them those same intrusive questions? (And others. I'm cherry-picking.)

I wonder how the teachers who are asking the questions would feel if the tables were turned, and someone in a position of authority were asking them questions that invaded their privacy?

Oh, wait. I already know how those teachers would react. It's all right here.

Parents should know (and schools should know, but clearly they do not) that if schools are going to gather personal information about students, the schools are required by law to first notify the parents to allow parents to exercise their right to opt out.

It is the parents' responsibility to know our rights and our children's rights, and to advocate for our children.

According to the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, schools must notify parents if they are going to ask about:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sunshine, Cross-Referenced to Amen Corner

My colleague (not that I have just the one, only that he is the colleague with whom I work most closely these days) sent me this, a post by Roy Peter Clark on William Zinsser's On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

I must go now. I feel inspired to delete extraneous words from a recent essay.

Would that I remember this and apply the knowledge to my emails.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lameness in Action

Cranky alert. Consider yourself warned.

In my daughters' geometry textbooks are several questions that result in answers that have double meanings. You know the ones. 420. That other two-digit number that would make a room of high school students smirk. Last year, in a different textbook, there was another number that made my daughters' middle-school math teacher burst out laughing, but they couldn't remember what it was.

Years ago, a math writer thought it would be funny to tuck a reference to Mary Kay Letourneau into a test question.

The writers must think it's funny. Maybe they are grandiose in their thinking and consider themselves subversive. It just seems immature to me.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

If It's Broke

At Children's Book Insider, Laura Backes offers common problems in stories for children, which are common problems in all narrative writing (thin plot, bad plot, flat characters, and bland, obnoxious, or otherwise unappealing voice), and concludes with a reminder about the importance of a solid command of mechanics:
When submitting to an editor, grammatical errors can distract from an otherwise strong book. When self-publishing, they're the kiss of death. If you know you have problems with punctuation, spelling, subject/verb agreement, formatting dialogue, etc., hire a good copy editor to clean up your manuscript. There are people out there who live to fix these problems. Use them.
If these be the common problems, what are the solutions? Backes says exactly what I say to writers who ask me how to improve their writing: Read. Read a lot.

Find writers you like and read everything they wrote. If you skipped out on the great books in high school and college, consider taking another crack at them: Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina--there are lists all over the place if you need ideas on what to read:
  • 100 Novels everyone should read here.
  • Information Is Beautiful on the books everyone must read here.
The reason people like them is that they are great stories beautifully written. A lot of them. I couldn't stand Herzog, but it always ends up on someone's list. In matters of taste there is no argument.

By the way, if anyone is ever looking for an editor, I know a few whom I highly recommend, whose work is so good and evidence of such knowledge and skill that I am dazzled. It may surprise you that one might be dazzled by the skillful wielding of grammar and punctuation, but thorough competence always does dazzle.

Words for the day:
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
Samuel Johnson hadn't seen the Occupational Outlook Handbook when he said that.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If, Then

If you're always dreamed of writing a novel, National Novel Writing Month is coming up. More here.

If you're ever made a mistake, you might want to exploit it exorcise it work through it and let it go by writing about it for a contest. More here.

If you need deadlines to inspire you to write, there are plenty of other contests and competitions. More here. And here.

If you've always wanted to know more about how to build a sentence, you could read this.

If you'd like an opportunity to shake your head at the sorry state of affairs for writers, you could look at this.

Same as above, but for editors.

If you'd like an opportunity to feel righteously indignant, read about the Amazon review scandal. More here.

If you are a student (at any grade level) and you'd like to try writing and illustrating a six-word memoir, now's your chance. More here.