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.