Friday, September 28, 2012

Studying English is a chronic condition; we must do "the same old things in the same way"; that's okay!

I. English class is repetitive

At our department meeting this week, one of my colleagues said that she feels discouraged when she looks at what her daughter is doing in English class in sixth grade, because it looks so similar to what we are doing in our high school classes at Leafstrewn.    My colleague said that on the first day of school, when she tells her students about the cool things on her syllabus, her students look like they've heard it all before.  "Oh great, we're going to write another profile," she imagined her students thinking. "Let's see, we did one of those in fourth grade--and sixth grade--and seventh grade--and..."

We laughed about it, but the story points up a distinctive aspect of English class that I've written about before: English, unlike math, science, French, or most other subjects, does not have a well-defined body of knowledge that it is our job to transmit.  In this English is much more similar to a sport--soccer, for instance, or running.  It does not seem totally unreasonable to write up year-by-year curriculum standards for math.  My daughter, in second grade, is just beginning to think about multiplication.  My son, in seventh grade, is beginning to think algebraically.  While it's true that different students may move through these topics at dramatically different rates (my son had a homeschooled friend who was learning integral calculus in second grade), the topics seem distinctly different.  In English, the tasks are largely the same year after year.

My daughter last year, in first grade, wrote an argumentative essay (like many of her classmates, she suggested that we should not despoil the planet).  The length and sophistication of her argument was not quite up to what my ninth graders do, but the task itself was basically the same, and even much of the vocabulary was the same.  Her teacher taught that one needed evidence to support one's main idea, that one's evidence should be relevant, that one should consider one's audience, and so on--concepts that sound very much like one of the state's Writing Standards for both grades 9-10 and grades 11-12: "Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence."  This is, again, like sports (my 12-year-old son's hockey team practices skating, passing, shooting, exactly the same fundamental skills practiced by six-year olds, and by the Bruins), and this is why the Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks are so hard for me to take seriously.  Their aim to provide what I think is called "scope and sequence" results in the absurdity of  seeming to suggest that only in grade four do students need to begin to "Choose words and phrases to convey ideas precisely" (L.4.3a.)

II. Studying English is a chronic condition

This summer, I read a book by Arthur Kleinman about doctoring and chronic illness that argues against strictly uniform, standardized systems of care, suggesting that they represented and produced a "dangerous hubris."    "Uncertainty," Kleinman suggests, "must be as central to the experience of the practitioner as it is to the patient."  Much of what his book says seems applicable to education in general, and English class in particular.  Rigid curricula, scripted lessons, the kind of backwards planning that assumes a pre-ordained destination: we can all come up with educational parallels to Kleinman's " of care that claim to answer wholesale each and every one of the dilemmas faced by patients, families, and clinicians (and in a standardized manner, yet!)."

Kleinman's book is talking specifically about the chronically ill, and he often distinguishes what he says about chronic illness from the different truths that may be seen in cases of acute illness.  He says, for instance, that the doctor who cares for the chonically ill has more time to get things right, to build a relationship with his patient, to consider more fully his patient's social position and larger life situation, than an acute-care doctor, who is seriously constrained by the urgent necessity to act as quickly as possible.  Considering this distinction, it struck me that teachers, who deal with their students over the course of a whole year on an almost daily basis, are much more in the position of doctors for the chronically ill than in the position of doctors dealing with acute illness.  An ER doctor wants uniformity and certainty--a script, a checklist, an algorithm--while we teachers have the luxury of knowing that if we take the time to get to know our students' individual needs they will not die before we act.

The experience of the ER doctor may in some ways, however, parallel the experience of teachers in disciplines like math, science, or History.  If by the end of the week everyone in the class needs to learn the quadratic formula, or what the cell wall is and does, then perhaps a script or a checklist might make sense.  But in English especially, we are working on the same skills and tasks over and over, and every kid's needs are different, and the learning goals we have are not, and cannot be, acute.  Our student's do not have to learn the basic facts about Shay's Rebellion by next week.  Instead, they need to learn to read more nimbly, to think more deeply, to write more clearly, profoundly and coherently--or, as the state standards put it, to "Choose words and phrases to convey ideas precisely."

In this sense, being an English student in particular is a chronic condition.  Just as the essence of having a chronic condition is that you can never be cured, that you are always working on the same underlying issues, the essence of being an English student is that you can never be fully educated, that you are always improving the same basic skills. A math problem can be solved; no piece of writing is ever perfect.  If we see education in this way, Kleinman's discussion of chronic illness is interesting.  "We must begin," Kleinman says, "with the premise that chronic disease by definition cannot be cured, that indeed the quest for cure is a dangerous myth that serves both patient and practitioner poorly."

Is it possible, then, that the quest for mastery is a "dangerous myth" that serves both teacher and student poorly?  Perhaps! (1)

III. So is being repetitive a cause for despair?

No. The fact that we are working on the same tasks over and over is no reason for despair, any more than Claude Julien should despair when he has his players practice their passing for the umpteenth time.  We should think of ourselves as coaches as much as possible.  A good coach doesn't do much teaching; instead, she "runs a good practice."  In a good soccer practice, there shouldn't be much standing around, and there should probably be more than one ball on the field. In a good practice, the coach will often be helping one kid while other kids do drills or practice skills on another part of the field.  A good practice will include activities that will be useful for every single kid on the team, from the most skilled to the least skilled.

Yes, we are doing the same things over and over, but what we are doing is not only of immense practical importance, it also provides an opportunity, as one of my favorite poems says, "for love to continue and be gradually different."

IV. A poem!

Lack of novelty is a favorite theme of postmodern poetry (as Robert Hass wittily puts it: "All the new thinking is about loss./ In this it resembles the old thinking...").  One of my favorite poems, "Late Echo," by John Ashbery, is about this issue, and I kept thinking about it this week as I pondered our chronic condition.

Ashbery begins by feeling that "there really is nothing left to write about."  This is analogous to feeling like there is nothing left to teach (As Mallarme put it, "The flesh is sad, alas, and I have taught all the reading strategies"). But although Ashbery begins by saying that there really is nothing left to write about, he does not then, as Mallarme does, fantasize about sailing away to a tropical isle. Instead, the rest of Ashbery's poem is a revision of and counter to the ennui and discouragement of repetition; instead, his poem is a paean to repetition and dailiness, a pep talk to himself.

For immediately after saying there is nothing left to write about, Ashbery revises:

   Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
   In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
   For love to continue and be gradually different.

Poetry is always about seeing the same things differently; so is English class!  We. too, need to repeat the same things over and over, to write about things in the same way, to read books in the same way, to discuss texts in the same way, to love words in the same way, so that love may continue and, as Ashbery puts it in another of the poem's wonderful, unpredictable shifts of meaning, "be gradually different."

The rest of the poem is a beautiful elaboration of this idea, of the idea that being merely a "talking engine," and one moreover who suffers, as our adolescent students do, from "chronic inattention," can, over time, with continual, loving repetition, reveal an "unprepared knowledge," which the poem doesn't have to say is a lot deeper and more satisfying than the "prepared knowledge" of scripted lesson plans.

Now off to dinner and a birthday party!

Appendix: The full poem...

LATE ECHO (by John Ashbery)

Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

(1) Kleinman goes on to say that the real goal is not a cure, but the "reduction of disablement," that is to say, "reducing the frequency and severity of exacerbations." This last goal is not easy to map onto education.  Kleinman is essentially saying that the doctor of a chronically ill patient should try mainly to help the patient not get worse.  This would be an odd, if not quite perverse goal for a teacher to adopt, but it is a goal that strikes a certain chord in me. When I first started teaching high school full time, I adopted as my explicit goal and first principle--and I told my students this straight out--one of the first principles of the Hippocratic oath, to "do no harm."  Back then I was haunted by the possibility that school is doing as much harm as good, that books like Wounded by School and Readicide; How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It are partly right.  Over ten years of teaching and parenting, my views have changed (largely because I've seen what a humane place school can be, and how supportive and wonderful schools can be to many students, especially those who are wounded outside of school), but I still think it's important to try not to do harm!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Question about MCAS

A quick post, just to raise a question:

We got an email this morning: the MCAS results from last year are out, and in Leafstrewn they are good. Ninety-six percent of our 10th graders scored at either the proficient or advanced level.  Ninety-six percent seems excellent, and after I read the email about it I thought, “Wow, that’s cool!  Our kids are good readers and writers!  We are great teachers!”

Then, while waiting in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, I became a little less cheery.  Maybe the Registry had something to do with my mood swing, but I also happened to pick up today’s Boston Globe while I was in line, and I read a story about last year's MCAS scores, in which I learned that  88% of all students statewide scored at the proficient level or above.  88% is not so different from 96%, so my students and colleagues in Leafstrewn seemed a little less special—and I even started to wonder whether the results were reliable.

Depending on how you define “proficient,” it does seem possible that nearly all 15 year olds in Massachusetts are proficient at reading and writing.  But it also seems possible that the scores are getting better partly because the test is getting easier.  MCAS scores have been improving pretty dramatically since the very beginning.  Here are the percentages of 10th graders scoring proficient or above on the ELA test since 1998:

1998     38
1999     34
2000     36
2001     51
2002     59
2003     61
2002     62
2005     64
2006     70
2007     71
2008     75
2009     79
2010     78
2011     84
2012     88

Those numbers tell a remarkable story of dramatic, nearly continuous improvement.  Can we believe it?  I wonder. (1)  If the story is not believable, then a lot of unpleasant questions arise.  

I haven't given a lot of thought to testing or the questions around it, but as we get ready for a supposedly harder test that will replace the MCAS in a few years, and as we get ready for legally mandated use of gradewide assessments in teacher evaluations, we need to be thinking about this stuff.  For now, I just want to know if I can possibly believe that uncannily steady improvement.

(1) Massachusetts NAEP proficiency percentages start at about the same level, 35%, in 1998, and they do go up over the next 14 years,  but in ups and downs, and only to 50%, a very, very different level.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Chicago Fire

There is a destructive fire raging across the south side of the city. The city doesn't have a fire department, because that would be big government inefficiency.  The janitors who work in that part of the city are  having a hard time of it, going in every day to clean floors that are liable to be burning to a crisp.  As for the people who live in that part of town, they are suffering as grievously as you might expect. Early death, terror, family breakdown, and so on.  The people on the north side of the city are intermittently annoyed by the mess across town; when they notice what's going on, they blame the residents or the janitors.

The new mayor, a rich banker who lives in a mansion in a neighborhood far, far from the fire, ran his campaign largely on janitorial reform.  He tells the janitors that they are failing and tries to break their union.  The mayor says things like, "Even people who live on the south side must have clean houses, and these janitors aren't doing their jobs!"  While he talks, the south side continues to burn.  He switches janitors from building to building, but the fires go on.  He gives people vouchers to hire new janitors, but the fires go on.

The mayor passes a new law that requires the janitor's union to have 75% of its members vote for a strike, instead of the customary simple majority; janitorial reform groups, most of which have been bankrolled by billionaires, assert gleefully that this is an insuperable bar.  The billionaires continue to opine that the sufferings of the people who live on the south side would be greatly relieved if only the janitors would try to sweep a little more scientifically in the buildings that the billionaires don't mention are burning down around them.

Armed with this new law, the mayor then rescinds a cost of living raise and institutes new evaluation procedures for the janitors.  If their buildings burn down while they are cleaning them, they will be fired.  Faced with impossible working conditions and a rolling back of their hard-won rights, the janitor's union recommends a strike, and over 90% of the membership votes yes.

Across the country, pundits and news outlets that have largely ignored the fire itself, which has been burning for years, become fascinated by the labor dispute. The New York Times runs an editorial judiciously blaming both sides, and its columnists write that the janitorial union has to get with the program, since other countries don't have as many dirty buildings.  The columnists usually mention the children who live in the dirty buildings, and they usually mention Finland, but they don't mention that Finland doesn't have vast fires raging out of control in over 20% of the buildings children live in.

Amazingly, the janitors stand firm, and the strike is resolved.  The fires continue to burn, and the children continue to suffer. Why can't we see that poverty and inequality are like vast fires consuming our children and our souls?

A few snapshots:

Of the City of Chicago's 400,000 schoolchildren, 85% are low-income.

The child poverty rate in the US is over 20%.  In Finland it is about 5%.

In US schools with less than 10% low-income students, reading scores on the PISA test are much higher than those of Finland as a whole, which has a child poverty rate of about 5%.

Breast cancer mortality rates on the south side of Chicago are twice as high as those on the north side, and there are three times as many free mammography clinics on the north side as on the south side.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Research shows that "research-based" pedagogy doesn't work! (but discussion does!)

I. Excellent scholarship is multivalent

Great education scholarship does many things at once.  McKeown, Beck and Blake's excellent paper about content pedagogy vs. skills pedagogy is a good example: they manage to show that content pedagogy can actually do a better job of teaching skills than  a pedagogy that aims at direct instruction in those skills; but the paper also contains some remarkable data implying that what seems "natural" to teachers may be both unnatural and ineffective.

Another wonderful paper on reading is a 2006 classic by Martin Nystrand, called "Research on the Role of Classroom Discourse As It Affects Reading Comprehension".  Nystrand's paper, a magisterial review of 150 years of research into American classroom discourse, argues powerfully that discussion-based teaching can produce significant gains in reading comprehension.  The paper is worth reading for its main point, but it also sheds light on our era's focus on misguided reforms that claim to be "data-driven--and as a bonus, Nystrand is a sharp, funny writer.  In fact, I laughed aloud more than once while I was reading the paper last summer.  At one point, my wife asked what I was laughing at, and I tried to explain:

In his paper, Nystrand says that the National Research Council (the NRC) and the Department of Education have declared that education is woefully unfounded in data-based research, being stuck instead, according to these august bodies, in "a 'folk wisdom' of education based on the experience of human beings over the millennia in passing information and skills from one generation to the next." Denigrating "the experience of human beings over the millennia" is kind of funny--education is a deep human enterprise, and most of the deepest human experiences (love, child-rearing) have rightly held modern "data-based research" at a skeptical arm's length--but it was  Nystrand's next sentence that really cracked me up:

"While considerable recent work supports the NRC's contention that the education research base is little used in schools, research also strongly suggests that this conception of education research is, in the case of the pedagogical effects of classroom discourse, inappropriate, and even counterproductive." (393).

My wife didn't think it was funny.  I tried to explain: in other words, I said, research does show that education is not often based on research, but research also shows that education that is based on research is inappropriate and counterproductive.


II. The limitations of prescripted lesson plans; the limitations of rigidly "scientific" social research

Nystrand's whole paper, like that sentence, is excellent, both witty and wise. In fact he isn't really saying that all research is counterproductive, only research of the type privileged by the National Research Council, that is, research in which the relevant variables are strictly defined and rigidly controlled.  For classroom practice to be strictly defined and rigidly controlled, it must follow prewritten scripts.  The use of prewritten scripts, however, precludes a more flexible pedagogy, and more particularly precludes rich conversation of the kind Nystrand calls "dialogic" (after Bakhtin and Volosinov, and informed by Vygotsky--what is it with Russians?).

I'm very interested in this" dialogic" mode of classroom discourse, and how it relates to what my colleagues and I are trying to do this year with our focus on close reading of brief passages, but first I had to think about the implications of Nystrand's point about research.  I have been curious and confounded by the inadequacy of a lot of "research-based" pedagogy, and Nystrand's point about education research gave me a new persective on why the research is so weak.

If a process is standardized, it is much easier to reliably measure results.  To produce a more scientifically rigorous and reliable conclusion, then, you want to compare one type of highly standardized instruction with another.  For instance, if you're comparing a skills approach to a content discussion approach, you don't want your data muddied by the way different teachers implement the two approaches.  If you have two teachers doing each approach, you want both skills teachers teaching the skills in exactly the same way, and you want the two content discussion teachers running the content discussions in exactly the same way.

However, Nystrand is arguing, standardization itself may be bad pedagogy.  In the example of a study comparing a skills approach to a content approach, neither approach might be as good as one that allows for more open-ended discussion.  Any script, he suggests, might be too limiting.

In some ways, this seems to support my suspicion of Common Core standards and indeed all backwards lesson planning in English class: if you know exactly where you are heading in a lesson from the very beginning, how can you be excited about the lesson, and how can you make it exciting?

III. The (Research-Proven) Benefits of Discussion-Based Pedagogy

His insight into the limitations of much education research is, however, basically an aside; Nystrand's paper is largely about the significant  benefits of discussion-based pedagogy. Ironically, he makes his case by citing dozens of empirical studies, including more than one showing that discussion leads to large gains in reading comprehension. He also says that the best discussions are those in which the teacher controls text and topic but students have both time and interpretive control.

According to Nystrand, the virtues of discussion-based pedagogy, rather than lecture or recitation, have been reiterated in American scholarship on teaching since at least 1860, when Morrison complained that "young teachers are very apt to confuse rapid-fire question and answer with effective teaching." One of the great virtues of Nystrand's paper is his review of the history of American classroom discourse.  According to Nystrand, it is well-documented that the prevalent form of classroom discourse for over a hundred years has been "recitation," that is, rapid-fire question and answer about the basic facts of what the students have already read.  Some writers celebrated this, but many argued that recitation was essentially pointless, and that discussion was a much better practice.  Nystrand quotes Bloom (1956) as saying that in his observation over 50% of instructional time in American classrooms was taken up with teachers talking.

This is still true, apparently.  In a helpful overview of the state of English instruction, Nystrand reports on research finding that 95% of ELA teachers value discussion, and their students report that discussion helps them understand their readings--yet only 33% of the teachers regularly make room for it.  Indeed, Nystrand writes, other researchers found that in the 58 ninth grade classes they observed, only five classes had any group work, and 90% of this group work was merely collaborative seatwork.  In an even more disturbing finding, the same study reported that in these 58  ninth grade classrooms, open-ended whole class discussion averaged only 15 seconds a day.

This is disturbing, but perhaps not particularly surprising.  Fostering "open-ended discussion" does not come naturally to many teachers, including me at times.  But it is incredibly important to do so, partly because a "discussion-based" classroom results in greater recall and comprehension, but also because discussion-based classrooms help build what Nystrand calls "classroom epistemology" and what my colleagues and I have been calling "habits of mind."

First, Nystrand's own research and the research of others, involving thousands of classroom observations, shows that the amount of classroom discussion is strongly correlated with improved recall and comprehension of the reading, and, interestingly, a greater response to the "aesthetic elements" of literature.  Second, a "dialogic" classroom also creates a culture of thinking more deeply and helps students develop an "identity" as a reader--which will indirectly help students over the longer term.  As Nystrand writes, citing dozens of studies, it is "the conversations teachers lead with their students" that define the way students think about literature.

IV. How we should put "dialogism" into practice in our classrooms

In short, Nystrand says that research shows that we should control text and task (and we should prefer problematic and difficult passages (duh!)), and we should give students time and interpretive responsibility.  According to Nystrand, a recent meta-analysis of 49 studies found that the most productive discussions were clearly framed by the teacher, but gave students extended time to elaborate their ideas and allowed for considerable flexibility in what students actually said. Nystrand also suggests that pair discussion is not as good as larger group discussions.

This fall, I am planning to put some of these ideas into practice.  In addition to high-volume independent reading, my ninth grade classes this year are going to be largely focused on brief passages.  In addition to writing short analytical essays about such passages, and partly to prepare them for the writing of the papers, they will have extended large-group discussions about brief passages more than once a week (as Nystrand suggests, I will mostly retain control of text and topic).  My hope is not only that these discussions will help their reading comprehension and their analytical abilities, but that the discussions will also foster a culture of thoughtful discourse and intellectual and aesthetic curiosity.  We'll see how it goes.

I was going to stop this section there--but then it occurred to me that "seeing how it goes" is far from a simple concept.  In fact, I wish I had a better handle on how to know whether changes I make in my teaching actually make any difference to student learning--but what I see over and over again is that even people who are very interested in data, like Bruce Baker of the excellent blog schoolfinance101, are very suspicious of the validity and reliability of evaluating teachers based on test scores.  Is my own classroom a large enough sample for me to have much confidence that any improvement in my students' performance is actually due to my own efforts?  Hm...  I'll try to find out.  In the meantime, let me go back to my conversation with my wife, after I laughed aloud at Nystrand's wit.

Coda:  Is research-based reform ever helpful?

I didn't get to talk about discussion-based pedagogy with my wife--and it actually took me a while to get back to the article itself, because after I laughed at Nystrand's sentence about research showing that education based on research is inappropriate and counterproductive, she asked a very good question: Well, when is research-based reform not counterproductive?

Um, maybe in automobile safety, I said.

My wife just looked at me.  It was a witty look, and I laughed, because I could see what she was thinking. Automobile safety is a perfect example to use, since decades of research and data-based improvements in safety have resulted in a system that still produces nearly 40,000 violent deaths in the United States every year.  It's possible, said her look, that what's needed is not evidence-based tinkering but a paradigm shift.

Okay, obviously I should have offered a medical example--knee-replacement surgery, maybe--in which research-based reform is useful.  Still, my wife's response was a wise one: what is necessary in the case of automobile safety, as well as what would be helpful in the case of reading, is to look, not more closely at the component parts of the system, but at the system overall.  This is in a way what Nystrand attempts to do in his article about classroom discourse, suggesting that we need to get the sage off the stage.  I wonder if we might also look at the overall system by looking at so called "natural experiments"--for instance by trying to look at the differences between the Finnish educational system and that in the US, or the automobile safety system in Holland as compared to that in the US, in something of the way a recent excellent post on the New York Times's economics blog discusses teacher salaries.  Another way of looking at the overall system is by comparing it to other systems--by comparing education to health care, say.  I hope to explore these comparisons a bit in future posts.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Five Paragraphs On Imprecision

Over these first couple of days of school, I keep thinking about the phrase "the fog of war".  I feel the way I always do the first week back: in the classroom I'm energized, but I keep worrying that I'm missing something.  Out of the classroom, I'm exhausted.  My colleagues, brilliant and amazing, all seem to know exactly what they're doing; I feel lost and kind of scared.  Overall, I need a pep talk.  Luckily, our incoming freshmen got a pep talk at their assembly, so I get to chew on that a bit, and see if it nourishes.

In fact, pep talks and cultural initiations have been happening all over the place during these first days.  I don't think I've ever realized how much our school indoctrinates its students, how thoroughly we try to educate them in the norms and values of the school, and of a decent society.  The freshmen were urged, among other things, to take care of the building, to balance freedom and responsibility, to bring their best selves to school every day, to work hard over time, to ask adults for help when they need it.  This pep talk was pretty similar to a lot of the others--they were almost none of them about efficient procedures, almost none about nuts and bolts.  We were dealing with the freshmen not only as students, but as people.

In our classes, too, most of us have started off with acculturation.  My department chair's advice was: "Relationship before task!"  One of my students told me that my class was the only one in which she actually did anything--but that, too, was acculturation, since I wanted to impress upon the kids that reading and writing would be our primary activities.

With a close relative being treated for cancer this summer, I've been thinking a lot about medical care, about how medical care is becoming more and more standardized, impersonal, mechanical, algorithmic.  For cancer care, this is probably a good idea. But a lot of people are pushing education in the same directions that medicine has been taking--greater standardization, increased central planning, attempts to be "data-driven" or "research-based"--and I'm much less sure that it's a good idea in education.  Instead, what we need is more of what we've been doing over these first days: creating a culture of learning; helping our students learn to be calm and centered in themselves; helping them with their extracurricular trials and tribulations; providing a safe space for them.

I'm feeling foggy, but maybe that's okay, at least for now.  In medical care, the doctor needs to try to be precise.  In education, the teacher can't even try to be perfectly precise--that's the student's job!  The teacher needs to leave room for the student to move, to change, to learn.  But maybe this is partly true of doctors, too.  Think of that line from Kafka: "To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard."