Friday, November 30, 2012

The Common Core is not "evidence-based"--but maybe that's okay!

My Curriculum Coordinator just got a subscription to the Marshall Memo, which may be bad for my mental health--I'll be reading a lot more Ed. research. This post came from reading an article in EdWeek that Marshall refers to in this week's memo.  I'm sorry the post is so long.  I think it served to clarify my thinking...

The Common Core is Not Evidence-Based
There's an article in a recent EdWeek with the remarkable headline: "New Literacy Research Infuses Common Core."  The article's subtitle reads, "In the 15 years since the National Reading Panel convened, the knowledge base on literacy has grown." As far as I can tell, both the headline and the subhead are essentially false.  The Common Core standards are not really evidence-based, and the knowledge base on literacy has not grown much in the 15 years since the now-discredited National Reading Panel --except perhaps in the Socratic sense of knowing how much it doesn't know.

This is interesting only because it points up the farcical nature of so much of today's educational discourse.  While most of what happens in schools today is worthwhile, the way people talk about it is just ridiculous.  One of my colleagues suggested that our schools would be better off if all the Graduate Schools of Education disappeared from the face of the earth (he used stronger words), and I think he might be right. Education research is like Hollywood: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.  Of course, this isn't true, either of schools or of Hollywood, but it's partly true. 

The article itself is somewhat better than its headlines, and if you read it carefully you can see that the Ed. professors are basically just as in the dark as we teachers are--if not more so.  What is most amazing about an article that claims to be about "new literacy research" is that it describes very little actual research.  The article quotes many academics, but often they say things as questionable and non-evidence-based as the following paragraph, which manages to express the same simple idea, an idea that has been a truism for many decades now, over and over:

"In our knowledge-based economy, students are not only going to have to read, but develop knowledge-based capital. We need to help children use literacy to develop critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills, making distinctions among different types of evidence," said Susan B. Neuman, a professor in educational studies specializing in early-literacy development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "The Common Core State Standards is privileging knowledge for the first time. To ensure they are career-and-college ready, we have to see students as lifelong learners and help them develop the knowledge-gathering skills they will use for the rest of their lives. That's the reality."

Privileging knowledge is a new idea?  Helping kids become life-learners is a new idea? Critical thinking in literacy is a new idea?  What?  Not only are these old ideas, there is not a the slightest bit of research or data to be found in that paragraph.

The recent history of "evidence-based" BS
The EdWeek article goes on to discuss the National Reading Panel of 2000, which was a much-ballyhooed effort to establish the most advanced and scientific thinking about how children learn to read and how we can help them.  The Panel's report came down decisively on the side of explicit instruction in skills: phonemic awareness; vocabulary; comprehension strategies; etc.  The panel's recommendations formed the basis of a $1 billion-a-year effort, "Reading First" by the Federal government to improve reading in the early grades.  Eight years later, there was a comprehensive assessment of the program, to find out how much difference this explicit instruction in skills had made.  The answer: zero difference.

The assessment reported three key findings: (1) Reading First did indeed result in students spending more time on reading "instruction" (phonemic awareness, vocab, etc.); (2) Reading First did indeed result in more professional development in "scientifically based reading instruction (SBRI)"; (3) however, "Reading First did not produce a statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension test scores in grades one, two or three" (page v).

Another finding, that the assessment did not consider "key," but that may have had some impact, was that the increased instructional time and the emphasis on skills did not result in any increase in students' actually reading.  As the assessment puts it: "Reading First had no statistically significant impacts on student engagement with print" (page xii).

This is remarkable: in 2000, only twelve years ago, the state of the research (the "knowledge-based capital," in the vapid phrase of the Michigan professor), which the panel of eminent experts claimed to hold to the "highest standards of scientific evidence," was utterly and completely wrong.

After being so wrong, the education experts tried to reposition themselves--but not very clearly.  One of them is quoted in the EdWeek article as saying that after the National Reading Panel, "comprehension became the 'next great frontier of reading research.'"  This is odd, since "comprehension" was one of the central topics of the NRP itself. (1)

Reading Next:
One of the ways the experts tried to reposition themselves was in a report called "Reading Next," which according to the EdWeek article "helped spark the common core's approach. Education professor Catherine A. Snow and then-doctoral student Gina Biancarosa of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that explicit comprehension instruction, intensive writing, and the use of texts in a wide array of difficulty levels, subjects, and disciplines all helped improve literacy for struggling adolescent readers."

Reading Next focused on an array of fifteen "powerful tools" for improving literacy.  In an improvement on the NRP's exclusive focus on skills instruction, many of Reading Next's recommendations were so vague that no one could object ("Effective Instructional Principles Embedded in Content"), and many sounded fairly old-fashioned (Strategic Tutoring; Motivation and Self-Directed Learning; Extended Time for Literacy).  But when you actually looked more deeply into what the specific recommendations were, it became clear that the report was, like the NRP, trying as hard as possible to avoid mentioning the very simple strategy of having students actually read.

Avoiding all mention of actual reading:
Here is the passage from the Reading Next report that discusses "Extended Time for Literacy," which I had thought from its title might mean more time for students to actually read.  That may be what is meant, but the authors seem to twist themselves into jargony knots so as to avoid discussing actual "reading":

Extended Time for Literacy
None of the above-mentioned elements are likely to effect much change if instruction is limited to thirty or forty-five minutes per day. The panel strongly argued the need for two to four hours of literacy-connected learning daily. This time is to be spent with texts and a focus on reading and writing effectively. Although some of this time should be spent with a language arts teacher, instruction in science, history, and other subject areas qualifies as fulfilling the requirements of this element if the instruction is text centered and informed by instructional principles designed to convey content and also to practice and improve literacy skills.

To leverage time for increased interaction with texts across subject areas, teachers will need to reconceptualize their understanding of what it means to teach in a subject area. In other words, teachers need to realize they are not just teaching content knowledge but also ways of reading and writing specific to a subject area. This reconceptualization, in turn, will require rearticulation of standards and revision of preservice training.

This passage is amazing.  Despite the fact that it seems intended to promote spending more time having students actually reading, the language in this passage and the whole report seems to avoid saying that straight out. Instead we hear about "instruction" (four times), "literacy-connected learning," "interaction with texts," and "instructional principles designed to convey content." The word "reading" appears twice, but never on its own, never with the implication that the students might be actually reading; instead, we read that time should be spent with "a focus on reading" and in "teaching... ways of reading."  

This passage, like the whole report and indeed like so much of the discourse of reading experts, makes me think of Pearson and Gallagher's "Gradual Release of Responsibility Model."  These experts, perhaps because they are so far removed from teaching actual children, are not willing to release responsibility...

Much of the data that does exist is obvious
Much of the "research" that the EdWeek article mentions is super-obvious.  For instance, here is some expert wisdom:

"research showing that there is no bright line for when students start to read to learn"

"Kids have to read across texts, evaluate them, respond to them all at the same time. In office work of any sort, people are doing this sort of thing all the time."

"a student's depth and complexity of vocabulary knowledge predicts his or her academic achievement better than other early-reading indicators, such as phonemic awareness."

Didn't we all know these things already? But here is my personal favorite piece of obvious data:

"students who practiced reading, even when it was difficult, were significantly better 20 weeks later at reading rate, word recognition, and comprehension, in comparison with the control group."

Wow--if you read more, you get better.  Who knew?!

Education is like medicine, circa 1850
I have read that at the end of John Hattie's 2009 Magnum Opus, Visible Learning (I've ordered the book, but it hasn't come yet), Hattie compares the state of research in education to the state of medical research in the nineteenth century. In other words, we teachers might be better off with home remedies or folk wisdom.  And in a sense this makes me feel a bit better about the Common Core.  The Common Core is in no real sense, as far as I can tell, evidence-based (saying that students will one day have to write non-fiction is not scientific evidence for making them read it a lot when they are eight), but given the state of education research, maybe that's okay.  What matters is that students read a lot, think and talk about what they read, and look carefully at their own writing.  We English teachers can facilitate this process, but we shouldn't worry too much about the standards, which are, as Tim Shanahan says, in an expert opinion I can agree with completely, "a little goofy."

(1)  In fact, one of my favorite passages from the NRP report is the following piece of meaningless verbiage: "Comprehension is critically important to the development of children’s reading skills and therefore to the ability to obtain an education. Indeed, reading comprehension has come to be the “essence of reading”."  This is as absurd as if one were to say, "Movement is critically important to the development of children's running skills and therefore to the ability to compete in many team sports.  Indeed, movement has come to be the "essence of running"."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is the Common Core's call for more non-fiction anti-sexist? Maybe, but it might also be ageist!

Some people have defended the Common Core's call for more non-fiction by saying that the current slant toward fiction in English class is unfair to boys, since boys tend to read more non-fiction than girls do.  Boys do, in every country (pdf), read more non-fiction than girls.  I'm not particularly against having kids read more non-fiction.  I think the main thing is that kids read books they are interested in--and sometimes books their teachers are interested in, and that they have in-depth discussions both of the larger questions raised by the text and of the word-by-word texture of the text.

Just interesting as the gender divide, and considerably less discussed, is the way reading tastes shift over time.   Boys like non-fiction more than girls; in a similar way, older people like non-fiction more than younger people. I see this in my own children, I see it in my colleagues, and I see it in my own reading.  When I was a kid, I read more fiction than nonfiction.  In my twenties, I read about the same amount of fiction and non-fiction.  By now I read more non-fiction than fiction.  Why is this, and what might it mean for our practice?

I have two theories about why I read non-fiction more now than I did as a kid.  One is that quality matters more in fiction than it does in non-fiction. I may not have read all the books, but I have read most of the really, really good ones, and I'd much rather read a mediocre non-fiction book than a mediocre novel.  At least I'll learn something!

Another reason, I think, is that I want to escape the real world less than I did as a kid.  I'm less interested in entertainment, and more interested in practical matters.  I am much happier to do the dishes now than I used to be.  I like to think that this is wisdom, but I'm prejudiced.

If I am prejudiced, it's possible that the people who wrote the Common Core standards are prejudiced, too. So is the new emphasis on non-fiction an example of ageism? After all, David Coleman is about my age...

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Talk of the Town: Malcolm Gladwell, non-fiction, thrillers, and the delusions of realism

(A piece online in the NYTimes has been getting a lot of attention in the past few days.  Here's a quick response.)

Perhaps our students do need to read a bit more non-fiction
The Common Core calls for having kids read more non-fiction.  A recent post on the NY Times website says that reading non-fiction is a good idea because it will help students write non-fiction.  This is the best argument I've seen for reading non-fiction, and it echoes something I've said for years: that it is absurd to ask students to write analytical essays when they never read them.  Nevertheless, the most important thing is that kids read a lot. If you read a lot, it’s easier to learn to write.  And if you can write, you can write anything, more or less.  You just have to look at some examples first.

When I taught Leafstrewn's Senior creative writing course (those were the days!), I structured the whole course around literary apprenticeships.  As a class, we read, studied, and then emulated a number of authors; in the culminating project, students read, studied, and emulated an author of their own choosing.  The course was easily the most satisfying and coherent teaching I've ever done.

For most kids, creative writing comes more easily than analytical writing.  This is probably partly because most kids have read a fair amount of creative writing but very, very little analytical writing.  If, therefore, we want our kids to get better at writing analytical essays, we should have them read some analytical essays—but not necessarily thousands of pages of them.

Any reading that’s not pleasure reading should have a clear short-term purpose
The Times post starts off with a very compelling story about Malcolm Gladwell reading a hundred Talk of the Town pieces before writing one of his own.  But the post draws the bizarre conclusion that this anecdote supports the Common Core's drastic (and, like the rest of the Common Core, totally non-data-driven) call for fully half of students' reading to be of "informational texts."

This conclusion is silly.  First of all, the argument suffers from one of the great weaknesses of educational discourse, the tendency to overly short-term thinking.  Reading 100 Talk of the Town pieces probably took Malcolm Gladwell about two hours.  Those two hours were no doubt excellent short-term preparation for the immediate task before him, but surely no one would argue that those two hours were what made Gladwell a successful New Yorker writer.  Gladwell's writerly skill was probably the result of decades of reading, and if we want our students to be able to write more like Malcolm Gladwell, the question we should be asking is not, What did Malcolm Gladwell read for the two hours before he wrote his first Talk of the Town piece, but what did he read for the decades before that?

Fortunately, my amazing research skills were able to provide some insight into Gladwell's reading habits.  The first sentence of the first search result of the first thing I typed (typoed, actually) into the google box on my browser ("lamcolm gladwell childhood reading") provided this testimony from the man himself:

"I am, first and foremost, a fan of thrillers and airport literature, which means the number of books that I read this year that reach the literary level of the typical New Yorker reader is small."

Now, I love Jack Reacher just as much as the next guy, but I would not use Gladwell’s reading list to argue that the best preparation for writing for the New Yorker is to read a lot of Lee Child novels.  Instead, our students should, over the long term, be reading a lot of whatever interests them, and then, in the short term, be reading more targeted texts for specific purposes.

Pleasure Reading
The Gladwell anecdote highlights not only the distinction between short-term and long-term thinking, but another important distinction as well: the difference between pleasure reading and purposeful reading.

As I've said before, I think of pleasure reading not as skimming, but as a deep immersion of the kind that can remove you from yourself and your surroundings.  Gladwell, like many travelers, likes thrillers for precisely this escapist reason (it's less clear why people would want to bring them to the beach!).  For me, as I get older, non-fiction increasingly provides this deep immersion, but in any case the purpose is largely the pleasure, the immersion--and the benefits of this immersion are comfort and facility with language.  These benefits accrue only over the long term.  A course of pleasure reading will not show many practical results in a time frame of less than a year or so (though I have learned a thing or two from Jack Reacher about guns and Ford Crown Victorias). Pleasure reading also strikes me as different from "informational text," which is the Common Core term for non-fiction.  The NYTimes post used The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as an example of the non-fiction that students should be reading. That book would serve well--but for pleasure reading, not for a specific purpose.

Purposeful Reading
Purposeful reading is pretty different from pleasure reading.  This activity is almost always of short-term benefit. For students, there are two main purposes: (1) to get information; (2) to learn how to write a particular kind of text.  The first purpose is more important for Social Studies, Science, and other "content area" courses, and the second is more important for English class.  Since I think reading is a very effective way to learn, I think the main place for purposeful reading of informational text is in the content areas, and the main purpose should be to get information.  Ideally, these informational texts should also be pleasurable--I never learned much history in school, and most of what I know about history comes from adult pleasure reading, mostly of the popular kind—but in a social studies course the purpose is primary, and it is, again, short-term.  Deep knowledge and understanding will no doubt accrue over the long-term, but the short-term purpose is informational.
The second kind of purposeful reading—that aimed at craft, at learning how to write a particular kind of text—is the main reason for English class ever to privilege non-fiction.  The excellent journalism program at Leafstrewn has students read regularly, but the reading is always purposeful, aimed at the immediate goal of improving the students own writing—learning how to write a news lead, learning how to handle quotes in a profile, learning how to frame the nut graf in a feature article, that kind of thing.  This kind of purposeful reading is extremely effective, and we need to learn how to incorporate it better into our regular English classes as well.

The Common Core’s emphasis on reading non-fiction should be in the “Writing” section, not the “Reading” section
What we don’t need is non-fiction just for the sake of non-fiction.  Unless kids are supposed to learn, immediately, about Mumbai slums or how to do amazing reportage, there’s no particular reason to have them read Behind the Beautiful Forevers instead of, say, Midnight’s Children.  I happen to prefer the Boo book to the Rushdie book, but a very gifted former student just wrote her college essay about how the Rushdie book changed her life.  That kid can write anything; all she has to do is spend a few hours immersing herself in some models (last year I suggested Pale Fire and a few weeks later she produced an astonishing Nabokovian story in the form of a scholar’s notes on a haiku).  For a particular writing assignment, she should read texts that can serve as models, but in general she should read whatever interests her.  There is good reason for her to read what interests her--or what interests her teacher--but there is no good reason for her to read what interests David Coleman, or an imaginary marketing executive.  The Common Core, like most curricula, is not founded on evidence or data.  In the matter of “Informational Text” as in many other matters, the Common Core is confusing the appearance of usefulness with the reality of usefulness, confusing what might be useful in the short term with what is necessary in the long term, and, above all, I suspect, showing a disdain for anything that is not ostentatiously practical. As so often, it seems to me that the people who see themselves as hard-minded realists are actually the ones who are deluded about reality, while those the realists deride as idealistic dreamers are actually a lot more realistic.

Over this, as I.B. Singer told my father-in-law about another tempest in a teapot, no children will die; but then, some children might suffer unnecessarily.  Why not just let kids read what they want to read?  The first thing is to provide time, space, and books, and the second thing is to create a culture in which books are discussed in a meaningful way.

Friday, November 23, 2012


I am thankful for my family, my colleagues, my students, reading and writing, and the earth.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Educational Public Health follow-up: David Berliner's Excellent Work

Just a quick note:

When I wrote about "Educational Public Health," I mentioned David Berliner in the first paragraph, as someone who has studied and written extensively on the impact of out-of-school-factors on educational achievement.  After I posted the essay, I wrote Berliner an email asking him the same question: shouldn't we be studying and working on the educational equivalent of public health?

Berliner wrote a kind note back, saying, "I am with you, 100%."  He also said that in some of his work he has argued the same thing.  In his words, "one of the proper models for educational research is epidemiology," and that the question of the role poverty plays in children's lives is an epidemiological question.

A lot of people have demonstrated the link between poverty and educational achievement, and one of the virtues of Berliner's work (here's a representative paper (pdf)) is the way he continues and extends this important demonstration.  He uses the PISA score data showing that students in low-poverty schools in the US do as well as those in Finland or Korea.  He cites UNICEF data on child poverty, showing that child poverty in the US is among the highest in the OECD.  I have looked at these data many times, and written about them before (  But Berliner has taught me new things as well.  I particularly appreciated his discussion of very interesting data about how much of IQ can be attributable to one's genes.  According to an extensive study of 50,000 pregnant women and the children they went on to have (including enough sets of twins to be able to study the role of innate genetic differences), variation in IQ among the affluent seems to be largely genetic.  Among the poor, however, IQ has very little to do with genes--probably because the genetic differences are swamped and suppressed by the environmental differences, as few poor kids are able to develop as fully as they would in less constrained circumstances.

Berliner has also, more than most other writers on the subject, tried to begin charting some of the specific causal links between poverty and educational achievement.  He points, in particular, to a number of medical problems that are far more prevalent among the poor than among the middle-class and the affluent; he discusses ear infections, asthma, lead and mercury poisoning, low birthweight.  He also points to the effects of growing up in a poor neighborhood.  Poor kids who grow up in rich neighborhoods do better than poor kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods, and as segregation by class has increased over the past few decades, this factor has become increasingly important.  Berliner also talks about environmental pollution, the way it affects people in poor neighborhoods far more than those in rich ones.

To level this tilted playing field, Berliner suggests a number of interventions, among them universal health care and a greater geographic dispersal of low-income housing. He also suggests universal free preschool, free summer school, and more programs to reduce food insecurity.  These suggestions are reasonable, and I support them.  We should be dealing with poverty directly, rather than thinking we can cure it through the schools. (1)  Perhaps if single-payer health care were seen, as it should be, as an educational program, it might get more support.

Last year, Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times about the link between social class and educational achievement ("Class Matters. Why Won't We Admit It?" 12/11/11).  Since usually, as the headline implies, the establishment simply ignores this inconvenient truth, it was something of an achievement to get the link between poverty and education mentioned in the Times.  But in order to be "realistic" enough to get published, Ladd and Fiske had to elide the point that we weren't going to solve our educational achievement problems by changing our schools.  Instead, they proposed making our schools responsible for the poverty as well as the education!  This was a bit backwards, and I said as much in a letter to the editor, a letter that I was very proud to have published, since it was the only one that said the obvious, that it was more the poverty that needed to change than the schools.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why our students don't do the reading

I started posting on this blog about six months ago.  My first post was about how kids often don't do reading homework.  I had an experience yesterday that brought that issue home to me again.

My students are doing some independent reading of pre-civil-war literature (Moby Dick, Walden, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Poe, etc.), and yesterday I gave them time in class to read.  After twenty minutes of perfectly quiet, focused work, I asked how many of them had read, in the twenty minutes, between 5 and 10 pages.  Over half of the class raised their hands.  Over half of the class, then, was reading at a rate of about two and a half minutes per page.  At that rate, a twenty-five-page reading assignment would take them over an hour.  If there were written work that went along with the reading, the homework would most of them take an hour and a half.  The homework for four such classes would then take six hours.  Few kids are going to spend six hours a night on homework.  If they play a sport or write for the newspaper or have a job, they will often be getting home at five or six, eating dinner, and then starting homework after dinner.  If they start their work at seven, they would then finish at one in the morning--even if they were not distracted by Facebook.

What I think this means is that many of our Honors students are faced with such a constant flood of work that they are essentially doing a daily triage--and that their reading homework for English class is what they are most likely not to do.  If your history notes are getting checked, you are going to do your history notes, even if they take you three hours.  If your written response to the reading homework is getting checked, you will do the written response.  But unless we start taking the AP History route of requiring reading notes that take hours to complete, many of our students, like many students everywhere, are not going to do their Dickens reading, or their Wuthering Heights reading, or their Scarlet Letter reading.  Is this okay?  I don't think so, but maybe it is.  Maybe reading isn't really "the work."

In any case, I went back and re-read what I wrote last May, when I started this blog.  It still seemed relevant:

"This is the work; that was just reading" (5/4/12)

Once a week I help out in our school's "Tutorial" program, which offers in-school academic support for students who need it.  I sat down to help a student with his English homework.  His class was reading a novel; this assignment was to read a chapter and then to write a journal entry about a particular aspect of the chapter.

"So," I said to the kid, "did you actually read the chapter?"
“Well," the kid said, with a wry smile, "that’s a completely different issue."
"What do you mean?" I said.
"This is the work," he said, pointing to the journal. "That was just reading.”

Struck by his words, I asked if I could write them down.  "This is the work. That was just reading."  To this student, reading is not seen as legitimate homework, not seen as homework that has to be done.  No doubt the teacher doesn't see it this way, but the student is far from alone.  Many, many other students seem to feel the same way.

I've been working in this tutorial, which has ten students, all year; only a few times have I seen a student actually reading, and that was almost always because I, the reading specialist, was in the room.  The students in this tutorial seem to like me, but they have not been eager to read with me, and I think it's because they see the reading as a waste of their time.  They must produce the journal entry, or the answers to the reading questions, because those they have to hand in, but in order to produce those you certainly do not need to read the chapter itself.  Or kids are learning to produce pieces of paper, but I'm not sure they're learning to read better.

This fact that many students are not actually reading the assigned reading, or not doing any reading at all, has come to seem more and more like the most important challenge we English teachers face.  If my students don't do the reading, much of my work is simply farcical.  I'm pretending to teach kids who are pretending to learn, but in fact we only meet on a plane of pretense and illusion.  And even more important, perhaps, than whether our classes are absurdist farces is the fact that if our most needy students are not reading at all--and I think that for ten to twenty percent of our students this is more or less the case--then they are probably not going to get much better at reading or writing.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know we need to find one.  Increasingly we are asking our students to journal, or answer questions; last year William Broz published an article in English Journal about the problem in which he suggested that journaling was the answer.  I myself, despite my reservations, have been asking my students to comment on a class blog.  The problem is that then the blog comment or the journaling becomes "the work", and the reading is, well, "just reading."
To finish my story: I asked the student to explain, and I reached over to my computer to write down what he said.
“As long as you can find a few words that are related to your assignment," he said, enjoying the attention, "then it’s all good, especially if its interpretive, cause then you can interpret it in any way you want.  You can make it about cheeseburgers, and the teacher can tell you you’re wrong."  It took me another few seconds to finish typing, and when I reached the end he said,  "Now put a smiley face.”  So I did.


My anecdote should really end there, with the cheery emoticon (ironicon?) but I feel I should add that despite the kid's cheeriness about his M.O., I did suggest that the reading was the work, too (feeling, with the "too," like both Gatsby and Daisy at once), and that reading was worth his while.

I'm not sure I convinced him.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Literacy by any means necessary: the Malcolm X method of learning vocabulary

As an American literature teacher, I'm used to thinking of classic American literature as a treasure trove of extremely thoughtful meditations about almost everything, so I'm very interested in what the American canon has to say about education in general, and about reading in particular.  I've written about To Kill a Mockingbird's caustic portrayal of school and its loving celebration of a Frank Smith-like culture of reading, and about the great scene in which Huck Finn's father castigates his son for learning to read.  American autobiographies are full of wonderful descriptions of coming into literacy (in Smith's words, of joining the literacy club)--sometimes by reading books on your own (Ben Franklin), by reading aloud as a family (Henry James), by using the library (Richard Wright).

These American autobiographies are especially good on reading as a form of self-definition and self-discovery.  Most of the richest and most poignant examples of this that I can think of happen to be from autobiographies of Black Americans--from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright to Barack Obama. I love Frederick Douglass's story of deliberately making friends with poor white boys and bribing them with bread so that they would teach him to read--but Malcolm X's story is the one I'm going to focus on today.  I'll talk about Malcolm's efforts in more detail, but I want to note first that for all of these extraordinarily gifted and amazingly determined men, the journey to literacy was, in Douglass's words, "a long, tedious effort for years."  We should not kid ourselves; even as we try to help make the process as easy and painless as possible, we need to remember that learning to read and write well is not always easy, especially for those suffering from their place in an oppressive social system.

The Malcolm X method of vocabulary instruction
If we want our kids to learn vocabulary, maybe we should think about people who have actually done it.  We've probably all read the part of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in which Malcolm describes teaching himself to read, but I hadn't reread it for years, and it's worth looking at again.  In prison, Malcolm (I call him by his first name with all respect) had started corresponding with Elijah Muhammad, and he became frustrated with his inability to express himself clearly.  He also found that when he tried to read, he didn't know many of the words.  He ordered a dictionary from the prison library and looked at it.  Not knowing what to do--since there were so many words he needed to learn, he just started writing, and he copied the down the first page of the dictionary: definitions, punctuation and all.

It took him all day to copy out that first page.  Then he re-read what he had written down.  He was fascinated.  He liked the word "aardvark."  So he copied down the next page.  And he filled tablet after tablet of paper, and in the end he COPIED OUT THE ENTIRE DICTIONARY!

According to Malcolm X, copying out the dictionary was a great way to learn words, and as he learned more words, he was able to understand the books he tried to read, and as he could understand the books better, he came so to love reading that he read non-stop, and you couldn't have gotten him "out of books with a wedge." And the famous clincher: reading was liberating. Although he was in prison, he had "never been so truly free."  For Malcolm, every page of his books was what Richard Wright called it: a "ticket to freedom."

When the work becomes their own
Copying out the entire dictionary worked very well for Malcolm X.  Should we have our students do it?  Maybe. But I think, looking at this story, the main lesson I take away is that of motivation.  Malcolm was obviously gifted--but he had always been gifted.  He had a lot of time--but so did every other prisoner.  The determination to improve his vocabulary came only when he was (a) highly motivated and (b) face to face with his own poor ability (1).  He was very interested in writing to Elijah Muhammad, and he realized that he could not, in his letters, say what he wanted to say.  When motivated to read and write, and aware that he needed to improve, he figured out a method that worked for him.

Is it possible to create, for our students, conditions similar to those that led Malcolm X to copy out the dictionary?  (Our students are certainly not imprisoned, but they are under the supervision of the state for several hours a day, for many years.)  How can we ask them to do writing that they actually care about doing?  The student newspaper is an excellent way--for the kids who work on it. What can we do in our classes? Creative writing?  Sure--for some.  Have them write letters?  Have them write opinion pieces?  We do that stuff...  How can we have them do more writing that they actually really want to do?  The second condition--that they be confronted with their own poor ability--we arguably already try to do, in our grades and comments.

So one thing we could try is giving the students more freedom in what they write and harsher grades on their writing.  Another thing we could try is giving significantly less feedback on their writing and how to improve it.  This would feel extremely unnatural to us, and would probably be really difficult, and our students might hate us for it--but it might work.  (Is that crazy?  Maybe.  It's been a long week...)  I remember my father's telling me he only learned to write when he was a freshman in college and had a choice: learn to write better, or fail out.  My wife, too, only really learned to write when she was a freshman in college and had to work really hard on revising her own papers.  The burden needs to be on the students, not on us.  How do we put it there?

I don't know how to do it, but I have seen the results. Tonight I watched the Shakespeare play at my school. It was wonderful.  The students did amazing work, and they took full responsibility for it.  In fact, they took so much responsibility that in the talk-back after the play, the teacher who directed the play was not even mentioned--not even once.  Now that is a triumph of teaching! The play couldn't have happened without her, but for the students the work became their own.


These two factors are exactly parallel with the ones that spurred Ben Franklin to extraordinary efforts at self-improvement.  Franklin was having a debate in letters with a friend of his on various hot topics of the day--like whether it was worth educating women (Ben said yes)--and his father happened to see a few of the letters.  His father told Ben that while Ben often had stronger arguments, the friend was a better writer.  This criticism so wounded Ben's vanity that he went to extraordinary lengths to try to improve his writing: first he took articles from his favorite magazine, the Spectator, made notes on their content, and then tried to reconstruct the article from his outline; second, he took Spectator articles and tried to turn them into rhyming verse; third, he took the rhyming verse versions of the articles and put them back into plain prose.  This is not even to go into the lengths he went to obtain books (after he "borrowed" one in the evening he would stay up all night to read it by candlelight so as to be able to return the book before it would be missed in the morning, and he became a vegetarian and subsisted on a "bisket" or "a handful of raisins" in order to save money to buy books).  Ben Franklin, like Malcolm X, had a powerful practical reason to want to be good at writing (to best his friend Collins) and was confronted with his own poor ability (when his father said Collins wrote better than he did).

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Special: Presidential Prep Schools (Part II: English Department Goals)

I have suggested that what comes naturally to us as teachers may not always be the best practice, and I often think that teachers can learn a lot from looking beyond our own classrooms: from looking at the way our literature portrays reading; from looking at homeschooling; from looking at good educational research; and from looking at medicine and doctors (and the health care field more generally).

Another place we should look is at schools that might be different from our own.  Leafstrewn High is a public school--a relatively privileged one (our community has, I think, the most graduate degrees per person of any in the United States), but still a public school.  Anybody who can get an apartment in the town, we enroll.  In this we are distinctly different from private schools, which can select, filter, exclude, hand-pick, etc.  So I thought I'd see if private school English departments speak about their practices in the same way we do--or the same way public schools that serve less privileged students do.  Because it's election season, and because our two candidates both went, as do their children and most of the other super-elite in this country, to private school, I looked up the English department web pages for the two presidential prep schools, the Punahou Academy and the Cranbrook School. 

Interestingly, what I found was in many ways similar to what Leafstrewn's English Department says and does.  The mission statements at these elite private schools, however, go far beyond the skills and standards-based philosophy that is in effect at many schools serving less privileged student populations (1). Whereas schools for the less privileged often describe a narrow view of reading, describing skill development and little else, schools to which the elite send their children seem to consider reading quite broadly, mentioning skill development but quickly moving on to morals, imagination, ethics, spirituality and passion.

The mission statement of our English Department
Several years ago, the Leafstrewn English department took a month or so and wrote a mission statement.  Here it is:

We teach all students to think critically and creatively, to read carefully, and to write well.  In our classes we foster relationships, engagement, independence and confidence.

That's a pretty good statement.  I like the attention to things that are not English-specific: thinking, relationships, engagement, independent, confidence.  I could wish that the reading and writing were more clearly tied to these aims, but as a short statement, it's good enough for me.  The Presidential prep school English Departments have websites with much longer statements, statements that draw out the connections more clearly.

Cranbrook: Reading as a "lifelong habit" that "transforms the individual"
The Cranbrook School, Mitt Romney's alma mater, seems to be fairly traditional.  Though it has progressed beyond the days in which gay students were baited and bullied and given impromptu tonsures, it still, even in its English Department, "remains committed to gender segregation."  Like Leafstrewn, it has core texts and doesn't offer elective English courses until Senior year.  It also, however, unlike many public schools, is willing to openly state goals that go beyond mere academic skills.

Cranbrook does talk about explicit instruction in vocabulary, grammar, and reading "rigorous training" in written expression, but it also talks about how its faculty will share their "passion" for literature. Cranbrook's English faculty "believe that the study of literature is a life-long habit"; they also believe that "reading transforms individuals beyond the development of academic competency," helping them "gain the capacity to take reasoned positions on complex questions and develop an appreciation of other cultures" and thus become "better citizens."

Punahou: Reading as a spiritual and ethical pursuit
The Punahou Academy as a whole is interested in more than just academics (and does not see that interest as limiting student freedom); the Punahou English department seems to be at the center of this endeavor.  As the course catalog explains: "In order to educate the heart as well as the mind, Punahou students are asked to explore their spirituality, examine their ethical systems, and develop their roles in communities." To fulfill this requirement students must take a course in which these issues are directly addressed; among the regular offerings with a Spiritual, Ethical and Community Responsibility (SECR) credit are only two Social Studies courses, but nine English courses.

The Punahou English Department's statement of its own goals (1) is also remarkable, saying nothing about reading fluently, or with comprehension, or with proficiency.  No, Punahou has something much more ambitious in mind: "The goal of the Academy English Department is to teach students to read compassionately, think exactingly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and with literature."  To read compassionately!  And then to act!  Despite a faint tinge of noblesse oblige (remember "compassionate conservatism"?), these are admirable aims. I am troubled by the fact that both candidates, like so many others in the ruling class, went to fancy private schools that are cut off, even more than places like Leafstrewn, from the masses. Nevertheless, if I had to vote for a candidate based solely on his prep school's English department mission statement, I would have to vote for Obama (despite his continuing war-making, extra-judicial executions and willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare).

What do these goals imply?
I'm interested in these goals in and of themselves--good reading may make us more compassionate, though I wonder if other things are more important!--but I'm also curious about whether having a focus that goes beyond skills (what someone a colleague of mine was reading called "authentic" reading and writing) might actually improve skills more than a set of aims that remained focused primarily on skills.  Some research suggests that this is so, and it would make sense.  That also seems to be our thinking at Leafstrewn; I hope we keep it that way.



I looked at the websites of twenty or so high schools across the country that serve less privileged students.  At most of these high schools the websites were terrible, and even at those that did have a substantial web presence, there was often no information about academics at all.  Some promised information and then didn’t give it; the high school my mom and several of my grandparents attended, in Southern Ohio, had a page on its website entitled “Curriculum”, but this “Curriculum” page showed only the Bell Schedule and the grade scale (A: 93-100; B: 86-92; etc.).  At most of the high schools that did describe their curriculum or mission, the English department statements put a great emphasis on skills, saying nothing about passion, imagination, morality, or spirituality.  Here are two representative statements:

KIPP NYC College Prep
The English Department at KIPP NYC College Prep offers a rigorous four-year course of study that fosters critical thinking, reading and analytical skills, technological proficiency and creativity, and sophistication in writing. With the skills gained through this course of study, Students graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep will be prepared for success in the academic and  professional areas  of  their  choice.

Brighton High:
 The Language Arts Department offers a standards-based curriculum which offers a variety of required courses and electives. These courses not only meet the Massachusetts State Frameworks but also prepare students to be successful in English at the college level. The Boston Public Schools curriculum is taught in all grades (9-12). Students in grades 9-12 have over 7 hours of instruction per week in Language Arts.

Students read literature of various genres and are asked to carefully analyze and respond to literature through key questions, as well as developing their fluency through reading independently selected texts. Writing is taught as a process; students are encouraged to revise and rewrite as frequently as necessary, and representative samples of student writing are published on a regular basis. Vocabulary and language skills are integrated throughout the language arts curriculum. 

From the Punahou course catalog, available here:
The goal of the Academy English Department is to teach students to read compassionately, think exactingly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and with literature. We believe that offering students a wide variety of curricular challenges with language and literature will increase their capacity for perception, feeling, reason, and tolerance; nourish their imaginations; and inspire their actions.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Election special: Presidential Prep Schools (Part I)

Our presidential candidates, like most of the US plutocracy, attended private high school.  I'm interested in the differences between the education and literacy of the elite and the education and literacy of the masses, so I spent an hour or so looking at the Presidential prep schools: the Punahou Academy (Obama) and the Cranbrook school (Romney), and another hour or so trying to think about the differences between these schools and public schools.  I find it troubling that our elites are withdrawing more and more from the spheres that the rest of us inhabit, and the private school/public school divide is just one rift among many.  What does this divide look like, and what does it mean?  I'm not really sure, but I've written two posts trying to explore the matter.  This first post is about Punahou and Cranbrook in general, and I'll post something tomorrow about what the schools' English departments say they're doing.

General differences between private high schools and public high schools
These high schools are different from public high schools mainly in their student populations.  The main reason Obama, Romney, Gates and other elites go to private school is that private schools are allowed to exclude kids who are less docile, less privileged, and less able.  Good public schools are mostly "good" because they enroll more docile, privileged and able students, and low-performing public schools are mostly bad because they enroll less docile, less privileged, and less able students. Elite private schools take this difference between "good" public school and "bad" public school to a whole different level, since even at Leafstrewn we don't actively select our students. Punahou and Cranbrook are able to hand-pick their students, and their enrollments are made up almost entirely of extremely privileged and genetically fortunate children (according to an interesting study differences in academic ability among rich kids are at least 50% genetic, whereas among poor kids environment accounts for 90% of academic ability).  At Punahou or Cranbrook, the few scholarship kids, like the young Barack Obama, are rare birds completely unrepresentative of their poorer peers (and Obama was hardly poor).  This hand-picked student body is by far the most important difference between a private and a public school, since students are the most important factor in student achievement at any school, more important than the curriculum, the teachers, or even the budget. .

Non-academic factors also matter
The student population is also important for non-academic reasons, of course. Just as I myself prefer public schools (as a teacher and a parent) for non-academic reasons, many people prefer private schools for non-academic reasons.  Having different populations means that the friends children make are different; the parent population is different; and the culture is different.  But the differences go beyond population.

For one thing, the physical plant is usually dramatically different.  My son goes to public school in a scary, depressing, prison-like structure:

Our President and his opponent, on the other hand, went to lushly landscaped academic chateaux.  (Cranbrook's campus, below left, was called, by the New York Times's architecture critic, "one of the greatest campuses ever created anywhere", and Punahou, at right, reminds me somehow of the Hearst castle at San Simeon):

Academic differences beyond the student population
Aside from the populations, and aside from the culture and the architecture and the groundskeeping, these private schools are also dramatically different from public schools in two ways: (1) they have lower student-teacher ratios; (2) they are not bound by governmental curriculum and testing requirements.

The student-teacher ratios at wealthy private schools are dramatically different from those even at public schools in wealthy towns.  The public schools in leafy Bloomfield Hills, where Cranbrook is located, are relatively well-funded, and have extremely low numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.  While nationwide about 50% of students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price lunch, the number in our own wealthy Leafstrewn is 13%, and in the Bloomfield Hills public schools it's even lower, somewhere between 2 and 8%.  Nevertheless, whereas the public schools in Leafstrewn and Bloomfield Hills have student-teacher ratios of between 11 and 15, Cranbrook has a student-teacher ratio of 8.

Private schools are also not bound by nearly as many government rules.  Punahou and Cranbrook both require standardized tests to get in, and both brag about their SAT results and their National Merit Semifinalists, but neither school subjects its students to the battery of standardized tests that are a yearly disruption of the routine at Leafstrewn and every other public school in the country.  They are also free to run their schools, including their English departments, however they wish--but I'll wait until tomorrow's post to address that.

What do these differences mean?
One thing they mean is that when politicians or billionaires talk about school reform, it is hard for me to take their words at face value.  If standardized testing is so important for improving schools, why don't elite parents push for their own children's schools to give the same tests?  My son went to a private quaker school for a couple of years in between public schools, and he did not take the MCAS.  Malia and Sasha do not have to take standardized tests every year.  Why not? And if class size doesn't matter much, as Bill Gates is so fond of saying, why is it that Punahou and Cranbrook and Lakeside (Gates's alma mater) have dramatically lower teacher-student ratios than public schools do? (In fact the data is pretty clear: as you would expect, class size does matter, and it matters more for poor kids. The chair of Obama's council of economic advisors, Alan Krueger, has done great work on this--see his 2003 article, available here--but Arne Duncan has said that larger classes in high school might be a good idea.)  So in my eyes, neither Presidential candidate has much credibility on education, and both ignore the most important factors in our country's educational health.

Another thing these differences mean is that we public school teachers might look at the curriculum and teaching at private schools, since they probably do things slightly differently.  I've been thinking a lot about how we English teachers can learn from looking at doctors, at literature, at homeschooling, at international differences, and so on; prep schools are another interesting outside comparison. So tomorrow I'll say something about the way the two Presidential Prep schools say they handle reading, and I'll say which candidate I would vote for if all I knew was their high school's English department mission statement.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Skills" vs. "Process"

A colleague's post
I don't often think about the fact that I didn't go to Ed. School, but once in a rare while I wonder if I maybe missed something important. Last week, one of my colleagues wrote, on an internal forum, a very interesting post about different approaches to teaching reading; when I got to the part about how she was "haunted" by "the skills versus process debate" from Ed. School, I thought: Huh?  What skills versus process debate?  How did I miss that?  Fortunately, as I read on, I think I got the basic idea.

My colleague wrote that she fears her focus on skills undermines her goals around process.  She believes that many of our students in the "standard" (lower) track need a fair amount of explicit teaching of skills--the "training wheels" of checklists, rubrics, graphic organizers, etc.; and, while she sometimes worries that students can become dependent on these training wheels, she also thinks that, for almost all of our students, taking the training wheels off leads to high anxiety and not particularly interesting or imaginative work.

This tension played out, according to my colleague, around a recent passage paper that every tenth grader at Leafstrewn was assigned.  The tenth grade teachers, she writes, decided to take a less didactic or "skills"-focused approach to the assignment; I think this means the teachers didn't provide a lot of scaffolding--didn't tell students to make double-entry notes, didn't give a graphic organizer outline, didn't provide a list of literary terms and concepts, etc.  The students were simply, as I take it, given the assignment.

The resulting papers, my colleague reports, were "somewhere between terrible and mediocre."  My colleague now wonders whether she should have done more explicit teaching around the assignment.  Such explicit "skills" teaching might, she suggests, have made the assignment more like a "paint by numbers exercise," but she is also believes it would have led to better papers.

In her conclusion, my colleague writes that we need both skills and process.  She discusses an article by Lisa Delpit (here I felt on firmer ground--I haven't been to Ed. School, but I have read Other People's Children!).  As my colleague writes, Delpit's argument was that "the students who are most in need of the cultural power and capital schools provide get shortchanged by the skills vs. process debate," at least as it was playing out in the eighties.  Delpit calls the debate "fallacious; the dichotomy," she says, "is false."

My reaction
This was all very interesting to me--perhaps partly because I missed out on the debate fifteen years ago, but also because I worry about the issue all the time, though I don't use the term "process."  I wondered, as I was reading, if the debate was really so fallacious and the dichotomy so false as Delpit claimed. There is a distinction here, and it is significant in the real world, as my colleague's story about the tenth grade passage paper shows.

The story about the tenth grade passage was really interesting; like my colleague, I'm not sure what to conclude.  I do, however, have some questions.

One question is whether we teachers maybe tend to focus too much on the short term when we are thinking about lesson planning and assessment.  My colleague thinks, rightly, that her students' papers would have been better if she had given them, along with the assignment, specific strategies for how to do it.  I'm sure that's true; on the other hand, she shouldn't hold herself responsible for the performance of students that she had never seen six weeks before.  So part of it is that she was the coach of a team whose players she had never coached before, and if they don't know the fundamentals, like basic literary terms, or how to mark up a text, then (a) that's not her fault, and (b) giving them a quick primer on those fundamentals is probably not going to make a lasting difference.

Another question the story raises for me is what we should think of as the fundamental skills we are responsible for helping our students acquire.  Is writing a passage paper a fundamental skill?  Is doing double-entry notes?  Is knowing literary terms?  Maybe they are--although I realize that I myself didn't know what "double-entry notes" were until a couple of weeks ago, and I have certainly never made them myself.  But if passage papers, double-entry notes and literary terms are fundamental skills, akin, say, to the two-on-one in hockey, then our tenth graders probably should have been practicing them in earlier grades. 

But maybe the fundamental skills are deeper--even more "fundamental".  That is, maybe they are the more or less unconscious skills of reading, thinking and writing, and the skill of being able to quickly adapt those skills to a new assignment.  Maybe writing a passage paper is like running a particular play on a two-on-one, or like playing a box-like zone defense when one of your five skaters is in the penalty box.  Running a particular play, or killing a penalty with the box defense, is something that a young hockey player might not be too familiar with, so it might need to be taught, and if it weren't taught, you might expect the results to be "somewhere between terrible and mediocre."

So these are the questions my colleague's story raises for me.  My gut instinct--but I'm not sure I'm right--is always to think that we should focus less on teaching particularized skills than on trying to make sure that our students are doing a lot of reading, a lot of talking about what they read, and a lot of revising of their own writing. My gut instinct is perhaps partly supported by what's been happening in youth hockey in recent years.  According to my friend John, the President of the youth hockey program my kids play in, there has been a realization, in recent years, that a lot of hockey practices have been too focused on explicit instruction, that kids were not getting enough time actually playing the game.  John told me that in the past, coaches used to be able to assume that their players were coming to them with thousands of hours of pond hockey and/or street hockey experience under their belts. That experience gave them a feel for the puck on the stick, a sense of how to shoot, how to pass, how, on defense, to challenge the guy with the puck.  These thousands of hours cannot, John said, be made up for with explicit instruction. 

If the analogy with English class holds (my grandmother tells me that these analogies are suspect--that she mistrusts analogous thinking so much that her memoir, soon to be published, contains only one metaphor!), then I'm still not sure what the lesson is.  What I fall back on is my feeling that if the task is meaningful, and if we can get the students to engage with it, then they will need some explicit instruction and lots of practice.  We shouldn't be too worried about teaching a skill right at the same time we're assessing it.  If the tenth grade common assignment was an initial or formative assessment, then teaching them about double-entry notes probably isn't appropriate.  If it was summative, then it should have come later in the year.  But above all, it is not our job to make the student's product excellent now, while we are teaching them, but to help the students become capable of making their own products excellent in the future.

Trying to think this through leaves me wondering what "process" is, and whether, if I would tend to downplay lots of explicit skill instruction (as opposed to practice and fine-tuning), that means I am more a "process" kind of person.  Maybe, but I don't love that term.  ("Process," to me, sounds like architecture-school claptrap--the kind of hooey untethered to the real world that gets you the kinds of buildings featured on a website I make sure to check at least twelve times a year: the eyesore of the month.)  The process that matters is the process of the students themselves being focused on the product--which I guess is the idea, but using the term "process" implies that the product is not important.  It is--and so the key next step would be to have the tenth graders look back at their own papers and try to make them better--which would require understanding why they were terrible or mediocre in the first place.