Proficiency promotion

Students will progress from one level to the next when they achieve proficiency — not when they get a year older — in a Colorado school district called Adams 50. From the Denver Post:

Students will be tested this spring to determine their proficiency in reading, writing and math, and will be grouped next year with peers who are learning at the same level.

Students may move to the next level at any time, not just the end of the year or the end of a semester.

Several schools are piloting the idea.  Kim Carver, a first-grade math teacher, says the new approach is working.

Six-year-old Dominic Herrera showed (a capacity matrix) on the subject of counting pennies. On the chart were four categories: “I need help,” “I think I can,” “I know I can” and, finally, “I can teach it.”

Dominic had reached the “I know I can” level and was onto the next category, telling time in five-minute intervals. He was at the “I think I can” level.

“It’s neat that they have ownership, and they know what proficiency means,” Carver said. “It’s not arbitrary anymore.”

Eventually, the district plans to use 10 levels for students from kindergarten through high school.

The plan requires specific learning goals and close tracking of students’ progress, which I suspect will be very helpful. But kids who progress slowly will need something extra, such as mandatory summer school, to complete school by 18 or 19.

Grade levels are a subtle form of child abuse, writes Paul B on Kitchen Table Math.

Imagine if someone made you wear the wrong size underwear every day for 13 years; not very comfortable and not likely to turn you into a clothes horse.

Grouping students by standards mastery is working in Chugach, Alaska, he adds.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. I wonder why teachers in the Denali district thought tracking student progress was too burdensome. Too bad the report didn’t elaborate on this point, as that problem seems rather easy to solve if it’s a genuine claim.

    When I was in elementary school in the 70′s my school used a similar system for teaching math to 5th and 6th graders. The “two grade” math program was divided into 12 units. Each unit consisted of a pre-test, directed study areas, and a post-test. A student would start a unit by taking the pre-test. Study areas were assigned by the pre-test problems that were answered incorrectly. When a student completed all the study areas he took a post test. If he got all the post-test answers correct he moved to the next unit. Otherwise he would work on more directed study areas for that unit. Each year every student would start at the first unit. Restarting was not burdensome as those students who mastered material could work through that material in a couple of weeks. The only “problem” with this method was it only lasted for “two grades” so the students that completed with all 12 units had “finished” math.

    I loved learning math with this method. I’ve often wondered if learning math in this way and not other subjects skewed my interests at an early age.

  2. I wonder why teachers in the Denali district thought tracking student progress was too burdensome.

    None of the available software would run on the district’s Apple ][ computers.

  3. “…None of the available software would run on the district’s Apple ][ computers.”

    Na! They were using KayPro-II’s in those days…

  4. “Adams 50 will eliminate grade levels and instead group students based on what they know, allowing them to advance to the next level after they have proved proficiency. ”

    Is this a joke? Or has someone not been paying attention to the events of the last 100 years? This will have exactly the same problems and objections that the usual suspects have with tracking. The kids who move rapidly through the curriculum will be overwhelmingly white and Asian, while the kids who have trouble will be overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

    You think maybe someone won’t notice?

  5. deirdremundy says:

    Ahh… but while it lasts it will be heavenly for the smart, bored kids!

  6. It’s neat that they have ownership

    Now there’s a buzzword we can all bandy about for awhile.

  7. Cal,

    So the simple retort is that nothing will be any different from the current system.

    However, labeling differences in performance as tracking seems to be misguided. I believe the complaints about tracking are that better performing students will have access to better resources ( e.g. teachers, curricula ). The proficiency based system seems to have a natural advantage in avoiding those problems. With students learning at different rates it would seem that the assignment of students to teachers for leaning specific skills would have to be more flexible. So students would get access to more teachers, which would increase the likelihood that the system would be fair. It also seems that the proficiency based system becomes much simpler if you teach every student the same skills, so all students learn the same skills with the same expectations. So it seems to me that proficiency based systems are less susceptible to problems of tracking.

    As an aside, I’m not convinced that tracking is dead. I don’t know a lot about the small schools movement, but in our district it is being used at a middle school as a way to track basic achievers. Parents have to choose to place a child in the small school, but only students that score at the basic level on state tests can attend. And not surprisingly it was started at the middle school in our district that has predominately low SES and high hispanic populations.

  8. > You think maybe someone won’t notice?

    Is that what you’re worried about? I’m worried that the kids who aren’t white and who aren’t Asian will do well.

    Man, all those decades of carefully contrived excuses for the failure of the public education system built upon a wink-wink, nudge-nudge racism that wouldn’t stand the light of day for a millisecond if it weren’t in service of the public education system, gone in a puff of smoke.

    Now that’s something to worry about.

  9. It will certainly be an interesting experiment to watch. I hope that they are being vigilant in the collection of data. It would seem that some subjects (reading proficiency and mathematics) are more conducive than others. I believe that New Zealand has incorporated something like this into its reading program at the elementary level. Kids are with the same teacher for several years and their reading progress is monitored monthly. Topics such as social studies, literature and perhaps the sciences would, I think, be less conducive as they are less linear.

    If the end result is the segregation of the “smart kids” from the less smart kids, there are lots of reasons to worry–particularly if the groupings reflect the typical subjective reflections of who is and is not smart, there certainly would need to be some examination of why that is. But once these things are put in place, it is devilishly difficult to wrestle the unfair advantages away from the ones who land on top–so I would hope that the district procedes with all due caution.

  10. On the chart were four categories: “I need help,” “I think I can,” “I know I can” and, finally, “I can teach it.”

    Just a small nitpick…it doesn’t necessarily translate that the people who can do something can also teach it. And it doesn’t mean that people who can teach others are somehow more proficient. A math prodigy might have trouble explaining simple arithmetic because, to the prodigy, math is as simple as breathing. A person who struggles with math before “getting” it, on the other hand, might actually be a better teacher.

    I knew someone who was a whiz at the LSAT logic games, but she couldn’t have taught an LSAT class if her life depended on it. How does she figure out the answers? Her response: “I don’t know, I just do it.” I can be the same way when it comes to proofreading a friend’s essays. I’ll tell her to change something but sometimes can’t articulate why. My reasoning basically boils down to, “It sounds better this way. Do it.”

  11. I hope they can make it work. This is the type of thing I have been asking for since I was in grammar school.

    The comments at the site of the original article were interesting, many from people in or near Adams 50. It seems the greatest fear is that universities may not recognize the district’s alternative to GPA. It seems to me this would only be an issue for grades 9-12, and should be surmountable in any case.

    Since this is district-wide, there should be no problem with the kinds of attacks usually directed at individual charter schools. But I’d be happy to bet that the state NEA affiliate is hard at work looking for an obscure law or state constitutional provision on which to base a lawsuit.

  12. In 1969 – 1971 I taught at a Catholic school on the South side of Chicago that used the same technique, calling it “continuous development,” for grades K-3. As a beginner first-grade teacher, I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to have students who were, indeed, ready to learn to read. The downside (for me, not for them) was that once they were seen to have mastered the sets of skills that it was my job to cover, they were moved out of my classroom so they could begin the next level, even if it was before the end of the year. The mastermind of this system, which I never ran across in any other school, was our elderly Kindergarten teacher/curriculum coordinator for K-3. I wrote a Master’s thesis on a curriculum idea that occurred to me while reading Bereiter and Englemann (Direct Instruction pioneers) but that made sense to me because of this classroom experience that was based on making sure that students are given instruction at their readiness level (I don’t think it’s necessarily ability so much as readiness and preparation, at this level anyway).

  13. Mrs. Davis says:

    The union will kill it. The good ones will escape quickly and the dull ones will accumulate till they time out. So the average quality declines.

    Heads per teacher also decline as the bright ones get out in 8 years instead of 12. That means fewer teachers.

  14. I think it is an interesting way to re-institute tracking. Of course the smart ones will outpace the dumb ones. The more intelligent you are, the faster you learn. It might motivate the slackers/coasters to do a little better, however. Unless social/peer pressure trends toward underachievement. In regular classes, it is possible to hide one’s light under a bushel, so to speak, so peers don’t know you actually study and do OK in a class, but if you’re being physically advanced, it isn’t possible.

    Kids won’t be out in 8 years, however. Maturity does matter. Very bright 8th graders aren’t able to master advanced literature and composition because they’re just developmentally not ready for it. We already have lots of programs in place for advanced upperclassmen, however — cooperative programs with colleges, the AP program, IB, etc.

  15. GoogleMaster says:

    Margo/Mom said:

    it is devilishly difficult to wrestle the unfair advantages away from the ones who land on top

    This is an extremely disturbing statement in a Harrison Bergeron-like way. Life is unfair. Some kids are born with the ability to grasp concepts after two or three lessons; others require a year’s worth of teaching while some may never “get it”; but most fall somewhere in between. What do you propose, lobotomizing the smart kids?

  16. “As an aside, I’m not convinced that tracking is dead. ”

    Uh, of course it’s not dead. Ability grouping is the norm in most high schools. I wasn’t implying it was.

    ” I’m worried that the kids who aren’t white and who aren’t Asian will do well.”

    Oh, please.

    Look, I am in favor of the idea in principle, if it allows kids who learn more slowly to actually learn things rather than just drift along. I was merely shocked that Joanne and the reporter weren’t pointing out the obvious–this is tracking in another form.

  17. Mrs. Davis says:

    If the bright ones don’t get out in 8 years, graduation rates will plummet. It will be interesting to see how they grade for maturity.

  18. It’s not tracking, because at any given time, in any given room, there were students who were of different “abilities.” They were just all ready to learn next the particular skills and contents that were offered in that classroom. There was no way to get stuck in a track with no way out, because if you began to learn faster (for whatever reason), you could move ahead at that rate. By the same token, if you began to slow down, it would take you longer to move to the next classroom.

  19. Some questions for the people who think this is tracking. What is your definition of tracking? Is tracking a strategy to be used or avoided? If you think tracking is a valid approach with some pitfalls, is proficiency promotion better or worse at managing those pitfalls than grade level assignment?

    It occurred to me that I probably overlooked the obvious, the current system of assigning children to specific grades is tracking. As I define tracking as anything that arbitrarily limits what a child can learn in school.

  20. tim-10-ber says:

    I think this is exciting! I hope it works!! I have wanted something like this for years in our school system — which is too backwards too ever get this creative, but I will share it with them….

    Tracking, please…it is a live and well in the business world. You never escape it. Ever heard of companies “top grading” where they only want the A and B players? Kids need and I believe thrive in a competitive environment where they have good coaches/teachers to help them excel to the best of their abilities.

    Joanne, please keep us informed on how this progresses!

    Thanks!

  21. Diana Senechal says:

    This is all based on the assumption that learning is linear: that you master the skills at one level and advance to the next.

    There is that aspect of learning, but there are other aspects as well: for instance, coming to understand a topic at different levels, from different angles, and realizing that there’s still more to understand. One does not just “get” a poem and move on to the next one.

    I am concerned that this “move them along” approach will focus on skills exclusively. Skills are necessary, of course! But it would be sad if students did not learn how to tackle complex texts and problems.

    “I know I can identify Macbeth’s tragic flaw! Next?”

  22. “What do you propose, lobotomizing the smart kids?”

    She’s a liberal. She doesn’t want “disadvantaged” kids to succeed; she wants to slap down “advantaged” kids. Equal misery for all.

  23. for instance, coming to understand a topic at different levels, from different angles, and realizing that there’s still more to understand. One does not just “get” a poem and move on to the next one.

    I know this happens with poems, but I’m puzzled as to how this circling back can be done by schools. For me, I’ve found that coming to understand a poem or a play at different levels is a matter of life events changing my awareness, eg falling in love for the first time, or losing a close relative. But a school can hardly go around killing off students’ grandmas, let alone making the students fall in love. I think a school’s job is to give students the skills to read poetry, and the exposure to it, and let them come back to the complex texts and problems when the student themself feels they are ready for it. Do you have some method of more directly teaching different levels and angles in mind?

  24. Diana Senechal says:

    That’s a good question, Tracy, and I see your point. I think a teacher can convey in various ways that the poem does not end with the class reading of it. I remember teachers who posed questions that could not be answered immediately, or who read poems aloud in memorable ways, or who seized upon details and sounds that might not have caught a student the first time around. A teacher can do all these things and leave the student to return to the poem independently.

    Sometimes a poem or book will stay with a student (or not) regardless of what the teacher does. But it seems a good teacher will hint, in all sorts of ways, that there is more to the poem than may appear.

    All of this is compatible with skills instruction. My concern is that if we determine a student’s level on the basis of skills alone, we will focus almost exclusively on skills. Class discussion will grow obsolete; there will be no “class” to speak of. Recitations of poetry will be deemed unnecessary and inconvenient. Students will simply identify similes, personification, etc., and move on.

  25. Susan Rakow says:

    The positive value of continuous progress schools and the ridiculous notion of age-based grouping are ideas that have been around for decades. It’s the PUBLIC that has refused to accept this multi-age achievement based approach to schooling, seeing it as somehow “radical”. Community members continue to oppose these approaches because it isn’t the way THEY went to school. The Progressives knew this in the 1940′s and we have always known it to be logical and successful. Words like “tracking” fuel the flames of fear based on decades of both real and perceived discrimination. There is no reason to assume that African-American students, when taught well, will not be competitive with their peers from other ethnic groups. It may take children from poverty (of all ethnic groups) longer to catch up in the beginning; but then, they should soar like all the other kids in appropriate settings with good instruction. Bravo to this school district! Let’s give it the 3-5 years it takes to institutionalize any significant systemic change and then evaluate it for real.

  26. Thanks, Diana, I see what you mean when it comes to topics like English (as opposed to reading and writing instruction). This is also an issue with history. It would be good though to have a way of teaching English that allowed both for the class discussion, and also for students to be able to spend more time practising skills they find difficult (I never got my head around meter in poetry) while allowing other students to move on once they’ve mastered that particular skill.

  27. deirdremundy says:

    Hmmm… but it MIGHT be helpful to have the students memorize more poems, so they can always carry them with them, and maybe find them again if they forget bits.

    Coming back to a poem when life experience changes can only happen if you remember enough of the poem to come back again.

    Otherwise, it’s just ‘that poem where that guy died’ or ‘the one with the guy and his horse’ and you might NEVER find it again…..

  28. I don’t see why a poem only has to be covered once in school. If there is a poem worthy of multiple readings and various understandings it can be read and discussed multiple times within the same level or across levels.

    But to cover all possible exceptions I’ll rely on my practical understanding of the universe. Time progresses in a linear fashion, so no matter what education strategy you follow somehow it has to fit into a linear sequence. Perhaps someone with a better understanding of physics can correct me on this one.

  29. Diana Senechal says:

    Deirdremundy, I agree with you wholeheartedly about memorization!

    Pm, yes, education does have to fit into a linear sequence. But it is not only linear. One advantage of having the same class for an entire year is that you can return to topics and discuss them in depth; the group has common knowledge and memory.

    That’s not to say a system of individualized pacing is bad; we should just consider potential drawbacks and losses.

    Tracy, I agree, it is good to spend time on meter. That can be done at several levels at once. Those getting a handle on meter can learn the fundamentals, while those who have grasped it can look at the relation of meter to rhythm, sound, or syntax.

  30. Diana,

    To reemphasize I think that returning to subjects is possible with proficiency promotion just as easily as with grade level promotion.

    I do agree that grade level promotion is better at guaranteeing the availability of a group of students. But I think it also has the weakness of providing the illusion that any class of students has common knowledge and memory.

  31. tim-10-ber says:

    If done correctly isn’t education constantly circling back and going deeper (or from another angle) at topics covered in prior grades? Isn’t this how you reinforce knowledge and improve upon what was once learned in order to take that knowledge to a new level?

    Math and science build and each other all the way through school. English and history as well as foreign languages do, too. I do not see why any of this stops with this system of allowing the student to progress at their own level (with the gentle push of the teacher to stay on track).

    What am I missing?

    I am all in favor of watching this and seeing if it works. Heck, I would really like my large urban district to take this on now. I do believe all children will thrive in this system. For black children, I believe it gives them the necessary tools and time to catch up and then excel as Susan said earlier.

    We already know, in my urban district, once ELL students are certified proficient in English they out perform other demographic groups. I don’t see why those other demographic groups that do not tend to do well in the current system wouldn’t excel under this approach.

  32. pm and tim-10-ber, English literature has a serious problem in that there is so much good and famous stuff. (Other languages may also have this problem). So if you return and cover a poem multiple times this means not spending time covering different poems.
    This is not to say that covering a poem multiple times is a bad idea. I don’t even know what units could be used to measure and thus compare the benefits from covering a few poems multiple times to covering many poems once only. I only know that there is a trade-off, and there will always be some pressure on English teachers to cover more poems (and novels and plays) so that their students can recognise references to these famous works in their later reading.

  33. Margo
    “If the end result is the segregation of the “smart kids” from the less smart kids, there are lots of reasons to worry–particularly if the groupings reflect the typical subjective reflections of who is and is not smart, there certainly would need to be some examination of why that is.”

    - Well, to me that would justify my ability to predict students’ success based upon their background. Diamonds in the rough are few and far between, despite whatever the newest feel-good teaching movie says (Freedom Writers?). The only people who need worry about it are those who push the “everyone has equal ability to learn” kool-aid.

    GoogleMaster
    “But once these things are put in place, it is devilishly difficult to wrestle the unfair advantages away from the ones who land on top–so I would hope that the district procedes with all due caution.”

    “What do you propose, lobotomizing the smart kids?”

    -Nah, having CPS take them away from their parents in elementary school should be enough. Their teachers can report the parents for ‘abuse’ such as groundings from TV or forcing the kids to eat their vegetables.

  34. it is devilishly difficult to wrestle the unfair advantages away from the ones who land on top

    Yes, the first years of upbringing (starting with the unfair and discriminatory inheritance of genes) are something the Marxists have struggled against in vain for a century.

  35. Tracy,

    So another way to state my point is that there are difficulties in presenting a curriculum that are independent of using either proficiency promotion or grade level promotion. You’ve explained some of those difficulties for teaching poetry.

    I do think that proficiency promotion will require more flexibility from teachers and students. What problems that come up and how they are managed is what I’m looking to learn.

  36. tim-10-ber says:

    Tracy W — I think you misunderstood what I was saying about circling back. Math, science, english, history if done correctly build upon the prior year’s knowledge. To get to advanced math you have to learn what comes before it year after year. There is review and then you advance. Same for english, history and science.

    I don’t know how you learned the multiplication tables but rather than the drill and kill that is done today I learned my multiplication table from a spiral concept. What was interesting to me was in order to be successful on the outer edges of the spiral I had to master the concepts of the very early part of the multiplication tables at the beginning of the spiral (we went well beyond the 12 x 12 done today).

    This is how it would work for English. So much of what is taught as English today is boring for boys. It ignores the classics and requires boys to read girly books that would bore even me, an avid reader, to tears. However, if my teachers were good enough they would help me develop the skill sets to become a life long reader. Furthermore, those skills would include looking deeper into a variety of works throughout my education.

    So…in the new concept of education being discussed, a student would be able to advance by mastering various concepts about poetry, reading, writing, etc and would be able to read at different level poems or books as they advanced through their studies. I don’t see how advancing quicker through something would hurt English. The student would still have to master grammer, composition, poetry, novels, essays, etc to be ready for post secondary education. Those that are able to master the concepts earlier just move forward (as they would in any of the subjects) rather than being bored to tears and losing interest in school.

    I hope this helps…

  37. To get to advanced math you have to learn what comes before it year after year. There is review and then you advance. Same for english, history and science.

    Tim-10-ber, I think we have both misunderstood each other. When I talked about circling back, I was talking about, say, studying Hamlet say as an action play with a focus on the basic plot for purposes of literary knowledge at one level of student understanding, and then coming back say a couple of years later to look at say the emotional relationships between the characters, and later on at the moral arguments, and then later on to study Shakespeare’s use of language. As opposed to using different works of literature each time to teach the same skills.

    In history, you could also look at a variety of levels at say WWII, as a broad outline, as a way of doing oral history, as military strategy, by economic analysis, propaganda, the use of statistics in history. Or you could cover the same skills while looking at multiple time periods.

    If you always do different works of literature and different time periods students wind up with familiarity with a lot more but you have Diana’s worries about depth, if you do Hamlet and WWII multiple times students will really get to know that there is still more to understand, but risk never appreciating say the pleasures of W. H. Auden’s poetry, or why all the excitement over Barack Obama’s election. And of course there are plenty of options in between the two extremes of only studying one piece or one time period multiple ways right the way through school, and never studying the same work or time period twice.

    I am not sure though about assigning works of literature by gender, I was utterly bored by Jane Eyre at high school. Although I do think my brother’s high school English teacher was rather foolish assigning The Handmaiden’s Tale at a boy’s school.

    Maths of course is a lot more linear and I think naturally spirals. I did learn my times tables by drill, no killing involved though, and of course I went far beyond 12×12, I was taught how to multiply any two numbers given enough paper and pencil. And of course learning fractions, and later on algebra means practising those skills over and over again. This was a bit earlier than “today” however.

  38. Tracy,

    Could you explain why you think math is more linear? A comparison would be helpful. I’m particularly curious to know if you think that math’s linearity is inherent in the subject or an artifact of the development of its teaching.

  39. Actually on thinking about it, I’m starting to have some doubts. Eg geometry definitely links in with algebra, but is it dependent on it? It just struck me thatt through school there was a sort of progression from whole numbers to fractions (and decimals and percentages) to algebra to calculus. With statistics being dependent on algebra too. Hmm, now I’m not so sure of this. It does still strike me as different though to English literature, where you can say read and enjoy Sylvia Plath without having gone through Chaucer beforehand.

  40. E.D. Hirsch is a big proponent of having children learn specific content. You may know his work on cultural literacy which resulted in the series of books “What Your Nth Grader Should Know”. I believe that he sees a linear sequence to learning literature. I think one of his main points is that there are idioms and references a child must understand before understanding a given work of literature. So there is at least the existence of someone whose thought seriously about this issue.

    When I went to school they started us out learning about greek mythology in 7th grade. I believe this was intended to help us understand works we would read in following years. They probably should have had us read the bible as literature as well, but I suspect for obvious reasons that was made an optional course for later years.

  41. Margo/Mom says:

    Omigosh–I did it wrong! I didn’t get Greek mythology until 9th grade. I guess I must have missed something in the literature that I read before that time.

  42. I think one of his main points is that there are idioms and references a child must understand before understanding a given work of literature.

    What level of understanding are we talking about? There are many pieces of literature that can be understood and enjoyed on multiple levels – eg I read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey first without having ever read any of the Gothic novels Jane Austen was mocking. I obviously didn’t understand all of the mockery Jane Austen was using, but that did not preclude enjoying it and understanding the story of growth at the centre of the novel.

    There may be an advantage to a particular approach of presenting literature, and indeed the more I know about literature the more value I tend to get out of each work I read, but on the other hand, a lot of great literature was written originally to make money, and given the somewhat haphazard state of education for recorded human history, that meant writing literature that was accessible at least on one level even to people who hadn’t done a PhD in English lit.

  43. Could you explain why you think math is more linear? A comparison would be helpful. I’m particularly curious to know if you think that math’s linearity is inherent in the subject or an artifact of the development of its teaching.

    I think a more useful way to approach it is not linearity, which implies a single correct sequence, but dependencies. The basic idea around building a curriculum that accounts for dependencies is ensuring mastery of skills and concepts before moving on to other skills and concepts that build upon them. Imagine teaching multiplication to a child who has no concept of addition.

    Using the dependencies approach, there is more than one valid way to arrange topics in a subject, but the ways are limited. Math is much more limited by dependencies than literature since math is a single system, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t dependencies in literature as well.

  44. Some good points. So it would seem that it would be easier to decompose literature into learning modules and use with proficiency promotion as it has less dependencies.

  45. I think both Tracy and pm are well off the mark of how one teaches literature. Why would you introduce Hamlet as plot only? Hamlet is a senior level (generally) play because the concepts are more sophisticated and aren’t very accessible to less mature learners. That’s why Romeo & Juliet, which is relatively simplistic, is taught to 9th graders. And why on earth would one leave appreciation for language until last?

    Allusion is an important part of literature. Those who wrote for money — ie. Dickens — still expected their audience to understand these allusions without a PhD. His audience, for example, was extremely familiar with the bible and BCP, so those were slam dunks. He did not have to explain the idea of redemption and its symbolism in A Tale of Two Cities to his audience like I have to do with mine. And if you don’t understand the theme of redemption after revolution, then you have missed the point of the novel entirely; I don’t care what you know about the plot and Sidney Carlton.

    Are you really asking us to restructure literature instruction so that students know less? Are you really arguing “because I don’t understand this, nobody else has to either”?

    And, btw, if you read Jane Eyre, you have read a gothic novel that Austen was mocking in Northanger Abby. Sheesh.

    BTW, I do not have a PhD in English Literature.

  46. LS,

    Best I can tell you are suggesting what I was, that literature has a natural ordering similar to mathematics. However I’m willing to work with the idea that I’m mistaken, so I suggested other less ordered approaches would work with proficiency promotion as well.

    I’m still interested on your views on tracking. I’m not sure if you saw my previous comment where I posed some questions.

  47. I think both Tracy and pm are well off the mark of how one teaches literature.

    This is entirely probable, since I’ve never done it. However, if I am wrong in any of the things I have said, please tell me precisely how.

    Why would you introduce Hamlet as plot only? Hamlet is a senior level (generally) play because the concepts are more sophisticated and aren’t very accessible to less mature learners.

    I was using Hamlet as a concrete example of how one could return to a piece of literature multiple times from different angles, as this was what Diana was talking about earlier. As you think Hamlet is inappropriate for such a role, please do me the kindness of reading my comments substituting in another work that does meet with your approval for such a role.

    Allusion is an important part of literature.

    Indeed. Allusion is not however the only part of literature. It is possible to read a piece of literature, not get the allusions, and still enjoy the book/poem/play itself. I have done it multiple times. I get more out of a work the more I know, but not every work actually requires understanding all the allusions.

    And if you don’t understand the theme of redemption after revolution, then you have missed the point of the novel entirely; I don’t care what you know about the plot and Sidney Carlton.

    Thank you for the information about what you don’t care about. I found having read The Tale of Two Cities added considerable depth to my first visit to Paris. I may have missed “the point” of the novel entirely, but that doesn’t mean that I wasted my time entirely. I found it worthwhile reading even without getting the main theme.

    And, btw, if you read Jane Eyre, you have read a gothic novel that Austen was mocking in Northanger Abby. Sheesh.

    First publication date of Jane Eyre was 1847. First publication date of Northanger Abbey was 1817. I do not believe that Jane Austen was mocking Jane Eyre in Northanger Abbey.

  48. Margo/Mom says:

    Oh, no! More evidence that I was educated all wrong. My senior Shakespeare was MacBeth–but I read Hamlet between 10thand 11th grades. I had to in order to go to Stratford with my English teacher to see the plays (Hamlet was on that year). I would say that what I found most accessible (in 1969) was the theme of generation gap–the moral strivings of youth set against the immoral inclinations of the establishment.

    The Shakespeare treat that we were provided in 9th grade (despite the release in theaters of the Olivia Hussey version of Romeo and Juliet) was Julius Ceasar. Ugh. Didn’t get it then and it’s never interested me since. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get Greek Mythology early enough (we were reading novels about growing up in early jr high, as I recall, but this somehow also included Alice in Wonderland–chock full of double entendre and social satire).

  49. Have I been missing out, or is Margo/Mom giving us a rare treat of sarcasm :)

  50. Hey, I LIKE Julius Caesar. It isn’t about mythology at all; it’s about politics :).

    Tracy: I don’t have a piece of literature in mind for Diana’s proposal because I don’t agree with the approach. First of all, students balk at reading anything twice (if you can get them to read it the first time). Secondly, I don’t see the point in making a cursory pass at something. I don’t think the proficiency model will work particularly well past 9th grade for English. A 9th grader can have the technical skills, but not the sophistication he will need to go on to college study. And believe it or not, colleges do want students to have read widely before they get there.

    I’m glad to see you are still arguing that less is more. I think there is a difference between how a novel is taught in a literature class and reading for pleasure. That’s the value added of having a teacher in the room to point out the theme. And, yes, I do passionately believe that theme is important; this is how literature engages us in the contemplation of the human condition across time and place. Sure, it’s fun to do the TTC tour of Paris, but there is so much more to that novel.

    I think tracking at the high school level is clearly appropriate as long as it is implemented flexibly and is data driven. I teach a remedial class, advanced placement, and a highly differentiated gen ed course. It is much easier to teach the two extremes than to accomodate everything all the time and the students benefit from being served on their level. This isn’t a popular philosophy, however.

  51. Diana Senechal says:

    I didn’t propose that students return to a work of literature multiple times, emphasizing a different skill each time. That may have been Tracy’s idea, but I don’t want to misrepresent her.

    I said that “a teacher can convey in various ways that the poem does not end with the class reading of it.” A teacher can help students see that there’s more to a poem, story, or play than may appear at first reading. And yes, memorization is very important.

    My main point was that literature cannot be reduced to skills, though skills come into play. There is good reason for whole-class instruction and discussion: that is how one hears the work and start to consider it at different levels.

    From kindergarten on, I was an advanced reader for my age. As far as skills go, I could have learned on my own, with teacher conferences, some good books, and not much else. But I have not forgotten how my teachers and professors read literature aloud, and how they helped us see meanings and levels we hadn’t seen before (sometimes just through their manner of reading). I don’t know what my life would have been like without that.

  52. Lightly Seasoned: I’m glad to see you are still arguing that less is more.

    Can you please let me know where I was arguing that less is more?
    I did say that there was a fundamental tradeoff in English literature, and in history, between depth and breadth, and I didn’t know what position on that trade-off was right, and I didn’t even know what units you could use to work out what the right position was.

    And, yes, I do passionately believe that theme is important; this is how literature engages us in the contemplation of the human condition across time and place.

    I find more sources for contemplating the human condition across time and place than just in the theme of the novel. My attention gets caught as much by the little bits, eg Elinor Dashwood, when her mother is wondering how she would spend a hypothetical large fortune, jokes that her mother just needs to start on her renovation plans for the house and the problem will take care of yourself. Home renovation is not the theme of Sense and Sensibility, but the joke rings true today. Plus of course, professional critics often find multiple themes to a piece of work, indeed that’s a measure of a great piece of work, that it will bear multiple readings. While I am on the Jane Austen line, her novels can be read as comic romances, as explorations of the moral choice of spouse, as proto-feminist works, and in the case of Emma, as a mystery novel. Just because someone missed the theme doesn’t mean they missed every theme.

    And of course, if you study a novel in class, the teacher can just tell the class “the theme” if the class doesn’t have the historical knowledge to reconstruct the allusions. Just as in history class, the teacher can tell the class about the Treaty of Versailles before getting down to the history of WWII. It’s not necessary to learn literature starting with the Greek myths and legends and Biblical stories, and history starting with the bones of Lucy, which I think makes it different to mathematics where arithmetic appears fundamental.

    Diana: I didn’t propose that students return to a work of literature multiple times, emphasizing a different skill each time. That may have been Tracy’s idea, but I don’t want to misrepresent her.

    Sorry, it was me misunderstanding what you were talking about. When you talked about knowing that there was more to a poem, story or play than may appear at the first reading, I translated that in my head to the various different ways I can look at a poem, story, or play. My apologies for misinterpreting you. What do you mean when you talk about different levels?

  53. Diana Senechal says:

    Tracy,

    One of my poetry professors had an inimitable way of teaching poetry. He would seize upon certain lines or phrases and then tell long stories about them and what they could mean. Somehow, no matter how far he went off, he would find his way back to the poem in question. I would leave class with little memory of what he said. But I would see the poem in a profoundly different way, and parts of his lecture would come back over time.

    Once we were reading the villanelle “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. I remember that he suggested that the villanelle form itself might (traditionally and inherently) have to do with loss. Bishop, being aware of this, was not only writing about loss but responding to others’ treatment of loss through the villanelle. Thus she was responding to Dylan Thomas, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and others, breaking the rules of the form slightly to show something about it.

    But that was only part of what came through in that class. I remember how he read the last stanza, pronouncing “Write it!” with a kind of ferocity. He pointed to her restraint and the heartbreak that comes through it. But more than anything, he read it in a memorable way.

    —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

    I have come back to that poem many, many times. I wish that I could remember everything that my professor said about it. But I am sure that it is in part thanks to him that I have returned to it; whatever I learned or didn’t learn from that class, I knew there would be more to find when I returned.

    Now, are these “levels” or “angles”? That’s another question. I would say a “level” includes a previous understanding and more. An “angle” could bring out an aspect of a work without necessarily touching upon other “angles.” Thanks for asking the question, Tracy; I like to define my terms, but sometimes I forget to do so!

  54. Thanks Diana for explaining.