Foreign or bilingual language instruction?

A new law in Illinois is reportedly galvanizing foreign language instruction initiatives in the state. According to this law, students who master more than one language may be eligible for a “Seal of Biliteracy” on their diplomas.

Chicago Public Schools expects to announce its plan for language instruction next month. Other districts have begun instituting language programs; Glen Ellyn School District’s plan, which has yet to be reviewed, requires students to attain an “intermediate high” level by graduation. The general initiative, which began in California, has been spreading around the country.

The Chicago Tribune explains:

At the Illinois State Board of Education, Reyna Hernandez is the assistant superintendent for the Center for Language and Early Childhood Development. State officials, she said, realize that students aren’t building the language skills they need to thrive in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.

How can the world be “increasingly” multilingual and multicultural, unless new languages and cultures are being added at a rapid rate? (There are not, as far as I know.) What’s meant here, I think, is that countries, cities, neighborhoods are becoming more culturally diverse, and more languages are spoken in a given geographical region than before.

If that is what Hernandez and other state officials mean, then priority will likely go to languages spoken in the area (including English). To me this sounds more like a bilingual (or second-language) education initiative than a foreign language initiative. Last year, Joanne wrote about how her old high school was going bilingual; this may have been an early move in the initiative’s direction.

Foreign and bilingual language instruction have somewhat different purposes, content, and methods. When you study a “foreign” language, your purpose is to come to learn words, phrases, grammar, idiom, and literature of a language not in your midst or of your time–and not initially familiar to you. You may do so for a wide range of reasons: to enlarge your understanding, to study literature, to prepare for diplomatic work, to travel without depending on interpreters, etc.

When, in the context of bilingual or second-language instruction, you study a language that is widely spoken in your geographical area, your goals may be different. You may be striving for increased proficiency in a language you already speak. You may wish to communicate better with customers or associates. You may want the language for a job. You may also seek to do the “foreign language” things–things that bring in contact with distant times and places–but your main goal is to deal with everyday situations and people.

There’s lots of overlap, of course, since a language is a language, and study is study. One can learn Spanish in Malaga, Santiago, or San Francisco. Literature involves the everyday; Pablo Neruda’s Odes are all about ordinary (and extraordinary) objects, and everyday conversation has rhythm and beauty. A strictly practical language course can lead to literary study and vice versa.

In addition, foreign language study can benefit from local resources and expertise. For many languages, such as Russian, the opportunities for practice are much more extensive than they were 30 years ago.

Also, the concept of “foreignness” makes less sense now than it once did. Some find the concept itself objectionable, since (in their view) it involves treating the “foreign” language or culture as the “other”–as something alien and appropriable. I disagree–but that’s a topic for another time.

Still, from the various hints in news articles,  it seems that officials are using the phrase “foreign language instruction” to mean “bilingual programs.” Whatever one thinks of either, officials should state what they mean.


Note: this is my last guest post for Joanne Jacobs (for this particular stint). Thanks to Joanne for inviting me back to blog, and to Darren for being a terrific co-blogger.


Should schools raise funds for charities?

Deb Fisher, a therapist at P.S. 333 in Manhattan, has been put on 30-day suspension for raising money on Kickstarter along with a student who has cerebral palsy. Together, they were trying to fund a project intended to help children like himself. The issue, apparently, is that she sent fundraising emails while on the job, and is thus charged with “theft of services.”

Fisher is a relentless advocate for students, according to the New York Times:

During a brief period of unemployment for [the boy’s father], the family moved to a homeless shelter. Learning this by chance, Ms. Fisher began a relentless campaign to get them permanent housing in an accessible building. She helped set up swimming lessons for Aaron. Ms. Fisher, 55, is passionate and hard-driving; her phone calls and emails can be like buckshot. She and another therapist started “Master Arts” for children with disabilities, devising tools to help their painting efforts. She received a mayoral commendation.

In addition, according to the same article, the DOE’s investigation report failed to provide context. It did not mention, for instance, that the Kickstarter campaign was a schoolwide effort supported by the principal.

“We are all very excited to share our partnership with,” P.S. 333’s principal, Claire Lowenstein, wrote in an email on Jan. 11.

The goal was to raise $15,000. The school’s office regularly sent out updates like these: “7th Grader Aaron Philip is Almost 2/3 of the Way to His Goal”; “Aaron Philip is $1,621 Away From His Goal.”

In the end, he raised $16,231. The school celebrated at a town hall session.

During this time, one of Fisher’s co-workers had begun making charges against her. According to the investigators, the most serious charges were unsubstantiated, but they found Fisher guilty of fundraising for “her own charity.”

While I sympathize with Fisher’s intent and question the DOE’s response, I see how the school entered murky territory with this drive. The Chancellor’s Regulations (A-610)—not mentioned in the New York Times article—state:

Proceeds from school-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the school’s treasury; proceeds from parent-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the parent association treasury. In either case, proceeds must be used to supplement or complement the educational, social and cultural programs of the school.

In addition, any fundraising during school hours must be approved in writing by the principal. In other words, if it’s happening during school hours and isn’t school-sponsored, it shouldn’t be happening.

So, the Kickstarter campaign, however well intended, had several problems. The money did not go to the school’s treasury; it was not for any educational, social and cultural programs of the school; and there’s no indication, at least in the article, that the principal gave official written approval of the campaign.

Moreover, fundraising for a particular student (even a particular student’s charity) is a conflict of interest (Regulation C-110); staff members are not supposed to enter business relationships with students.

I see the ethical basis for these regulations. They are there to help ensure fair use of funds and to protect students from financial relationships with school staff. Now, it’s likely that many students, parents, and teachers raise funds for charities (and may join together to do so), but there’s good reason not to do it at school.

All that said, it seems extreme to suspend Fisher. The principal, who applauded the campaign, should have answered for the situation, and the DOE should have made allowances for the good intent. Sadly, this looks like a case of “whatever it takes” gone awry. Here’s a therapist who goes all out for her students: once commended, now suspended.

On teacher scandals and boundaries

Every so often (that is, fairly often), a story erupts in the news about a teacher who had sex with students, sent inappropriate photos to students, gave alcohol to students, or did all of this and more. One recent case is Sean Shaynak, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High school. Although he has pleaded innocent, the evidence is plentiful and damning.

Such stories tend to come with momentary clamor followed by business as usual. The news evokes shock and disgust, but for that very reason it seems remote. Occasionally there’s some discussion, as in a New York Times article, of how technology and other factors may have facilitated the teacher’s activity. Or a talk show may interview a psychologist or other expert. There seems to be an impetus to take up the broader questions of boundaries, but it peters out fairly quickly.

What are the broader questions? I delineate sharply* between teachers (like Shaynak) who are in the profession for the wrong reasons—who seek their advantage or satisfaction over the students’ good—and teachers who do seek the students’ good but nonetheless need to define their boundaries more clearly.

I will discuss this second group. Such teachers receive two kinds of messages that can lead to blurred boundaries: (a) that they should be there for the students as much as possible; and (b) that they should try to relate to the kids on the kids’ own level, or, as some say, “meet them where they are.” (I will not take up technology here; that’s a topic in itself.)

Teachers receiving these messages (and taking them seriously) find themselves in ambiguous situations; students, for their part, don’t always know what is appropriate and what isn’t. My comments here here apply primarily to high school and earlier. College and graduate school have similar issues, but they present themselves on somewhat different terms. [Read more…]

What does this framework mean?

cfgraphicslider1NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña has announced a new system for evaluating schools. Instead of grades and rankings, there will be a “school quality snapshot” and a “school quality guide.” These “tools” will be based on a new “capacity framework” (see image to the left).

At first glance, the framework is unremarkable and unobjectionable. Who can deny the value of “trust,” “effective school leadership,” and, at the very center, “student achievement”? Certainly terms such as “rigorous instruction” and “collaborative teachers” need definition—but doesn’t everything?

Yet the more I gaze at this framework, the more I wonder what it means.

First, I see that the terms have already been interpreted (in counter-intuitive ways) in the NYC DOE’s description.

From the NYC Department of Education website:

At the center of the Framework is student achievement. The core goal of education is to help students get to the next level and succeed. Surrounding that core are the three elements of student support: instructional guidance, teacher empowerment, and student-centered learning. Beyond the classroom, the supports needed are effective school leadership and strong parent-community collaboration. The element that ties all of these supports together is trust. Building trust across the system and within a school—between administrators, educators, students, and families—is the foundation of the Capacity Framework.

I am puzzled by the second ring. What matches with what? Is “instructional guidance” in the description supposed to be the same as “rigorous instruction” in the chart? Is “teacher empowerment” supposed to be the same as “collaborative teaching”? Is “student-centered learning” the same as a “supportive environment”? If that is the intent, then these equations (and relations) must be explained and defended, and there must also be room to question them.

First, how is “rigorous instruction” in the graph related to “instructional guidance” in the description? What is instructional guidance, and who is being guided by whom? How does the guidance promote rigor? What is rigor, for that matter?

Second, is a “collaborative” teacher necessarily an “empowered” one? A truly “empowered” teacher may exercise the option of working alone at times (or even for long stretches of time). (Of course, good collaboration involves solitary work, but I see no acknowledgment of this here.)

Finally, one does not have to be “student-centered” (in the usual senses of the word) to be “supportive.” You can have a highly supportive environment combined with something more like “subject-centered instruction.” (I object to the term “student-centered” in general; it is often used to disparage certain kinds of teaching and curriculum offhand.)

Enough about the discrepancies. What about the graph itself?

Student achievement is at the core, as it should be, but achievement of what? The graph does not mention subject matter or curriculum. (Nor does the explanatory paragraph.)

Now, student achievement (of worthy things, we presume) clearly needs supports. Some of these supports include instruction, environment, and something pertaining to collaboration and solitude. I am not so sure that leadership should be located outside of that ring, but no matter. The chart is supposed to be visually appealing.

But how can “trust” be the outer ring? The description says that it is the “foundation”—but you can’t generate trust out of nowhere, or demand it as a precondition. It is hard earned; it comes out of the other things: achievement, instruction, leadership, environment, and so forth. Granted, the description says that “building trust,” not trust itself, is the foundation, but how can the foundation be something that you build as you go along?

Maybe it is silly to quibble with a chart. But I can already imagine the speeches: “We have to begin with trust. Trust is the foundation of our enterprise.” Of course, from the outset there has to be willingness to trust, but that is different from trust itself.

I do not disparage this framework. It contains good things. Alas, it needs clearer language and ideas.

Is traditional instruction that boring?

I have been puzzling over the op-ed “Plato’s War on Play” by Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College and author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. (The op-ed is behind a paywall in The Chronicle of Higher Education.) Carnes argues that philosophers and educators from Plato onward have distinguished between the “good play” that is appropriate for the classroom and “bad play” that must be kept outside its bounds. In doing so, they have denied themselves a powerful classroom motivator; harnessing “bad play” for academic purposes can do wonders, as the role-playing game Reacting to the Past suggests.

Role-play may indeed motivate students. But why assume that “traditional” instruction cannot do the same? Why assume, moreover, that slower and quieter kinds of engagement lack value?

Carnes writes:

But during the past decade, some faculty members and administrators have discovered that the motivational power of “bad play” can be harnessed to academic purposes. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the phenomenon is the spread of Reacting to the Past, a pedagogical system I helped start, in which students play monthlong games, set in the past, with roles informed by classic texts. For the game set in Athens in 403 BC, for example, students become democrats or oligarchs, and compete by debating the respective merits of Pericles and Plato; for the game set in the Holy Office in Rome in 1632, students pretend to be mathematicians, natural philosophers, and conservative cardinals, and debate whether Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems proves that the Earth moves. During the past decade, Reacting—the epitome of Platonic bad play—has spread to more than 350 campuses.

All well and good–but underlying this movement is an assumption that lectures, discussions, seminars, presentations, etc., are not interesting for students. In a reply to my comment (on a different matter pertaining to the piece), the author writes:

I didn’t mean to suggest that Plato was the originator of the concept of “bad play”. I argue that he was an influential proponent of the idea that competitive role-playing is bad form of play, seductive and dangerously powerful, which must be suppressed. And so it is that the chief proponents of educational play–from Plato to Piaget, and from Rousseau to Dewey–have denounced role-playing games. Which explains why professors embrace “good play”–a lively seminar discussion, a witty lecturer. The problem is that often our “playful” seminars and lectures aren’t all that much fun–for students or for us.

Two questions: Is it true that seminars and lectures–playful or not–aren’t all that much fun? Must they always be fun?

I hear the frequent mantra that the “old” methods no longer engage students and that new ones are needed. I find this strange. I attended my first lectures–about the Moon–at age eleven, and found them captivating; since then, I have almost always enjoyed lectures and seminars for the substance and exchange. In fact, I appreciate classes that give me room to think, where I don’t have to jump in immediately and do or make something. There’s fun in this–but it’s fun that doesn’t always have to be fun. Am I an outlier? Is the world at large clamoring for more “bad” fun? If so, should educators meet the demand, or should they push back a bit?

I am not against role-play as one of many instructional formats. I have used it at times. But month after month of it could get dreary. Even actors could find role-play limiting, since it both is and isn’t acting. I question the widespread assumption that traditional education (with all its variety and permeability) has failed us so deeply and badly that we must embrace something new.

Going international

cakeMy students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is holding an international contest for secondary school students around the world, as well as two national contests and an open call. (For more about CONTRARIWISE, see the website, Book Haven review, and PLATO interview.)

I am eager to see what comes in.

Here is the international contest topic (which has already stirred up much conversation):

Your favorite cultural dish* is now its own nation. Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? You may refer to the ingredients, cooking utensils, eating utensils, human participants, or other aspects of the food’s preparation and consumption. Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences—anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as ‘secretary of state.'” This can be a story, an essay, an epic poem written in the style of Beowulf, words set to a popular song (bonus points if it’s a song we don’t know and have to look up, and it becomes one of our favorite songs of all time), or anything, really.

Although it may seem a blend of Plato’s Republic and the Mad Hatter Tea Party, the possibilities go beyond any immediate associations. When I have mentioned it to people, their first reaction has been, “Where would I even begin with that?” Then they have ended up talking about it for days.

The national contests are intriguing too.

If you know secondary school students (grade 6-12), please feel free to pass on the information! The deadline for the national contests and open call is November 14; for the international contest, December 1.

This is the one plug of my guest-blogging stint. There is nothing I would rather plug right now.


Note: I revised one paragraph of this piece after posting it, in order to fix a mixed metaphor (my own).

Onion: Teacher fired for learning more from students than vice versa

From the Onion: A teacher is fired for “gross incompetence” after declaring, “I just love being around the students—I honestly think I get more out of these classes than the kids do.” She adds, “I learn something new from them each and every day. They teach me so much—far more than I could ever teach them.”

This brings to mind a (real) quote from Michael John Demiashkevich’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935):

An old schoolmaster dedicated his book to all his old pupils, at whose expense, he said, he had learned everything he knew about education. This is either a case of exaggerated modesty or it is a belated confession of incompetence. It is necessary to distinguish strictly between broadmindedness and ignorance.

I suspect, though, that the Onion teacher was really fired for her use of fluffy phrases like “so much,” “honestly think,” and “each and every day.” If she had said, simply, “I enjoy learning from the students as well as teaching them,” she might still have her imaginary job, and she could still learn “something,” or even “a lot.”

Videos instead of transcripts?

Goucher College is piloting a new admissions policy that allows students to submit two pieces of work and a two-minute video instead of a high school transcript. The decision has already drawn criticism–for instance, from Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, who wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, ““This move sends an awful message to high school students and to a broader public that is already fed a steady diet of nonsense about the nature and value of education.” On the whole, thought, criticism has been fairly guarded, according to The New York Times. Proponents and critics alike seem to be taking a “wait and see” attitude.

Dr. José Antonio Bowen, who became Goucher’s eleventh president this summer, believes that the new policy will be more equitable than the old.

“People have learning differences, they mature at different speeds; a lot of great people might have blemishes on the transcript, and think they can’t get in,” he said. “We get mail from teachers thanking us for this, because they have students who want to hang themselves because they got a C in algebra.”

There are at least two distinct issues here. There are students who are not academically prepared for college—or whose preparation is highly inconsistent. Then there are others who are well prepared but who, for one reason or another, don’t have stellar grades.

Will the video option help the first group of students? It may do no more than mask their lack of preparation. The only exception is if they are applying for a trade school, art school, or other program that does not rely primarily on academic work. Even there, a video may or may not represent their abilities or accomplishments.

In the second case–of students with superb academic qualifications but imperfect grades—why not simply make allowances for them? Allow them to supplement their transcript, but don’t replace it. Stop expecting students to be all-star students and athletes and leaders, and instead allow for intellect (which is rarely evenly spread) and character. What does a video accomplish here, unless it supplements the overall picture?

A video could allow a student to demonstrate specific abilities and accomplishments, such as acting, language proficiency, rhetorical skills, or musical performance. It could allow a student to comment on a course or project. It is not a viable replacement for Algebra 2 or American Literature.

Are writing rubrics a must?

I look forward to guest-blogging with Darren! I have many obligations over the next week–so my blogging won’t be prolific. I will try to post a few pieces, though.

Nearly two months ago, Steven Conn’s opinion piece “The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Conn is a professor and director of the public-history program at Ohio State University.) He described a classroom exchange where a student asked for the “rubric” and he had to ask what it was. He then replied that there would be no rubric. In the piece itself, he attributed the demand for rubrics to a general trend toward “helicopter teaching” and “spoon-feeding.” (Note: I agree; I would add that rubrics can even penalize outstanding writing.)

The student who asked me for a rubric did so because she gets them in all her other classes, and has gotten them during her entire school career. Without such road maps, so I have learned, students feel the free-floating anxiety that they will have to do all the work of writing a paper on their own, that they might not do it well, and thus might wind up with a B on the paper. Which as we all know is the same as a C. Hey, I’m sure I’m just as guilty of inflating grades as anyone.

The piece received a range of comments, including not-so-subtle suggestions that Conn should not be teaching. In the minds of some, the refusal to provide a rubric was a sign of laziness or unwillingness to meet the students where they were.

But rubrics and guidelines are not the same, nor (presumably) is college the same as high school.

Rubrics, in my experience, risk being reductive rather than instructive. What makes a good paper? In general, it has a clear and well-supported idea. The structure suits the purpose. It addresses counterarguments and complications. It is free of errors and distractions. It cites its sources properly. At higher levels, it shows original thinking as well as a command of style, cadence, and rhetoric. Now, one could spell this out in a rubric, but to what good end? [Read more…]

Group work does not equal collaboration

[This is my last guest post for this stint. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for having me, and thanks to Rachel and Michael for your excellent co-blogging.]

Often we hear that in today’s workplace, there’s increased need for collaboration, since projects are typically complex and require the combined efforts of many. Education policymakers then turn to schools and say, “OK, kids need to learn to collaborate, so there should be more group work in the classroom.” (This argument came up in a comment on my recent NYT piece.)

The problem here is one of translation. Collaboration and group work are not necessarily the same. You can have strong collaboration with minimal group work, and vice versa.

Suppose you have submitted a piece to a journal. You wrote the piece alone–but later receive comments and edits from the editor. Even if you never speak with the editor (except by email), these edits will inform your revision. Thus, by the time your piece reaches its final version, some collaboration has taken place.

Or say you are co-teaching a unit on the Renaissance. Your own contribution to the unit (which focuses on literature) requires much independent thought and planning–but when you hear what the other teachers are contributing, you adjust some of your presentation and questions, in order to play off of theirs. The independent planning is essential, as is the planning with your colleagues.

Or consider a musical ensemble. If rehearsal time is to be spent well, the members must learn their parts on their own. Then, when they come together, they can shape the music. Sometimes they will spend rehearsal time going over a new piece–but they still have to take it home and work on it, unless it presents no difficulties (in which case they will still need to practice the instrument on their own). In addition, to play well in an ensemble, you need to be able to play your instrument in the first place–and that requires years of practice, most of it solitary.

Also, many research projects are collaborative–yet the various pieces may not come together for a long time. Individual contributors may be working on their own pieces for years, only occasionally consulting with the others. (This could be good or bad; it depends on the nature of the project.)

Even a lecture is collaborative in that it requires joining of efforts. An attentive, inquisitive audience can make the difference between an outstanding lecture and one that falls flat. Likewise, the lecturer must respond, even subtly, to those in the room and to the room itself.

How is group work in the classroom different from what I have mentioned above? Too often, the group is expected to do most of the work together, in company (and surrounded by many other groups). There’s little room for independent work and thought. The scope of the project is typically limited; it may amount to nothing more than a Venn diagram. In fact, group work, when overused, can diminish collaboration by limiting what students do and learn.

Now, some people favor group work because it exposes students to social situations they will encounter later. Even this argument misses the boat. Good social interaction requires a degree of solitude. If you are constantly forced to negotiate with others–over ideas and problems–then you do not get a chance to bring anything of your own to the table. Imagine lawyers negotiating before they had researched their cases. The one with even a slight edge on the research would have the advantage. To negotiate over ideas (and information), you need to have them in the first place.

Sometimes group work in the classroom can result in something substantial. Often it does not–especially when the group work is there for group work’s sake. Yes, it’s important  for students to learn collaboration, but group work is not necessarily the way.

Addendum: In April I took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service’s flagship program The Forum, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li. At one point we discuss the overemphasis on group work in schools. The entire discussion is interesting–and can be heard online until July 28.