‘Balanced’ illiteracy

“Balanced literacy” failed when it was tried in New York City schools, writes Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Times. Yet, the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plans to bring it back. She also promises to return “joy” to classrooms.

Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar, championed the idea: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” she wrote.

Students’ joyful exploration of reading and writing would be “unhindered by despotic traffic cops,” writes Nazaryan, who taught English. But “studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.”

I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.

The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.

Middle-class students with lots of enrichment at home may be able to teach themselves to write, he concedes. His students needed to be taught.

Nazaryan was “yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10.” His English-as-a-second-language teacher, Mrs. Cohen, “taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb.”

He became a teacher “to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been.”

Update: Fariña is ignoring the research, writes Dan Willingham. Students in New York City’s Core Knowledge schools did much better in reading than students taught with the city’s version of balanced literacy.

Why return to a teaching method that didn’t work well? Marc Tucker thinks Fariña “knows how effective it can be in the hands of highly competent teachers with good leadership.”

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

In the July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times), there’s a forum on Balanced Literacy, with contributions from E  D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more...]

Moats: Core fail

Common Core standards are appropriate for the “most academically able” students, says Louisa Moats in a Psychology Today interview. At least half of students will not be able to meet the standards. A nationally known expert on teaching reading, Moats helped write the standards.

Students doomed to “fail” core-aligned tests need a “range of educational choices and pathways to high school graduation, employment, and citizenship,” says Moats. Notice she doesn’t mention college.

The standards call for the use of “more challenging and complex texts,” which will benefit older students, she says. But that may hurt younger students.

Novice readers (typically through grade 3) need a stronger emphasis on the foundational skills of reading, language, and writing than on the “higher level” academic activities that depend on those foundations, until they are fluent readers.

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach the new standards, says Moats.

Classroom teachers are confused, lacking in training and skills to implement the standards, overstressed, and the victims of misinformed directives from administrators who are not well grounded in reading research.

. . . The standards treat the foundational language, reading, and writing skills as if they should take minimal time to teach and as if they are relatively easy to teach and to learn. They are not. The standards call for raising the difficulty of text, but many students cannot read at or above grade level, and therefore may not receive enough practice at levels that will build their fluency gradually over time.

Teachers have received no sensible guidance on how to teach students with learning disabilities, she adds.

  What little time there is for professional development is being taken up by poorly designed workshops on teaching comprehension of difficult text or getting kids to compose arguments and essays. This will not be good for the kids who need a systematic, explicit form of instruction to reach basic levels of academic competence.

I’ve been around a long time, and this feels like 1987 all over again, with different words attached to the same problems. When will we ever learn?

This is a devastating critique.

Via DCGEducator.

More school, less summer?

Top-performing South Korea requires 220 days of school, “22 percent more than our measly minimum of 180 days,” writes the New York Post. Are the lazy days of summer too lazy in the U.S.?

“More advantaged families . . . travel to Civil War battlefields, visit foreign cities and their art museums, and learn about the geography of the Grand Canyon,” says Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas education professor. “I’m convinced that my own kids and those of many other upper-middle-class families learn far more from those summer experiences than they do during the rest of the school year.”

But low-income kids lose a lot of learning over the summer, says Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

That’s why high-performing charter schools like KIPP, Democracy Prep and Success Academy have significantly longer school days and longer school years.

“When it comes to learning math and science,” Pondiscio says, “more is more.”

If school isn’t working well, more may mean more boredom. I’d prefer to see fun, educational summer programs for kids who aren’t going to be visiting the Grand Canyon.

Summer slide is dangerous

The summer slide is serious, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge Blog. Teachers spend the first two to five weeks of school reteaching content and skills that have slipped away over the summer. Yet 61 percent of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer, according to a survey for Reading is Fundamental.
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Parents of 5-11 year olds report that their child spent an average of 5.9 hours per week reading books last summer, compared to 16.7 hours playing outdoors, 10.8 hours watching TV and 6.6 hours playing video games.

A majority of parents thinks six hours a week is just the right amount of reading.

Girls read a bit more than the average and boys read less. The 7 percent gap in parental expectations — they think reading is more important for girls — is reflected in the college graduation rate, writes Hansel. In 2013, 37 percent of females but only 30 percent of males had a bachelor’s degree.

Educated parents take their children to libraries and book stores. They use the summer for enrichment.

Advantaged children tend to make reading gains each summer, writes Hansel. But disadvantaged children fall even farther behind.

Reading is Fundamental is trying to get books into the hands of these kids.

Is this a good Core lesson?

NPR highlights a “good Common Core lesson” designed for the first day of ninth-grade English.

Students review the day’s standards: citing textual evidence and determining meaning of words in context, and how they contribute to tone.

Then they read a short story, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. It’s a magical realist coming-of-age tale.

It meets the Core’s call for complexity and contemporaneity (written in 2007), says Kate Gerson, a former teacher and EngageNY research fellow. It also is in the “canon” because author Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist. And she’s young and female, checking the diversity box.

The teacher reads a short excerpt aloud. Then students read to themselves, drawing boxes around unfamiliar words and writing definitions on Post-It notes.

Teachers are told to “get out of the students’ way” and let them struggle through on their own. Eventually students will pair up to “tease out the meaning” of words such as “lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, (Gershon) said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

Students finish the day with a “quick write.” They “use evidence from the text to relate the story’s epigraph to its first paragraph.”

Commenter Ajax in Charlotte is unimpressed. “Introducing the state standards and then having kids read silently, circle unfamiliar vocab words, and complete one short answer question is not exactly the most world-shattering, paradigm-shifting lesson plan I have ever seen.”

Doesn’t it sound boring?

“Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work, writes Diana Senechal. It assumes that “if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work.”

Thinking should be the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure.

. . . Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

The lesson also misrepresents teaching, writes Senechal. In the Common Core caricature, “the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read.”

For many years, teachers have been told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

I started ninth-grade English in 1966.  It was a Level 1 class, so everyone read the assignments at home, figured out the new words and came to class ready to discuss the ideas. Our teachers rarely lectured for more than a few minutes, as I recall. (It has been awhile.)  They asked questions and guided class discussions. We did all our writing at home too.

A 9-year-old faces the Core

Chrispin Alcindor was a star student in the early grades, but he fell way behind in third and fourth grade, reports the New York Times in Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes.

Is it the new curriculum’s shift from rote learning to understanding concepts? (The Times assumes that no teacher tried to teach understanding in the pre-Core era.) Or is it the Haitian-American boy’s subpar reading skills?

A pet store has 18 hamsters. The shop owner wants to put 3 hamsters in each cage. How many cages does the shop owner need for all the hamsters?

Math had always been Chrispin’s favorite subject. Wherever he went, he was counting: Jeeps, pennies and basketball scores. He liked the satisfaction of arriving at a neat, definitive answer and not having to worry about things like spelling and grammar.

But as he worked on practice questions one day, the hamster problem stumped him:

Draw a model using equal groups or an array to show the problem.

Write a division equation for the problem.

Write a multiplication equation for the problem.

How many cages does the shop owner need?

Chrispin scribbled aimlessly in the margins. He hated word problems, a hallmark of the Common Core. Ms. Matthew had once told him to act like a detective and look for “clue words.” If a question referred to a “border” or “outside,” for example, it was asking for its perimeter. “Math is very, very, very, very logical,” she had said.

But Chrispin did not see any clues before him. After a few minutes of intense reading, he settled on an answer: 6. But he still did not fully understand the question. He could not remember what an array even looked like.

At Chrispin’s school in Brooklyn, producing the right answer isn’t enough. Students “had to demonstrate exactly what three times five meant by shading in squares on a grid.”

The Times prints Chrispin’s letter to Carmen Fariña, New York City’s schools chancellor, about standardized testing. If he only he really wrote this well . . .

Wiggly boys aren’t disabled

Little boys who aren’t ready for reading need tutoring — not a disability label, writes Jane Goodwin (Mamacita). If they can’t sit still, that means they’re normal.
wiggly little boy reading, Harry Potter
Many of scientists, inventors and innovators were late bloomers, she writes. “Edison wasn’t even allowed to continue at his school; he was so slow, he held the others back!”

“Save the (disability) labeling for the children who genuinely need the help,” writes Mamcita. “Don’t fill up the room with little boys who just need a few more years to mature.”

As for the kids who can’t sit still, “that’s how little children are SUPPOSED to be.”

What would be genuinely worrisome would be a little child who CAN sit still for hours and hours without any desire to be wiggly and energetic. There is the occasional child who genuinely needs Ritalin or whatever in order to function at all, but there are an awful lot of children (usually little boys) whose energy and creativity and imagination and, yes, wiggles, are being seen as “disabilities” by frustrated adults and drugged into mediocrity.

Her “quick fix” for wiggly kids was to assign them two seats and let them shift from one to another when they needed to move.

There were conditions – no bothering other kids on the way, no touching other people’s things, no sidetracking or talking, etc, but when a person’s gotta get up and move, a person’s gotta get up and move.

She taught middle school, “but the students were still children even though they didn’t think they were.

Dead Poets’ me-me-me message

Dead Poets Society, which came out 25 years ago, has had a pernicious influence on young writers — and on college English departments — charges novelist Stephen Marche in Esquire.

The story is a classic tale of writerly egomania, transferred onto the figure of a teacher. Robin Williams playing John Keating — he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance — was the origin of the “cool teacher” cliche that humiliated so many of us in the 1990s. Instead of staying in a classroom reading, he takes his students for long walks and life lessons. Instead of having them read interpretations of literature, he begins his class by having them rip out the pages of the introduction. He modestly suggests that they call him “O Captain, my Captain,” a title that Walt Whitman originally intended for a murdered Abraham Lincoln, martyred savior of the Republic. Keating is entitled to his students’ adulation, in the film, because he imbues in them a sense of self-worth, totally unrelated to their accomplishments.

The movie presents literature as “collective narcissism,” writes Marche. Reading and writing are easy.

Understanding the literary tradition was not a task. Nobody had to learn foreign languages or philology. Nobody had to work at it. What you really needed to be a writer was to be sensitive and to overcome the traditional strictures of mom and dad. You really just needed to be a rebel.

Dead Poets Society glorifies a terrible way to teach humanities writes Kevin J.H. Dettmar, an English professor, in The Atlantic. It’s anti-intellectual gush.

The movie has been voted the greatest “school film” ever and often named as one of the most inspirational films of all time, according to The Guardian.