Milestones: Is your child on track in school?

Great Schools has created Milestones videos to help parents understand grade-level expectations in reading, writing and math for first through fifth grade. Here’s
first-grade math word problems.

NYC goes back to ‘balanced literacy’

New York City’s low-performing elementary and middle schools are being told to use “balanced literacy” approaches that didn’t work well in the past, reports Patrick Wall on Chalkbeat.

At a meeting last month, some principals in the Renewal program were told to reserve up to 45 minutes daily for students to read “just-right” books matched to their ability levels. Elementary and middle school leaders were also told to use a writing program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of theTeachers College Reading and Writing Project, and to send their “best and brightest” teachers to be trained there.

“Those are the non-negotiables we’re starting with in terms of instruction,” Laura Kotch, a former Teachers College consultant who serves as an adviser to Fariña, told the principals.

Yet Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said, “This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Daily “independent reading” time and student-selected books key components of balanced literacy, notes Wall. “Teachers give quick lessons on reading strategies before letting students practice with books of their choosing” at their ability level.

“The approach was mandated citywide about a decade ago,” until then-Chancellor Joel Klein let some schools try a Core Knowledge program focused on building students’ background knowledge. Compared to balanced literacy students, Core Knowledge students showed much stronger reading gains.

Balanced literacy’s critics say it’s incompatible with the Common Core, reports Chalkbeat.

For example, they say letting students choose books matched to their skill level keeps some from reading the grade-level texts the standards demand, and that the approach can ignore the standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum.” Others accuse the approach of being loosely structured, with too little direct guidance for students — especially ones who are struggling.

“What these kids need is instruction, not to sit there with books they can’t read,” said New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

Schools have lost the idea that “reading is for the rest of your life to enjoy reading,” Fariña said in a recent interview.

Reading’s not much fun for people who can’t read well and understand what they read.

Diana Senechal challenges the idea that “balanced literacy” leads to joyful reading.

It’s not your dad’s math teaching

Any parent who opposes Common Core standards is saying, in effect, “‘I do not want my child prepared for life in the Twenty-First Century’,” writes Keith Devlin, a Stanford mathematician. They don’t realize how much educational needs have changed in the last 30 years, he argues.

Fortune 500 executives were asked for the most valued skills in a new hire in 1970 and again in 1999, notes Linda Darling-Hammond in a 2013 paper, Devlin writes.

Writing, the top skill in 1970, dropped to 10th place, while skills two and three, computation and reading, didn’t even make the top 10 in 1999.

Teamwork rose from number 10 to first place. The other two skills at the top, problem solving and interpersonal skills, weren’t listed in 1970.

Common Core math standards, which include “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” align with those 21st-century skills, writes Devlin. Today’s children “need a very different kind of education: one based on understanding rather then procedural mastery, and on exploration rather than instruction,” he concludes.

Even in my day, when we were trying to beat “Ivan,” people wanted kids to understand math. If Core math leads to deeper understanding, rather than dizzier confusion, parents will climb on board.

Still, I doubt that 21st-century employers really want to hire people with weak literacy and math skills, as long as they’re team players with pleasant personalities. As for “problem solving,” I agree with a comment by Ellie K:

Employees who can’t read, write or “compute,” i.e. know arithmetic, geometry and algebra, aren’t going to be able to solve problems, contribute as members of teams in collaborative settings nor communicate effectively.

In a 2014 Linked-In survey, employers rated problem-solving skills and being a good learner as the two most important skills for a new hire, reports Business News Daily. Employers also value strong analytical and communications skills, but speaking well is more important than writing. “Only 6 percent of employers said they’re looking for strong mathematical and statistical skills.”

Employers also want workers who can collaborate effectively and work hard.

Via Laura Waters on Education Post.


A letter to the future

Canadian high school teacher Bruce Farrer  asks students to write letters to their future selves. Twenty years later, he tracks down the students and mails their letters to them, reports WestJet’s Above and Beyond.  ( lets young people do this for themselves.)

Jurassic Park boy’s college admissions essay

I was amused by The Boy from Jurassic Park’s College Application Essay by Julia Drake on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Claws scrabbled at the door, each scratch a shock of fear to my heart. Inside the kitchen, my sister and I hid behind a stainless steel table, slick as the sweat that dripped from my brow. A creak of the door handle; a clicking of prehistoric toenails across the tile floor; and I looked at my sister, panic searing through me: the raptors had made it inside.

I never thought I would find myself in such a situation when I went to visit my grandfather on his remote island where he’d created a paradise of living dinosaurs. In fact, my face lit up with childlike joy upon seeing the place, my intellectual curiosity instantly piqued. I got my first taste of fieldwork examining an ailing triceratops with seasoned paleontologists, which instilled in me a passion for hands-on learning. That passion for learning is certainly something I would bring with me to a college classroom; it is also a feeling I have tried to impart to my fellow students in my work as French Peer Tutor.

Boy from Jurassic Park “overcame copious obstacles such as surviving a Tyrannosaurus rex attack, escaping from a treed car, and being electrocuted by a high-voltage fence,” he writes. “Indeed, the adult traits I acquired surviving dinosaurs will make me an enthusiastic and passionate member of a college community, whether I brave a Friday night dance or experiment in a new discipline, such as figure drawing.”

BJP learned from his grandfather that “learning never stops.” For example, as Senior Class Co-Treasurer he has to “learn how to share leadership and how to manage a budget.”

Thanks to his experiences on Isla Nublar, BJP feels “comfortable tackling the plethora of challenges that await me on campus, be they academic or physical, modern or prehistoric, quotidian or genetically engineered.”

Wasting time online — for credit

Wasting Time on the Internet is a new creative writing class at Penn this spring. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith hopes “clicking, SMSing, status-updating, and random surfing” can be “used as raw material for creating compelling and emotional works of literature.”
Kenneth Goldsmith

“Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs,” the course descriptions states. “Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.”

They’ll also read “critical texts” about boredom, “affect theory, ASMR, situationism and everyday life,” the course description states.

Distraction can unleash creativity, Goldstein tells Jason Koebler on Motherboard.

He’s tired of reading New York Times articles “that make us feel bad about spending so much time on the internet, about dividing our attention so many times,” he told Koebler. “I think it’s complete bullshit that the internet is making us dumber. I think the internet is making us smarter.”

“Electronic distraction and multitasking is the new surrealism,” Goldstein argues. “Surrealists wanted to get unconscious, well, we’re doing that now all the time.”

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…]

Stephen King on teaching writing


Before he was a best-selling writer, Stephen King was a high school English teacher. In The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey asks King about teaching writing and reading.

Lahey: You have called informal essays “silly and unsubstantial things,” not at all useful for teaching good writing. What kinds of essay assignments are useful?

King: I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

It’s “a horrible idea” to teach Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors, says King. It’s too depressing. “But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.”

If he hadn’t been able to make a living as a writer, King was planning to switch to teaching elementary school.

Here’s the flat, sad truth: By the time they get to high school, a lot of these kids have already closed their minds to what we love. I wanted to get to them while they were still wide open. Teenagers are wonderful, beautiful freethinkers at the best of times. At the worst, it’s like beating your fists on a brick wall. Also, they’re so preoccupied with their hormones it’s often hard to get their attention.

“Do you think great teachers are born or do you think they can be trained?” asks Lahey.

King: Good teachers can be trained, if they really want to learn (some are pretty lazy). Great teachers, like Socrates, are born.

. . . The best teachers are artists.

I’ve never read one of King’s novels. I don’t like the genre. But his book on writing, titled On Writing, is excellent. His advice to would-be writers — “write a lot and read a lot” — is precisely what I say to young writers.

Conjunction Junction

Schoolhouse Rock’s Conjunction Junction:

Mr. Morton is the subject …

The Tale of Mr. Morton from Schoolhouse Rock.