Beyond the book report

Middle schoolers can analyze texts without writing book reports or essays, writes Beth Holland on Edutopia. Holland suggests programs that help students create trailers, podcasts, interactive e-books and “augmented reality author studies.” (I don’t really know what the last one means.)

She includes this wonderful look at how students approach book reports from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

The ‘me’ curriculum teaches nothing

The “me” curriculum is undermining learning, writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory professor, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

In its attempt to implement Common Core’s new standards, the Georgia Department of Education is telling teachers that narrative writing is all about me, all the time. A recommended writing prompt for 11th graders:

The characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is “clean and pleasant.” Describe your own “clean, well-lighted place,” the place where you feel safe, secure, and most “at home.”

The prompt asks students to “reveal things about themselves, not analyze” the story, Bauerlein writes. It’s typical.

In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston defines her personal experience as an African-American female in early 20th century America. Using Hurston’s essay as a model, define how it feels to be yourself (as a male, as a female, as a member of any group) in early 21st century America.

“Demonstrating character” cites the Cuban Missile Crisis and asks seventh graders:

If you were President of your own country and had the power to make laws, start or stop wars, end hunger, etc., what would you do? Write about an imaginary country where you are the president. Make your country the way you wish it could be.

A president has the power to make laws and end hunger?

“As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments,” writes Bauerlein. Students don’t develop the analytical, reading and writing skills they’ll need in college or an eventual job.

The units claim to align with Common Core’s English Language Arts standards, which Bauerlein helped develop. Teaching students to write about their navels is not what he had in mind.

Common Core’s critics are pushing states to withdraw approval, reports Ed Week. The campaign is focused on on Colorado, Idaho, and Indiana.

Alabama is withdrawing from the two consortia developing core-aligned tests.

 

How to teach writing, reading and thinking

“Explicit teaching of writing makes kids better writers” and readers. Does writing improve thinking? Dan Willingham looks at the evidence in The Atlantic.

Not all writing instruction is helpful, Willingham writes. Students learn to write well if they’re taught “the nuts and bolts,” such as “text structure, how to use specific strategies for planning, revising, or editing text, and so on. . . . if a teacher does not show students how to construct a paragraph or a well-written argument, some will figure out it anyway, but many will not.”

Writing instruction improves reading comprehension, but again the details matter. When students write about what they’ve read — analyzing, interpreting, summarizing and answering questions — they build comprehension, Willingham writes. Explicit teaching of writing conventions helps students understand how authors use conventions.

It’s worth noting that these two advantages — better writing and better reading — will probably not accrue if most writing assignments consist of answering short questions, writing in journals, and completing worksheets — exactly the writing tasks on which elementary school kids spend most of their time (Gilbert & Graham, 2010). Students need assignments that include writing in longer formats with some formal structural requirements.

The research is not as clear on the question of whether teaching writing improves thinking, he writes.

There is a certain logic to the idea that students can become better critical thinkers by completing writing assignments. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts. Writing encourages you to try different ideas and combinations of ideas. Writing encourages you to select your words carefully. Writing holds the promise (and the threat) of a permanent record of your thoughts, and thus offers the motivation to order them carefully. And indeed some forms of writing–persuasive or expository essays for example — explicitly call for carefully ordering thinking.

However, studies on teaching thinking through writing have “mixed” results. Asking students to write isn’t enough. They need to write about subject matter.

Willingham suggests asking history students to write about ” how World War II might have ended differently if the plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded.” If they don’t have background knowledge about the war or German history, they won’t know how to research the question. They’re likely to write drivel.

Reading like a historian

A program developed by Stanford historians that asks students to analyze primary sources can “deepen students’ content knowledge, help them think like historians, and also build their reading comprehension,” reports Ed Week.

The Reading Like a Historian program, a set of 75 free secondary school lessons in U.S. history, is getting a new wave of attention as teachers adapt to the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts. Those guidelines, adopted by all but four states, demand that teachers of all subjects help students learn to master challenging nonfiction and build strong arguments based on evidence.

In a 2008 experiment  in 10 San Francisco high school U.S. history classes, teachers using Reading Like a Historian outperformed the control group in factual knowledge, reading comprehension and analytical skills.

The program takes primary-source documents as its centerpiece and shifts textbooks into a supporting role. Each lesson begins with a question, such as, “How should we remember the dropping of the atomic bomb?” or “Did Pocahontas save John Smith’s life?” Students must dig into letters, articles, speeches, and other documents to understand events and develop interpretations buttressed by evidence from what they read.

Teachers trained in the approach focus heavily on four key skills: “sourcing,” to gauge how authors’ viewpoints and reasons for writing affect their accounts of events; “contextualization,” to get a full picture of what was happening at the time; “corroboration,” to help students sort out contradictory anecdotes and facts; and “close reading,” to help them absorb text slowly and deeply, parsing words and sentences for meaning.

The Stanford historians adapted the documents to help weak readers. “They shortened them, simplified syntax and vocabulary, and added word definitions,” reports Ed Week.