Why I teach stuff

Jessica Lahey teaches stuff, she writes on Coming of Age in the Middle, which I’ve added to the blogroll. One of her Twitter “followers” has posted what purports to be a quote from Albert Einstein: “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Lahey disagrees.

I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students’ tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

Creating a supportive atmosphere for learning is just square one, writes Lahey, who teaches at a Core Knowledge school dedicated to teaching content.

My youngest son, Finengan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

“America’s educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters,” Lahey concludes. Students need to learn “real content” to create connections that will enable new learning to “stick.”  (I’d bet boys enjoy learning about Viking explorers and Roman conquerors.) Her analogy is weaving strands of knowledge into a sticky web that catches new facts and ideas. I like to think of knowledge as Velcro, which is made of many small loops and hooks. The more Velcro, the easier it is to learn more.

A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.

From Core Knowledge to civics

After five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.”

He says some guy named E.D. Hirsch will take over the blog for now.

Pondiscio will remain focused on “the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.”

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.  Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.

But the fight “will never be over,” he writes. “Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.”

Also on the CK Blog, check out Jessica Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans on teaching Latin.

Latin students learn more, Lahey writes. But the best part “lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.”

 As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

I learned Greek and Latin roots in a seventh-grade class called Vocabulary Reading. Etymology really is fun.

A good school washed away

New York City schools have reopened, but nothing is normal in hard-hit neighborhoods, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. Citywide, 79 schools in 44 buildings have been relocated.

P.S. 333, the Goldie Maple Academy, is less than two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula. A Core Knowledge school, it started the year with 578 students. Fewer than 30 children showed up for the first scheduled day of class since hurricane Sandy devastated the neighborhood and the school building. Even fewer made the 90-minute bus ride to a Long Island City intermediate school, which will house P.S. 333 students for a week.

P.S. 333’s principal, Angela Logan, was not surprised.  She can’t even estimate how many of her school’s families have left the neighborhood, for now or for good. “When you look around, you don’t see people outside.  There’s no reason to come outside.  The stores are all gone.  There was a lot of looting and there’s a curfew in place,” she says.

Logan and her teachers are trying to reach parents who find out how many students plan on coming to the relocation site, which will change next week.

The storm surge flooded their own school’s basement, destroying its boiler. Water damaged the first floor. Power may not be restored for weeks. It’s one of 11 schools out of commission in the Rockaways.

P.S. 333, which serves low-income black and Hispanic students, was one of ten New York City schools that tested the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, posting such good results that the program is being used in school statewide.

(Core Knowledge) materials are still in the school in undamaged classrooms in the upper floors, but Logan and her staff are not able or even allowed to retrieve them.  “The Department of Ed said we’ll just purchase you new materials.  I guess for them that’s just easier,” she fumed.  “They have no idea we’re a Core Knowledge school.  I don’t need Dr. Seuss books.  I need the Romans and Greek books.”

. . .  With the loss of instructional time, the lack of continuity, and the disruption wrought by Sandy, Logan fears it will be a lost school year for many of her children, most of whom can ill afford it.

Eleven school buildings are closed in the Rockaways alone.

Gotham Schools reports on the challenge of getting displaced students to their new school sites. To start with, there aren’t enough buses. Some schools were used as shelters for storm victims, who’ve been moved out to make room for students.

New standards, old content-lite teaching

New Common Core Standards won’t help students learn if schools stick with the same old content and teaching strategies, writes Matthew Levey, a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher.

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to Common Core. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg? Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king, children don’t seem to be getting enough.

“Children also need much more explicit instruction” to put content into context, Levey writes.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.

. . . Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled. He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Raising standards without redesigning the curriculum and retraining teachers is doomed to fail, Levey predicts. 

Via Core Knowledge, where Robert Pondiscio has started a squishiness watch on the upcoming common social studies standards.  A draft framework will be released next month, he notes. “If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.”  The new standards won’t detail issues or events students should study, Gewertz writes. Instead they’ll describe “the structure, tools and habits of mind” they should develop.

No content? Pondiscio offers the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade as a reference.

Knowing, reading and writing

In the new American Educator, Jennifer Dubin praises Core Knowledge’s approach to teaching reading and writing in An Early Grades Reading Program Builds Skills and Knowledge.

The gains in reading, science, and social studies made by young students in a Core Knowledge language arts pilot show that the language arts block can be used to develop both the reading skills and the knowledge of the world that are essential to later reading comprehension.

In Core Knowledge schools, teachers read to students from more challenging books than they’d be able to handle on their own, Dubin explains. Each grade focuses on certain knowledge domains. For examples, kindergarteners learn about nursery rhymes and fables, the five senses, stories, plants, farms, Native Americans, kings and queens, seasons and weather, Columbus and the Pilgrims, colonial towns and townspeople, taking care of the Earth and presidents and American symbols.

Several New York City elementary schools tried the Core Knowledge approach with great success.

Before switching, students at a mostly low-income Queens elementary school knew little about the world — not much science, history or geography — says Joyce Barrett-Walker, principal of P.S. 96. Students had been taught reading strategies — find the main idea — but lacked the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand what they read. They had nothing interesting to write about.

‘Personalizing’ helps kids solve math problems

“Personalizing” algebra questions — using a sports or music context, let’s say, instead of farming — helps students, according to Southern Methodist University researchers whose latest study is slated for publication in Journal of Educational Psychology.

Struggling students are easily discouraged by new problems and distracted by unfamiliar words, said Professor Candace Walkington.

She asked ninth graders who were using Cognitive Tutor software about their interests in areas such as sports, music, and movies. Then she randomly assigned them to take the linear-equation unit with standard word problems or one of four variations tailored to their interests.

The students who received personalized word problems solved them faster and more accurately than students who received the standard questions, particularly when it came to translating the story scenarios into symbolic equations.

Moreover, the strongest effects occurred for students who were struggling the most before personalization.

“Problems that required a relatively high reading level and more-challenging knowledge components, those were the steps of the problem that were particularly affected by the personalization,” (Carnegie Learning founder Steven) Ritter noted during the Sept. 12 discussion at Carnegie Mellon.

“It kind of makes sense if you think [about it], if you’re a big sports fan … you are probably better able to read things about sports because you understand the vocabulary, you understand the situations, and for you, the readability is better,” he said.

Core Knowledge’s E.D. Hirsch would predict this: Students need background knowledge to understand what they read. If students are struggling to read a story problem, they won’t have much mental energy left to tackle the math.

Here are five variations of the set-up to a math problem:

One method for estimating the cost of new home construction is based on the proposed square footage of the home. Locally, the average cost per square foot is estimated to be $46.50.

You are working at the ticket office for a college football team. Each ticket to the first home football game costs $46.50.

You are helping to organize a concert where some local R&B artists will be performing. Each ticket to the concert costs $46.50.

You have been working for the school yearbook, taking pictures and designing pages, and now it’s time for the school to sell the yearbooks for $46.50 each.

You work for a Best Buy store that is selling the newest Rock Band game for $46.50.

SOURCE: Candace A. Walkington, Southern Methodist University

Surprisingly, students who’d received “personalized” questions did better two months later on a new unit without personalized questions.

Curriculum is back — and Hirsch has got it

Common Core Standards’ call for a  “well-developed, content-rich curriculum” is forcing “a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom,” writes Sol Stern in The Curriculum Reformation. “And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Of course, E.D. Hirsch has been talking about content-rich curriculum for years, but nobody was listening.  His Core Knowledge curriculum, which proved itself in a New York City experiment, is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades,” as called for by the new standards’ guidelines, Stern writes.

The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults. Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of “rich content knowledge.”

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Build knowledge to teach reading

Building background knowledge orally is the “secret sauce” of Core Knowledge’s reading program, writes Robert Pondiscio.

Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own.

. . . This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment. . . .  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Also on Core Knowledge Blog: ‘Opinion is to Knowledge as Dessert is to Vegetables.’

Elementary reading books are short on non-fiction, but California’s new readers are a small step in the right direction, writes Dan Willingham on his blog. He agrees that background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension.

Core Knowledge kids learn more in NYC pilot

Second graders scored significantly higher in reading comprehension at New York City schools using the Core Knowledge curriculum compared to similar students at other schools, reports the New York Times. Core Knowledge students also did better on tests of social studies and science knowledge.

The pilot tracked 1,000 students at 20 schools from kindergarten through second grade. Most of the comparison schools used “balanced literacy,” which mixes phonics and comprehension strategies and stresses reading fiction.

. . . children are encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books that are of interest to them. Teachers spend less time directing instruction, and more time overseeing students as they work together.

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts. While the curriculum allows children to read fiction, it also calls on them to knowledgeably discuss weather patterns, the solar system, and how ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia compare.

Balanced literacy works well for children whose parents read to them daily,  said Katie Grady, principal of Public School 104 in Far Rockaway, Queens. “For my children, who are economically disadvantaged, they needed something more, and the Core Knowledge pilot had it,” Ms. Grady said.

Core Knowledge will mesh well with the new Common Core Standards, which call for teaching as much nonfiction as fiction.

I’m tutoring a first-grade boy this year. He loves to read about science: He likes bugs, the slimier the better. He also likes sci-fi: Star Wars, super-heroes and robots. He used the word “predator” correctly.