Grammar fail: College kids can’t write

Novelist Michael Laser was hired to teach university freshmen to write essays. But he discovered his students can’t write clear, grammatically correct sentences.

How to write a college essay

Teaching writing to first-year students “has become an academic specialty with its own dominant philosophy,” Laser writes. Teaching “critical thinking” is in. Teaching grammar is out.

He’s supposed to stress “developing an arguable thesis, presenting strong supporting arguments, using quotations as evidence.”

But his students write so badly it hurts.

  • Neglecting to recognize the horrors those people endure allow people to go to war more easily.
  • The money in the household shared between Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  • The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.

While teaching essay writing, Laser “added lessons on revising awkward phrases and replacing fuzzy abstractions with more concrete specifics.” Students could recognize the difference between bad and better writing, but struggled to revise “terrible sentences.”  He saw little improvement in their writing.

In the future, he plans to use John Maguire’s manual, which “stresses concrete nouns, active verbs, and conciseness.” But he’s looking for more advice on how to help his students.

I used to advise students to read their work aloud. Does it sound clunky? It is. If you were explaining this idea to a friend, what would you say?

Be a learner, then a ‘critical’ thinker

If there is anything in education on which everyone agrees, it’s the vital importance of “critical thinking,” writes Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek. However, before students can think, they need to learn. Call it “uncritical thinking,” the “unquestioning reception and retention of facts.”

In pure lexical terms, “critical thinking” is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” Translated into pedagogy, it’s teaching students to be intellectual mavericks, cognitive cowboys who poke bullet holes into every received concept, who duel with Aristotle and Dickinson, who are never complacent, submissive or even quiet. They brim with what Walt Whitman called “original energy.”

. . . Uncritical thinking is pretty unsexy, often requiring rote memorization, deadening repetition and, not infrequently, humility before intellects greater than your own (whether Louise Erdrich’s or Albert Einstein’s or just Mr. Greenberg’s during third-period geometry class). Only someone who has uncritically mastered the intricacies of Shakespeare’s verse, the social subtexts of Elizabethan society and the historical background of Hamlet is going to have any original or even interesting thoughts about the play. Everything else is just uninformed opinion lacking intellectual valence.

In any discipline, whether trigonometry, biology or Spanish literature, “There is a lot more to absorb than to critique,” writes Nazaryan.

6th graders ‘update’ the Bill of Rights

Arkansas sixth-graders were assigned to help a government task force revise the “outdated” Bill of Rights, a mother complained to Digital Journal. Students were told to dump two amendments, recommend two new ones and explain their reasoning.

Lela Spears said her daughter hadn’t been taught about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights before the assignment. Students didn’t learn how the Constitution is amended and might think it can be changed by a “special” committee.

Spears knew it was a “critical thinking” assignment. But how can students think critically about the Bill of Rights without knowing anything about the Bill of Rights?

A photo of the worksheet asking students to  omit  two Amendments in the Bill of Rights

Test: Which cell plan is best?

PBS NewsHour looks at an international exam that asks students to apply their reading, math and science skills to real-life situations, reports John Merrow. “For example, they may be asked to analyze different cell phone plans to figure out which is the best deal.”

How many adults could do that?

8th graders: Holocaust is a hoax

The Holocaust was a hoax, concluded dozens of eighth-graders in essays written for an in-class assignment, reports the San Bernardino Sun.

Students were given three “credible” sources — one a Holocaust denial site — and no opportunity to search for more information. They wrote their essays in class. Although they’d read Anne Frank’s Diary, some believed a handout that claimed it was a forgery.

Rialto Unified School District administrators, besieged by criticism after the assignment became public in May claimed at the time that none of the students questioned or denied the Holocaust, reports the Sun. A look at the essays shows that’s not true.

“I believe the event was fake, according to source 2 the event was exhaggerated,” one student wrote. (Students’ and teachers’ original spelling and grammar are retained throughout this story.) “I felt that was strong enogh evidence to persuade me the event was a hoax.”

In some cases, students earned high marks and praise for arguing the Holocaust never occurred, with teachers praising their well-reasoned arguments:

“you did well using the evidence to support your claim,” the above student’s teacher wrote on his assignment.

The student received a grade of 23 points out of 30, with points marked off for not addressing counterclaims, capitalization and punctuation errors.

The assignment was supposed to teach “critical thinking.”

“According to Fred A. Leuchter (leading specialist on the design and fabrication of execution equipment) there is no significant cyanide traces in any of the alleged gas chambers,” one student wrote. “So any open minded person can easily be persuaded to believe that the gassings were a Hoax.”

Leuchter has admitted he’s not an engineer and has no formal training in toxicology, chemistry or biology. He’s not strong on history either.

Without access to computers, students couldn’t check the “evidence” in the handouts, writes Scott Shackford on Reason‘s Hit&Run blog.

Confused by Core tests

Kids have been field-testing new Common Core exams — and parents have been trying practice tests posted online. The verdict: The new tests are much harder — partly because of poorly worded questions.

Carol Lloyd, executive editor at GreatSchools, is a fan of the new standards, but worried about the test. She went online to try practice questions for both major common-core assessment consortia—Smarter Balanced and PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)—for her daughter’s grade.

Many of the questions were difficult but wonderful. Others were in need of a good editor.

A few, however, were flat-out wrong. One Smarter Balanced question asked students to finish an essay that began with a boy waking up and going down the hall to talk to his mother. Then, in the next paragraph, he’s suddenly jumping out of bed.

A PARCC reading-comprehension question asked students to pick a synonym for “constantly” out of five possible sentence options. I reread the sentences 10 times before I realized that no words or phrases in those sentences really meant “constantly,” but that the test-writer had confused “constantly” with “repeatedly.” Any student who really understood the language would be as confused as I was.

If these are the test questions they’re sharing with the public, “what are they doing in the privacy of my daughter’s test?” asks Lloyd.

Natalie Wexler, a writing tutor at a high-poverty D.C. high school, took the PARCC English Language Arts practice test for 10th-graders.  A number of questions were confusing, unrealistically difficult, or just plain wrong,” she writes.

Question 1 starts with a brief passage:

I was going to tell you that I thought I heard some cranes early this morning, before the sun came up. I tried to find them, but I wasn’t sure where their calls were coming from. They’re so loud and resonant, so it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Part A asked for the meaning of “resonant” as used in this passage:

A. intense B. distant C. familiar D. annoying

Looking at the context — it was hard to tell where the calls were coming from — Wexler chose “distant.”  The official correct answer was “intense.” Which is not what “resonant” means. 

Another passage described fireflies as “sketching their uncertain lines of light down close to the surface of the water.” What was implied by the phrase “uncertain lines of light.”

She chose: “The lines made by the fireflies are difficult to trace.” The correct answer? “The lines made by the fireflies are a trick played upon the eye.”

Wexler did better on a section where all the questions were based on excerpts from a majority and a dissenting opinion in a Supreme Court case about the First Amendment. “But then again, I have a law degree, and, having spent a year as a law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice, I have a lot of experience interpreting Supreme Court opinions,” she writes.

The average D.C. 10th grader won’t be able to demonstrate critical thinking skills, Wexler fears.

. . .  if a test-taker confronts a lot of unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary words, she’s unlikely to understand the text well enough to make any inferences. In just the first few paragraphs of the majority opinion, she’ll confront the words “nascent,” “undifferentiated,” and “apprehension.”

Most D.C. students “will either guess at the answers or just give up,” Wexler predicts.

Everyone’s favorite fad is now ‘core aligned’

Rialto Unified’s idiotic essay assignment — is the Holocaust a hoax? — was justified as meeting the Common Core’s call for teaching “critical thinking” skills, writes Greg Forster on Jay Greene’s blog. The Core didn’t dictate the assignment, he writes. But it opened the back door.

When “you set yourself up as the dictator of the system, you officially own everything that happens in the system,” he writes.

This is simply what you get when you announce that you have set a single standard for a huge, sprawling, decentralized system with literally millions of decision-makers, very few of whom have much incentive to do what you want, but very many of whom have some pet project they’d like to push through using your name to do it.

If Reform X is truly voluntary, fewer systems adopt it, “but those that adopt it will really adopt it.” Or it’s possible to “force, bribe and cajole systems to adopt Reform X,” then tell them exactly how to run their schools to enforce the reform.

Common Core standards used the “force, bribe and cajole” strategy to get states to say they’re adopting the reform, then let them implement it, Forster writes. The result:  Everyone  will adopt their preferred fads and “call it Reform X.”

Implementation — how a thing is done day by day in the real world — is everything, writes Peggy Noonan.

Essay: Is the Holocaust real or propaganda?

Did the Holocaust really happen or was it “a propaganda tool used for political or monetary gain?” In a Southern California district, Rialto Unified, eighth graders were told to use three sources — including one that calls the murder of Jews a “hoax” — to research the “debate.” Then they were to write an essay, citing their research, to “explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain.”

In an email, school board member Joe Martinez defended the assignment as an exercise in critical thinking. “This will allow a person to come to their own conclusion.”

Their own conclusion? “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

After more furor, the district said teachers would revise the assignment.

Teachers, who were doing a unit on the Diary of Anne Frank, came up with the Holocaust debate idea, no doubt thinking it would meet Common Core standards’ call for argumentative writing. (Anne Frank also is a hoax, according to the assigned denial site.) They’ll think of something else.

It’s just a coincidence — really — that the primarily Latino district is run by an interim superintendent named Mohammad Z. Islam.

If kids can tell fantasy from reality …

Preschoolers are good at distinguishing fantasy from reality, according to a new study, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Children understand the difference. They know that their beloved imaginary friend isn’t actually real and that the terrifying monster in their closet doesn’t actually exist (though that makes them no less beloved or scary). But children do spend more time than we do thinking about the world of imagination. They don’t actually confuse the fantasy world with the real one; they just prefer to hang out there.

If little kids can tell what’s real and what’s pretend, why can’t school administrators and teachers distinguish between fantasy and reality, asks Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, in a USA Today column.

At South Eastern Middle School in Fawn Grove, Pa., for example, 10-year-old Johnny Jones was suspended for using an imaginary bow and arrow. That’s right – – not a real bow and arrow, but an imaginary bow and arrow. A female classmate saw this infraction, tattled to a teacher, and the principal gave Jones a one-day suspension for making a “threat” in class.

A 7-year-old Maryland boy was suspended for gnawing a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. An 8-year-old Arizona boy was threatened with expulsion for his drawings of ninjas and Star Wars characters and interest in zombies. A six-year-old boy was charged with “sexual harassment” for kissing a girl. “So much for Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher,” writes Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor.

The “education industry” purports to teach “critical thinking” to children, writes Reynolds. But, apparently, not by example.

Field trips really are educational

Visiting an art museum improved children’s knowledge about art, critical thinking skills, historical empathy and tolerance, concludes a University of Arkansas study. It broadened their minds. Benefits were particularly large for students from rural areas and from high-poverty schools.

Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Susan Tobin
War News from Mexico

Artist: Richard Caton Woodville , 1825 – 1855 

When the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Arkansas in 2011, many school groups wanted to tour.

Researchers created matched pairs among the applicant groups based on similarity in grade level and other demographic factors, and then randomly assigned school groups to receive a tour that semester or at a later time. Students in selected schools took a tour lasting roughly one hour, during which they viewed and participated in discussions about five different paintings.

Asked to write a short essay on a painting they hadn’t seen before, the field trippers “noticed and described more details.”

 To measure historical empathy, researchers employed a series of statements and asked students to agree or disagree, including, “I have a good understanding of how early Americans thought and felt.”  Tolerance was also measured with statements to which students could express agreement or disagreement, ranging from “People who disagree with my point of view bother me,” to “I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.”

Students who toured on a field trip were more likely than expected to return to the art museum with their family.

More than half of schools throughout the country eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11 according to an American Association of School Administrators survey.