Bye, bye, boobies

I’m back from my travels in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. I’ve hiked through the cloud forest and soared over it on a “sky bike” at Mashpi Lodge.

In the Galapagos Islands, I saw giant tortoises, sea lions, iguanas, blue- and red-footed boobies, frigate birds, short-eared owls and finches, hiked over lava fields, snorkeled and kayaked.

For nearly five days I lived without Internet access! Meanwhile, Diana Senechal, Michael E. Lopez and Rachel Levy were blogging up a storm. I’m very grateful to my guest bloggers.

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...]

Triple play

I’m off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. (Blue-footed boobies!) Michael E. Lopez, Diana Senechal and Rachel Levy will be blogging in this space.

Michael is a California litigation and appellate attorney, and also a newly-minted Ph.D. in Philosophy, specializing in Philosophy of Education (among other things).  He blogs — sporadically — at Highered Intelligence and regularly fills when I go on vacation.

Also a regular vacation blogger, Diana teaches high school philosophy and writes nonfiction, satire, and poetry. Her students write a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE. She is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in School and Culture and a blogger.

Rachel is a parent, teacher, writer, and soon-to-be doctoral student. A D.C. native, she lives in Ashland, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She has taught high school and middle school English for Speakers of Other Languages and Social Studies, as well as preschool. She normally blogs at All Things Education.

Teamwork for what?

“Social-emotional skills’ such as teamwork, collaboration and communications are fashionable these days, writes Diana Senechal. She thinks students need to learn “a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.”

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

If students get together to study a work of literature or music, they “come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions,” Senechal writes. In her eighth-grade English class, she “came to know my classmates, and they me,” in discussing The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie and  more.

Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial.

Most group work  “degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on,” Senechal writes. “Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone).”

Teamwork is not good in itself, she argues.

Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. . . . Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

. . . schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

I think people learn teamwork only when they’re on real teams coming together to dramatize Romeo and Juliet, sing in the chorus, march in the band, win the game, put out a newspaper and so on.

I’m baaaaaaaack

I want to thank Michael E. Lopez and Diana Senechal for their wonderful contributions to the blog while I was off cruising the Norwegian fjords and celebrating a family wedding — the first of six weddings we have in the next five months.

Let me remind you that Michael blogs at Highered Intelligence and Diana is the author of  Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture

Power to the introverts

Our culture is designed for gregarious team players, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet, in this TED talk on The Power of Introverts.  Schools require children to work in groups, “even in  the most solitary of assignments, such as creative writing,” she complains. Students need the chance to think and learn on their own too. “Solitude is the school of the soul.”

Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise also criticizes the mania for group work, collaboration and “groupthink,” rather than solitary contemplation.

Twitter, text, talk, but no time to think

Everybody’s connected all the time, “sharing” every 140-character observation, updating each other on their latest cup of coffee, tweeting and texting. But there’s less time to think, writes Diana Senechal in her new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

An English teacher quotes Senechal’s critique of the stress on group work and collaboration.

“Our public schools, which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the movement, have instead caved in to the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy. Convinced that the outside world calls for collaboration, school leaders and policymakers expect teachers to incorporate group work in their lessons, the more of it the better. They do not pay enough attention to the ingredients of good collaboration: independent thought, careful pondering of a topic, knowledge of the subject, and attentive listening.

“One oft-touted practice in elementary school is the ‘turn and talk’ activity, where a teacher pauses in a story she is reading aloud, asks a question, and has the students talk to their partners about it. When they are done, they join hands and raise them in the air. Instead of losing themselves in the story, they must immediately contend with the reactions of their peers. Many districts require small-group activities, throughout the grades, because such activities presumably allow all student to talk in a given lesson. Those who set and enforce such policies do not consider the drawbacks of so much talk. Talk needs a counterbalance of thought; without thought, it turns into chatter.”

I memorized a sonnet by Wordsworth in the 10th grade. Forty-odd years later, it stills comes to mind: “The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . . “

Compulsive tweeting and checking of e-mail is harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes, according to a new study.

Guess pass

New York students can score in Level 2 — good enough for promotion to the next grade — by guessing on the end-of-year exam, claims Diane Ravitch.

Is this really true? The guess pass works, concludes Diane Senechal on Gotham Schools.  She answered randomly on the multiple-choice question on the sixth-grade English test. She filled in A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D and so on. She left the written portions of the test blank, earning a zero for that section. Final score: Level 2.

She tried the seventh grade math test using her A, B, C, D method. Final score: Level 2.

While this approach does not result in a 2 for all the tests, it comes a bit too close for comfort, and another guessing system might work. A fifth grader told me that his father had told him, “Just mark ‘C’ for all of the answers, and you will pass.” On the fifth grade ELA test, this would indeed have resulted in a 2.

Via Core Knowledge Blog, which is back in action after a long lay-off due to technical problems.

Update: Dan Botteron used a random-number generator to take the two tests multiple times. On average, half the all-guess tries were scored Level 1 and half reached Level 2. In real life, only .1 percent of students scored at Level 1, he writes.

Back to blogging

As you probably can guess, I’ve returned from my travels — Bruges, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm — and partially recovered from jet lag. Travel Tips: Bruges is beautiful, but don’t eat the mussels at the Golden Mermaid on the main square. Amsterdam is great but the lines at the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum were so long we gave up and did the Heineken tour instead.  In Copenhagen, I liked best eating smorebrod by the quay in Nyhaven and looking at the colored houses. Stockholm is spread out, so you need to learn the bus, metro and boat system.  The Vasa — sailing ship that sank on its maiden voyage and was raised after 333 years under water — is well worth a visit.  In addition, the changing of the guard was very impressive, including a band on horseback and guards with spiked helmets carrying ceremonial swords and very modern rifles. We also saw the crown jewels in Denmark and Sweden. Glad I wasn’t a taxpayer footing the bill.

I want to thank Diana Senechal for her provocative and thoughtful guest blogging, which has generated some great discussions. Thanks to Diana, I was able to maintain our sight-seeing, canal-boating and beer-guzzling schedule.