The 40-year-old paper boy

A paperboy from sixth grade through high school, Peter Sipe is still distributing newspapers, he writes in The 40-Year-Old Paper Boy. A sixth-grade English teacher in Boston, he picks up stacks of the free daily Metro at the subway station.Paperboy Metro Pic

The Metro is “a packet of nonfiction texts: editorials, letters, interviews, reviews, horoscopes, entertainment, sports, etc. (And, yup, news.)” Students like reading it. And it’s free.

“It’s great for all the normal stuff a teacher does: finding the main idea, determining the author’s purpose, learning vocabulary in context,” Sipe writes.

He especially likes using the newspaper “because it teaches kids stuff they need to know.”

Several weeks ago, a student asked what “the Hub” was. No one in the class of Bostonians knew their city’s nickname.

“So we did a quick primer on city nicknames: the Big Apple, Tinseltown, the Windy City, etc. Now we all know that Beantown is the Hub.

In addition to teaching students about the “5 Ws,” Sipe tells them the most important question one can ask when reading an article is so what?

Most of my students hadn’t known what the Hub is: so what?

Well, most of my students do not read with the competence we should expect of 6th graders in the world’s richest country. And as E.D. Hirsch says“We need to see the reading comprehension problem for what it primarily is – a knowledge problem. There is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading.” 

I wince when I think of the years of fog my students had been reading through, not knowing why articles kept mentioning a curiously capitalized spoke holder.

I think many poor readers don’t expect what they read to make sense.

Why ‘just Google it’ doesn’t work

“Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,” says Justin Webb, a British TV journalist. “Everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.”

Google is no substitute for learning things by heart, argues Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, in a Telegraph blog.

The less we know, the more we have to use working memory to search for information and make sense of it, he writes. Our working memory can run out of space.

The “just Google it” approach also neglects the knowledge a child needs to search accurately, Young writes.

“Searchers need to have an idea what they are looking for,” writes Libby Purves in a Times column.

A great paradox is that the pre-Internet generation may prove to be uniquely privileged, because having learnt facts once makes us diabolically efficient Internet searchers.

Even an accurate search is useless if the searcher doesn’t know enough to understand the information retrieved, Young writes.

For instance, if you Google “space station” the Wikipedia entry you pull up is only comprehensible if you already know a bit about “low Earth orbit”, “propulsion”, “research platforms”, etc. The child could perform further searches to plug these gaps, but the same problem will just recur, with him or her being condemned to carry on Googling for ever.

Knowledge is the power to learn  more.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial” — and widely ignored, writes Mark Bauerlein.

 

Empty pails don’t catch fire

Reading discriminates, writes Robert Pondiscio in City Journal. “A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary.” If schools teach ignore the gaps in knowledge and language, disadvantaged kids will fall even farther behind.

Most reading curricula try to develop comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge, he writes. In theory, students can apply these all-purpose “reading strategies” to anything.

Education is “not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” goes a popular teacher adage. Empty buckets seldom burst into flames.

Children who don’t know enough to understand what they read will not “catch” a love of reading, Pondiscio concludes.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial,” writes Mark Bauerlein. Yet reading instruction still favors “comprehension strategies” (“identify the main idea,” etc.) over “acquisition of general knowledge.”

It’s the parents, stupid

Sitting in a waiting area at Penn Station, Robert Pondiscio heard the word “Crimea.”

I look up and see this woman reading a Magic Tree House book to her little boy. In about 90 seconds she mentions Florence Nightingale, Crimea, and Egypt. The word “wound” comes up and the child asks, “What’s a wound?” Mom explains it’s “an injury. Like a cut or a broken bone.”

. . . Educated, affluent parents build language and background knowledge without even knowing they’re doing it.

That kind of parenting is known as “concerted cultivation.” It’s very powerful. Can pre-k close that gap?

We’re on a family vacation with all four kids, spouses, friends and the two grandkids. Yesterday, the 4 1/2-year-old asked her mother for a snack, then said, “Mom, why are you hesitating?”

Knowledge at the Core

Knowledge at the Core, a new Fordham e-book of essays, argues that Common Core standards won’t work without a “sequential, content-rich curriculum.”

The essays in Knowledge at the Core also pay tribute to the work of E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy  and other education reform books and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Essays include: Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch by Sol Stern, Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge by Ruth Wattenberg, There Are No Shortcuts by Robert Pondiscio and Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge by the Farkas Duffett Research Group. Hirsch contributes Sustaining the American Experiment, Romancing the Child and Why I’m For the Common Core.

Remembering ‘The Professor’

Russell Johnson, who died this week at 89, played the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. The_Professor_(Gilligan's_Island) The Professor could build anything from coconut and bamboo, except a patch for the boat, writes the Los Angeles Times.”He used bamboo, the ship’s horn and radio batteries to create a lie detector; he made a battery recharger from a coconut shell and a helium balloon made from raincoats sealed with tree sap.”

The Professor was a high school science teacher with a PhD, not a university professor, writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. Long before a chemistry teacher became TV’s finest meth cook, a science teacher showed the power of knowledge,

“At a time when science became mistrusted for having brought not better lives, but pollution and the fear of nuclear annihilation, he was a rock of reason, patience, and precision, level-headed and respected,” writes Marcus.

Also he was good looking.

In recent years, TV has rediscovered smart people, writes Marcus.

There has been a television series called Eureka, about a town populated by geniuses, where the whiz kids pick on the jocks. Smart people also star or have starred in Fringe, The Mentalist, Alphas, Bones, Touch, Breaking Bad, The Big-Bang Theory, and other hits. They’re newly hot (and very, very rich) in real life, too: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg.

These people, real or imaginary, represent the promise of science and the constancy of truth.

Does popular culture value science, truth and intelligence?

‘You have to know history to teach it’

“You have to know history to actually  teach it,” historian Eric Foner says in an Atlantic interview. Too many history teachers are athletic coaches, he says.

Students need to know historical facts — and to understand “every selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation,”  says Foner. He wishes his college students could write essays.

Many elementary schools spend little time on history, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge Blog. Students don’t develop the historical knowledge or vocabulary to understand history when it’s introduced in later grades.

On of Ed Week’s most-viewed commentaries of 2013 was on students’ lack of history knowledge, notes Hansel.

Author Vicky Schippers, claims that we’re teaching history wrong—as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam” instead of as “a study of struggles, setbacks, and victories.”

Schippers tutored “Tony,” a would-be high school graduate who “had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled.” He’d heard of Abraham Lincoln, but couldn’t link him to the Civil War.

Hansel wonders if Tony got a string of bad history teachers — or if it was something else.

It could be that all of Tony’s history classes consisted of terribly boring facts that Tony decided not to memorize. But I’d guess that at least some of Tony’s teachers delivered the facts along with the struggles and stories—and I’d guess that Tony’s listening and reading comprehension were too limited to follow along.

K-6 teachers average 16 to 21 minutes a day on social studies, according to a 2012 survey. And history is only a fraction of that.

‘We are building the Japanese garden’

Sol Stern recalls his sons’ progressive education at a highly regarded Manhattan elementary school in The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch in City Journal.

Many PS 87 teachers were trained at “citadels of progressive education” such as Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bank Street College of Education, Stern writes. They learned that all children are “natural learners.”

PS 87 had no coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Thus, my son’s third-grade teacher decided on his own to devote months of classroom time to a project on Japanese culture, which included building a Japanese garden. Each day, when my son came home from school, I asked him what he had learned in math. Each day, he happily said the same thing: “We are building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the lack of direct instruction of mathematical procedures, but he reassured us that constructing the Japanese garden required “real-life” math skills and that there was nothing to worry about.

In fourth grade, a new teacher assigned more “real-life” math problems. For example: How many Arawaks did Christopher Columbus kill in his conquest of Hispaniola?

Children were taught little about the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution and the Civil War, Stern writes.

“It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” the principal said, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”

In Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), E.D. Hirsch “convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good,” writes Stern

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading.

Hirsch is the “most important education reformer” of the last 50 years, concludes Stern.

Are core tests written for robo-readers?

Sacramento teacher Alice Mercer questions the Common Core tests her students will be taking.  A sample essay prompt by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium gives students a list of arguments to use.
sbac1.jpg

The new standards are supposed to promote higher-order thinking. So why not let students think up their own arguments? Evaluating students’ writing is time-consuming and expensive — unless it can be automated, Mercer points out. Listing the arguments seems designed for the convenience of a robo-reader.

Robo-readers have limitations, she observes. It’s hard for computers to score open-ended questions.

Basically, the programs can judge grammar and usage errors (although I suspect it will lead to a very stilted form of writing that only a computer could love), but it’s not in the position to judge the facts and assertions, or content in an essay.  The only way to do that is to limit students to what “facts” they are using by giving them a list.

Computer grading could explain Common Core’s hostility to background knowledge, Mercer adds.

Computer-scored tests train children to think like the computer,  writes Anthony Cody in Ed Week. “If we are sacrificing intelligence, creativity and critical thinking for the sake of the efficiency and standardization provided by a computer, this seems a very poor trade.”

Teaching the unprepared

The chance to change students’ lives inspires community college instructors, writes Stacia Brown, who teaches writing.

Instructors are supposed to “tease knowledge” out of unprepared students,  writes Eileen F. Toplansky, also a writing instructor. They’re told to have students evaluate each other’s work. But students don’t know enough to make it work.