Terrible, terrible

519h66wukglAfter working 28 days as a substitute teacher, novelist Nicholson Baker wrote a book on education excerpted in Fortress of Tedium in the New York Times Magazine. Running the story was “a terrible, terrible decision,” cognitive scientist Dan Willingham tells the Times‘ editors.

The first “terrible” is for ignoring “conflicting priorities in setting goals for public good, policy constraints in achieving these goals, the science of learning, distribution of wealth” and other complexities, writes Willingham, who’s a University of Virginia psychologist professor.

The second “terrible” is for the content.

The author commits the common education newcomer blunder: “The school that would have been perfect for me, would be perfect for everyone.” He cannot understand why high school must be so stifling and soulless. Part of the blame goes to curriculum, where otherwise interesting topics are made dull, but there’s no mistaking that the teachers who inflict this boring stuff on students deserve blame as well. Baker reminisces fondly about his own experience at an alternative high school, where students studied what they wished.

Willingham lists some of the problems in Baker’s argument:

1. There is actually evidence regarding classroom instructional quality in this country (e.g., here). He might have made use of it. (It shows, by the way, that the emotional tone is, on average, much more positive than he lets on. Instructional quality, however, is not much better.)

2. Baker is not the first to suppose that much greater freedom for students would lead to greater motivation and better outcomes. The lesson over the last hundred years seems to be that such schools are wonderful when they work, but reproducing the successes has proven more difficult than most observers would guess.

3. Some parents prefer a lot of structure. The private schools in  my town do not all follow the lots-of-choice model, a la Waldorf, Montessori, or Regio Emilia. More parents pay to send their children to highly structured, traditional schools.

4. There are good arguments in favor of a common curriculum.

He finishes with a list of topics for wise editors to avoid:

1) Technology is poised to revolutionize learning and schools.

2) Competition would solve all problems in American education.

3) American education is the best in the world and all challenges in educational outcomes are due to poverty.

4) Teachers are fools, and the teacher’s unions are organized crime syndicates dedicated to protecting them.

5) All of America’s problems in education can be traced to standardized tests and if teachers were simply allowed to teach as they wished, all would be well.

You may nominate your own topics.

No rubric for rapture

Image result for eyeball nature

In Fortress of Tedium, novelist Nicholson Baker recalls his month as a substitute teacher. One day, he leafed through an 11th-grade English textbook with excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Nature.

Emerson writes: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.”

In the textbook, next to this passage, there was a brief assignment printed in the margin. It said: “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369. Which aspect of transcendentalist thought is reflected in Lines 12-19? Explain your answer.”

Isn’t that just about the most paralyzingly unrapturous question you’ve encountered in any textbook? “Explain your answer.” No, thank you. I will not explain my answer. My answer is my answer. I am a transparent eyeball. I am a huge, receptive visual instrument with a flexible lens, and I’m taking in the infinitude of all space and time and dragonflies and owls and life and roadkill and hydrogen gas. I am nothing and everything. I am bathed in air. I’m a carefree, happy huge shining slimy eyeball of weird wonderment. I can swivel in any direction. Any direction I look, I will find something interesting.

As a sub, he passed out a lot of work sheets. The high school work sheets were the worst. “In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-­provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-­O-­Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back.”

Baker’s book on his experience, Substitute, is just out.

Sighted sub selected same

Darren’s district had required hiring substitutes from the “laid off teacher list,” even if meant a laid-off third-grade teacher would be assigned to “cover” his math class instead of a retired math teacher. New policy: Go back to the old policy on requesting substitutes.

Today we got the following information from our school secretary:  “As of today HR has removed the restriction of not being able to request and confirm subs of your choice. Hurray!”

Did too many teachers complain? Or did all the laid-off teachers find jobs?

Sub story

Substitutes get no respect — and sometimes no lesson plan, writes Carolyn Bucior in the New York Times.

“Maggie,” a teacher in a Milwaukee public school, was talking about the difficulty of her job, which is something the teachers I know do quite a lot. Then she complained that her sub hadn’t completed the lesson plan she’d been given.

“So, what you’re saying is that a teacher’s job is so hard, anyone should be able to do it for a day,” I said.

This time, it was the teacher who went quiet.

Substitute teachers must step in with no information about students’ medical issues and no guidance on handling behavior problems, Bucior writes. Often they have no training on how to teach.

In 28 states, I told her, a principal can hire as a sub anyone with a high-school diploma or a general-equivalency diploma. In many places the person can be as young as 18.

Lessons plans can range from fanatically comprehensive to nonexistent.

“10 a.m. — math-measurements. 2 — science lab: see lesson plan.”

I combed the teacher’s messy desk for the “lesson plan,” to no avail. Perhaps it awaited me in the science lab? But when we arrived, we found only piles of rocks. I instructed the students to wash and sort them. For 45 minutes.

Schools should hire an extra teacher with all-around skills to serve as the in-house substitute, suggests Dave Saba on EdBiz. If two teachers are absent, send in an administrator.

Update: Mrs. Mimi and Mildly Melancholy give the teachers’ point of view.