‘Balanced’ illiteracy

“Balanced literacy” failed when it was tried in New York City schools, writes Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Times. Yet, the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plans to bring it back. She also promises to return “joy” to classrooms.

Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar, championed the idea: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” she wrote.

Students’ joyful exploration of reading and writing would be “unhindered by despotic traffic cops,” writes Nazaryan, who taught English. But “studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.”

I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.

The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.

Middle-class students with lots of enrichment at home may be able to teach themselves to write, he concedes. His students needed to be taught.

Nazaryan was “yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10.” His English-as-a-second-language teacher, Mrs. Cohen, “taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb.”

He became a teacher “to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been.”

Update: Fariña is ignoring the research, writes Dan Willingham. Students in New York City’s Core Knowledge schools did much better in reading than students taught with the city’s version of balanced literacy.

Why return to a teaching method that didn’t work well? Marc Tucker thinks Fariña “knows how effective it can be in the hands of highly competent teachers with good leadership.”

Soul of a black/Latino teacher

José Luis Vilson, a middle-school math teacher in New York City (and a blogger), writes about race, class, and education in This Is Not A Test.

“The heart of education lies in the relationship between teacher and student,” writes Leo Casey in a review in Dissent. “This Is Not A Test bears witness to the enduring vitality of that relationship.”

Vilson grew up in a poor “drug-tainted” neighborhood in the city, earned a computer science degree and became a math teacher for black and brown students.

He faces the challenges of his students’ poverty, troubled families and violent neighborhoods. He also copes with incompetent administrators. At one point, a supervisor “threatened him with an unsatisfactory evaluation not because of his teaching, but because she disliked the aesthetics of his classroom bulletin board.”

Is this a good Core lesson?

NPR highlights a “good Common Core lesson” designed for the first day of ninth-grade English.

Students review the day’s standards: citing textual evidence and determining meaning of words in context, and how they contribute to tone.

Then they read a short story, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. It’s a magical realist coming-of-age tale.

It meets the Core’s call for complexity and contemporaneity (written in 2007), says Kate Gerson, a former teacher and EngageNY research fellow. It also is in the “canon” because author Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist. And she’s young and female, checking the diversity box.

The teacher reads a short excerpt aloud. Then students read to themselves, drawing boxes around unfamiliar words and writing definitions on Post-It notes.

Teachers are told to “get out of the students’ way” and let them struggle through on their own. Eventually students will pair up to “tease out the meaning” of words such as “lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, (Gershon) said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

Students finish the day with a “quick write.” They “use evidence from the text to relate the story’s epigraph to its first paragraph.”

Commenter Ajax in Charlotte is unimpressed. “Introducing the state standards and then having kids read silently, circle unfamiliar vocab words, and complete one short answer question is not exactly the most world-shattering, paradigm-shifting lesson plan I have ever seen.”

Doesn’t it sound boring?

“Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work, writes Diana Senechal. It assumes that “if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work.”

Thinking should be the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure.

. . . Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

The lesson also misrepresents teaching, writes Senechal. In the Common Core caricature, “the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read.”

For many years, teachers have been told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

I started ninth-grade English in 1966.  It was a Level 1 class, so everyone read the assignments at home, figured out the new words and came to class ready to discuss the ideas. Our teachers rarely lectured for more than a few minutes, as I recall. (It has been awhile.)  They asked questions and guided class discussions. We did all our writing at home too.

All day in school

Teachers and students can learn to love a longer school day, writes Liz Riggs in The Atlantic. But the time has to be used effectively to get buy-in.

Many charter schools have extended the school day to give students more learning time. Now districts are experimenting with longer days at low-performing schools.

At a Philadelphia high school, the day is 30 minutes longer for students, who take classes from 8 am to 3:17 pm. Teachers hold office hours till 4 pm.

While teachers are in school for an hour and 15 minutes longer than other teachers in the district, they actually teach less than they would in a traditional public school.

“Teachers are totally on board,” (the principal) says. “Teachers love having that designated time [after school] to be with students, and it does free up their time during the other parts of the school day, and parents love it—especially at the high school level.”

“Extended school days can also provide structured planning time for teachers,” writes Riggs. “Without this built-in time, teachers end up working additional hours after school and on the weekends, clocking in as much time as they would if the day were extended—if not more.”

When he started teaching at a Memphis charter school, Andrew Davis had two hours a day to plan and collaborate with other teachers. He loved the planning time, but the long school day was “exhausting.” The academic day ran from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. — or later for students with extracurriculars. As cross-country coach, Davis would be at school for 13 to 14 hours a day.

With teachers burning out and students acting up, the school shortened the school day by one hour.

End the ‘learning styles’ myth

It’s time to put the kibosh on The Myth of Learning Styles, writes Peter DeWitt in Education Week. A fan of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, he divided Friday class time into different learning styles. “Whether it was bodily kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, spatial or any of the others, we (co-teacher) and I would try to hit all of the intelligences that we could.” However, Gardner himself is trying to set the record straight: Multiple Intelligences Are Not Learning Styles, he wrote last year.

Perhaps it makes teachers feel that everyone can learn…which we know they can… but it also creates an easy fix for students who struggle. There really aren’t easy fixes. Students, whether they struggle or not, need a multi-modal approach.

Gardner wants teachers to individualize instruction as much as possible and “teach important materials in several ways, not just one (e.g. through stories, works of art, diagrams, role play).” However, he asks teachers to stop using “styles,” because “it will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.” Spread the word, writes DeWitt. Students learn in a variety of ways.

If I knew then . . .

If you could write a letter to yourself on your first day of teaching, what words of encouragement and insight would you offer? Edutopia and SoulPancake asked experienced teachers to make this video for Teacher Appreciation Week.

Differentiation: How well is it done?

Differentiated instruction — individualizing teaching for students at multiple levels in the same classroom — is much revered, writes Checker Finn. But “how well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances?”

He’s concerned about educating high-ability children from disadvantaged families. He keeps hearing that special programs for gifted kids aren’t necessary because “we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

Is that really happening? Is it possible without genius teachers?

“Teachers are expected to be all things to (almost) all youngsters,” Finn writes.

They may engage in some form of “ability grouping” within the classroom—which may well be what teachers “hear” when someone says “differentiate,” though it’s surely not what the gurus of the field intend. Or, if they stick with full-class instruction, they pitch much of their instruction to kids in the middle 60 percent or so of the achievement/ability/motivation distribution, doing less for pupils who are either lagging far behind or surging ahead.

Middle-class parents may pressure teachers to focus on the needs of high achievers, writes Finn. In schools with lots of disadvantaged children, there’s little or no pressure to focus on the “smart kids” and lots of high-need students demanding the teacher’s time and attention.

Children aren’t sponges

Small children aren’t “sponges” soaking up information, writes Dan Willingham on Real Clear Education. “Kids don’t learn important information that’s right in front of them, unless an adult is actively teaching them,” a recent study (Butler & Markman, 2014) shows.

Children aged 4-5 were shown a novel object and were told that it was a “spoodle.” Would they figure out the spoodle is magnetic?

In the pedagogical condition, the experimenter said “Look, watch this” and used the spoodle to pick up paperclips. In the intentional condition, the experimenter used the spoodle to pick up paperclips, but did not request the child’s attention or make eye contact. In the accidental condition, the experimenter feigned accidentally dropping the spoodle on the clips. In all of the conditions, the experimenter held the spoodle with the paper clips clinging to it and said “wow!”

Next, the child was presented 16 objects and was asked to determine which were spoodles. Half were identical to the original spoodle, and half were another color. In addition, half of each color were magnetic and half were not.

Children knew the spoodle had to be magnetic only if the adult had drawn attention to the spoodle’s magnetism. Observing the magnetic properties in the “intentional” or “accidental” experiments wasn’t enough. Those kids picked the spoodle by color.

Even in an environment rich in experiences, “little sponges” need to be taught, Willingham concludes. “Small differences in parenting may have important consequences for children’s learning.”

It’s hard to be the ‘sage on the stage’

“Sometimes I wonder whether student-centered learning is driven not just by Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but also by plain old expedience,” writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field.

On Thursday, she teaches writing fundamentals to disadvantaged 11-year-olds in an afterschool program. The kids are restless, hungry and easily distracted.

And so, as my voice gives out and my energy drains and as my ability to keep the kids focused on my questions diminishes, I think to myself, wouldn’t it be less exhausting if I stopped being the Sage on the Stage and instead become the Guide on the Side?

And then I wonder: how many teachers choose guidance over stagecraft . . . because it’s so much less exhausting?

“Sage on the Stage instruction is quite often the most efficient way to teach and to learn,” Beals writes. Furthermore, “attention is a muscle that atrophies if unused.” Every year with a “guide” will make it harder for the next teacher to be a “sage.”

Teaching ‘white privilege’

“Teaching is a political act,” said Kim Radersma at the 15th annual White Privilege Conference in Madison. “You are either a pawn used to perpetuate a system of oppression or you are fighting against it.” A former English teacher, she is working toward her Ph. D. in critical whiteness studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, reports the MacIver Institute.

A white person who “does anti-racist work” is like a recovering alcoholic, Radersma said.

“We’ve been raised to be good. ‘I’m a good white person,’ and yet to realize I carry within me these dark, horrible thoughts and perceptions is hard to admit. And yet like the alcoholic, what’s the first step? Admitting you have a problem,” she told the session attendees.

White privilege causes the racial achievement gap, Radersma said.  Students of color can’t learn as well from white teachers, she believes. 

A white attendee said her family had donated school supplies to a first-grade classmate from a needy family that had moved from India. Now, she realized that was wrong, she said. “It was like ‘well why don’t you swoop in and save the day and give her all this stuff because we can afford to do that for them’ kind of mentality,” she said.

Radersma agreed.

“It’s that savior mentality, like ‘save them, because they are not like us,’ and that normalization of whiteness. Whiteness is best and those poor others aren’t as good as us,” she said. “So, we need to think of them and give them our sympathy and our charity and our generosity, which is so demeaning to the people on the receiving end.”

So it’s not OK for whites to help non-whites. (What about whites helping poor whites or blacks helping poor blacks?) How can whites help except by constant self-abasement and going to conferences? Perhaps quitting teaching is a good first step.

The White Privilege Conference is a “useless” waste of money, Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, told the Wisconsin Reporter“You want to really do something? Educate a black kid,” said Innis, who is running as a Republican for a U.S. House seat in Nevada. “Give parents and students an opportunity to go to a private, parochial or a good public school.”

The conference received at least $38,000 from hotel room tax revenue, University of Wisconsin schools and the City of Madison, according to the Wisconsin Reporter.  In addition, Madison sent 30 to 40 city employees. Eight staffers from the state Department of Public Instruction took part and Janesville School District used a Safe and Supportive Schools grant to send 92 students and 12 staff members.

People who argue that all teaching is political wouldn’t be very happy if Darren injected his political views into high school math classes, he writes on Right on the Left Coast.