NYC goes back to ‘balanced literacy’

New York City’s low-performing elementary and middle schools are being told to use “balanced literacy” approaches that didn’t work well in the past, reports Patrick Wall on Chalkbeat.

At a meeting last month, some principals in the Renewal program were told to reserve up to 45 minutes daily for students to read “just-right” books matched to their ability levels. Elementary and middle school leaders were also told to use a writing program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of theTeachers College Reading and Writing Project, and to send their “best and brightest” teachers to be trained there.

“Those are the non-negotiables we’re starting with in terms of instruction,” Laura Kotch, a former Teachers College consultant who serves as an adviser to Fariña, told the principals.

Yet Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said, “This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Daily “independent reading” time and student-selected books key components of balanced literacy, notes Wall. “Teachers give quick lessons on reading strategies before letting students practice with books of their choosing” at their ability level.

“The approach was mandated citywide about a decade ago,” until then-Chancellor Joel Klein let some schools try a Core Knowledge program focused on building students’ background knowledge. Compared to balanced literacy students, Core Knowledge students showed much stronger reading gains.

Balanced literacy’s critics say it’s incompatible with the Common Core, reports Chalkbeat.

For example, they say letting students choose books matched to their skill level keeps some from reading the grade-level texts the standards demand, and that the approach can ignore the standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum.” Others accuse the approach of being loosely structured, with too little direct guidance for students — especially ones who are struggling.

“What these kids need is instruction, not to sit there with books they can’t read,” said New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

Schools have lost the idea that “reading is for the rest of your life to enjoy reading,” Fariña said in a recent interview.

Reading’s not much fun for people who can’t read well and understand what they read.

Diana Senechal challenges the idea that “balanced literacy” leads to joyful reading.

It’s not your dad’s math teaching

Any parent who opposes Common Core standards is saying, in effect, “‘I do not want my child prepared for life in the Twenty-First Century’,” writes Keith Devlin, a Stanford mathematician. They don’t realize how much educational needs have changed in the last 30 years, he argues.

Fortune 500 executives were asked for the most valued skills in a new hire in 1970 and again in 1999, notes Linda Darling-Hammond in a 2013 paper, Devlin writes.

Writing, the top skill in 1970, dropped to 10th place, while skills two and three, computation and reading, didn’t even make the top 10 in 1999.

Teamwork rose from number 10 to first place. The other two skills at the top, problem solving and interpersonal skills, weren’t listed in 1970.

Common Core math standards, which include “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” align with those 21st-century skills, writes Devlin. Today’s children “need a very different kind of education: one based on understanding rather then procedural mastery, and on exploration rather than instruction,” he concludes.

Even in my day, when we were trying to beat “Ivan,” people wanted kids to understand math. If Core math leads to deeper understanding, rather than dizzier confusion, parents will climb on board.

Still, I doubt that 21st-century employers really want to hire people with weak literacy and math skills, as long as they’re team players with pleasant personalities. As for “problem solving,” I agree with a comment by Ellie K:

Employees who can’t read, write or “compute,” i.e. know arithmetic, geometry and algebra, aren’t going to be able to solve problems, contribute as members of teams in collaborative settings nor communicate effectively.

In a 2014 Linked-In survey, employers rated problem-solving skills and being a good learner as the two most important skills for a new hire, reports Business News Daily. Employers also value strong analytical and communications skills, but speaking well is more important than writing. “Only 6 percent of employers said they’re looking for strong mathematical and statistical skills.”

Employers also want workers who can collaborate effectively and work hard.

Via Laura Waters on Education Post.


When English Learners don’t learn English

Parkview Elementary in El Monte

California schools are focusing attention on “long-term English Learners,” students from non-English-speaking homes who never reach proficiency in reading and writing skills, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Many were born in the U.S. They speak and understand English, but they test below grade level on state exams. Is it their English skills? Or, are they just below-average students?

Fairfax High Principal Carmina Nacorda said, more than 70 percent of her 125 long-term English Learners have educational disabilities.

Dasha Cifuentes, an English Learner from kindergarten through 10th grade, appreciates the slower pace of new classes.

On a recent morning, she and her classmates watched a “60 Minutes” documentary on Lakers point guard Jeremy Lin. Her teacher, Serafin Alvarez, then peppered the students with questions about it to check their understanding. What inspired Lin to play basketball? How many colleges offered him scholarships? What helped him succeed?

Few of the 10 students answered the questions correctly, but it was unclear whether they didn’t understand the documentary or didn’t care to pay attention. Alvarez said student apathy is one of his biggest challenges in teaching the more sophisticated language needed for college and careers — a recent vocabulary list included “mandated,” “effective,” “interact” and “discipline,” words few of the students hear at home, he said.

Dasha admits she didn’t read books or use the dictionary, as her teachers and parents advised. She didn’t ask for help. Now she talks about her problems with a mentor teacher.

At Parkview Elementary in El Monte, a language development program “pushes students in preschool through third grade to use richer language in curriculum incorporating literature, social studies and science taught through such popular themes as animals and the solar system,” reports the Times.

Teachers use “collaborative conversation” between pairs of students to develop oral skills, vocabulary charts and frequent writing assignments.

A letter to the future

Canadian high school teacher Bruce Farrer  asks students to write letters to their future selves. Twenty years later, he tracks down the students and mails their letters to them, reports WestJet’s Above and Beyond.  ( lets young people do this for themselves.)

Going international

cakeMy students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is holding an international contest for secondary school students around the world, as well as two national contests and an open call. (For more about CONTRARIWISE, see the website, Book Haven review, and PLATO interview.)

I am eager to see what comes in.

Here is the international contest topic (which has already stirred up much conversation):

Your favorite cultural dish* is now its own nation. Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? You may refer to the ingredients, cooking utensils, eating utensils, human participants, or other aspects of the food’s preparation and consumption. Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences—anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as ‘secretary of state.'” This can be a story, an essay, an epic poem written in the style of Beowulf, words set to a popular song (bonus points if it’s a song we don’t know and have to look up, and it becomes one of our favorite songs of all time), or anything, really.

Although it may seem a blend of Plato’s Republic and the Mad Hatter Tea Party, the possibilities go beyond any immediate associations. When I have mentioned it to people, their first reaction has been, “Where would I even begin with that?” Then they have ended up talking about it for days.

The national contests are intriguing too.

If you know secondary school students (grade 6-12), please feel free to pass on the information! The deadline for the national contests and open call is November 14; for the international contest, December 1.

This is the one plug of my guest-blogging stint. There is nothing I would rather plug right now.


Note: I revised one paragraph of this piece after posting it, in order to fix a mixed metaphor (my own).

Are writing rubrics a must?

I look forward to guest-blogging with Darren! I have many obligations over the next week–so my blogging won’t be prolific. I will try to post a few pieces, though.

Nearly two months ago, Steven Conn’s opinion piece “The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Conn is a professor and director of the public-history program at Ohio State University.) He described a classroom exchange where a student asked for the “rubric” and he had to ask what it was. He then replied that there would be no rubric. In the piece itself, he attributed the demand for rubrics to a general trend toward “helicopter teaching” and “spoon-feeding.” (Note: I agree; I would add that rubrics can even penalize outstanding writing.)

The student who asked me for a rubric did so because she gets them in all her other classes, and has gotten them during her entire school career. Without such road maps, so I have learned, students feel the free-floating anxiety that they will have to do all the work of writing a paper on their own, that they might not do it well, and thus might wind up with a B on the paper. Which as we all know is the same as a C. Hey, I’m sure I’m just as guilty of inflating grades as anyone.

The piece received a range of comments, including not-so-subtle suggestions that Conn should not be teaching. In the minds of some, the refusal to provide a rubric was a sign of laziness or unwillingness to meet the students where they were.

But rubrics and guidelines are not the same, nor (presumably) is college the same as high school.

Rubrics, in my experience, risk being reductive rather than instructive. What makes a good paper? In general, it has a clear and well-supported idea. The structure suits the purpose. It addresses counterarguments and complications. It is free of errors and distractions. It cites its sources properly. At higher levels, it shows original thinking as well as a command of style, cadence, and rhetoric. Now, one could spell this out in a rubric, but to what good end? [Read more…]

Stephen King on teaching writing


Before he was a best-selling writer, Stephen King was a high school English teacher. In The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey asks King about teaching writing and reading.

Lahey: You have called informal essays “silly and unsubstantial things,” not at all useful for teaching good writing. What kinds of essay assignments are useful?

King: I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

It’s “a horrible idea” to teach Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors, says King. It’s too depressing. “But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.”

If he hadn’t been able to make a living as a writer, King was planning to switch to teaching elementary school.

Here’s the flat, sad truth: By the time they get to high school, a lot of these kids have already closed their minds to what we love. I wanted to get to them while they were still wide open. Teenagers are wonderful, beautiful freethinkers at the best of times. At the worst, it’s like beating your fists on a brick wall. Also, they’re so preoccupied with their hormones it’s often hard to get their attention.

“Do you think great teachers are born or do you think they can be trained?” asks Lahey.

King: Good teachers can be trained, if they really want to learn (some are pretty lazy). Great teachers, like Socrates, are born.

. . . The best teachers are artists.

I’ve never read one of King’s novels. I don’t like the genre. But his book on writing, titled On Writing, is excellent. His advice to would-be writers — “write a lot and read a lot” — is precisely what I say to young writers.

How unschoolers turn out

What do unschooled adults think about their unstructured education? Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, surveyed people 18 or older who’d directed their own learning for at least two high school years.

Seventy-five people responded to his ad, including 24 who’d never attended school and 27 who hadn’t attended past sixth grade.  (There’s no way tell how representative they are, writes Gray, a Boston College professor, in Psychology Today.)

All but three were happy they’d been unschooled.

Most had pursued higher education, typically starting at a community college in their teens before transferring.

Colleges attended “ranged from state universities (e.g. the University of South Carolina and UCLA) to an Ivy League university (Cornell) to a variety of small liberal-arts colleges (e.g. Mt. Holyoke, Bennington, and Earlham),” writes Gray.

The participants reported remarkably little difficulty academically in college. Students who had never previously been in a classroom or read a textbook found themselves getting straight A’s and earning honors, both in community college courses and in bachelor’s programs. . . . Most reported themselves to be at an academic advantage compared with their classmates, because they were not burned out by previous schooling, had learned as unschoolers to be self-directed and self-responsible, perceived it as their own choice to go to college, and were intent on making the most of what the college had to offer.

Seventy-nine percent of those who’d never attended school were pursuing creative arts careers, including fine arts, crafts, music, photography, film, and writing.  A third of those with some schooling also were seeking creative careers.

Entrepreneurship — including selling their creative products or services — was high.

Luba Vangelova on Mind/Shift has more.

Idzie Desmarais, author of Unschooling 101, writes a blog called I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write.

The lost art of diagramming sentences

The design firm Pop Chart Lab has taken the first lines of famous novels and diagrammed those sentences. This one shows the opening of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Pop Chart Lab has diagrammed the first lines of famous novels, such as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Diagramming sentences is a lost art, reports NPR.

It’s a “picture of language,” says Kitty Burns Florey, the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.

The first sentence she recalls diagramming is: “The dog barked.”

“By drawing a line and writing ‘dog’ on the left side of the line and ‘barked’ on the right side of the line and separating them with a little vertical line, we could see that ‘dog’ was the subject of the sentence and ‘barked’ was the predicate or the verb,” she explains. “When you diagram a sentence, those things are always in that relation to each other. It always makes the same kind of picture. And supposedly, it makes it easier for kids who are learning to write, learning to use correct English

In a 1877  book, Higher Lessons in English, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg argued that students would learn how to structure sentences by drawing them as graphic structures. Diagramming became popular — till the 1960s. (I learned in seventh grade in 1964-5.)

 “Diagramming sentences … teaches nothing beyond the ability to diagram,” declared the 1960 Encyclopedia of Educational Research.

In 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English declared that “repetitive grammar drills and exercises” — like diagramming sentences — are “a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.”

Diagramming isn’t mentioned in the Common Core standards, so it’s probably doomed.

Robo-writing tutors

Robo-readers are better than humans at helping students improve their writing, argues Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report. “The computer functions not as a grader but as a proofreader and basic writing tutor, providing feedback on drafts, which students then use to revise their papers before handing them in to a human,” she writes.

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which has used E-Rater since 2009, students are far more willing to revise their essays if they get feedback from a computer rather than a human teacher.  They write more and improve more.

Rewriting seems like a game, a way to get a higher score, said Andrew Klobucar, a humanities professor.

Instructors’ criticism is seen by students as “corrective, even punitive,”  he said. When E-Rater suggests a rewrite, students don’t take it personally.

In a study at Alexandria University, students learning to teach English as a foreign language received feedback on two essay drafts from a robo-reader program called Criterion.

As in New Jersey, students liked the immediate response, saw writing a new draft as a game and preferred non-human feedback.

Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note. By contrast, interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior — from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent.

. . . the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. . . . Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students — which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Robo-graders are a bad idea, concludes Paul. But robo-writing coaches may be a very good idea.

When critics like Les Perelman of MIT claim that robo-graders can’t be as good as human graders, it’s because robo-graders lack human insight, human nuance, human judgment. But it’s the very non-humanness of a computer that may encourage students to experiment, to explore, to share a messy rough draft without self-consciousness or embarrassment.

Automated software would let teachers assign more writing without creating an impossible burden for themselves.

The only way to learn to write is to write and rewrite.