What’s important to me is . . .

When students write about what motivates them and what they want to achieve, they’re more likely to reach their goals, according to researcher Jordan Peterson.

Writing about goals nearly erased the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap for Dutch college students, reports Anya Kamentez on NPR.

At the Rotterdam School of Management, requiring first-year students to take a “self-authoring” course raised the number of credits earned and lowered the dropout rate.

A fifth of students are first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western backgrounds — Africa, Asia and the Middle East. . . . At the Rotterdam school, minorities generally underperformed the majority by more than a third, earning on average eight fewer credits their first year and four fewer credits their second year. But for minority students who had done this set of writing exercises, that gap dropped to five credits the first year and to just one-fourth of one credit in the second year.

Setting goals in writing “increased the probability that students would actually take their exams and hand in their assignments,” said Peterson.

Writing — and rewriting — your personal story can be powerful, writes Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times.

In a Stanford study, African-Americans who were struggling to adjust to college were asked to create an essay or video about college life to be seen by future students. Participants “received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.”

Who grades Core essays? Not all are teachers

Essay graders are trained to be consistent like McDonald’s workers.

New Core-aligned tests rely on fewer multiple-choice questions and more writing, notes the New York Times. For example, elementary students might be asked to “read a passage from a novel written in the first person, and a poem written in the third person, and describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.”

Who’s grading essays on Common Core tests? Temps willing to work for $12 to $14 per hour. A college degree is required, but teaching experience is optional.

On Friday, in an unobtrusive office park northeast of downtown (San Antonio), about 100 temporary employees of the testing giant Pearson worked in diligent silence scoring thousands of short essays written by third- and fifth-grade students from across the country. There was a onetime wedding planner, a retired medical technologist and a former Pearson saleswoman with a master’s degree in marital counseling.

More than three-quarters of scorers have at least one year of teaching experience, according to PARCC, which developed one set of Core tests.

They’re trained to produce consistent scores — just like workers at Starbucks or McDonald’s, said Bob Sanders of Pearson. “McDonald’s has a process in place to make sure they put two patties on that Big Mac,” he continued. “We do that exact same thing.”

“Losers who can’t find real jobs” are grading tests, writes Eric Owens, Daily Caller‘s education editor.

On teaching English

After teaching for 10 year at a large public high school in New Jersey, Nick Ripatrazone has 55 Thoughts for English Teachers.

Teach Sylvia Plath's poetry -- not just her death, advises Ripatrazone.

Teach Sylvia Plath’s poetry — not just her death, advises Ripatrazone.

To start with, “you need to love words,” he writes. “You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.”

“Create meticulous plans for each day,” he adds, “but be alive in the classroom.”

“Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction,” writes Ripatrazone. Students “can tell if you are putting on a show.”

Number 55: “For some students, you are their only light.”

Knowing is essential to writing

Her second graders’ writing was flat, repetitive and dull — until she gave them “an opportunity to build knowledge and  way to organize what they’ve learned,” writes Debbie Reynolds, a Nevada teacher, on Core Knowledge Blog.
Before students wrote about America’s westward expansion, she read 10 Core Knowledge “read alouds” on the topic and had students discuss details with classmates and answer comprehension questions.

Students then did an exercise, such as “whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea.”

Reynolds created a graphic organizer to help students build their essay. They wrote as if they were moving west as pioneers — or as displaced Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

DR1After writing a first draft, students edited their work and showed it to a classmate for peer editing. The teacher met with each student “to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing.”

Finally, students wrote and illustrated a final draft.

For the westward expansion project, each student also made a quilt square.

Reynolds provides excerpts:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

. . . We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

. . . We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

That’s not bad for second graders.

“I get admirable essays, stories, poems and songs from kids AFTER a unit in which I’ve supplied them with knowledge,” writes Ponderosa in the comments. “Then they are good writers ABOUT THAT SUBJECT.”

“The essential ingredient in good writing is knowing,” writes Ponderosa. “Knowing the subject, but also knowing the conventions of English and knowing a good deal of words with which to express what you know about the subject.”

Most student writing is bad because the student has nothing to say, but is obliged to turn in something to a teacher, who is obliged to read it.

Teacher: Core test is flawed

Julie Campbell, a fifth-grade teacher in New York, is OK with the Common Core and with standardized testing. But after training to be a scorer, Campbell thinks the new English Language Arts test for fifth graders is badly flawed, she writes in the Washington Post.

Scorers were told that any claim made by a student is correct if backed by evidence. “Making a feeble claim and using evidence out of context to support that claim” is all too common — and awarded full points.

Teenager Zac Sunderland sailed around the world -- alone.

Teenager Zac Sunderland sailed around the world — alone.

On last year’s test, students were asked to explain how The Young Man and the Sea‘s Zac Sunderland, a teenager who sailed solo around the world, demonstrated the ideas described in How to be a Smart Risk-Taker.

Students can’t argue that Zac took unreasonable risks.

Scorers were told the following answer is “exemplary” and deserves full credit, writes Campbell.

One idea described in “How to be a Smart Risk-taker” is evaluating risks. It is smart to take a risk only when the potential upside outweighs the potential downside. Zac took the risk because the downside “dying” was outweighed by the upside (adventure, experience, record, and showing that young people can do way more than expected from them). (pg 87)

It’s not smart to risk dying for adventure, the teacher thinks. But that’s the smart way to do well on the test.

Short-answer questions lead to an “Easter Egg hunt,” Campbell writes. “The wordier the written response, the more likely it is that the student will stumble upon the correct answer.”

To get full credit (two points), the student must make an inference, even if it’s irrelevant.  Let’s say the question asks: “What time is it?” Answering 12 would be worth partial credit, writes Campbell. Full credit would require the student to write: “12, which is noon when we eat lunch.”

Students are learning to use test-prep jargon to pump up their scores, she writes, after reading 300 test papers.

Empty phrases and flowery transitions were sprinkled everywhere: meaningless drivel. Clear, concise writing was scarcely seen, and when it was, it was detrimental to the child’s overall score.

. . . Wordy block quotes that may or may not support the main idea? Points. Overdone introduction with a dubious thesis? Points. Lengthy conclusion? Points. Quality thoughtful, succinct, correct information?   Partial credit.

Finally, writes Campbell, the guidance to scorers is inconsistent, contradictory and confusing. The test results will undercut good Common Core instruction.

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.  (FutureMe.org 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).