Teaching grade 12½

The first year of college has become grade 12½, writes a community college writing instructor. Actually, it’s more like grade 7 1/2: He’s teaching punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and spelling.

‘I came to the Delta to be a heroine’

When she came to Helena, Arkansas as a Teach for America recruit, April Bo Wang quickly learned her students’ poverty wasn’t romantic or literary, she writes in The Atlantic. Poverty in the Mississippi Delta was real and crippling.

My students came to 11th grade reading, on average, at a fourth grade level. Some were cycling back into school after a stint at the juvenile penitentiary. Some were regularly absent on days when their chronic diabetes was just too painful. Some were working night shifts at McDonalds to support a baby at home. Many of them should never have been allowed to graduate from middle school, much less reached the 11th grade.

Becoming an adequate teacher for my students became an all-consuming task. I had no energy to dream up anything but a better next lesson plan.

She’d thought of writing a novel. There was no time. She’d dreamed of being “a heroine.” But “social advocacy is all about the community—not about being at the center of one’s own story.”

She was able to make a difference for her students, but . . . “I was the best high school English teacher my students ever had simply because they’d had permanent substitutes for ninth and tenth grade English.”

Wang has founded a nonprofit called ThisLandSpeaks to fund journalists who will report on social issues and teach writing and journalism in rural communities, starting with the Mississippi Delta.

© The Norman Rockwell Estate; used with permission
Norman Rockwell’s Murder in Mississippi is on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. “The painting was a startling reminder that the cause we were celebrating had not been romantic,” writes Wang.

Word crimes

Weird Al Yankovic has released Word Crimes. (It’s a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, which I know only because I looked it up.)

AP claims to create ‘apprentice historians’

The New AP History course promises to turn high school students into “apprentice historians,” writes Peter Wood on the National Association of Scholars blog. Don’t hold your breath.

The newly designed course “distorts U.S. history, argue Jane Robbins, senior fellow at the American Principles Project, and Larry Krieger, a retired AP U.S. history teacher. Krieger followed up here.

The new framework — which is much more detailed than earlier versions — “relentlessly advances a negative view of America,” writes Wood. There’s lots about racism, but little about the Declaration of Independence or George Washington.

The College Board explains the course:

. . . focuses on the development of historical thinking skills (chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narrative) and an understanding of content learning objectives organized around seven themes, such as identity, peopling, and America in the world.

. . . the course is designed to encourage students to become apprentice historians.”

That’s flattering, writes Wood. Eleventh graders “are no longer merely students striving to get a foundation in facts and understanding, but rather young professionals in a learned academic discipline ready to develop their command of sophisticated analytic and synthetic skills.”

This very much falls within the zone of contemporary education where colleges and universities—and schools—trip over themselves to assure students that they possess such insight and blazing intelligence that they can skip the learn-how-to-swim courses and go straight to the Olympic relay team.

To be sure, really bright high school students should indeed begin to work on chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narrative.  But they aren’t going to get very far on these sophisticated skills if they are not also acquiring a well-landscaped understanding of the big picture, a richly detailed recall of historical sequence, and a genuine familiarity with key people and key documents.

The assumption seems to be that ignorant students can look up what they don’t know, writes Wood. But what if they don’t know what they don’t know?

Here are Wood’s updates.

An Australian writes about teaching World History at a U.S. university.  His students couldn’t “write like a historian” because they couldn’t write grammatically, he complains.

In addition, “their knowledge of events, places, ideas, and people outside the United States was sometimes startlingly limited. Ho Chi Minh may as well have been the local Asian takeaway place,” writes Jamie Miller, who taught at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. “Some students seemed scarily unfamiliar with a world map.”

Writing math

From the U.S. Coalition for World Class Math:

Interdisciplinary teaching is the big thing now.  In my most recent assignment, the principal had all of the teachers talk with each other to figure out how to integrate their lessons--i.e., math with science with history, with home ec with English, etc.  I wish I had had this cartoon to "share" with everyone:

‘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.”

Moats: Core fail

Common Core standards are appropriate for the “most academically able” students, says Louisa Moats in a Psychology Today interview. At least half of students will not be able to meet the standards. A nationally known expert on teaching reading, Moats helped write the standards.

Students doomed to “fail” core-aligned tests need a “range of educational choices and pathways to high school graduation, employment, and citizenship,” says Moats. Notice she doesn’t mention college.

The standards call for the use of “more challenging and complex texts,” which will benefit older students, she says. But that may hurt younger students.

Novice readers (typically through grade 3) need a stronger emphasis on the foundational skills of reading, language, and writing than on the “higher level” academic activities that depend on those foundations, until they are fluent readers.

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach the new standards, says Moats.

Classroom teachers are confused, lacking in training and skills to implement the standards, overstressed, and the victims of misinformed directives from administrators who are not well grounded in reading research.

. . . The standards treat the foundational language, reading, and writing skills as if they should take minimal time to teach and as if they are relatively easy to teach and to learn. They are not. The standards call for raising the difficulty of text, but many students cannot read at or above grade level, and therefore may not receive enough practice at levels that will build their fluency gradually over time.

Teachers have received no sensible guidance on how to teach students with learning disabilities, she adds.

  What little time there is for professional development is being taken up by poorly designed workshops on teaching comprehension of difficult text or getting kids to compose arguments and essays. This will not be good for the kids who need a systematic, explicit form of instruction to reach basic levels of academic competence.

I’ve been around a long time, and this feels like 1987 all over again, with different words attached to the same problems. When will we ever learn?

This is a devastating critique.

Via DCGEducator.

Oversharing to get into college

One Yale applicant wrote that she peed her pants rather than break off a conversation with an admired teacher. Another wrote about his small genitalia, recalls Michael Motto, a former Yale admissions offer. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

Oversharing has gone over the top in college admissions essays, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. that assessment. “There are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction.”

“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”

But going too far “can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.”

Affluent parents pay admissions counselors to help students come up with just the right amount of angst.

Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.

One of my daughter’s high school friends wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. It got him into an Ivy League college. He’s not gay, but at least he did his own lying.

“The unlived life is not worth examining,” responds Robert Pondiscio in a comment.

To a significant degree, these kinds of self-involved, narcissistic essays are explicitly taught and encouraged in K-12 schools from elementary school onward. New York City schools in particular have long been dominated by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project approach to writing, made (in)famous by literacy guru Lucy Calkins, which teaches children as young as third grade to plumb the depths of the seven-year-old souls for “seed ideas” for personal narratives for their “writer’s notebooks.” Those ideas are then painstakingly massaged into “small moment” pieces, personal narratives and even, yes, memoirs.

The kids . . . learn to conflate the confessional and self-involved with “great writing.”

“If elite colleges stopped asking for personal essays as an admission requirement and instead asked for two piece of graded academic writing — a research report, an English or history paper — the market for confessional writing would dry up by sundown,” writes Pondiscio. “It would also be a better barometer of college readiness.”

And perhaps it would dry up the market for $14,000 four-day college-app cram camps.

Pondiscio, who’s just signed on as senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at Fordham,  has more in a post on a Fordham blog.

17 states will require the ACT

By  next year, 17 states will require all 11th graders in public school to take the ACT, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin have jumped on the bandwagon. ACT scores are used to judge college readiness — and to encourage more students to apply to college.

ACT, which has passed SAT as the most commonly used college admissions test, will provide more information to students on their readiness.

Starting next year,  test results will include a “STEM Score,” representing a student’s performance on the mathematics and science portions of the exam, and an “English Language Arts Score,” which will combine the student’s performance on the English, reading, and writing sections.

A new indicator will show whether a student is likely to be able to understand college-level texts.

Another will assess career readiness — applied math and reading for information — for students who take the ACT and ACT’s WorkKeys tests.  Illinois and Michigan require 11th graders to take both exams.

ACT also is modifying the optional writing test. Essays will be scored on ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use.

Dead Poets’ me-me-me message

Dead Poets Society, which came out 25 years ago, has had a pernicious influence on young writers — and on college English departments — charges novelist Stephen Marche in Esquire.

The story is a classic tale of writerly egomania, transferred onto the figure of a teacher. Robin Williams playing John Keating — he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance — was the origin of the “cool teacher” cliche that humiliated so many of us in the 1990s. Instead of staying in a classroom reading, he takes his students for long walks and life lessons. Instead of having them read interpretations of literature, he begins his class by having them rip out the pages of the introduction. He modestly suggests that they call him “O Captain, my Captain,” a title that Walt Whitman originally intended for a murdered Abraham Lincoln, martyred savior of the Republic. Keating is entitled to his students’ adulation, in the film, because he imbues in them a sense of self-worth, totally unrelated to their accomplishments.

The movie presents literature as “collective narcissism,” writes Marche. Reading and writing are easy.

Understanding the literary tradition was not a task. Nobody had to learn foreign languages or philology. Nobody had to work at it. What you really needed to be a writer was to be sensitive and to overcome the traditional strictures of mom and dad. You really just needed to be a rebel.

Dead Poets Society glorifies a terrible way to teach humanities writes Kevin J.H. Dettmar, an English professor, in The Atlantic. It’s anti-intellectual gush.

The movie has been voted the greatest “school film” ever and often named as one of the most inspirational films of all time, according to The Guardian.