Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Balanced literacy or balanced sentences?

Finally a New York Times Op-Ed piece critiquing an education fad. In "The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’," author Alexander Nazaryan writes:

Now the approach that so frustrated me and my students is once again about to become the norm in New York City, as the new schools chancellor, Carmen FariƱa, has announced plans to reinstate a “balanced literacy” approach in English classrooms. The concept’s most vociferous champion is probably Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar. In her 1985 book, “The Art of Teaching Writing,” she complained that most English teachers “don’t know what it is to read favorite passages aloud to a friend or to swap ideas about an author.” She sought a reimagination of the English teacher’s role: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” a joyful exploration unhindered by despotic traffic cops.
(One has to wonder whether Calkins has ever been coached by a sports coach: since when is this a "joyful exploration" that doesn't involve despotism and "presenting information"?)
Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.
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.
It's striking that Nazaryan, who believes in "the pedagogical value of a deep dive into sentence structure," is not a native-born American:
I am somewhat prejudiced on this issue, for my acclimation to the English language had nothing balanced about it. Yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10, I landed in suburban Connecticut in the English-as-a-second-language classroom of Mrs. Cohen. She 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. Mrs. Cohen was unbalanced in the best possible way.
Mrs. Cohen is, in fact, unusual; here in American, where we are more ignorant than anywhere else of the grammars of other languages, Grammar Denialism is the norm, and balanced literacy, to some extent, is as much a symptom as a cause.

But knowledge of grammar and sentence structure is, indeed, key to improving writing. Consider some excerpts of Calkin's latest book (Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement):
We can regard the Common Core State Standards as the worst thing in the world. Frankly, it can be fun to gripe about them. Sometimes we say to the to the educators who convene at our Common Core conferences, "Right now make your fact into a curmudgeon's face. As a curmudgeon, think about those standards—the timing, the way they arrived on the scene, their effect on your school."
One can improve this choppy paragraph using techniques found in books that teach the grammar writing in the way that Calkins renounces: for example, creating cohesive sentence topics via sentence combining and rearranging.
We can regard the Common Core State Standards as the worst thing in the world, and, frankly, it can be fun to gripe about them. At our Common Core conferences, we sometimes say to educators, "Right now make your fact into a curmudgeon's face. As a curmudgeon, think about those standards—the timing, the way they arrived on the scene, their effect on your school."
Here's another paragraph from Calkins' book that could use some syntactically-informed revision:
The entire design of the standards is based on the argument that the purpose of K–12 education is to prepare K–12 students for college (the rhetoric touts preparation for career as well, but this is not reflected in the standards). Because the standards were written by taking the skills that college students need and distilling those down through every single grade, kindergarten children, for example, are expected to “use a com-bination of drawing, dictating and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book."
These overly long sentences can be rearranged and broken up for much greater readability, maintaining cohesion, in part, via a wh-cleft structure:
Informing the design of the standards is the notion that K–12 education exists to prepare students for college. (True, the rhetoric also touts career preparation, but the standards don't reflect this). Essentially, what the designers did was take the skills that college students need and distill these down through every single grade. The resulting expectation for kindergartners, for example, is that they “use a combination of drawing, dictating and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book."
A small subset of people have a natural ear for language and do enough attentive reading to learn these techniques, implicitly, on their own. For everyone else, including many published authors, improving prose requires deliberate instruction--of the sort found nowhere in the joyful explorations of Writer's Workshop.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What students lose when they stop graphing by hand

A few weeks after writing a post about the latest research on the downsides to abandoning penmanship, it occurs to me that there’s yet one more facet of penmanship that we’ve abandoned. Not only are schools (for the most part):

1. No longer teaching penmanship
2. No longer teaching cursive
3. Replacing handwriting with keyboarding

...they are also, increasingly, having kids graph functions via calculators rather than by hand, via pencil and graph paper. Instead of slowly plotting out the points of a particularly function, strategically choosing which numbers to plug in to most efficiently determine the general shape of a function, today's kids simply type in a function and see its graph immediately. It’s a much more passive learning process, which, I’m guessing, substantially reduces how deeply students conceptualize the geometry of functions.

A month ago, during my daughter’s last week of homeschool, I watched as she slowly plotted out the graphs of y=x, y=x+1, y=x+2, … y = x-1, y=x-2, … y=2x, y=3x, … y=-x, y=-2x, y=-3x, … y=1/2x, y=1/3x, … Every step of the way, numerous though those steps were, she was learning something—in the best sense of hands-on, child-centered, discovery learning! If she’d simply typed all these functions, one by one, into a graphing calculator, I’m not sure how much she’d still remember today.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Math problems of the week: Common Core Math vs. Traditional Math

I. A set of 1st grade word problems from Hamilton's Essentials of Arithmetic, published in 1919:


II. A 1st grade Common Core-inspired math test, circulated via Slate and the Washington Post:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

High-stakes testing in the very best sense

I was recently chatting with my French about the French baccalaureate, which is the exam you must pass in order to receive your high school diploma and move on to university. “Le bac”, in fact, is the only thing that determines your admission to university. Not your grades, not your extracurriculars, not your teacher recommendations. Talk about high stakes testing!

Except that the French bac is not at all like America’s high stakes testing. It consists, mostly, of essay questions, lab work, oral exams, and a research project, in all major academic subjects. Examinations are spread out over multiple days and are assessed by multiple examiners, and, except for the oral components, are done so anonymously. The process is, at once, more comprehensive, holistic, challenging, and individualized than the American testing system is, whether we’re talking about the No Child Left Behind Tests, the Common Core tests, the SATs, or the Aps, even if you put all these tests together.

Other European countries are similar. Whether we’re talking about the A-Levels in Britain, or the Abitur in Germany, it’s one big, challenging, comprehensive exam that determines your prospects for university.

And, while its detractors are legion, might there be some real virtues to this system?

It does, of course, favor academic skills over resume-padding and so-called leadership skills. And while this might seem overly narrow to many of us Americans, we should keep in mind the breadth of academic skills covered. Un-aided writing (no ghost-written essays here), analytical thinking (both in writing and orally), problem solving (with some truly challenging problems in math and physics), research skills, laboratory skills, breadth and depth of knowledge in all academic subjects: aren’t these what determine how prepared one is to benefit from university-level courses?

The baccalaureate system is also far less resistant to the tinkerings of privileged families than America’s college admissions system is. Expensive test-prep won’t get you very far; the bac tests aren’t gameable the way the SATs are. You can’t hire people to write or edit your essays for you. Expensive resume stuffers--unpaid internships, private lessons, and expensive programs abroad—have no place in the European university-level admissions process. The only way to prepare for the bac is to read a lot, write a lot, do a lot of practice problems, and study a lot—which is identical to the best way to prepare for university.

There’s also something to be said for final examinations that trump everything else—your grades, your broader academic portfolio, your day-to-day class participation. Yes, you might not be someone who tests well, either orally or in writing. Yes, you might being having an off day while being tested. Yes, it would be very nice if you could retake the bac should you fail it, without being stigmatized for life. But (unlike the SATs) the bac is given over a number of days (with some of the subject exams given at the end of the junior year of high school), and it seems to me that simply being a good or bad test taker is less of a variable when we’re talking, not about a bunch of tricky, tightly-timed multiple choice questions, but about a breadth of essays, problems, labs, oral questions, and research projects.

Then there are the biases that the baccalaureate system bypasses. What if you’re not a teacher-pleaser, or a diligent and timely homework-completer, or a big participator in class, or an effective grade-grubber, and what if, nonetheless, you are able to prepare yourself, in your own way, to write excellent exam essays and solve tough math and science problems and effectively complete the lab work and research project and ace the orals, and, in short, ace the entire, comprehensive exam? Whose business is it, really, how you got there, as long as you found your path.

Isn’t this, in fact, a system that favors multiple strategies and learning styles—in the very best sense of those terms?

Monday, July 21, 2014

How do you accommodate a complex information processing disorder?

How do you accommodate a complex information processing disorder? Here are some of neurologist Nancy Minshew’s findings about individuals on the autistic spectrum, including those with normal to above-normal IQ‪‬s:

  • In autistic individuals, there is “a problem with the brain’s fundamental mechanisms for processing complex information.”
  • There are “deficits across multiple domains that selectively involved higher-order abilities that involve the processing of complex information”
  • Particularly impaired: “higher-order language comprehension” and “mental inferencing.”
Here, meanwhile, are some of the Common Core Standards that all children are expected to meet, with “appropriate accommodations”:

For 5th grade:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.5 Explain how a series of chapters, scenes, or stanzas fits together to provide the overall structure of a particular story, drama, or poem.
For 8th grade:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.3 Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
And, for grades 11-12
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.6 Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
So, if we want autistic students to graduate from high school, what are the appropriate accommodations?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Modern English as a foreign language

While there will always be readers, and there will always be teachers who assign the classics, I wonder how many of today’s kids are still engaging on a regular basis with the archaic constructions that permeate the older classics. I’m speaking, not just of archaic vocabulary (relatively easy to look up), but of archaic syntax. Even if we restrict ourselves, as schools long have tended to, to “Modern English”  (which dates back to the year 1550), there are still a number of syntactic constructions we no longer find in the majority of the texts that today’s young readers encounter. I wrote about some of these earlier, but have collected a few more since.

Some constructions may simply bog readers down and/or baffle them:

1.”of a” plus time expression to express habitual time:

“of a night” (at night); “of an evening” (in the evening); “of a Sunday morning” (Saturday morning)

“..she had her cap on, which he had never seen her in before when he came of an evening.” (Adam Bede)

2. “that” for “so that”:

Let us die that we may live

3. “as” for the relative conjunction “that”:

"those as sleep and think not on their sins." (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

4. “were” for “would be,” with “that” for “if:

“It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” (King James Bible)

5. “but” for “that” plus “wouldn’t”:

“There is no good man in any line but I call to my standard” (My Book House retelling of Robinhood)

6. Inversions: of subject and verb; of object and verb; of adjectives and nouns:

“On her head sang its war-song wild”. (My Book House retelling of Beowulf)

“For them the gracious Duncan have I murther’d” (Macbeth)

7. Nonrestrictive relative clauses shifted away from the definite nouns that modify:

“My lair is empty that was full when this moon was new” (The Jungle Book)


Some instances of archaic syntax may not merely baffle today’s kids, but lead them astray:

8. “Should” for “would”:

“I should have asked you to lunch with me even if you hadn't upset the vase so clumsily.” (Screenplay to Rebecca)

Here, one might think that the speaker is expressing an obligation to have lunch.

“You want to know if I can suggest any motive as to why Mrs. de Winter should have taken her life?” (Screenplay to Rebecca)

Here, one might think that the question at hand is why there was an obligation for Mrs. de Winter to take her life.

9. “had” for “would have”:

“So had life ended for Beowulf.” (My Book House retelling of Beowulf)

One might think Beowolf actually died.

10. “Though” for “even if”:

“Though ye gave me a thousand pounds, yet would I never sign the lease” (My Book House retelling of Beowulf)

One might think that the speaker actually did receive a thousand pounds.

As I noted earlier, even now things are a-changin’: “before”, “beside,” and “about” are losing their spatial meanings (“in front of,” “next to,” “around”), making sentences like “She stood before the crowd of people about the grounds beside the lake” not as readily understood as they once were.

Whether these archaisms merely confuse contemporary readers, or actually lead them astray, cumulatively, they make pre-20th century classics (e.g., Shakespeare, Dickens, Dumas, and James) increasingly inaccessible.

No wonder so many English classes now accompany the written classics with the growing number of movie versions that Hollywood is so eagerly churning out. Although, as we see from the screenplay for Rebecca (1940), it's hard to completely escape archaisms unless one sticks to relatively recent movies. Which I'm guessing is pretty much what today's K12 English teachers are doing.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Math problems of the week: 5th grade Investigations vs. Singapore Math

Chart reading versus estimation: large numbers in Investigations vs. Singapore Math.

I. An early problem set involving large numbers in the 5th grade TERC/Investigations Student Activity Book, from Unit 3 of the book [click to enlarge]:

II. A continuation of the first first problem set involving addition and subtraction (and multiplication and division) of multiples of ten from large numbers in the 5th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 5A Workbook, from Unit 1 of the book [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:Is chart reading a 21st century skill?