Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part II

So, resuming where we left off in the previous post, below, what makes particular subjects within history boring?

Edweek’s Greg Milo explains that history is boring when it’s a pre-determined “chronology of topics” and students don’t have any choice over which ones to focus on. Apparently, different subtopics of history are intrinsically boring to different students. Perhaps some actually like the Middle Ages but despise the Renaissance. Some, Milo proposes, might prefer to learn about elections in Burundi rather than the fall of Rome.

Chronology, though, is the basis not just of history, but of story; and story is what most people are looking for. Who wants to read a non-chronological, theme-based version of Great Expectations, The Lord of the Rings or Gone Girl? The same goes for real-world events.

Chronology is also the basis for remembering things: it’s much easier to remember a series of events in sequence that as a bunch of isolated items. When it comes to a particular event, chronology helps you understand its significance—its historical significance, that is, along with its long and short-term causes and effects. (Most causes and effects, after all, unfold chronologically). Furthermore, following the standard chronology of a standard world history survey course, from beginning to end, ensures that students not only know about the Fall of Rome, but also about the notoriously neglected last hundred years, including the World War II and the Holocaust, about which so many students are so egregiously ignorant that some adults are trying to codify mandatory Holocaust instruction into state law.

Milo doesn’t just fault textbooks for being chronological; he faults them as well for treating certain topics too briefly; for “blowing through the specifics.” Because of this, textbooks are “missing out on the many variables that matter in understanding cause and effect” and failing to teach students how to make “reasoned decisions.” Milo also claims that textbooks “tend to dismiss the humanity of the subject—akin to telling a story with no main character.” Specific examples? Milo cites none.

In fact, plenty of textbooks do consider myriads of variables that underlie particular outcomes and do tell human-centered stories. But we've reached another cliff-hanger: stay tuned for Part III.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why do some history teachers hate history?

There’s a lot about history that Edweek’s Greg Milo doesn’t like. He doesn’t like history books that cover 5,000 years of history, from the origins of civilization to the present day. Though he realizes it’s important for understanding the emergence of the Renaissance, he isn’t “much into” the Middle Ages. And he’s guessing that “many kids” don’t care about da Vinci, the Roaring Twenties, or “any of this history.”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Greg Milo is a high school history teacher—or that he’s been at it for the last 13 years.

“How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?” Milo’s students have asked. Somehow, Milo has conveyed to them (or failed to disabuse them of the notion) that things are worth learning only if they have this sort of practical value.

Of course, some stuff is so boring you’d only want to learn it if it's relevant to/necessary for real life functioning. For example, how to fill out a tax form; how to file an insurance claim; how to test software on iTunes; or how to adjust to the latest Microsoft Browser (which includes such fascinating revelations as: you can’t send attachments in Internet Edge; to do that you have to click on the three dots on the upper right corner and select “open with Internet Explorer”).

Compared with such narrow practical tasks, which are often ridiculously arbitrary and unenlightening in their specific details, history, for most ordinary humans, holds a great deal of interesting content: content that spans the Middle Ages to the Roaring Twenties; nay, from the origins of civilization through to the present day.

But for Milo, history is worth learning only if it strengthens students’ all-purpose thinking skills; only if it helps them make “reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event," “understand a decision’s consequences,” and act accordingly as “participating citizens.”

Given that students, as Milo notes, can practice such decision making skills “with any subject—not a boring one,” we’re left wondering what makes particular subjects within history boring.

This post is getting long, so I’ll end here, on this cliff hanger. Stay tuned for Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part II.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

English problem of the week: Common Core-inspired sample 5th grade reading question

I've been distracted with the sudden loss of a collaborator and friend, and so neglected to post a math problem of the week. Taking this broken routine and running with it, I'm posting my first-ever Common Core-inspired English and Language Arts problem of the week.

A 5th grade sample problem from Lumos Learning:


Extra Credit: 

 Does it matter that I omitted about 97% of the story?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Downplaying vocabulary and grammar, II

Since when does English as a Second Language instruction encompass everything but what's specific to the English Language?

In an article from last week's Education Week author Mary Ann Zehr makes the following observations:

-"English-learners need models of writing and instruction in specific genres." In particular they need to learn about the differences between "an argumentative essay, a personal narrative, and a research paper" and how to "back up their claims with facts or examples and to address counterarguments."

-"ELLs need to talk first and write later." Does this mean they should master conversational English before moving on to written compositions--the traditional sequence in foreign language instruction? No, rather, this is all about process: "it’s more effective to have students talk about a topic before they write about it."

Don't these principles apply to all students, native speakers included? Shouldn't ESL instructors be teaching kids conventions to specific to the English language rather than principles and strategies that are independent of particular languages? (I'm pretty sure, for example, that claims made in Spanish or Finnish should also backed up with facts or examples.)

If the students--as is the case with Zehr's students--are in designated ELL classes, aren't their learning priorities English grammar and vocabulary? After all, you can't write a decent argumentative essay in English if you don't know phrases like "even though," "on the other hand," and "counter-argument," along with whatever vocabulary is specific to your topic. Nor can you write a decent argument in English if you don't know the English rules for forming conditional sentences ("If X is true, then Y is true"), counterfactual sentences ("If X were true, then Y would be true") and a host of other complex structures.

Now, perhaps some of Zehr's students already have a decent English vocabulary and a host of complex English structures in their repertoires. But if so, shouldn't they have already placed out of Zehr's classes?

If Zehr's above proposals reasonably apply to all writers--once they're linguistically ready for the given writing assignment, that is--the rest of Zehr's proposals are highly questionable, again regardless of native speaker status. "Students benefit from meeting authors";  "If teenagers feel they have something to say, their writing will be much more interesting and developed"; "Teenagers are more likely to invest in writing if it’s for an authentic audience";  "Teens are more likely to complete writing assignments and write well if they see themselves as writers." All this is mushy motivational stuff--akin to introducing science students to real scientists/mathematicians and getting them to see themselves as scientists/mathematicians.

Without the basics, whether of how to put words in the correct order with the correct endings attached, or of how to structure sentences so that one flows clearly into the next, how much you have to say and how motivated you are to say it will only get you so far.

And isn't the motivation to write a function, not just of whether you've met authors and feel you have something to say and have an "authentic" audience and see yourself as a writer and, but, perhaps most importantly of all, how easily the words come to you and how fluently you can assemble them into sentences?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From Frankenstein to Facilitated Communication

What do Frankenstein and Facilitated Communication have in common? Both involve miraculous stories of word learning.

In one case you have a nonverbal child who, supplied with some sort of facilitated communication medium, suddenly evinces neurotypical vocabulary (not to mention neurotypical grammar and conversational skills). In the other case you have a humanoid monster mastering his first language by overhearing, through the window of his hovel, conversations between his unwitting nextdoor neighbors. The facilitated child starts writing poetry and novels; the humanoid listener reads Plutarch and Milton. As I noted earlier in connection with the former:

You watch these children’s eyes (to the extent that the videos let you), and you see little or no evidence of focused or coordinated eye gaze; you see eyes that seem to flit all over the place, or to stare upwards or outwards at nothing in particular (and often not at the keyboard that their fingers are pushing against).  
Perhaps all this can be explained by sensory-motor problems rather than socio-cognitive impairments. But then you have to ask: how can kids whose eyes seem not to be able to track pointing gestures or eye gazes, and who would seem therefore to have no way to deduce what people’s words refer to when uttered, have managed to learn the words for the various things in their everyday environments? Not to mention the more advanced words that have somehow entered their soliloquies, poetry, and memoirs: words like “assume” and “knowingly”?  
More advanced learners can pick up words from texts alone, but to jumpstart the process you (however neurotypical or neurountypical you are) need real-world connections. Before you can read for meaning, that is, you need a critical mass of basic vocabulary that you’ve actively linked to the outside world. And linking those basic words to the outside world--in other words to their meanings--requires of you (however neurotypical or neurountypical you are) a certain threshold of sustained and appropriately targeted auditory and visual attention.
It’s also essential to be actively engaged with those using language around you. Overhearing language on TV, it turns out, doesn’t do much for language novices; what’s essential is shared space, shared attention, and the ability to look up at the speaker’s eyes and then over to what he or she is looking it. Children with autism, even if they share space with language users, often don’t share attention. They may mis-map the words they hear to whatever they themselves are attending to, not noticing that the speaker is looking elsewhere, thereby mis-learning the word meanings.

Language takes off outside of 3D shared space and shared attention only after you learn a critical mass of words in your first language. Picture books, and books with illustrations, diagrams, and maps, and glossaries, provide a crucial bridge over to pure prose. Once there, you can learn troves of new words from the surrounding words you already know.

Another bridge is your first language: via glossaries, translations, and explanations, it can jumpstart you into a second language.

But for total language novices, printed words and overheard words are not enough. Fairy tales aside, that is.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who speaks for reading, writing and literature?, II

Just as those to whom math comes easily, e.g. mathematicians, sometimes seem to think that one can learn math simply by playing around with numbers, those to whom reading comes easily, e.g. literary people, sometimes seem to think that one can learn reading and literature simply by reading what's around. No need for gradual practice with progressively tougher language and content (let alone explicit instruction in phonics): simply dive into what's there--preferably the classics--no matter how prohibitive the prose.

Thus, the unschooled Kit in Blackbird Pond learns to read from the grownup books in her grandfather's library; the unschooled Jane Eyre, aged 10, is reading Gulliver's Travels and A History of British Birds; and Calpurnia in To Kill A Mockingbird has learned how to read from Blackstone's Commentaries. As for Frankenstein's monster, the most unschooled of them all, after just a few months observing the speech and the informal reading lessons of some unsuspecting neighbors through the window of his hovel, he has not only mastered his first language, but is reading Sorrows of Young Werther, Plutarch's Lives, and Paradise Lost.

Of course, there are easier books out there for today's kids--including, for example, Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird. But I wonder what effect it has on both students and educators to keep reading about how easily reading comes to some of our most celebrated characters.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired 3rd grade test questions

I. Three sample 3rd grade questions from from Pennsylvania's revised PSSA tests:

II. Extra Credit:

Is it higher-level thinking to consider which of four methods to use rather than to come up with your own method and use it?