Education Week

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

Last Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education proposed new rules that will link teacher performance to their students’ performance on assessments. Up to thirty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on how students perform on tests, and while I understand the value of student progress in evaluating teachers, it’s certainly not the main thing that determines success in education. My mind has been on assessments lately because I just came out of a week defined by what I initially labeled a colossal assessment failure. I gave unit tests to cap off a couple of weeks in Latin and English grammar, and things did not go well. My students failed, failed, failed, and as teachers are wont to do, I used the transitive property and concluded that I had failed, failed, failed.

I spent the following weekend going over the assessments, my preparation, my teaching, the students’ homework scores, and found that the week of failure was much more complicated than one faulty assessment or a failure to teach some critical aspect of the lesson. As I could not go back and re-do the previous month of teaching, I decided to move forward, and figure out how to turn failure in to a learning experience. Once some time had passed, and I’d gained the benefit of hindsight, I wrote about the solution I came up with in my blog, Coming of Age in the Middle . I wrote about my teaching methods, but mostly, I wrote about how I had managed to make it through the week without tucking my tail between my legs and quitting my job.

A writer friend of mine liked the post, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, my failure was in the Gray Lady herself. When K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote her piece on my blog, titled “What Good Teachers Do When Kids Fail,” in the New York Times’ parenting blog Motherlode , the comments fell into two distinct camps: Parents who wished their teachers had more time to address student failure and teachers who lamented that they had no time to address student failure. A few teachers wrote about the time they took for re-writes and remedy, but for the most part, the message from educators was one of regret and frustration with a testing-centric schedule that did not allow for reflection.

The solution I came up with for my students required humility on both sides of the classroom – I had to admit I had failed my students and my students had to admit that they had not held up their end of the pedagogical bargain – but mostly, it took time. Time that, according to the comments after the article, most teachers just don’t have. I handed out blank tests and asked the students re-take the assessment as an open book exercise. They were asked to work in pairs I had strategically assigned, and teach each other the material on the test. They were required to not only find the correct answer, but to show why all of the other answers were wrong. This process ate up two classes, and as I only see my Latin students twice a week, this one remedial exercise burned an entire week of the school year. Clearly, this is simply not an option in many classrooms. Maria, from Baltimore, MD, wrote:

“I am a public high school math teacher. It’s only November, and I’m already 10 days behind schedule in one class, 3 days behind in another. And this is without me taking any sick days, no snow days, just a few days away from class for . . . you guessed it, administering the No Child Left Behind tests. I would love to have students retake their tests and learn from mistakes, but thanks to NCLB, and curricula that are an inch deep and a mile wide, we need to press on to the next topic.”

Many comments stressed the vital role that failure plays in education. Dr. Kim, from Ithaca, NY wrote,

“We need to allow students opportunities to fail. Too often our kids are afraid of failure. If we don’t fail, we’re not pushing our limits–we’re not challenging ourselves. I have a friend who is an amazing skier who says “if you don’t fall, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” This is true. Plus, we learn much more from failure. Our brains are programmed to remember those things with strong emotional attachments — positive or negative. Failures are memorable.”

I completely agree that some of the best lessons are learned from failure. Failure can shock a student out of complacency, particularly among those students who are smart enough to do well on a bare minimum of effort. Middle school is the ideal time for this time of shock; the stakes are still low(ish) and the potential for growth is huge. I’m not one for sports quotes, but in this case, baseball player and coach Vernon Law had it right. “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” It would have been much easier to teach the lessons first and give the test after, but in the end, I think the experience taught all of us a greater lesson. Everyone has to admit to failure – teacher and student. As a result of this failure, I grew as a teacher and they grew as students. Crossroads Academy was built on a core virtues curriculum as well as a core knowledge curriculum, so our journey through this week of failure became an important part of the students’ character education. That’s where commenter T. Zinner of Boston hits the nail on the head:

This article goes to the heart of our goal as parents and the ideal of teachers: creating individuals with strength of character. The happiest and most successful people seem to be the individuals who take their talents and face obstacles either directly with perseverance or creatively so that the obstacles are no longer viewed as challenges. This is the case for the most exceptional physicians I work with, the patients who live fully despite illness and friends and neighbors who create lives of joy and depth in the face of unexpected loss or change in circumstance.

That’s the kind of teaching I love to do, teaching that helps students become better people, teaching that takes into account the unpredictability inherent teaching adolescents.

But this sort of teaching is increasingly not what is valued today, and it’s certainly not what counts as quality teaching or a gauge of student progress. Failure makes people nervous because in order to find anything of value in the situation, everyone has to face their role in the failure. It would have been much easier for me to fail the students and move on, or curve the exam so much that the failure got lost in a sea of amended numbers. The grades would have looked good, the students would have felt good, and everyone would have been satisfied with my performance. But lurking under this neat and tidy appearance, my students would know. They would know they had not really learned the material, that I had swept something under the rug. Worse, I would know that somewhere down the line that gap in their education would come back to haunt them.

Assessments are often blunt instruments, and to decide a teacher’s worth based on student testing measures just one small fraction of the learning that goes on in the classroom. This one assessment failure taught me valuable lessons about my teaching methods, the quality of my assessments, and the courage of my students. Two of my students summed up our week perfectly as they handed in their remedy exam: “I think I learned more from that one failing grade than from any A,” and “You know, now that we have gone through every question, that test really wasn’t that hard.”

My sentiments exactly.

It’s a Video Library, Not a Revolution

by Guest Blogger
November 17th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

Ever since the entrepreneur Salman Khan burst forth in 2011 with his
education revolution—a massive video library and proposal that the classroom be “flipped”—there has been no end to the euphoric roar from reporters. They delight in the idea that students could watch instructional videos at home, then come to school to solve problems, work in groups, and engage in discussion. That’s the flip, right there: the instruction takes place at home; the problem-solving, in school. Khan argues, and his fans believe, that such a reversal would “humanize the classroom.” But something about this humanization doesn’t sit well in the belly. Is it really so wonderful to make problem-solving a social activity, or to remove lectures from the classroom? Is the video as flexible a tool as Khan suggests?

Practical problems come to mind first of all. Who ensures that the students actually learn the material at home, or that the videos convey it well? Khan suggests that their activity should be electronically monitored, so that teachers know how much time they have been spending on each video and what they have been doing with it. But isn’t that a bit intrusive? Isn’t one’s study time at home supposed to be somewhat private? Moreover, what will students and teachers gain from such monitoring? Some will find ways around it: they will pretend to watch the videos while doing something else. Others will do the work yet need additional explanation. There is no getting around the difficulty of some material; it requires more than one mode of presentation.

The advanced students, those who already understand the material, have even more to lose. They may not want to solve problems among their peers, in the noise and chatter of the classroom. They might not want or need a teacher peering over their shoulder. During class time, they may need something that pushes their thinking further: a lively lecture or discussion or both. At home, they might need nothing more than challenging assignments and good books. Khan states that each student may progress at his or her own pace, but this goes only so far. Students ultimately reach a point where they need the insights of the teacher: not just a brief check-in, but a substantial presentation and discussion. Where will they get this, if the teacher must circulate from student to student?

Videos allow for thorough learning, proponents argue. Students may watch them repeatedly until they fully grasp the lesson. But who wants to watch an instructional video over and over, unless it is superb? Doesn’t a book allow for a more compelling sort of repetition? When reading a book, you can dwell on a sentence or paragraph as long as you want. If you need to find something specific, you can look in the index or flip through the pages. What’s more, you can hear the words in your mind and give them the emphasis or tone that seems right. A video can become a trap; though you may move backward and forward, you hear the same voice, watch the same gestures, and witness the same explanation in motion. The instructor seems a moving cadaver—unaffected by anything in the room, intent on repeating the same inflections and making the same marks on the board. This can get irritating, if not depressing.

The model has problems of principle as well as of practice. It implicitly downplays the importance of the lecture by taking it out of the teacher’s hands. Supposedly this “frees” her up for real teaching. But what sort of freedom is this, when the teacher is no longer supposed to present the subject? Lectures, even short ones, contain not only information but insights. Teachers and professors raise questions, take apart false conclusions, point to overlooked details, and leave the student with a keener view of the subject than he or she had before. A video—even a superb one—cannot do this as well as a teacher can in person, nor would many teachers want this aspect of their work taken away. Even when the lecture is purely unidirectional, there is subtle exchange: students’ facial expressions and gestures, the teacher’s tone of voice, and the anticipation of the discussion that will follow. A teacher, unlike a video, has the ability to enhance the instruction spontaneously—for instance, by offering yet another angle on a problem (“Here’s another way of looking at it.”). The “flip” model could turn out to be the opposite of freedom, as it would lack many of these subtleties.

In order to learn subject matter, one needs instruction, practice, review, reinforcement, and extension. A student listens to the teacher, thinks about the material, reads about the topic, thinks about it some more, works on problems, discusses the problems in class, and considers how the topic relates to those before and after it. Videos can play a part in this, but there’s no reason to flip anything at all for them. Why not have them handy and let teachers and students use them as they see fit? No grandiose terms, no education revolution—just a resource for those who need it.

But there is little glamour in a resource for those who need it. Khan started out with a modest vision—helping his cousins with school—but before long, it grew louder and louder until it reached the status of a momentous potential reform. Khan has some fine ideas: he recognizes the value of puzzling over material on one’s own, of repeating concepts until they come clear. But even a fine idea can be ruined when turned into a grand model. The challenge for the Khan Academy, and for much of education reform, is to offer something helpful without exaggerating its import. Those who do so will one day be recognized as wise.

Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012.

Great Expectations

by Guest Blogger
November 14th, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

The “stuff to be read when I have time” pile perched on top of my filing cabinet had become a public health hazard; it was time to catch up on my reading. I grabbed a handful of unread journals and headed over to one place where students could not find me – the basement faculty room. I settled in with my lunch and opened the journal on top of the pile to the table of contents, and hey! Lookee there! An article on teaching Great Expectations – I teach Great Expectations, I adore Great Expectations, in fact. A few minutes away from student questions, a sublime sandwich of leftover venison and an article on Great Expectations makes for just about the perfect lunch. I happily tucked in to the sandwich and the article, highlighter in hand, ready to pick up some pearls of wisdom from one of my esteemed English-teacher colleagues.

“Long before The Hills’ Spencer and Heidi became “Speidi” and The Bachelor began handing out roses, Charles Dickens was populating his novels with memorable characters perfectly suited for today’s reality-TV generation.”

No. Please, no. Please tell me this isn’t going where I think it’s going.

“When his readers first meet Miss Havisham, Dickens shares Pip’s impressions: ‘In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.’ (Sounds like he’s describing half the cast of The Real Housewives of New Jersey!) As readers quickly learn, Miss Havisham has plans for Pip – and for Estella. From the moment he sees her, Pip is smitten with Estella, beginning the on-again-mostly-off-again romance of “Pipella.” And Satis House contains even more secrets than the Big Brother home. In the rest of the novel, students learn to “expect the unexpected” as they wonder whether this “bachelorette” will ever present Pip with a rose – and whether they will witness the ‘most dramatic rose ceremony ever.’”

Oh, good Lord. It’s like a car crash, and I can’t look away.

This is not a quote from People Magazine. I’m not reading Us Weekly with my sandwich. This quote is from an article published in The English Journal, the flagship journals of the National Council of Teachers of English. The professional journal of record for English teachers. The article, about one English teacher’s revolutionary and apparently newsworthy discovery about teaching Great Expectations as if it were a reality television show comes on the heels of a controversial and much-pilloried essay question about reality television on the spring SAT, and I’ve about had it.

Apparently, the powers-that-be in education have simply thrown their hands up in the air and decided to admit publicly that they believe kids are so stupid they couldn’t possibly appreciate great literature on its own merits. Novels such as Great Expectations are clearly too difficult to teach today’s youth, so the best possible reaction is boil the novel down, render down the complexity and texture and spoon-feed what’s left to students as a complement to a full schedule of reality television. I was appalled. Angry. Insulted – not just on behalf teachers, but for students. Right now, when education is in a sad state of upheaval, what with politicians yelling at teachers, teachers yelling at school boards, conservatives yelling at liberals – now is the time to raise expectations, not lower them.

Students know what’s going on in education right now – hey, even movie stars have something to say about teaching in this debate – and they are watching us to see how to react to the crisis in education. If all we have up our collective sleeves is analogies to reality televisions, well, then, I don’t know how to ask them to trust me with their education. When the SAT essay on reality television appeared on the spring SAT, my students – and many others, apparently – were appalled. And they have every right to be. Within three days of the test date, the New York Times reported that, “comments on the now-infamous prompt — which included the question, “How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?” — had stretched across nearly 40 pages on College Confidential, a popular website on college prep. A student quoted in an article that ran in the Washington Post summed it up perfectly: “I guess the kids who watch crap TV did well. I was completely baffled…” I could only apologize and empathize with my students when they complained to me on the Monday after the test was administered, but I was truly embarrassed.

Sandwich forgotten, I started scribbling rebuttals in yellow highlighter all over the margins of the journal and looking around the room for someone to yell at in the absence of the article’s author. We should be teaching students to appreciate Pip, the main character in Great Expectations, because he mirrors their experience of the world. He is a young person struggling to become an adult in the face of adults who treat him unfairly, the trials of poverty, and the pain of unrequited love. Pip certainly has more in common with my students than the experience of some New Jersey housewife in possession of more money than sense, a man vetting a house full of Barbie-doll bachelorettes, or twelve washed-up celebrities stranded on a deserted island. Pip’s story is my students’ story, and I fear for the future of education if we allow a generation of students to believe that they are too stupid to understand their own stories. I thrust my sandwich into my lunch bag, rolled up the offending journal, and stormed back to my classroom. That’s it. Hell hath no fury like a teacher pissed off and determined to prove a point.

Later that day, copies of Great Expectations hit the desks with a loud smack, and the groaning starts immediately. I am fluent in the dialect of adolescent groaning; I get the gist of their complaints and choose to ignore it. They pick the books up, feel the weight of the text in their hands, and flip the book over for the summary. I like to watch my students in these first few minutes alone with a new book. The weaker readers are a little anxious, and even the stronger ones are wary, but everyone is searching for some indication of what the next month of reading will look like.

Turning to the first page, I begin to read to the class.

Here’s where the benefit of a thorough and comprehensive curriculum really pays off. Because Core Knowledge schools teach capital-H History, and not history as an afterthought in social studies class, my students know about Victorian England. They know that the Industrial Revolution was run on the backs of children and the poor and that the writing of Dickens was part of the force that changed that for future generations. They have learned about the rigid Victorian class structure, that a poor boy like Pip has no real hope of changing his fortunes – his expectations – without someone like Miss Havisham as his benefactor. They know why Magwich was in Australia, that it was a penal colony, that when I talk about “The Fall of Man,” I am not talking about a bunjee jump challenge on the reality show Survivor, I am referring to Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence.

And really, that’s what Great Expectations is about. Pip loses his innocence when he first visits Satis House, Miss Havisham’s mansion, and mean ol’ Estella informs him that he’s just a common, laboring boy. Before this moment, Pip was just Pip. Pip’s childhood is not luxurious or even particularly happy, but he is content, relatively safe and innocent in his private little Eden on the marshes outside London (save for regular beatings with The Tickler, of course). Until the day he is sent to play with the aforementioned mean girl, Eve – I mean Estella – who metaphorically smashes him over the head with the apple of knowledge.

Pip loses his innocence on that day, and is pushed out into the big, bad world , ready or not. Every adolescent, even the most reluctant homebody, gets smashed over the head and has to depart Eden at some point. Some call it The Fall of Man, some the Fall from Innocence, but I just call it middle school.

Every one of my students will face this fall, and now that they know it’s coming, they are on the lookout for it in their own lives. Divorce, a parents’ illness, the death of a sister – sometimes it’s easier to talk about difficult issues through the prism of Pip’s life and his experiences. My students struggle with these trials every year, and sometimes stories such as Pip’s help them cope with experiences that can make them feel quite alone in the world. Over the years, my students have connected to so many parts of Pip’s journey, all without the benefit of turning the novel into a reality television show. Books like Great Expectations have the power to show us things about ourselves, particularly when we are able to connect with a story and give ourselves over to a character’s journey.

All due respect to Mr. Bucolo, the National Council of the Teachers of English and the Real Housewives of New Jersey, I think I will stick with my methods this year: a genuine love of the novels I teach, cultural literacy to give context to the texts, and decidedly great expectations for my students.
Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

My Classroom Compost Heap

by Guest Blogger
November 9th, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

Some lessons take a while to germinate. I know that. I have been at this teaching thing for a while now – long enough that a few of my students have become teachers themselves – but I am still amazed by the long germination rates I’ve noted in some of my lessons. I generally follow the “Ten Year Rule” in my classroom: I aim to stress the material that will be important for my students to know ten years from now. Clearly, my teaching style self-selects for these protracted germination rates, but sometimes, just sometimes, I get lucky, and I actually get to witness the moment when the seeds bear fruit.

The first five minutes of my English and Latin classes class are dedicated to a “Cultural Literacy Tidbit” related to the class material. I try to select items that once heard, will begin to show up in the films, books, television, magazines, and music my students encounter. It has taken a while for the daily lessons to pay off, but this week, I scored a particularly fast-maturing group of lessons

When I arrived at school this Monday, the middle school was littered with comic strips. They were on my chair, desk, pinned to walls, taped to the white board…you get the idea. I assumed the decorations were all part of some class-on-class prank, eighth graders messing with the sixth grade or something. But then I noticed that the comic strips were all the same strip – Dennis the Menace. In the strip, Dennis’ mother discovers a broken vase. She asks Dennis if he’s responsible for the destruction, and he asks, “What happens if I say no?” His mother replies “I’ll put you in the corner for fibbing,” to which Dennis replies, “Then yes, I did.” When Dennis ends up in the corner anyway, he muses “Now I’m confused.” As his mother walks away, she tells him, “I’ll explain a Catch-22 to you in a few years.” It just so happens that I had explained Catch-22 to my students just the week before. I read the students the scene in chapter 5 where Doc Daneeka explains Catch-22 to Yossarian. The kids laughed, and the two students who had read the book encouraged the rest of the class to borrow it from the independent reading shelf. And that was that. Until the appearance of the comic strips, now pinned to my bulletin board en masse as a reminder that, if you know what to look for, Cultural Literacy Tidbits are everywhere.

The next day, I turned on the car radio as I pulled out of the school parking lot and tuned into an interview on NPR about Joseph Heller. I missed much of it (my drive home from school is blissfully short, good for the environment, bad for NPR), but by dinnertime, there were twelve messages from students piled up in my email inbox, all excitedly detailing what they had heard on the radio as they made their way home from school or to soccer practice.

And yesterday, the Supreme Court heard a case concerning warrantless GPS tracking of people suspected of a crime. Normally, the police have to get over the bar of “probable cause” in order to obtain a warrant from a judge to search for evidence, but the FBI had attached a tracking device to a suspected drug kingpin, and this case has made its way to the highest court in the land. The case turns on whether or not the FBI needs to obtain a warrant for continuous, 24-hour automobile tracking with a GPS device. When Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben suggested that no warrant was needed, Justice Stephen Breyer asserted, “if you win this case, then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movements of every citizen in the United States,” a scenario that “sounds like 1984.” I made a mental note to play the NPR story in class tomorrow, as 1984 was my Cultural Literacy Tidbit two weeks ago, and the novel is our independent reading double-extra credit selection of the month.

Obviously, there are plenty of moments in my classroom when my students’ lack of background knowledge cause my jokes to fall flat. All teachers have these moments – when we refer to something well within our cultural experience only to look out at blank, uncomprehending faces. It happens far more often that I’d like, and often leads to an impromptu cultural literacy lesson. YouTube streaming has become an invaluable resource in my classroom. We’ve watched the chocolate factory scene from I Love Lucy, the “Singing in the Rain” dance sequence, the opening sequence from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Many of these moments arose out of test or homework questions that assume a baseline of common knowledge. Without that cultural literacy, the questions are nearly unanswerable despite the students’ knowledge of the concepts being tested. “In the long-running TV series I Love Lucy, the husband and wife enlivened their relationship with ­[insert appropriate vocabulary word here] wisecracks.” The answer is “astringent,” by the way, but the question is challenging if they have never heard Ricky’s drawn out, “Luuuuuuuuucyyyyy? What did you do?”

This week, my students will learn about W. B. Yeats, “Second Coming,” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and “Ozymandias.” I will synthesize all of these topics at the end of the week, and with any luck, my students will catch a reference to a “widening gyre,” falconry, or The Second Coming in the next couple of weeks to cement the lesson. As my students already know the story of Oedipus Rex, I can only hope that with some leading hints, someone will point out the connection to the Sphinx in class tomorrow.

I can only wait, keep adding fertilizer, and see what takes hold.


Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education,
Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

The Online Dictionary Is No Dwelling

by Guest Blogger
November 8th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

Abandon hope for meaning, all ye who enter here. The online dictionary gives you quick definitions; you take one and run. What do you find when you look up a word? A flashy, crowded page; words corseted and adorned with videos, jingles, links. Which definition do you grab? The most popular one, the most convenient one, the one that fits the shopper’s purposes.

A dictionary should tell you words’ common and uncommon meanings, their history, their occurrences in literature and speech. It should be a place that stays relatively still, with updates from time to time—where meaning exists, where the less popular meanings have a place, and where one can wander, pause, explore, and think. As the Internet changes our conception of dictionaries, it changes our language as well.

Let us see what happens when I look up the word “dwell” by typing “dwell definition” (without the quotes) in Google. The first hit gives a single definition for the verb (“Live in or at a specified place”) and for the noun (“A slight regular pause in the motion of a machine”). Right below these definitions, there are links to Dictionary.com, Answers.com, Merriam-Webster, and The Free Dictionary. The Dictionary.com page for “dwell” has an animated banner, followed by several ads, including “1 trick of a tiny belly”—all of this before the actual definitions. (The ads here and elsewhere may change from visit to visit.) The page on Answers.com starts out with a link to dwellstudio.com and the description, “Unique, Modern Baby, Kids and Home Decor. Bedding, Bath, Table & More.” Merriam-Webster sometimes takes you to an advertisement page before loading the actual page; on the advertisement page, only the first definition for “dwell” (“to remain for a time”) appears. The Free Dictionary assembles definitions and examples from various sources but also has animated ads and commercial links.

Isn’t this typical of services on the Internet? Yes, but a dictionary has traditionally been a sanctuary for words (a messy one, granted), and now it is not. In a dictionary without distractions, one can read a definition slowly, peruse the surrounding words, and follow trails from synonym to synonym, from cognate to cognate. Online dictionaries emphasize functionality and commerce—get your meaning and move on (and buy some bedding while you’re at it). There are rare exceptions, such as the Online Etymology Dictionary, which attracts those who are interested in words in the first place (and is funded by donations). Certain subscription-only dictionaries, such as the online Oxford English Dictionary, offer rich definitions without ads, but even the OED gives quick definitions at the outset, and the user has to click further to see the full array.

Over the long term, people may lose a sense of words’ secondary, tertiary, and rare or archaic meanings. Let’s come back to “dwell.” The lexicographer Henry Cecil Wyld posits a Proto-Indo-European root *dwal-, meaning “obscure, dark,” which over the centuries evolved into Norse and Old English words meaning “to delay” and “to hinder.” This in turn evolved into the meanings “to wander” and “to abide.” Thus “dwell” (as I hear it) has a sense of straying and restraint, of willing and unwilling lingering. It carries hints of some sort of spell or force; to dwell in a house is not only to live in it but to have some bond with it, brief or long. The Oxford English Dictionary gives numerous definitions of “dwell”—not only the ones mentioned so far, but also “to persist,” “to remain,” and “to pause,” among others. To dwell on a subject is to will oneself to it or be willed by it. Likewise, if something dwells in you, then it isn’t just a bone or nerve; it is a spirit too. Satan cries out in John Milton’s Paradise Lost,

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

One hears not only the suggestion of “dwell” in the rhyming “Hell” but also its absence. Hell is emphatically not a dwelling, not a home, and Satan knows perfectly well that he cannot make it a heaven, not even in his mind.

Stop complaining, says the pragmatic citizen of the 21st century. Just buy your own print dictionary and be done with it. Make a Heaven of Hell, relatively speaking. Yes, indeed, and I have done so, relatively speaking. Oh, relative hell! But like the vegetarian who eats meat when served by carnivore hosts, I use the online dictionary when it’s all I have before me, as do millions of others. People click for meanings in the office, at home, in school, and on the road. At this point online dictionaries have the run of the land and air. Given their ubiquity, we should insist that they make room for words and minds. Perhaps a publisher will step forward and give us a free online dictionary without ads or abridgements. That would be a worthy deed—and profitable over the long haul, too, as it would keep minds fed and good books in circulation. But maybe the long haul is slipping out of our view—precisely because words themselves have become quick fixes.

Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012.

NAEP: Proof of Education Insanity

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2011

The following post by Lynne Munson appeared originally on the blog of Common Core, a Washington, DC-based organization that works to promote a liberal arts, core curriculum in U.S. schools.  Munson is Common Core’s executive director and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities — rp.

I challenge anyone to think of a nation that works as hard as we do to find silver linings in its educational failures. On Tuesday morning NAEP reported that, in the course of two years, our nation’s 4th and 8th graders improved a single point (on a 500-point scale) in three of four reading and math assessments, and flatlined on the fourth. If you look at figures plotting NAEP scores over the last 30 years, any upward slope in the data is nearly undetectable to the naked eye. Analysts have spent the last few days slicing and dicing this data and making unconvincing arguments that some positive trends can be detected.

But the reality is that these results are appalling—particularly if you consider the massive federal funding increases, intense reform debates, and the incessant promises of new technologies that have dominated the education discussion for nearly two decades. We have spent a great deal and worked very hard but gotten unimpressive results. And this is in reading and math where, to the detriment of so many other core subjects, we’ve aimed nearly all of our firepower.

Einstein* defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” Well, my bet is that Einstein would have deemed NAEP data absolute proof of America’s educational insanity.

We’ve spent the last twenty years attempting to make what, on the surface, appears to be a diverse, creative, and wide-ranging series of reforms to public education. We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice. We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests. We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale. We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances): None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Maybe we need to give content a chance. What I mean by “content” is the actual knowledge that is imbedded in quality curricula. Knowledge of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more. There are a few widely used curricula (e.g. International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula, Core Knowledge) that effectively incorporate much of this knowledge base. And performance data strongly suggests that these curricula work for ALL students.

So let’s draw on such successes and, sure, conduct more research, do more experiments, and spend more money. But let’s do it to build a shared understanding what our students need to learn —the content they need to learn. Then let’s use the best technology available and make the kind of investments we need in professional development to teach that content effectively. In light of the poor results other approaches have yielded, is there any other sane course?

How to Change Reading and Writing by Sundown

by Robert Pondiscio
November 2nd, 2011

The Common Core is one of the biggest stories in American education right now, and has been woefully undercovered in the press,” writes Dana Goldstein. To her mind (and I agree) the “potentially most controversial recommendation” embedded in CCSS is its insistence on balancing the amount of fiction and nonfiction studied in U.S. schools.  ”Currently, according to [CCSS author David] Coleman, American students are reading about 80 percent fiction and 20 percent ‘informational texts.’” CCSS shifts the balance to 50/50, in order to “better approximate the kinds of reading and writing students will be expected to do in college and eventually in their careers.”

Goldstein applauds the shift noting, “I have written in the past about the problem of American teens not reading and writing serious non-fiction.”

“If I’m skeptical of any part of this effort, it’s probably the strong belief, voiced by advocates like Coleman and [Laura] Solver, that high-quality assessments will drive states, schools, and teachers to faithfully implement these new standards. There’s a long history in American education reform of believing that better tests will lead to better schools and deeper learning; as authors like Nick Lemann and Herbert Kliebard have demonstrated, that isn’t usually the case.”

I’m slightly less skeptical than Goldstein. High-stakes assessments certainly do change practices, even if those changes don’t always impact outcomes. That said, I’ve long felt that if you really want to see a change –and create a boom in close reading and academic writing–the single best strategy would be to get colleges to stop asking for personal essays and demand instead at least two pieces of teacher-graded academic writing as part of the application process. If getting into a competitive college did not turn an applicant’s ability to churn out 800 words on “how you’ve grown as a person” or “the most difficult challenge in your life”–if instead you had to demonstrate your ability to engage in close reading and textual analysis–the change would occur overnight.

It has often been observed that the best way to change public education would be to make private schools illegal.  This might be the second best way.