Meet the Children Where They Are…and Keep Them There

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2012

A lot of people whose opinions I respect don’t care much for Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Some of my friends view the standards as an abuse of power or coercive.  Some think them no better or even worse than their existing state standards.  Others bemoan the lack of specificity.

Say what you will about CCSS, but there are three big ideas embedded within the English Language Arts standards that deserve to be at the very heart of literacy instruction in U.S. classrooms, with or with or without standards themselves:

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

In an astonishing commentary in Education Week, Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) reads the Common Core ELA Standards and pronounces herself “truly alarmed” and “aghast at the vision of the dreariness and harshness of the classrooms they aim to create.”  Why?  Precisely because of the three ideas enumerated above.

I’m alarmed and aghast that anyone can fail to connect building background knowledge with language growth, or long-term success in reading comprehension.  Not for nothing are the standards titled “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, K-5.”

Yatvin’s bill of particulars boils down to a complaint that all that subject matter content is too hard, too soon and too boring for children. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” she writes. Her smoking gun is within the publisher’s criteria that accompanies the standards:

In kindergarten-grade 2, the most notable shifts in the standards when compared to state standards include a focus on reading informational text and building a coherent knowledge within and across grades; a more in-depth approach to vocabulary development; and a requirement that students encounter sufficiently complex text through reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  By underscoring what matters most in the standards, the criteria illustrate what shifts must take place in the next generation of curricula, including paring away elements that distract from or are at odds with the Common Core State Standards.

“This is a pretty strong dose of academia for children just beginning their schooling, with not even a ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down,” she writes, forgetting that the teachers are free to dispense as many spoonfuls of C6H12O6  as they see fit to enable the prescription to enter the digestive tract.

News flash: It’s precisely the lack of coherent background knowledge—the kind of taken-for-granted knowledge of the world, and the gains in vocabulary that accompany it—that is holding back reading comprehension and language growth among our most disadvantaged children.  This is something that CCSS nails, emphatically and correctly.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

“For young children, the focus on academic vocabulary seems strange,” continues Yatvin, apparently believing teachers are expected to read directly from the Common Core Standards during story time on the rug.  “At this time in their development, would it not be more sensible for children to learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown?” she ask.

Well, no.  It would not be more sensible. Most of the words we acquire we learn not through memorization or direct instruction, but in context.  So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences. Matthew Effect, anyone? It is incredibly condescending even to suggest that if a child cannot personally relate to a story or topic, they can’t possibly be interested or successful.

Yet Yatvin also doesn’t much care for the “significant increase in nonfiction materials at all grade levels” and CCSS’s call for “a mix of 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational text, including reading in [English/language arts], science, social studies, and the arts.”

“The fact that fiction now dominates the elementary curriculum is not the result of educators’ decisions about what is best for children, but a reflection of children’s developmental stages, their interests, and their limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology. It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Wait.  Children have limited knowledge in science, geography, history and technology, so we shouldn’t muddy their minds with such marginalia?  The story is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge, not about (strawman alert!) “the inner workings of a locomotive,” but colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few.  There are no shortage of age appropriate, richly illustrated nonfiction picture books that would go a long way toward building prior knowledge on these and many other topics that are a natural extension of The Little Engine That Could.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.  Weirdly, Yatvin gets this.  She just seems reluctant to teach it:

“Reading any text requires more than decoding, fluency, and inferring meaning from context; the reader must form mental images of things mentioned based on previous experience or imagination. Although illustrations in many nonfiction books help considerably, there is a limit to how many unfamiliar things can be adequately illustrated in a book for young children.”

Right.  Which is exactly why we need to expand a child’s base of knowledge, not view it as too high a hurdle to clear.

“Ultimately, the authors show their contempt for teachers’ competence, the use of supplementary materials, and children’s experiences,” Yatvin claims.  But she shows her contempt for children in her assumption that if it’s not a part of a child’s everyday experience they couldn’t possibly be interested or expected to appreciate or understand it.

By placing subject matter content at the very heart of English Language Arts instruction from the first days of school, the authors of the Common Core Standards got it absolutely right.  In order to read, write, speak and listen with comprehension, children need more content, not less.   We learn new words by understanding the context in which we hear unfamiliar words.   Every reading teacher has encouraged a struggling reader to “activate your prior knowledge” when reading a difficult passage; or to “use your context clues” when stumped by an unfamiliar word.  Where – where exactly – do we expect that prior knowledge and context to come from if building it is not a primary function of language arts instruction?

Are there problems with Common Core Standards? Certainly. But there are far more problems with a view of literacy and teaching that boils down to “meet the children where they are…and keep them there.”

When a Man Teaches Latin

by Guest Blogger
February 24th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

This Latin teacher thing. It freaks me out sometimes. My Latin teacher in middle school and high school was, well, a stereotypical Latin teacher. She was five feet tall, gray-haired, and insisted on teaching Latin as a spoken language. Because being able to speak Latin is about as useful as being able to speak Klingon, so drill those verbs! Harden those consonants! Roll those Rs!

I shelved the oral Latin for a long time, but then I moved to Italy during my Junior year of college, and as I had only had one semester of Italian before I moved to Siena, my French and Latin helped me more than my sad, elementary Italian. I asked for French bouteilles of water and inquired as to where I may find the tonsor who would cut my Roman hair, but at least I was close and could (mostly) be understood by the Italians in my neighborhood.

When I returned home to the United States, I had a challenging semester ahead. I had to catch up on some of my comparative literature requirements. I signed up for intermediate Latin so I could take at least one class that offered the chance of an easy-ish ‘A’. My Latin teacher was a very bored graduate student, kind of cute in his dorky way, but so traumatized by his 4-year sentence in undergraduate hell that as long as we showed up and didn’t debase him with our improper pronunciation (Drill those verbs! Harden those consonants! Roll those Rs!), we passed.

So when I interviewed for my current post and gleefully informed my now-boss that I’d studied Latin in middle school, high school, and college, she asked me to teach Latin as well as English.

(Note to self: some skills are better left un-shared.)

The good news is that I only have to teach my students enough Latin to prepare them for Latin II in high school. The bad news is that I have to know far more than the simple Latin II material in order to answer challenging questions from my students.  As Latin teachers are thin on the ground in my neck of the woods, I have come to depend on my colleagues across the world to help me understand the whys and wherefores of the Latin language and ancient Roman world.

A while back, I posted about the wonder of the Latin teacher listserv and the weekly Latin teacher digest. I have learned so much from these seasoned Latin teachers and thanks to them, I am not afraid of the hard questions. This week, I was intrigued by an email that fell into my inbox from one of the Latin teachers, mostly because the subject line included Marilyn Monroe. A Latin teacher – Steve Perkins, from North Central High School in Indianapolis – shared his methodology for teaching Latin poetry according to the alliteration, themes, and rhythms of popular culture and song lyrics. This particular email was about a Roman poem’s resemblance to the specific pronunciation of Marilyn’s p’s and t’s in her “Happy birthday, Mr. President” performance, but I was even more fascinated by comparisons between rock and Rome.

As I was curious, and love a good cultural literacy tie-in, I emailed Steve and asked him to elaborate on the connections between popular music and Roman poetry, and he sent me a brilliant email describing his top ten hits. He teaches Horace’s Odes III.10 and Ovid’s Amores I.9 to the melody of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” particularly the line “sleep all night in the pouring rain if that’s the way it had to be.” He explains that both poems feature a man “enduring the harsh weather by spending the night on his beloved’s doorstep.” According to Steve, this type of poetry is sometimes called paraclausithyron, which comes from the Greek words meaning “door” and “to lament.” He will bring in the 80’s hair band Whitesnake if he has to, but he admits that 1987 might render the band a bit dated. You know, as opposed to 50 B.C.E.

He goes on to explain that he teaches Ovid’s Amores I.9 and others with Pat Benetar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” Horace’s Odes I.25 with Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” and Caesar’s De Bello Gallico I.8 with the film Boys ‘n’ the Hood. Thanks a semester with Sir Christopher Ricks, my first poetry professor, I teach Bob Dylan lyrics during my poetry unit, but Horace and Rod Stewart? Brilliant.

My favorite of his suggestions is a reference to the band Deep Purple in the midst of  The Aeneid II.246-247, the section about Cassandra during the Trojan War. In Steve’s words:

“Cassandra was the priestess of Apollo who, after she spurned his love, was cursed that she always foretold the truth, but that no one would believe her. I bring in the title song to the 1973 album Burn by Deep Purple. The lyrics run, ‘The city’s ablaze, the town’s on fire.  The woman’s flames were reaching higher.  We were fools, we called her liar.’ Cassandra was known as a firebrand, and in fact, Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote a novel called The Firebrand, which is a telling of the Trojan War from Cassandra’s perspective. Although the lyrics of the Deep Purple song support my interpretation quite well all the way through, I have had emails with the song’s author, David Coverdale, and he says he was not inspired by the Cassandra story.”

Dude. Steve’s no outdated, gray-haired, Latin teacher with a penchant for oral Latin. This guy is my new hero.

Worse Than Awful: An Insider’s View of Educational Publishing

by Robert Pondiscio
February 23rd, 2012

Can’t figure out a problem in your child’s math textbook?  Maybe it’s not you. “It could be that key information or steps are missing, that the problem involves a concept to which your child hasn’t yet been introduced.  “Perhaps the problem is structurally unsound for a host of other reasons,” notes veteran textbook writer and editor Annie Keeghan at the blog Open Salon.

The “new normal” in educational publishing is “a severe lack of oversight in the quality of curriculum being produced” and a “frightening apathy” to do anything about it.  Keeghan’s piece, “Afraid of Your Child’s Math Textbook? You Should Be” is a jeremiad.  It does for textbook publishing what The Jungle did for the meatpacking industry.

Keeghan paints a bleak and dispiriting picture of a business gutted by mergers, competition for fewer available dollars, and an increased focus on sales and marketing at the expense of producing quality products.  Materials rushed to market at breakneck speed are “inherently, tragically flawed.”  Plus the pool of qualified writers and editors is drying up, and those doing the work “often don’t have the necessary skills or experience to produce a text worthy of the publisher’s marketing claims,” she writes.

Otto von Bismarck famously quipped that laws and sausages are two things you should never watch being made.  What might he have said about textbooks?

“Here’s how it works: Many publishers solicit developers, often on the Internet and from all over the world, looking for the best bid on a project. With competition this fierce, developers are forced to drastically lower their rates just to stay in business (and publishers exploit this fact). Let’s say a publisher hires a developer for a certain low-bid fee to produce seven supplemental math books for grades 3-8. The product specs call for each student book and teacher guide to have page counts of roughly 100 pages and 80 pages, respectively. The publisher wants these seven books ready for press in five weeks—over 1,400 pages. To put this in perspective, in the not too recent past at least six months would be allotted for a project of this size. But publishers customarily shrink their deadlines to get a jump on the competition, especially in today’s math market. Unreasonable turnaround times are part of the new normal, something that almost guarantees a lack of quality right out of the gate.”

Keeghan has stopped writing educational books, finding there’s no longer any satisfaction in the work, no demand for a good product, or even a way to make a decent living at it.  These days, she says she only accepts copyediting work.  And that’s bad enough.

“When I’m hired to copyedit, the profound errors I see in content are often staggering enough that grammar and punctuation seem immaterial. Sometimes the content in the student materials is so poor—steps omitted, unclear directions, concepts introduced when they’re not developed till later in the text—that it boggles the mind it got past a content editor. With so many errors rampant at this stage of editing, rewriting is hastily done and it’s only inevitable that some errors will show up in the final printed product. And with a different copyeditor on each book, there are those who don’t even think about, or have the experience to recognize, the content issues so they go unaddressed.”

When she points out profound problems with educational materials, Keeghan writes, a typical response is, “The publisher knows it’s bad. Just do the best you can.” The losers, naturally, are students, who are caught in the squeeze between a poorly executed product and a marketing push to maximize profits.“One must conclude that students and their education, if this is judged against product quality, is becoming an increasingly low priority,” Keeghan writes.

“And so, I say to parents: Take a good look at the materials your children are bringing home. And to educators: Look at what you’re purchasing. Don’t be satisfied with the classic “thumb through” and don’t take those marketing materials or the sales pitch at face value. Take the time to study the materials; match them to your state’s desired standards and preferred benchmarks. If they’re not a good fit, take a pass and develop your own if you must. The only way kids are going to become better educated through the materials you buy, to increase their rankings among those 30 other countries, is to break the cycle and stop buying those books that are—there’s no other way to put it—crap.”

Stunning.  Sobering.  And even more so if the reader comments following the piece are credible.  Several are from publishing industry types largely confirming Keeghan’s bleak assessment.

Constructivizing STEM

by Robert Pondiscio
February 22nd, 2012

The following guest post is by Katharine Beals, who blogs about education at Out in Left Field, where this post also appears.  — rp.

It’s hard not to detect a certain worry among those who write STEM articles for Education Week that the drive to educate students for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics might include a drive to increase core scientific and mathematical content at the expense of things that Constructivists hold dear. Things, for example, like “model building,” “data analysis,” and “communicating findings.”

These are what Jean Moon and Susan Rundell Singer, in their backpage Edweek Commentary on Bringing STEM into Focus, want to be sure schools are focusing on:

Re-visioning school science around science and engineering practices, such as model-building, data analysis, and evidence-based reasoning, is a transformative step, a step found in the NRC report, which is critical to STEM learners and teachers, both K-12 and postsecondary. It puts forward the message that knowledge-building practices found under the STEM umbrella are practices frequently held in common by STEM professionals across the disciplines as they investigate, model, communicate, and explain the natural and designed world.

Not that this is all that Moon and Singer care about. They also care about big ideas, which they divide into two categories: “crosscutting concepts (major ideas that cut across disciplines)”, and “disciplinary core ideas (ideas with major explanatory power across science and engineering disciplines.” The former include “scale, proportion, and “quantity or the use of patterns;” the authors don’t cite any examples of the latter.

Besides “practices” and ”ideas,” the authors mention “strategies” and “tools” (again, without specific examples). What they don’t mention is underlying content, except to say:

Lest some believe this is setting up another false dichotomy in science or mathematics education between content and process, let us quickly add a strong evidentiary note: Epistemic practices and the learning and knowledge produced through such practices as building models, arguing from evidence, and communicating findings increase the likelihood that students will learn the ideas of science or engineering and mathematics at a deeper, more enduring level than otherwise would be the case. Research evidence consistently supports this assertion.

I’m curious what “research evidence” means, but I gather that it doesn’t include the research evidence that cognitive scientist Dan Willingham cites in support of the idea that students aren’t little scientists and need a foundation of years of core knowledge before being ready to function as actual scientists.

In promoting their ideas as “transformative,” the authors are overlooking the fact that the kinds of constructivist practices they desire are already standard in many schools (particularly those held up as models for others). If they want to promote something truly transformative for STEM, they should instead be advocating a reinstatement of the years of solid, content-based instruction in math and science that many of our K12 schools used to offer (and that one still finds in schools in most developed countries around the world).

Katharine Beals, PhD is the author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School. She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and at the Drexel University School of Education, specializing in the education of children on the autistic spectrum. She blogs about education at Kitchen Table Math and on her own blog, Out in Left Field.

Nonfiction Read Alouds: A Lost Opportunity?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2012

Part of my required reading is the daily Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief, a summary of education news.  Yesterday’s email carried the subject line, “Are there benefits to reading aloud?”

This is roughly akin to a newsletter for doctors headlined, “Are there benefits to quitting smoking and exercise?”  I’d be mighty surprised to learn there are still teachers who need to be sold on the benefits of reading aloud to students.  But the SmartBrief headline links to a smart Edweek piece from Donalyn Miller, a 6th grade language arts teacher in Texas, on the benefits of read alouds, including “building community,” “exposing kids to new authors and genres,” and “supporting developing readers.”

“Reading aloud removes roadblocks to comprehension like unfamiliar vocabulary and contextualizes words developing readers do not know. Listening to a fluent reader gives students a reading role model for their own oral reading skills, too. Since listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension, you can read books that are a higher reading level than your students can read alone.”

She’s completely correct on all of these points, but further explication is worthwhile.  If anything, Miller undersells the value of reading aloud.  When students listen to a readaloud, cognitive bandwidth that might ordinarily be devoted to decoding is redirected toward the vocabulary and content of the reading.  We learn vocabulary primarily in context, not by memorization. Thus readalouds build language proficiency by exposing kids to sophisticated language well above their independent  reading level.

But I’d wager most teachers leave untapped a lot of the potential of readalouds.  Pop quiz:  how many of the last ten books you read to your class were nonfiction?   You probably answered either “zero” or “one.”  That’s a lost opportunity.  The same principles that make it worthwhile to read fiction aloud are even more true for nonfiction. Plus, nonfiction often has rich, domain-specific vocabulary.  You’re more likely to hear words like “orbit,” “zenith,” “solar,” or “celestial,” in a book on astronomy.  Readalouds not only grow vocabulary, they are the best way to build critical background knowledge, which is essential for later reading comprehension.

Read alouds also have value well past the primary grades.  It’s fairly obvious that oral language competence precedes written language proficiency (we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write).  What’s less well known is a fact my colleague Alice Wiggins likes to point out: reading comprehension typically doesn’t catch up until about 8th grade.  This means that a strong case can be made for read alouds to building knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency through and including middle school.

Miller’s piece touts “World Read Aloud Day” on March 7, 2012 and suggests every day should be read aloud day.  Agreed.  But read alouds should be for more than just stories and poems.  Tellingly, Miller suggests ten books for upper elementary students to hear out loud. The only one that’s not fiction and poetry is a memoir by Hatchet author Gary Paulsen.

Building knowledge and vocabulary remain the royal road to reading comprehension.  Reading to students across subject areas–not just stories and poems–just might be the most underutilized strategy in the teacher’s tool kit.

Book Excerpt: Republic of Noise

by Guest Blogger
February 16th, 2012

by Diana Senechal

“Discernment and the Public Sphere”

In her new book, Republic of Noise, long-time Core Knowledge Blog contributor Diana Senechal confronts a culture that has come to depend on instant updates and communication at the expense of solitude.  “Schools emphasize rapid group work and fragmented activity, not the thoughtful study of complex subjects,” she writes.  “The Internet offers contact with others throughout the day and night; we lose the ability to be apart, even in our minds. Yet solitude does not vanish; it is part of every life. It plays an essential role in literature, education, democracy, relationships, and matters of conscience,” says Senechal.

At age ten, in 1974, I traveled with my family to the Netherlands, where we were to spend a year (my parents were on sabbatical). We crossed the Atlantic on the Mikhail Lermontov, a Soviet cruise ship that had recently been converted from an ocean liner. It was my first time at sea, and the first moments were thrilling: pulling out of the New York harbor at sunset, with passengers cheering from the deck and others waving from land; watching the Statue of Liberty recede into the distance; feeling the rumble of the motor; and soon seeing nothing but waves upon waves.

I shared a cabin with my sister, Jenna. We had the run of the ship; no one worried about our whereabouts. There was a swimming pool, a lounge and dining area with a stage, an exercise room, a slot machine room, a gift shop with balalaikas and Matryoshka dolls, and a few canteens and bars. At night, the deck was aglow with lights; by day we could sometimes see dolphins leaping. At sunset, we would watch the changing colors over the sea and taste the salty chill; even the sounds grew darker as night fell.

On the second day of our voyage, when we were out on the deck, my parents struck up a conversation with the parents of a British family. There were five children: Anne, seventeen years old, John (fifteen), Ginny (ten), Diana (three), and David (eighteen months). Ginny and I became friends for the duration of the trip. We took lessons in Russian language, song, and dance—the crew kept us quite busy—and spent the rest of the time romping around. But I jump ahead.

While our parents were talking, I saw Anne walk away to the edge of the deck and lean over the railing. No one said anything about it for a few minutes, but then she started to lean farther. Her mother called her, and she ambled back in their direction, with a vague look in her eyes. As the trip progressed, I saw more hints of something unusual and precarious. She would walk away in the middle of conversation or give befuddling answers to questions. During the dance lessons, she would sometimes go in the wrong direction or leave the stage and wander around the hall. But while aloof and of her own world, she was never unkind. There was something captivating about her ways, so different from other people’s.

As our Russian song and dance performance approached, we all chose partners for the show. Anne was left without a partner; either she was the odd one out, or someone finagled her way out of dancing with her. Her distress was visible; she would walk around repeating mournfully, “Who will be my partner? Who will be my partner?” Ginny and I were already dance partners and didn’t want to change that, but we did want to find a partner for Anne. So we knocked on the cabin door of a woman in our class. The door opened; she stood tall before us, her long hair in a hurried bun with some wisps falling out. We explained the situation to her and asked whether she would be Anne’s partner, just for this occasion.

This woman (I’ll call her Mrs. Barrow) told us flat out that she wouldn’t do it and there was no point in pushing her. We stood in the hallway, pleading, telling her how much it would mean and how hard it was for Anne not to have a partner, but none of this moved her. “This is a free country,” she said, “and I have to consider my reputation.” In fact, we were on Soviet territory, by maritime law, so it may not have been the country she thought it was. I doubt, moreover, that her reputation would have been harmed if she had agreed to dance with Anne. Dancing with someone of the same sex was not the issue; most of the people in the dance class were female. Nor would anyone have thought badly of her for dancing with Anne in particular. Her response says something about how she perceived her country and her life. Americans often use the expression “free country”; it rolls off the tongue like a chocolate ball. Sometimes it has specific meaning; at other times it is a way of saying no. At other times it is a way of explaining things that would be difficult to explain otherwise.

In the end, it worked out somehow; Anne ended up with several dance partners (including Mrs. Barrow, if I am not mistaken). The performance was a great occasion; I had never imagined, before the trip, that I would one day be performing Russian dances and singing Russian songs out at sea. The crew gave us ample stage time; in addition to the singing and dancing, we had a talent show and costume contest. Anne, Ginny, Diana, Jenna, and I dressed up as Matryoshka dolls, with kerchiefs and rouged cheeks. Ginny’s father dressed up as a someone who had gotten seasick; he carried a giant blue pill, provoking a roar of laughter from the adults, who had been seasick for a great deal of the voyage. We sang “Kalinka” and another Russian song; for the talent show, we got to take turns at the microphone. Anne sang some songs and rattled off jokes, charming the audience.

I have often thought back on this experience—not with indignation at the woman who said no (she was within her rights, as she said), but with sorrow, bemusement, gratitude for the experience, and thoughts of the English family and how they are now. I recently made contact with Ginny, through the Internet; both parents have passed away, and Anne is doing well, living in sheltered accommodation and enjoying life. Ginny works in education management, as an advocate for arts education. The Mikhail Lermontov no longer crosses the seas; it hit rocks and sank near New Zealand in 1986.

If Mrs. Barrow was at fault, it is because she lacked discernment. For whatever reason, she mistook us and the very ground on which she stood. She responded to us as one might respond to aggressive political canvassers or missionaries, not as one might to two girls trying to help someone. While relying on the concept (or cliché) of a “free country,” she did not consider what that meant or where she actually was.

Of course, as the details of this event grow fuzzy over time, its symbolic significance increases—so it is possible that I would see it quite differently if I could replay it exactly. Yet, even with the distortions of memory, there is something monumental about that moment in the hallway of the Soviet ship, far out at sea. It ended happily, but there was a speck of tragedy in it all the same.

Discernment is the practice of distinguishing two similar things or recognizing something for what it is. It is not easily taught, nor does it necessarily transfer from one area to another. Someone with good character judgment may be unable to tell a good poem from a bad one, or a solid historical analysis from a shaky one. Someone with excellent business sense may fall for a medical fad or political ploy. Nonetheless, if one learns to make fine distinctions in one field, one becomes alert to the possibility of such distinctions elsewhere. Through ear-training of the mind, one may learn to guard against hasty judgments and false generalizations. In discernment there is also an element of courage: the willingness to look at something or someone, even when the thing or person causes discomfort. To look someone in the eye is to let down one’s own guard, to let one’s own flaws show.

To the extent that it can be taught, discernment relies on a degree of common ground. For example, students are much more likely to recognize the allegory in George Orwell’s Animal Farm if they have studied something of Russian and Soviet history; they are in a better position to distinguish Johann Sebastian Bach from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach if they have studied the works of both. Common knowledge provides a common language; when people are reasonably confident that they are talking about the same thing, they understand or can at least ask for clarification of each other’s terms. At the same time, an individual’s particular knowledge can light up the discussion; one student may have read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”; another might have advanced knowledge of harmony and counterpoint.

Thus, to teach discernment, schools should foster both common knowledge and individual interests. Finding the right proportion is a tricky matter. Many Americans are wary of a common curriculum, which they equate with homogeneous, “cookie-cutter” instruction and the imposition of a set of views. But diverse views and interests can thrive only when people have something to differ over.

In his 1902 essay “How the School Strengthens the Individuality of the Pupils,” educator William Torrey Harris wrote that recitations foster and develop individual thought. “All of the pupils,” he wrote, “concentrate their attention on the statements of the pupil who is reciting and on the cross-questioning of the teacher. It is a dialectic which calls for alertness and versatility of mind in the pupils who take part in it.” In an earlier essay, he wrote that “the pupil can, through the properly conducted recitation, seize the subject of his lesson through many minds. He learns to add to his power of insight the various insights of his fellow pupils.” The very idea of a recitation would be derided today as a form of “rote learning,” but his description makes it seem anything but rote. Harris assumed optimistically—perhaps too optimistically—that the students would all be concentrating intensely and trying to refine their understanding. Without such focus and desire, a recitation could easily turn dreary. But that is the case no matter what the approach. In a recitation, class discussion, or other format, the principle remains the same: through coming together over a subject, through straining to understand it better, students may find their individuality, even eccentricity.

It is not that American public schools lack any sort of common study; we have textbooks and the usually vague specifications of state standards. These half-measures have grown out of a longstanding resistance to common curriculum, yet they have come to define curriculum. Except where such textbooks and standards are of high quality, this bears little resemblance to a curriculum as it should be. A curriculum is an outline and sequence of the works, concepts, and skills that students should learn, along with a rationale. It should be flexible enough to allow the mind to play, yet specific enough to provide rich working material. Whether it exists at the school, district, or state level, it should do justice to the word. From there, one can determine the proper balance of common and individual learning.

Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. This excerpt appears in her new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, published by Rowman & Littlefield Education.

A Visit to the Core Knowledge Auto Body Shop

by Robert Pondiscio
February 14th, 2012

The New York Times offers up a piece about a New York City school that has put building background knowledge at the heart of its curriculum.  P.S. 142, a school in lower Manhattan hard by the Williamsburg Bridge “has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons,” the paper notes, “in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.”

“Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. ‘I’ve been inside a bus,’ Tyler said. ‘Does that count?’”

This is not a Core Knowledge school, but the teachers and staff clearly understand the critical connection between background knowledge, vocabulary and language proficiency.  The Times describes the school’s “field trips to the sidewalk,” with children routinely visiting parking garages and auto body shops, or examining features of every day life.

“In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like ‘parking,’ ‘violations’ and ‘bureau.’ JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says ‘No Standing Any Time’ is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk.

The “no standing” example illustrates perfectly how easily a lack of shared references and experiences conspire to thwart comprehension.  It is simply inconceivable that a non-driver would connect the act of balancing on two feet with the act of idling by the curb in a car.  Our language is deeply idiomatic and context driven.  Even a simple word like “shot” means something different on a basketball court, a doctor’s office, or when the repairman says your dishwasher is “shot.”

Obvious?  Sure it is.  To you. But you’re not a low-income kid who has never sat in a car.  Or stood in one.  These things either need to be taught explicitly or experienced first-hand.

“Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge,” the Times notes.  It’s gratifying to see this point rendered as if it’s widely known in our schools.   Still the piece ends on a bittersweet note.  A local superintendent says he wished more principals would adopt the program but that they’re fearful. “There is so much pressure systematically to do well on the tests, and this may not boost scores right away,” Daniel Feigelson said. “To do this you’d have to be willing to take the long view.”

The long view should win out simply because there is no short view. At least not one that has been proven effective. Language growth is a slow growing plant, E.D. Hirsch points out.  There is no shortcut to building the vocabulary and background knowledge that drives comprehension. All the reading strategies instruction in the world can’t compensate.

Here’s my suggestion:  Although I love the phrase, PS 142 should immediately stop calling these activities “field trips to the sidewalk.”

Call it “test prep.”  Because that’s what it really is.


by Robert Pondiscio
February 10th, 2012

“President Obama and Secretary Duncan pushed the reform envelope as far as they could be expected with these waivers….We remain skeptical, however, of the storyline that says we are a nation filled with states chomping at the bit to do the right thing for children but which are hamstrung from doing so by federal bureaucrats and paperwork.” — Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform on states receiving waivers from compliance with No Child Left Behind (via This Week in Education)

I remain equally skeptical of the storyline that says schools are dysfunctional purely as a result of adult indifference or self-interest.

I see no reason to believe that failing schools are filled with tenured layabouts refusing to teach and not getting fired.  In my experience, such schools are mainly filled with decent people trying their best and failing. And with depressing regularity, they are failing despite doing exactly what they were trained to do–even because they are doing exactly what they were trained to do.

The entire edifice of accountability assumes that American education is essentially a sound product, but it’s delivered poorly. I see no evidence to suggest this is true. I see much evidence to suggest it’s not.

Food for Thought

by Guest Blogger
February 8th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

The most wonderful thing happened to me today. A student asked a question, and I did not know the answer.

Don’t misunderstand – I am at a loss for answers all the time. Every day, I affix a new index card to the front of my plan book so I will have a place to write down the all questions I need to look up. Tonight, for example, I have to look up the etymology of the word “hypocrite” (Greek, hypokrites, stage actor, pretender, dissembler), find out why Castor and Pollux wear skull caps (remnants of their hatching – long story, involves their father Zeus in the form of a swan), and whether the limerick ever achieved high scholarly status (not really). The last one on my note card, though…it’s a doozy.

There I was, in the middle of a poetry lesson in my seventh grade English class. We were talking about clichés – cliché similes and metaphors, specifically. If a poet were to write that someone is as white as a ghost or meaner than a junkyard dog, readers will understand, but some clichés are so familiar, they don’t mean much anymore. They don’t stop the reader in his tracks or offer up a new way of looking at something.

But, when a writer reports that “purple is like blue, blooming” or that the ladies were “like soft tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,” I can see that dark blue blooming into purple and the cloying heat of a Maycomb Sunday afternoon.

And then, there it was:

“If phrases can be cliché because they are so overused, why aren’t stories like the journey of the hero cliché, too?”


First of all, HALLELUJAH. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Haleleeeeeeeluuujah. What an awesome question. Once my shower of lavish praise ended, however, the room grew very quiet.

Where are Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell when I need them? Flitting about on their angel wings, interpreting Steve Jobs’ dreams, no doubt.

We all thought about the question for a while. They looked at me to see what I would say; I looked at them to see what they would say. Class went on like that for a while. I have some really great students, kids who understand that quiet is not merely something to be filled up.

Finally, a girl – one who rarely speaks up in class – raised her hand. She offered that maybe, if the journey is a little different each time, it’s still exciting to us. Another girl agreed - Bilbo is after the booty in Smaug’s cave, Pip seeks Estella and his expectations, Dorothy has to reveal the man behind the curtain – it’s all the same story, in the end. And yet we keep reading because the details are different.

It was about time for class to end, so I wrote “journey=cliché?” on my index card, and promised to think about it overnight and get back to them.

And then, as they filed out of the room, a student offered up the most lovely cliché I’ve ever heard: “Maybe it’s because the journey is the important part, not the destination. That’s why we keep reading.”

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

Science Fair Kid Wows President

by Robert Pondiscio
February 8th, 2012

“OK, Mr. President, you can fire my marshmallow gun.  But if you wait until I come back, I’ll let you fire it two times.”