Handwriting Is Still Alive!

by Guest Blogger
January 29th, 2009

by Kitty Burns Florey

I wrote a book about handwriting because I was concerned about the fact that handwriting is not being adequately taught in many schools. And as I researched the topic, and spoke to a lot of educators, what struck me was the amount of pressure teachers are under in the 21st century.

It’s tempting to be nostalgic about the days when students were drilled in the Palmer Method and most of them graduated from high school writing a legible script. But today’s classroom is immensely more complicated; teachers have to cope not only with endless testing but with a much wider range of material to cover. And along with everything else, they have to teach computer skills! The more research I did, the less wedded I became to the idea (always a dubious one, anyway) that because things were done a certain way back in the good old days, they should be done that way now.

Students need to learn typing – they even probably need to call it “keyboarding.” Hardly a one of them will escape a future in which they earn their livings by sitting at a computer. I write my own books directly on the keyboard, use computer programs for editing, keep on top of a substantial email correspondence, pay bills online – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I think it’s too soon to declare legible penmanship a lost art. Maybe the problem lies in calling it an art rather than a simple necessity like knowing how to add and subtract. Hardly a day goes by when the average person doesn’t have to write something on paper. We take notes at meetings, we make lists, we address an envelope, we send a thank-you letter, we keep diaries. A radio talk show host who interviewed me this morning had jotted down some things he wanted to discuss but confessed he couldn’t read it back so had to wing it. In more extreme (but not entirely far-fetched) scenarios, the computer crashes, the power goes out, we start to get shooting pains in our wrists….

We need to use our handwriting, just as most of us need to cook dinner every night. Why not try to do it well? The “slow food” movement is gaining momentum. Why not “slow writing”? Is it so hard to write legibly?

I believe that devising a readable, even beautiful script for ourselves isn’t really very difficult, nor must it resemble the dear old Palmer Method, with its curlicues and flourishes. In the course of writing Script and Scribble, I became smitten with a variation of the 16th-century script known as Italic – a partly printed, partly cursive style that’s famous for its elegance, legibility, and speed. (And if it’s taught in schools, kids don’t have to learn printing in first grade and make the transition to cursive a year or two later: it’s all one script.) Like most people’s, my handwriting had deteriorated through lack of use, but in a week or so of casual practice, I reformed it completely.

I’ve managed to retain what I learned by using my new Italic as often as I can. Even making a grocery list presents an opportunity, not because it matters that “onions, bread, coffee” be beautifully written, but because it keeps me in practice for times when good handwriting is important – like the note of sympathy I had to write a few days ago. It takes a little longer, but – once you’ve mastered it – not much. We’re a nation of printers, a nation of apologizers for our penmanship, but we don’t have to be. It’s just not that big a deal to write well!

But kids are another story. I understand the time pressures teachers face, and I know that follow-up and reinforcement are not easy to build into the school day. Compared to other items in the curriculum, handwriting can seem pretty trivial – and there’s no standardized test to evaluate it. Still, I can imagine an ideal classroom, one in which the students write a fluent Italic script from first grade onward, they’re encouraged to use it daily for short periods, and what they write is pleasing to them, a source of pride, a skill that will serve them well for as long as they need it.

Who knows what the years ahead have in store for any of us? Home computers drain more energy than almost any other usage, and it’s increasing. Repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome aren’t going away. Most college students still take notes with pen and notebook. The pleasure of curling up with a diary seems to be an enduring one. Love letters will never stop being written, by hand, on paper, and sealed with a kiss.

Penmanship isn’t dead. It’s not feeling great, it’s struggling to breathe, it’s limping along. But we can keep it alive. And we should.

KITTY BURNS FLOREY is the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. A veteran copy editor, she has also written nine novels and many short stories and essays. She lives in Connecticut.  Her web address is www.kittyburnsflorey.com/

Exhilarating Drudgery

by Robert Pondiscio
August 21st, 2008

The Internet puts the world’s knowledge at the ends of our rapidly twitching fingers, yet the academic research skills of “average” students are poorer today than when they “had to trek to a library, sift through periodicals, muddle through card catalogs, and blow off dust from stacks of books, just to access potential material for a term paper,” observes ed.org columnist Ron Isaac, who wonders “What has replaced this exhilarating drudgery?”

Too often a student will go online, key in, say, “Shakespeare,” double click, and then muster the energy for one more click so that their ready-made dissertation will be printing while they split to check out YouTube or to surf some video channel. At the next commercial break they will scoop up their term paper from the tray, sandwich it between colored covers, and adorn it with some “photoshop” work and computer graphics. They may also type a preface to the teacher along the lines of “I hope you like this. Have a nice day!” and add the finishing touch of an “emoticon” smiley-face.

He’s painting with a broad brush, obviously, but Isaac raises a legitimate point with his observation that “everyone professes a passionate belief in the importance of teaching students critical thinking, but generally it’s left at that. The ability to think critically is not a secondary sexual characteristic that happens involuntarily. Nor does it materialize from the study of a non-existent curriculum. It is, rather, the product of many years of literal note-taking ( sometimes a lonely endeavor) and reflection.”




A Progressive Educator Learns to Love Core Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
August 5th, 2008

by John Thompson

Long before I began teaching, I carried on a silent debate with Al Shanker and his “Where We Stand” column. I seethed when he recounted the common question—”is it on the test?”—and then dignified the mindset that produced such a juvenile question. Like so many liberals, my educational philosophy was a hybrid between Dewey’s (and the 1960s’) progressivism and the heroic fantasy created by Hollywood of the charismatic teacher who transforms students by the power of personality and hope. Shanker, however, did convince me that standards were politically necessary and maybe they were educationally valid.

I read Hirsch with the wisdom of half of a decade in the classroom, and I rejected his approach completely… Hirsch sounded too much like a fact-driven traditionalist. He sounded too much like a testing advocate.

My rookie year in an alternative school for felons was a perfect proving ground for my ideals. Our two teachers and our two social workers functioned interchangeably like linebackers in the old “3-4-4″ defense. Class and counseling were recognizably different at times, but mostly we worked seamlessly as student-centered teams. Anytime I wanted adjust my lesson plans, I would dismiss our Social Studies class, and notify the kids that we are now in Science class. And the students were free to do the same. When an emotionally disturbed student barged into class one morning in a particularly agitated state, he directed me, “John, teach me something.” “OK, I replied, today we are studying Psychology,” and I provided a simplified version of autonomic functioning, habit, and choice. The student then scribbled a diary of the day’s thoughts, categorizing them as “auto” and “congo,” which were his spellings of automatic and conscious, and habit. It would have made a great scene on The Wire.

Even as I congratulated myself for my innovative lessons, I started to recognize the impossibility of making the “bricks” of great ideas without the “straw” of information. When I moved to a regular high school, I saw that most of my students had almost no recall from their previous classes. An A.P. student answered that Vietnam was the war we won after dropping the atomic bomb. And it got worse from there.

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Correcting the Student: A Quiet Argument

by Guest Blogger
May 4th, 2008

When I was in kindergarten, my teachers were worried about me because I never brought my paintings home. When my parents asked me why I didn’t, I told them that the paintings weren’t good. This horrified the teachers, who had marked “Great!” on every single one of them (I can still see the handwriting). I knew the paintings weren’t great, and didn’t know how to make them better. No one at school was willing to teach me.

Fast-forward thirty-eight years to a professional development session on the arts in education. We are provided with long sheets of chart paper and instructed to trace and then portray each other, in groups of two or three. We have about thirty minutes to complete this slipshod activity. When this is done, we hang the portraits around the room and circulate for a “gallery walk.” We are given Post-its for making observations, not criticisms. Observation is greater than judgment, we are told. I feel ill. My horrible drawing must now endure cheery “observations.” I want to go home.

Extremist doctrines tumble upon teachers continually, in education programs, training sessions, and so-called literature. Today I will examine a recurring shibboleth: “Teachers should not correct student errors explicitly.” Trainers and administrators discourage correction for at least three reasons: (1) they are concerned for the students’ self-esteem and self-celebration; (2) they believe that correction could exacerbate existing inequities in the classroom; and (3) they are anxious about the difficulties and uncertainties inherent in correction.

I have dealt with anti-correction dogma on numerous occasions. I have been told not to mark up a student’s sacrosanct compositions, but to write comments on post-its (which, of course a student is entitled to throw away). On one occasion, the facilitator of a PD session said, “As a constructivist I don’t believe in telling a student, ‘that’s right,’ because that would invalidate another student’s answer.” I have visited classes with “Socratic Seminars” or “cooperative learning” in which the student discussions got muddled and the teacher refused to intervene.

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What is the Purpose of America’s Schools?

by Guest Blogger
February 3rd, 2008

by Daniel A. Heller

For over two decades almost every constituency has attacked public education. The last seven years have been particularly demoralizing, characterized by federal and state governments’ atomizing curriculum and then judging the success of individual schools by tests which may or may not provide accurate, useful information.

We frequently hear that the purpose of schools is to prepare students for high paying jobs or to continue their education after high school, both worthy goals, but are they the primary purposes of our educational system? Preparing students for the work force reduces them to a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. This goal equates being the greatest nation in the world with being the richest. What about quality of life? How can the greatest nation in the world have children who go to bed hungry every night?

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Hallway Culture

by Robert Pondiscio
January 20th, 2008

Gazette.netBefore we can do our jobs as educators, students must see what’s going on in our schools and classrooms as a means to some viable end. That many do not is the powerful subtext of Lynn H. Fox’s essay (“Getting students out of the halls and into the classrooms”) in Maryland’s gazette.net. A tip of the hat to Joanne Jacobs for pointing out this gem.

A high school teacher, Fox finds the story of contemporary education in a single moment — a choice his student makes between “classroom cuture” and “hallway culture” as class begins one morning. “So much depends on the choice David, and every other American student, will make. In or out? Classroom or hallway?”

Hallways, Fox observes, are “the meeting and greeting ground where young people play out popular fantasies of violence, sexuality, and, especially, consumerism. The hallway rules are easy, the rewards immediate, and the rituals provide culturally approved media roles young people have been fed since birth.” By comparison classrooms “for most of our school’s young people, are places of crushing boredom.” David — predictably, inevitably — chooses the hallway.

What Fox knows that we need to come to terms with is that delayed gratification, the essential valuable proposition of education, is a heroic choice in a world that seldom reinforces it. It’s a brilliant, powerful essay that deserves a wide audience.

What is Core Knowledge?

by Guest Blogger
November 27th, 2007

By Russ Spicer

Liberty Common School

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I am the headmaster of the best school in Colorado. The next question that comes my way is, “What makes your school so great?” My reply is, “We have awesome teachers, awesome students, awesome parental support and an awesome Core Knowledge curriculum.” “What exactly is Core Knowledge?” is often the question that follows.

Most people think that Core Knowledge is just an approach to learning and not an actual curriculum. They often say that it is a back to basics approach to education. While this is partially true, it is not entirely true. The purpose of this blog posting is to provide assistance in answering the question of “what is Core Knowledge?” I am including a description of the Core Knowledge program that is found in our Liberty Common School Student/Parent handbook. I hope this helps and I encourage anyone who is considering attending a Core Knowledge school or starting a Core Knowledge school to do it. The curriculum is outstanding.

Liberty has selected the Core Knowledge Foundation’s Curriculum Sequence as the framework of its curriculum. The Core Knowledge Sequence is distinguished by planned progression of specific knowledge in history, geography, mathematics, science, language arts, and fine arts.

Children learn by building on what they already know. Thus, it is important for them to begin building foundations of knowledge in the early grades when they are most receptive to attaining an organized body of knowledge. Children are by instinct driven to construct a contextual view of the world. Thus, it is important to provide them an educational framework that assists them in developing the constructs upon which their viewpoints will be based. Academic deficiencies in these areas in the first nine grades can permanently impair the quality of later schooling.

By specifying the knowledge that all children should share, all students can achieve equal access to that knowledge. At-risk children especially suffer from low expectations, which often translate into watered-down curricula. In schools using the Core Knowledge Sequence, however, all children are exposed to a coherent core of challenging, interesting, interwoven knowledge. This knowledge not only provides a foundation for later learning but also defines a common heritage and establishes a common ground for communication and cooperation in a diverse society.

In addition to its specificity, the Core Knowledge curriculum is characterized by knowledge that is solid, sequenced, specific, and shared. Literacy in every subject requires a set of mechanical skills and a shared background. The shared, many-cultured knowledge that promotes effective classroom learning also promotes cooperation and respect among students, both in the classroom and in society. Liberty’s teachers are able to rely on shared background knowledge about the students, which enables them to build sequentially on that knowledge year by year. The ninth grade classical honors curriculum continues the goals of the Core Knowledge curriculum with solid knowledge and skills that build on the previous knowledge and prepares students for further high school study.

As used above we define knowledge not in the simplistic sense of mere facts but in the broader sense of the word, as follows: Knowledge consists of the facts, the relations between them, the thinking about them, and the effort to understand and connect them. It is not out of ignorance that we discover understanding. It is exactly because of what we already know that we can know more, that we can discern organizing principles make and test hypotheses, and act rationally.

Liberty Common School teaches 100% of the Core Knowledge curriculum and is a certified Core Knowledge Visitation Site. Our credential was established the hard way by digging in years ago and selecting a thorough, meaningful curriculum — one that is certainly solid, sequenced, specific and shared.

Blog: Moral/Spiritual Leadership For Multicultural Education

by CKF
November 20th, 2007

Barbara McCauley Lovejoy wrote to Linda Bevilacqua, President of the Core Knowledge Foundation:

Last spring I was accepted into BYU’s (Brigham Young University) Ed Leadership doctoral program. My focus is going to be on how to better serve our diverse learners. For this reason I am very interested in E.D. Hirsch’s work and support it wholeheartedly. In fact, my postings the last two days at www.principlecenteredme.blogspot.com are related to his work so thought you might like to see it.

Also, I have written and self-published a book called My Years As A Hispanic Youth Advocate… and The Lessons I Have Learned.

Linda Bevilacqua responded:

You articulated the underlying principles of Core Knowledge and Dr. Hirsch’s work beautifully in your blog posting. We need your help in making these concepts more widely understood and welcome your ongoing, active participation in advocating for social equity using these principles.

An excerpt from Barbara’s blog, Moral/Spiritual Leadership for Multicultural Education, Facts Plus, on Nov. 15:

If facts are important as a foundation, then the questions arise:

  • Which facts?
  • Who decides which facts?

The next post at Moral/Spiritual Leadership for Multicultural Education, E. D. Hirsch and Closing the Achievement Gap, on Nov. 16:

Before answering these two questions, the following are some other questions to consider:

  • Why does the learning gap for the haves and have nots grow wider as students move through the school in the U.S. while the opposite occurs in other countries?
  • Why do more 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant students drop out of school than 1st generation immigrant students?
  • What makes our schools unfair?
  • What does educational justice mean?
  • Some points to consider while pondering the answers to these questions:
  • Educational justice means equality of educational opportunity
  • Imparting a universally shared core of knowledge helps overcome inequality
  • Classroom learning can go forward more effectively when all students share some common points of reference
  • ALL children will learn relatively well in an effective school — High quality tends to be correlated with high equity
  • Some students are learning less than others because of systematic shortcomings in their schooling and social and economic differences rather than because of their own innate lack of academic ability
  • New knowledge expands exponentially
  • There is a “Matthew Effect” — the more background knowledge and the richer the vocabulary a learner has, the greater will be his/her ability to accumulate more knowledge
  • Detailed guidelines provide clarity
  • A diverse country has a greater need of a core-knowledge system than does a homogeneous one

The work of E. D. Hirsch’s, Cultural Literacy, has been criticized not only in the multicultural education arena, but also in the general education arena. Yet, before criticizing him too harshly and “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” it is my opinion that we need to have an understanding of why his work on core knowledge could be helpful to diverse learners:

  • It addresses the snowball effect that allows a small knowledge difference in kindergarten to become a huge gap in learning within a few years
  • It builds from year to year on the background knowledge learners need to be academically successful
  • A teacher can identify what background knowledge a learner is missing
  • It does not stipulate everything a learner should know. In fact, it is meant to comprise only 50% of the school’s curriculum leaving ample time to address other learning needs, including more ethnically-centered curricula
  • Because cosmopolitanism is a true friend to diversity, core knowledge has adopted a cosmopolitan approach to history and literature in order to reinforce the fact that no longer are Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other ethnic groups invisible in the past or the present
  • In order to be fair to diverse learners, it is critical that schools not neglect or reject the current dominant culture
  • The Hirsch core knowledge is not the work of one person, but the work of many, including multicultural advisors, who combined scholarly research with grassroots experience to develop this sequence consensus
  • It was empirical science and not ideology that originated cultural literacy and the core knowledge movement
  • There is evidence that supports the connection between core knowledge and educational justice. In fact, the correlations between fairness and core knowledge are 100 percent.

As the U.S. becomes more diverse it is critical that we find ways to not only acknowledge the diversity and benefit from the richness that diversity brings, but also find ways to bring us together. It is my opinion that the principles of Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and core knowledge can help do both.

Read the blog, Moral/Spiritual Leadership for Multicultural Education!

Narrowing the Two Achievement Gaps

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
November 9th, 2007

Education TrustA presentation at the 18th Education Trust National Conference, Nov. 9, 2007, Washington, D.C., by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

© 2007 Core Knowledge Foundation. Not to be copied or reproduced without permission from the Core Knowledge Foundation, 801 E. High Street, Charlottesville, VA 22902.

I am grateful to the Education Trust for inviting me to give this talk. It’s an honor and a kind of homecoming. We at Core Knowledge feel great affinity with The Education Trust with its focus on narrowing the unfair achievement gap between groups. That injustice was my reason for leaving academic pursuits and entering education reform in the 1970s.

I won’t distract you with the intricate details of my experiments on literacy some 35 years ago beyond observing that they were first done at U VA, and then at a mainly African-American college in Richmond. I described the results in two technical publications that are virtually unknown. But they have colored all of my subsequent work. Anyone who bothers to read those reports might be surprised to discover that it was empirical science and not ideology that originated Cultural Literacy and the Core Knowledge movement. The ideological controversies surrounding Cultural Literacy during the 1980s and ’90s were gripping but, to my dazed mind, essentially off point. For, the key educational issues we faced urgently both then and now are less connected with ideology than with empirical reality.

I’ll very briefly describe the discovery that shocked me into education reform. The African-American students at the Richmond college (It was the Sargeant Reynolds Community College.) could read just as well as UVA students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee’s surrender to Grant. Their performance on that particular text shook me up the most. For they had graduated from the schools of Richmond, the erstwhile capital of the Confederacy, but were ignorant of the most elementary facts about the Civil War and other basic information that is normally taken for granted in writing. They had not been taught the various things that they needed to know to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience. The results were shocking. (What had the schools been doing???). I decided to devote myself to helping right the wrong that is being done to such students.

Let me explain my title: “Narrowing the Two Achievement Gaps.” The sort of gap usually meant by the phrase “achievement gap” is the one between whites and African Americans or whites and Hispanics, or more generally between high- and low- income students. Let’s call this “the fairness gap.” But there is an equally fateful achievement gap between our students and those in other developed nations. Let’s call this “the quality gap.” My first theme in this talk is that these are not separate problems. The solution to the fairness gap is also the solution to the quality gap, and vice versa.

I will focus on the verbal achievement gap, which is critical to academic performance, later income, and general competence. I want to show that if we raise the average verbal achievement for all groups of students we will, by that very deed, also narrow the fairness gap, killing two birds with one stone.

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Up to whose standards?

by CKF
August 19th, 2007

The Sunday PaperBy Bob Zaslavsky

… It is possible to formulate a good curriculum that is rigorous, sequential, concrete and communally significant. One such curriculum is the Core Knowledge Foundation’s “Core Knowledge Sequence: Content Guidelines for Grades K-8.” For each grade level, skills are stated generally and specifically. In Language Arts, there is a detailed list of the poems, books and proverbs that each student is expected to study at that level. There is no duplication. The goal of the curriculum is culturally shared knowledge that promotes excellence and equity.

A small number of schools has adopted this curriculum with impressive results. Yet whenever I have tried to introduce this curriculum to school system administrators, the resistance is fierce. Instead of reaching for something new, they are content to cling to the nothing they have.

Read the complete essay