On Blooming

by EmmaEarnst
May 26th, 2015

As a member of the team of educators and editors developing Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), I’m continually proud of and impressed by the understandings, connections, and accomplishments that students reach when their incredible teachers use the CKLA program to guide instruction.

There’s Olivia, the darling girl on this Amplify Learning video, who discovers her ability, and love for, reading. There are the scores of children we see and hear during school visits who are using academic and domain vocabulary (tiers 2 and 3) as they make cross-curricular connections.

And then there are the writers. Being a writer myself, seeing students use writing as a means of expressing themselves is one of my favorite rewards.

Acting as “Kate,” I have the opportunity to see students blossom in just this way every year.

You see, every spring as the daffodils, tulips, and peonies lift their heads in succession to greet us, something else magical happens as well: Kate Skipper letters come pouring in!


As part of CKLA’s Skills strand, first graders read Kate’s Book during the fifth of seven units. Depending on various factors like school schedules and student progression, this typically falls between the months of March and May. After reading Kate’s Book and learning about opinion writing, students write a letter to Kate Skipper, the main character and “author” of their reader. Kate explains it best in her introductory letter to the book:

CKLA_G1_U5_Rdr_Engage 7


Students read the thirteen stories that make up Kate’s Book over the course of a 23-day unit. While reading the book, students simultaneously develop and then publish an opinion letter to Kate. At the end of the book and unit, students are offered the chance to send their letters to Kate Skipper care of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Hundreds of letters pour in and I, as Kate, write back. First-grade teachers: Keep them coming!

As explained in the recent post by Debbie Reynolds, a teacher in Nevada, CKLA develops writing ability by supporting students to use their background knowledge, build new knowledge orally, and organize their thoughts before tackling any larger writing project. First graders’ letter to Kate is the culmination of exposure and study throughout the year; students’ growth, enthusiasm, and attitudes are clearly reflected in their letters.


The most common response from students follows along these lines: “Loved your book, Kate! When will you write another?”


Notice Linsey’s opinion “I like Max” is backed up with reason: “because he has a hat.”



Likewise, Samuel explains that he likes the books because Kate and her friend, Max, find a T. rex bone.

This year, we got a special surprise as just before the letters to Kate Skipper began rolling in: We received a letter from Olivia (not the same Olivia in the Amplify video), a second grader, that reflects not just her heart-felt opinion, but also showcases her reasoning. Olivia, described by her teacher as “the premier animal lover and animal expert in [her] classroom,” disagreed with the portrayal of snakes and spiders in the CKLA book Sir Gus. Olivia’s teacher used this as an opportunity for enrichment, and suggested that Olivia write to us at the Foundation respectfully explaining her position.

Olivia took up on her teacher’s suggestion, and wrote us the following letter:

bear CKLA,

My name is Olivia and I am second grader….I am reading Sir Guse I like it but Sir Gus is a skardy cat. I noticed a big problem….You making a bad impreshen to make kids skarde of spiders and snakes you know you should relley study an animal before you guge it.



Olivia clearly displays the tenets of persuasive writing she learned from CKLA (argument, reasoning, and personal connection), and uses them to make her opinions known and potentially improve how CKLA represents animals. I am—we are—enormously proud of her!

By learning about and practicing persuasive writing in CKLA, and building a base of knowledge, Olivia was prepared for this unique opportunity to make her voice heard—and that will serve her well throughout her life.

Culture Trip

by EmmaEarnst
November 26th, 2013

Lucky me! I just checked off an item on my bucket list—a trip to Altun-Ha, a Mayan city in Belize. For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading about early American history. Actually walking through the ruins—and learning yet more from an incredible tour guide with Mayan roots—gave me even greater perspective and insight. Most importantly, it left me eager to study even more.

Returning to work here at Core Knowledge, I’ve been considering how to give students similar experiences. Certainly, most students are not going to take a trip to a Mayan, Aztec, Incan, or other early American site because they happen to be learning about it in school. Most are not even going to see less exotic places like the Statue of Liberty, Angel Island, the White House, or the Alamo before they graduate. (I graduated long ago and have still only seen one of those four!)

It’s important to realize, though, that every location—whether the farmlands of Nebraska or the urban epicenter of New York City—has historic and cultural experiences we can offer our students. Through careful choice, planning, and collaboration, we can give our students a sampling of such opportunities. A recent (in fact, the first major) study on the effects of field trips on students has shown what many have long taken for granted: field trips offer measureable learning benefits to students, including an increased retention of factual knowledge pertaining to their visit, developing understandings based on that knowledge, historical empathy, tolerance, and a higher interest in returning to museums. These effects, moreover, are generally much larger for students from less-advantaged backgrounds.

The significance of offering our students such cultural experiences is obvious, and yet the field trip is becoming less and less common in our schools. As the study documents, the trips that are happening are often not learning-based, “enrichment” trips, but “reward” trips to movie theaters, sporting events, and amusement parks that offer little educational value. With what small budget a school may have for field trips, it can make the most of those dollars—instructionally speaking—through careful planning: teaching students (and getting them excited) about the place in advance, visiting it to contextualize and deepen that knowledge, and then learning yet more about it after the trip.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

I once worked for a historical society in Charlottesville, VA, where I would occasionally lead groups of youngsters from local elementary and middle schools through a particular exhibit in our museum or a place in our town. Wanting to create a meaningful experience, I sent teachers pre-visit materials containing (among other things) background information on the place, ideas, and/or people we’d be learning more about during their visit. When students arrived, I would pre-assess (through a lively conversation) to determine what they’d retained so far and tailor my presentation and activities (as much as I could) to their knowledge level. I even created “Students will be able to…” goals for the day and designed my plans around them. At the end of our day, I would tie what the class had just learned with what they already knew, and—whenever I had an enthusiastic teacher committed to following up—what they were going to be learning in the future. Occasionally, I’d even hear from teachers about how they discussed their museum trip later in the year to tie in another concept or figure.

By setting such outings in the context of larger learning goals, field trips don’t even need to take students to new or extraordinary places. I once led a group of fifth-graders to the Downtown Mall here in Charlottesville—a commercial space that most, if not all, had visited before. But by learning about the history of the pedestrian street, and then looking for and talking about specific, historic parts of the mall that the students would never notice on a normal visit, they saw it in a completely new way. Likewise, kindergarten students at Brevard Academy CFA recently visited an orchard to support the Plants and Farms domains in the Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Visiting a place that may have seemed ordinary to adults offered these little ones the opportunity to witness and better understand farm animals, how a farm works, and the lifecycle of an apple tree.

By giving students the proper framework for a field trip—even to a not-so-unusual place, students will get the maximum benefit from their trip: retention, understanding, empathy, and a desire to visit and understand other cultural institutions in the future. Certainly, my experience at Altun-Ha is a testament to this—without the same, now automatic framework for learning and exploration, I’d never have been compelled to sojourn there or so enjoy doing so.

Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.


TTBOMK, Paying Attention Is MIA. NISM?

by Guest Blogger
May 15th, 2013

Translation: To the best of my knowledge, paying attention is missing in action. Need I say more?

I don’t need to say more about the problem, so let’s get right into what to do. Many thanks to Dan Willingham for drawing attention to, as he put it, “the 21st century skill students really lack”:

It’s unlikely that they are incapable of paying attention, but rather that they are quick to deem things not worth the effort.

We might wonder if patience would not come easier to a student who had had the experience of sustaining attention in the face of boredom, and then later finding that patience was rewarded….

Students today have so many options that being mildly bored can be successfully avoided most of the time.

Most students are able to avoid being mildly bored, but the result may be that they become boring people. I doubt it is possible to learn a great deal about the world—to make “the inside of your head … an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”—without enduring some boredom. Many great books pull you in slowly—it’s only after 50 or so pages that you’re hooked. Likewise, many academic subjects only become fascinating when you’re far enough in for contradictory details to emerge and for questions that once seemed clear to become debatable. I was one of those teenagers who thought that learning about raindrops as prisms would ruin the rainbow. It didn’t. The textbook diagram was dry, but the next rainbow was more vibrant. Suddenly, I was glad that I had diligently studied that textbook, not merely crammed for the test.

Paying attention and then being unexpectedly rewarded for it is an experience many of us have had—but we can’t just assume all students will be so fortunate. As Willingham wrote, “If we are concerned that students today are too quick to allow their attention to be yanked to the brightest object (or to willfully redirect it once their very low threshold of boredom is surpassed), we need to consider ways that we can bring home to them the potential reward of sustained attention.”

Willingham mentioned a Harvard art professor, Jennifer Roberts, who “asks her students to select a painting from a Boston museum, on which they are to write an in-depth research paper. Then the student must go the museum and study the painting. For three hours.”

Some boredom is assured, but would be painting be ruined or enhanced? Roberts explains that it is enhanced as students see more details. Willingham notes that students’ patience is rewarded, revealing the value of persisting and paying attention.

I think there is one more element here—the quality of the work being studied. Students were not to spend three hours gazing upon any painting; it had to be one in a Boston museum.  This assures that they are looking at the original work, and that the work itself has been judged by several experts to be worthy of preservation.

We should indeed encourage students to pay attention—and we must also hold ourselves accountable for giving them things worthy of their attention.

That said, how do we help more students learn to value paying attention and persisting through initial boredom? I hope Willingham will answer that question with rigorous research. Meanwhile, I’ll offer a common sense approach: start early and build slowly.

Just that happens in Core Knowledge Language Arts and Will Fitzhugh’s Page Per Year Plan.

In Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA)—a knowledge-building reading, writing, speaking, and listening program for preschool through third grade—teachers slowly develop students’ ability to pay attention by reading aloud. Importantly, the read-alouds start short and grow longer over the course of the school year and across school years. The read-alouds also provide information worth learning and are grouped by domain so that students have time to grasp concepts and acquire new vocabulary. Even better, the domains themselves are carefully sequenced, with early studies of topics like plants and farms providing a foundation for later studies of pilgrims and ecology. Squirmy young children quickly grow into attentive students as they realize that these fiction and nonfiction read-alouds contain interesting stories and answer questions about the world.

Fitzhugh is the founder of the Concord Review, a scholarly history journal with well-researched essays by high school students. Fitzhugh often laments that the traditional history term paper is quickly becoming a relic. He hopes to reinstate the term paper through his Page Per Year Plan:

Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper, ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with sources, and so on, until each senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper, with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic.

This would gradually prepare students for future academic writing tasks, and each senior could graduate from high school knowing more about some important topic than anyone else in the class, and he/she may also have read at least one nonfiction (history) book before college. This should reduce the need for remedial instruction in writing (and perhaps in remedial reading as well) at the college level.

I believe there’s one more benefit: sustained attention. Year by year, students would have to put forth a little more effort, take a little more time, and grasp a little bit more deeply the learning that results from researching and writing about a topic. I’d bet that those Harvard students who dutifully studied a painting for three hours (as well as wrote a research paper on it) were prepared for the task with similarly rigorous studies throughout their K – 12 years.

Today’s typical 12th grader would likely struggle to write a 12-page history paper. YKWIM? (Translation: You know what I mean?) But a 12th grader who had already written 11 other history papers would likely succeed beautifully. Fitzhugh has been touting his Page Per Year Plan for more than a decade. Maybe it’s time we listened.

NVNG! (Translation: Nothing ventured, nothing gained!)


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.

Meet Students Where They Are…And When They’re Ready

by Robert Pondiscio
January 25th, 2012

President Obama used his State of the Union address last night to propose requiring students to stay in high school until they either graduate or turn 18.  “We know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” he said.

Perhaps so, but let’s be honest:  what’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion?  And where’s the win in forcing kids to stay in “dropout factory” schools against their will and where they get seat time and nothing of use or relevance?

Listening to the President, I was reminded of an idea floated by Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH Charter school a few years back.  In an email to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, Goldstein suggested that if kids are bound and determined to drop out, we should let them leave—and set aside the money saved as a kind of education IRA.  The funds would be waiting for the dropouts if or when they woke up to the benefit of further education or training.  In Goldstein’s view, a little taste of the dead-end life of a dropout would be a more powerful inducement to get an education than the exhortations of any teacher.

Here’s what Mike wrote in 2008:

“At first, for a Jonathan Lewis, nobody bugs you to get up in the morning. . . . You like it, freedom. After a few months, you realize you’re a loser, other people are going places but not you. You maybe get a job and it’s a boring security job at $8/hour. And, maybe by age 20, or 26, or whatever, some maturity. THEN a Jonathan Lewis can start over. He can use the set-aside money from the years of high school he missed for GED tutoring or perhaps special charter high schools set up for older students, then college or other higher ed. But he controls the money; he’s essentially buying the service. Other options could spring up. Maybe even [in] the junior/senior year, $30,000 could be given to the military, which could set up programs where a high school dropout could attend a military-run boot camp, get a degree, then enlist”

Goldstein correctly observed at the time that at present lots of kids merely go through the motions “but resist every effort to learn.”  Even if “Jonathan” manages to graduate, “he’s still a kid with very low academic skills. The win is not much of a win,” he wrote. “The option should be ‘Graduate from a high school which features only rigorous classes’ or ‘Bank the money we want to invest in your education and do your own thing for a while,’” Goldstein concluded.

I emailed Mike this morning to ask if hindsight and the President’s desire to raise the bar on compulsory education has altered his thinking at all. Nope. “I still like my idea more than President Obama’s,” he replied.  “I think it’s win-win-win for kids, teachers, and society.”  Finland only requires kids to stick around until 16 (“I thought everyone wants to copy Finland!” he writes).  More to the point, Goldstein cites a Rennie Center study that uncovered “little research to support the effectiveness of compulsory attendance laws” in decreasing the number of dropouts or increasing the graduation rate.

Most critically, Goldstein’s idea does not write off dropouts. Rather it “holds constant the amount of education that someone receives.”  Is it sometimes appropriate to delay spending on a resistant student at age 17 or 18, and instead spend on that same person a few years down the road?  Goldstein believes it is.

“Interesting that President Obama also called for government supported job training.  My proposal essentially self-funds a certain amount of job training for the least employable people.  It simply shifts a 17 year old from sitting in a required 11th grade history class in Raleigh where he is totally ignoring the teacher and possibly distracting other kids, to that same human being as a 22-year-old who might be sitting in a chosen community college class getting training on a technical job with Siemens with the same public dollars.”

Veteran teachers know that there is a subset of teenagers who simply do not want to be there, regardless of how hard their teachers work or how engaging their lessons might be.  Raising the compulsory age, like so many ideas in education, effectively translates to “work harder” and “engage more kids.”  By contrast, Goldstein’s idea makes good, intuitive sense.

A standard classroom homily is “Meet the students where they are.” To that we might add: “And when they are ready.”

There is an Eloquence in True Enthusiasm

by Guest Blogger
December 2nd, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

I really liked Diana Senechal’s recent post over at Open Salon, “Bad Teachers or Bad Curriculum,” and I agree with much of her educational philosophy. However, there’s one little piece of the educational policy puzzle that seems to have fallen on the floor, kicked around a bit, and forgotten. Unfortunately, it’s a corner piece, and the picture isn’t ever going to be complete without it.


I have had teachers who know their stuff, teachers who can recite the periodic table backward and forward all day long but hate having to teach those pesky students. I’ve had monotonous math teachers, wiling away their last two obligatory years before retirement, teachers who taught me more anecdotal lessons about beekeeping than the basics of Algebra II.

Fortunately, I have had more than my share of great teachers, teachers who truly love what they do. Teachers who, even 35 years into their teaching careers, can’t imagine retirement – they can’t even bear teaching the same material more than a year or two in a row for fear of boredom. Teachers who used roller coasters to teach physics, encouraged us to read Saul Bellow and Joseph Campbell, who made beauty of watercolor painting come alive for us. I wish I’d known then how lucky I was when it was happening.

I admit it; I was so very, very fortunate. I went to a great high school. This past year, Dover-Sherborn Regional High School was ranked as the #1 public school in Massachusetts, and measured against Weston, Concord-Carlisle, and Wayland, that’s quite a feat. I was fortunate to have both Don Cannon and K.C. Potts for English, two teachers who still set the high-water mark for my teaching today. They are, after nineteen years of education, the two most enthusiastic educators I have ever met. Don Cannon has retired from teaching, but K.C. Potts is still going strong, now as Head of the English Department. He’s in his 35th year teaching English at Dover-Sherborn, and it’s clear that he still loves every minute of it. We knew he wanted to be there with us every day, and we were simply grateful that he’d cared about us enough to show up and teach us about Shakespeare, Plato’s cave, Siddhartha, the Theban Plays…and we loved it. We really did. Because he loved it. His love for all of it was tangible, burbling out of him from every pore, part of his daily energy and enthusiasm for the literature, the writing, and his students.

When asked to consider why he’s still teaching after 34 years, he writes of the lessons he learns each year, the changes he has made as an educator, the adjustments he has had to make to individual student needs.

His content is awesome – I learned so much in my two years in his classroom – but as he writes, “Content alone does not ensure engagement – in fact, there are times when resistance to content is the first challenge that a teacher faces. Many courses designed with the best intentions find rocky shoals near promising shores. So I feel that I must engage my students and, obviously, get my students to engage. My classroom is based on the frequent, honest, open, honest exchange of ideas and, to this end, it is Socratic in its mode, a room where I ask hundreds of questions and help students determine how to craft meaningful answers.”

K.C. has had 34 years to relish the part of the job that I have found addictive, the element that makes my job exciting: every day is different. Every day is new. Every day is a unique change to engage and inspire. He understands that education is dynamic. As K.C. Potts says, “Each year, the people I work with change, and it is essential that I get to know the new ones so that I may teach them. […] I ask my students each year: what have you done in school that, if your house happened to be on fire, you would run in to save? And it makes me wonder when they find little worth the risk.”

I have not seen K.C. in person since 1988, but here’s how I know he still cares: when he writes about his assessments, he reveals an ongoing process of discovery. “My assessments over the years have changed. Typical test on a book 1990’s? Three parts: identifications, short answers, an essay. Get it done within the period. Typical test on a book today? None. All papers. Open-ended. Often allow the use of notes, especially at first. Sometimes reveal the questions in advance.[…] The key is this: if given a piece of writing and asked to analyze it, do my students know what to do next? Can they, with a bit of guidance, connect the literal to the inferential using reasons and evidence?”

Under his guidance, we learned how to make these connections, and our reward was the smile he bestowed upon us when he handed our papers back. I still have some of them, and I’m not the sentimental sort. His approval simply meant that much to me – to all of us. His enthusiasm for literature and the art of writing fed our burgeoning love of words. Now that I am a teacher, I have come to understand the reciprocity in that cycle. The enthusiasm and love of a subject that I puts out there in my classroom almost always comes back in some form or another to feed me for another day.

Thanks to my years in his classroom, the love and enthusiasm he instilled in me is now being passed on to my own students. And now that my some of my students have earned their own classrooms, this magical remnant of his teaching persists. I never thought to apply the law of conservation of energy to teaching, but there it is. Two generations after I first encountered it, K.C. Potts’ enthusiasm is still out there, swirling about in the hearts and minds of students in Japan, California, Switzerland, Utah, and rural New Hampshire.

Achievement Gap Mania Fails the “Tiffany Test”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 27th, 2011

The person who has had the greatest influence on my career in education was not a professor, policymaker or a fellow educator. It was an eleven-year-old girl named Tiffany Lopez, a fifth grader in my class during my second year of teaching in the South Bronx.

Walk into any classroom in any struggling urban school and you will spot someone like Tiffany almost immediately. Her eyes are always on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; homework always complete. She grew up hearing every day how important education is. She believes it, and her behavior in class shows it. She does well in school. She gets praise and she gets good grades.

She also gets screwed.

Since she goes to a school where the majority of her classmates read and do math well below grade level, Tiffany is “not your problem,” as one of my administrators pointedly told me early in my teaching career. The message to a new teacher could not have been clearer: focus your efforts on the low achievers. Get them in the game. Tiffany will be fine.

Will she?

I thought of Tiffany Lopez, as I often do, while reading Rick Hess’s essay last week in National Affairs on “Achievement Gap Mania.” Nearly alone among edupundits, Hess has the standing—and frankly, the balls—to call into question the gap-closing orthodoxy, the de facto policy engine driving American education in the era of No Child Left Behind. Our focus on gap closing, Hess writes, “has hardly been an unmitigated blessing.”

“The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.”

Hess couldn’t be more correct or on target. To this day, I worry about whether I was the teacher Tiffany Lopez needed me to be. In my post-classroom work I apply the “Tiffany Test” to any new reform, policy initiative or teaching idea that comes down the pike: will this make it more likely or less likely that kids like Tiffany will get what they need to reach their full academic and life potential? The answer rarely comes back in the affirmative. Indeed, the primary casualty of our achievement gap mania is what Hess describes as “the credo that every child deserves an opportunity to fulfill his potential.”

Blame the teachers? Not this time. Hess cites a 2008 poll, which asked if it’s more important to focus equally on all students or disadvantaged students who are struggling academically. Eighty-six percent of teachers said all students and just 11% said disadvantaged students. “Yet education reformers are doing their very best to counter this healthy democratic impulse — and they have largely succeeded,” Hess observes.

“All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education. Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction.”

Frank C. Worrell of the University of California, Berkeley points out that the focus on bringing up the bottom means “we are not sparking the creativity of those who have the most potential to make outstanding contributions.” Hess is particularly strong on how a gap closing focus coupled with the orthodoxy of differentiated instruction is a double whammy for high-achieving (or potentially high achieving) students. Students like Tiffany Lopez.

“Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers. In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth-grade reading and math scores from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. Loveless found that students who comprised the bottom 10% of achievers saw visible progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math after 2000, but that the performance of students in the top decile barely moved. He concluded, “It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students . . . .Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one.”

Tiffany Lopez had more “grit” at age 11 than the entire graduating class of any KIPP school. There was never a doubt in my mind that she would stay in school and go to college. This month, she began her freshman year at a four-year, in-state, public university in Pennsylvania, where she moved a few years after leaving my classroom. I’ve been waiting for this moment for seven years. I have long feared that at college she will find herself surrounded by students of lesser gifts who, though they lack her aptitude and character, will be better academically prepared. I hope I’m wrong. But if she succeeds, it will not be because of what I and other teachers did for her over the course of her public school education.

It will be in spite of it.

When you have a Tiffany in your class in the age of gap-closing you understand that despite her good grades and rock steady performance on state tests, she is subsisting on starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music. You understand that her finish line—read on grade level; graduate on time—is the starting line for more fortunate children. Tiffany and the numberless, faceless multitude of children like her, represents the low-hanging fruit the typical inner city school leaves drying on the vine. She is–maddeningly, damnably, undemocratically–”not your problem.”

There is a question that has gnawed at me ever since I was Tiffany Lopez’s 5th grade teacher in the South Bronx. If you are committed to equity and social justice, which is the more effective engine of change: giving every child a mediocre, minimum-competency education? Or giving the richest, most robust possible education to the most receptive and motivated? A focused, low-income kid with a superior education is on the time-honored path to upward mobility, virtually guaranteeing her children will not grow up in poverty. The same kid with a bland, good-enough education is prepared merely to march in place.

A false dichotomy. We should do both, of course. But as Hess has amply demonstrated, it’s not working out that way.

Whatever It Takes? Maybe Not.

by Guest Blogger
December 7th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

In November, a principal in Chester, New York, walked into the home of two students who had not shown up for school. He was accompanied by a school psychologist; the two boys, who live with their mother, were alone at home. The father filed a criminal complaint against him; later in the month, the school board voted to suspend him with pay.

Responding to Joanne Jacobs’ post on the incident, Robert Pondiscio observes astutely:

“In Steve Farr’s Teaching as Leadership, he cites with approval the example of teachers who, rather than get frustrated at their inability to reach the parents of students who are having difficulty in school, walk those students home and wait as long as it takes for mom and dad to come home from work. From one perspective this kind of unannounced “home visit” is an example of the “whatever it takes” school of “no excuses” teaching. From another, it’s trespassing.”

I would take Robert’s point one step further. When a teacher (or principal) crosses over into the role of social worker, babysitter, or anything outside of teaching, he or she runs the risk of emotional trespass. Both teacher and student may become confused over their roles. Students may come to expect something unrealistic of the teacher, or vice versa. It is normal for a teacher to comfort or advise a student; this need not lead to any misunderstandings or problems. But entering the students’ personal lives is treacherous, and teachers should guard against it unless there is an established protocol.

There are several reasons for caution. First, when a teacher steps out of role, one never knows how a student perceives this. In the student’s eyes, the teacher may now be a friend or a family member. If the teacher has to let the student down, it can be devastating for both. Or if the gesture is unwanted, there may be trouble. I had a teacher long ago who became chummy with her students, giving them gifts and talking to them about their lives and hers. At one point she realized she had gone too far, and she pulled away. This was hard on the students who had come to depend on her. Another teacher kept trying to get me to talk to her about my feelings; I resented this, as I preferred to choose whether or not to confide in someone. Whether welcome or unwelcome, a teacher’s intrusion in a student’s life can have serious consequences.

Second, a teacher whose responsibilities extend in all directions may not have much time to do anything well. Teachers who make home visits may not know when to stop. The seemingly urgent matters may take priority over the quieter planning. There are genuine emergencies that call for intervention, but it is not good, overall, for a teacher to be rushing to the rescue all the time, or even much of the time. Students may gather that the more crises they bring, the more attention they will get. They can manipulate even without meaning to do so, even with the best of intentions, as can the teacher.

Third, students actually need the teacher to set limits. They need to learn that a teacher can be formal and still care about them. Many live in environments where people demonstrate loyalty and affection through excess and grandiosity: lavish spending, reckless relationships–even fights. Students learn from their surroundings and popular culture that if you “really care” about someone, you will “go all out” for him or her.

A steady, caring, restrained teacher (who doesn’t go overboard and doesn’t pull away) can do them immense and lasting good. The teacher who can hold back a little is likely to stay in the profession longer. This does not mean working less; it means allowing oneself not to be a savior and to give students something valuable nonetheless. That takes a certain kind of humility, which is not lost on the students.

Fourth, teachers are the ones who can point students to something outside of themselves—be it music, literature, mathematics, history, or another subject. These subjects can ultimately help students make sense of their lives. To erode this even slightly, to sacrifice it for the immediate needs of the students, may be to deprive them of the things that can help them over the years. I think of how much I was helped by French, Latin, Greek, literature, math, music, and other subjects. Yes, teachers listened to me when I was going through difficult times, and I am deeply grateful to them for that. But I am also grateful to the ones who kept pointing me to something beyond me. I have forgotten much of the advice teachers gave me, but I remember the poems, essays, novels, and other works they brought to my attention.

There are no absolute rules, of course. Much of this depends on the school’s policies and culture. Some schools may have clear procedures for home visits, homework help, and so forth. In such cases, the roles are clearly understood and protected, or at least they should be. Even so, if a school expects teachers and principals to undertake such work, it should be mindful of the dangers and complications. Schools should recognize the pitfalls of doing “whatever it takes”—as “whatever it takes” may not be the most responsible, the most instructive, or even the most caring action.

Diana Senechal, a former (and possibly future) New York City public school teacher, is writing a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture.


Growing Up Gadgety

by Robert Pondiscio
November 22nd, 2010

Is prolonged, focused attention a 21st Century skill? 

“Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters,” notes the New York Times.  ”But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.”

“Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction,” a major Times thumbsucker, is long enough to challenge the attention span not just of teens but Trappist monks.  But it’s must-reading for educators.  Behind the undeniable lure of technology is a risk that “developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.” 

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” says Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School, the executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The tension, of course, is at the same time researchers are raising red flags about raising children immersed in a digital bath, education is redoubling efforts to increase technology use in the classroom for engagement, customization and efficiency.  The Times makes much of a research study, familiar to readers of this blog, that reading and academic works goes down not up, when computers arrive in the home.

The result is one of those Rorschach tests of an article, virtually guaranteed to confirm your biases  (The world is going to digital hell!  We’ll never engage kids if we don’t embrace technology!).  The most interesting section of the piece is the Times look at current research on ”what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch.” 

The researchers looked at how the use of these media affected the boys’ brainwave patterns while sleeping and their ability to remember their homework in the subsequent days. They found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV, and also led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary words. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Other studies cited by the Times suggest that “periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.”  “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” observes Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” says Dr. Rich, who the Times points out, recently gave a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled, “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”