Play-Doh’s Cave

by Robert Pondiscio
April 18th, 2010

Second graders at a Massachusetts charter school engage in “philosophical debate” several times a month.  “There is no mention of Hegel or Descartes, no study of syllogism or solipsism,” reports the New York Times. ”Instead, Prof. Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from nearby Mount Holyoke College use classic children’s books to raise philosophical questions, which the young students then dissect with the vigor of the ancient Greeks.”

One afternoon this winter, the students in Christina Runquist’s classroom read Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” about a tree that surrenders its shade, fruit, branches and finally its trunk to a boy it has befriended. The college students led the discussion that followed — on environmental ethics, or “how we should treat natural objects,” as Professor Wartenberg puts it — with a series of questions, starting with whether the boy was wrong to take so much from the tree.

Frog and Toad Together prompts students to “examine the nature of courage”;  Morris the Moose, says the Times, leads the 8-year olds to “consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence,” while Peter Catalanotto’s Emily’s Art, encourages a debate about whether there are objective standards for evaluating works of art.

The students featured in the article “fit philosophy in between writing and science….deciding whether or not they agreed with each question; thinking about why or why not; explaining why or why not; and respecting what their classmates said,” notes the Times.   Reporter Abby Goodnough writes that public schools “have been slow to embrace philosophy for children” because “many school officials either find the subject too intimidating or believe it does not fit with the test-driven culture of public education these days.”

I’m not sure I agree.  What the Times and Professor Wartenberg are calling “philosophical debate” sounds to me no different than the kind of rich, thoughtful book discussions that good teachers have always done.  I Kant see the difference.


by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2009

The New York Times today has a big piece about New York City hedge fund guys and their involvement in charter schools….and, er….wait a minute… the Sunday Styles section??!?  Sample quote:

Hedge fund managers may be better known for eight-figure incomes with which they scoop up the choicest Manhattan penthouses and Greenwich, Conn., waterfront estates. But they also dominate the boards of many of the city’s charters schools and support organizations.

“If you’re at a hedge fund, this is definitely the hot cause,” DFER’s Joe Williams tells the Times.  “These are the kind of guys who a decade ago would have been spending their time angling to get on the junior board of the Met, the ballet.”

It says something that this piece is in the part of paper famously dubbed the “Ladies’ Sports Section,” right next to the wedding announcements and mint julep recipes.  I’m not sure what, exactly, but it says something.

[H/T Andres Henriquez on Twitter]

No, It’s Not

by Robert Pondiscio
October 13th, 2009

“Some school administrators argue that it is difficult to distinguish innocent pranks and mistakes from more serious threats, and that the policies must be strict to protect students.”

From a New York Times article  a six-year-old boy who suspended from school for 45 days after bringing “a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school.”   He was reportedly excited about joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to use it to eat lunch.  However the utensil violated the school district’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons and the 1st grader “faces 45 days in the district’s reform school,” the paper reports.

A commenter on the Times message board nails it:  “A little common sense would go a long ways in this life. What would be wrong with telling him that’s nice, you’ll keep it in your desk and your Mom can come pick it up, and don’t bring it again.” 

Gee, ya think?

New York Times Discovers Reader’s Workshop

by Robert Pondiscio
August 29th, 2009

When America’s paper of record discovers a “trend” that is literally decades old and presents it as cutting edge, it makes you wonder about the articles in the paper you don’t know anything about.  But there’s the New York Times, and a series on “The Future of Reading,” gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the spectacle of classroom teachers letting students choose their own books to read!

The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on.

No one seems to have mentioned to the Times that this is more or less standard practice, for good or for ill, and has been for a decade or more.  Here’s a dead giveaway: search “reading workshop” on Google and you get 241,000 hits.

May I suggest to the editors of the Times that they assign an investigative team to a few other ideas that are “catching on.”  I understand there’s a new sport that involves driving cars very quickly that a lot of people seem interested in called “NASCAR” or some such.   And although I haven’t seen it myself (I don’t own a TV, you see), I also keep hearing about this something called “reality TV” that’s apparently becoming quite popular.   You can even read about it on your computer over something called the Internets, or some such.   Have you heard of it?

Update:  “Progressive schools let kids pick their own books in the 1920s and 1930s. Now it is supposed to be a major innovation. Ha!” tweets Diane Ravitch, who is quoted in the piece.  The paper “applauds the death of any version of a common culture.”  Just desserts of the NY Times,” she adds.  “By encouraging the death of reading, they doom the NY Times.”

Eich bin ein Reformer

by Robert Pondiscio
December 12th, 2008

Tired of being a pinata, Linda Darling Hammond takes to the New York Times this morning to defend herself from David Brooks’ charge that she is “anti-reform.”  Says Obama’s point person on education:

Since I entered teaching, I have fought to change the status quo that routinely delivers dysfunctional schools and low-quality teaching to students of color in low-income communities. I have challenged inequalities in financing. I have helped develop new school models through both district-led innovations and charters. And I have worked to create higher standards for both students and teachers, along with assessments that measure critical thinking and performance.

Isn’t ”if you’re explaining you’re losing” a cardinal rule of politics?  The subtext of her letter is really more about who gets to claim the mantle of “reformer.”  The Los Angeles Times (HT: Flypaper) notes LDH’s well-publicized criticism of Teach For America ”give us little confidence that she would support innovative approaches to education.”  The paper isn’t giving blanket support to the self-described reform camp, however, noting that while it would be a shame for the reform movement to lose momentum, ”reformers must be open to how badly No Child Left Behind itself needs reform.”

“After years of public battering, schools need a leader who is less an ideologue than a pragmatist,” the Times concludes, “who puts children ahead of both union and political priorities.”

21st Century Cliches

by Robert Pondiscio
August 24th, 2008

Does giving a kid an iPod mean you are teaching “21st century skills?”

A Chapel Hill, North Carolina middle school may become the first in the country to give an iPod to every teacher and student, “an experiment that would challenge teachers and administrators to ensure the hand-held devices are used as learning tools, not toys,” reports the News & Observer.  The school’s principal defends the iPod plan with a phrase that is rapidly becoming an education cliche:  “[Our teachers] state their commitment to teach 21st-century skills, because technology is the future for students and teachers.”

Reporter Matt Dees injects a healthy note of skepticism in his piece, noting “it’s still not clear how the iPod Touches would be used at Culbreth Middle School. And school officials know that students may use the iPod Touches more to download the new Jonas Brothers single than to tap the riches of human knowledge.” Dees quotes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, who comments, “There has been a tendency to use technology as a substitute for curriculum.”

Technique and how-to ideas have taken the place of deciding what it is, exactly, we want these children to learn, says Hirsch. But I have nothing against the technology if it’s in the service of grown-ups facing their responsibilities to decide what the students need to know precisely. If they did that, these technical gadgets will be valuable.

I’ve been hearing the phrase a lot, so I ask the question in earnest: What exactly does it mean to ”teach 21st century skills”?  Is learning to play an instrument a 21st century skill because you use an iPod?  Is writing a research paper a 21st century skill just because you use Google?  I’m hard-pressed to think of a single use of the phrase that didn’t conflate the tool and the task.   

In a New York Times piece last week, Steve Lohr noted the technology is starting to “turn the corner” in schools, and offered an example of how it can transform learning.  “The emphasis can shift to project-based learning, a real break with the textbook-and-lecture model of education. In a high school class, a project might begin with a hypothetical letter from the White House that says oil prices are spiking, the economy is faltering and the president’s poll numbers are falling. The assignment would be to devise a new energy policy in two weeks,” Lohr wrote.  But as Joanne Jacobs noted, there’s nothing new about project learning.  I would add that neither is working collaboratively intrinsically “21st century.”

Critical thinking? Problem solving? As old as banging rocks together to make fire.  Working collaboratively?  You mean, like hunting in groups to bring down a antelope?  I’m no Luddite, and I’m all for using technology in the service of learning.  But what are these uniquely “21st century skills?”  Are there any?

Making a Mockery of Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
August 12th, 2008

The drumbeat for national curriculum, standards and assessments gets a little bit louder today with a strongly worded New York Times editorial.

Congress has several concerns as it moves toward reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Whatever else they do, lawmakers need to strengthen the requirement that states document student performance in yearly tests in exchange for federal aid.  The states have made a mockery of that provision, using weak tests, setting passing scores low or rewriting tests from year to year, making it impossible to compare progress — or its absence — over time.

“The country will have difficulty moving ahead educationally until that changes,” opines the Times, noting that complete lack of a relationship between states that report strong performances on their own tests and performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The Times concludes:

Congress needs to take the testing issue head-on. It should instruct the NAEP board, an independent body created by the government, to create a rigorous test that would be given free to states that agreed to use NAEP scoring standards. Then the federal government could actually embarrass the laggard states by naming the ones that cling to weak tests. Without rigorous and consistent testing, there is no way to know whether our children are getting the education they deserve and need.

Sounds an awful lot like what Diane Ravitch was talking about last week.