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.

 

“No Younger People Need Apply”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 27th, 2012

The following help wanted ad appears on Craigslist in Portland, Oregon.

Editor needed…over 70 yrs. old (NOT an EMPLOYEE)


Date: 2012-11-11, 9:39AM PST
qqqrc-3402235700@job.craigslist.org[Errors when replying to ads?]


EDITOR NEEDED FOR LARGE NUMBER OF SHORT STORIES: Must be 70 years old (or older if adequately lucid) THIS IS NOT AN AD FOR AN “EMPLOYEE OR A CONTRACTOR” – AND…NO YOUNGER PEOPLE NEED APPLY! “Why? Simply because I advertised before, received 117 responses. . .and NONE were sufficiently conversant with the English language to achieve an acceptable level of editing. It appears that a preponderance of younger people have not been taught correct grammar and satisfactory writing skills. I have absolutely no interest in going through that exercise again. ENOUGH SAID!…And spare me your castigating comments! It is a waste of your time and mine.

(via jimromanesko.com)

Teaching to CCSS: Making Bricks Without Straw?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 17th, 2012

The following post originally appeared on Schoolbook, the education blog of WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.  It appears here with the permission of the author.  – rp

Bricks Without Straw
By Matthew Levey

A decade into the education reform movement in New York, we have doubled our school budget to $24 billion. We’ve focused on teacher quality, and how to measure it. We’ve created many new, often smaller, schools.  Unfortunately our students’ scores on the key tests like the SAT and NAEP haven’t budged.

Frustrated reformers have pinned their hopes on new Common Core State Standards (CCSS ) that make explicit what a college-ready student should be able to do in math, reading and writing. The CCSS say content matters, but the authors didn’t dictate which content to teach or how to deliver it.

Under CCSS, third graders “develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions” but the CCSS do not say how. Eighth graders should be able to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” but the CCSS don’t pick the topic.

How we implement the CCSS will determine whether we improve student outcomes or not.. What I have observed so far, as a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher, suggests our approach to implementing the CCSS is not off to a great start. In selecting content and teaching children how to respond thoughtfully to it, we seem to think whatever we were doing before was good enough to meet the new standards.  Our schools, and our teachers, need to invest meaningfully in training and curriculum redesign; on the front lines that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where’s the Content?

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to the CCSS. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg?  Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king children don’t seem to be getting enough.

When my 5th grader’s teacher told us about the social studies curriculum, she practically apologized that she had to teach about government for two months, “because the kids find it boring.” The good news, she said, was that she too was learning a lot about the topic as she prepared her lessons. When a parent asked whether the current election campaign would be incorporated into the unit, the teacher said, “Oh that’s a good idea, maybe we could have them make ads for a candidate.”

Structure Matters too

Getting the content right is just part of the challenge.  Our children also need much more explicit instruction in how to put that content in context.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.  Like a true New York City resident, she didn’t feel the 2nd amendment made a lot of sense, but it was hard to say why.

Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled.  He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that  “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Following her advice I pushed my son to think about using words like “although,” “unless” and ‘if” to build more complex thoughts. After a few hours of work, he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t they teach this in my school?”

In Exodus, when the Israelites asked to leave Egypt, Pharaoh forced them to make the same quantity of bricks, but without straw.  This ancient story has become a metaphor for an absurdly hard task.

Parents rightly expect our schools will improve if we use higher standards. But to do so, district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered. Repurposing our existing approach and declaring it ‘new and improved’ simply will not do. It’s like asking schools to make bricks without straw, and that’s a recipe for trouble.  Just ask the Pharaoh.

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of Bright Track, an educational advisory service, and a former Community Education Council president.

“Opinion Is to Knowledge as Dessert Is to Vegetables”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 16th, 2012

As a society, writes Liel Leibovitz, we have “rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions” both as readers and writers.  His essay in the online magazine Tablet offers a noisy defense of a common literary canon.  Unless we commit to being serious readers, Leibovitz argues, we might as well just stop reading at all.

“If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.

“But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.”

The devaluation of knowledge in schools and lack of a common canon has created a culture of “poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings,” argues Leibovitz, whose most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ideals of Divine Election, co-written with Todd Gitlin.  He is particularly scornful of the current vogue for memoirs. If you’re Winston Churchill and you won World War II and the Nobel Prize for Literature, then by all means write your memoirs. “Heck, make that two,” Leibovitz quips. “But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about.”

Leibovitz acknowledges that his own opinions “might send many readers into fits of modern indignation.” Why not read for pleasure and share your points of view with a waiting world?  “The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least,” he concludes.  “Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

A Little More Text, A Little Less Self

by Robert Pondiscio
December 19th, 2011

When studying a story or an essay, is it possible to be too concerned with what the author is saying? In an opinion piece in Education Week, Maja Wilson and Thomas Newkirk complain the publisher’s criteria for Common Core State Standards are overly “text dependent,” discouraging students from bringing their own knowledge and opinions to bear on their reading.

Wilson, a former high school English teacher, and Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor applaud the guidelines’ “focus on deep sustained reading—and rereading.” However they pronounce themselves “distressed” by the insistence that students should focus on the “text itself.”

“There is a distrust of reader response in this view; while the personal connections and judgments of the reader may enter in later, they should do so only after students demonstrate ‘a clear understanding of what they read.’ Publishers are enjoined to pose ‘text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text … and do not require information or evidence from outside the text or texts.’ In case there is any question about how much focus on the text is enough, ‘80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

Consider me undistressed. If this means less reliance on the creaky crutch that is “reader response” in ELA classrooms, then I’m very nearly overjoyed.

The very worst that can be said about an over-reliance on text-dependent questions is that it’s an overdue market correction. As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. The skill, common to most state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth and comprehension.

Indeed, educator, author and occasional Core Knowledge Blog contributor Katharine Beals points out in a response to the piece that Wilson and Newkirk have it precisely backwards: research from cognitive science suggests that making external associations during reading can actually worsen comprehension. She cites a paper by Courtenay Frazier Norbury and Dorothy Bishop which found that “poor readers drew inferences that were distorted by associations from their personal lives. For example, when asked, in reference to a scene at the seashore with a clock on a pier, ‘Where is the clock?’ many children replied, ‘In her bedroom.’”

“Norbury and Bishop propose that these errors may arise when the child fails to suppress stereotypical information about clock locations based on his/her own experience. As Norbury and Bishop explain it: ‘As we listen to a story, we are constantly making associations beween what we hear and our experiences in the world. When we hear “clock,” representations of different clocks may be activated, including alarm clocks. If the irrelevant representation is not quickly suppressed, individuals may not take in the information presented in the story about the clock being on the pier. They would therefore not update the mental representation of the story to include references to the seaside which would in turn lead to further comprehension errors.’

Struggling readers in particular would benefit from a lot more text and a lot less self. As Beals explains, “Text-to-self connections, in other words, may be the default reading mode (emphasis mine) and not something that needs to be taught. What needs to be taught instead, at least where poor readers are concerned, is how not to make text-to-self connections.”

Wilson and Newkirk illustrate their concern about over-reliance on text by describing their preferred way of teaching Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

“Before assigning the essay, we would have students log their media use for a day (texts, emails, video games, TV, reading, surfing the Internet) and share this 24-hour profile with classmates. We might ask students to free-write and perhaps debate the question: “What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this pattern of media use?” This ‘gateway’ activity would prepare students to think about Carr’s argument. As they read, they’d be mentally comparing their own position with Carr’s. Surely, we want them to understand Carr’s argument, but we’d help them do that by making use of their experiences and opinions.”

It’s critical to understand that this approach to teaching Carr’s essay would not be verboten under CCSS publishing guidelines, which have nothing whatsoever to say about teaching methods. In fact, there’s much to recommend Wilson and Newkirk’s approach. But the test of whether the students understand Carr’s line of argument has nothing to do with the “gateway” activity, which serves mostly as an engaging hook to draw students into Carr’s thesis. Students cannot be said to have understood the piece—or any piece—of writing without the ability to show internal evidence.

Thus if publishers are “enjoined to pose text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text” that is at heart not a teaching question–it’s an assessment question that probes whether or not the student understands the text.

All those connections—to our own experience, to other works of literature, make the study of literature thrilling and rewarding. But for those connections to be deep and meaningful requires more than just the superficial, paper-thin connections that too often pass for “personal response.”

What often gets lost in our rush to engage young readers and make their reading personally relevant is the simple fact that text has communicative value. When someone commits words to print, they mean to communicate facts, ideas, imagery or opinions. They should expect, if they’ve done their job well, to be understood. Might the reader have a response? Let’s hope so. But unless they have understood the author’s words and intent clearly, any response they make is less than satisfying and may not be particularly relevant as a “response.”

The bottom line: Demonstrating comprehension based on what a text says is not a problem. It’s a baseline skill for any literate human being.

How to Change Reading and Writing by Sundown

by Robert Pondiscio
November 2nd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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