The Concord Review Hits the Blogosphere

by Robert Pondiscio
January 6th, 2010

Speaking of new blogs, Will Fitzhugh, the legendary editor and proprietor The Concord Review is now blogging.  Stop by and wish him well.  TCR as you may know (or if you don’t you should) is the only place on God’s green Earth where outstanding high school students can publish essays on history–nearly 900 of them in 22 years.  Fitzhugh is a resistance fighter in the insurgency against the dumbing down of curriculum and bad writing.  His debut post bemoans the reduction of student writing to a simplistic process.

When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.

And one more blog that recently crossed my radar screen: the wonderfully titled Better Living Through Beowulf, which is dedicated to exploring “how great literature can change your life.”  English professor Robin Bates is the blogger.  Beautiful design, too.  Check out this post on how the argument over the Indianapolis Colts benching their starters after clinching the playoffs, despite a 14-0 record, is really a debate between romanticism and classicism:

Romantics live for the moment, celebrate individual glory, and go for the grand gesture.  Classics are practical, they subordinate the individual, and they keep their eye on the final trophy.  Romantics wanted perfection, classics could live with the Colts’ decision. 

The romantics’ credo, Bates observes, is famously captured in a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

I burn my candle at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah my foes and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.

Great stuff.  Put ‘em both in your blog reader. 



People, Some, With Words Have a Way

by Robert Pondiscio
August 25th, 2009

Law professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish describes becoming alarmed about the inability of his students to write a clean sentence–even those who were instructors in his college’s composition program.  What was going on?

I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.

Unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, Fish writes.  Colleges, however, aren’t the culprit. The damage is done long before.  If he were to look in elementary schools, Fish might find the same issue, writ small.  Writing instruction–especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically. 

A commenter on Fish’s blog who works for a testing company describes his amazement ”that a ‘writing’ test often is scored without regard for punctuation, sentence composition or spelling. The instructions provided by the state for scoring these essays makes it clear that these factors should be disregarded.” 

Translation:  The war is over.  The bad guys won.

Poor Speller? Blame Your G-E-N-E-S

by Robert Pondiscio
October 28th, 2008

Some people have a way with words.  Othurs not weigh haf.  According to the Times of London, it could just be your genes. 

In the past, poor spelling was attributed to all manner of things, from bad schooling to a lack of moral fibre. But science is offering a new explanation. A difficulty with spelling could be rooted in your genes and in the way that your brain is wired. These findings stem from research into the language disorder dyslexia, but they are proving important for the wider population. Biology, it seems, not only influences those with dyslexia but also people without the syndrome. If you are a bad speller you can blame your grey matter.

Simply deciphering the written word is the most complex task your brain will face says John Stein, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University Medical School, who notes that written language is a relatively recent invention.  “It was invented only 5,000 years ago, notes Stein.  “It is piggybacked on to our linguistic ability, which was invented 30,000-40,000 years ago.  The consequence is that many people fail to read or spell.”

Text, Yes, But Is It Reading?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 28th, 2008

Are the hours kids and teenagers spend prowling the Web a threat to literacy?  Or is it simply a new form of reading and writing?  A sprawling New York Times thumbsucker notes that “as teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.”

Clearly when kids go online instead of turning on the TV, they read and write instead of passively consuming video.  But critics of reading on the Internet say they see no evidence that increased Web activity improves reading achievement. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,”  Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., tells the Times.  “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”

“Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode,” adds Ken Pugh, a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale who has studied brain scans of children reading.

According to the paper, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers reading, math and science tests to a sample of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries, will add an electronic reading component to next year’s tests. The United States, among other countries, will not participate. “A spokeswoman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, said an additional test would overburden schools,” the Times notes.

The Unlived Life Is Not Worth Examining

by Robert Pondiscio
July 21st, 2008

Why do colleges insist on personal essays with applications?  Could changing the requirement create better prepared students?

The Associated Press ran a piece about college admissions essays over the weekend and the sturm und drang associated with them.  Since the die is already cast on SAT scores and grades, the essay gets a disproportionate amount of attention from students and families, the AP notes, spawning a veritable industry with books and counseling and editing services.

Does it matter?  “Applicants and their families have somewhat of a belief in the redemptive value of the essay,” Barmak Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers said. “It’s an urban myth that a student who has goofed off his whole academic career can get in with a come-from-behind epic struggle in which the essay serves as the primary tool. It’s not a substitute for a rigorous curriculum, good grades and evidence that you’re going to do well,” he said.

What if applicants were asked to write or submit a research paper instead?  Which is more predictive of college success, past academic work, or a personal essay, where students labor to make themselves seem well-rounded, fascinating and irresistible to schools?

Dropping personal essays could have an interesting trickle-down effect as far down as elementary schools.  The “curriculum” in my elementary school (the tedious and content-free Teacher’s College Writer’s Workshop), forces children as young as third grade to grind out endless personal essays, “small moment” stories and memoirs (!) designed to plumb the depths of their eight-year old souls.  But it seldom, if ever, called for kids to write anything approaching a simple five-paragraph expository essay, let alone a research paper.  That might change if doing so became a requirement for college admissions. 

Last year’s common application, used by scores of colleges and universities around the country, asked students to discuss an issue of personal concern, a person, fictional character or historic figure who influenced them, a life experience or a topic of their choice, the AP notes.  At the risk of sounding churlish, the unlived life is not worth examining.  Rather than require 17 year old to unburden themselves of their life experiences, how about three pieces of actual academic work, graded by the student’s high school teachers?

Teaching to the Tex

by Robert Pondiscio
July 21st, 2008

A section of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) is coming under scrutiny.  Even Texas’ best students struggle with a section of the test that asks students to express themselves and back up their claims with evidence, revealing either faulty tests or preparation.

Three short-response questions require students to stretch their brains by generating clear, reasonable ideas from a reading selection, the Dallas Morning News reports.  Then they must support those ideas with evidence from the text in a well-written response.  ”Students are passing the ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade language arts TAKS at higher rates than ever, the paper notes. “Some even post near-perfect passing rates. But on the short-response portion, fewer than half of North Texas students pass.”

Texas Education Agency officials say the short-response questions provide a better window into how well students can think, communicate and write.  ”This paints a much different picture for teachers and parents than the multiple-choice test,” Victoria Young, a testing official with TEA tells the paper. “You’re finding out two very different things about kids.”  Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association said curriculum doesn’t have the depth it used to because teachers are pulled in so many different directions by the TAKS demands.

Here’s the scoring rubric for the short-answer reading section of the test.  Seems a reasonable set of tasks for high school students.

Punctuation? Capitals? W/E.

by Robert Pondiscio
April 25th, 2008

The informal style of e-mails and text messages is seeping into teenagers’ schoolwork, according to a study cited in this morning’s New York Times.

“Two-thirds of 700 students surveyed said their e-communication style sometimes bled into school assignments, according to the study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing,” notes the paper. “About half said they sometimes omitted proper punctuation and capitalization in schoolwork. A quarter said they had used emoticons like smiley faces. About a third said they had used text shortcuts like “LOL” for “laugh out loud.”

“I think this is not a worrying issue at all,” said Richard Sterling, emeritus executive director of the National Writing Project, which aims to improve the teaching of writing, who opines that texting style, like slang, offers a teachable moment on what’s acceptable in academic writing. He also noted that some e-mail conventions, like starting sentences without a capital letter, may well become accepted practice.”

No more capital letters? A writing professor really said that? WTF!!! (For those of you who are not IM savvy, that stands for “Welcome to Finland.”)

Come to the Rug, Writers!

by Robert Pondiscio
February 7th, 2008

New York Daily NewsSome people have a way with words. Others not way have. New York City’s Department of Ed will be looking for more of the former, according to the NY Daily News, which reports prospective teachers will have to write an essay to get a job.

The paper doesn’t mention it, but presumably would-be teachers will be required to “turn and talk” with their writing partners, and write seed ideas on Post-it notes before beginning their essays. Screeners will undoubtedly be obliged to hold mini-conferences with prospective teachers and give each applicant a compliment, before discussing strategies for drafting. Presumably, teachers will also have to sit on a rug to write their essays, since we know that it is impossible to write unless one is on a rug.

Off you go!!