Tag Archives: Teaching Today

Reading & Reacting: Why Americans Can’t Write

By Natalie Wexler @ The Washington Post

One of my instructional heroes is the late Francis Christiansen, who controversially stated in 1963 that “We do not really teach our captive charges — we merely expect them to,” with regards to teaching composition.

While I humbly submit that those words remain just as true today, I think Wexler’s article misses the mark on a number of counts despite including a couple of salient points. Moreover, while the essential problem remains a challenge, the nature of how we go about teaching student writers and how we assess student writing has changed considerably and not necessarily to the advantage of developing its instruction.

Most importantly, the whole point of view of the article is flawed, as the adage suggests, “You don’t teach writing. You teach student writers.”

If I work sequentially through the article here are some reactions.

First, using NAEP as metric for evidence is extremely problematic. As an assessment it is deeply suspect for more reasons than are warranted in this response. Still, when you open with that as grounds, anyone with a deeper knowledge of education should at the least raise an eyebrow.

Second, Common Core’s attempts to spread writing across the curriculum is not the first attempt to do such a thing, not by a long shot. Additionally, there is nothing to suggest that it will be any more successful than previous attempts. In fact, there is no evidence yet that this attempt is even being executed. Early evidence suggests that the Common Core unnecessarily, and foolishly in my opinion, reduces the number of writing genres students are likely to be asked to write, which may harm more than help improvement of instruction.

Just because something is mandated has never meant it will work.

What’s more, ill-conceived edreform attempts at standardization have increasingly led to more standardized and formulaic writing, which is not generally associated with quality on any level. As has been pointed out, failing to even entertain how high stakes standardized testing has impacted instruction, especially when instructing student writers, is a genuine dereliction.

I would support the claim that many teachers are not specifically trained at teaching writing skill, with some caveats. My anecdotal experience would support that contention but only on the broadest of levels. I cannot count the number of teachers outside of an English department that have actually said aloud, “I don’t teach writing. I am just looking for content.”

However, upon some simple questioning, most of these same teachers reveal a lack of confidence as writers themselves or feel ill-equipped teaching writing skill. Quite a few have even even express a desire to improve, but have a number of other pressures to address too. These phenomenon can be revealed by English teachers too. Unfortunately, there can be a lot more expectation than instruction across levels and specialties.

Still, having spent the last decade associated with the National Writing Project, I have witnessed no shortage of teachers eager to learn how to teach student writers better. While a significant proportion of teachers craving this kind of professional development tend to be English and Language Arts teachers, an ongoing effort is made to appeal to all kinds of teachers no matter the area of expertise. It is the only literacy based Kindergarten through University professional development organization I know and being involved is well worth the time and effort.

I also support the Wexler’s implication that all student writers need to begin learning on the sentence level, first and foremost. However, she does not quite commit, Plus, she follows that point up with comments about five paragraph essays. Even the slightest suggestion that a five paragraph essay is in any way connected to good writing, either as a model, framework, or product is woefully misguided, in my opinion.

I have routinely challenged students to find a five paragraph essay “in the wild” that is not written by another student. No one has ever found one. Now, there is a scant chance that one exists, but methinks it is rarer than condor outside of captivity.

Strangely, even Wexler’s inclusion of Common Core’s demand for “extended writing” negates the premise that five paragraph essays have any purchase in the discussion whatsoever.

Again, high stakes standardized testing can be called into question here too, and Wexler ducks this completely. Writing, especially essay-like writing, is almost always used as a primary assessment of learning on standardized tests. That makes sense in that writing is the coin of the academic realm.

Yet, using writing only as an assessment, of course, trickles down to classroom practice, where students continually face writing as a form of some kind of assessment. Is there any wonder why students would begin to loathe it?

I would even go further and submit that a lot of what student writers are asked to write, in the form of essay assessments of their learning, asks them to ape a level of authority that they neither have nor are likely to successfully imitate. Subsequently, they are then evaluated and criticized for what they have written, often increasing the negative impact.

Finally, Wexler’s proposition “learning to write clearly requires learning to think clearly,” reads nicely on the surface, but it too is terribly simplistic. Often writing is the tool of getting to clear thinking, not simply the product of it. As EM Forster beautifully captured, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Sadly, there is no standardized test much interested in that kind of writing — writing as thinking instead of writing from thinking. Plus, all this reading, writing, and thinking business is awfully murky, recursive, reciprocal, and terribly difficult to parse. It is not always the easiest thing to measure well in a standardized way.

Now that I may have written more than Wexler on the topic, that seems a good enough place to stop.

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Reading & Reacting: Did Comcast partner with Khan Academy just to get new, low-income customers — and then drop the ball? (Perhaps.)


cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by jon mannion

By Ted Bauer @ The Context of Things blog

This recent blogpost highlights some of the many potentially problematic aspects of for-profit corporate interests pairing with educational efforts. It is definitely worth reading with quality source links and embedded videos. The players are Khan Academy and Comcast. While Khan Academy is also a company and not a school, albeit a non-profit, their primary aim is an educational one. Comcast is a communication delivery and content company, among other core businesses.

Yet, here is an example of a corporation that exists to generate profit, partnering with an educational effort, ultimately to expand its pool of customers. If people, again more appropriately labeled customers rather than learners, benefit great, but the basic game is that Comcast increases their customer base, as well as extending their dominance in the marketplace, while possibly gaining some positive PR along the way. In some ways, it is a marketing play for both enterprises.

Here’s the basics: Comcast is using the program to promote a program of its own called Internet Essentials, which basically offers high-speed broadband to low-income families for $9.95/month, along with vouchers for discounted computers. OK. The important thing to know there, though, is that this program isn’t something Comcast did out of the goodness of their heart — rather, the FCC forces cable giants to provide low-cost options to underserved communities. It’s a regulatory requirement. The Internet Essentials program, then, has critics – who speak frequently to the idea that the supposed “high-speed” broadband isn’t high-speed at all. It’s actually about 5 Mbps, which is slower than the most basic package Comcast offers in a lot of U.S. cities. And the other program? You can only get Internet Essentials at the $9.95 rate if your child is in the National School Lunch program (often just referred to as “free or reduced lunch”). If your child drops out of that program for any reason, your Internet bill would shoot up to what anyone pays — probably $50-$70 a month if you didn’t add cable.

In sum, this may be a customer acquisition program in disguise — Comcast gets a new base of customers, then bait-and-switches them into higher prices down the road. Problem for Comcast is, millions of people are theoretically eligible for this program and yet … only about 250K have signed up.

Whether or not Comcast is looking to run a bait-and-switch may or may not come to pass. However, there is no question that higher prices will be in the future of all those customers caught up in their nets. Higher prices over time is a given. Anyone that pays Comcast for services can undoubtedly express with great exasperation how their bill has slowly escalated with increased services and features that are added without request or recourse, other than canceling the services.

Maybe most interesting of all is Bauer’s assertion about potential solutions, although I am not convinced that what he is proposing will happen.

We can fix these problems if the people benefiting the most from the problems directed some — not all by any means — of their resources back to the problems, and did so without an ulterior motive. That’s what it seems like Comcast did here. They have money and could have put some of it towards promoting and marketing the package and locking in the package at $9.95 regardless of the lunch criteria. Instead, no.

First, Comcast benefits from the problem. Of course, they want to expand their customer base. However, they are less interested in making infrastructure investments in areas where the customers are less able to pay their desired prices. It is not good for their bottom line to spend more money than they have to especially where there is less likely to be significant returns, as in poor families.

Second, as bad as it sounds, bait-and-switch strategies are the kinds of near-term tactics that can boost quarterly accounting results, further contributing to ever more economic nearsightedness. Students, in this case Kahn’s learners, are not the primary concern and may very well be afterthoughts, in fact. Moreover, for-profit imperatives seek scale and efficiency, which do not necessarily correlate with how anyone learns. Yet these are the the forces that many would like to invite into public education.

It should be no surprise that any company would be interested in solving any problems from which they benefit. In fact, there is every reason to believe that they will perpetuate them as long as possible.


Image: iPad

posted via haaslearning.tumblr.com
and flipped to Teaching Today

Reading & Reacting: Why America’s Prep Schools Aren’t Following Arne Duncan’s Public School Education Reforms


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by WFIU Public Radio

By Shaun Johnson @ Good

There is a compelling argument that is being made with greater frequency of late regarding the edreform movement, focusing specifically on the divide between public and private schools. What’s more, a significant number of politicians and policymakers send their children, including our President, send their children to elite private schools but have no problem setting the rules for everyone else.

In this commentary, Shaun Johnson make it clear, in stark terms, that there is a reason why there no elite private schools are not rushing to implement Common Core or any of the other nonsensical edreforms.

Prevailing education reform movement in the United States, premised upon market-based solutions, economics, disruption, and similar sounding corporate buzzwords, seeks to standardize curriculum, teaching, and assessment as a method of control.

It is increasingly hard to argue against this claim. When everything is made to be the same, it is always much easier to administer and control. Sameness scales. Johnson goes on to make a bolder claim, one that is also hard to dismiss.

Let me be clear: We are in a battle for public education and we are struggling against those who wish it to be extinct. There is no room for negotiation. If current trends continue, our education system will become entirely vocationalized—perpetuating both class-based and racial apartheid, and teachers will eventually become short-term, at-will employees without the protections available to intellectual professions.

Based on a handful of unfolding situations, namely Wisconsin, New York, and North Carolina, to name only a few it is pretty hard to discount or discredit Johnson’s contention.

Not so long ago, in 2011, the nation witnessed Governor Scot Walker’s attempts in Wisconsin to break essentially break the teacher’s union by removing collective bargaining over pensions, health care, and pay raises. Any thoughts to the contrary need only note how other public unions, like police and fire were exempt. Protests were launched and eventually a recall election had to be held. That attempt should have been the first alarm for the teachers to recognize that their livelihoods were under threat.

Then during last year’s New York state testing debacle the likes of Mayor Bloomberg and others tried to sell the notion that less than 30% of students passing state exams was a good thing, while Governor Cuomo, a proponent of edreformy teacher evaluations,  advocated the “death penalty” for failing schools. The results were even more grim when factored for poor students and students of color. These same politicians took plenty of credit and touted high test scores only a few years before, but the new lower scores are finally about getting tough and becoming accountable. It is hard to reconcile how rejoicing in the failing of children and simultaneously threatening to close schools benefits students in any authentic way.

Most recently, North Carolina passed state laws that eliminated tenure, graduate degree compensation, removed of class size limits, and implemented a voucher program. Not only does this strip away protections it tilts the table against teachers. Plus, teacher turnover in the state has already started spiking. It is hard to believe that that turnover will not continue to rise. Teachers new and lacking tenure are a lot more easy to manipulate and control, not to mention the complexity of a job requiring a fair amount of experience to do truly well.

Still, teachers as a mobilized voice of solidarity have yet to make a major stand and are routinely painted as something akin to greedy villains in media, as the myth of America’s failing schools is perpetuated.

The problem is the public is force-fed these ideas of standardized curriculum, teaching, and assessment as the best tactics education science has to offer. They tell us that this is how we must educate our children. Wait, whose children are we talking about? Not the kids at Trinity School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—41 percent are in that Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline—or Philips Exeter in New Hampshire, which educated Mark Zuckerberg.

Again, standardization of standards and curriculum is about efficiency, cost, and control. Efforts to control, like power, tend to be a little more surreptitious. Yet, anyone need only read about the creation of the Common Core to see words like efficiency and cost being bandied about by the proponents and creators, something Johnson adroitly suggests making more when talking about automobiles and not children.

On some fundamental level, do we want standardized children? That very suggestion seems so un-American, considering how much we celebrate a culture of the individual?

The best of the private schools recognize the individual child in ways that most public schools are simply not allowed to do. They do not need to scale. In fact, that smaller community and class size is one of their primary offerings, think Harkness table. Why is it that what is good enough for the students in Exeter, New Hampshire is not good enough for the students in El Paso, Texas, of anywhere else for that matter?

What I often wonder is why don’t more teachers, parents, and others demand the same opportunities, benefits, and personal interest taken in a student’s education offered by the elite private schools like Exeter or even Sidwell Friends, where the Obama want their children going to school?


Image: iPad

posted via haaslearning.tumblr.com
and flipped to Teaching Today