Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Social Studies"

This article calling for the abolition of Social Studies classes is fascinating for multiple reasons.

On the one hand I have a deep suspicion of anything approaching "character education" in our public schools, though mostly due to a fear that such programs would be successful at instilling the driving systems of belief and the the touchstones of American culture into students. I mean, first off, what could be worse than that? And besides that, don't we already have television?

Despite the tone of Beran's article, this is not just a paranoid fever-dream of an ultra-conservative faced with the inevitable breakdown of white-supremacist culture. This is also a real question facing schools.

How much of grades address what students know and can do? How much of grades reflect character traits such as hard work and punctuality? How do we measure those traits? Should we measure those traits? Do schools--already shouldering the vast majority of what were once considered parental responsibilities--have a responsibility to teach students to be decent people? And who precisely decides what that means?

Mostly, Beran's article is a beautiful illustration of two important ideas:

One: Elementary education has to be a political high-wire act, for the basic values that are needed for a classroom to even function (e.g. sharing, community, cooperation) can be seen as emblematic of a whole left-wing conspiracy to undermine American values. And honestly, they do. Beran's cult of the individual is shaken at its foundations when we talk about community.

Two: Education is always political. The wish for an unbiased, apolitical pedagogy is itself a political stance, and probably a dangerous one.

In the end, I wish Beran well, knowing that he needn't wory too much. In reality, there's nothing more inherently conserative than public education. He's fighting a battle he's already one.

Monday, January 28, 2013

E.D. Hirsch and the power of vocabulary

E.D. Hirsch continues to earn his role as my own personal bĂȘte noir in his latest article about vocabulary acquisition.

In it, Hirsch continues to sound the clarion call of his own desperate anxieties regarding anything which strays from the most basic, banking-method of education (read: anything that can't be packaged into books that can be sold to overbearing parents at a healthy profit). So dedicated is Hirsch to the idea of rote learning and purely quantitative education that he actually singles out "Finding the main idea" as some abhorrent new-agey fad that "usurp[s] students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself."

Nope, no reflective thinking allowed.

So, mostly, I shake my head and chuckle at Hirsch's ongoing public airing of his own insecurities.

But this article caught my eye as it focuses on something that we can actually agree on: the importance of vocabulary acquisition as both a measure of and a tool for education.

Not surprisingly, I disagree with almost every point he makes about how to deal with the issue, but let's look to the problem itself first:

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Let's grant the premise that vocabulary is a pretty accurate measure of content knowledge and is a great aid in further learning. Where Hirsch seems to go off the rails is in that last sentence: why should this be a language arts issue?

The answer of course is because if we make vocabulary acquisition our goal, then what is needed is a clearly sequenced curriculum whose purpose is to deliver important, content-specific vocabulary in such a way to work it into long-term memory.

However, if we reject the premise that vocabulary is the goal of education (as anyone who would like to ponder the question for half a moment will do), this methodology appears dreadfully wrong-headed. What needs to happen is that ongoing reading instruction should be embedded in the content area classrooms. Rather than teaching a three week science unit in English class to focus on vocabulary, students in science class should be reading and utilizing content-specific vocabulary in its appropriate context. This seems to me so obvious as to be almost not worth saying, but apparently I'm wrong. I am continually left to wonder if Hirsch's tortured logic is crassly intentional or sadly, desperately genuine.

What Hirsch continually fails to grasp is the reflexive nature between content and skills, knowing and thinking. In his throw-out-the-baby-the-the-bathwater reaction to progressive education, he's put himself in the unenviable position of disdaining critical thought itself.

Hirsch is clearly correct that there have been errors of methodology in American Education, and many of those errors are being remedied (albeit slowly). The idea that memorization by rote is an absolute evil is an idea that has had its day, but I would argue that it hasn't fallen into disrepute because of the failing of the middle class. Rather, it has fallen away because teachers and administrators have come to recognize that basic content knowledge, while far from the goal of any real education, is a necessary prerequisite to doing the work that makes up education.

Hirsch's praise of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is right on track, but he is willfully blind to the higher level thinking skills that are everywhere weaved into the CCSS (including an entire standard about identifying the main idea in an informational text), skills that require a firm grasp of content, vocabulary, etc., in order to ask students to do more with the content.

So, how do we fix the vocabulary gap? Hirsch proposes three solutions: "better preschools, run along the French lines; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool."

While the idea of highly academic preschools makes me queasy, it is the best of his three solutions as it focuses on what is most important: the early development of reading habits and relationships to language.

What do more economically well-off students receive that really makes the difference? They are much more likely to have been read to as babies, toddlers, and children. This is the result of a whole constellation of factors, not least of which being that poor parents tend to have significantly less time to spend, working multiple jobs to pay their bills. Add to that the cycle of poverty, and we have large percentages of students being raised by parents who do not even recognize that reading to children is something that is done.

Therefore, I would label this as an economic problem. But even in terms of a pedagogical approach to solving the problem, the idea of a uniform vocabulary acquisition program aimed at two year olds is ridiculous. What we need are children who are read to, who learn to experience and love text. I sincerely wish there was more room in Hirsch's thinking for the joy of reading and learning, and his preschool recommendation seems anathema to such joy.

If we want students to be better thinkers, better scholars, and better citizens, then they must have ample opportunity to think critically about a whole range of issues. It is impossible to do so without a certain level of knowledge, and an important part of that knowledge is vocabulary. When I teach parts of speech to my 7th graders (there's an example of "how-to" education gone wrong) I am always careful to emphasize that the purpose of working so hard to identify subjects and predicates is not that it will make them smarter people or even better writers, but so that we can all share a common vocabulary. That way, when I say, there's no subject, so that's a fragment, students understand what that means, and then we can work on making better sentences.

That thought process, which Hirsch sneers at, is becoming more prevalent, not less. Under the moniker of "Twenty-First Century Learning" we have a recognition that there is simply too much information, and that it changes too quickly. Therefore, we must focus on what is essential to help all students navigate a world that no longer has a use for Hirsch's canonical lists of cultural touchstones. Vocabulary will continue to be one of those essentials, as it allows us to manipulate ideas, attack complex problems, and work cooperatively with others, all of which make up the true essence of education.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Schools as Tools of Political Leverage

 Consider THIS story, about the Wyoming legislature's proposed bill to allow Bible as literature classes in Wyoming public schools.

Opponents say that the bill is useless because such classes are already allowed and the Supreme Court has explicitly allowed them.

The bill's sponsors don't even deny these criticisms. They claim that the bill is designed to help "reassure" schools and "raise awareness." In other words, the bill is nothing but fluff, a way of demonstrating something (though what that something is, precisely, is a bit of a mystery) about the separation of church and state.

What's clear is that in this case the House Education Committee is absolutely unconcerned with issues of education, instead choosing to use their power to maneuver schools into their own ideaological battles.

Well, done, ladies and gentlemen. Well done.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

How Can We Serve?

"Commitment to teaching well is a commitment to service. Teachers who do the best work are always willing to serve the needs of their students. In an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture, service is devalued. Dominator culture pointedly degrades service as a way of maintaining subordination. Those who serve tend to be regarded as unworthy and inferior. No wonder then that there is little positive discussion of the teacher's commitment to serve."

    ---bell hooks, "How Can We Serve," Teaching Community. Routledge, New York and London, 2003.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Josh's Big Three

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with a friend who found herself suddenly thrust into a teaching position. She has lots of education and an abundance of intelligence, compassion, and drive, but no teacher training.

I told her that would be fine.

Very little of what I received in my Education courses prepared me for the realities of classroom teaching anyway, and the things that really matter can be boiled down to a handful of philosophies and practices. So, the poor thing found herself subject to a crash course of my design, focused on what I consider the bare essentials for classroom teaching.

Needless to say, as a teacher, I appreciated the chance to reflect on these questions for my own selfish reasons. And as long as I was thinking and talking about it, I figured I may as well write about it.

So, I present to you my three essential understandings for classroom teachers. I warn you, they will not be esoteric, political, or inspirational, but will instead be terribly, perhaps dully, practical.

1. The PLC Model's Essential Questions

This is a bit of a trojan horse, carrying multiple ideas in with it, and I'm going to bastardize it here as I divorce it from it's collaborative context, but they're important enough questions that I'm doing it anyway.
  1. What do students need to know and/or understand? (Standards/Benchmarks)
  2. How will I know when they've got it? (Assessment)
  3. What will I do to aid students who don't get it? (Interventions)
  4. What will I do to enhance the learning of students who do get it? (Enrichments)
This boils down almost the entire educational practice into four questions, but it's remarkable to consider how many of these questions are never really considered in planning. Teachers, egged on by a lot of shallow education classes, tend to focus on developing exciting instruction. "Everyone come up with a new and kinesthetic way to teach the parts of speech!" Therefore, the most important question for novice teachers is usually, "What's a cool way to teach that?"

While this is obviously an integral part of teaching, many teachers suffer from a cart-before-the-horse misunderstanding of its place in planning. The worst thing we can do is to spend valuable class time on something because we have a really cool way to teach it.

At its heart this is the Understanding by Design (UbD) model, otherwise known as Backward Planning. It's the model that turns the whole "Teaching to the Test" from a pejorative into a powerful teaching tool. "Teaching to the Test" is only bad when your test is bad. As many teachers find themselves teaching to sub-standard state or national standardized tests, it's easy to see this as an evil.

But when we think about it, what else should we be teaching to? If we start with what they need to know, and we design assessments that accurately measure if they know it, what else would we possibly want to teach to if not that assessment?

Once we've got that out of the way, then we can bring the full force of our creativity and content knowledge to the task of building engaging instruction that will get them there.

The last two questions (and especially the very last) are the ones that get the least attention. Too often, the philosophy comes down to, "I taught it and they did or didn't get it, and my job as a teacher is to record that fact in the form of a letter grade." The PLC model, however, is built on a philosophy that says that the teacher's job is to ensure learning for all students, and when they don't get it, my job is to have a plan for how to deal with that. Designing interventions to help struggling students and enrichments to further the learning of students who are already there, is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of classroom teaching, and it is unquestionably the place where you are most likely to experience that greatest moment in the profession: When a student looks up and says, "Oh, I get it."

2. Gradual Release of Responsibility

What the PLC model leaves out (quite purposefully) is the question of classroom instruction. Once again, my teacher training tended to put a premium on flash and style, and not so much on effectiveness. Moreover, teachers tend to take a lot of things for granted. Often, an assignment asks students to write about the idea or concept under discussion, ignoring the fact that the writing itself is something that aught to be taught if the teacher does not want to be endlessly disappointed and annoyed.

Gradual Release of Responsibility is a system of instruction that can be summarized in three steps:
  1. I do
  2. We do.
  3. You do.
The first step is always teacher modeling. If I want my students to write a written response, I have to demonstrate for them how to do that. I give them models of responses which we analyze for ideas and organization. I model (with my invaluable document camera) the actual thinking and writing of a response. Obviously, I chunk this activity up as necessary.

Then students get a chance to practice the thinking and skills in pairs or table groups. They know it's practice, and they know they have lots of resources to help them along. They work, and the teacher circulates, answering questions and giving feedback.

And then we debrief, listening to examples of the groups' work, talking about trouble spots and difficulties.

Then we get to the stage where a lot of classroom instruction begins: the students complete the activity individually.

Once this methodology is internalized, you realize that a lot more of your time is spent teaching, rather than simply assessing students' inability to perform learning activities.

3. Ongoing Formative Assessment

In a field so overwhelmingly dominated by assessment--most of it pretty inauthentic--it seems strange to speak of assessment as an important instructional tool, but that's exactly what it is.

First: terminology. Most of what we think of when we think of assessment is "Summative" in nature. That means that it's simply record keeping. It allows students to demonstrate their understanding (or lack thereof), and while this data may be used for many purposes (some of them quite nefarious), it will not be used to drive further instruction. Why not? Because we're moving on. The summative assessment simply tells us who got it and who didn't.

"Formative" assessment, on the other hand, measures student understanding for the purpose of informing further instruction.

More importantly, "assessment" is not synonymous with "testing." Almost anything can become a formative assessment if it is used in that way. A homework assignment shows that a majority of students are still struggling with a particular skill. Therefore, I alter the next day's lesson plan to reteach and re-assess. When the work shows that a small percentage of students don't understand, I develop a plan to target those students.

Formative assessment is about getting the students where they need to be.

I find that the "better" I am as a classroom teacher is in direct proportion to the degree to which I embed formative assessments, large and small, into everything I do. The largest part of my job becomes taking the class's temperature and prescribing the necessary medicine.

One effect of this way of thinking is that a lesson plan is never really a lesson plan. It's a suggestion. It's a list of learning activities. I begin with every week planned (or, preferably, over-planned), but rare is the week in which that plan proceeds as written, because I am constantly tweaking, reteaching, re-assessing, and re-inventing. It's this dynamic response to assessment data that is the definition of quality classroom instruction.

Now, obviously this is in no way a comprehensive list of skills and strategies for classroom instruction, but these ARE, in my opinion, the most important, and they were also all suspiciously missing from my teacher education training.

So, teachers, what did I miss? What would YOU name as your big three?


For further reading:

On PLC work: Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement by Richard DuFour, Robert E. Eaker.

On Understanding By Design: Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe.

On Gradual Release of Responsibility: That Workshop Book: New Systems and Structures for Classrooms That Read, Write, and Think by Samantha Bennett.

On Formative Assessment: Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.